To the outside world, things might have seemed a little bit quiet over here at Optimal over the past year. I wanted to do a post about that silence and what is happening below the surface.
But wait, doesn’t Optimal preach the the importance of content!? We do, but timing is also important. As we made some major changes this year we decided to take a break from creating and focus on our foundation for a while. That time of introspection was invaluable for investing in ourselves so we can better serve our clients.
“Less but better”
– Dieter Rams
This year we made a pretty big change to our business model and focus at Optimal. Most agencies seem to have service creep: “What else can we add to our menu? How else can we monetize and cover our bases?” It seems like the normal human response over time.
However, we decided to take a different approach. Instead of being a generalist, we decided to specialize. For us, specializing meant saying “no” to many opportunities so we could say “yes” to the few we know we can do better than anyone else.
History of Optimal
Optimal turns four-years-old this fall. When we opened, we were building custom websites. Not long after, we got to work with some startups with ambitious growth goals.
Building great digital products was just the start. How could we help our clients turn those into machines to create revenue? What started off with SEO eventually became a comprehensive internet marketing retainer service we call the Optimal Marketing System (OMS).
We had two teams then (really two businesses within a business): Web and OMS.
Over time, OMS made up more and more of our business. Over a year ago it crossed the halfway point. At the start of 2015 it was 75%+ of our business. We felt we were really on to something. If we could simplify our model and focus 100% of our energy on it, we could capitalize on what is really the most drastic change to marketing to happen since the internet (more below).
Change is hard
Change involves growth, learning, and friction. We tend to avoid change. Change for us was difficult, but ultimately a great thing.
First, we had to get comfortable turning away some business we had previously counted on. We still have the same great web team as before, but we no longer wanted to do one-off web projects. Web needed to be part of ongoing work to fit our new model. That is not for everyone, and we had to be ok with that.
We then had to integrate the web team into the OMS team, delegate who was responsible for what, figure out what our new capabilities with the new team were, and (most importantly) learn how to operate as an effective team.
One of the great things about focusing is that we were able to simplify our systems and processes.
What we do is really complicated. It constantly changes, and there are constantly new skill sets to learn. Add to that the complexities of clients’ business models, multiple stakeholders, and how our entire team works on every project…things can get messy quick.
I had heard of Agile, namely Scrum, for some time. It works great for a dedicated team to work on a dedicated project, building digital products. It does not, however, translate so well to our model, multiple projects and multiple clients.
We spent the next 2 months studying Scrum and interviewing friends who work at product design companies, large digital agencies, product companies like Evernote and Pandora, and some of the top Scrum coaches.
What we ended up with is a custom-built Agile system that fits our model. It focuses the team, prioritizes our work, embraces change, and creates a sustainable pace.
We are seeing a 30%+ increase in the amount of work we are producing and clients are happier with the more collaborative and transparent working relationship.
I plan to post our full documentation on Medium soon. There is very little on the internet on how to adapt this to agency work and I think it could help a bunch of people.
Pivots are not always a bad thing
Often times when you hear about a pivot, it’s because something isn’t working. For us, that just wasn’t the case. We had a profitable and growing company. It has far more to do with the opportunity loss we had by not doubling down.
Marketing has changed
The internet has changed everything, again. The amount of digital marketing channels is staggering; there are more ways than ever to reach your target market.
We are seeing the trend of companies going from 20–30% of total marketing spend on digital to 70–80%.
This is producing a lot of noise without a lot of signal. It’s a very complicated marketplace.
How people buy has changed
To adapt to the noise, the buyer has become smart, really smart. We call them “the sophisticated buyer.”
They conduct more Google searches, reference more points of information, and know 20x more about your company today than they did 5 years ago.
They are risk-adverse and make consensus-based decisions. The buying process has become longer. Most importantly, that buying process is happening 70% of the way through without your direct involvement. They hold all the power in the buying process, and most companies and marketers have not adapted to this paradigm change.
Modern marketing machine
This is what we are calling our solution to this problem. Our modern marketing machine reduces the complexity of digital marketing and embraces the sophistication of the buyer.
It attracts inbound visitors who don’t know your brand, converts those strangers into leads, nurtures those leads into customers, and finally turns customers into advocates.
85% of top-performing companies are employing a solution like this and are seeing a 10% increase in revenue in 6–9 months. And yet, less than 3% of mid-market, non-technology companies are taking advantage of it.
It is a blue ocean opportunity and an unfair advantage to forward-thinking companies. Frankly, it’s a game changer.
To us, this is an iteration of what we have been doing all along but just refined and focused. It employs all the technical things we’ve been doing for years: SEO, content marketing, analytics, conversion rate optimization, design, and website development, but ties them together into a simplified process.
Another change is that we have become a national company. As I write this, I’m on a plane to work with one of our clients in California. After this, it’s off to D.C. to work with another client who is a leader in the education field.
We are working with more startups who have ambitious goals of creating the next big products and services, and we are a critical part of their growth plan.
We are also still working with some great local clients and taking all that knowledge we learned working with our big brands back to them.
It is incredibly fun, and we are excited to see where we will go next.
Internally, we are focused on the few things that will have the biggest impact: honing our systems, investing in our team, and training them on new skill sets and tech.
Externally, we plan to aggressively create industry-leading content, tools, and resources. We plan on continuing to be experts in our domain and to give more than we take.
Give more than we take
This is Optimal’s why, our philosophy. It is the rudder we use to make all decisions. How can we give more than we take to our clients, our team, and our community?
This pivot puts us in a spot like never before to do just that.