[Above:] Panorama of my INBOUND16 presentation in front of 600+ marketing professionals in Boston last November. A capstone to the year for sure.
There I was, standing before the INBOUND equivalent of a sold-out audience. The IMR team and I had put together a powerful presentation on a critical topic for inbound marketers, “Chaos Under Control: How to Organize a Messy Contacts Database to Market More Effectively.” It was my first INBOUND speaking appearance outside of the HubSpot Academy training track and my first time participating as a HubSpot Agency Partner, not a HubSpot employee.
This was a career highpoint for me; the culmination of a year of work leading a Platinum Certified HubSpot Agency Partner, Innovative Marketing Resources. I was primed to deliver. But as I looked over the more-than 600 eager attendees, part of me couldn’t believe what I was about to do...
If you had told me just one short year ago I would be sharing my team’s client successes with the largest gathering of inbound marketers in the world, I would have been flattered by your confidence in me, but I wouldn’t have thought it likely.
So before I opened my mouth to deliver my INBOUND presentation, I found myself asking, “Nick, how the heck did you pull this off? What lessons did you learn in the past year that put you in a position to actually share them confidently with other marketers?”
Flashback to a Year Ago
Last November, I left what had been, up to that point, the best job of my life to take the reins of a small but promising HubSpot Agency Partner in the Boston area. Why would a true believer in inbound leave a job with the inbound leader of the world? I explained in detail in this December '15 post, but to sum it up:
- I wanted to learn how to best lead an agency focused around inbound.
- I wanted to be more hands-on in doing the inbound marketing myself, not just teach others to do it as I had done for the past four years.
- I wanted to learn how to provide more effective HubSpot services than I saw currently available in the market.
- I wanted the chance to learn how to be a leader of a creative team in an entrepreneurial setting.
Over the past year, I made progress on all of these goals. And there were a lot of things that I expected to go right that did go right. But a lot of unexpected things also happened.
That’s all part of what makes the entrepreneurial experience so exciting — and sometimes, so nerve-wracking. The great thing about all those ups and downs, surprise problems and creative solutions, is that you can learn from them.
And I did. And I hope you do too. Let's get into it:
I departed HubSpot to join IMR on November 2015. If you've been following this blog for the last year, you know that my first six months at Innovative Marketing Resources was all about getting the lay of the land, learning about the team and the clients, and keeping the agency’s momentum going through the leadership transition. And that's also where my last article on this blog left off. May 2016 was a tough month full of growing pains and adjustments. The last six months of the year was when the adventure really took off, so I’ll pick up my story since May since I've been leaving you hanging....
The situation: IMR as an agency focuses heavily on content creation and content strategy, so May was all about ensuring the stats for most of our key accounts started to climb after a steady period of faithful blogging. It was clear the fundamentals of inbound marketing were paying off. Our posts were attracting more visitors and retaining them as subscribers.
Meanwhile, the team underwent some changes. A team member who was feeling spread too thin and not seeing career growth opportunities (a challenge at many agencies, I learned) finally left for other things, and the remaining team refocused their energy around coming together to work toward our common goals.
What we learned: The number number-one team principle I established when I got to Innovative Marketing Resources was be a HubSpotter first. And in spring 2016, the value of this principle became evident. The team members who were interested in specializing in HubSpot and inbound best practices stuck around — and we became stronger for it.
We realized we could apply the same principle to our clients. Just as not everybody was going to be a good fit for the future direction of the team, not every client was going to be the best fit, either.
Learning to say “no” to certain opportunities was one of the most difficult lessons I learned this year. But I realized that, if you want to stay focused on your vision, saying “no” is one of your most powerful tools against distraction.
IMR's co-founders, Kevin and Joe, encouraged me to focus and prioritize what our agency did, and who we did it for, and so we politely passed off those smaller accounts that weren’t ready for our full services. We started to specialize and focus on some of the key accounts that were willing to invest in us and inbound marketing and therefore we were excited to invest in them.
The situation: As the team members gained confidence, we asked for a higher commitment from our clients, to us and to HubSpot. As summer heated up and so did the demand for our services, we started to hit some walls in terms of our team’s capacity.
What we learned: We continued to do well through the summer partly because we learned to not specialize in any one industry, but in our ability to get up to speed with HubSpot customers and to get their HubSpot accounts up and running. Getting clients onto the HubSpot COS and helping them plan their first content strategy remains our focus.
To push our existing customers to the next level, we pushed our team to innovate — innovation was part of the agency’s brand, after all. We encouraged them to try out new inbound marketing tactics, like video, creative content projects, pay-per-click advertising, and longer-form landing pages.
To be brutally honest, not everything worked — and sometimes that’s because we tried things that were in demand, but we weren’t that familiar with yet. No campaigns crashed and burned necessarily, we just didn’t hit home runs right out of the gate.
But I believed it was better to take on a new challenge and learn from the experience than to say, “We’ve never done that before. Let's avoid trying it.”
We also learned the value of connecting IMR (and by extension our clients) to the best the freelance world has to offer. There are so many talented folks out there who are comfortable plugging into projects when they’re needed — as writers and developers — and moving on when the job is done. We did the right thing and documented everything we need and how it should be done for clients across the agency so it could be replicated by others — another one of the team principles we established. That gave us some real flexibility to scale when we needed to around some bigger opportunities because we didn't have to re-explain how we did everything and restate our expectations with every specialist we might bring onto a project.
The situation: The fall brought us our biggest challenge of the year. One of two new hires I had brought on did not work out. The experience changed the whole trajectory of the agency, stalling our momentum and shaking the confidence certain clients had in us. We brought the remaining team members together, reassembling them into a pod model where we all helped out on certain facets of each project that needed extra help, and started to rebuild confidence with the accounts we had on the line. We needed to level up our game.
To help up the production values a bit, I encouraged the agency to make investments in technology that could enhance the consulting experience:
- Setting up boom mics and always-on webcams for better audio and visual presence on consulting calls.
- Publishing a 90-day “blueprint” to make our marketing plans more visual and tactile.
- Creating beautiful debrief decks to demonstrate our results in living color at the end of every 90-day cycle.
Coincidentally, we started to witness some staff changes with our clients, as well. New team members were coming on and new vendors were brought in to work alongside us.
What we learned: It was important for us to make a conscious decision to not view these new people and vendors as competitors to what we were originally hired to do. We decided, instead, to offer our support, and to earn a role as trusted advisors. Our approach paid off; as new marketing managers came on board, their bosses turned to us to help them ramp up.
This signals another step in our evolution: to not just be the agency that helps a single marketing manager, but to be a resource for an entire organization.
To do that, we need to continue to push our consulting work beyond the boundaries of what the core team is used to providing in the past. Businesses — especially as they grow in size — can be wary of change, of pushing the boundaries and getting a little bit edgier. Sometimes it takes a third party, like our agency, to nudge change along....
[Above]: One of seven 5-star reviews from satisfied clients that IMR earned in the HubSpot Partner Directory as a result of embracing our innovative approach to marketing last year. This particular client, The Wellness Institute, has had the agency retainer for nearly 3 years. Their review says it all (I didn't ask them to write these words, this is just what they felt was important for people to know).
That’s not to say we ignored brand guidelines. It actually means we pushed our clients to stick closer to the true voice of their customers, which might be a little bit more personable, a little bit more human than they were originally comfortable with. For example, we might encourage our clients to inject a little humor into their blog posts or to take a stronger stance on a trending topic in their industry.
Late Fall 2016
The situation: To quote “Spaceballs,” “We’re at now, now.”
My INBOUND presentation was a hit. Afterward, a steady stream of attendees came up to me and my team to talk about working together and accessing the same kind of results we spoke about.
I felt like my primary mission at INBOUND16, as chief spokesman for my team, was to show our passion for helping people solve their marketing challenges in a very tangible way. I wanted to show that we want to continue to push the envelope of inbound marketing, helping more and more customers do well.
And, it seems, I succeeded. Within days after the conference, over 175 businesses converted into leads on IMR's website as a direct result of our INBOUND presentation and promotional efforts around it.
What we learned: I think there’s a story to tell about how we pulled off our most successful marketing campaign with very little website work — our INBOUND presentation, the postcards we handed out with our bitly URL, and the conversations we had on social, and in the hallway.
After a year of digital marketing, some of the best lead generation we did was getting up front and personal with IMR's target audience, shaking their hands, having a laugh with them, telling our stories.
Looking ahead, I think that will be the biggest innovation of all for 2017: to be more human in our marketing. I want to tear down the barriers of website pages and emails and get as personal, as face-to-face, as possible. Maybe that will mean more speaking engagements like the one I'll be doing at MIT later this month. Maybe that will just mean turning the webcam on more for virtual meetings.
I'll be trying to practice inbound marketing in a more up-front, in-person way throughout the coming year. As always, I'll be doing my best to make time for sharing what I've learned on the blog (better late than never). If you haven't taken the plunge already, will you join me on the journey by becoming a subscriber?
[Above:] For me at 2016 was a learning year and a growing year — not just about trying to grow a HubSpot Agency Partner's team, client roster and bottom line, but growing what they thought possible about marketing powered on HubSpot as well.
Epilogue - Narrowing my focus and expanding my agency horizons in 2017...
If I've been trying to make anything clear to you in this post, it's that it was a solid first year on the outside of the orange walls of HubSpot. We made some big wins happen and I learned a lot. However, as the year drew to a close, I had to admit that while I loved the inbound services game, being the person responsible for running all the major aspects of a full-service agency (account management, team management, sales and marketing manangement), was burning me out and ultimately not sustainable (at least not at this stage in my career). When I looked at my goals for 2017, I wanted to focus more on one core skill set, and that for me right now is sales/biz dev. There was a Diamond-Certified HubSpot Agency Partner, IMPACT Branding and Design, that was looking for additional sales horsepower and offered me the greatest opportunity to do just that. I was so grateful that as I made the decision to move onto this next chapter, I had IMR's full support. I go way back with IMR's co-founders, Kevin and Joe. They're veteran businessmen who took me under their wing for an amazing year and, in the end, they just wanted what's best for me. I am eternally grateful to them for the experience I gained in the last 12 months and, seeing as how they are good friends with the IMPACT crew, I'm sure we'll be finding ways to team up on marketing projects in the future. Stay tuned!
*YOUR TURN TO SHARE:*
How have your thoughts about marketing and using HubSpot grown over the past year? What lessons will you apply as we move into 2017? Share your ideas and plans in the comments section below. Thank you for reading!!