Episode 187

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This has happened at my agency and I’m sure it’s happened at yours.

You start a huge client project and are excited to keep things rolling – both to protect your agency’s production schedule and to exceed the client’s expectations in terms of delivering on time and on budget. But then, you hit the roadblock. The cold silence you hear when you ask your client for the assets you need.

Whether it’s images, video, or copy points – you’re stalled until they cough it up. So much for on time or on a budget!

On this episode, I talk with James Rose about how to streamline the content collection process. Back when he was running a web dev shop, this was a major frustration for him and his team. So much so that his company developed what is now its core business: a content collection platform called Content Snare.

As content increasingly becomes central to much of agency work, solving the content collection conundrum is often the difference between profitability and charity work. Take a listen as James offers many no tech, low tech, and SaaS solutions to help us stay in the black.

James and his business partner, Mark Beljaars, started a single-product SEO software company in 2010. As they networked with other business owners, they heard countless stories about website projects that have gone wrong. They thought maybe they could help things go right.

With a passion rooted in software, they identified a few bottlenecks in the web design process. The worst one, which resonated most with other designers, was chasing down clients for their web content. That’s when Content Snare was born.

Clients don’t think about projects the same way we do – they don’t mean to be a bottleneck, even though they often are just that. Finding ways to keep content flowing ultimately helps us deliver an end result worthy of our efforts and our fee.

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Why gathering content from clients is such a universal pain point for agencies
  • How agencies can set content expectations as a part of the terms and conditions in a service contract
  • How to give clients a firm content deadline and make the stakes very clear
  • Why content collection is more than just setting up reminders
  • How to stop wasting time chasing after clients
  • How agency owners can help clients avoid overwhelming deadlines
  • Why you must manage agency expectations about how much data to expect from clients at one time

The Golden Nuggets:

“You can waste a lot of time following up with people.” –@_jimmyrose Click To Tweet “Having a clear process for content collection can actually help reduce error rates in the content and all the back-and-forth that entails.” – @_jimmyrose Click To Tweet “Whatever tools you use, a system for gathering information and keeping a project moving forward just makes you look more professional.” – @_jimmyrose Click To Tweet “Agencies need to get more comfortable with setting up processes, whether for content or literally every other aspect of the business. You can’t grow and scale otherwise.” – @_jimmyrose Click To Tweet “One of the biggest issues with content is that people just forget.” – @_jimmyrose Click To Tweet

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Speaker 1:

Are you tired of feeling like the lonely light housekeeper as you run your agency? Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. The Build A Better Agency podcast is now in our third year of sharing insights and how small to mid-sized agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25+ years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Today, we’re going to talk about, I think one of the most frustrating aspects of agency life and the reality of agency life, which is, we cannot produce what our clients are paying us to produce in most cases, without some help from the client. Oftentimes, we are waiting for information or content or data or a list or something from a client. And no matter how tightly we have built the timeline, oftentimes, those timelines get mucked up because clients are not as quick at turning around things as we need them to be.

And so I wanted to focus in on this both in a macro and a micro level. So my guest is James Rose, and James is one of the co-founders of a software tool called Content Snare. So in James’ world specifically, this is around the idea of pretty much every agency on the planet today is working with some form of content that the clients have to provide, whether it is visual assets, or it is information, or it is content words that we need. It might be sales copy. It might be features and benefits of products or services.

And whether you’re building a website for them, or you are creating a traditional advertising campaign, or you are getting ready to do a series of media releases, whatever it may be, we have to get stuff from the client. And so James has an interesting career trajectory. So he started off as a software engineer, putting together a software designs and tools for clients and in essence, being an agency that delivered software. And from there, you could imagine they got asked often enough to do websites, that they became a web dev shop. And in their infancy of being a web dev shop, they realized how frustrating it was and how budget crushing it was to wait and wait and wait for clients to provide the content that they needed to build out the website.

And that led them to this idea of building out some software called Content Snare, which is what it is called today, that helps agencies and brands collect content and catalog and get it ready to be used in a plethora of ways. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today is how do we encourage clients to participate in the process? How do we help them? How do we create a framework around the collaborative work that we do with clients to try and get what we need in the timeframe that we need it, so we can honor both the budget and the timeline?

Because as you all know, oftentimes, the timeline doesn’t move and the budget doesn’t move. And so what it means is we are often spending late hours or weekends or scrambling to try and get something done, to match up to the original timeline. And we often run out of budget before we have run out of tasks. So I really want to dig into this topic and James is the guy to do it with.

All right. So James, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

James Rose:

Drew, thanks for having me. It’s really cool to be here with you.

Drew McLellan:

So before we get into where I think most of our attention is going to focus is the whole idea of content and not only what your tool does, but some best practices that you’ve observed. One of the things that I have found interesting about your story is that… and correct me if I’m wrong, but you were software developers. And then people said, “Hey, can you make websites?” You in essence became a web dev shop and became in essence an agency. And then as you were developing websites, you were realizing your own personal pain point of, “Oh my God, getting content from clients is horrific. There’s gotta be a technology solution to this.”

So you went back to your roots in terms of developing software. And so started working on something that ended up being Content Snare and software as a service. But for a period of time, you were both an agency owner, serving clients day in and day out and doing this side hustle of creating the software. What was that like?

James Rose:

Yeah. I think a lot of entrepreneurial people suffer the whole bright shiny object syndrome and I’m no exception. There’s still so many things I want to do that aren’t either agency work or software like coaching for automation, for example. That’s my shiny object right now. Yeah. It’s a battle to not take on too much, but to be honest, we’ve got a pretty good set up now between me and my business partner that have made it pretty easy. We’ve got a logical separation between the agency side of things and the software.

And I think that was really important. That’s helped us get through a lot of that. And as well as, so the web dev shop was another thing. So we had the software agency, the software actual product business, and then we had the web dev shop and I’d fairly created a lot of processes for that, but our team were able to do a lot of things without me. So that separation really helped.

Drew McLellan:

And did you, at the end, decide to keep all of those separate entities and try and juggle all of those balls? Or did you, at some point in time, decide to bet on one channel or one outcome and scuttle the rest?

James Rose:

We’re very close to that. So the web dev is basically gone. We got rid of everybody except our project manager and our lead WordPress developer, because those guys help us with our internal sites now and [inaudible 00:06:42] editing and all that kind of stuff. So they are still very utilized. And on the software development agency side, we have stripped it back to basically one client. We have one really large client that’s kind of just supplementing, I guess, Content Snare at the moment because Content Snare is, I wouldn’t say it’s comfortably going to support the entire business yet. So we still have this little thing on the side, that’s helping fund further development.

But yeah, the end goal is to eventually get rid of that. But like a single client that we have left.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I just think that for all of us, it’s difficult to stay fragmented for too long. And so unless your businesses are so tightly aligned that they’re the yin and yang of each other. I think it’s difficult for an agency owner to take their eye off the ball without an impact in the business. And so my guess is, as Content Snare and the software agency continued to grow, the part of why you ended up shutting down the web dev shop is because without your attention and time, it starts to wither on the vine a little bit.

James Rose:

Yeah, absolutely. And I recognize this and I was talking to a coach at the time and I remember one sentence that he said, it was just like, “You need to stop doing websites.” And I was like, “Oh.” It gave me permission to start shutting down that part of the business. Yeah. And it was really big because even though I wasn’t required for a lot of it, it’s like a mental fog, I guess. It’s always there and it’s always taking up some of your attention. And it made a really big difference when I was able to focus on the software products. And doing both definitely really difficult.

What made it easier, like I said, is having that business partner. I’m not sure if you’ve read Rocket Fuel about the visionary integrator combo, and we kind of have that sort of thing going on, except he’s, we both overlap a little bit. But we’ve got very distinct business units that we can manage ourselves division of roles, I guess.

Drew McLellan:

So as the business evolves and as you guys get more focused, and as Content Snare becomes a more viable entity and more people are using the tool, liking the tool, I’m sure giving you feedback on the tool of what they would like you to see, I’m curious… first of all, describe for the listeners what Content Snare is in case they’re not familiar with it, because that tees up the question that I want to ask you.

James Rose:

Okay, cool. So right now, well, Content Snare started as a very simple idea to streamline the content collection process for websites. It was very specific. When we were building it, it was built with a website in mind. So there’s pages and there’s sections within a page like a header, and then fields within say a header. So like, I don’t know, a headline, a background image, whatever, or makes up a hero header. And we basically just wanted to streamline that process because we knew it was a massive roadblock bottleneck for us in getting content from clients, which delayed jobs, delayed us getting paid at the end and all that. It just sucks.

And we talked to a lot of people that had the same problem. So yeah, that’s what it started as. It’s moving more towards collaboration platform where more people can work on that content, rather than just a one directional client give me all your content for the website. And it was also getting used for other things now too, like all kinds of content. We’ve got someone from a visa company that process visas for people, collecting documents and stuff from people. So it’s kind of broad.

Drew McLellan:

So that lends itself to the question that I wanted to ask you, which is, you are observing all of these people going through the tool, using the tool, gathering content. And I’m guessing that this shift in the business towards a more collaborative model may be partially the answer to my question, but what trends are you seeing? So you guys have been doing this for a while and when you step back, you were doing it even as a web dev shop. So you were doing it yourself, then you built the tool to make it easier.

So when you look at the kinds of content people are gathering or how they’re using content or how they’re working on content with an agency and a client together, are there some trends or patterns that you’re seeing that are emerging from all of that observation?

James Rose:

Yeah. And you’re right in that, that collaborative thing is where it is going from what I see. We’ve got, like I said, a pretty broad variety of clients. So it’s hard to focus in on a general direction, but I am getting a lot more requests for, let’s say, collaborative features. So that might be things like Google Documents where multiple people can be typing at once and it’s changing and appearing on the other people’s screens, that kind of live updating thing. People want to comment, back and forth comments, being able to tag people.

So then you start getting… you’re encouraging on project management in a way. Let’s just call it content management. And then being able to push that content into other places. So whether that’s a CMS or whatever. So that is what I’m noticing. Sometimes, three-way relationships where it might be an agency, a copywriter and the client, all working together. So the client might provide some things and say they’re done. And then the copywriter will update it or whatever and say they’re done. Then there’s revisions involved as well. So this is kind of the way we’re having to go with the product. It’s not capable of it yet. I’m going to be honest. But we know this is where we need to go, because that’s what people are doing or want.

Drew McLellan:

It’s interesting that you see that because what that suggests to me is that agencies are getting more comfortable acknowledging that all the work hasn’t being done in-house. If they’re being that transparent about the fact that they have an outside writer on the team, then the old, ‘I don’t want clients to know we’re not doing it all under one roof,’ maybe starting to dissipate a little bit.

James Rose:

Yeah. [inaudible 00:13:07]. When we were doing the web shop, we would get other people in, other designers or when we were just doing WordPress development, for example, there would be an external designer. There would be a copy writer. I was very transparent with that. I like that model, and I hope people are going that way because it seems easier to me than trying to hide it all, less deceptive too. But there’s still people that… we get requests to white label the platform all the time so it looks like it’s their own content collection software, which I think makes sense in some circumstances and in some, it’s overkill.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Well, I think our clients are getting very used to agencies using software tools. And so, I think the whole white label thing is becoming less and less of an issue. I think that our clients appreciate the fact that we’re finding something that we didn’t have to put a ton of dev time in, it’s already there, it’s on the shelf and we can use it to make some aspect of our work together easier and faster.

James Rose:

Yeah. And I think a critical thing with all of this though is, even if there are multiple people involved, having one point or place of contact is what a lot of people look for. Like, If they have to go to a designer and get the design done and then go to the dev shop to get it developed and then go to a copywriter in the middle, it’s a bit too much for clients. I think a lot of them still want, especially bigger ones still want that single point of contact, so they don’t have to deal with all this stuff. And that’s, I guess, where we’re trying to go with Content Snare too, because now people are asking for design feedback features to be implemented. And so there’s a lot of steps that people want to use just so that it can be the single point of contact.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah. Well, I can see how that would be challenging from a software point of view of, at a certain point in time, you started with something that was very narrow in its focus and deliverables. And now all of a sudden, everybody’s trying to tack a bunch of other things onto it and make it an all-in-one tool, as opposed to the very specific thing that you had it focused on.

James Rose:

Yeah. I think a lot of software developers… Well, every software, I don’t know, probably has the same thing. Everyone wants every feature. So I think you can find a middle ground too, with integrations. If there’s other products that you can integrate with in some level makes it a bit easier.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I was thinking about the origin story of how the software came to be, and it was really born out of your own frustration as an agency owner and the onerous task of trying to get clients to give content to the agency in a timely fashion. And I hear this every single day where agency owners are saying, “We cannot stay on that timeframe with a client because the framework of the site is all built, but we cannot get the content from them,” which means, to your point earlier, we’re not hitting a milestone. We’re not able to do the next round of building whatever it is, and we’re just treading water.

So I think that’s a common universal problem that is born out of this age of digital assets that we’re building out for clients.

James Rose:

Yeah. And I mean, universal is the right word, I think, because we… well, I did a whole bunch of interviews at the beginning with local agencies that I’ve sort of met in my travels and networking or whatever. And I’d ask them questions about that process, not specific to content, that was always the recommendation when you’re creating new software, don’t try and feed people, lead people down a hole, that makes sense for you. Just talk about their process and what their biggest pains are. And every single person I spoke to mentioned content as one of their biggest pains in some capacity. So that made me go, “Yeah, this is what we need to build.”

Drew McLellan:

Right. So as you’re building this out and as you’re holding these kind of interviews, and I’m sure as you’re having client conversations every day, I know one of the things that you have started to hone in on are that there are certain elements that have to be a part of a process if you’re going to have content collection in any form of streamlined or efficient way. Can you walk us through what some of those elements are?

James Rose:

Yeah. So we’ve obviously talked to a lot of people who succeed with getting content quickly and those who don’t. A lot of people are coming into Content Snare for the first time and then setting it up, we see what people are doing right and wrong. And now we wrap it all up into one training because we’ve worked it out, I think we have anyway. But I think the biggest one is setting expectations. Well, not the biggest one, but it’s the first thing, right?

When a client comes on board, if you let it get to the point where you’re requesting content from them and they didn’t realize it was their responsibility, that’s like a failing on the agency’s part, right? Some people will just have it as like a dot point in the terms and conditions that all content must be provided by you and all images, blah, blah, blah. And it’s like on the 15th page of the terms and conditions right down the bottom. No one read that. So I’ve done it various ways, setting expectations. I’ve seen it done a lot of ways.

I think it’s important to do it from step one. So if that is like a initial questionnaire, this is where we used to do it. And I’ve seen a lot of people doing it now is asking, in that initial questionnaire, where will the content be coming from? And there might be some options in there like we are writing it, you can pull it from our current site, we need help with it or whatever. So that’s the first thing that they realized, “Okay, we’ve got to work out where the content is coming from.” Then you mentioning it in the initial meeting or phone call. Some people have a process page as well, where it’s like, this is our, whether it’s a web design process or if you’re setting up marketing campaigns, there would be a page on your website that says, this is our process, right? Whether that just goes to new clients or it’s public, it doesn’t matter.

But somewhere in there, it should be mentioned like, “This is the step that we wait for you. And this is the most common roadblock.” That’s what we used to like to say in our proposal as well. Making it really clear that if this is a big roadblock, if you hold us up here, then the entire project is going to be delayed. And we went as far to say that if you don’t provide content within, say, seven days of this date, then the project gets archived or goes back into the queue. So that might mean your project gets delayed for however long, because we don’t know how long the queue is going to be when we get back around to your website.

And we found that really helped get people moving when they’ve got that deadline. And it’s like, if they don’t hit it, then things are going to take even longer.

Drew McLellan:

Did you ever charge… One of the other things I know some agencies do, along with the… basically you’re going to have to go back in line, but there was also what they call the dormancy fee, which is, “Look, if we haven’t touched your project for 30 days and we have to crawl back into the code and learn it all again, then there’s basically a restart fee of $1500 to $5,000, depending on the size of the project.” And what they would use that for is it was never their goal to actually charge the client the dormancy fee, bu