Are you a savvy social media marketer looking to transform your expertise into a flourishing business? Read on for a step-by-step guide on how to start an SMMA (or social media marketing agency) and make your entrepreneurial ambitions come to life.
I’ve created a handbook to support you towards becoming an agency owner, with ten detailed steps and 3 social media management tools for agencies to help you on your journey.
I’ve also talked to three experienced agency owners, who shared their wisdom about the early days. Ready to start a social media marketing agency? Bet you will be, after reading this!
What is an SMMA?
A social media marketing agency is a type of business that offers services to help brands grow and succeed through strategic use of various social media accounts and platforms.
The agency’s main focus is on promoting brands, engaging with their target audiences, and ultimately driving business growth. They achieve this by creating engaging content, running effective advertising campaigns, and managing online communities on behalf of their clients.
How to start an SMMA in 10 steps
You’ve been in social media marketing for a while, and starting a social media marketing agency is an attractive idea and a challenging professional development. Becoming a business owner is super exciting. But also, maybe a little scary.
Let’s cover the basics, to remove some of that initial jitter. Here are ten steps you need to take to start a social media agency of your own.
1. Find your niche
Some prefer the Jack-of-all-trades approach when building a social media marketing agency. However, we often forget the second part of this saying: “master of none”.
Subconsciously, catering to more than one field feels like it will bring you more clients and expand your options. But as a marketer, you know how vital setting the right target audience is. So start with identifying the niche you’d like to focus on.
Sticking to a specific niche, not in terms of just what do, but who we do it for. Growth-focused marketing for startups and SMEs. Simple. That has been our audience from day 1 and is to this day. We believe having a clear niche, whether in terms of what you do or who you do it for, is key.
A specific niche helps you establish your stance on the market as a source of expertise in the field and fortify your selling proposition. It’s also easier to find clients when you know exactly where to look and what to offer them.
B2B tech companies, retail, small local businesses, fitness, and wellness – find your SMMA niche early on and stick to it. You can always expand later if the opportunity arises.
I find if you ONLY work within one industry, you become your own competition for your clients. You get bored more quickly as well. I’ve always said that instead of finding an industry niche, find your value proposition and your X-factor. Niche that. Make that the special thing. And then apply that special thing to ANY industry. This keeps things fresh and fun. AND you are no longer competing with yourself.
2. Clarify your offer
Now that you have the niche for your social media marketing agency, let’s work on your proposition. What makes your offer unique? Maybe you’re just way better than others in doing X? Identify your X and use it as the cornerstone of your unique selling proposition (or USP).
For instance, you’re a social media marketing expert with ten years of working in an IT employer brand — that’s in-depth knowledge of the niche you can sell. Or you may have a vast network of influencers to collaborate with. Or you’re phenomenal in making viral TikToks. Whatever it is, show that you can bring results nobody else can.
Avoid being too narrow, though. You have your USP, but your agency can still provide different services related to it.
From the start, we have always messaged that we are an extension of our clients’ internal teams—treat us as if we were your co-workers, working alongside you to successfully build your small business.
So instead of viewing our clients as business partners, we view them as friends—ones in which you can be real, honest, and authentic. Our output is high-quality and professional, but as people, we’re casual, fun, and relationship-driven, so we wanted to establish this with all our clients, too.
Lynzee Krohne, founder of LEO + LAINE
3. Create a business plan and set your pricing
A viable business model is just as crucial for a new business as a content strategy is for social media. A good business plan for a social media marketing company should include:
- Mission and goals, both financial and ideological
- A detailed description of your target audience, its expectations, and challenges
- Your solutions to said challenges — aka, the social media marketing services you offer
- Strategy: how you look for clients, where and how you explore new markets, etc.
- Financial plans, including pricing, target profit, and other vital numbers
Our initial business plan was to start with a few local small businesses to establish our systems and portfolio in order to grow. At first, if we liked the client personally, we would take on their work. Sometimes, it was in an industry that wasn’t exciting or interesting to us, so the work eventually started to be more of a task than a passion.
The whole point of creating LEO + LAINE was to love what we do, so after about two years in business, we started to refine our client list and establish guidelines for our dream client.
Lynzee Krohne, founder of LEO + LAINE
The pricing for your social media management services is always the main head-scratcher. To make it easier and more tied to reality, check out your competitors on the market and combine the gained knowledge with these things:
- Your personal income
- How much you need to invest in your business to keep it growing
- Your expenses, such as project management, social scheduling tools, or creative software licenses
- Number of clients you expect to attract every month (stay realistic, though)
A business plan is important but not set in stone. It’s hard for a fresh business owner to theorize the fluid market and plan precisely, so leave some room for miscalculations and maneuvers. If your new business doesn’t make six figures in the first couple of months as planned, feel free to adjust your planning to reality.
We really evolved it and built it as went. We didn’t have a rigid business plan (not saying that’s the best way to do things), but we were clear on what problem we solved and for whom. From there, we developed a lot of the plan based on what people wanted, not what we thought they would want.
Pip Hawkins, founder of Colour Me Social
4. Build an audience
This step is optional, although handy when cooked right. Building a potential target audience helps you create a buzz around your upcoming social media marketing agency.
You’re a social media marketer: you have skills and a network of former colleagues, clients, and fellow content aces who follow you on Linkedin or other social channels. Use your personal social media presence to lay the groundwork for the launch and kickstart lead generation.
Of course, you can skip this step or easily interchange it with the next one, the actual launch. Building an audience beforehand will help you attract clients in the first place and secure some early success, which is good for both your business and motivation.
The friction of finding the first clients can demotivate new business owners — why not cushion the blow and start on a high note, then?
Finding our firs customers wasn’t through social media, surprisingly (which I probably shouldn’t admit to!). Email marketing was, and still is, a huge source of growth and lead generation for us. So much so we now provide it as a service. Email is an incredibly strong way of raising awareness of who you are, what you do, and, importantly, how you can solve the problems your target audiences have.
Secondly, after email, referrals helped to grow and still ‘feed’ us 9 years later.
Pip Hawkins, founder of Colour Me Social
5. Establish your agency
When the groundwork is done, it’s time to establish your social media marketing agency.
I won’t go into much detail here: the legal process depends greatly on your location. Bear in mind that different company types have various limitations, tax rules, and other formalities that you should research beforehand.
Long story short: choose a name, go through the formal company launch, set up the professional website for your SMMA, and change your Linkedin description to “Social media agency owner”. Hooray — you have a business!
6. Document your processes
When you start a social media marketing agency, you face a bunch of unfamiliar things that you might’ve never encountered as a part of the team or as a freelancer. Running a business is a hectic endeavor, especially in the beginning, when you have no established processes or stable clients.
To bring some sense of order and prevent the overwhelming anxiety from hitting you, document all your main processes and use them as guidelines. Here are some of the things you might want to begin with:
- Legal processes: how you approach client collaborations, what documents need signing, how you handle intellectual property.
- Outreach methods: how you find clients and communicate with them, what are your lead sourcing scenarios.
- Content-related processes: how you edit, proof, and create content, where you plan your content, or who does your graphic design.
- Client feedback & approval: how do you receive the green light from your customers, how do you implement changes, and how much time does it take?
- KPIs analysis: how often do you gather analytics, what tools do you use, and which stats do you include in the client reports to track your efficiency?
The first processes I put into place were proper proposals and terms & conditions contracts. I found a lot of people took us more seriously when we presented ourselves professionally.
Hollie Hoadley, founder of Creative Solutions
7. Prospect your first clients
Finding the first clients might be the hardest thing in running social media marketing agencies. Here are some popular ways to generate leads and attract new clients.
Good old word of mouth works perfectly for a young business. Referrals combine brand visibility with social proof, as they come from satisfied clients — or people who worked with you personally before and can vouch for your skills and expertise.
A new SMMA can benefit greatly from the owner’s personal brand, so leverage that network of yours on every social media platform you have.
As a brand-new agency operating from Southwest Michigan (a non-metropolitan area), our strongest pipeline for new business in the beginning was word of mouth, and working with local, small business owners. I lived in the area and close to these businesses, so there was a common connection there. We offered services to these business owners at an affordable price, and we helped them step into or strengthen their digital presence.
Creating a solid client base from our local connections helped establish a foundation for us to grow our client list and team member count to offer a more dynamic set of services.
Lynzee Krohne, founder of LEO + LAINE
Running ads to gain paid traffic is also a viable option for client acquisition. That includes advertising on social media, doing guest posts in Facebook groups and Linkedin communities, generating leads through landing pages, or featuring in industry-related media.
You can also share your ads or promo posts in related Linkedin groups. Find a specific group that might have your potential clients and publish your promo there, inviting them to connect or get a quote. Make sure to run this by admins first.
Cold calling is a slightly controversial tool for a B2C segment. However, the B2B segment’s success rate can come up to 10%. So don’t discharge cold calling immediately.
You can also replace the call itself with direct messages or emails. The idea remains the same: you find potential target customers and make the first move by reaching out to them and offering your services.
You can find clients by visiting niche events: conferences, meetups, lectures, etc. Or find a local business in need of a Facebook page rebranding or basic digital marketing support and offer your content creation services. It’s a great way to kickstart your portfolio and gain your first real clients.
Updating my LinkedIn profile was the first thing I did. Once I did that, my connections received a notification that I ‘started a new job’ and they all congratulated me. With anyone who congratulated me, I set up a 30 min catch-up call to see how they were doing and let them know what I was up to. Pick the low-hanging fruit first and let them help you grow.
The next thing I did was reach out to other marketing agencies to build a strategic relationship with. We shared our wins, asked each other for feedback, and shared resources to grow each other’s business and reach.
Hollie Hoadley, founder of Creative Solutions
8. Plan your meetings
When you’ve got a warm lead on your first client for the social media marketing agency, set a meeting and come extra prepared. Develop a first meeting brief to ensure you get everything. Use it to assess the current state of all your potential clients. Here are some of the core things to ask your clients:
- Their niche, product, and target audience
- Overarching goals and current challenges they face
- What social media accounts do they have
- Previous experience with social media agencies, if they had some
- The allocated budget for agency collaboration
A meeting with potential customers can be stressful: you need to gather intel and soft-sell your services while dissolving arising doubts. A thought-through meeting structure helps you stay on track and concentrate on building a relationship with the customer rather than anxiously remembering if you have asked something already.
9. Close the deal
Most deals take more than one meeting to close. There may be cases when a potential client agrees to work with you on the spot, but the decision to sign with a social media marketing agency usually involves more than one decision-maker. And thus, takes time, and several discussions to address everyone’s questions.
Make sure to follow up on the promising leads. Address all of your potential client’s uncertainties and make sure they’re well equipped to further sell your agency inside their company. Send them sample work, and put everything you present in documents that can be further shared with other internal stakeholders. Don’t be shy to send reminders from time to time, and ask if you can offer anything extra to tip the scales in your favor.
10. Deliver on your promises
Once you sign with a client, the even more important work begins. I’m not going to tell you how to do your social media management job, you know that better than I do, but ensuring you deliver on what you promised is mandatory.
There’s nothing more valuable for a business than reputation, and gaining a good one, especially in the early days, is crucial. A good reputation and satisfied clients bring new clients through referrals, which means more business for your agency, and that’s what you’re aiming for.
So, to ensure service delivery, remember two core things: don’t overpromise to make the sale, and keep your internal processes tamed.
Our differentiator then and now is how we view our client relationships—hands down. My right hand, Kayla Weich and I previously worked for traditional agencies where we observed a lot of red tape, poor transparency, debilitating boundaries, and overall lack of positive relationships with most of our clients. We were determined to change this dynamic with our LEO + LAINE clients.
From the start, we have always messaged that we are an extension of our clients’ internal teams—treat us as if we were your co-workers, working alongside you to successfully build your small business. So instead of viewing our clients as business partners, we view them as friends—ones in which you can be real, honest, and authentic. Our output is high-quality and professional, but as people, we’re casual, fun, and relationship-driven, so we wanted to establish this with all our clients, too.
Lynzee Krohne, founder of LEO + LAINE
3 best tools to help you run your SMMA
To start a social media marketing agency is one thing — running it is a whole other story. However, with the right tools by your side, you can make it less hectic. Check out three software tools that can give you a helping hand.
Planable is an ultimate collaborative content management tool that makes the life of social media marketing agency owners undoubtedly easier. Content is the king of social media management, and in Planable, you can collaborate on any written content.
That’s right: from social media posts to Instagram stories, blogs, emails, and briefs, your team can create and approve both internal and external content. A true game-changer is the dedicated workspaces where you can organize the very own ecosystem for each client with customized approval workflows, roles, social accounts, and content libraries.
Here are some of the most valuable Planable features to ease managing social media channels for multiple clients:
- Extended collaboration features. The team can communicate as if they were sitting in the same room. Planable allows them to create content together, give immediate feedback through internal and external comments, and stay on the same page at any moment.
- Content management. Create, edit, and schedule content in one place. A highly visual content calendar helps you gain a comprehensive overview of your social media efforts, and automated publishing saves you tons of time.
- Approval workflows. Making the worst part of working with external clients x10 easier. Planable has custom approval workflows that help you get the green light from clients much faster and with no lengthy email exchanges.
- External collaboration. You can set roles and permissions to divide your team and clients while still having them in the same workspace. Share internal notes your clients won’t see and use external link sharing to give the decision-makers a quick look.
The tool supports all major social platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and Google My Business.
Among the downsides, I’d mention that with Planable, you can only automatically publish content on social media platforms, and the lack of built-in analytical tools. Other than that, Planable is the best choice for managing content in a social media agency.
In terms of pricing, Planable offers a very flexible system. You can tweak every aspect, from the feature set to the number of users and workspaces. This benefits young agencies greatly: you can start with as little as $11/month and expand with new clients and new budgets coming in.
Planable is a complex yet highly-intuitive tool that ticks all your content-related boxes: from creation to approval and feedback. Collaboration is Planable’s core focus, so your agency and clients will always stay on the same page effortlessly. Try its free 50 posts to see for yourself how Planable can be of help to your business.
Socialinsider gives you a deep understanding of your competitors and helps you gain a strong foothold on the market. This tool puts competitor data in the spotlight, making it easier to refine your selling proposition, set benchmarks, and gather in-depth analytics.
Social media marketers can use Socialinsider for TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin.
- Campaign reporting. Gather detailed analytical reports on cross-platform social media page campaigns.
- Competitor analysis. Monitor your social media performance metrics and compare your performance against leading competitors.
- Smart benchmarking. The platform analyses performance within your field and provides benchmarks related to your industry and niche.
Socialinsider is a powerful analytics and competitor analysis tool, but it lacks content creation features. It only caters to analytical support, not full-cycle social media management.
The pricing starts at $149/month for the Competitor plan focusing on business analytics and $199/month for the Strategy plan aiming at campaign management.
Socialinsider is not a multi-tool, but a targeted solution for comprehensive analytics and reporting. If you take a data-driven approach to digital marketing efforts, Socialinsider has more than several benefits to offer.
ActiveCampaign is a digital marketing and automation tool allowing you to push your potential clients down the sales funnel automatically. Simply put, ActiveCampaign helps you process your clients faster and more efficiently to ensure your lead generation bears fruit.
A few things that make ActiveCampaign a top-notch helper in running a social media management agency:
- Automated email marketing. Using the custom-built customer journey map, automate follow-up emails and trigger chains to improve your client acquisition numbers.
- CRM to track your leads. ActiveCampaign automates contact management while monitoring deals and estimating the probability of winning over a particular lead.
- Support at every stage of the sales funnel. From reaching out to nurturing and converting leads, ActiveCampaign offers automation tools for each stage, helping you keep an eye on your potential client throughout the whole customer journey.
Like Socialinsider, ActiveCampaign is a solution for a particular issue rather than a complex tool. It takes a huge burden off your shoulders by automating the most delicate part of the sales process — lead following.
The plans differ based on the feature set: for instance, the Marketing plan starts at $49/month, while the cheapest Marketing + Sales bundle costs $93/month.
ActiveCampaign is an amazing tool for automating the mundane part of lead generation and converting more people into clients. It helps you track and process every potentially interested customer before the trail goes cold.
Starting a social media marketing agency might feel overwhelming. However, it’s a great way to grow from a hands-on position to management and apply years of social media experience to a bigger scale.
Running an SMMA is much less hectic with the right tools and approach. So set your plan in motion, and Planable will be by your side to support you in all things content!