If you’re selling a product or service of any kind, differentiation should be top of mind. Search agencies are no different. Really this could apply to any online marketing agency  or consultant, but for the sake of this post we’ll discuss why it's particularly pertinent to paid search: people are starting to spend more on search, there are reports that most of that increased spend is being pushed towards pay per click advertising, and many are frustrated with their results.
This means two things:
- Increased Opportunity for PPC Agencies – There’s more spend to manage; more and more quality companies who would make great clients will be turning to agencies to manage their paid search accounts.
- More Competition – With the influx of money to be managed, new firms, lone-wolf consultants, Web dev and multi-media agencies, and companies’ own in-house SEM teams will start to compete to manage all of that PPC marketing  spend.
There’s a lot of good news here for current PPC practitioners. Mainly it’s this:
Everyone just coming into the space will have less experience than you. You have a foothold; you’ve developed systems and best practices and relationships. You have the capacity to be better at this than they are.
And ultimately that’s really the name of the game: As the level of crowdedness in a market increases, differentiation becomes incrementally more important.
When inundated by noise, people are willing to pay more for signal.
Below is a sort of checklist: five questions you should be asking yourself. If you answer these frankly and make mental notes (or physical, if you like) as to your answers as you read them, you’ll be able to identify areas where you are (and aren’t) providing differentiating value to your clients.
1. Am I Retaining Top Talent? Am I Eliminating Dead Weight?
If your company has subsisted for an extended period of time, there’s a fair chance you currently employ one or both of the following personas:
- Good but Bored – It can be a chore to keep competent people engaged with projects that do them justice. You simply might not have enough stimulating work for them to do. And beyond that: the fact of the matter is that a lot of that “grunt work” needs to happen in order for you to provide value for your clients.
- The Ultimate Automation Candidate – The second persona is staggeringly outsourceable and automatable. This is the employee who isn’t above “grunt work”. These individuals can’t offer any value over completion of the assigned task (and the assigned task is specific and binary: it either gets done, or it doesn’t).
The first persona will be critical to your building a successful search engine marketing firm; the second persona is taking up too many of your valuable resources to do a job you should probably be automating.
The diagnosis here isn’t rocket science: you need to hang on to persona one while finding a way to do without persona two.
This means moving the first employee off of grunt work.
It also means moving the second employee off of grunt work.
The action item here is that you need to think about how to stimulate and compensate top talent, and you need to start thinking about cost-effective automation solutions for “gruntwork”.
2. Am I Innovating?
If you are a consulting/service provider, your number one proprietary asset is your process.
Search algorithms are constantly shifting. The way Quality Score is calculated may be fundamentally different in two years (better yet: maybe Quality Score isn’t even a part of the PPC conversation).
To maintain and grow market share in a competitive field, it’s not enough to read a few blogs and attend a conference or two. You can’t afford to get a hold of the latest information and the latest tools a few months after your competitors have.
You need to be armed with productivity enhancements and tools for optimization that will enable you to do more than keep pace with other agencies.
But development is an expensive proposition. The reality is that in order to win (thrive) you need to be ahead. You can’t do that with one part-time developer. You can’t do it with an intern and a feed reader.
The art and science here is in discovering a means of creating the suite of tools you’ll need and in cultivating the sorts of ideas that will allow you to lead, all at a price you have the capital for.
3. What Value am I Providing to Clients?
Sounds simple, but what is it that you do that the client can’t? Your competitors aren’t just other agencies: businesses are increasingly opting to take the management of their pay per click campaign  in-house.
If you run your own search marketing shop, odds are you and your staff have a pretty extensive list of things that should be done on your clients’ behalf. Your personal and company-wide “to-do” is virtually endless. There’s always more work to be done.
You need to start getting to more of the things on that list.
If you’re currently managing paid search campaigns, you know you need to:
- Find Quality, Conversion-Friendly PPC Keywords  for Your Clients
- Manage Bids Across Multiple Campaigns and Ad Groups for Optimal Return on Investment
- Create Intelligent Segmentations that will Help Drive Up Quality Scores and Conversions
- Write Compelling Ad Text that Ensures that the Right Searchers are Clicking Your Clients’ Ads, then test it
- Create Optimized Landing Pages
The point is this: you have a list of things you know can help your clients. But it’s a long list. So you prioritize and get to what you can.
If you don’t take stock of how much in the way of actual value you’re providing for your clients, the clients themselves likely will (and you may not like the result).
4. How Consistent Are My Results?
Not unlike any industry, search marketing has been home (particularly in its infancy) to disreputable practitioners.
The thing is, if you’ve been running a legitimate establishment, there’s an extent to which a preponderance of “guaranteed number 1 rankings!” type offerings has actually been a help. It’s a lot easier to differentiate from a company offering “search engine submission” services than an actual search marketing firm.
But people are catching on, and as they do, the dollars and efforts that formerly funded SEM scammers will now be repurposed. The new purpose will be loosely following your business model…oh and of course: stealing your customers.
For this reason, you need to be more conscious than ever of providing real, transparent, and consistent results. The search firms that are succeeding are doing so, by and large, because they have been able to provide a layer of consistency and transparency over that of their competitors. VC dollars and competitive strategies will always be towed in the wake of success, and in this case: they’ll be thirsting to provide consistency in results.
You need to step up your offering, as well.
5. Am I Focusing on the Numbers in Our Charts and Graphs, or the Formatting?
Delivering pretty, glossy reports can be enough to keep certain clients…for a while…
But the clients you really want won’t care about the color scheme of your pie chart. They won’t be impressed by the fact that their branded search visits on Tuesdays after 3pm are moving “up and to the right”. The clients you really want already demand that you make their business more successful in a tangible, measurable way.
And even the ones who don’t; even those clients who are just “checking the box” and shelling out a percentage of spend or a couple thousand dollars a month so they can tell their boss “yeah we do search marketing” aren’t going to be pacified by flashy formats or obscure reporting metrics for much longer.
If you’re not delivering returns on the investment these companies are making, eventually they’ll come to you with one of the following refrains:
- We’re considering a competitor (Probably because we heard good things about all the amazing results they’ve been producing).
- We went under (Possibly because we handed out large consulting fees without demanding results).
Either way, you’ve just lost a client. Survival in a crowded search space will undoubtedly mean providing real, trackable results.
How real are your results?
What’s Next for Your Paid Search Firm?
Remember those notes we told you make? Whether they be mental or otherwise, consult them now.
Here’s the hard (and important) part: the next step is to take all these notes and do something with them.
- Market your strengths - If your firm is providing great results consistently find a way to let prospective clients know, and be sure to point out the value you’re adding to your current clients.
- Sure up your weaknesses – Even more importantly: dedicate some time to the correction of anything you consider yourself lacking in. If you find yourself consistently losing quality employees, start thinking about what you can do to retain them.
The main thing you should take away from this article is that your pay-per-click-agency  need invest in differentiation.