How Agencies Can Adapt to the Coronavirus-Affected Market

Daria Karpova

May 18, 20206 min read
Agency adapt for coronavirus

A Success Story in the Making

As the coronavirus has taken over the world, we see businesses fighting for their life. Marketing is the one industry that is supposed to connect brands with consumers, but who is there to connect with if the latter has no money and the former is forced to pull back on their marketing activities?

A lot of SEMrush’s friends are such marketing agencies, working day and night to grow their clients’ businesses, but are now facing uneasy times.

We decided to seek their advice on how to navigate this quiet storm and adapt strategies. 

Business Challenge 

Gareth Hoyle is the CEO of Marketing Signals, a UK-based agency. Ordinarily a successful and dynamic business, Gareth highlighted they are now going through a bit of a rough patch:

“We are not immune! I have furloughed five of my PPC team, so I am feeling the pain too: 80% of MRR from PPC activity is paused at the moment.”

Among the customers that are canceling or pausing campaigns, the majority are PPC customers:

“We expected this to happen. It is an easy and immediate cost-saving for our clients, and if they are unable to trade, there is no point driving the paid traffic. We see that for every $10 spent on PPC campaigns, an average customer would spend only $1-2 on SEO. Is that the long term opportunity for great businesses?”

The customers will come back, but for now, I’ve got bills to pay.” concludes Gareth. 


The approach he proposed can be split into two: 

1. Existing Customer Management:

Switch from PPC to SEO

What seems to be a decent tactic is to convince customers to invest some of the PPC ad money into SEO. The math here is fairly simple:

The agency will get to keep their revenue if you can get the client to spend an equal amount on SEO as they were paying for PPC. While the 2 channels have very different costs of sale, it does keep the cash coming into your agency during these difficult times. 

The Brand will make smarter moves towards a long-term marketing strategy, with lower immediate capital investment. Clients can achieve a stronger organic brand presence if they recognize this potential today (and spend, for example, $7k per month, not $70k per month — based on the $1-$10 math mentioned earlier).

The SEO visibility curve is not a curve we should be flattening at the moment. We are looking for tomorrow’s exponential growth, and SEO is one of the answers.

Showcase all Your Agency Capabilities While Helping Each Other Out

The crisis has brought about staff shortages in a lot of marketing departments. Marketing executives have been furloughed, meaning their managers have got too much work on their hands, and they may need help with reporting, pulling statistics together, and other various analytical tasks. 

Gareth suggests that this is where the Agency and the Brand could come together as one marketing team.

“You are not paying us for the PPC, but we could help you with the analytics report. When this is all over - and it will be - our customers will realize we have additional skills they weren’t aware of. They will understand the full range of digital services we are offering, and we may end up with more work.

We are not just seeing it as taking the money  — we want the customer to succeed. If the customer succeeds digitally, we have delivered on our promises to them.”

Of course, these kinds of strategies can only be decided by your agency’s management and, ultimately, your CEO — whether they can see the opportunity there and can be open-minded about employees doing that extra work, which is usually out of their scope.

“If you are looking at this wearing short-termist sales glasses, you will fail. If you want to be working with these clients in 2021 and beyond, I suggest you do what you can to keep them happy in 2020,” says Gareth.

Reconsider Your Customers

It may appear that saving all customers during the crisis is critical for a business’s health. However, Gareth argues that this could actually be an unexpected opportunity to review and reconsider your client base, as counterintuitive as it may sound. 

He contemplates: “Perhaps, some clients who pay you more don’t necessarily bring you more profit. Maybe they are taking up more time than they should, and you are losing the opportunity to explore other customers. 

I know we will be using this opportunity to slim down our client base again and free up some resources to work on new projects that are probably better suited to our current skill set. This has been a great opportunity to stop and think about where we want to go as a business.”

2. Winning New Clients and Hunting for New Business

Seek out companies overspending on PPC and convert them to SEO.

Despite the crisis, there are still companies that are investing quite aggressively in PPC marketing. It could be that their budgets haven’t been affected much, or maybe their current agency is simply not very good at advising when customer demand is there and when it is not.

Marketing Signals trains their internal teams to use SEMrush to manage client projects. They regularly monitor live Google SERPs to detect companies spending on PPC. 

The strategy here is simple, and it literally takes 20 seconds:

  • Marketing Signals would identify a client.
  • Insert their domain into SEMrush Organic Research.
  • Then go to the Positions tab to see where they rank for SEO, with particular attention paid to those whose Cost Per Click is $5 or more.

If they spend too much on PPC but have the potential to rank for the same keyword organically, then it makes sense for them to switch to SEO. 

Let’s take a closer step-by-step look.

Check out this Google SERP for this competitive search term “Divorce Attorney Dallas”:

Google SERP example for analysis

You can clearly see domains advertising.

This keyword has 880 monthly searches and a potential CPC of $12.72, but a difficulty score of only 63.18, according to SEMrush Keyword Overview.

SEMrush Keyword Overview graphic

If we take a further look at those domains from the SERP we will see that they all rank for this particular keyword on the 96th, 97th, and 99th positions (SEMrush Organic Research). 

SEMrush Organic research report

“None of these websites are ranking organically for a keyword they are willing to spend potentially $11k per month on! No, you will not get exactly 100% of the clicks - but even with 20% of the clicks, you have spent $2,200 per month,” explains Gareth. “So instead of spending this money on PPC, we could optimize their website to take it to the front page for 2k and for many, many variations of the original keyword.”

Having found a worthy keyword, Marketing Signals would then dive deeper into the related competitive landscape (SEMrush Organic Research, Competitors tab). They will scan for anyone ranking for paid keywords. 


They notice a few domains, and the next step is to ensure they don’t rank organically for the chosen keyword. If they do, this is both an opportunity and a challenge. An opportunity because they realize the value of SEO; and a challenge because they most likely already have an SEO partner. 

If a detected domain, let’s take Mathur Law Offices, does rank for ‘Divorce Attorney Dallas” somewhere on the 2nd SERP according to Organic Research (e.g., position 14), and they spend on PPC advertising, too, according to Domain Overview, then that definitely makes them a much better prospect. 

Organic research data from SEMrush

Advertising expenses:

Showing advertising costs from SEMrush tool

 “If a customer is appearing both in the PPC SERPs and I know they are in position 7 to 14 in SEP, I think it’s worth dropping them an email or finding their marketing manager on LinkedIn,” concludes Gareth. 

Time to Eat Your Competitors 

The time is now. If you think you can outwait the crisis, think again. It is best to dive into it now but dive with your eyes wide open. 

“With SEO, we don't want to flatten the curve, now's the time the curve can shoot for the moon! A lot of people have the budget, and we as marketing professionals only need 10% of that to take you higher in Google ranks. When this is all over, where do you want to rank: on the 1st page or the 3rd?”

And that is the question.