Regardless of the products or services you offer, there’s one domain we all rely on for success: marketing. Whether you're a brand new freelancer who can't even fathom coming up with a marketing budget, or an agency with millions to spend, marketing is the lifeblood of any business.
In the quickly-changing digital marketing landscape, there are so many different ways you can spend your marketing dollars. So how do you know if you’re making the right decisions?
At Shopify Unite this April, I was set to moderate a panel discussion about how to make the most of your marketing budget. The universe had other plans. Due to a massive power outage, much of Day 2’s programming was cancelled.
But this topic is an important one for you and your business, so after we returned home from San Francisco, my four Shopify Partner panelists and I met-up online to carry out our discussion about marketing best practices for freelancers and agencies.
To view all of Shopify Unite Day 2 programming that was recorded post-Unite, visit the Shopify Partners Youtube channel.
The biggest challenges
Every year, we send a survey to our Shopify Partners to learn more about what drives them, and what stands in the way of their success. One question we ask is what they perceive to be the biggest challenges for them in the year ahead.
The biggest obstacle our partners identify, year after year, is finding new clients. Closely behind that is marketing, followed by variable cash flow. So we broke down our panel discussion to cover each of these three topics.
Let me introduce you to the four seasoned Shopify Partners who shared their experiences about tackling these issues, and let you in on the lessons it took them years to learn.
Melissa is the New York-based CEO and Founder of Lionesque Group, and the author of The Pop-Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Relationships in a Digital Age.
Michael is the founder of Smart Cookie Design, a London-based Shopify Plus Partner that solely focuses on Shopify projects.
Robbin is a consultant, author, and speaker combining the best of traditional and digital media at Seattle-based Blockbeta Marketing. She’s been working with clients of all sizes for more than 30 years.
Matthew is the cofounder and CEO of Demac Media in Toronto. He grew up around his family’s retail business, cofounded a compostable plastics brand, and now runs a commerce agency, so he has truly spent his lifetime inside the world of commerce.
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Rather read the transcript?
Here’s an abridged version of our conversation:
Courtney: What is the best way you've discovered to find new leads?
Michael: One thing I can pick out that has worked for us is actually running and hosting our own events focused on ecommerce, or specifically Shopify in some cases. We run an event at least once every quarter and target potential clients. We partner up with other companies that may offer similar things that are valuable to our potential clients. It's not so much about self-promotion; it’s more about passing knowledge on. Once our events are done, we then make sure we follow up with those leads and send them information, posts on our blog, things like that. It's really great because you get to meet face-to-face, and we can really evaluate if they're the right fit for us, and if it's worth us actually pursuing that particular client.
Courtney: What sort of structure have you found works best for these types of events, is it just networking or do you have presentations?
Michael: We’ve never done straight networking; it's been presentations. It might be partnering with an SEO company who would do a 20-minute slot on best SEO practices for ecommerce stores, or social media marketing. It’s about imparting knowledge, so it's less about the networking, although there is an element of that pre- and post-event. And you know, you can also put yourself out there to speak at other people's events, which takes away a lot of the hassle around getting your own leads, managing a venue, etc. That can also be a great way to get into the event space initially.
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Courtney: What's the craziest or most unconventional strategy you've used to find new leads?
Melissa: I mean, I wouldn't say that this is my strategy, but I think one of the more interesting places I’ve met a potential business partner was when I met Shari Redstone (an American media executive) in the restroom of the White House, so that's always a good story. She liked my dress, and then we had a chat about that, and by the end of the conversation I had her business card. I think the lesson there is to always put your best foot forward, because regardless of the environment, you just don't know who you're going to have an opportunity to speak to. And then, of course, if you're in the bathroom, wash your hands.
Matt: Airplanes, too. Airplanes are awesome. Anywhere they’re stuck with you.
Courtney: So I guess the key here is contained spaces. Matt, maybe I'll ask you the next question — how do you decide how to allocate your marketing budget? How do you decide where the most valuable place is to be spending those dollars?
Matt: We're a data-first company, and we have a sales and marketing budget that’s a percentage of our revenue. Our yearly planning typically has three forecasts: a best case scenario, most likely, and worst case. Our sales and marketing budget is based around the most likely case. So then we look back at historical data, like did particular channels generate a lot of leads for us, and what was the value of those leads? Quantity of leads is not what we’re going for. We’re going for a very specific customer profile. A channel might give us 1,000 leads that might be good for someone else’s business, but we’d prefer a channel that gives us three that turn into business, and big ones, with long-term value. For us, our planning is based on some historic data, but also some experimentation. We burn a lot. We try a lot of different stuff, and we’re okay burning a lot because we to do have things that we just know work. That’s the thing, you don’t know until you try.
"A channel might give us 1,000 leads that might be good for someone else’s business, but we’d prefer a channel that gives us three that turn into business, and big ones, with long-term value."
Courtney: That dovetails nicely into the next topic, which is specific marketing tactics. Obviously the end goal is to find paying clients, but there is value in building out awareness and a brand, and making sure you're filling up your pipeline with people that might eventually become your clients. To start with, we often talk about marketing campaigns that go well, but I would love to hear if any of you have a story about a campaign that just spectacularly flopped.
Matt: I’ve got a good one for you. Pretty much any large-scale industry event sucks. Anything where there are 10,000 people and 1,000 of your competitors, and it’s a shark tank. If you’re having to ask the question, “Where should I spend my money?”, that’s probably not the right place. We’ve tried it, and you spend $20 or $30 or $40,000, and you get nothing from it.
Courtney: So you think it's better to have your own controlled space, maybe more like Michael’s event strategy — your own event with your own audience.
Matt: Really, building community is an awesome way to get yourself out there. Especially when value is key to you, so creating knowledge and sharing it — you’re giving more than you’re asking for. That works beautifully, especially in the Shopify community. The big trade shows I’m talking about, it’s embarrassing how much money I’ve spent on those shows and got nothing out of it.
Courtney: Okay, so naturally, not everybody has a massive marketing budget. If you want to get the most for your money, what are some really impactful ways that you’ve found to spend those dollars?
Michael: Going back to what Matt said, it’s not about reaching as many people as possible, but really focusing our marketing strategy on a specific, tailored type of person that we really think we can build a strong relationship with. We hear a lot about having a low cost per click all the time in the online ad world, but when we look at marketing offline, we try to flip that on its head. Let’s not go with the lowest cost per click. Let’s go with the fewest people possible, and actually go for maximum spend on those people. So rather than taking our small marketing budget and spreading it across 1,000 businesses and leads, we try to get our databases down to a really small number of businesses, and spend much more money trying to reach those. By doing that, we can create a marketing campaign that will create a bigger impact. What we’ve found is that this really increases the chances of us building a relationship going forward. Rather than sending a load of leads a letter or a small promotional brochure, we’ll send them a box of creative stuff that they’ll open up on their desk and they’ll go, “Wow.” And sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t, but we’ve found we increase the chance of conversion this way.
"Let’s not go with the lowest cost per click. Let’s go with the fewest people possible, and actually go for maximum spend on those people."
Melissa: Yeah, I think that’s so important. Whether you're paying for it or you're creating organic earned media, you don't need to be on all platforms. Really understand where your target audience is, and invest in properly communicating with them on those channels. Also, really make sure that you're curating yourself — what is the voice that you want to have? What kind of thought leadership are you trying to convey? For me, it's LinkedIn and Twitter. I can go deeper within those channels and be more effective than just trying to blanket and be everywhere.
Robbin: I think it all goes back to having a really good strategy. Service businesses are very different than product businesses, which we deal with with our merchants all the time. So of course it’s never going to be about volume. It’s about knowing who your target is, and having the right product for that target market, and making the messaging fit between the two.
Courtney: Robbin, we can't really talk about marketing without talking about content marketing, as it's such a massive part of the digital marketing realm these days. What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned when it comes to content marketing?
Robbin: Have a good visual and a good headline. I mean, it’s a little bit bigger than that of course. Like every content marketer will tell you, it’s about having a platform, and really communicating what your value proposition is through that platform. What is your point of view? And not being afraid to own that point of view. I went to a talk last night and there was this woman who wrote a book about being a badass moneymaker. To be honest, the content really wasn’t that valuable, but she was authentic to people. And that authenticity really struck a chord. If you’re trying to build community, you need to find a way to strike that chord.
"To be honest, the content really wasn’t that valuable, but she was authentic to people. And that authenticity really struck a chord. If you’re trying to build community, you need to find a way to strike that chord."
Courtney: You said that content marketing is about having a platform — do you think it needs to be an event or a domain that you own yourself? Or is there merit to third-party blogs, as well and establishing yourself as an expert on other people’s properties?
Robbin: Well, I think you need to do both. Writing for a third party falls more into the PR realm; getting them to publish about you. Self-publishing is about the content realm, and I think there’s a real difference between those two. On the PR side of things, you’re going to leverage a much bigger audience than your own, and it’s a way to build awareness with people who don’t know you. The other content piece is to build that engagement and connection with people who already know who you are. They each have roles to play, and at the end of the day, it’s about building exposure, and then creating engagement. To be honest, creating content that’s good, that really breaks through, is extremely challenging, so I wouldn’t put all my eggs in the content basket because there might be other low hanging fruit. Creating content takes so much time, whereas instead you could be a speaker at an event that already has a devoted following, so you don’t need to build up that audience and take all that time, and that can be a much quicker return. When you’re allocating your budget, it’s not really as much about money as much as the internal time and resources you devote. You need to think about not only what is the most bang for your buck, but what is the least time invested to achieve it.
Melissa: I do think it's a blend of writing content for yourself and then writing content for other sites so that you can cross-market into their channels, but writing is time consuming as Robbin said. You don’t want to saturate the content you put out if you’re never saying anything valuable either. You really have to choose when you write for a third-party site. How long is this going to take to be effective? Is the right audience going to be reading this, and is that going to drive traffic to me? You know, it has to be a two-way street of value. On your own marketing, think about your platforms too. LinkedIn is huge for me as a writing platform; much stronger than me writing on my own blog. So I usually publish first there, and maybe a couple of weeks later I’ll put it on our site. Just understanding how you're spending your time, and how each one of them could potentially benefit you is a really important part of the strategy.
Courtney: Let’s move along to our third topic, which is the sales funnel; making sure you're building a pipeline that is reliable and can help with that variable cash flow issue. We'll start it off with Matt. You've already said that you are very data-driven, so how are you actively tracking your leads?
Matt: Okay, I’ll unload here. I have a shitload of data, and we track everything. We have seven active stages that a lead moves through, from initial lead, marketing qualified, sales qualified, initial scope and strategy, proposal send, negotiation, and won. That’s our funnel. We have a lot of steps because we’re big into content marketing ourselves and we get a high volume of contacts. Ninety-eight per cent of them are garbage, in terms of not being our customer. They’re just coming in to get something from us, and we’re cool with that. It’s the two per cent we’re after. Our sales funnel has a lot of steps to measure, two that we track weekly. One is a pretty big indicator, which is marketing-qualified leads. So for all the leads we get, we talk to them and ask them a bunch of questions, and the marketing team signs off on the ones that seem to have potential. Every Monday morning at 10 AM, we look at that number on one of our scorecards. MQL (marketing-qualified leads) is the first leading indicator; the more lagging indicator is sales booked. That’s any contract signed, whether it’s from an existing customer or a new customer — that’s the second KPI we look at.
Michael: We moved into a similar way of tracking our leads, and creating a really detailed funnel. Looking back two and a half years ago, we would just use an Excel spreadsheet at a really basic level, and I thought that was alright, but when you move into a proper CRM (customer relationship management) system, you can really see the benefits. We currently use Insightly, but there are a host of others. By actually moving to a CRM system and managing our leads from the moment of our first conversation until they sign, it’s really helpful — not just for managing how much work you’ll be getting in, but actually seeing where you’re failing. Finding out what part of your sales funnel people are dropping off at, so you can look into it further and really investigate it. That’s the kind of information you can get from a really good CRM system that you can’t get from just a spreadsheet. For anyone out there who is using an Excel spreadsheet, and I’m sure there’s lots of people that are, definitely invest into a CRM system and make the most out of it. That can really help tracking your leads and helping convert them.
"We used to use an Excel spreadsheet, and I thought that was alright, but when you move into a proper CRM system, you can really see the benefits."
Matt: For us, our process got a lot better once the steps of our funnel lined up with the buying cycle of the ideal customer. Instead of just thinking about what we want them to go through, and how we want them to progress, we look at it from their perspective. Is the deal going to take 90 days to close? What happens in that 90 days? That’s how we created our sales funnel.
Robbin: That’s the marketing way. Looking outside yourself, not being marketing myopic, and trying to think about what the customer wants. Thinking about the psychographics around making purchasing decisions, and then thinking about what type of content is going to drive people down that funnel. I use Insightly as well. I found it to be fairly easy to use, and low cost. There are a couple of things I would change about it, but there’s no perfect tool.
Matt: Yeah, I’m knee-deep in Hubspot. I can’t get away from them. I think it’s six years with them now.
Courtney: Matt, you mentioned that of the 98 percent of leads that come in, maybe only two per cent of those are actually going to turn into clients. How do you choose which leads to prioritize, and what special attention do you pay to them?
Matt: We have a standard list of questions and topics we ask. Someone on our marketing team will reach out to ask those questions; usually it’s a phone call. Ultimately, what I’m going for is a score. What I really want is, each question is worth a point, or a negative point, and you wind up with like eight out of 12. We’re not there yet, but the process is there, so now it’s just putting numbers against it.
Courtney: Can anyone share a campaign you ran where you've been able to turn an unlikely lead into a client?
Matt: I’ll share one tactic that works quite well for us. Not everybody wins everything, right? So when we lose a deal, we put those people into a workflow where over the next six months or a year, we drip them content that says, “hey, we thought this might be valuable to you.” We have a few different tracks, like one for manufacturers or brands, one for multi-brand retailers or information marketers, whatever their profile is. I find the top-of-mind thing, after you’ve lost a deal, has actually brought customers back to us. In one case, we actually had a really large customer come back to us two and a half years later because of opening those emails.
When we lose a deal, we put those people into a workflow where over the next six months or year, we drip them content...in one case, we actually had a really large customer come back to us two and a half years later because of opening those emails."
Robbin: I think you should always be harvesting if a lead isn’t good right now. People have different needs at different times, and a lot of people are just investigating. It can be a very long cycle for them. Whether it’s budget dependent, or just the stage of their business, or they started working with somebody and found that it wasn’t a good fit — that can happen quite a lot in our business. So you should always be harvesting; looking at old leads, asking existing clients for referrals or reviews even. Always try to be surfacing more leads out of existing people who already know you, because they're halfway down the funnel already. Look into that and take advantage of it. It's not always just selling them at the top of the funnel.
Courtney: Is there any final advice you have for a Shopify Partner that doesn't have a lot of money to spend on marketing?
Robbin: Productize and focus on having a specific niche you’re trying to address, because you can’t address everything, and this way you can go narrow and deep.
Melissa: Referral marketing has been one of the strongest leads for us, with the highest conversion rate. As much as you can foster your existing relationships, and have those turn into referrals — it costs nothing but time and can be really important for a service-oriented business.
Michael: Partnerships are really important for us. Creating the right partnerships with the right people that aren’t competitive to us but reach the same type of customer base. Also, what we found is that when we get a lot of leads, it takes a lot of time to figure out which ones are right for us. So what we started doing is putting the budget up front, and that really helped us stop wasting our time on a lead that actually isn’t good for our business. We never used to ask that question before, so early on, but now it’s one of the first questions we ask so we can figure out if that lead is worth all our time and efforts initially.
"Ultimately, we’re all trying to get our businesses to a point where multiple channels bring business, but none of us started there. Focus on one thing that bears fruit."
Matt: I think Melissa nailed it earlier. Pick a channel and own it. Go all in and go deep there. If you’re short on money, then spend some time in one place that’s really strong before you move on to the next one. Ultimately, we’re all trying to get our businesses to a point where multiple channels bring business, but none of us started there. Focus on one thing that bears fruit. I like what Melissa said, I’m totally stealing it.
Melissa: I’m okay with that. You can have it. We’ll share it.
See problems as an opportunity
Hopefully you’ve learned something from these Shopify Partners, and can implement some of these strategies into your own business. But before I sign off, I have a parting gift for you. The following is a list of barriers that Shopify Merchants identify when launching a store.
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I hope you view each of those problems as a potential opportunity for you.
Also, we just released a new guidebook called Finding Clients: Building a Solid Portfolio Website. It's just one of many guides that we’ll be launching throughout the year that deal directly with the challenges and opportunities that our Shopify Partners have shared with us.
What sort of marketing tactics and strategies have you found to be most effective when it comes to finding and tracking leads? Share your insights in the comments below.