Should You Hire a Marketing Agency For Your Startup?

One of the defining characteristics of a startup is that you never seem to have enough people to get everything done. Marketing is no exception. The desire for extra marketing help is always going to be there, whether you’re a team of one or one hundred. While recognizing that you need to add manpower is simple, deciding whether to hire more employees or bring on a marketing agency isn’t so straightforward. There’s no answer that works for everyone.

I recently went through this dilemma myself. And to help you learn from my experience, I wanted to share why I decided to consider a marketing agency and what questions I asked myself to make the decision.

When Things Get Complicated, It’s Time To Ask For Help

Early on, we scaled our business mostly through Facebook and Instagram ads. Our campaigns were pretty straightforward, and our small in-house marketing team could manage pretty easily.

But as we grew, things got more complex. First, we decided to go after some new markets. The copy and creative that worked initially would not be effective with these new audiences, so we soon found ourselves allocating at least twice as much time to creating and managing Facebook ad campaigns.

Secondly, between 20014 and 2016 it got far more expensive to advertise on Facebook and Instagram. More advertisers competing for the same ad inventory directly increased our CPMs (they more than doubled for the audience we were targeting!). To hit our benchmarks, our ads had to perform twice as well just to get the same results. That meant even more planning, split testing, and campaign monitoring.

Finally, as our business grew, our internal team needed to spend more time on product messaging, website development, lead nurturing, and customer communication. While the time required to run a successful campaign continued to increase, the time we had available to do so only shrank.

Justifying The Cost Is Easier When You Can Measure The Results

Just because you need help doesn’t mean you have the money to pay for it. So I couldn’t just hire a marketing agency (or an employee) because I wanted to; the numbers had to make sense.

But it wasn’t hard to calculate: based on our monthly ad spend, the agency we were planning to hire could pay for itself if it improved campaign performance by just 17%. In other words, if we could spend 17% less on our ad campaigns, use that money to pay for agency fees, and get the same results, we’d be good.

I actually shared this number with the agency before we began the relationship. They knew what numbers they’d have to hit in order to keep the contract alive, and they were confident they could deliver. So we agreed on a 3-month trial period and moved forward.

Could I have hired an employee instead? Maybe. But here’s why that didn’t make sense for us at the time:

  • The agencies we looked at all charged management fees of about 17-22% of ad spend. Based on our ad budget, we could hire an entry-level employee for that amount, but not a more experienced marketer that we’d actually need.
  • Finding an employee can take a while. And you never want to rush a hire just because the need for help is pressing.
  • An agency will likely get up to speed quicker than an employee. They only need to focus on the job you’ve assigned to them, and don’t have to deal with on-boarding, coming to meetings, understanding the culture, etc.
  • If an agency didn’t work out, parting ways would be pretty straightforward. But doing the same with an employee is much tougher on both parties.

Did It Work Out? Yes And No.

I’ll skip to the end of story. We ended up parting ways after a few months. But not for the reason you’d think.

The marketing agency we hired actually did a decent job of improving our Facebook and Instagram campaign performance. But shortly after we engaged them, we made some core business changes that took us away from marketing on Facebook and Instagram. The agency didn’t do anything wrong, we just no longer needed their help in running campaigns on social media. Fortunately, they were really understanding. Ending the relationship was pretty easy, no hard feelings.

Even though we only worked with the agency for a short time, having an outside perspective was really valuable. They taught us quite a few things about campaign structure, how to set up tests properly, and using Facebook’s ad units in different ways.

Not only that, but having to teach an agency about our own brand forced us to clarify own messaging. We thought we had pretty clear guidelines, but when we started to explain them to an outsider, we realized they could use quite a bit of improvement. Having someone ask you a bunch of questions about your brand is a great way to find out where all the holes are.

Takeaway: if you end up hiring an agency yourself, I recommend finding one that’s willing to share knowledge back and forth. Both you and the agency will benefit.

Should You Hire A Marketing Agency For Your Own Startup?

There’s no right answer for every startup. So to help you come up with the right answer for your own company, here are a few questions to consider as you ponder the decision yourself:

Do you have clear branding and messaging guidelines?

Asking an agency to create marketing campaigns without clear brand guidelines is setting them (and you) up for failure. These guidelines can’t just live in your head, they need to be documented in a straightforward and accessible way, so that everyone on your agency’s team can have a clear idea of how your brand should be communicated.

Don’t have guidelines yet – not even in your head? If building these isn’t your strong suit, you might actually consider hiring an agency on a project basis to help you craft them.

Are you trying to scale a proven strategy or are you still looking for something that works?

Many startups acquire their customers primarily through one or two channels. But finding out which channels those are is going to take some experimentation. If you’re still in that experimentation phase, ask yourself if you’re able to move faster than an agency.

If you think you are, then you’re probably better conducting those experiments yourself. On the other hand, if you’re going to spend a lot of time just figuring out the basics of some new marketing channels, partnering with an agency who already has experience may help you get moving sooner.

Are there specific gaps in your team’s talent that you can’t fill otherwise?

Agencies can be really valuable if there are skills your current team lacks and (a) you can’t afford the time it takes to learn them; (b) it will take too long to find someone who already has them; or (c) adding these skills doesn’t require a full-time hire.

For example, your own team might be great at paid advertising on social media, but doesn’t know left from right when it comes to PR. If PR needs to play a core role in your marketing strategy, then maybe it makes sense to hire an agency that specializes in that.

Is your time being taken away from the core business?

If you’ve established a marketing strategy but find that managing it day-to-day is taking you away from actually running your business, a marketing agency might be a good choice as well. You’ll still need to provide lots of direction on marketing campaigns, but freeing yourself from managing the details may give you time to look at the big picture.

Are you stuck?

If you’ve tried “everything” but can’t seem to get traction with any marketing strategy, having an outside perspective can be really valuable. You might consider hiring an agency on a consulting basis to give you a more objective assessment of your business.

Is there a special project you need help with?

Perhaps there’s a big campaign you need some creative horsepower behind. Or maybe there’s a video you need to create that’s beyond the capabilities of your own team. Marketing agencies are perfect for this type of work. Your employees should handle the work that requires ongoing effort, but when you need to deliver a special project that requires skills that your own team doesn’t possess, an agency can be the perfect partner.

What are your expectations?

Don’t think that hiring a marketing agency abdicates you of your responsibility to grow your business. An agency can help you execute something that doesn’t make sense to do in-house, but don’t expect to just write a check and see your business to grow on its own. It’s up to you to get the fundamentals right. Once those are in place, your next job is to find the right resources to get the job done. Whether that’s through employees, freelancers, or agencies is up to you. Chances are that as you grow, you’ll make use of all three.

Still considering an agency? Do this first.

If you think that hiring a marketing agency makes sense for your startup, don’t start making phone calls just yet. Before you go down that path, get your team on board first. You all need to understand why you’re considering bringing on an agency – what they’ll be helping with, what they won’t be helping with, and how your team is going to engage them.

If your team doesn’t understand how an agency fits into the big picture of your marketing strategy, it will decrease the chances of everyone’s success. Once everyone’s aligned and you know exactly what you want out of an agency, begin your search. Good luck!

Your Company Will Fail Without A Brand Promise. Here’s Why.

“Come on,” my dad quipped, pretending not to notice the look of sheer horror pasted on my face. “It’ll be fun. I promise.

I was just a 9-year old kid, getting ready to ride a roller coaster called the Loch Ness Monster: 3,240 feet of bright yellow steel tubing wrapped around itself like a two contortionists playing a game of Twister in the middle of tornado. I nearly crapped my pants when I saw it, prompting my dad to issue that promise.

By making that promise, my dad was taking a risk. Any father knows that if you promise something, you better be damn sure you’re right. But, precisely 2 minutes and 10 seconds later, he proved that he was as I exited the ride with a huge grin on my face.

Promise was delivered on. Trust was established. And many more roller coaster rides ensued that afternoon.

Why am I telling you this story?

Because just as kids look to parents to fulfill any promises made, consumers expect that brands do the same. When promises are kept, a loyal following ensues. When they’re broken, disaster awaits.

To find out what a brand promise really is and learn how to develop your own, keep reading.

loch ness monster busch gardens
The Loch Ness monsters at Busch Gardens. Causing heart attacks in children since 1978.

What is a brand promise anyway?

Let’s test your knowledge. A brand promise is…

(a) When a brand assures you that this time, it won’t be late for your 8 PM date at The Olive Garden
(b) An unconditional 110% money-back guarantee on skydiving equipment
(c) Something that only overpaid marketing consultants understand
(d) A pledge to not spill massive amounts of oil and light the ocean on fire any more

The answer is (e) None of the above. A brand promise is simply what consumers expect a brand to deliver. It’s the very reason someone chooses to buy something. It’s what connects the actions of the company with the needs and desires of the buyer.

For example, two similar mobile phone services might each offer their own brand promises. Brand A might promise that you’ll always be able to connect with loved ones. Brand B might promise that you will always receive an affordable bill, as long as you never travel outside the United States, never call someone outside the United States, never exceed your data cap, never forget to look both ways before crossing the street, and never even touch at your phone. Two similar services, two very different promises.

How Do You Know If A Brand Promise Is Great?

There are two ways to find out…

First, you can pay a fancy agency a fee of $100,000 (along with the hand of your oldest daughter in marriage), and they’ll develop a fantastic brand promise for you. It will be fantastic because you just paid $100,000 for it, dammit, and only a fool would pay that much for something that was less than extraordinary, and you sir, are no fool.

Alternatively, you can use the $17.34 Rougeux 5-Point Brand Promise System For Marketers Who Get S**t Done to create your own, which I’m offering at a 100% discount for an unlimited time.

The Rougeux 5-Point Brand Promise System can be easily remembered with a simple acronym: DDDMM. Pronouncing it is easy, especially if you’ve ever had your jaw wired shut from a bizarre softball accident and were later forced to recite German poetry.

DDMMM stands for Distinct, Desirable, Delivered, Measurable, and Memorable. Here’s what each means.

DDMMM: The 5 Points Of A Great Brand Promise

Distinct

Any decent brand promise has to stand out from similar products. If you’re Starbucks, and your brand promise is simply “Hot coffee in a cup”, that’s not going to help you much unless you’re the only coffee purveyor on the planet.

Or if you’re a trucking company, don’t tell me that you’re “On time, every time.” You better damn well be, as that’s pretty much table stakes for every trucking company in the America. Instead, a powerful brand promise is one that only your product can deliver.

Desirable

This sounds kind of obvious, but how many times have you heard a company tout that if offers something like, “Strategic, value-added solutions.” A promise so frustratingly vague that you’re probably tempted to leave this page just because I made you read it. In fact, I dare you to read it again… Strategic. Value added. Solutions. Still here? Wow, your pain tolerance is pretty high.

A great brand promise has to be something that gets the buyer excited through its appeal. If your brand promise involves a unicorn descending from a rainbow to deliver you cauldrons full of crisp $100 bills, then you’re on the right track.

What is a brand promise? Saying "strategic value added solutions" is a poor answer.
Did you make the mistake of using “Strategic, value-added solutions” as your brand promise? Don’t worry, so did 4,649 other people.

Deliverable

I know what you’re thinking. “I’ve got this whole brand promise thing figured out. It involves unicorns, rainbows, and lots of cash. But there’s one problem. You probably can’t deliver on that. Especially since unicorns are notoriously difficult to train. A great brand promise needs to be something you can actually do. (That’s why it’s called a promise).

An appealing brand promise that you can’t deliver on is worse than having no brand promise at all. Fail a customer’s expectations and they’ll never come back.

Measurable

Now we get into the tough part. A brand promise is far more likely to generate raving fans if the buyer is certain that her expectations were met. If a brand promise is both deliverable and measurable, then buyers who see that promise fulfilled are going to love you.

One of my favorite examples is BMW’s The Ultimate Driving Machine. You can head to any dealer, plop your butt in 3-series, nail a few onramps, and come away feeling pretty certain that a BMW provides a much more satisfying drive than that cushy Lexus you’d been cruising around town in. Pro tip: do this when the dealer is open and with the permission of a salesperson. Doing so greatly reduces your risk of jail time.

Memorable

This is where many good brand promises fall short of becoming great. If no one can remember your brand promise, it’s of limited value.

Not only will your customers have a tough time remembering it, your own sales, marketing, and customer support teams will, too. How can you expect your team to build an experience around a promise that no one’s aware of?

Geico’s promise that “15 minutes can save you 15 percent on car insurance” is probably the best example on Earth:

What’s Your Brand Promise? Do You Even Have One?

If you haven’t defined your brand promise, two things will happen.

One, people will make their own conclusions about what your brand represents. Their answer is unlikely to be the same as what you’re trying to deliver, and you’ll be setting them up for disappointment.

The other scenario is this: potential customers won’t be sure why you exist, and they’ll patronize a business that is clear about what they have to offer. Especially if unicorns are involved.

P.S. Here’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way… just because you’ve established a brand promise once doesn’t mean that you never have to touch it again. As your product evolves (and as the tastes of your customers change), your brand promise will need to be adapted.

Why This Duracell Hearing Aid Commercial Will Make You Cry

I was standing there at my desk when a Slack message popped up: “Check this out…” with an innocuous link to a YouTube video. 78 seconds later I was desperately trying to pretend I had allergies as I fought to keep tears from welling up.

What happened?

A commercial for one of the most mundane objects on Earth: a battery.

To find out how a pitch for such an ordinary item could cause so many feels to come out of my eyes, I decided to deconstruct the ad. Watch the Duracell hearing aid commercial below and then keeping reading to see why it was so effective.

When it’s over, go watch this video of Chuck Norris kicking some ass to restore your emotions back to normal.

[accordion title=’Click Here To View the Script of The Duracell Hearing Aid Commercial’]

Act 1:

Friend at dinner (muffled): “These seats are excellent, but unfortunately, they’re for tomorrow night.”

Co-worker (muffled): There’s cake for Paula’s birthday in the kitchen..

Daughter: Thank you.

James: Bye bye! She’ll be fine.

[Crying baby / sports game]

Jame’s wife: Can you hear her? The baby’s crying!

Act II:

Doctor: So let’s get you started today. These are the batteries. The tab makes it super simple. Flip it over the ear.

Wife: How’s that sound?

Doctor: Did you hear her?

James: I think so… that’s amazing.

James’ wife: Thank you..

Act III:

James (to son): Well, it’s a rule. I said, what.. what rule? I don’t know about baseball…

James: She’s doing great.

James’ son: Yeah?

James: Yeah

James’ son: Thanks dad.

Closing:

Duracell batteries are long lasting. So you don’t miss the moments that matter.

Trusted everywhere.

[/accordion]

WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Can you even read this through those watery eyelids? Wipe your nose and let’s see how some marketing genius was able to make the Energizer bunny look like a cold-hearted killer compared to Duracell.

Genius Move #1: Follow A Classic Story Structure

Here’s a dirty little secret: nearly every great story follows an established pattern. This Duracell hearing aid commercial is no different. In this case, it follows the classic three-act structure. It goes something like this:

  1. Setup: The hero is going about his business when some unexpected event turns his world upside down.
  2. Confrontation: The hero struggles to deal with this new challenge. When he’s all but defeated, some external intervention occurs, and he finds the courage/skill/answer/secret potion he needs to succeed.
  3. Resolution: With the conflict resolved, the hero finds himself even better off than when the story began.

Anything that doesn’t follow an established convention is either crap or is considered avant garde, which is a special type of artwork for people who are overly concerned about the source of wool in their $295 turtlenecks.

Here’s how our Duracell ad follows the structure….

Act 1 – Reality Hits Home

Our hero isn’t given a name, but since the most popular baby name of the 1950s was James, let’s go with that. In the first scene, James isn’t laughing at a dinner party jokes because he can’t hear. Either that, or the jokes are about him, and this ad just got off to an extremely awkward start.

In the next scene, James misses out on a crucial office ritual: cake for Paula’s birthday. Missing out on both jokes and cake kind of sucks for James, but he’ll survive… right?

In the final scene of the act, James’ hearing loss goes from a mere annoyance to a painful source of shame when he neglects to hear his crying granddaughter over the sports game.

Act 2 – Enter The Savior

Having fully realized the consequences of his hearing loss, James meets with an audiologist. Now enters our savior: the hearing aid, powered by (you guessed it) Duracell batteries.

While the story hasn’t quite resolved itself yet, James can at least imagine a brighter future when he whispers, “That’s amazing.”

Act 3 – Life Is Good

We find James at the kitchen table, yet this time, he’s able to hear his granddaughter crying. The story reaches its peak when James’s son says, “Thanks dad,” as James comforts his granddaughter.

James is not only happy with himself, he’s also able to live up to the expectations of his family.

Genius Move #2: Reinforce Emotions Through Production

Not only does the story itself follow the classic three-act structure, the production choices of the Duracell hearing aid commercial were all made to reinforce the message of each act. Take a closer look and you’ll see what I mean:

  • Music: Initially, a sole piano sets a sad and contemplative tone. As it the story transitions into act two, the music pauses to emphasize James’ realization that he can’t hear. But as he visits the doctor, the music cautiously resumes. As the tempo gradually increases into act three, a keyboard and synthesizer are added to convey energy and confidence. Way to go, synthesizer.
  • Lighting: The dim set of James’ house is a sharp contrast to the brightly lit audiologist’s office, reinforcing the idea that new things are taking place. Ok, “brightly lit” is an understatement… the audiology office looks the interior of the spaceship from Space Odyssey: 2001. Anyway, the story concludes with the soft, natural light, conveying a warmer, more familial environment.
  • Time of Day: The story begins in the evening: darkness increases along with James’ realization of his loss. Yet the story resolves in the full daylight, the start of a new day symbolic of new beginnings.
  • Emotion: Confusion and frustration take over the first act of the story, climaxing in full-on anger when Jame’s kids return from their night out. I would not want to be there to hear James’ wife chew him out afterwards. In act two, sadness is replaced with cautious optimism in the audiologist’s office. Love and laughter are shown in the final act that takes place in the family’s home, leaving no doubt to the outcome of the story.
Act by act breakdown of the Duracell hearing aid commercial
Each act of Duracell’s ad is reinforced through the production choices made in each act.

Genius Move #3: Use Supporting Characters To Frame Emotional Transitions

James’ wife

James’ wife has a simple role in the story: show you how you should feel as you watch James deal with his challenge. She starts off with anger at James’ failure…

Duracell hearing aid commercial act one: James' wife gets upset
James’ wife isn’t exactly going to nominate him for AARP’s Grandfather of the Year Award.

… and later displays gratitude for at possibility of James getting his hearing back.

Duracell hearing aid commercial act two: James' wife is optimistic
This shot takes less than a second but it drives home plenty of optimism.

Finally, she shows joy as she see James thrive again. Observe your own emotions as you watch the video… are you feeling the same way? James’s wife plays a minor role but she telegraphs the emotional transitions really clearly.

James' wife is happy
James’ wife is relaxed and happy now that James can hear again.

James’ Son

The Duracell hearing aid commercial isn’t really about James’ ability to hear. After all, who really cares if he misses out on office birthday cake because he’s a bit deaf? It was probably some crummy cake from the grocery story, anyway. No, the story really has to do with James failing his family, specifically his son.

Take a look at the conclusion of Act 1. As James’ son and daughter-in-law gather around the crying infant, James looks at his son with embarrassment and sadness. To make things worse, James’s son doesn’t even make eye contact with him:

Duracell hearing aid commercial act one: James is embarrassed
Worst. Babysitting. Ever. James was a major disappointment to his son that evening.

Finally, the closing scene shows James, his wife, son, and daughter-in-law seated together, signifying that the family is healthy again. When James picks up his granddaughter this time, James’ son smiles directly at his father. The father-son relationship is restored and James receives the trust and love he years for as a grandfather.

Duracell hearing aid commercial act three: James' son is smiling
All is well, and James’ son can once again look at his dad and smile.

Genius Move #4: Don’t Make It About The Product

This is the most important part of all.

People aren’t interested in watching advertisements. They want to watch stories. And this Duracell hearing aid commercial is exactly that – a story about a new grandparent who lets down his family because he can no longer hear. Even if most viewers can’t empathize with hearing loss, nearly everyone can relate to the hurt caused by strained family relationships.

As lesser writer would have been tempted to introduce the Duracell brand right at the start. Since so many videos are skipped after just a few seconds, the temptation is understandable.

But doing so would only tell the viewer, “This is an advertisement. Nothing to see here!”

Instead, an engrossing story is used to break down any resistance a viewer might have towards seeing a branded message. It’s only until the last 8 seconds of the video that the product being advertised is finally made clear.

In this case, it’s a simple battery.

Perfect example of the maxim: “There are no boring products, only boring writers.”

P.S. Random Observations

I had to watch the Duracell hearing aid commercial more times that I care to admit to do this deconstruction. And it the process I noticed some things that you probably missed…

  • The doctor gives James a package of 16 hearing aid batteries. The package notes that each battery lasts 4 years. That means James has enough juice to last him 64 more years. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being optimistic.
  • In Act 3, I really can’t tell what meal the family is eating. The lighting suggests breakfast, as do the oranges on the table. But the Coke (tea?) and Chinese takeout contain suggest either lunch or extraordinarily usual eating habits.
  • James’ coworker seems overly disturbed that he didn’t hear her the first time. What if James was just “in the zone” as he processed his expense report from that craaazy insurance conference in Tampa? Don’t most people just call your name again before donning an expression of utter confusion?
  • The interior of James’ living room looks like it was inspired by an outdated Motel 6. Come on James, you can afford a painting or two on those walls!
  • Why did the custom designer have James wear that copper bracelet? It’s given tons of prominence in one of the scenes, and since those things are proven not to work, it’s strange that they would have him sport one.

What Do You Think of The Duracell Hearing Aid Commercial?

Maybe you watched the Duracell hearing aid commercial and thought it was a crass attempt to get people to pay more for a branded commodity.

Or maybe you didn’t even finish reading the article because you immediately ran to the nearest Walgreen’s to buy their entire stock of Duracell batteries.

Or perhaps you’re convinced that this is really a super secret conspiracy among Big Audiology, Coke, and Duracell: it proves that drinking soda causes deafness, and all these companies out there to profit off the suffering they induce by making you consume their products.

However you feel, let me know if the comments below.

Instagram Stories Are A Ripoff… And They’re Awesome

“Great artists steal.” That’s a favorite Steve Jobs quote of mine. While the designers who created Instagram Stories may or may not be great artists, they definitely stole from Snapchat.

Not that I really care. Here’s why…

Short-Lived Media Like Instagram Stories Keeps Us Real

When you know your post is only going to last 24 hours, you don’t care so much about how polished it is. And I think that’s a good thing. Raw, un-produced media is more like the way we interact with our friends in person. You don’t rehearse before asking your pal to join you for lunch. If you did, you’d be eating alone. The more we approach social media like we’re just talking from one human to another, the more authentic we our communication can become. Instagram Stories relieve us from the burden of trying to get things perfect, which makes social media more enjoyable.

You Can’t Worry About Metrics When There Aren’t Very Many

Sometimes the best features are when things are left off. Since you can’t Like an Instagram Story in the first place, you aren’t going to worry as much about how well a Story performs. As far as I can tell, all you can see are the number of views your story gets. No worrying about number of likes or responding to comments. This is like getting a credit card where you’re not allowed to see the bill or pay the balance. Update: I was just informed that some people think credit cards actually work this way. Whoops.

It’s Easier To Find Your Way Around

One of the things that bugs my about Snapchat’s Stories user interface is how hard it is to tell how many updates a user has posted. That little wheel in the corner of the screen just doesn’t do it to me. Instagram’s version, where bars are lined up on the top of the screen, feels like an improvement. And this is a small thing, but I love how you can move forwards and backwards between users in Instagram’s version.

That Highlighter Feature Is A Better Way To Do Text

If your text just doesn’t stand out agains the photo, the highlighter option makes your life way easier. Being able to make your text legible without having to use that black bar is just makes for better compositions.

OK, It’s Not Perfect

Instagram Stories are going to be pretty tough to use once they’re widely adopted. Scrolling across that bar along the top isn’t going to cut it.

The filters are kind of weak sauce. I mean, one of the reasons Instagram was so popular early on was because it’s filters let your lame photo of a cheeseburger look like it was slightly artistic and slightly less lame. Instagram should be a leader here, and it’s not.

Finally, Instagram has the chance to one-up Snapchat by letting people react to Instant Stories. Turning these from one-way updates to two-way conversations could be a lot of fun.

But I Still Love The Effort

Instagram Stories, along with Snapchat and Facebook Live, are the greatest changes ever to grace social media. Turning social media from a permanent record of events to a live, in-the-moment stream gets us acting like the real versions of ourselves – the version our friends see us as when they interact with us face-to-face.

Do you love or hate Instagram Stories? Let me know in the comments.

How to Build a Social Media Content Plan with Trello

Here’s a dead-simple way to plan content with Trello.

Caveat: this post will not teach you how to be a social media “ninja”, “guru”, or “rockstar”. If you aspire to use one of those terms to describe yourself, or already do, seek professional help. Or just quit the internet.

Ok. On to the post…

Managing your company’s social media presence can be a mess if you’re not intentional about it. It’s like that guy who’s sat on the couch all year and decides that on January 1, he’s going to go to the gym “like all the time.” Week one, he’s there every day. Week two… well, you know what happens. Without a solid plan that you can stick to, your social media content won’t be consistent or effective.

That’s why I’m going to show you how to plan a full month’s worth of content in 30 minutes or less.

For the sake of simplicity, this post will focus just on Facebook. However, the methodology can be used for any content calendar, and even for multiple social networks if you’re creative. Here’s how it works:

1. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Why do you even have a social media presence in the first place? Do you want to keep customers talking about your brand? Announce new products? Set the tone for your brand’s voice? Make a list of key objectives. Keep it short, not more than three or four. Just like the guy planning to hit Gold’s Gym every day, not knowing why you’re doing something is a sure path to quitting. Here’s an example:

  • Keep customers informed of new product features
  • Foster engagement by highlighting outstanding customers
  • Reinforce our values through human-interest and humorous content
  • Improve company image vignettes of employees

2. Identify the type of content that will best serve each of those objectives. Example:

  • Keep customers informed… via events announcements and company news (Update)
  • Foster engagement… by highlighting outstanding customers (Community)
  • Reinforce our values… through human-interest and humorous content (Voice)
  • Improve company image… by featuring profiles of employees (Personality)

3. Prioritize your categories. Don’t just say, “they’re all important!”; prioritizing will help you decide how much content is devoted to each. Try this: give yourself 10 “points” to hand out. Give more points to the most important objectives, and fewer to secondary ones. So much math!!

  • Update: 3
  • Community: 3
  • Voice: 2
  • Image: 2

4. Calculate your output capacity. How many posts per month can you consistently commit to? Don’t bite off more than you can chew and burn out after a month. At our company, we are planning to ramp up our volume to about 20 posts a month. That’s on the aggressive side, but we generate a lot of growth through Facebook and our followers have been very engaged with our content. Having videos with lots of gratuitous explosions always helps.

5. Do some math. With you ideal volume in hand, it’s time to match that against the priorities you outlined earlier. Apply the formula below to

Number of posts/month = (points assigned to category / total points) x total posts/month

For our first category, Updates, the formula would look like this:

(3 points / 10 total points) x 20 posts/month = 6 Update posts per month

Easy! You didn’t even need a calculator. Right? Right????…..  Don’t worry I won’t tell your 4th grade math teacher. Just repeat for the remaining categories and you’ll have a baseline plan for how many posts of each type to publish each month. Here’s what you’d end up with for all four categories:

  • Update – 6 posts/month
  • Community – 6 posts/month
  • Voice – 4 posts/month
  • Personality – 4 posts/month

6. Take things over to Trello. We use a 4-step workflow to manage content throughout the month. Every piece of content starts out in a Planned list, and moves through the following steps:

  1. Planned
  2. Being worked on
  3. Pending approval
  4. Scheduled

You may need fewer or more depending on the structure of your team. We have multiple content contributors, but only a couple content approvers, so this process helps us hand off content to the right people.

Now… create a Trello card in the Planned for each post you outlined above. The result will look something like this. Look at all those beautiful posts just waiting to be written. So many Likes and Shares lie ahead:

A fresh month...

7. Assign owners. Whether you have one person or a team of ten managing content, make sure that every single card has an owner. This is the person who will make sure that a piece of content is drafted, edited, and published on time, and by the right people. Give your team the gift of clear ownership and it will greatly streamline your process. Don’t assign owners and watch you best intentions disintegrate into pure and unrelenting madness. Your Facebook fans deserver better, don’t they?

8. Set due dates. With you content list established, it’s time to figure out what to post when. Trello gives you a great calendar view, which makes it super-simple to get a bird’s eye view of the month. We use also labels to designate content categories, making it  easy to see what type of content will go out when. Here’s a possible result that will satisfy any obsessive compulsive disorder sufferer, with it’s neatly-spaced scheduling.

Get writing!

9. Get writing. You have all your work cut out for you for the month. No more planning, go write!

At the end of the month, sit down with your content team and examine the results. Which types of posts performed the best? Were there days of the week when you saw better results? Was your team able to handle the load?

You’ll want to make some tweaks to make next month even more effective. Now you’ve established a baseline, though, your process will be much more effective and well-informed.

Bonus round: You can download a free content planning template in Trello here. Enjoy!

How to Choose The Right CRM For Your Startup

Choosing a CRM is a lot like dating: you need some experience to know what you’re looking for, it takes a while to find out if you’ve made the right choice, and if you decide to switch to another option, it’s generally a pain in the ass.

We recently went through the CRM selection process at my company, and we ended up with a great choice. I wanted to share the steps we went through, to hopefully save you some pain in your own journey.

Background

We originally used Hubspot as an all-in-one marketing/sales platform. We tried to use it as a CRM as well, but it’s not well suited for that. As our sales volume started to increase, and we quickly needed a better solution to help us manage leads and deal discussions. After an afternoon spent Googling every CRM search string we could think of, we soon realized that there were hundreds of choices. Far too many, in fact. Suffocating under the sheer variety of options, we decided to take a step back…

Assessing Your Needs

We took a break and tried to honestly assess what we really needed from a CRM. Just like your buddy’s girlfriend you can’t stand to be around, some CRMs will be a poor fit because they’re tailored for a different type of user. But since you can’t afford to date a dozen CRMs before you marry one, you have to figure out what you want first.

Here are a few questions that will help you find out:

  • How complex is your sales process? Perhaps you sign leads up after a phone call or two. Or maybe it’s a months-long conversation with several people. You won’t need every feature under the sun if you just need a fancy list to keep track of who needs to be called.
  • Who will be using the CRM? Is your team really tech savvy, and comfortable setting up a lot of configuration? Or will they refuse to touch something unless it has a beginner-friendly interface?
  • How many leads do you manage at once? How similar are they? If you’re selling the same thing to every lead, you probably have a fairly straightforward process. A CRM that simply helps you track progress will be fine. But if you have multiple products that have unique sales approaches, you’ll want more flexibility to customize.
  • Where do your sales take place? If you’re out in the field much, then consider CRMs that have mapping features and a strong mobile app (many CRMs don’t).
  • Do you sell via email, phone, or both? Several CRMs that offer in-app calling, call logging, dedicated telephone numbers, and other features that make it easy to manage calls. Other CRMs offer direct integration into email services such as Gmail and Outlook, which is handy if you want to easily track correspondence.
  • How long does this CRM need to last? Remember, just because you pick a CRM now doesn’t mean that you’ll use it until the end of time. Yes, it’s a pain to switch, but if you’re a startup, the software you use today isn’t what you’ll be using three years from now.
  • What other services do you use? Are there email, billing, chat, or other web-based software you use for marketing and sales? Several CRMs offer direct integrations with those platforms, making it a cinch to sync data.
  • How available is your tech team? Many CRMs can’t fully connect to other services unless you make use of their API. Have a custom website that someone wrote from scratch? You’ll need to make API calls if you want those forms on your website to update your CRM automatically. If this is a concern for you, check out Zapier, which offers direct integrations between many platforms, all without writing code.
  • How much does it cost? Don’t worry about this one for now. Most CRMs geared at startups will be within a fairly similar price range. Unless you’re on a shoestring budget, focus on finding a tool that works best for you. More expensive isn’t necessarily better.

Review With Your Team

If you’ve talked through these questions together, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you need out of a CRM. Here’s what we ended up with:

Our sales process typically involves a couple of emails and a phone call or two. However, the time from initial interest to close can take anywhere from one day to one month. We need something that will make it easy to track correspondence and deal stage. Phone integration and mobile apps are must-haves.

Right now, our products have fixed pricing. The sales process is mostly educational and less focused on negotiation. With that in mind, we didn’t need anything really nuanced. Just an easy way to keep track of how many customers are interested and how many we’ve closed.

Our sales team is a smart bunch, but they don’t have a lot of time to learn a funky interface. Finding something that was intuitive is paramount. While our sales are mostly done in-office, knowing where leads are located geographically is really important, as we sell to many local businesses.

Finally, we need a service that will integrate with MailChimp and Gmail. We’ll also need to update our CRM via an API, since we’d have an custom-built website and sign-up portal for our services.

Go through this exercise and get ready to go hunting…

Narrow It Down

There are a couple options for narrowing your choices: use a service such as Capterra or G2 Crowd to filter your options, OR take the easy way by looking at the short list we came up with:

  • Close.io – great for call tracking and a simple interface
  • RelateIQ – uses algorithms to help you know where to spend your time
  • Intercom – offers a single platform for communicating over multiple channels
  • BaseCRM – solid call/email integration, great UI and mobile app
  • HighRise – extremely simple, a glorified contact manager
  • Nimble – strong social media integration
  • Pipedrive – targeted at high-value/low-volume deal flow
  • Pipeline Deals – focused on managing an intricate sales process
  • CapsuleCRM – easy to get started with

Go On A Date

Once you’ve selected three or four candidates, it’s time for a test run. Set up a trial account, import your data, and start to poke around. Before long, you’ll get a sense of how steep the learning curve is and how much customization is involved before you can really make use of it. Make sure you include any mobile apps as part of the trial process.

If you’re still having trouble making a decision, here are a few tips to help:

  • Submit a support request and see how quickly and thoroughly their team responds.
  • Check out their documentation. How many resources do they provide to help you along?
  • Ask one of their sales reps to tell you why you should choose them over another CRM you’re considering. They may point out some features you weren’t aware of. If you want to dig even deeper, ask the sales rep to tell you what the weak points of their CRM are. Every service has a few.
  • If Salesforce came up on your short list, cross it off. Unless you have a big sales team and a lead who’s already familiar with Salesforce, changes are it will be overkill. By the time you have it set up, you could already have been using a simpler CRM for months.
  • Visit the company’s blog to see how recently they’ve released new features.
  • Take a look at Zapier to see what kinds of integrations are offered. Set up a Zap and see if it works.

Make Your Choice

You won’t know whether you’ve made the perfect decision until you’ve committed to a CRM, started using it for real deals, and discovered all its warts. But you won’t be able to try them all for months. And at a startup, sometimes done is better than perfect. So make your decision, move forward, and don’t look back.

For us, we went with BaseCRM. We really liked its intuitive interface, call integration, and mobile apps. It also has a fairly good API, which means that it can grow with us for a while. Reporting tools are solid too. Yes, there are some shortcomings we found with it, but none of them are serious enough to cause us to reconsider. And their support team has been really helpful. So far, so good…

Have you gone through the process of picking a new CRM? If so, I’d love to hear your own thoughts on how to make the process more painless. 

Lessons from The Green Hell

The brief straightaway provided a short but much-needed respite from navigating the seemingly endless number of turns I’d been negotiating. But a couple of seconds later, I was going through the same procedure for the 400th time: look for the apex of the turn, brake, downshift, check the mirrors, ease into the curve. I had my line picked out, all was zen, until a second check of my rear view mirror showed me that they were gaining, and fast. A pack of three 911s, all in hard-core, track-specific GT3 spec. I blinked and they were next to me, the BRAPAPAPAPPPP!!! of nearly 1,500 combined HP thundering in my eardrums and passing with just inches to spare. German wolves out on the hunt.

It was just a normal day on the Nurburgring, also known as The Green Hell. But it was my first time there, and the experience felt anything but normal. Considered one of the most challenging and dangerous race tracks in the world, the Nordschleife (North Loop) of the Nurburging features 154 turns, is nearly 13 miles long, and has over 1,000 feet of elevation change. All nestled in the dark green forests of western Germany. It’s not a place for the faint of heart, as the ‘Ring has claimed over 200 lives over the years:

The Ring is an incredibly unforgiving place. With the exception of a handful of bends, there’s no run-off: if you fail to make a bend, you’re going to hit something hard. Worse, most of the bends and crests are blind, so the chances of one accident leading to a second one are also relatively high. – Ben Lovejoy, instructor for 9 years

3 BMWs, a Corvette, and a Porsche walk into a curve...
3 BMWs, a Corvette, and a Porsche walk into a bar…

Even on the afternoon I drove, there had already been 4 accidents that morning. And two more during my own session. Since I managed to both survive and not wreck (not even once!) during the course of six laps, I wanted to share some thoughts that only an adrenaline and danger-soaked afternoon can provide:

Find your limits and push them

They say that it’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. Why? Because driving well within the limits of your car really just isn’t that much fun. You need a bit of tire squeal to make you feel alive. But that doesn’t mean going out with reckless abandon from the first turn. It means that each lap, you push yourself a bit further until you’ve found just how fast you can navigate a bend before your tires start to protest. And you try to drive right at that level. In control, but at the limit. If you don’t find yourself smiling by then, you’re doing it wrong! Work life is the same way. If you’re always taking on projects that are easy and involve no risk, you’re just going to have another boring day at the office. Only by taking on challenges that are outside of your comfort zone are you really going feel alive.

Swallow your pride

With any skill, there is always going to be someone better than you. Driving is no exception. And at 100+ mph, it would be very easy to put your car into the wall by trying to keep up with someone who’s simply a better driver. But that doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t strong. You have two options: get pissed by comparing yourself to faster, more experienced drivers, or have fun by focusing on the continual improvement of your own skills. Outside of a car, it’s equally easy for me to find others with more talent, greater accomplishments, or who are just plain smarter. Dwelling on that would be poison, though. But focusing on how much I’ve improved since last year, last month, last week? Always a positive reinforcement.

Focus on the big picture

The best way to make it quickly and safely around the track is to think of all 154 turns as a series of connected movements, not as bunch of individual curves. More often than not, one turn begins just as another has ended. Your speed, line, and position from the preceding turn have an enormous impact on your ability to take the following one. So if you don’t plan ahead, you’ll find yourself continually unprepared for what comes next. Isn’t life the same way? Many of the decisions you make today will affect the options available to you down the road. Valuing the long-term effects over the short-term consequences is a skill I think most of us which we did better, race car drivers included.

Experts are your friend

If someone’s better at something than you, look at them as an ally, not an enemy. If they’re better, they can teach you. And if you can get taught, you’ll improve much faster. Which is why I hired a 27-year old German race car driver to show me the ropes. On a race course, he’s called an instructor; in business he’d be called a mentor. In either case, someone who can help you avoid mistakes that he’s made in the past is invaluable. Don’t be afraid to find someone like this and learn from them, even if they’re younger than you!

If I’m lucky enough to my wife let’s me drive the Nurburgring again, perhaps I’ll have some more thoughts to share. But in the meantime, I’ll simply leave this for you here: a 1987 video of a RUF CTR doing what’s regarded as one of the most impressive laps on the ‘Ring of all time. You’re welcome: