Starting an Online Marketing Consultancy: Interview with Alex Avery

I recently had the chance to chat with Alex Avery, an online marketer who started his own SEO and web design consultancy, Webology Marketing in Seattle, Washington. In this interview he shares insights from his experience of starting an independent SEO business and things that have helped it grow.

How did you get started in online marketing and what led you to start your own business?

I started with a small advertising firm in 2009. I worked as a production assistant and began learning the ropes of SEO from day one. At that time, most of the organized education materials were focused on keyword density. It was painfully obvious that there was more to SEO/online marketing than keyword density. That’s when I found SEOmoz, which was instrumental in helping me understand the comprehensive approach to organic web marketing.

Once I had a better understanding of the industry, I built out an internal model at the agency to follow these best practices. And while the concepts were well-received, the approach was a little daunting for this small ad agency. After a couple of years, I moved to an even smaller, more focused SEO firm in Seattle. Sadly, these same comprehensive strategies were not the ideal approach for this firm, either.

I decided to start my own firm in 2011. Since then, we’ve seen a lot of success for our clients. My hope is to continue to grow and offer more comprehensive marketing services to small/medium size businesses.

What activities do you spend most of your time on and what things make the biggest impact for your business?

Most of my time is spent writing. New and updated content is vital to the success of any website.

Another significant part of my time is spent on website design/development. I find that efforts spent writing content, link building and other off-page tactics are not as effective unless I have a strong on-page, development plan in place. Having a professional design and clean site architecture makes a significant impact in both rankings and conversions (sign-ups, emails, etc.).

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started your business?

Getting started with Webology, I underestimated the need for a strong sales force. As many entrepreneurs have learned, new client acquisition is very time-consuming. It’s not that it’s impossible to do on your own, but once business starts booming, you need some support to keep things moving/growing.

How did you determine where to set your prices for your services?

Our pricing model has changed/evolved quite a bit this last year. When we first started, we ran our campaigns based on an hourly model. This approach was problematic for several reasons. One reason was that it gave the impression that we only spent X hours on a campaign because that’s what we billed for. What this didn’t reflect was the countless hours of research, outreach, client meetings, and other time spent that we didn’t feel comfortable billing to the client.

Another reason why the hourly model was troublesome was that clients would want to decrease or increase their work on a month to month basis—this lead to some surprises, come invoicing time.

The retainer model, if done transparently, eliminates these issues. The client is billed a consistent amount each month and time spent on a campaign is still tracked and accounted for. Again, transparency is essential here. Be sure the client knows exactly what you’re working on at all times. Start by providing frequent, transparent reports that detail ongoing and completed projects. And, of course, show competency and effectiveness by tracking traffic, rankings, and conversions.

What things have worked for you to acquire customers for your business?

For our company, the single most important channel for growing our client base has been our relationships. Forming relationships, and even partnerships, with the right people led us to those initial clients that have built the foundation of our business.

The second half of this plan is to practice what you preach. Develop and implement a social networking strategy, invest in design and development tactics to help improve your own site, and even consider buying ad space (AdWords, display, remarketing, etc.). Here at Webology, we are definitely guilty of the age-old “the cobbler’s kids have no shoes” scenario but it’s something we are excited to work on.

How do you ensure that your clients are happy and feel like that their expectations have been met or exceeded?

Two things: set reasonable expectations and be transparent. Setting reasonable expectations will only help you in the long run. There’s no need to hype up your tactics/strategies. The results will speak for themselves.

Transparency will eliminate surprises when it comes time to evaluate your services. Whether you’re an in-house SEO or an agency, you’re typically working with a marketing manager (or similar) within a company. Quite often, these marketing managers are pulled aside by their bosses and asked to explain what it is you’re working on and what results they’re seeing. This is when your transparency model is put to the test. They (the marketing manager) should be able to explain your services, current projects, and results-to-date with a high level of confidence. If they can’t, you could be subject to budget cuts or worse, without notice.

Can you describe a mistake that you have made in your business and what you learned from it?

One mistake I’ve made (and continue to make) is losing sight of the big picture, when it comes to the growth of Webology. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day and forget to step back and evaluate the overall strategy. This has led to short-sighted decisions and relationships that end up causing problems down the road. An example was bringing on an employee that didn’t know online marketing very well. Hiring and training new team members is not necessarily a bad tactic. However, when you’re just starting out, you need all the time you can get. It’s best not to spend time training and find someone who can help ease the workload.

Learn more about Alex’s company at Webology Marketing. You can follow him on Twitter at @alexanderavery