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Inbound Marketing, Agency-Side

Ruth Burr

It can be difficult to do SEO for a client when you’re working at an agency. Not being on-site can make SEO feel like an afterthought, and getting buy-in and staying in the loop are always challenges.

In the modern world of online marketing, agency SEO becomes especially hard since in many ways, everything that happens with a website affects SEO.Building a holistic brand presence – one that’s larger than just search results – is key to tapping in to the way users search now. It’s time for marketers to start thinking beyond the query to the search session.

What is a Search Session?

It may take a user multiple online interactions to make a purchase decision. Being present and messaging appropriately during each interaction greatly increases the likelihood of scoring the conversion when the searcher is ready to buy.

Here’s an example of a typical search session:


  • A user starts by searching “best honeymoon destinations.”
  • That same day, she posts to Facebook: “Where should we go on our honeymoon?”
  • The next day, she hops on Pinterest and starts pinning pictures of places she’d like to visit. She clicks through on a beach picture and reads a piece called “20 Affordable Beach Resorts,” and decides a Hawaiian honeymoon sounds nice.
  • She discusses Hawaii offline with her spouse-to-be, then Googles “Hawaii vacations.”
  • She spends a few days reading online content on trusted websites, comparing spots in Hawaii for price and available activities. She settles on Maui.
  • She returns to Facebook and asks her friends for suggestions on things to do in Maui.
  • She searches “Maui vacation packages” and spends a few grand on a total airfare, hotel and car rental package.

You want that conversion for your clients. In order to get it, it’s important to be present every step of the way. That means optimizing for top-of-funnel queries, but it also means using social media to engage with your customers, creating non-sales-oriented content that draws users back to your site, and targeting multiple devices (tablets, PCs, phones) to catch your customers in different moods and at different times of day. Modern SEO clients need more than just SEO: they need inbound marketing (for more on this, watch Why We Can’t Just Be SEOs Anymore).

Selling Inbound Marketing to People who Want SEO

The problem many agencies face when attempting to implement a robust inbound marketing program is that many clients don’t understand that that’s what they need. If your client already has someone writing content or doing social media marketing, they may just want you to “do SEO” and leave their other programs alone, which unfortunately is less effective. Some up-front attention and transparency in the sales process can ameliorate this situation.

Start with some pre-education. A lot of your competitors aren’t going to want to take the time to properly educate their prospects, because it’s time spent that isn’t being paid for. However, taking the time to really make sure you understand your client’s needs (and to make sure they understand what it will take to get what they need) can pay off in the long term in higher customer satisfaction and longer engagements, not to mention better results to show off in case studies and testimonials to your future leads.

As part of your prospect education, make sure you understand their goals and tie them back to quantifiable business needs. “More traffic” isn’t good enough. Try to be specific – which areas of the site are we promoting? How much do we want sales to increase, and for which products? How will we measure increased brand presence and market share (hint: increased query volume and search traffic for branded terms are two great goals for an inbound marketing program).

Once you’ve set some goals, be straightforward about what you’ll need to accomplish them and why you’ll need it. Make sure to explain the nature of search sessions today, and the value of top-of-funnel engagement to get that final click. Back up your assertions with as much data as you can find – this post on the relationship between SEO and brand presence is an excellent example of the power of inbound marketing. Also, be ultra-realistic and even conservative with your estimates of how long this will take. It’s tempting to promise quick results, but if you can’t deliver you’ll lose the client in the long run.

Get it in Writing


If a client is using resources outside of the agency to do elements of inbound marketing, whether it’s social media or content or even web development, it’s a good idea to outline your expectations for those relationships up front, and in writing. This is especially important when working with another agency – if you’ll need to be collaborating with them on projects, or sharing data, it’s important to ensure that that relationship is outlined in both agencies’ contracts with the client, to avoid stonewalling later on.

Also outline your expectations of the client’s internal staff. This goes both ways: outline what you’ll need from them, but also make it clear what they’ll get in return, in the form of education and other resources. Don’t forget to include the sales team; there’s no point in generating awesome inbound leads if the sales team doesn’t know where they came from or what’s special about them.

Your Inbound Marketing Business

It’s rare that a marketing agency will have all of the necessary skills for a full inbound marketing program in-house. Most agencies outsource part of their inbound marketing engagements to outside partners, which is fine, but you should be transparent about those relationships when you’re meeting with the client. As part of your agency’s up-front investment in a true inbound marketing product, spend time building and maintaining those partnerships and relationships so that you can quickly assemble a full proposal for clients’ unique needs as they come up.

When working with a client’s internal staff, the best way to ensure full cooperation (and awesome results) is to try to get inbound marketing metrics built in to the employees’ internal goals. If they know they’ll be measured on the strength of their collaboration with you, they’ll be much more likely to give it their all. When they do, be generous with praise – there’s plenty of credit to go around. A quick email to someone’s manager saying “we got awesome results this month, and we couldn’t have done it without (so-and-so)!” will endear you to that so-and-so for life.

Charge More

Obviously the kind of program I’m suggesting takes a lot more time and energy than just a quick title tag refresh and some new links. It’s also far, far more valuable. You know what else is valuable? Your time. The impulse when driving to make a sale is to cut clients a deal to land their business, but a real inbound marketing program takes a time and resources to be successful. Charging more for your services lets prospects know you’re a high-quality service and that you won’t be cutting corners to cut costs. If your leads raise objections based on price, use that pre-education period to show them just how much more they’ll be getting for their buck than they would with the other guys.

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Ruth Burr Reedy the Senior SEO Manager at BigWing Interactive, a full-service digital marketing agency in Oklahoma City. At BigWing, she manages a team of on-site and local SEOs. Ruth has been working in SEO since 2006 and lives in Norman, OK. Her last article for SEMrush was "How to Get the Most Out of Conference Networking."
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