Agency SEO Careers in a Commoditized Market
Why positioning is going to be increasingly important and how to advance as an agency SEO
Hi again, I know I just sent part 2 of this series yesterday but this is a natural continuation of the idea that SEO is becoming commoditized. It’s the last SEO MBA email of 2021. See you again in 2022.
This is part 3 of a mini series on SEO careers. Catch up here:
Last post we introduced the idea that SEO is becoming increasingly commoditized: 73% of SEOs believe organic search is highly or moderately commoditized. One of the implications is that agencies and consultants will have strong demand as companies rely more heavily on specific expertise.
However, it’s also true that while it’s boom times for agencies - generic agencies are increasingly going to struggle.
And even if your agency is doing well with lead generation - agencies are increasingly going to face challenges hiring and retaining key staff…
In a commoditized market - positioning becomes crucially important. And the SEO industry sucks at it.
Positioning is more than leads
I think a lot of people have a misconception that good positioning is just about driving leads. But it’s so much more than that.
There’s a great video interview with David Baker, where he talks about agency positioning:
“What we’re doing with positioning is not to stay busy, because most of you are busy. It’s really about being choosier - it’s about having clients where two things happen. The first is that you make more money. The second is that you do better work for clients.”
“Here’s the terror. I don’t know how to create a strong lead generation plan for a firm that’s not tightly positioned. Because I don’t know what to talk about, I don't know who to send that insight to, I don't know what keeps them up at night.”
I’d go even further and suggest that strong positioning can map to specific key challenges that I know SEO agencies struggle with:
Driving better qualified leads
Pricing power and increasing rates
Increased close rate
Doing better work and building differentiated processes
Clarity around audiences and how to run marketing
Stronger hiring and retention of key staff
SEO Agency Positioning Sucks
I’ve been reviewing agency positioning a lot (get in touch if you want an agency review) and too often the services and offering are entirely generic.
“We do SEO!”
“We provide technical audits!”
“We use fancy SEO software!”
“We’re a results driven SEO agency!”
“We focus on long term results of our clients rather than overnight success!”
“We are a specialist organic digital marketing agency!”
“We do SEO that drives sales and revenue!”
Ok. But… so does everyone else. You’d be hard pressed to find an SEO agency that doesn’t offer these things. Where’s your difference?
Positioning is art and science and there’s no exact formula to follow but here are some potential pathways to consider:
The first fundamental unit of positioning is narrowing down WHO you serve. Whether it’s B2B saas companies or startups, or media companies or enterprise companies. Choosing a specific customer segment to focus on provides clarity, expertise and pricing power.
Regardless of how else you position yourself, narrowing your target market is valuable.
Example: Directive Consulting is specifically focused on B2B SaaS companies. This tight positioning enables them to use specific language that B2B companies recognize like SQLs.
Segmenting by industry is another way to segment WHO you serve - whether it’s companies in the travel industry, or finance companies, or insurance. Choosing an industry focus can provide real
Example: I’ve always been jealous of Define Media, with their laser focus on the media industry. Because of this tight positioning they leverage the language of audience development - something media companies recognize and seek out.
After figuring out WHO you’re serving, the next key ingredient is WHAT you’re offering. Instead of “SEO” think about how you can narrow down the scope to things you’re uniquely good at (and that your target customer specifically needs).
Example: I love how Siege Media have very narrowly defined their service to “SEO-focused content marketing”.
The way you deliver work can be a differentiator, though you have to be careful to ensure that the differentiated process actually has value for the client. I see a lot of agencies talking about their unique process without actually explaining why that process has value for the client…
In any commodity market there’s always room at the top for a small number of premium players. I’ve written before about how to turn your agency into the McKinsey of SEO and I’ve yet to see anyone really do this well or own this premium positioning.
Proprietary data & technology
Secret sauce. This can be a great differentiator - though again you have to ensure that your unique data and technology actually has value to clients. You need to be able to clearly articulate the difference and value to clients.
Example: Ayima has a robust technology page where they talk about their unique data and tools. (though I think there could be more work to articulate the specific value of these tools to the client).
Positioning starts with listening
Improving positioning is hard work. And it should be an ongoing journey not a static decision. If you’re looking for somewhere to start David Baker has a great little mini-series on agency positioning:
But above and beyond these - I think the first step is listening. I mean really listening.
I ran a positioning project for an agency earlier this year that was unique - the agency used Gong to record all of their sales calls AND client calls. So when we started the engagement they could give me access to full end to end client projects - I spent hours and hours listening to the entire customer journey from initial sales call to the proposal call all the way to client kick off.
It was like reviewing game tape - I could see how lack of differentiation in the sales process cascaded through into poorly defined SOWs that led to undifferentiated consulting work.
By actually listening I was able to extract not only key insights about customers and the language they used but weaknesses in how the agency was positioning and selling their SEO services.
Agency owners are often quite disconnected from the day to day sales and delivery of the work. And a birds eye view might enable you to see you have problems but doesn’t give enough rich context to help you figure out a way forward.
So if you’re starting a positioning project start with listening to as much as you can - sales calls, strategy reviews, client checkins, kickoff calls etc.
Don’t make a “positioning deck”
If you think SEO audits often end up sitting on the shelf without driving change, then wait until you see positioning decks! I’ve lost count of the number of flashy, well designed positioning presentations that literally never get opened after the initial readout…
Instead, I love Andy Raskin’s insight that the sales deck IS the positioning document:
A little over a year ago, I decided to abandon positioning assets and make the sales deck the primary instrument of my strategic narrative engagements. It was a risky move: not every CEO believes he or she should be bothered with authoring the sales presentation. (And, of course, many salespeople hate using them.)
But it’s turned out to be a great decision. The sales narrative (as I defined it in The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen) has all the “pieces” of the story. When you get it right (after testing and refining it in actual sales calls), your website messaging, content themes— even your investor deck—practically flow right from it. Even salespeople who never use the deck can learn its narrative flow to better create urgency and engagement.
This is especially true for services businesses like SEO agencies. Don’t make a positioning deck - just make a new sales deck.
The sales deck is not only a functional document with clear value, but it’s also immediately tested and iterated upon - it’s not a static document but something to be alive and iterated on with clear customer feedback.
Unless you’re really good at positioning - it’s too easy to get carried away with a positioning deck that has lots of high concept ideas in it. Unfortunately these nice sounding ideas have very little practical value. Instead - the sales deck is a very utilitarian, pragmatic application of positioning and one that has immediate value.
If you work at an agency, this matters to you
Ok, but this is an email series about careers and so far we’ve talked about agency positioning. Well - here’s the secret: if you work at an SEO agency you should care about the positioning, it’s not just for agency owners.
Agency positioning impacts your own resume and career by association, sure but more importantly if you want to get more senior inside an SEO agency (remember, SEO agencies actually do have VP SEO jobs!) then you’ll need to care about all the things that positioning fixes: hiring, sales, marketing, retention, delivery, process.
Taking ownership of the agency positioning can position you well for a more senior role, and the listening exercise can give you great exposure across the whole agency - from sales to marketing to delivery.
You should be careful of course - good positioning is hard. Positioning is a mixture of analytical business skills (to understand market size, sales and pricing) and creative skills (to create strong messaging and clear language). And of course, you’re going to run into the agency owners ego too…
But if you’re serious about advancing your agency career then recognizing and working on agency positioning can get you ahead.
That’s a wrap for 2021!
Wow. What a year it’s been. This is the last SEO MBA email for 2021 - but we’ll be back in the new year. I plan to write a few more pieces as part of this mini series on SEO careers and then move onto new topics.
Thank you to everyone who’s been on this journey. I really appreciate all of the support, encouragement and feedback along the way. From initial idea and launch in Feb to the course launch in November it’s been a wonderful first year.
I’ve really enjoyed writing the SEO MBA. Here’s a look back at some of my faves from the first year:
Thank you! See you in 2022.