Thursday, June 13, 2024

Find the Right Pivot for Your Marketing Agency

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Every agency runs into periods of time that are a struggle. Revenues down, customers are turning, pipeline is all but dried up. Owners, faced with these situations, have three options: Keep going, quit, or change direction.

The challenge is knowing which option is the best for you.

Staying the course or charting a new path can each bring its own successes and challenges. It’s a good idea to talk to folks who’ve been there.

And that’s exactly what Selim Maalouf is going to talk to us about in this episode of Social Pulse Podcast, hosted by head of Strategic Partnerships at Agorapulse, Mike Allton.

Selim hosts and produces two podcasts, the Manufacturing Marketing Show, as well as Sprockets and Gears. He’s also a HubSpot technical consultant and HubSpot solutions provider. Interestingly, his career started as an Industrial Design Engineer in Lebanon, but he quickly pivoted to marketing and has been helping industrial companies communicate with and attract the right audiences ever since.

Mike Allton: Start by sharing with us how you got into digital marketing. That’s certainly what wasn’t what you went to school for and about the work you’re doing today at Conveying Your Message.

Realizing You Need to Make a Change

Selim Maalouf: It is an unusual path, to say the least. I was an Industrial Engineer, and I happened to love creative writing. After three years as a designer and three years as an Applications Engineer in the sales organization, I stumbled upon a cool little website called HubSpot and started learning about the inbound methodology. Long story short, I sold myself as the company’s first digital marketer.

I moved from the Applications team to become their first digital marketer. And I left that company, moved to the US, and joined a big industrial group and ran marketing ops for four brands, all in HubSpot as well. Then I joined another company as a content marketer and—funnily enough—ended up doing marketing ops again all in HubSpot.

Sadly, the marketing team let go. So I figured me and my then manager, now co-founder could help other industrial companies be successful in HubSpot because a lot of the objections around marketing teams activities in the industrial space typically stem from customer-facing teams being too busy.

We knew that an expertly deployed HubSpot instance can help. We are a strong believer, we are strong believers in a content-first go-to-market strategy. So, at Conveying Your Message, I was the producer of all of our content. We did do two podcasts and a live show, and I also was the one delivering the work for clients that came through the door.

But that fast forward to today: As you can expect, we realized that we needed some change.

Mike Allton: I love that you talked about how for a long time, your agency was really focused on deploying HubSpot for clients.

What was the struggle with that business model?

Selim Maalouf: One word: Sustainability.

As a two-person team, the scope of the projects we were aiming at were fairly large. And, given that our niche of the industrial and manufacturing space is already invested in a lot of software like ERPs that typically offer CRM-like functionality, getting the help we needed was tough. We could not hire full-time yet because we’re just starting. We were not looking to outsource the work overseas. So we either had to deliver a subpar experience, which we refused to do or severely underprice our services. And as the clients rolled in, it was immediately obvious that we were losing money on the work we were delivering.

What made you decide ultimately to pivot and what did you decide to pivot to?

Selim Maalouf: It was a tough conversation because we were structured in a way that my co-founder was the revenue leader. He was going out, spreading our message, chasing leads, closing deals. And I was doing the delivery and doing content and my calendar quickly was packed, but our pipeline didn’t reflect that packed schedule. It felt like there was some kind of disconnection.

At the same time, not having one person start the conversation and deliver the work—we were having some troubles in the handoff. We sat down, we started talking through the process, and the more we talked about creating efficiencies, not having to do work twice during the handoff, etc, we quickly realized that there’s a lot of work that is being created due to the nature of how our setup is.

The only way to remedy that would be to remove the handoff completely. And if we’re removing the handoff completely, it means one person is starting the conversation, developing the relationship, closing the deal, and delivering the work to do that. Then I, the one who was creating the content and doing the delivery, now I have to go out and close my own deals.

And so we quickly understood that we were basically headed towards consultancy and not an agency where each one of us has a specialty. And we engage in consulting services. And, if we need help delivering the work beyond consultancy, then we start looking into contractors or go selling deals.

We have a software implementation partner that we enjoy working with. We started that motion, and feels much more sustainable. And we quickly, saw like a reduction in inefficient, unbillable work basically.

Mike Allton: So, initially your partner was basically doing a lot of the sales and the outreach, and you were creating content to help with the marketing, but he was delivering those sold clients to you to execute on the work.

And that’s where there was a lot of disconnect and inefficiency.

To solve for that and to change to a more efficient model, not only are you both selling and doing the outreach. You’re both now doing a lot of the execution, and that has changed what you can and cannot execute as well. So it’s changed the services that you offer.

What are those services today then to be a little bit more specific?

Selim Maalouf: What I do mainly is I consult on content marketing strategy, on B2B social media strategy focused on LinkedIn, on-demand gen strategy. And we have seen an interesting niche of DIY website buildout for people who are trying to graduate from a one-pager on Wix to their first business website, and helping them from the get-go get used to HubSpot CMS and getting started on owning their website instead of outsourcing it to someone and then receiving an end product and them not being able to update it and so on and so forth.

My co-founder focuses on HubSpot implementations, RevOps, all the technical projects that we were doing and he’s still doing. But we were neglecting this piece. So there’s a clear split line of, “Do you want big HubSpot implementations? You work with him. If you want more marketing side, you work with me.”

Changing Scope of Audience

Mike Allton: Are you still focused on industrial manufacturing or has this change allowed you to change that scope of target audience?

Selim Maalouf: Interesting question. Ever since we started the agency, we talked to a couple of HubSpot partners that work with the industrial manufacturing space, and everybody told us to run for the hills, don’t touch it, go away. “You don’t want to do that.” A lot of them quoted the struggles that, funnily enough, we dealt with internally as in-house marketers, and we felt it’s okay.

We’re not going to be blindsided. We’re comfortable with this. We understand it. So we expect it. We thought because we’ve seen it a couple of times, a third party consultant comes in, says the same thing you’ve said as an internal marketer, they get paid a thousand dollars for showing up for two hours. You get yelled at because, no, you’re not doing what you’re told. It’s that kind of mentality. We thought, “Okay, the key to getting these people to listen is to come from the outside. The industrial manufacturing space has a lot of inertia. Things take time. Things don’t move as quickly as SaaS moves.”

As a result, we were still fighting with 2000s mentalities around digital marketing and marketing in general. The long story is from the get-go, we were considering, “Do we make this our niche or not?” And because I’m an engineer and my co-founder was a bench chemist and a QA manager for a long time, we’re both technical people.

We were both the buyer at one point. And our expertise lies in there. So whenever we work with industrial companies, we quickly understand their pains, but we also have to deal with the industrial manufacturing clients. And also our branding is a lot of industrial manufacturing, a lot of gears and whatnot.

So, it is a daily struggle. We just pull the plug and step away from industrial and focus on broader customer base. We do work with people outside of the industrial, but we haven’t made the decision to pivot our marketing and branding away from the industrial space.

But yesterday I was in a cohort, and with a bunch of industrial marketers. And the main presentation was how to make do without a CRM. And I was in the chat and talking about, “Guys, you’re recreating HubSpot.”

Well, I didn’t say HubSpot. I said, “You’re recreating a CRM in Excel. That is not sustainable. The conversation needs to be: How do we make a business case for leadership on why we need a CRM and you don’t even need an expensive CRM?”

There are cheaper CRM solutions. And it was a heated conversation in the chat, and they asked me, “Do I want to step on stage to discuss it?” I told them, no, I’m biased. I’m a software partner. Of course, people are going to see me as pushing towards “you should buy a CRM,” but that was getting me this close to post on LinkedIn today, like “Hey guys, I’m leaving industrial.”

It’s an emotional topic.When I grew up, I became an industrial engineer because I am passionate about this industry. And whenI pivoted to digital marketing, I wanted to stick in the industry because I wanted to help. I want the industrial space to succeed. I want them to join us in the 21st century. I want them to join us in the fun ecosystem of content marketing, I want them to join us on social. I want them to join us. In all of this, but it’s a struggle, man. It’s definitely a struggle.

Decision to Pivot

Mike Allton: What are some of the decisions or the strategies that you followed since that pivot that (in your opinion) have helped make it a successful change?

Selim Maalouf: A big part of my personal struggles were trying to balance client delivery and content. Not having to shoulder all of the marketing content was the first step.

The first thing I did was enable my partner and give them the right tools and figure out the right content strategy that he could deliver on his own. In fact, it’s a lot of what I do for clients. And so I set him up with a StreamYard account. We talked about how to live stream to LinkedIn. And now he has a daily show on LinkedIn, focusing on doing a live builds of HubSpot on LinkedIn. And he’s been doing a lot of good work on there, which freed me up to focus on creating the content that I needed to create to attract my types of clients.

Having that shift from one person’s creating the content to each one of us creating the content that they need to further their pipeline was an unlock for both of us. Conversations around “Oh, should I produce this podcast episode or should I deliver this client project” disappeared because now we’re focusing on, what each one of us can do on their own.

And, to be honest, my personal content on LinkedIn has been thriving, and the conversations I’ve been having around specifically that niche that I mentioned of starter websites has been interesting and getting a lot of traction, on LinkedIn. That also reminded us that we were both dissolving behind the agency brand.

Once he started his daily show and I picked back up my content that started featuring my face more and more, both of us remembered why we were successful on LinkedIn, and that was the power of our individual personal brands vs. trying to build a young, conveying your message brand from scratch.

Mike Allton: What a fascinating insight. I definitely think that’s something agency owners should be thinking about. How active are they personally on LinkedIn? Regardless of how you’re structuring your agency, that personal brand and presence is super.

Advice and Problem-Solving

Mike Allton: Now, so I’m thinking back to your agency before you decided to make this big change.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self?

Selim Maalouf: It is the same advice that I used to struggle with internally for industrial companies, which is a product-market fit. We always find solutions, or we always create solutions and then try to find a problem to solve.

And that was what we did. At the start, we figured out what we wanted to do, which was HubSpot implementations. We figured out how we do it. We became HubSpot solutions partners, and then we just started prospecting and knocking on people’s doors. That wasn’t what people needed at the time. Our start was not in our control.

We did not choose when we started the agency. So the market was not ready for another HubSpot agency to come knock on their door and offer their services. So, focusing on having a lot of background conversations, figuring out if there is a need for that format of services, and if there’s enough people who want it so we can build that product line.

Our product line has changed tremendously right now, and our services have changed tremendously. If we had done the consultancy model from the get-go, we wouldn’t have had this jarring shift. Our marketing wouldn’t have had to do a 180 all of this. We could have saved six months trying to figure this out, and we’d have been in a much better position today than we are.

Mike Allton: That’s such great advice because a lot of times we think, “Oh, it’s just so much faster, just build it and then go sell it.” We don’t want to take the time to have conversations with the people that we think we’re going to sell to and really uncover, well, what are they really struggling with? How do they talk about it? You know, where’s the pain exactly? How will our ideas for a solution fit? Or do we need to change or pivot?

That does take time, but to your point, it takes more time to do it the other way, the wrong way, which is to build it first and then try to sell it.

Selim Maalouf: To be fair to ourselves, we were in the shoes of these organizations. We have felt the pains, and we know the solution. The problem is that. We were not leadership. We weren’t in leadership’s positions. We were individual contributors. We were in the mid, mid level. We wanted change, and leaders were not approving that change. We thought something would be different if we were coming from the outside, but these are the same leaders, and they have the same challenges and sometimes unreasonable objections.

And if we couldn’t break through them in-house, why did we think we could break through them from the outside? And that’s the lesson we’re learning is not a magic solution. It’s not that just because we’re not in-house anymore, they’ll listen.

Mike Allton: That’s a powerful lesson. Again, I hope everyone listening is really thinking about internalizing everything that you’re saying and trying to apply it to their unique situation, their agencies. I want to shift gears for a little bit because I know you’re now talking to customers and helping them with their marketing.

We’re a social media company, so we’d love to talk about social media. I’d love to know your impression on how businesses or agencies could or should be measuring the impact that social media can potentially have on their business because it’s such a challenging issue. For years, we’ve relied on Facebook likes and, and, and tweet replies and that kind of vanity metrics, follower counts, right?

To tell whether or not we’re quote-unquote succeeding on social media, but we know that’s not really success.

How would you recommend people think about this?

Selim Maalouf: I’ll frame my answer.

Saying that I am focused on B2B and our specialty, let’s say, is the high-consideration products. So sales cycles are long. There’s no buy buttons. There’s no e-commerce. The buying cycle is much slower. There’s a lot of people on the buying committee. So, it cannot be the same way you do direct-to-consumer or you do a B2C, which is, “Here’s our product. Here’s why it’s great. Buy it now, create hype around it,” influencer marketing, all of that.

Even though influencer marketing is creeping into the B2B space, I am skeptical right now about it.

There’s a big focus on creating content on LinkedIn. There’s a big focus on empowering your subject matter experts, creating, helping them create thought leadership content around the point of view of the company and not just around the products and features. The way we measure, it’s really tough and is really not fun for agencies because we measure on pipeline created and we’re not using very sophisticated attribution software and tracking.

But, since the teams we’re helping are kind of smaller, we can definitely see the pipeline change more dramatically based on conversations they’ve been having. Based on how many people DM them after they’ve seen a piece of content. Based on the—loved or hated, depending on where you stand on it—the how-did-you-hear-about-us as a required field, opened text on your form.

Once you get going with your social media strategy, start producing the thought leadership content around your SMEs and start getting traction. Start getting conversations in the comments. Start getting a pipeline that is sourced from this content.

That’s where we feel we are successful.

However, that’s a tough sell, both for agencies and for clients, because they want a number, they want a percentage, they want a KPI that they can look at and say, “Oh, it’s going up. Oh, it’s going down.” But it’s not that easy. If you want that KPI, it’s either misleading, or it gets very expensive to implement for the smaller-size clients that we work with.

Mike Allton: Everything you just said really resonated with me because at Agorapulse, we are obviously B2B as well. We just closed a great deal yesterday that was everybody was celebrating that took six months for that deal to come around. It was an initial RFI request that came in in September of 2023, and they closed it in mid-April 2024. That’s rough. That is really hard to have attribution. Any point in that? I mean, how did they get here? What else did they look at? What happened? What pieces of content that they look at along the way? A lot of that’s indeterminate. But, you know, to your point, it has to be done.

And so that, that focus on pipeline, it’s a great perspective.

Clients Who Don’t Like Change

Now, earlier you mentioned how sometimes you’re working with clients who are, let’s just say, averse to change. They’re averse to some of the suggestions that you’re giving them. I imagine at some point some of that aversion becomes so bad that we can’t work with them.

What shouldn’t clients do when they’re working with consultancies and agencies like you, what might actually get them fired?

Selim Maalouf: We haven’t gotten to the point where we fired a client, but we have made the tough decisions to disqualify a lot of prospects before they even get a quote.

The big criteria for us is: Do you understand that ROI is tough to show? And we need to work a lot with feel when it comes to especially organic content and social media.

It’s tough to show you each piece of content, how much money it gave you back in pipeline, but we can show you two graphs. One that says you’ve published a lot of content and the other graph. That says your pipeline is growing. We can’t draw a direct line between the two, but we can definitely judge and say the increased activity is what resulted in increased pipeline.

If that is something that you cannot get over, you’re not really a good fit for us.

And we understand it’s a risky proposition. imagine someone telling you, “Hey, I’m going to sell you a service, and I can’t show you how it’s going to be successful. I’m just going to tell you on vibes, ‘Hey, this is working.’” It’s a tough sell, but we did the tough decision to say, “We can’t work with you if you’re not okay with this situation.”

Mike Allton: Is some of that due to the nature of the content, or is some of it also due to the fact that in order to really understand attribution, the tools that have to be invested in become just a little bit out of budget, out of scope?

Selim Maalouf: So I’ll take a specific example, which is trade shows.

  • Trade shows in the industrial space are very prevalent. Marketing budgets are typically like 80-90 percent trade shows. What we’ve done is try to—because we know we can’t take them off of trade shows—we start suggesting that your trade show activity could also generate content.
  • So, we start setting up a place in the booth for video recording of two people talking, for example. If you’re doing a keynote, that’s also a piece of content. If you’re doing a lunch and learn all of those activities that happen, can we create content out of them?
  • And then we take that content, and after the show we have a bunch of content that’s a conversation that doesn’t always go well because for them, no, we need to focus on badge scans and how many people we’re talking to. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never closed a deal from a badge scan yet. We’ve closed deals from a coffee in the hotel lobby before we had it to the show or a drinks after, but never from a badge scan.

Just showing that the content itself was the thing that closed the deal needs a lot of complicated software. That software at our scale is not an option. And, so it is a tool is too expensive problem. Attribution itself at these levels does not does not make sense.

Like you will spend all the money that you made trying to figure out how you made it.

Selim’s Tech Stack

Mike Allton: What are the tools you’re using today that we haven’t already talked about? What’s in your tech stack?

Selim Maalouf: So, HubSpot is obvious. We flirted with the idea of using Teamwork.com, but we ended up using ClickUp. For our LinkedIn prospecting purposes, we use Surfe, which is a plugin that links your LinkedIn to HubSpot. And, whenever you look at someone’s profile, you have a UI that you can add the contact to your HubSpot, create a deal, etc. You can create that connection between your LinkedIn and HubSpot. We internally use Google’s workspace suite, but we also do use Slack to join communities and do a lot of help and prospecting there.

And as far as content production, for me, live streaming, we use StreamYard, but for recorded shows, we use Riverside, and I go against the grain of recent trends, which everybody’s trying to go to the simpler video production. I’m still a Premiere Pro fanatic and I like full control over every little detail. So, I have a suite of plugins that I use but yeah, Premiere Pro for content creation.

Mike Allton: Excellent. We’re going to check that out for sure. So you’ve been amazing. This has been such an important interview. I hope a lot of folks get a lot out of it and are thinking very carefully about how they might potentially pivot if they feel that they need to, for those who want to learn more about you, your podcast or any of those kinds of things, where can they go to learn out and reach out?

Selim Maalouf: The easiest way to find me is on LinkedIn. Selim Maalouf. My URL is my name. I post daily on there, and if you want to learn more about Conveying Your Message, you can check out conveyingyourmessage.com, our website, and we have two podcasts. One is focused on the manufacturing and industrial marketing, which is called The Manufacturing Marketing Show.

And we have another, which is a blend of industrial and HubSpot called Sprockets and Gears, the unofficial industrial HubSpot podcast. You can find both on, all podcast platforms. And we’re currently working on porting these podcasts to HubSpot’s new content hub. We’re excited about that other than that. Hit me up on LinkedIn. I would love to chat.

Mike Allton: Fantastic. That’s all we’ve got for today, folks, but don’t forget to find the Social Pulse Podcast: Agency Edition on Apple and drop us a review. We’d love to know what you think. Until next time.

When to Pivot Your Marketing Agency: Finding the Right Focus

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