I've been working in online marketing for nearly 10 years now. My experience has ranged from being both in-house and agency side as well as running my own freelance company. Today I run an agency (with other people too) with offices in two countries.
One thing this varied experience has done for me has given me insight into clients who have budgets from $400 per month all the way up to in excess of $40,000 per month. You learn a lot about client relations from both budget spectrums, however, I have found that the smaller the budget, the higher the proportion of maintenance that the client requires (from my experience).
Here are some potential issues you may encounter with small budget clients and solutions for managing expectations from the outset.
For this post, let's assume that "the client" is a new lead that has come in and has a budget of $500 per month. Let's also assume that the client is a "one man band" (up to 5 people), is less than 2 years old, and has no other marketing budget set aside.
1. Expectations of Hours Spent
When I was a freelancer much earlier on in my career I said yes to pretty much any job that fell in my lap. While this was great at the beginning, over time I found that I was working too much in proportion to what my client was paying. As it was early in my career, I was perfectly willing to work extra hours to ensure client retention. But eventually there came a point where it was too much.
Create an hourly rate and stick to it, even before any contract is signed. Here, the client has $500 to spend each month and you have to consider any outgoings you may have attached to that budget. An example would be to charge $75 per hour, giving you 6 hours of work per month plus $50 to spend.
This expectation may not please your client as that $500 is important to him/her. Six hours may not sound like a lot, but this has to be fair on you too. For $500 the client can't expect a "virtual member of staff" who is on call to answer everything at any point – especially if your hours are fulfilled. The client has to remember that you will have many clients just like him/her, and that they too will have their own expectations.
2. Managing Those Limited Hours Wisely
The term "SEO" is now only part and parcel of a general online marketing strategy that requires work on various aspects, including on-site, content, outreach, CRO, analytical research, social media integration, and reporting. For that $500, you will have to manage this each month to ensure that they have the best quality work done with consideration of that budget, noting that month-on-month you will have to concentrate on different things.
Each month you will have to set out how much time you want to spend on each task. You can make it slightly easier using a project management document to ensure everything is organized for all clients. Luckily I have created a free project management template for Google Drive which can help you with this.
One thing to note: the client should always be informed of your plans ahead of time as their priorities may not match your own. Concentrate more perhaps on converting visitors rather than sacrificing the majority of your time with outreach.
3. Sacrificing or Simplifying 'Non-Essential' Tasks
Managing those hours may still be tight for you. If you're faced with a task that could potentially take 2 hours to complete, you should seriously consider if there is a way to compress it into a one hour task without loss of quality to the client.
Create an extremely simple report containing limited data that will, in effect, reduce the time it takes you to produce it. One tip here would be to include less commentary or create a streamlined Google Analytics Dashboard for your client to view that can give them up-to-date information without you having to produce another section about analytics in your report.
Something else to consider is logging the work you do. Trello and Toggl will help you out with this, but having to report on every minute detail of your work is inefficient and has no real value to anyone when the general budget is small – there's no need to log every email you send just for the sake of the client if you're organized enough.
Agree on KPIs
You need to understand the client's business from the outset. The client is investing a lot in you despite having no guarantees of any ROI – SEO is something that can't be measured or forecasted with precision (especially with low budgets), and SEO takes quite a few months to see real results.
However, you still need to decide on what these key performance indicators (KPIs) are and you need to ensure that the client understands that short tail is pretty much impossible unless their short tail keyword targets is a general long tail.
Let's say that the client is an accountant. You need to ensure that you know what their average client makes for them as one client may make them $2,000 per annum (assuming that the client keeps them year-on-year).
I would also advise to have an agreement of no less than 6 months so that the client understands that no work you do will show any real effect for at least 3 months and that you will need months 4, 5 and 6 to analyze results and prove you have fulfilled your agreed KPIs.
Try to Increase Budgets over Time
Let's say that 6 months have now passed and you've fulfilled the KPIs you agreed at the beginning of the contract. The client may insist that no ROI has been generated, however, you must refer back to your agreed KPIs – if you fulfilled them, then you did your job correctly. Of course, KPIs will be connected to ROI, but sometimes the work you do is only so much.
Using the accountant as a client example again, one KPI would be that you need to increase conversions where a conversion would be defined as an email form completion or telephone call. Once that email is sent or call is placed you have no control as to whether that conversion will turn from a lead into a client for many reasons – the client may not be able to service that lead as intended, there may be a seasonal slump, or the salesman answering the calls and emails may not be good him/herself at converting leads.
Translate to the client, and be clear, that fulfilling KPIs and ROI aren't always the same thing and ROI is something you can't solely control and therefore can't be held to it to decide on any renewal.
You may also want to suggest (if your first 6 months can prove it) that their budget needs to be increased to show more significant results. The client may always say that they intend to increase their budget, but until they actually do it, they simply won't receive what they expect to receive.