Can your marketing agency make a profit working with low-budget clients in rural areas?

Could you be overlooking a source of referrals, publicity, and professional satisfaction if you’re mainly focused on landing larger clients in urban locales? Clients in least-populated areas need to capture every customer they can get to be viable, including locals, new neighbors, and passers-through. Basic Local SEO can go a long way toward helping with this, and even if package offerings aren’t your agency’s typical approach, a simple product that emphasizes education could be exactly what’s called for.

Today, I’d like to help you explore your opportunities of serving rural and very small town clients. I’ve pulled together a sample spreadsheet and a ton of other resources that I hope will empower you to develop a bare-bones but high-quality local search marketing package that will work for most and could significantly benefit your agency in some remarkable ways.

Everything in moderation

The linchpin fundamental to the rural client/agency relationship is that the needs of these businesses are so exceedingly moderate. The competitive bar is set so low in a small-town-and-country setting, that, with few exceptions, clients can make a strong local showing with a pared-down marketing plan.

Let’s be honest — many businesses in this scenario can squeak by on a website design package from some giant web hosting agency. A few minutes spent with Google’s non-urban local packs attest to this. But I’m personally dissatisfied by independent businesses ending up being treated like numbers because it’s so antithetical to the way they operate. The local hardware store doesn’t put you on hold for 45 minutes to answer a question. The local farm stand doesn’t route you overseas to buy heirloom tomatoes. Few small town institutions stay in business for 150 years by overpromising and under-delivering.

Let’s assume that many rural clients will have some kind of website. If they don’t, you can recommend some sort of freebie or cheapie solution. It will be enough to get them placed somewhere in Google’s results, but if they never move beyond this, the maximum conversions they need to stay in business could be missed.

I’ve come to believe that the small-to-medium local marketing agency is the best fit for the small-to-medium rural brand because of shared work ethics and a similar way of doing business. But both entities need to survive monetarily and that means playing a very smart game with a budget on both sides.

It’s a question of organizing an agency offering that delivers maximum value with a modest investment of your time and the client’s money.

Constructing a square deal

When you take on a substantial client in a large town or city, you pull out all the stops. You dive deeply into auditing the business, its market, its assets. You look at everything from technical errors to creative strengths before beginning to build a strategy or implement campaigns, and there may be many months or years of work ahead for you with these clients. This is all entirely appropriate for big, lucrative contracts.

For your rural roster, prepare to scale way back. Here is your working plan:

1. Schedule your first 15-minute phone call with the client

Avoid the whole issue of having to lollygag around waiting for a busy small business owner to fill out a form. Schedule an appointment and have the client be at their place of business in front of a computer at the time of the call. Confirm the following, ultra-basic data about the client.

  • Name
  • Address
  • Phone
  • URL
  • Business model (single location brick-and-mortar, SAB, etc.)
  • Category
  • Are there any other businesses at this address?
  • Main products/services offered
  • If SAB, list of cities served
  • Most obvious search phrase they want to rank for
  • Year established and year they first took the business online
  • Have they ever been aware of a penalty on their website or had Google tell them they were removing a listing?
  • Finally, have the client (who is in front of their computer at their place of business) search for the search term that’s the most obviously important and read off to you the names and URLs of the businesses ranking in the local pack and on the first page of the organic results.

And that’s it. If you pay yourself $100/hr, this quick session yields a charge of $25.

2. Make a one-time investment in writing a bare-bones guide to Local SEO

Spend less than one working day putting together a .pdf file or Google doc written in the least-technical language containing the following:

  • Your briefest, clearest definition of what local SEO is and how it brings customers to local businesses. Inspiration here.
  • An overview of 3 key business models: brick & mortar, SAB, and home-based so the client can easily identify which of these models is theirs.
  • A complete copy of the Guidelines for representing your business on Google with a link in it to the live guidelines.
  • Foolproof instructions for creating a Google account and creating and claiming a GMB listing. Show the process step-by-step so that anyone can understand it. Inspiration here.
  • A list of top general industry citation platforms with links to the forms for getting listed on them. Inspiration here and if the client can hit at least a few of these, they will be off to a good start.
  • An overview of the role of review acquisition and response, with a few simple tips for earning reviews and a list of the top general industry review platforms. Inspiration here and here.
  • An overview of the role of building offline relationships to earn a few online linktations. Inspiration here.
  • Links to the Google My Business forum and the main Google support platforms including their phone number (844.491.9665), Facebook, Twitter, and online chat. Tell the client this is where to go if they encounter a problem with their Google listing in the future.
  • Links to major independent business associations as a support vehicle for small and rural businesses like AMIBA, ILSR, and Small Business Saturday. Inspiration here.
  • Your agency’s complete contact information so that the business can remember who you are and engage you for further consulting down the road, if ever necessary.

If you pay yourself $100 an hour, investing in creating this guide will cost you less than $1000.00. That’s a modest amount that you can quickly earn back from clients. Hopefully, the inspirational links I’ve included will give you a big head start. Avoid covering anything trendy (like some brand new Google feature) so that the only time you should have to update the guide in the near future will be if Google makes some major changes to their guidelines or dashboard.

Deliver this asset to every rural client as their basic training in the bare essentials of local marketing.

3. Create a competitive audit spreadsheet once and fill it out ad infinitum

What you want here is something that lets you swiftly fill in the blanks.

For the competitive audit, you’ll be stacking up your client’s metrics against the metrics of the business they told you was ranking at the top of the local pack when they searched from their location. You can come up with your own metrics, or you can make a copy of this template I’ve created for you and add to it/subtract from it as you like.

Make a copy of the ultra-basic competitive local audit template — you can do so right here.

You’ll notice that my sample sheet does not delve deeply into some of the more technical or creative areas you might explore for clients in tougher markets. With few exceptions, rural clients just don’t need that level of insight to compete.

Give yourself 45 focused minutes filling in the data in the spreadsheet. You’ve now invested 1 hour of time with the client. So let’s give that a value of $100.

4. Transfer the findings of your audit into a custom report

Here’s another one-time investment. Spend no more than one workday creating a .pdf or Google Docs template that takes the fields of your audit and presents them in a readable format for the client. I’m going to leave exact formatting up to you, but here are the sections I would recommend structuring the report around:

  • A side-by-side comparison of the client vs. competitor metrics, bucketed by topic (Website, GMB, Reputation, Links, Citations, etc)
  • A very basic explanation of what those metrics mean
  • A clear recommendation of what the client should do to improve their metrics

For example, your section on reputation might look like this:

The beauty of this is that, once you have the template, all you have to do is fill it out and then spend an hour making intelligent observations based on your findings.

Constructing the template should take you less than one workday; so, a one-time investment of less than $1,000 if you are paying yourself $100/hr.

Transferring the findings of your audit from the spreadsheet to the report for each client should take about 1 hour. So, we’re now up to two total hours of effort for a unique client.

5. Excelling at value

So, you’ve now had a 15-minute conversation with a client, given them an introductory guide to the basics of local search marketing, and delivered a customized report filled with your observations and their to-dos. Many agencies might call it a day and leave the client to interpret the report on their own.

But you won’t do that, because you don’t want to waste an incredible opportunity to build a firm relationship with a business. Instead, spend one more hour on the phone with the owner, going over the report with them page by page and allowing a few minutes for any of their questions. This is where you have the chance to deliver exceptional value to the client, telling them exactly what you think will be most helpful for them to know in a true teaching moment.

At the end of this, you will have become a memorable ally, someone they trust, and someone to whom they will have confidence in referring their colleagues, family members, and neighbors.

You’ve made an overall investment of less than $2,000 to create your rural/small town marketing program.

Packaging up the guide, the report and the 1:1 phone consulting, you have a base price of $300 for the product if you pay yourself $100/hour.

However, I’m going to suggest that, based on the level of local SEO expertise you bring to the scenario, you create a price point somewhere between $300–$500 for the package. If you are still relatively green at local SEO, $300 could be a fair price for three hours of consulting. If you’re an industry adept, scale it up a bit because, because you bring a rare level of insight to every client interaction, even if you’re sticking to the absolute basics. Begin selling several of these packages in a week, and it will start totaling up to a good monthly revenue stream.

As a marketer, I’ve generally shied away from packages because whenever you dig deeply into a client’s scenario, nuances end up requiring so much custom research and communication. But, for the very smallest clients in this least competitive markets, packages can hit the spot.

Considerable benefits for your agency

The client is going to walk away from the relationship with a good deal … and likely a lot to do. If they follow your recommendations, it will typically be just what they needed to establish themselves on the web to the extent that neighbors and travelers can easily find them and choose them for transactions. Good job!

But you’re going to walk away with some amazing benefits, too, some of which you might not have considered before. To wit:

1. Relationships and the ripple effect

A client you’ve treated very well on the phone is a client who is likely to remember you for future needs and recommend you. I’ve had businesses send me lovely gifts on top of my consulting fee because I’ve taken the time to really listen and answer questions. SEO agencies are always looking for ways to build authentic relationships. Don’t overlook the small client as a centroid of referrals throughout a tight-knit community and beyond it to their urban colleagues, friends, and family.

2. Big data for insights and bragging rights

If your package becomes popular, a ton of data is going to start passing through your hands. The more of these audits you do, the more time you’re spending actively observing Google’s handling of the localized SERPs. Imagine the blog posts your agency can begin publishing by anonymizing and aggregating this data, pulling insights of value to our industry. There is no end to the potential for you to grow your knowledge.

Apart from case studies, think of the way this package can both build up your proud client roster and serve as a source of client reviews. The friendly relationship you’ve built with that 1:1 time can now become a font of very positive portfolio content and testimonials for you to publish on your website.

3. Agency pride from helping rebuild rural America

Have you noticed the recent spate of hit TV shows that hinge on rebuilding dilapidated American towns? Industry consolidation is most often cited as the root of rural collapse, with small farmers and independent businesses no longer able to create a tax base to support basic community needs like hospitals, fire departments, and schools. Few of us rejoice at the idea of Main Streets — long-cherished hallmarks not just of Americana but of shared American identity — becoming ghost towns.

But if you look for it, you can see signs of brilliant small entrepreneurs uniting to buck this trend. Check out initiatives like Locavesting and Localstake. There’s a reason to hope in small farming co-ops, the Main Street movement, and individuals like these who can re-envision a crumbling building as an independent country store, a B&B, or a job training center with Internet access.

It can be a source of professional satisfaction for your marketing agency if you offer these brave and hard-working business owners a good deal and the necessary education they need to present themselves sufficiently on the web. I live in a rural area, and I know just how much a little, solid advice can help. I feel extra good if I know I’m contributing to America’s rural comeback story.

Promoting your rural local SEO package

Once you’ve got your guide and templates created, what next? Here are some simple tips:

  • Create a terrific landing page on your website specifically for this package and call it out on your homepage as well. Wherever appropriate, build internal links to it.
  • Promote on social media.
  • Blog about why you’ve created the package, aligning your agency as an ally to the rebuilding of rural communities.
  • If, like me, you live in a rural area, consider presenting at local community events that will put you in front of small business owners.
  • Don’t overlook old school media like community message boards at the local post office, or even fliers tacked to electric poles.
  • If you’re a city slicker, consider how far you’d have to travel to get to the nearest rural community to participate in events.
  • Advertising both off and online in rural papers can be quite economical. There is also a place of worship print bulletins, local school papers, and other publications that welcome sponsors. Give it a try.
  • And, of course, ask happy clients to refer you, telling them what it means to your business. You might even develop a referral program.

The truth is that your agency may not be able to live by rural clients, alone. You may still be targeting the bulk of your campaigns towards urban enterprises because just a few highly competitive clients can bring welcome security to your bank account.

But maybe this is a good day to start looking beyond the fast food franchise, the NY attorney and the LA dermatology group. The more one reads about rural entrepreneurs, the more one tends to empathize with them, and empathy is the best foundation I know of for building rewarding business relationships.

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