The First Four Years of an SEO Agency

Corey Northcutt    By under Digital Marketing.

Northcutt always had written in our manual that we believe in transparency.

Despite this, it's been almost two years since I last posted a major company update.   I could give excuses about how much structuring, staffing, and early stage systems design took priority.

What matters is that I'm ready to stand behind those words again right now.

The Story So Far

At the end of 2010, I left a tech company that I founded in 2004.  That company grew very successful, largely through very effective SEO and an earlier version of what we now call inbound marketing.

This gave our current agency what's known as a beachhead market - technology brands - beginning with telecommunications, cloud, other managed services, and slowly growing more broad with time.  While it's true that we can honestly do amazing inbound marketing work for just about anything, I've learned that there are two major ways that agencies get built:

Mass Approach

Focus on speaking and mass media

Many, low quality relationships

Rapid rate of growth

Do case studies of large brands

High client churn rate

Personal Approach

Focus on reputation and results

Few, high quality relationships

Controlled rate of growth

Do case studies of relevant brands

Low client churn rate

Neither approach is necessarily wrong and there are always exceptions, but I already knew which method worked best for me.

Despite all of the marketing industry hype, I've learned that nothing is ever more powerful than word of mouth, so the #1 priority became to safeguard that.  Then, we can use the inbound marketing processes we've refined to build studies and amplify brand advocates.  Limiting our focus to narrower niches mainly aids in these advocates recognizing and trusting each other.

In my experience, a Fortune 500's logo on a client list did not impress as much as the logo of a company that had some loose similarities to my own.  Although, that "look how large a company hired me" angle must work for some, because certain brands seem to have their logos plastered on half of all agency sites.

But to me, this is uninspired.  These brands have nothing in common with any company I've ever built, or the average company that we're likely to assist.

And, if I can't stand behind it, it won't be a part of Northcutt.

Come on, Northcutt Does Mass Marketing Too

It's true. You might say by now that I've been railing on a "get mass traffic" approach, while clearly, we do all kinds of inbound marketing on this site that doesn't single out any one group.  This mainly springs from the fact that I believe in practicing what we preach, even if it doesn't necessarily align with the section above.

To say this another way, nothing puts me off more than a marketer that's just talk and no walk; it should be very much the other way around.

Two years ago, I shared our traffic graphs, and here is the latest.  It's amazing how closely this follows that old adage that it takes three years to build a real business:

SEO results

That's 10,000+ sessions per month with an Alexa in the 80k range.  There's a clear trend now that any long-time inbound marketer has surely seen before.  When you do the four main areas of inbound marketing work and do them responsibly, this happens.

In fact, when our clients aren't doing everything self-destructive that they can by augmenting black hat or picking and choosing pieces of our advice to implement, something like this always happens:  cumulative, long-term growth as more content, brand advocates, reputation, and links are layered on.  

I've found that these gains in traffic are basically guaranteed when those conditions are met.

And it's awesome, because we own this attention.  We don't rent it.  Content from years back continues to bring attention and we pay basically nothing to maintain that.

But here's a little secret; sales are never guaranteed with traffic.

As a result, the conversion rate on 10,000+ visits per month is currently 2-3 max from pure web leads.  That's 0.025%.  If you compare this to direct referrals from happy clients, our conversion rate is currently at 80%.  If you look at the handful of partners that have joined our referral program, our success rate is currently at 72%.

All of this is altogether odd, when considering that most of our clients see conversion rates in the 2% to 8% range on web leads.  Sometimes as high as 10-12%.  But these are different industries selling different products to different markets (not to mention, the average revenue per visitor would be absurd on agency retainers).

The reality is that it takes the right message for the right traffic in the right context.

With the help of Lead Forensics, we discovered that almost all of our visitors fit into three categories:

  1. DIY SEO practitioners with hobby projects
  2. Competing agencies/freelancers
  3. Other adjacent brands in the SEO industry

Unfortunately, none of those demographics are generally in the market to invest in our services.

So in a nutshell, people that know us and work with us regularly, love us.  People that know them love us.  People that are just meeting us for the first time, do not.  I would never want the opposite, even though that's how many companies operate.  The above also explains why there are so many agencies with 200+ employees and virtually no Alexa rating at all.

That brings this study to an interesting conclusion.

What Should We Do?

Should work to improve conversion rates on web leads?  To be honest, it's not something that I've even looked very closely at until recently as this "mass market approach", for the agency, was never supposed to be our thing.

We intentionally left out a crucial element for pursuing web leads - building products that fit that web-derived-marketing-content audience, because for our own brand, I'd much rather have the the people that truly know us, love us, rather than those that don't.

The goal of Northcutt's own inbound marketing was always simply to show that we could rake in attention by doing great work, while hopefully proving some knowledge and competency in the process.

Meanwhile a limited, but growing, number of strong relationships have kept us growing nicely.  So much that we've added a second four-person account team since my last update.

But now that we have some amazing systems and structure, I think it's the next logical step towards also marketing more like we would do for a client.  Doing all the things that we'd do for most clients as well, but have never done on - a remarketing process, intelligent email drips, conversion experiments, and so forth.

It also surely means creating a product or two that fits this unique audience, such as offering up stand-alone research, or sharing some of our 50,000+ brand-safe, incredibly systematic niche link opportunities.  Having developed an SEO process since SEO was first becoming a thing provides no shortage of options there.

By the time of our next update, I'll hopefully be sharing the results of those efforts.  But in summary, we have three takeaways lessons to share in this four year case study, and they are:

  1. Responsible inbound marketing has been 100% reliable at gaining traffic across our brand and our clients brands over time and through every Google update.
  2. Northcutt's team has doubled in under two years, mainly thanks to happy, vocal clients.
  3. The web-based marketing on has remained mostly for show and proof-of-concept, although does result in an occasional sale.  We intend to neglect this far less in the future, although, are philosophically opposed to this becoming our primary channel for gaining new clients.

Until next time.