Agency Unfiltered - Jill Wilson from Simple Machines Marketing

Driving Value with Workshops and a Niche

In this episode, Jill drops by to discuss the value her agency has found in finding their niche. She explains how aligning around a niche can positively impact marketing, sales, and service. We then dig into running workshops and why “getting a look under the hood” is so valuable for her team.

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Episode Transcript

Agency Unfiltered's pit stop in Chicago continues with Jill Wilson, president of Simple Machines Marketing. Jill helps guide agencies towards finding their niche and shares what her agency did to find their own niche—then how did she know it was the right one. We then talk about how agencies can align themselves to a niche and how it can then positively impact their marketing, sales, and service delivery. In the second half of our discussion, we dig into running workshops and how her team drives value with them at the beginning of every client engagement. Learn how to find your niche and then get a look under the hood with your clients in a workshop right now.

KD: Well, Jill, welcome. Thanks for joining Agency Unfiltered.

JW: It's great to be here, thanks, Kevin.

KD: We're excited to have you. And it sounds like today we're going to talk about agencies finding their niche. It sounds like you and your team have been able to align around a niche pretty well. And so maybe just first off explain why is it so important, why have you seen value in it, and then just contextually tell us how you've been able to solve for your niche as well.

JW: I would say probably like a lot of agencies we started out as a full service B2B marketing agency working really with just any business, anything for money, right? And during some sales meetings we were asked the question, why you? What are you guys really strong at? And we realized we needed to have a really strong answer for that. And so we as a leadership team started talking about who are the good clients that we have, who are the right fits, best points of contact, pay us on time, and the ones that we really like working with, that are interesting and challenging. And as we evaluated that we started to see some patterns, particularly among companies that were in the technology and manufacturing space. And as a leadership team we said let's press on that a little bit, let's dig in to see if there's something there. And we did some market research to look at the Chicago landscape as well as where trends were happening in the rest of the country. Trends about manufacturing in general.

So, I think the perception around that now is that it's dirty and old, but it's really making a move toward clean, connected, technology, automation. That's something that a lot of these companies are embracing which is a nice fit for us as a HubSpot agency, obviously. Also just talking with the team. Personally I think our team has a creative maker ethos to it. Most folks are all from the Midwest so there's the hard work mentality too that really jibed with that. And we took off from there and said, let's really lean into this vertical focus. On the technology side there's usually a sales resource that doesn't have a lot of extra hands or a lot of extra capacity. So things like automation, sales technology, sales enablement and content is a really great fit and plays to our strengths. And then on the manufacturing side there's a lot to be done from process, infrastructure, sales and marketing technology as well. So, it was a nice mesh.

KD: I don't know if this is a silly question but, how many verticals is too many? So, you have manufacturing and technology. Did you have to trim down a total amount, you know what I mean? Is there a rule of thumb? How many should I pick?

JW: Yeah, that's a good question. And it was interesting as we were looking into this like, well, should we just do technology, should we just do manufacturing? And I think those two mesh pretty well. But yeah, there are some companies that I'll see out there where, "We specialize in finance and healthcare "and consulting and nonprofit." And it's like, okay, so you do everything. I think probably one or two tops, just from personally my perspective. If you're going to try to command a space or own a particular vertical, one or two is probably the right answer there.

KD: Good to know, perfect. Now, we've identified our target vertical. Manufacturing. Now what?

JW: What that allowed us to do was to really put a lot of focus and specificity with strategic decisions we made for our own selves in marketing. So, what that allowed us to do was join a lot of the right groups and associations, make the right connections with folks that could be prospective referral partners. It allowed us to really key in on where we might want to advertise so that we can get in front of this audience. So it was a lot less spray and pray and really more focused in terms of our own marketing and sales efforts and initiatives.

KD: It sounds like where you source leads, you can really refine and focus on where the best place would be to find those?

JW: Definitely. And I would say too it allowed us to do what we do faster. So, we're familiar with the space, if we get talking with a company that sells their products through a distribution network, chances are we've seen that before or we know how to play to do or how to improve areas. It allowed us to, when we started working with folks, do that faster, get them faster. And then it allowed us to ask ourselves: okay now how do we play this speed and this urgency and this immediacy to our strengths as well? So, as we think about technology and manufacturing companies, the work that we're already doing, now what are some new things or offerings that we can do or create or get inspired by to allow us to do our job say faster, better, and to serve them better.

KD: That's great. What about your website? Any major changes there? How do you communicate this on your website and maybe other marketing materials as well?

JW: On our website as far as pivots and changes we made there we had more specificity and targeting I would say with case studies and testimonials. So, case studies would be from a manufacturer of an industrial cleaner and degreasing company. You know, real exciting stuff. Or the VP of sales at say a data analytics company. So, as we are targeting for these people or when they find us through other means and get to your website, they see themselves there. And eliminated a lot of fluff that wasn't particularly relevant to either the owners of these companies or their sales resources, so it allowed us to pair down as well and just do things with more hyper focus.

KD: I don't want to take us on a complete 180, but in regards to case studies and testimonials because that makes a ton of sense, how do you identify who's going to be a good fit to source case study or testimonial content from?

JW: The good clients? The folks that we I would say have probably worked with us the longest, obviously the ones where we have a really good track record of demonstrating results, the ones that are interested too and have the capacity to do it. And I think a lot of the folks that we work with, the technology and manufacturing companies, they're in a sales role so they get it. They understand that I've got a partner here that I'm working with. When they're successful and profitable and things are going great for them, I get good service. So they understand the reciprocity of that too, I think, especially coming from a sales background for most folks.

KD: Yeah, it makes sense. You mentioned you used to specialize in healthcare or some other verticals. What happens if I'm a business in that vertical and now I'm talking to you, I see the website, I go, wait, what the heck? Is it a “hard no” to them or do you still walk them in? So, what is the client base or what does your delivery look like for businesses outside of those two target verticals?

JW: For companies outside of that, if they reach out and want to have a conversation, that's great because they saw something that was akin to maybe what they're looking for or may have a challenge with. While we'll definitely welcome the conversation, we're very clear upfront early in the sales process we say, "These are the types of companies we work with. "We have experience from working with others to draw on "if we end up partnering." But I always ask for permission to tell them no too. Like, hey, if at any point during the process if we're not a fit, are you okay telling me that? And they always say, "Yeah, sure, "I wouldn't want to waste your time." And I say, "That's great, I appreciate that. "Do you mind if I tell you the same thing? "If at any point I'm not feeling that we're a fit "or you might want or need something "that we're not the best equipped to do, "is that okay too?" And they say yeah, they're busy, right? So, I think just setting that expectation out of the gates is helpful. We'll talk to everyone, obviously, because we have a pretty deep roster or a Rolodex of folks that we may be able to still loop in or usher them into a better fit.

KD: Oh, you're saying other agencies.

JW: Yeah. And to say, hey, this was a great conversation, let's shake hands and part as friends and here's someone else that would be a better fit to help you out.

KD: You mentioned that by aligning around a vertical, manufacturing for example, it allows you and your team to ramp up quicker, it's a familiar motion. But if I'm a net new hire at your agency and I don't know anything about manufacturing but I know enough to get hired from a marketing perspective, how do you level up, train, upscale your team around say manufacturing, some of these really heavier, dense manufacturing-type businesses?

JW: Yeah, that's a good question because the subject matter, part of the feedback that we got from the team why they liked the work is that it's interesting and varied but also very challenging. When you're working with a company that manufactures cutting and grinding wheels, again, not glamorous, probably something that a lot of people aren't familiar with. There is a lot of onboarding and education, so we’ve recommended either events, conferences, trade publications, or newsletters that they should get familiar with. We also have at this point a pretty robust library of content as far as like say buyer personas in the manufacturing space so that they can get their arms around it. The subject matter is usually new to everyone, but as far as learning about manufacturing in particular, we encourage folks to go to events where our clients are hanging out so that they can get familiar. And to also really read and absorb as much as they can.

KD: That's great. When we were talking the other day about your manufacturing clients in particular, you shared this new concept that you've been working on, I think it was Marketing Plan in a Day, and I thought that was really interesting and probably something that a number of agencies are trying to replicate. So why don't you just quickly explain what that is, what inspired that to become an offering for your agency.

JW: A couple of things inspired it. One was a conversation with a networking partner of us who has rolled out a similar offering for websites. And we were talking about it and I was like, that's a great idea. And internally we had been talking too about how can we take a lot of these resources and things that we've already done in the space to either do things faster for clients or do them better so that we have a competitive advantage out in our space too. And I was talking with an advisor of mine and I said, "Here's this idea that we're thinking about." And he's like, "Oh, that really plays "to the I want it now culture of the world we live in." And so I'm a big believer in things of three, like three is a pattern. So, for one is like, oh that's it. Then you're like, oh there that is again. And then okay, this is good, now we're onto something and so I was like, "Let's do it." And so, we developed this developed this concept of Marketing Plan in a Day really for smaller manufactures and smaller technology companies where they really lack a lot of process, plan, infrastructure. So before we can get into automated workflow campaigns we need to define what a qualified lead is.

KD: It's like a foundational layer of sort.

JW: Right, and so we iterated a couple times with some very nice willing guinea pigs to spend a day with us so that we could really hone this and ensure that we could do it and that the deliverables were above satisfactory and that they felt that they had a day that left them feeling really confident and motivated and that this was valuable. And so we recently launched that for smaller manufacturers, typically under $200 million in revenue with not a lot of in-house resources, obviously, usually one or two sales folks are owner-led sales and not a lot of real infrastructure either. So it's a great way for them to get a lot of the blocking and tackling done and have a really immersive experience with folks on our team to set them on the right course and for us to get a sense too if they might be a good fit client-wise long term.

KD: So, having somebody on site or working with the team from this manufacturing company all day and just putting all these resources for a full day of foundational manufacturing-type tasks, that's a huge investment. So what have you seen on the other side of that to be the value? What's the biggest value you've seen out of pouring all these resources into this sort of full-day workshop?

JW: I would say the biggest value that we've seen out of it is, I mean, don't get me wrong, we price it accordingly so that our team is covered and we're achieving the margins that we want, but I think the biggest value to us on the flip side is we get a chance to sense how much capacity and how much appetite the client may have for working on an ongoing arrangement. If they can dedicate eight and 1/2 hours to a single-day session and the feedback is really great, the appetite for them, usually the real limits test is they talk about what they want they want to do next. Okay, so what are you going to do next? "Well, we may need some help with this website thing," or, "Can we talk on Friday about doing this? "This is a great idea." And so it allows us to get a sense of, are we going to be chasing people down for approvals? Do they really have the capacity to take this on now that they're really excited about it? So, I think it's a good look under the hood, test drive-y type metaphor for us too to get a sense of what these people are going to be like, what do they know, how much capacity and bandwidth do they have to continue working with us so that it can be a win-win for everyone.

KD: I think the look under the hood metaphor is perfect. They're kind of gaging your credibility, are they legitimate? What are they running us through and are they actually setting us down this really strategic path? But then on your side too you're like, okay, organizationally what's their makeup, how do they appear as clients? And it sounds like there's mutual benefits for having them in all day.

JW: Yeah, no one wants “gotchas” three months down the road. Or to have really great ideas and get people excited to then have to say, okay, we have to do all this groundwork lying before we can get there. I can see why you want to go there and that's really neat, here's all the heavy lifting we have to do first. So it's helpful to see what you're working with, get the lay of the land and see what we're working with out of the gates versus finding that down the road.

KD: If I'm an agency listening in and I'm sold, I want to develop my workshop, I would say it's going to be different for everybody because there's going to be different services, again, different verticals that I'm working with, but who did you loop in that decision-making process or who helped you on your team or who are the resources I should be looping in to help block this sort of all-day workshop together?

JW: On the client side?

KD: Both. So who from your team has the decision-making power to help you map this out and then who are all the folks from the client that you're going to need in that room to make sure that it's impactful for them as well?

JW: Got it. On the client side we ask for anybody that is really on the front lines of sales as well as ownership input because that's always important, right? As well as anybody who, we find customer service is a really good point of contact to get input too because they're on the front lines.

KD: They have a pulse of--

JW: The client issues, yeah, and the customer experience. So usually that's a good mix of folks from the client's side. On our side so far it's been me and our strategic director, Charlie, who have been fulfilling this and facilitating these workshops. We're working on starting in early April as we ramp up more of these opportunities to get at least two folks from the team boned up on this sort of thing just because from a scalability and capacity standpoint. I would love to be in a marketing planning workshop in a day two to three times a week, but I just simply can't do that. And really no one on our team can solely. So we're training the folks. Most of the people on the team, I would say everyone, has a really clear understanding of our process and the fundamentals that go into a plan when we're working with folks, it's just how do we accelerate that, that's going to be the challenge in the training. And it's exciting and I think everybody's looking forward to it.

KD: And I would say it's a development opportunity for your internal team to be able to be trained and then actually conduct those sorts of workshops.

JW: Right on, yeah. I think it'll give the folks on the team a lot of autonomy and more client-facing interaction as well.

KD: Final two questions. One, obviously you mentioned Marketing Plan in a Day is a relatively new project for you or new process, something you've just recently rolled out. Where does, like an NPA survey or feedback, where is that going to fit into your plans, or do you anticipate this being an iterative process from what you've currently built it as?

JW: Marketing Plan in a Day is a lot of fundamentals, and in our typical discovery and onboarding as we're working with folks there's a lot more original research, talking with clients, interviewing prospective clients to get outside the echo chamber so to speak. So if they're onboard for the Plan in a Day, we always recommend doing that maybe themselves in companion with this to help validate findings or confirm or deny hunches that they might have. So, if they want to do the Plan in a Day we recommend doing that as a companion piece. But then from there, on our end, I think there's an opportunity too to check in maybe every month or every quarter to just say, hey, how is this going? Is it going according to plan? Was there anything missing that we could potentially fill in the gaps on and keep them engaged even after the fact too.

KD: Final question: what do you find is the weirdest part of agency life?

JW: I think the weirdest part of agency life is... So, I ask myself why do I do this, why does this give me job satisfaction? And it's because I have the opportunity to build a company and have control and influence over how that's done and who I do that with. So there's this control element of it but so much is out of your control. An employee can decide that they want to move back home to the West Coast, or a client decides that hey they're selling the business and "We don't need you anymore, unfortunately." So you do so much to control your own stability and team and the way you develop things, but so much of it is out of your control actually and that's very weird and scary, I think.

KD: It feels like everything's in control but there's so much that's out of your control.

JW: Yeah, for sure, right on.

KD: Thank you so much for coming on.

JW: Thank you, this was really great, thank you.

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