Is digital marketing something you really need to outsource?

Over the last year or so, as trade shows and retail outlets have closed and footfall in the physical world declined, digital marketing has become a critical way to reach an audience for any product or service that a start-up may be launching or growing, and especially so if you are D2C and want a direct connection with your customers.

This fundamental, and frustrated need to find a market has grown in parallel with a burgeoning sector of professional digital marketing companies, creating a minefield for new businesses, so I wanted to share my own, admittedly unique, experience of digital marketing and how we have approached it here at natural scent jewellery brand Perfino.

Six months ago, Perfino completed a crowdfunding, the core purpose of which was to raise funds for digital marketing, to enable the world to receive enlightenment regarding the innovation that is natural scent jewellery which helps us to smell great without having to put undisclosed chemical concoctions on our skin.

Up to this point I had a degree of knowledge in the field of digital marketing having run an online gift registry for 10 years and worked closely with various start-ups in an incubator which I managed. So, I wasn’t completely green but there is always this niggling feeling that “experts” can achieve what you cannot, and that of all the things you need to do, employing such an expert was top of the list.

As part of the Virgin Funded programme, I had the huge advantage of a Mentor who ran his own digital marketing agency which proved to be invaluable in the run up to the crowd funding. He helped me whip my social media presence into shape, loaned me the services of a content creator, and generally advised on the do’s and don’ts of online marketing. On the subject of post funding digital marketing support, he advised that I could either employ someone, at a rate in excess of £40k p.a for the experience and quality I would need, or pay an agency.

As I was very early in the growth stage of my business, I took the first option and was sweet talked into employing a full-service agency by one such, founded by a superb salesman and extremely likeable individual. So, naturally I followed my instinct, negotiated the price and came away with a 6-month contract for full social media, influencer marketing, partial PR, and an extra sum for upgrading my shopify theme.

So far so good, and the team were delightful. However, what managing my social media profile translated to was posting content that I had created with a few hashtags added. This was decidedly worse, and certainly less authentic, than my doing this alone with my trusty, but talented and University funded intern. Worse than this, whereas my intern was active in interacting with the social media community, the Agency would not do this as it takes a considerable amount of time which had not been contracted, and as a result we got zero new followers during this period.

The outreach to influencers yielded some highly inappropriate and off brand suggestions at the beginning, which completely blew my confidence, particularly as my intern and I were able to find and engage with value aligned influencers as part of our day-to-day activities and interactions. I feel that we could have evolved with the Agency on this front but as time is money, and other people’s money if you have crowd funded, we dropped this part of the service after 2 months, having grown in confidence of what could be done in-house. No hard feelings; a commercial decision.

Instead, I sought advice from design consultants on look and feel, branding guidelines, and we went our own way. We launched competitions, promotions, ambassador programmes, email marketing and lead generation, and are growing in reach as I write.

The PR engagement entailed a launch piece which seemed to come to nothing, and minimal communication. Once again, to do PR properly you really need to be on the radar of someone who has database access but more importantly constant interactions with the sort of publications which might be interested in your product or service, and not a generalist in the field. So, we also amended this part of our contract, which is to say dropped it, and I now employ a specialist for PR services.

Two months into the six-month contract it did seem that we were doing fine going it alone, with one possible exception – Ads. This is where expertise is most definitely wanted and needed or you risk being what I have heard termed “a busy fool”.

So, the full service Agency, which was now delivering this single service, continued to deliver a budget of several hundred pounds a month, whilst receiving a similar fee for this service.

I was, and still am, confident that this was the right way to go, as few other options have been available over this period to get the brand out there, and in the early days so much is about top of the funnel, awareness raising activity.

So where are we now? Well, if you looked at the ROI of spend on Facebook and Instagram Ads it would not translate to a compelling story if measured by sales. We have, however, made considerable inroads into the general awareness raising and traffic driving. Facebook have provided a weekly call with an inhouse expert who has helped us guide our campaigns and generally demystify what is a very confusing, but expensive area.

I now feel we can take it from here, initially by employing our intern in what might be considered a “proper job” and, when we have more traction, further recruiting to this area of expertise. The Innovate UK EDGE programme has also provided us with some support on Google analytics which will up our knowledge and capabilities in this are too, all for the greater good.

It has been a journey of discovery. Discovering that there are elements that are manageable in house once you have a degree of know how; finding out where serious expertise and connections can help; spending money when you need to and when you know it is better to outsource. Now we have far more confidence in these areas we will begin what I still believe to be the most important element of marketing – getting out there. Shows are still hard to come by and vastly oversubscribed due to last year’s closures and subsequent build-up of demand from stall holders but pop-up opportunities abound on the high street in a solo or shared capacity. Many of these offer a POS service which means that business owners, who know the business better than anyone, can hit the street and do some real person to person market research and general marketing. Throughout I have found referrals and firsthand customer recommendations to be king in driving sales.

In conclusion, I am grateful for all the help and support I have received along the way, for a digital marketing Agency which has been sufficiently flexible to support me in my learning journey, to the wonderful opportunities offered by funded internships, and to the continued belief and enthusiasm I have for my brand, all based on the incredible feedback I have been able to achieve through dealing directly with my customers.