Creative agencies have a problem in that they must constantly look for new projects. Project work can be very interesting, but relying solely on project work presents a number of challenges:
1. Revenue, profitability and cash flow can be volatile. Sometimes cash flow can be very good, while other times there can be a real cash crunch.
2. Obtaining new project-based work requires significant time and resource investments. It can be up to five times more expensive to obtain a new customer than to retain an existing one.
3. It can be difficult to plan long-term staffing—not only due to the unpredictability of the agency’s workload, but also because new clients have unfamiliar budgets.
Recurring revenue is revenue that is likely to return in the future. Developing sources of recurring revenue that cover at least some of your monthly fixed costs can have several benefits, including a more predictable cash flow. Doing so can also help you build longer-term customer relationships, which tend to be significantly more profitable over time.
The most common type of recurring revenue is subscriptions, with some of the most well-known examples being cloud storage solutions (like Dropbox) and software services (like Adobe Creative Cloud). But businesses across the board are increasingly utilizing subscription-based models, with other notable examples including rentals, home maintenance, and IT services and repair.
Subscriptions have also become increasingly important for digital marketing firms, which frequently offer monthly packages containing pre-defined bundles of services that are offered for a set, recurring fee. These bundles usually include an allocation of the agency’s normal suite of offerings, such as digital advertising, content marketing, social media management, graphic design and branding.
Almost every aspect of your business can be sold via subscription. One key for doing so is to ‘productize’ your service offerings, which is described in more detail later in this article.
In addition to (or instead of) ‘productizing’ your services, consider selling products. This approach is less common, but can be embraced by creative agencies for which offering monthly ‘packages’ is either unrealistic or something the owner simply doesn’t want to do.
If you are a design or marketing firm that sells to corporate clients, which in turn sells to consumers, you will not have direct knowledge of the consumer market. I have seen examples of marketing firms that have a side business selling select consumer products, which can be viewed as a firm spreading itself too thin. However, if done right, it can accomplish several things:
– It can show potential corporate clients that the firm really knows what clients are trying to accomplish. For example, the marketing firm can tell its potential clients, “we know how to sell to millennials, because we do it.”
– It can provide an additional, steady stream of revenue that’s not subject to the fluctuations of project revenue.
– It can increase brand awareness, which raises the value of the firm.
Some marketing firms specialize in one industry. For example, some only market to pharmaceutical companies, utility companies, or government entities. Whatever the industry is, it almost certainly holds events.
I have seen marketing firms hold conferences for the industries they target, or for their industries’ target audiences (or consumers). For example, a marketing firm with pharmaceutical clients might hold a conference for physicians, or a wellness summit aimed at patients with the types of conditions those companies’ products treat.
If an industry conference is already well established, there are ways to piggy-back on that conference. One example I have seen is for a design company to create a booklet, magazine or video for that conference.
Why turn services into products?
Turning your service offerings into standardized products increases the value of your business. When these standardized products are sold on a recurring basis, you can more easily train staff to both sell the products and perform the services required. This reduces the dependency of the company on you as an owner and allows your company to scale much more easily.
Furthermore, by offering products that can be sold on a recurring basis, you’re increasing the value of your business since recurring revenue streams are predictable and repeatable.
How to turn a service into a product
Identify recurring problems your customers have, and turn your solutions into standardized offerings—or, “products.” A few examples of recurring issues for which solutions can be turned into products by a typical creative agency include monthly content, digital or print marketing requirements; regular social media management; and branding and visual design updates.
What are the key considerations when turning services into products?
It’s worth addressing both your operational requirements and your client-facing features.
Specialize in repeatable, trainable tasks for which you have capable staff that can effectively and consistently deliver the product. If you plan to customize your solutions to each client’s specific requests, you risk being unable to deliver. Furthermore, when you anticipate and then try to accommodate all possible client requirements, you end up having people on your staff with skills that are very rarely used.
Consider offering fewer, but higher-quality products. It will be easier to train your staff, and they’ll become very proficient at what they do. A premium product can command a premium price.
Pricing and terms are equally important when it comes to successfully transforming services into products. Consider establishing a recurring monthly fee for your products. This price may initially need to be estimated. For example, if you’re offering an unlimited number of support calls, you’ll need to estimate the number of calls you’ll receive and the number of staff you’ll need to manage those calls. You should ensure the price is high enough to cover your expected costs, and also high enough to attract quality clients. For example, it’s preferable to serve 10 clients who pay $297 per month, compared to 30 clients who only pay $97 per month. You’ll be able to provide these 10 clients a higher level of personal attention.
Always err on the side of charging too much. If you’re looking to attract people to your products, but are concerned that the cost might be off-putting, you can always consider offering a ‘freemium’ package that entices clients with basic offerings but requires them to upgrade to receive premium service.
Also, it’s crucial to establish clear and reasonable service standards. These might include clearly-delineated hours of service, or specific turnaround times. For example, an IT services company may choose to receive calls only during business hours and the early evening. Clients requiring 24/7 support might need to invest in a premium package priced accordingly. Likewise, bookkeeping companies can establish guaranteed turnaround times for filings, based on the number of days required upon receipt of complete supporting documentation.
Where possible, implement client contracts. This is a good way to establish recurring revenues and create operational effectiveness. A good approach can be to have a relatively short up-front contract period, in which you invest in the onboarding process and then move to a month-to-month arrangement.
It goes without saying that it’s important to ensure the services you turn into products are of the highest calibre and are packaged neatly. All the standardization and quality customer service in the world will not help you if your product isn’t optimal.
Standardized service offerings that offer solutions to recurring, pressing problems faced by your customers can be turned into products.
How can this be done?
Consider establishing a monthly price. This price may need to be adjusted through trial and error. For example, if you’re offering an unlimited number of phone calls, you’ll have to estimate the likely number of incoming calls, and the number of staff necessary to handle those calls. You should set the initial price high enough to cover your expected costs, and also high enough that not everyone will pay it. (Otherwise, you might end up deluged and unable to deliver your service obligations).
If you must err on the price, err on charging too much. Then, offer a ‘freemium’ option where something is offered for free. (But no actual phone or e-mail support.)
Terms are just as important as price.
If you charge premium pricing, you have to offer very high value while still outlining reasonable expectations. Some examples of how you can do this are as follows:
Timing: Restrict the number of hours
If you offer technical support, only offer it during certain hours—or offer a premium package that provides service outside those hours. Similarly, you could make it clear that you only work through one issue at a time, although you promise to solve the issue within a reasonable timeframe. (What is reasonable depends on the service.)
If you provide a marketing service, you might guarantee to provide the collateral a certain number of days after you receive all the necessary specifications.
These can work both ways. With a contract, you have guaranteed income for a certain period of time. But if your customer is not happy, insisting on a long contract may not be optimal. A good approach is often to have a relatively short up-front contract period, and then transition to month-to-month.
The financial requirements of recurring revenues are important.
For project-based revenue, the cost of acquiring a customer must be amortized over the first project. With recurring revenue, the customer acquisition cost (CAC) will likely have to be amortized over a longer period. CAC is defined as the total direct marketing expenses, plus the salaries of your sales and marketing personnel, divided by the number of customers acquired. If your marketing costs in a month are $10,000, salaries are $20,000, and you acquired five new customers, the CAC would be $6,000. ($10,000 plus $20,000/5.)
The Lifetime Value of a customer (LTV) is defined as the gross profit per customer divided by the churn. (Churn is the opposite of customer retention; it’s the percentage of your customers you lose on a monthly basis.)
Now, assume these customers will pay $2,500 per month, and that your cost of sales is $1,000 which the gross profit per customer $1,500. If your churn is 4 percent per month, the lifetime value of a customer (LTV) is gross profit per month/churn, or $1,500 ($2,500 less $1,000)/4 percent equals $37,500.
The LTV/CAC here is $37,500/$6,000, which equals 6.25. That’s a good ratio. Anything over 3 is acceptable.
The key is to measure and manage the key numbers: Customer acquisition costs, gross profit per customer, and churn.
It’s a good idea for marketing firms and other creative agencies to develop streams of recurring revenue. The two main reasons for this are, first, because recurring revenue can more easily free up the owner’s time for day-to-day business development, and second, because it will increase the business’s value.