The digital agency space is crowded – there’s no other way to frame it.
There are 5,585 agencies in America, according to IBIS World, and that number has increased by 13% since 2020 – which is an astronomical growth rate.
Simply put, your competition is growing by the day.
So how do you stand out? What makes you different from all the other agencies out there?
Funnily enough, brands don’t typically “buy” marketing services from agencies. They are looking for a strategic partner – a trusted entity that can accelerate their progress towards growth goals and make them look good.
Brands want expertise and proven experience from an agency, otherwise, they would just hire a marketer. Beyond the numbers, they want a partner who they trust to make decisions for the betterment of their business (or their job).
Essentially, they are looking for a thought leader.
But what is a thought leader and how do you become one in such a crowded space?
What is a thought leader?
Before we get into the details, let’s define what I’m talking about. The term “thought leader” is thrown around willy nilly in service-based industries – is it just fluff or is there some meaning to it?
Being a thought leader relates to the perception of you and your agency leadership team with your clients. You want to be known as the go-to source of information for prospects and other industry leaders in your chosen niche.
Let’s say you focus solely on providing marketing services for the eCommerce sector. When someone from that industry asks the question, “I need some help growing my business, who would you recommend?”, your agency should be on the tip of the respondent’s tongue.
Even if you don’t like the term “thought leader” I’m sure you can appreciate the benefit of being the go-to source of information in your sector, right?
So, in essence, thought leadership is all about perception with the people that count.
Of course, becoming a thought leader and respected authority of information is not an overnight adventure. It’s a journey that never ends, and one you will need to commit to wholeheartedly. But here are some tips for accelerating that process and standing out in a crowded digital marketing sector.
1. Choose a niche
Sticking to a narrow target audience is a hard path to take. I’m sure you appreciate the magnetic effect of niching down, but it’s easy to get caught swimming with the tide.
Whether your agency is new or you’re rapidly growing headcount, it’s hard to reject opportunities based on a set of predefined criteria. For example, say your agency is targeted to financial services companies – what happens if an eCommerce brand with a ton of marketing spends knocks on your door?
You can still take on clients from outside your chosen niche, and even extend your services into other industries as you grow. However, the benefits of targeting all your efforts to one profile of clients far outweigh the short-term cash injection of working with everyone.
For starters, your marketing copy, sales messaging, and services you offer will be uniquely framed for the audience you are targeting. Perhaps even more importantly, you will begin to truly understand the problems you solve for clients and better articulate your solution in your customers’ language during the sales process.
Above all else, choosing a niche helps your team specialize in an industry sector and become known experts with your prospects. Your agency becomes an irreplaceable asset of industry knowledge and proven results. Plus, you’ll get better and better at delivering the outcomes your clients are seeking. It’s a win-win.
You’ll need to choose a niche with ample opportunities, minimal competition, and a proven record of results. But if you nail it, it’s worth the effort.
Here’s one example of a marketing agency that focuses purely on the legal sector:
Niche marketing agency example
2. Know where you deliver value and double down
Much like the industry niche discussion, narrowing your service offering can accentuate the perception of your expertise.
Yes, there are full-service agencies that offer everything. But they’ve typically been around for a long time. To make noise in a crowded market you’re better off getting really really good at one thing and doubling down on it.
Maybe you’re an SEO agency, or perhaps you’re an expert at Facebook Ads. Even those things are relatively generic in the scheme of the digital agency sector. If you want to be known as the ultimate thought leader on an individual topic, you’ll need to make that topic-specific.
In the SEO field, you may be the best at Local SEO. Then, that could become even more narrow if you’re focused on Local SEO for Restaurants. As the go-to agency for restaurants to get found via Google search, you hold a unique position in the market and become a thought leader.
Check out how specific the targeting of this agency is:
Agency with specific targeting
3. Be everywhere
Just because you target a niche market and specialize your services doesn’t mean you are limited in your marketing efforts. In fact, quite the opposite. Once you are clear on the positioning of your agency and how you want to be perceived, you can proliferate that message everywhere possible.
Think about all the channels your audience is exposed to marketing messaging and be sure that you have a presence. Listing sites, social media, search engines, digital banners… even billboards if you have to! The more you can expose your brand with its succinct messaging to your target customer the stronger your thought leadership perception will be.
In addition to featuring your brand on as many channels as possible, aligning yourself with respected figures in your niche can accelerate the trust-building process. Seek out and write for publications, interview other experts, and appear on targeted podcasts to strengthen the authority of your brand by association.
4. Get your face out there (literally)
Video is all the rage at the moment. From Facebook Live to TikTok, Instagram Reels, and more – no one can get enough video content.
From an agency perspective, the best part about the video is the face-to-camera component. Much like public speaking, it humanizes your brand and immediately sets you apart from the competition. Professionally edited video with valuable information positions you as an expert better than any other online format.
Simply creating a video is not enough. You need a way to proliferate the reach of that video with tried and true amplification techniques. Using established platforms such as YouTube, IGTV, LinkedIn Video, and Facebook Watch is a good starting point. Then you have Facebook Video View Ads, YouTube Ads, email database distribution, brand collaborations, remarketing campaigns, and more to saturate the market with your message.
This masterclass from Collab Agency about financial services marketing is an excellent example of using video to position yourself as an expert in an industry:
5. Build expert teams
If you want the reputation of your agency to extend beyond your credibility – which you should – working on the perception of your team is vital.
While in the early stages of growth an agency may be heavily reliant on the network, experience, and know-how of the founder. However, a one-man band isn’t scalable.
The business model of your agency will determine how much of a focus there is on internal experts. For example, you may have an outsourced agency model where you work with freelancers and white label partners, or have a small team of experts that charge big retainers. Both of which are valuable business models that don’t necessarily require team-based thought leadership.
However, if your agency delivers work via account managers who specialize in certain areas, improving their perception of the market is a key part of the trust-building process with prospects.
Encourage your team to be active on social media, write for industry publications, establish a presence at industry events or digital meetups, and carve a name for themselves in your niche.
Even if your agency is laser-focused on one service, such as Facebook Ads, you can have leading experts in web design, creative, data analysis, conversion optimization, testing, and more. The stronger the perception of these experts with your prospects, the more they will trust in your services.
If you are considered a thought leader in your industry it enables you to attract more clients, charge higher retainers, and increase your retention rate.
However, becoming what is considered a “thought leader” in a space such as digital marketing can be extremely difficult. It’s crowded and everyone else is trying to do the same thing.
In saying that, if you’re strategic about your approach by narrowing your focus to a sector and service offering, associating with relevant figures in that area of focus, and bringing your team along for the ride, you can cut through the noise.
Even if you are an established agency it’s never too late to reflect on your positioning and improve its focus.