I never intended to leads a full service email marketing agency. Nevertheless “managed email marketing services,” outsourced email marketing, full-serve, or whatever you’d like to call it is now a large part of what we do every day, despite my plans.
I’ve been neck-deep in email marketing since the beginning. Fresh out of college, nearing the end of the dot-com boom, I was hired as a full-time email designer. When the bubble burst I started my first business. I called it an Interactive Agency although for the most part we simply produced promotional emails and corporate websites. The work (and burden of first-time business ownership) was exhausting but it was rewarding in almost every way, except income. A few years later I co-founded a list company that was largely focused on email list management and brokerage; where my income far outweighed most other perks of ownership.
I had spent 10 years immersed in all things email. I had seen it from both sides. Having grown and sold both companies I felt very fortunate and at the same time unfulfilled. You see, I used to be one of those “I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed” types. This personality trait certainly has value in the world of business but it has its dark side too. Suffice it to say that I put revenue and exit strategies ahead of almost everything, including my own health and happiness. I would do it differently next time.
It was the beginning of The Great Recession. Time for me to start a new company; only this time revenue would not be my only driver. Instead, this new venture would grow or die, based on its own merit. I would also put reasonable limits on my expectations to ensure a healthy balance in all things and by default the company’s longevity. I just needed to figure out what my new shop was going to offer exactly.
I knew early that what would become Indiemark would be email-centric but given my directives and timing, I felt compelled to own a niche, and that niche I decided was going to be Professional Email Marketing Services. To that end, I pledged that I would never sell technology, data, or any service that fell outside of my definition of email services. Instead, Indiemark would only provide a tight clustering of offerings like consulting, creative, and integrations. You know…projects. I was confident that these mechanisms would ensure that we would the best (if not the only) company in our class.
As it turns out my niche was still very small in 2008. Few companies were seeking dedicated email experts at that time, especially ones that weren’t bolted onto an Email Service Provider. But as the industry and email marketing grew so did Indiemark. Slow but steady. Needed advice on your email contact strategy? Seeking a kick-ass email template? Wanted an integration between your CRM and ESP? Had deliverability issues? We were your guys and we were good.
Sales were good too. Largely, I believe, because we were ESP-agnostic and we never resold anyone’s email deployment solutions which allowed us to make a lot of non-competitive friends, like ESPs, consultants, and agencies, most of whom became great partners for us.
We were content with one-off projects and often working behind the scenes. Our reputation was growing, it was simple and pure, and my corporate dream was becoming a reality. Then things started to get complicated.
Normally pivots are intentional. Not here. Thanks to our partners we had plenty of repeat business albeit sporadic. So if not for two outside factors I doubt I would have considered skipping down the full-service path.
- The investments we had put into list building and organic SEO began to pay off. The leads rolled and it seemed to happen overnight.
- The email marketing industry, which was already killing it, completely blew up. Email was officially crowned as the undisputed leader in marketing ROI. From tools to tactics to teams, almost everybody stepped up their email game and budgets.
This put us in front of a variety of new and motivated prospective clients. And they were all direct clients too, no intermediaries here. But working with direct clients is a mixed bag. On one hand, the expectations of direct clients tend to vary dramatically; they may also require more education and handholding. On the other hand, their projects are typically larger and often more challenging, and way more fun.
However, with increasing frequency, our direct clients indicated that they wanted more from us. A lot more. I didn’t see that coming.
Should we take a deeper dive into client engagements? I resisted. “It’s sticky”, I said. I suppose that’s because I wanted to keep things simple but that simplicity was only an illusion.
I ultimately realized that we were already giving our clients a lot of love and attention, maybe too much in some cases. I mean even if it was a project and even it was sold through an agency; it’s hard for us to limit our output just because the budget isn’t there. Far too often we were giving our time away, and as a services company, time is all we have. If we were to be successful as a full-service email agency things were going to have to change.
Keep in mind that “full service” means different things to different people. For us, it’s simply an À la carte custom selection of our service offerings which are rolled up into a package of sorts and tied together with the promise of ownership.
For example, to one small brick-and-mortar retailer client, we’re the equivalent of a part-time contractor whereby we do absolutely everything related to email marketing but their program is still small therefore the engagement is limited, but she’s come to depend on the revenue we help drive. While for one growing B2B technology company we’re comparable to an in-house team that runs an increasingly sophisticated program; they’re intense and smart. And for one large online retailer, we simply augment their in-house team with creative and technical services coupled with a dash of high-level strategy here and there.
Fundamentally the difference between project-based work and a full-service engagement is intimacy. Nearly all of our full-service engagements require that we get very close to our client’s marketing programs if not their business as a whole.
From our client’s perspective, this mix-and-match, full-service approach almost always yields better results and costs less. However, it created new challenges for me and my team. Unlike one-off projects, which are often produced in a vacuum or directed by the client, we now have to take near-complete ownership of the success of our client’s long term email program. It’s a huge responsibility and takes a lot of time. We quickly learned that the way approached these full-serve engagements had to change.
After a few failed attempts at merely repackaging our offerings we ultimately took a page from the playbooks of our ESP friends, who provide software-as-a-service. In the end, we found a way to morph our standalone services into a service-as-a-service model which allows us to be far more efficient and provide the client with predicable billing without a term commitment. Initially, our hourly rate took a big hit but due to the improvements in our production, coupled with the previously-unknown joys of recurring revenue, our top and bottom lines were soon happy and healthy but maybe more importantly everyone is currently fulfilled.
It took me a while to come to the realization that I didn’t need blinders to stay to the course. I simply listened to our customers and then found a way to give them what they wanted.
This experience has also opened my opens to the concept of Thoughtful Monetization. For example, we now sell a data product that helps Email Services Providers to preemptively identify potentially harmful mailers, we call it BlackBox.
And let’s face it; the email marketing space, like many other modern industries, is insanely dynamic. Between the consolidation of many of our reseller partners, the great tech tools that are now available to everyday marketers, and the ever-growing sophistication of the same, I’m not sure we’d still be around if I’d stayed solely focused on projects.
Don’t get me wrong projects and partners are still a very important part of our mix. That’s the nature of the beast and how we prove we’ve got the chops but I’ve learned that just because it’s our main thing it doesn’t have to be our only thing.