How SEO Backlinks Are Actually Built


By Geoff Roberts

Every month I mentor a few students that are going through Springboard’s Digital Marketing Career Track—most of whom are either in the process of switching careers or learning digital marketing for the first time. A good majority of these students become excited by SEO and with good reason—the promise of large volumes of relevant and sustainable website traffic is compelling! But after a burst of initial excitement most students circle back with me a few weeks later.

“So SEO rankings are primarily dependent on building backlinks, right?” they say. “How do you actually build backlinks for a new website? This stuff is hard!”

They aren’t wrong.

What I tell them is that professional SEO’s often have link building teams or set up automated processes that help them build links as scale. Exact methodologies vary, but they generally consist of automated email outreach to topically relevant websites where you share a piece of content and ask for a backlink. This is a numbers game; send a high volume of emails, and you’ll inevitably land a few backlinks. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach—there’s a time and a place for it.

But in the real world, and in my day to day life as both a start-up founder and marketing consultant, I see the best backlinks built in a non-automated fashion. My objective with this post is to share two examples of what that actually looks.

Baremetrics linked to one of Outseta’s blog posts

Recently a software company called Baremetrics published The Start-up Funding and Financing Guide, a comprehensive blog post covering the various funding options that are available to start-ups. Within that post is a backlink to a blog article that I wrote on my company’s blog entitled The Alternative Funding Options For SaaS Start-ups Cheat Sheet. Here’s what that backlink looks like:


This is a nice backlink from a relevant industry website and a company I admire—good stuff! But how did I land this backlink? Was it pure luck?

Ultimately this link is a result of two primary factors—the first of which is the blog post that I wrote. It may not be the greatest blog post ever written, but it’s comprehensive at close to 3,000 words and it’s genuinely valuable to SaaS start-ups that are assessing their funding options. I read through all of the fine print of the investments terms for each of the funding alternatives mentioned. I reached out to the companies named in the article and asked clarifying questions. In short, I did the leg work so other SaaS founders don’t need to—rather than spending several hours reading the fine print themselves, they can read my post and get a quick overview of the terms each funding option offers in about 15 minutes.

Aside from the legwork that went into writing the post, I noticed recently that Baremetrics’ Head of Growth, Corey Haines, lives in San Diego (where I live). I reached out to Corey and we grabbed coffee together, chatting about both Outseta and Baremetrics. The backlink that I got was ultimately a result of the investment of time I made in writing the blog post, as well as making an in-person connection with a colleague. This may not be hugely scaleable, but it’s reality.

Thanks for the backlink, Corey!

Original research gets backlinks from writers scouring the web for data to support their points

Recently I’ve also been writing some content for Campfire Labs. Most of this content is very long form, narrative driven business writing that’s supported by original interviews, research, and credible sources. As I write content like this I’m always on the lookout for credible research that supports my arguments or perspectives—oftentimes this has been linking to articles in publications like Harvard Business Review or AdAge or including data from research published by industry associations like Gartner.

While the quality of the content you publish will be the primary driver of backlinks, you absolutely can and should publish content that’s specifically designed to attract backlinks from writers like myself who are looking for credible sources to support their points. Publishing any sort of original data or market research is a great way to do this.

For example, I was recently chatting with Mike Baker, Director of Marketing at corporate travel site Mike mentioned that his team had recently hired a market research firm to survey corporate travelers, resulting in Lola’s 2019 State of Corporate Travel Report. Mike’s team designed a PDF to make the research on-brand and gave the data and findings a bit of organization and structure, but for the most part the report just shares the research findings and data outright.

There’s huge value in publishing this sort of data—any writer who is writing articles on the corporate travel industry and wants original research to support their points will likely find this article and reference one of the dozens of statistics and findings in the report. Making raw research and data like this publicly accessible is a great way to build backlinks from writers covering your industry.

I hope these two examples are illustrative of how backlinks are often built—the best links are most often a result of hard work rather than merely automating outreach processes. Couple the two, and you’ve got a recipe for building great backlinks at scale.

Why I Often Tell SaaS Start-ups Not To Invest In Content Marketing

By Geoff Roberts

Between the customers that I work with at Outseta and the consulting work that I do at SaaS Growth Strategy, I'm talking to early stage SaaS companies about their go-to-market strategy all day, every day. And increasingly I find myself telling Founders that they should seriously consider NOT investing in content marketing.

You can almost hear the record scratch as the conversation comes to an abrupt halt. 

Who is this guy? Why is he telling me this? But everybody invests in content marketing! It's, it's, it's what SaaS start-ups do! Isn't it?

It's OK not to invest in content

My worldview goes something like this - content marketing is certainly what everybody in the SaaS industry has been doing. It's a bit of an oversimplification, but almost all of us saw the success that companies like Hubspot and Moz had over the past decade as a result of content marketing. They built enormous audiences and drove boatloads of high quality traffic to their websites that helped them dramatically scale revenue and continues to do so today. If it worked for them, it will work for us - right?

The problem is this - the SaaS industry is relatively small and very much an echo chamber. Once something has been deemed a winning strategy or a best practice, everyone hops on board. Most content marketing today still takes the form of blogging, and the web is absolutely overrun with blog content. Podcasting is hot at the moment, but it's only a matter of time until this form of content delivery is totally oversaturated as well. The world's listeners can only support so many podcasts, and a very small number of the best podcasts will ultimately reap the vast majority of the benefits.

I'd say 90% of the companies I see today "doing content marketing" are just spinning their wheels and see very little if any return on their content investments. The 5%-10% that are seeing a solid return on content marketing have the following attributes:

  1. They spend an enormous amount of time and energy creating really, really high quality content. There's certainly an opportunity cost to consider here.
  2. They have the internal skill set needed to create really, really high quality content. Do you?
  3. They've committed to content marketing as a long term investment that they won't see a return on for a long time. As a start-up can you comfortably commit to that?

If you can't enthusiastically (and realistically) say yes to these criteria, chances are you'll quickly find yourself as one of the companies realizing little return on your content investments. And so I find myself saying...

"You should really consider not investing in content marketing."

What does successful content look like anyway?

To illustrate my point, let's look at an example where content marketing worked well. One of the first articles we ever published on Outseta's blog was entitled Customer Success. Unit Economics. Then Growth. While the article does not represent my own original thinking - shout out to Mark Roberge for the framework - I put a good amount of effort into the article.

It's 1,650+ words. It's packed with links from other credible sources, supporting the primary concepts the article relays. We hired a RISD grad to create a custom illustration for the article, and we promoted it like hell. I'm not trumpeting this article as a poster child for content marketing done right, but my point it I put more effort into this article than the vast majority of blog articles I see out there on the web today.

I got some nice feedback on the article, a few likes and shares, a few companies told me they found it's content useful. But real ROI? Not much, until last week a full 18 months after the article was published. I logged into the backend of our website to look at our traffic numbers and saw this:


Something had clearly spiked our traffic, in a significant way, around August 23. 

Turns out the CEO and Co-founder of another software company - one I had never heard of our spoken to - referenced our post as supporting evidence in a post titled 8 Mistakes We Made In Our Company's First 8 Years that was published on Hackernoon

Thanks to Brennan McEachran from SoapBoxHQ for linking to us in the post.

If you read the article, you'll likely skim right by the link to our post altogether (it's in the 2nd section about being sales driven, not product driven - the words "Should have listened" are linked.) But despite the link being easy to miss, we saw hundreds of additional unique visitors land on our website. The visitors were from a site very relevant to our product offering, so we saw a bunch of new account sign-ups. And we got a link from a credible site that should help us with SEO (although the link's anchor text isn't ideal). 

The point is, these modest benefits we're realized 18 months after the article was published and we did little to influence this happening... other than investing in creating high quality content and taking a long term approach to content marketing.

So before you immediately jump into content marketing, take a step back and really consider if it's the best way to be spending time at your start-up, where time is always the most precious resource. 

How to decide if content marketing makes sense for your Company

A few questions that may be helpful as you think through whether your company should jump all in on content marketing or not...

  1. Do you have someone internally with a real knack for creating content - whether it's written, a podcast, video content, etc?
  2. How much great content is there in your space? If your audience is digital marketers, for example, competition is so fierce you might be better off looking for other channels. If you sell a uniquely satisfying eggnog, well, maybe there's a real opportunity to create the best eggnog related content out on the web and realize significant business benefit by doing so.
  3. Do you have access to any sort of unique data sources that can give you data points to leverage in your content that other companies don't have access to?
  4. Where does your audience "hang out," and how can you best deliver content to them? Maybe it's a radio show, maybe it's a movie, maybe it's a book? 
  5. How else can you reach your audience with other marketing channels or tactics outside of content? Make an exhaustive list - it could be anything from Facebook advertising to field marketing.

Content marketing is great, to me it's fun, and it can drive significant business benefits. But doing it for the sake of doing it and expecting to see results fast will quickly land you in the 90% of companies that are just spinning their wheels.

More than anything building a start-up is about being transparent with yourself, so take an honest step back before you join the herd. 

Content Promotion Strategies For Start-Ups

For the last 6 months or so I've been working on my own SaaS start-up, Outseta. Most of my time to date has been spent on content marketing, in an effort to build a relevant audience of early stage SaaS businesses prior to our product launching later this year.

After several years of leading marketing teams, I found myself once again in the familiar position of being a sole contributor... I am our marketing team. And while the fundamentals of writing quality content have changed little over the years, the most effective strategies for promoting quality content seem to always be evolving. The best content marketers - the ones driveing revenue results for their companies - have a solid understanding of search engine optimization (SEO) as well as a few content promotion growth hacks up their sleeves.  

Simply put, I was in need of a refresher. I needed to brush up on my content promotion skills a bit.

On top of that, I've been consulting with a number of other companies who are focused on making content marketing a bigger and more effective component in their customer acquisition strategies. I've found that these companies inevitably understand the importance and process needed to create high quality content, but the overwhelming majority fail to spend enough time promoting the content they are creating. Everybody has heard the adage "spend 20% of your time creating content, and 80% of your time promoting it" - but no one lives this. I've also been guilty of this to a degree.

What follows is the awesome piece of content you created generates very little return for your business. Inevitably the pendulum swings back with the question "What do we need to do to promote our content? How can we get out content to rank in search engine results more effectively?"

I've found myself consistently sharing links on this very topic, so I decided to pull together a round up of the articles I've found valuable on the topic so far this year. If content promotion is on your mind, these posts are a crash course of sorts on actionable content promotion strategies.

 1) How We Ranked #1 For A High Volume Keyword In Under 3 Months - This post is a case study written by Brad Zomack, former Director of Content Marketing at Pipedrive. The post details the procedure they used to rank #1 for a high volume and highly competitive keyword, "sales management." Long story short - with a deliberate strategy and a hell of a lot of hustle, you can rank for those uber competitive keywords... just make sure ahead of time that the juice is going to be worth the squeeze. 

2) 7 Brilliant Content Promotion Strategies - This article from Ameer Rosic is solid. Most of these are tried and true outreach strategies, but this article turned me on to for the first time, which I'm excited to play around with.

3) 18 Super Secret Tips For Generating Buzz - This slideshare is from David Hauser, Co-founder of Grasshopper and Chargify. The general message that David conveys is that hiring a PR agency can be a big waste of time and money for an early stage start-up. Instead, he recommends a series of guerilla style tactics that almost anyone can execute on.

4) A Step By Step Guide To Integrating Long Tail Keywords Within Blog Post - This article (and the next two as well) are from Neil Patel. Arguably no one on the planet knows as much as Neil when it comes to promoting content or getting content to rank effectively in search engine results. Long tail keywords can be easier to rank for, and if thoughtfully selected can help you intercept traffic that has buying intent for your products. 

5) How to Connect With Social Media Influencers When You're Not Popular - Influencer marketing is not something I've historically spent a lot of time or energy on. That said, I just happened to stumble across this article shortly after I wrote Customer Success. Unit Economics. Then Growth. on Outseta's blog. Borrowing from the article, and with some opportunistic luck, I was able to get several influencers to promote this post. It's been our most successful blog article to date.

6) How To Find 50 Backlink Opportunities In Just 20 Minutes - Whenever I'm talking to someone new to the concept of SEO, my pitch goes something like "High quality content naturally generates backlinks to your website. Backlinks to your website are the single most effective way improve your SEO rankings." But how do you actually go about building backlinks aside from just generating quality content? This article explains how.

Bonus content - Once your content is ranking and effectively bringing qualified traffic to your website, chances are you want that traffic to enter and progress through your customer acquisition funnel. This video of David Skok's presentation on Optimizing The SaaS Funnel from the 2017 SaaStr Annual Conference is great. My favorite takeaway - stop designing your customer acquisition funnel the way you want it to work, and instead design it the way your prospective customers would like it to work.

That's a wrap! I hope these links were useful to anyone interested in promoting their content more effectively.

Simple SaaS Messaging Definitions

It's the middle of January, which means most companies are fresh off of their annual planning processes and are a couple of weeks into their assault on their newly minted goals. For SaaS marketers, lead projections and conversion rate goals swim through our heads. A new year always brings with it new marketing projects, new marketing channels to test, new growth strategies to employ. 

Maybe your company underperformed last year. Maybe you play in a crowded market, where it's difficult to understand the nuances between product offerings. Maybe your start up is still looking to find that first replicable customer acquisition channel. Whatever the reason, one of the things I hear most consistently this time of year is "We need some help with our messaging."

The good news is that most of the time that I hear this, the person saying it is correct. The bad news is that aside from the general notion of "needing help with our messaging," there's typically a lot of confusion around what this actually means or how to implement new messaging successfully. "Positioning" may mean something entirely different to someone in product than it does to someone in sales. Let alone the CEO. And then we'll need an updated tagline, and we should think about our value proposition design. What's the difference between value proposition and positioning again?

You get the idea.

The point here is not that your team can't understand and intelligently think about these aspects of your business. They can. But without a common definition of each item and sense of your businesses needs, it becomes very difficult to identify and effectively roll out new messaging. Messaging that drives revenue results.

The following are my simple definitions of some key terms that may be relevant to SaaS companies as they consider their company's messaging.

Value Proposition(s) - The value you are promising to deliver to your customer. Put yourself in your customers' shoes - what value are you hoping this product provides to you? Your value proposition provides the foundation for the rest of your messaging work. The process of identifying your value proposition should consist of gathering inputs from internal employees, customers, and prospects whenever possible. 

Positioning - Positioning is less concerned with value delivered to the customer, and more concerned with how your product is viewed relative to other similar products or brands in the market. How are you different? How do you best compete and win? What are your product's core competencies? Any car can drive you from point A to point B (the value prop), but are you selling a Kia or a Masserati?

Key Messages - Key messages are specific attributes or outcomes that you associate with your product or brand. These key messages should be supportive of your value prop, especially when you look at them collectively. Marketing can help in prioritizing the importance of these messages, and should also own copywriting. I find it's best to keep it to a handful of key messages at the most.

One Simple Thing (OST) -  I was introduced to the notion of "One Simple Thing" by David Skok and Mike Troiano's article, and I love it. It's essentially on oversimplification of what your product offers - but it's useful in the sense that it helps your product be categorized on your terms, rather than relying on the consumer to categorize your product as they see fit. For example, the OST Apple brought the iPod to market with was "1000 songs in your pocket." Consumers immediately understood it was a portable music player - and the magic of the device - in just five words. 

Tagline - A tagline is a slogan that's memorable and used consistently so that it will come to be associated with your brand. Think of Nike's "Just do it."

Heritage story - How your company came to be. Your heritage story can be an important aspect of your messaging because it will always be unique to your business and defensible.

About us story - Who your company is today.

Pulling these items together is a relatively comprehensive process that's worth doing right. Doing this successfully will lead to your messaging more directly resonating with prospects, which will in turn lead to more customers and revenue for your business. But while the process should be thorough, all of these items should be able to be delivered in 2 pages of text. That will help ensure that the new messaging is easily digested and adopted - when a consistent and compelling message is delivered, your business comes off as more credible.

Best yet, tightening up your messaging is a great exercise to rally your team around. Almost everyone has an opinion on these matters, and these discussions always result in some healthy debate. Harness this energy in a positive manner by running A/B tests highlighting different key messages, and let the data make the decisions for you.

How to Run a Regression Analysis to Forecast the Return on PPC Spending

Early in my career I began working with an early stage, SaaS start-up with only a handful on employees. With a relatively inexpensive product and a very small marketing budget, one of the company's Co-founders had been tasked with testing out some initial customer acquisition strategies. Bidding on highly targeted keywords in Google Adwords was one of the logical places to start. 

After devouring a few books on pay-per-click advertising, the company's Co-founder began bidding on the keywords that most accurately described our product. He found some immediate success, the company's customer base started to grow, and he began to expand his target list of keywords until he got to the point where he was spending a few thousand dollars a month in Adwords. At this point, he hit his first “ceiling” – a spending level where he felt he could not tap into additional keywords or expand spending on existing keywords that he was bidding on cost effectively. “I think we’ve tapped out on the opportunity that PPC spending represents in our market,” he thought. “Time to go test some new marketing channels.”

As the company continued to grow, it eventually reached a point where it was ready to bring on its first marketing employees. Shortly thereafter, a decision was made to hire a good paid search agency to see if we could expand our PPC programs above and beyond the initial ceiling that our Co-founder had found. Fast forward a few years, and the company would be spending (with great return) more than 50 times what it spent when it reached its first PPC "ceiling."

Along the way, one of the most common questions that our Co-founders would ask me is “when are we going to hit our next PPC ceiling? At some point we’re going to tap out the opportunity that PPC represents, and we need to be ready for that so we can grow additional marketing channels and continue to grow the business.” It was a valid concern - PPC advertising had become a key part of our customer acquisition strategy, and while we'd continued to successfully scale this channel we knew that at some point we'd reach a point of diminishing returns. This reality was in direct conflict with our growth goals as a company, which continued to be increasingly aggressive. Finding an answer to their question became that much more pressing - how much longer could we continue to scale our paid search programs? How far were we from our PPC ceiling?

To start, it’s important that you have a good understanding of the size of your addressable market as well as a sense of the search volume for keywords related to your business. But as I thought about how I could better address my boss’ concerns, I recalled some of the spreadsheet jockeying I had done during the course of my MBA in an Information Systems and Decision Sciences course. Regression analysis was a tool that could help me.

Regression analysis is a tool that looks at the relationship between an independent variable (in this case, PPC spending) and a dependent variable (which could be anything from free trial sign-ups to customers acquired – we would eventually run regression analyses to help us understand and forecast both). Essentially, you want to track the relationship between your spending and the return on that spending over time. Based on your historical data, you can then forecast what the return will be at higher spending levels assuming that there’s a linear relationship between the two variables.

This is usually the point where the record skips a beat and the music stops altogether – anyone with a solid understanding of Adwords will tell you that the relationship between spending and return on that spending over time is not linear. While that’s true, in almost every market there is a linear relationship between spending and return on that spending for a significant period of time. What you really want to understand is how long that relationship will remain linear and how close you are to reaching a point of diminishing returns as you continue to increase spend (this is when you know you’re approaching your ceiling). Excel can help there too. Keeping track of a correlation coefficient alongside your regression analysis gives you insight into how linear the relationship between the variables is, so you can very clearly see when you’re approaching that point of diminishing returns.

Regardless, I know that many people will criticize or at least question the value of this activity. There are too many nuances or subtleties at play, different keywords attract different audiences that generate different quality leads, etc. There's too much inherent complexity in how paid online lead generation works for this to make much sense. While I understand (and don't completely disagree with) those sentiments, I'm still advocating that this is a valuable exercise for two reasons. First, it showed me that the relationship between our spending and the return on our spending was still very linear and helped me answer my boss’ question – we weren’t anywhere near our PPC spending ceiling. But perhaps even more importantly, it helped me forecast with eerie accuracy what return we could expect if we were to spend more aggressively.

Below are the basic steps required to run this type of analysis, along with an example for illustrative purposes (this is not real data). I’m using free trial sign-ups as the dependent variable in this example – you may want to use customers, leads, demos scheduled, or some other outcome that you’re looking for your paid spending to generate.

1.     Open a new excel sheet. Label column A “Spending” and column B “Free trials.” Add this data to reflect your last 6 or 12 months of PPC performance.

2.     Download Excel’s Data Analysis Toolpack. It’s free and contains the regression analysis tool we’ll be using. Instructions on how to download the toolpak can be found here.

3.     Click on the “Data” tab in the top navigation of your Excel sheet, then click “Data Analysis” in the toolbar at the top of the page (this will typically be all the way to the right within the toolbar).

4.     Select “Regression” from the list of data tools, then click “OK.”

5.     At this point the Regression Analysis tool will open. In the “Input Y range” put in the range of the cells representing your dependent variable data (Free trials). In the “Input X range” put the range of the cells representing your independent variable data (Spending). Click OK.

6.     At this point the tool will open up a new sheet and will return what looks like a bunch of mumbo jumbo to most people (myself included). You’ll need to find a couple of specific values if you’re interested in predicting return on spend at higher levels. You’re looking for the “Coefficient” values that were returned – there should be one for “Intercept” and one for “Spending.”

7.     Further down the sheet with all those crazy values, add new “Spending” values in column A that go above and beyond the levels you’ve spent at historically (I recommend $10,000 increments). In Column B, we’ll need to use a formula to calculate the return you can expect at those higher spending levels based on historical data.

8.     The formula to enter into column B is: =Intercept Coefficient + Spending Coefficient*The cell containing the spending level you’re calculating the anticipated return on. It’s safe to assume in almost all instances that the formula will look like =B$17+B$18*the cell immediately to the left of the cell you are entering this formula into.

9.     Copy that formula down so that an anticipated return is calculated for all of the theoretical higher spending levels you’ve added in column A. Wa-la – you now have a really good idea of the return you can expect at higher levels of spending, of course assuming that the relationship between the variables remains linear.

The good news is that determining the strength of the linear relationship between the variables is the easy part.

1.     Go back to your initial excel sheet, the one that contains your historical data on spending versus return on that spending. In any empty cell type “=correl.” This is the excel command for calculating a correlation coefficient.  A correlation coefficient simply quantifies the extent to which there is a linear relationship between two variables on a scale of -1 to 1.

2.     Enter you’re the range of your historical spending data as array 1, and the range of your historical return on spending data as array 2. Hit “Enter” and your correlation coefficient is calculated.

3.     The closer your correlation coefficient is to 1, the stronger the linear relationship between the two variables is. Keep track of your correlation coefficient over time – I recommend updating it every month. You’ll see the value of the correlation coefficient drop pretty significantly and consistently when you’ve approached your PPC ceiling.

This may sound complex and convoluted, especially for marketers who are used to spending their days thinking about branding, writing copy, or attending trade shows. I promise, with a little practice this is a lot less painful than you might think. You can run this entire analysis in less than 15 minutes, and in my experience it's been a very valuable tool when it comes to understanding when you're approaching your PPC "ceiling." Better yet, you can show with astonishing accuracy the return you can expect if you spend at higher levels. What marketer doesn't want to do that?

As a final disclaimer, this has proven to me to be a valuable analytical exercise and forecasting tool - but it is NOT, and never will be, a replacement for creative new paid search strategies that help you get in front of valuable audiences in new ways.

7 Tips to Make Your Agency Relationships More Productive

I’d say that it’s the norm, rather than the exception, that start-up SaaS companies rely on agencies to help them execute on some aspect of their strategy as they seek initial traction, begin to grow, and scale their business. This is perhaps more true in marketing than within any other part of an organization. A familiar pattern for me has been relying on relatively low cost agencies, often those that are willing to be put on a monthly retainer where I’ve essentially purchased a limited number of their hours each month, during the early stages of start-up. This limits overhead associated with adding full-time employees and often provides you with access to more experienced talent than you could afford to hire in house – albeit in a limited capacity. As the company begins to grow and generates revenue (or investment dollars) the internal, in-house team begins to be built out. Then at later stages, when a market begins to get increasingly competitive and the company is maturing, new relationships with larger, more established agencies begin to form.

Regardless of whether you’ve followed this pattern or not, it’s usually the responsibility of the head of marketing – albeit a CMO, VP, or Director – to select agencies where appropriate and ultimately work with them to make the relationship successful. And to state the obvious, not all “agencies” are created equal – although a startling a number of them want you to believe that they are “full service” agencies. In my experience, regardless of how they pitch themselves, most agencies have a small number of core competencies on which they can truly deliver significant value. I’ve hired agencies at one point or another for each of the following; search engine optimization, content creation, paid search management, conversion optimization, graphic design, web development, mobile design, and product & brand positioning – but I’ve never hired a single agency to manage all of those areas. Regardless of your need, here are some tips I’ve learned along the way to help you get the most out of your agency relationships.

Tip #1: Loop them in on your strategy. As in, your high level business strategy.

One mistake that I’ve seen all too often is marketers will loop their agency partners into some aspect of their marketing strategy, but not their all encompassing, highest level strategy as a business. You absolutely must think of your agency relationships as a core part of your team – not an extension of your team, not some outside expertise when you need it, but as a day-to-day, starting player on your roster. Open up your corporate playbook to your agency partners (they are more than happy to sign a non-disclosure agreement), and don’t just assume they know what you’re trying to accomplish as a business. Sticking with the sports analogy, you wouldn’t bring a supremely talented free agent onto your football team but not share your playbook with them. If you did that, when the ball was snapped the odds of them running to the right spot and helping you score would be slim to none.

Tip #2: Give them specific KPIs, and share your systems of record.

This is likely the most important item on this list, and pertains not just to your agency relationships but also to your internal employees. Ultimately this is about accountability – how can you hold an agency accountable unless you tell them, specifically, how their success will be measured? As the leader of a marketing organization it’s almost always worth the time to talk to you agency partner about your personal KPIs and how your own success is measured. Maybe it’s marketing qualified leads generated. Maybe it’s revenue. Your agency partners need to know this! Beyond that, spell out specifically for your agency partners which KPIs you are expecting them to influence and how that ties back to both your personal goals and the goals of the company. With a SEO agency, maybe you want to see free trials sign-ups from organic search traffic increase. Show the agency where you are getting that data from – maybe it’s Google Analytics or your CRM – and share with them specifically which report you are looking at. With a Pay-per-click agency maybe you want them to target a customer acquisition cost (CAC) of $1000 to help you keep a healthy Lifetime Value (LTV) to CAC ratio. The more specific you can be, the better.

Tip #3: Define an “owner” for each agency relationship.

For each agency relationship that you have, clearly identify an “owner” of that relationship. It’s that individual’s responsibility to make the relationship successful – not the agency’s job to make that individual successful. And not every agency relationship needs to be owned by the head of marketing; for example, I’m a big fan of having whoever is in charge of content strategy own the relationship with a SEO agency. And ownership should mean ownership – nothing can be more disruptive to an agency relationship than when a CEO or another higher level employee swoops in and redirects an agency’s attention.

Tip #4: Be respectful of your time asks.

Everybody wants to be made to feel special. But the fact of the matter is, unless you’re an enormous brand almost every team that you work with within an agency is likely servicing somewhere between 3 and 8 other clients at the same time that they are servicing you (this is a great question to ask when interviewing agencies). Consider that a reality, and have the wherewithal to recognize that this is how agencies are able to operate profitably. Next time you call your Account Director and ask them to do 10 hours of emergency work for you on Friday at 5:00pm, recognize that it’s not just their weekend that you’re cutting into – they may also have just received similar requests from other clients. The best advice I can lend here is to be honest with yourself when you’re negotiating how much time you’ll need from your agency partner on a month-to-month basis. If you have a major product release in a couple of months that will require a lot of additional time from them, give them a heads up. Ultimately this shows that you are respectful of their time, which will buy you some good will with your agency partner - and  will likely result in them bending over backwards for you in those few moments where you may truly need them to go the extra mile on your behalf.

Tip #5: Introduce all of your agency partners.

This one is as straightforward as it gets – if you have multiple agency partners, introduce them all to one another. Better yet, they should all be present in your strategy meetings. Ultimately your partners, regardless of responsibilities, should be sharing information and learning from one another. While many agencies likely offer similar services, you should not be concerned with the agencies you work with trying to steal your business away from one another. If that’s the case it’s a pretty strong indication that you’ve hired the wrong agencies – it’s your job to foster a team environment and make it clear how everyone is expected to contribute.

Tip #6: Don’t expect agency partners to become product experts.

In my experience, particularly with relatively complex software products, you should never expect that your agency partners to become product experts. Almost every time I’ve seen an agency tasked with building out significant product focused content, the results have been lackluster. As mentioned before, agencies have other clients – they simply aren’t going to be able to become true product experts on 2, 3, 5 products at a time. That aside, they don’t have the benefit of living inside your office walls where they can pick up on conversations your sales team is having with prospects about your product, and actually hear your design and development teams engaged in product focused conversations. This challenge is best overcome by pairing your agency up with a true product expert, thus giving them someone to lean on for product expertise and allowing them to focus their energies on the creative process, positioning, or whatever it is that you’ve tasked them with. That said, my own opinion has developed into “product marketing is best done in-house.” If you’re not going to go that route, I think your best bet is to let your product team flesh out the 90% of the work to be done, the guts of the project, and simply let your agency partner apply some finishing polish.

Tip #7: Discuss billing each and every month.

There are countless different ways that you can structure your billing with your agency partners – pay-per-use programs, project based fees, monthly retainers, etc. Regardless of your arrangement, I think it’s simply good practice to discuss billing with your agency partner on a monthly basis. What work was completed? How much were you charged? Were both in line with expectations?

Doing this is not a matter of babysitting. It’s not a matter of trying to squeeze every ounce of efficiency that you can out of your agency partner. Simply setting the expectation that these conversations will be happening regularly signals to your agency partners that you care about your dollars being spent cost effectively. Marketers own marketing budgets, and they are expected to deliver results with the dollars they are spending. This aside, it’s simply good financial management. Your CEO, or whoever it is that you report to, will always rest assured knowing you’re managing your project’s finances appropriately – nobody ever gets fired for delivering good work under budget!

I love working with agencies - they have always been a critical component to my success in the start-ups at which I’ve worked. Agencies have the benefit and perspective that comes from working on campaigns for multiple clients across a number of different verticals - it’s your job to tap into that expertise and ensure that you are being successful together. Follow the 7 tips we’ve discussed above, and you’ll be well on your way!