NEW FREE VIDEO COURSE: Essential Google Business Profile Tasks for Agencies

Get the lowdown on client onboarding, GBP monitoring, products and services, and more!

Start with Discovery: The Key to Building Great Partnerships

Start with Discovery: The Key to Building Great Partnerships

This article is from our Agency Playbook—a collection of guides created to help local SEO agencies grow and succeed. It is chapter six of ‘Part One: Pitching and Onboarding’.

It’s exciting when a new lead comes into a marketing agency! The excitement makes it tempting to dive in right away and brainstorm the many ways you can help. However, without understanding a lead’s specific goals, any solutions you come up with are based on assumptions. Even after your initial sales call with an exciting new prospect, most of what you’ve written down will still be assumptions—yours and theirs. 

A prospect will answer your questions to the best of their ability, but they may be clouded by their own emotional investment in the project or by misleading data and reporting from a current marketing vendor. Until you get a good look behind the scenes, you have no business making recommendations or assigning budgets to projects. 

This guide teaches you how to scope and execute a paid (yes, you should be paid for this work) discovery period for new clients. You’ll learn how to get buy-in, structure discovery projects, frame further phases, and build ongoing partnerships. You’ll walk away ready to communicate project needs and constraints more clearly, and you will be more confident in the plans and budgets you present to prospects and clients.

What is discovery work, and why is it key for marketing agencies?

Discovery work started in agile software development and UX so teams could understand and define a project before jumping head-first into development. The purpose of this work was to: 

  • Address uncertainty
  • Support cross-functional collaboration
  • Explore iteratively
  • Validate or disprove assumptions
  • Define a clear roadmap

Five years ago at Kick Point, we had an inkling that we were not approaching digital marketing and website design proposals in a sustainable way. We either put together proposals based totally on best guesses of what a client would need (and then had to make big pivots down the road), or we would do unpaid exploratory work before putting the proposal together. That free exploratory work took valuable time and energy.

We first started experimenting with a paid discovery phase after one of our team members enrolled in digital project management training through the project management consultancy Louder Than Ten. 

Louder Than Ten championed the idea that discovery should not be a phase within an already fully budgeted and scoped project. It should be a completely separate project with its own budget, accounting for the expertise and effort that goes into uncovering complex problems and determining the right path forward.

For us, discovery for marketing and website projects came from a desire to dedicate time to exploring and understanding before committing to executing certain tactics or agreeing to rigid budget constraints. Of course, we’ve always had time to figure out what our prospects need; we just hadn’t historically been compensated for that time. 

Without discovery work, agencies jump right into prescribing and executing before researching and planning. This leads to unclear expectations and misunderstandings about the project scope, causing significant issues and ultimately compromising the potential of the relationship.

If you’ve been feeling some of this, your typical lead process might look like the following:

  1. Take a call with a potential new lead.
  2. Request access to all relevant accounts (Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, Google Search Console (GSC), Google Ads, Meta Business Manager, their website backend, etc.).
  3. Look through previous strategy documents and reports.
  4. Make assumptions about what the client needs and put together a proposal based on that OR.
  5. Recommend the client follow a set package based on work you’ve done for other clients.

Sound familiar?

Here are some of the problems we’ve come across with this approach:

  • You might create a proposal that is too open and run into issues where the client expects more than you’ve budgeted for. In this case, you’ll either have to ask for more budget (hard) or undervalue your work (hard).
  • You might create a proposal that is too strict, and the scope doesn’t allow you to change tactics as you get to know the client and their business better.
  • You might find that those improperly scoped projects are taking more time than you’re being paid for, which means you’re losing money, potential new clients are suffering, and timelines for other existing clients are suffering.
  • If you try to fit every potential new client into a set package, you might find that you’re not moving the needle because you’re focusing on the wrong things for their specific situation and losing their trust by the day.
  • You’re in a situation where you’ve become an “order-taker,” where instead of building and executing a well-researched strategy, you’re just doing what clients have decided is right at any given moment.

What a mess!

Guesswork is not honest, fulfilling, or sustainable. The flip side is that doing research and developing plans for free is spec work and devalues our industry’s expertise. Paid discovery work leads to strong, lucrative marketing partnerships, happy teams, and, importantly, happy clients. It will improve the reputation of the marketing industry as a whole.

What happens during discovery?

That depends on your expertise and area of focus as a marketing agency.

At Kick Point, we specialize in PPC, SEO, Analytics, and Web Design and Development. Our Discoveries always include an expert from each area. If we know that we won’t be looking at a specific area (e.g. a client already has an agency handling PPC), we don’t include someone from that area. However, there is still a lot of value in our team having a holistic view of a client’s entire marketing ecosystem. So, we still request that they provide access to all accounts if they are comfortable.

We also ask questions. Lots of questions. Here are a few examples of questions that will help you get to the heart of what is important to your client and what makes their business unique:

  • Which KPIs/metrics would you be evaluated against when it comes to a performance review? (What will demonstrate to your leadership that you’re doing a great job?)
  • Imagine three ideal clients/customers. Write a 100-word bio for each.
  • What are some things you’ve tried in the past in terms of marketing (or seen tried) that you felt failed or didn’t have the impact you expected?

Once we have access to their accounts, each team member on the project digs into their own specialized area:

Our SEO team members run website crawls to look for glaring technical or on-page SEO issues, review the site architecture, examine the client’s GSC to see how they are performing in search, review any existing keyword research, and spend time in a keyword research tool to get a sense of the keyword landscape.

Our Ads team members review the client’s existing PPC accounts, including Google Ads and any social ads accounts. They look at how the campaigns are structured, how they are performing, and whether there are any obvious issues like high click-through rates (CTR) but low conversions, etc. They review important landing pages to see if CRO best practices are being followed or if ad copy matches the messaging on the page.

Our Analytics team members dig into Google Analytics 4 accounts and Google Tag Manager accounts to see their existing setup, looking for any obvious issues and determining whether there are small tweaks that need to be made or if a major overhaul will be needed to make it possible to track the metrics that the client needs to make good business decisions.

Our design and development team members review the site from a UX perspective, determining if there are major issues around speed, usability, visual hierarchy, etc.

Our team notes what we’re seeing and then develops an initial plan of attack to make the biggest impact for the client. For example, instead of conducting a huge content audit that will take weeks, our SEO team may already see that service pages need serious help, and we should start there.

How long should discovery projects last?

The correct length will depend on the scope of the discovery and the areas of expertise your agency is focused on. At Kick Point, after a client has answered our discovery questions, our involved team members meet on Zoom or a Slack Huddle to do their deep dives and talk through any issues and ideas that come up. While this discussion is happening, a document is being prepared to summarize everyone’s recommendations, red flags, and time/budget needs. 

Sometimes, during this team meeting, a few more questions will pop up, and we send those to our client right away. Once those additional questions are answered, we finalize the Discovery Review Document and send that off to a client to digest before meeting with them to walk through our findings. After that, we send off a Phase 2 proposal. All up, this process can take as little time as 7-10 days. Website discoveries are often much more in-depth and typically take our team 3-4 weeks to complete.

How do you sell discovery projects?

The first step to selling discovery projects successfully is to truly believe that they are necessary. You must commit to insisting on them. As soon as you say, “We usually do discovery projects, but in this case, maybe…” you are unlikely to be able to sell a discovery project. Instead, try, “All of our projects begin with a discovery project.” There is no other option!

You wouldn’t expect a home builder to build a new house without blueprints. And you wouldn’t expect to get totally custom blueprints from an architect for free.

Remembering that discovery projects are not just good for you as the agency, but they are better for the client also helps. Clients will get better outcomes working with an agency that is committed to doing the right thing and not just what they’re assuming is the right thing—or, worse, that they have time for because they didn’t quote enough. Paying their agency fairly results in the right amount of time and effort being spent on problem-solving and well-thought-through implementations, which leads to more leads, sales, and engagement. It is a proactive, long-term approach.

Not every business or every marketing lead you pitch discovery to will get it. That’s okay. They don’t need to get it. Those that do will be the clients that you do great work with for years to come.

How much should a discovery project cost?

We’ve experimented a lot with this over the years! 

Our first discovery proposal was sent (and accepted!) in September 2019. It was beefy and not so much a discovery as a “let’s fix the blatant issues before getting into a monthly management situation.” We priced it at $7,000.

Our first 15 discovery projects were very in-depth and took up to a month to complete because we included some research and strategy work as part of discovery at the start. The average price was $6,700, and our close rate was about 44%.

At the end of 2020, we changed things up so that all of our marketing discovery projects were structured to be very efficient and economical. Up until 2023, our projects were priced at an average of $2,690 only, and our team could usually do one from start to finish in a single afternoon! Our close rate at that time was 60%. 50% of those projects turned into further long-term marketing work, and 11% into large custom website projects.

From 2023 until now, we have taken on fewer projects overall as we’ve invested time into our marketing training platform, KP Playbook, and we’ve focused on growing and strengthening our existing partnerships (many of which started with discovery!). We have been selective in taking on new marketing discoveries and are now at an average of $4,920 a project. Our custom website discoveries now average $19,000 a project.

It’s important to note here that our website discovery projects cover the “planning” portion of a website project (keyword research, site architecture, wireframes, etc.) with the aim of being able to accurately quote on design and development, so they are much more robust than our marketing discoveries, which we’ve mostly discussed in this article.

We are continuing to experiment with the scope and scale of discovery projects, but one thing remains the same: the discovery project itself is not a set package. Have a massive site with user logins, hundreds of pages, a complex lead to CRM integration, and three subdomains you’d like us to look at? That’s going to be more work to dive into than a small business with a homepage, contact page and three service pages, and no Google Analytics or Ads accounts.

What happens after discovery projects?

Ideally, after completing a discovery, you have a Phase 2 proposal ready to share with the client, with recommendations clearly mapped to the goals they’ve shared with you.

What that looks like depends on what you’ve found during discovery. That’s the whole point!

For some clients, that might mean a research-based project to set a good foundation and then a couple of months of training so they can manage and grow their marketing efforts from there. For others, it might mean setting up a monthly ongoing relationship with a set number of tasks that you’ll complete each month from the roadmap you’ve created.

For us, not every discovery project turns into a long-term partnership, and that’s a good thing. We are not the right long-term fit for every client we do a discovery project with, but they will always walk away with a clear direction of where they should go next if it is not with us. In many cases, the answer from discovery was to provide training to a team so they could execute recommendations in-house. 

Regardless of what comes next, you can feel confident that you’ve done your due diligence before making those recommendations. You also have set up a relationship with a client where you are paid fairly for your efforts from day one, have set the expectation that good work doesn’t just happen without research, and that learning and changing course is a natural part of the process.

Laura Salter
About the contributors
As Director of Operations at Kick Point, Laura spends lots of time finding efficiencies, improving processes, and organizing project management systems, all with the goal in mind of creating more space for fun, creativity and balance at work.
Jen Salamandick
As Partner & VP of Special Projects at Kick Point, Jen listens to the people on her team to figure out what they need to be the versions of “best” that matter most to them. Her goal is to always help people grow in their roles and in their careers in general.

Related Posts