Episode 77 – How a Founder is Scaling Her Marketing Agency by Getting Prospects to Come to Her – Member Case with Ali Schwanke
Invest in your marketing and let your customers come to you. In this podcast episode, we interviewed Ali Schwanke, CEO & Founder of Simple Strat, to share how this professional services firm elevated its inbound marketing strategy and improved win rates.
Greg Alexander [00:00:16] Welcome to the Boutique with Collective 54, a podcast for founders and leaders of boutique professional services firms. For those that aren’t familiar with us, Collective 54 is the first mastermind community to help you grow, scale, and exit your firm bigger and faster.
My name is Greg Alexander, and I’m the founder of Collective 54, and I’ll be your host today. Today we’re going to talk about defining a market. And let me set this up by suggesting why this is important. You know, many like to say, and I agree with this phrase, the riches are in the niches. And as founders of boutiques, our members have to pick the right market. It’s got to thread the needle a little bit.
It’s got to be big enough to matter but small enough where you can dominate. So we’ve got a great role model with us today, someone who’s got some experience with this, and she’s willing to share her learnings with us. Her name is Ali Schwanke. And Ali, I would love it if you would give a proper introduction to the audience.
Member Case Study: Ali Schwanke, Simple Strat
Ali Schwanke [00:01:19] Absolutely. Well, thanks, Greg, for being here. Yeah, as Greg said, I am Ali Schwanke, and I’m the founder of a business called Simple Strat. And we are a HubSpot consulting agency that started about six years ago. And we have worked with folks all over the nation in helping them get more out of their HubSpot instance, which is a marketing technology and software platform.
And also increasing the effectiveness of their content on that platform once they get their bearings under them. So we’ve been doing that for the last six years, but myself, I’ve been in marketing for almost two decades now.
Greg Alexander [00:01:51] Okay. And Ali, what’s a typical client look like for you?
Ali Schwanke [00:01:56] Sure. So our clients that have the most success with us are between about five and 200 employees. And they have a strong propensity to grow efficiencies with their business. And they are primarily B2B because they have the need to track information inside of a technology platform and then eventually get the most out of the reporting and analytics that come with that function.
Greg Alexander [00:02:18] Okay. Very good. So the reason why I wanted to speak to you this morning is I understand that you and your team have been redefining your target market a bit and yet that answer you just gave me was very crisp. You should be proud of that answer. That tells me that you really have given this some thought.
You mentioned an employee count range, etc. So why don’t we start with what first made you think about maybe redefining your target client and redefining the market that you’re going to compete in?
Scaling a Business: You Need to Define Your Target Client and Market
Ali Schwanke [00:02:48] Sure. Well, a lot of professional services firms and agencies are not excluded from this. They’re kind of like that story of the E-Myth, where they have someone who’s really good at a craft, and they just start an agency or start a company. And you go from being able to do the work to thinking about building a company around the work. And once you do that as an agency, you realize that you are competing with everybody and their mother and their son who went to college for social media.
And the word marketing is so vague, and I think it is for a lot of folks. So when we started saying initially, when Simple Strat started, we were going to focus primarily on helping folks with marketing strategy because there weren’t as many strategy firms out there. What I failed to realize at the time was that strategy is something that is not defined just by marketing. You’re now competing with firms that do business strategy and all these other things.
So as the firm developed, we found a specific line of success in helping folks navigate HubSpot. And what we realized is, if we can get really, really good at that platform and know it better than any of our competitors and focus only on that platform, we have a competitive advantage of simply focus. And that focus allowed us to then narrow that target market to teams that really appreciate our expertise and have the value and a budget defined for engaging someone like us.
Greg Alexander [00:04:11] Okay. So the path to getting to it towards this new focus of HubSpot, it sounds like, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth that you were looking at where you were having success and then said to yourself, maybe that’s where we should focus. Is that how it happened?
Ali Schwanke [00:04:28] It did. I’ll say it happened in a little bit of a backward way. We said initially we became a HubSpot partner. There are lots and lots and lots of those out there. We did that about five years ago, and at the time, I think me and my inexperienced mind was thinking we become a partner. That’s our niche. And we go.
Well, what happened is we did a lot of things to try and promote that partnership. And I’ll tell you, Greg, nobody cared. Nobody cared. So very similar to the story that you published in Chapter eight of the market when we started publishing content around our competitive advantage and demonstrating that expertise online, that’s when things changed for us and the focus became real. So it’s very interesting. I would do it all over again the same way.
Greg Alexander [00:05:14] Yeah. So let’s talk about that a little bit, because it’s easy to fire up a spreadsheet and say, “Okay, so there’s 5000 companies to go after. And these are the vertical industries and the geographies and the job titles and the sizes that we want to focus on.” But sometimes, we often forget we have to figure out how we’re going to reach them.
You know, there’s the TAM (total addressable market), and then there’s the percentage of that TAM that you can reach in boutiques like yours, like the one that I had, like our members. It’s not as if we have a 10,000-person salesforce that can go out and reach all these folks.
So you started producing content and that content started getting out there. That was your reach. Instead of salespeople, you were using content as to extend your reach. And then that content was attracting people to you. That’s how it was working. Okay. Right. And that must be some great content because there’s a lot of content out there about inbound marketing in HubSpot, etc.. So how did you develop content that kind of penetrated the noise?
How Simple Strat Brought Prospects to Their Firm Through Great Content
Ali Schwanke [00:06:26] Yeah, I think what we found is there was a lot of companies that are writing similar things. And to be frank, when you become a partner with HubSpot, they do their due diligence in helping you sort of build your business plan and your approach. But I’ll say that I’ve been in this long enough to see that at first they were encouraging you to be called an inbound agency, and then they were encouraging you to position yourself as a growth agency and now position yourself as a robot.
Well, if you think about this, they’re telling all of their partners similar advice. And so great, we’re now in this sea of competing with each other in these same terms. And we did a little bit of analysis of the market of looking at this sort of unserved population. And that was there are a lot of things you can do in HubSpot, but the number of instances that I have seen where the first thing I say when I open up the portal is what’s going on in here. They don’t want to admit to their agency that they don’t know what they’re doing.
And so we found if they can find content that’s very basic things like, here’s how to set up your lifecycle stages or, here’s how to have here’s how to do a portal audit. There was no content online for that because that is content you have to see. And we already had an advantage of being able to produce video tutorials. So we just leaned into that and that lesson was people, if they see your expertize online first, they trust you before you even make a sale.
Greg Alexander [00:07:56] It’s so true. I mean, you just referenced one of the chapters in my book, and a book is a version of content marketing, and people read it. And if it resonates with them, they reach out to us and hopefully become a member. I mean, that’s how it works now.
You mentioned video. I want to go there just a little bit because a lot of our members, I think, aren’t using video as well as they could. And these days, you know, people are consuming content on their phone. Video tends to lend itself really well to that, particularly short clips. So tell me a little bit about what you’re doing in the video bucket.
Ali Schwanke [00:08:30] Yeah. So I’ll tell you what we did wrong first. I was a firm believer of video back when I started in 2016. I said, we need video. I hired a videographer. I had planned on selling video services to folks as well. And I’ll tell you, Greg, I think I made a whole $5,000 off of this video person.
Mostly what they did is produce video for us. And in doing that, what I learned was two things. One, there’s two types of video. One is video that is thought out on how to do something. And then there’s video that’s entertaining and kind of what I would call rabbit hole video. You find yourself watching clips after clips, after clips.
And so for us to go lean into that video piece was we learned that the video content that was out there, people were talking about themself a lot. They weren’t actually thinking about the viewer first. And so we said if we just create short to the point videos that were well-produced and highly searchable, I think we can win.
So we put a small bet out. We put a certain amount of very, very low production value videos first and saw those succeed. And then we invested in a full channel and it was about six months until we saw that really kind of transact for us. But once we started getting traffic, then we started talking about how to convert the traffic.
We didn’t have this like grandiose thing all at once. We grew as we learned. And I think that’s one piece that makes a lot of folks nervous about video is they want to see results after two videos or three videos. And it’s a cumulative effect that we now dominate the YouTube channel for the search of HubSpot.
Greg Alexander [00:10:00] Interesting. So a boutique like yours is the dominant player on YouTube.
Ali Schwanke [00:10:06] If you type HubSpot into YouTube, my face will be on at least four or five of the ten results.
Greg Alexander [00:10:12] No kidding. Wow. That’s quite an accomplishment.
Ali Schwanke [00:10:15] At the moment. Like, let’s hope that that continues, right?
Greg Alexander [00:10:18] Yeah. That’s a little bit of an arms race for sure. Yes. Okay. So you mentioned the next stage was learning how to convert once you started getting the traffic. And that’s a big component about defining your target market, which is what our subject is today.
You know, sometimes we realize that we have to reach this large market and we’re going to do it through content marketing in all of its forms. And you throw the content out there and all of a sudden you start getting lots of inbound interest. But you’re catching the wrong fish. You can’t win. So how did you learn more about your target market based on what was coming to you in response to this content that you were creating?
Scaling a Consulting Business: How Simple Strat Learned More About Its Target Market
Ali Schwanke [00:11:01] Yeah, I’m a big believer in constantly observing your audience in the way that they talk. So what a lot of teams I would think miss when they’re looking at their total addressable market. So for instance, if I said I believe my total addressable market needs rev ops because that’s the buzzword right now. I will tell you in having conversations with sales and marketing leaders, rarely do I ever hear the word rev ops.
And even right now, if I run a keyword search report on that, the volume is low. And that’s because it’s a word we use to describe it in the marketing industry. But the actual thing folks are looking for is, can I have a function that’s accountable for sales and marketing in my organization? So when we’re looking at the way that your total addressable market talks about their products and their needs and their pains, that’s the content to create. And then you have to sort through and say which one of those is closest to a sale?
So in our case, if they’re having issues with their sales reporting, that’s a problem they’re looking at solving immediately. If they just want to figure out how to optimize their blogs better, that’s longer to revenue for them. And so they might not be willing to pay as much. So we focused on the content that you see immediate gain and then we’re continue like we have a next thing that we’re rolling out that helps address some of that stuff higher on the.
Greg Alexander [00:12:23] So some of our listeners right now members are going to say, this is fascinating. I’ve never met anybody who can dominate the YouTube channel like Ali has. And it’s hard to do. And what I’m taking from our conversation is how incredibly focused you are on the client and how you’re outward in and everything you think about.
That example of rev ops is a great one. I mean, that’s industry lingo, but the clients don’t use it. So it’s not valuable. It’s valuable to the other HubSpot partners, but it’s not valuable to the client. I have some members who say, “I don’t have time for this. You know, I’m super busy. I’m a young growing firm. And who’s got time to do this?” I’m sure your to do list is just as long as theirs. So why do you make time for it?
Ali Schwanke [00:13:11] So I didn’t have a business that existed when we all saw each other a lot in person. Like, I definitely have been to conferences and I’ve networked and I’ve had a lot of success in that early in my career. But we now live in an environment where you don’t go to one master trade show a year and build all of your leads. We now live in a world where that’s happening every single day, and to say you don’t have time for that is like saying 25 years ago that I don’t have time to go to the largest trade show in my industry.
And if you don’t have a mindset of value, you will not make time for it. But I will say if you do not create content based on what your audience finds valuable, and you talk a lot about this in the book and we talk about a lot about it in the Collective. If you do not create content based on what your audience is interested in and just what you want to say, it will not convert for you and you will have a failed experiment.
Greg Alexander [00:14:04] And for those that say I don’t see a client spending thousands and thousands of dollars with me, that came through a social media channel like YouTube. What would your response be to that?
Ali Schwanke [00:14:19] Sure. Some of this comes down to education of marketing and what it is and how it’s defined. I will say the majority of founders that I have worked with in the professional services industry, their initial perspective of marketing and marketing spend is what I would call direct response. Yeah, I have a coupon. I turn in coupon. I see that coupon led to sale B2B sales. And especially when you’re involving a human in their expertize, there is a high degree of trust. There is a lot.
It’s actually not marketing at all. What you’re doing is psychologically driven and we are complex beings and we make decisions with our level of logic, which sometimes is zero and it’s all feeling. So if you make them feel that they’re learning things from you and trusting you, you can sell them sometimes whatever you want. That’s not a good practice, but once you gain that trust, then you are simply depositing additional coins in that bank that keeps that trust for a long time.
Yeah, and that’s again, it’s a mindset. I will say conversion wise though, you do have to have a content offer that brings them value and actually shows a small piece of what you can actually do. It has to be tied to the overall value. And if it’s not, then it’s just a fancy download.
Bringing Clients To Your Door When Scaling a Business: Knowing Them is Key
Greg Alexander [00:15:34] This has been a great conversation. And just to summarize, you know, Ali started and she had a really large definition of a market strategy which can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. And it was outside of her niche and then she narrowed that down by becoming a HubSpot partner. And then even within the HubSpot ecosystem, if you will, she got even tighter by focusing on a specific type of company to go after.
And then really what I learned today, which was really fascinating, is the code that she’s cracked, if you will. She’s figured out how to reach this tightly defined market in a cost-effective way with a high conversion rate. And she’s doing that through content marketing, in particular on YouTube. And if you type in HubSpot into YouTube, I mean, she’s going to be the dominant provider there, which is quite a thing for sure.
So, Ali, we’re at our time commitment here, but the way the Collective works is that we all contribute to the collective body of knowledge. You know, every time a member contributes, the other members benefit. And that’s the give and take nature of this. So on behalf of the membership, I want to thank you, because that was a big contribution. I learned a lot today.
Ali Schwanke [00:16:42] Yeah, thank you. I have learned a lot from the Collective and I know other members have as well. So thank you for what you’re doing.
Greg Alexander [00:16:48] And members I’m sure many of you are anxious to speak to Ali because if she’s doing this for her firm, she can probably do it for your firm. So feel free to reach out to her via the member portal and have a follow-up conversation with her.
Okay. And for those that are interested in this topic and others like it, you can pick up a copy of our book, The Boutique: How to Start, Scale, and Sell Professional Services Firm. And for those that are listening to this and are not members and are interested in meeting fascinating people like Ali consider joining our mastermind community which you can find at Collective54.com. Thanks again, Ali. Take care. Ali Schwanke [00:17:24] Thank you.