This guest article is by Brian Casel, founder of Ops Calendar, which makes it easy to plan and manage your team’s marketing calendar. Brian and his team recently published their Playbook for scaling your marketing agency, which you can get for free here.
I’ll be honest: I never thought it would work.
Sure, I started my content marketing service, Audience Ops, with the same nagging sense of optimism that every founder feels when just getting a project off the ground.
But, there was also that looming sense of doubt. Scaling a marketing service would be far too difficult. Things would get way too hectic and crazy—the same trap that so many agencies fall into. The cost of growing the team I needed just wouldn’t be sustainable.
There’s no doubt—that cynical voice in my head had plenty of grievances to air when I was only starting to get the ball rolling.
Fortunately, sometimes you surprise yourself (and that nasty little voice). Here we are just over two years in at Audience Ops, with 25 remote team members, a roster of satisfied, long-term clients, and a business that I actually enjoy running.
We’ve also taken the next step of turning our battle-tested workflows into a software tool, Ops Calendar, that we use to power and scale our content for clients, and we’ve made it available for other agencies to use as well.
Was this all just a happy accident? Absolutely not. Was it easy? Hell no. Did I make mistakes along the way? You bet—and I still do.
However, with that early part of my journey under my belt, I can look back in my rearview mirror and point to three distinct “ah ha” moments that helped me bust through some common scaling challenges and come out on the other side even better than before.
“Ah Ha” Moment #1: Standardize Everything
In an agency environment, it’s easy to fall victim to the siren song of flying by the seat of your pants. Your client makes a request, and—in the interest of being accommodating—you do your best to fulfill it (even if it isn’t what you’d consider your bread and butter or even if it throws a major wrench in how your team operates).In an agency environment, it’s easy to fall to the siren song of flying by the seat of your pants. Click To Tweet
I fell into this same trap at Audience Ops a few times. From offering PPC services to tacking on extraneous promotional efforts that weren’t adding any results, there were a few times when we found ourselves moving away from our tried and true methods and the very thing we do best: content.
It was at that moment when I had this realization: Just because you can do it all doesn’t necessarily mean you should. And, even further, just because there might be a million different ways to do one thing doesn’t mean you need to be proficient in all of them.
With that light bulb moment fresh in my brain, I knew that I needed to do a better job of standardizing exactly what we were doing and how we were doing it.
How did I do that? Here are a few areas where I was able to cut out bloat and add some much-needed clarity:
1. Our Service
In retrospect, I’m glad that we experimented with trying those different offerings—that was a necessary step to bring us back to what we do really well.
Today, we have one simple, streamlined service: We offer content marketing in the form of regularly published (either twice per month or once per week) blog posts for clients, as well as lead magnets (an ebook or an email course).
“But, wait!” you’re likely thinking now, “Doesn’t that limit the amount of clients who want to work with you?”
We’ve actually found the opposite to be true. The clients that come to us want to work with us because they’re interested in finding a team that can produce solid content—and not necessarily all of that other stuff. Standardizing our service has been a huge help in securing clients that are truly the best fit to work with our team and see value in our service.
And, we have the added benefit of being able to tout the fact that we do one thing really well—rather than all sorts of different things at a mediocre level.
2. Our Production Schedule
This is another thing that I found could easily get muddled when you’re working with a bunch of different clients. When you’re trying to manage timelines for each client individually, things are bound to slip through the cracks. There’s just too many different schedules to keep track of.
For that reason, we created a standardized production schedule that applies across the board for all of our clients—regardless of what specific publish date they have for their content.
For example, new blog posts are assigned on Mondays and are due on Friday. Edits are done the following Monday through Wednesday. Blog posts are setup on Thursday. Everything is checked over on Friday. Previews of the post and the newsletter are sent to clients on Monday—and their posts publishes the following week on their selected publish date.
Standardizing our schedule in this way has made it easier for both our team and our clients. Our clients know what to expect and when, and our team never has any question about what’s happening on any given day—it’s the same for each and every client that we work with.
3. Our Team
Speaking of our team, this is another area where we sought to bring in added clarity.
Our team is packed full with talented professionals that can truly do it all. But, in the process of standardizing, I soon recognized the importance of ensuring that each of our team members had a clearly defined role with associated responsibilities.
Our writers, for example, are only responsible for conducting research, generating topic ideas, and actually writing the content—they don’t need to spend their time (which they track using Hubstaff!) adding posts into a CMS or even emailing back and forth with the client. Those responsibilities fall to our assistants and our project managers, respectively.
By clarifying exactly who was responsible for what, it made us far more effective, efficient, and scalable—while also removing any guesswork for my team.
“Ah Ha” Moment #2: Processes Are Important
Processes were a point of emphasis for me early on. When I was already concerned with how I’d scale our marketing team in a way that wouldn’t require tons of elbow grease, I knew I needed to make it as easy as possible to bring on new team members and let them grab the reins and run with their responsibilities right out of the gate.
That meant I couldn’t have a time-consuming, labor-intensive training process designed to get them up to speed. Instead, I needed to arm them with the resources and documentation they needed to understand their role and hit the ground running.
The secret to success? Processes. Lots of organized, documented processes.The secret to success? Processes. Lots of organized, documented processes. Click To Tweet
On our team, our processes define how we get things done without any confusion. We have one spreadsheet that links out to all of our Google Doc processes for nearly any task our team would need to take care of.
Those process documents share, in detail, who is responsible for what as well as clear steps (often including screenshots) for how to complete that task.
They act as the operating manual for our business, and make it so much easier to ensure that things are being done correctly time and time again—whether it’s by a brand new team member or someone who’s been around for the entire two years that we’ve been in business.
There’s some upfront work in getting those processes recorded. But, I can’t emphasize enough how helpful they are when growing a team who can produce consistent, quality work.
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“Ah Ha” Moment #3: Utilize Checklists
That brings me to my final “ah ha” moment: Checklists are a necessary compliment to our existing procedures.
Having documented processes helped us make great strides in terms of keeping things organized. But, there was another problem we were experiencing: Team members weren’t referring back to those processes every time they completed a task—and, expecting them to do so would only slow them down.
We needed something else—something simple and streamlined—to ensure the elements of those processes were actually being taken care of time and time again.
This is where checklists came into play. Most people conflate processes with checklists. But, if they’re used correctly, they actually serve two very different purposes.
Our checklists are far less detailed than our documented processes, and instead just hit on those milestones and highlights that we need to be taking care of for each piece of content we create. Within the checklists, we can also assign specific team members and deadlines to each task.
Checklists serve as the visible process markers that display the status of a project in real-time. My team members can use them to track their own progress or can instantly glean what’s currently happening with a specific piece of content—without needing to bug other team members with those pesky, “Hey, where are we at on this?” questions.
Used in harmony with our detailed processes, checklists have been a key component for keeping our entire team on track.
Scaling to the Next Level
These three “ah ha” moments have been crucial in helping me scale my marketing team to the next level. But, there was one other thing that helped me grow my team and my client base, without a ton of headaches: automating recurring projects.
We built and now use our own tool, Ops Calendar, to automate the process of creating those assignments and checklists for pieces of content—both for our clients and our own marketing sites.
Ops Calendar makes it easy for us to make sure everything sticks with our standardized process and timelines—without having to do things like setting deadlines and assigning team members manually.
Those schedules and workflows are set within Ops Calendar, and are then applied to each new piece of content we create using Ops Calendar.
It’s been a huge time-saver for my entire team, and also helps us ensure that we’re sticking with the streamlined and standardized best practices we’ve already laid out—since they’re already built in automatically.
Over to You
There are plenty of challenges that come along with scaling a marketing team, and I’ll be the first to admit that there are those moments when it feels completely impossible.
Fortunately, hindsight is 20/20—which means I’m able to look back at my experience scaling my own team and my service with Audience Ops, and identify some key takeaways that will address some of those pain points that come along with the growth process.
As for you? You can learn from my experience and implement these things right off the bat. You’re bound to have some “ah ha” moments (not to mention mistakes) of your own—but, at least leaning on these three best practices right away will help you clear some other common hurdles.