How I Keep Learning as a Marketing Agency Owner

As a small business owner, my top priority is to keep my business running. No big surprise there! But, as I looked at my business goals for 2020, “continuing education” came up several times. While I had always previously brushed it off as a nice-to-have, I’ve come to learn that it is vital for growth. Staying on top of trends in my industry, learning a skill so I don’t have to outsource it (or learning when to outsource it!!), and discovering new pain points for my clients as the industry landscape evolves means that I constantly have an competitive advantage to other agencies in the markets we operate in.

Justifying the time or dollar spend on continuing education can be a tough pill to swallow as a business owner, so I’ve come up with a list of ideas that spans the spectrum. You can pinpoint a few that may work for you in your current circumstance. If you’re short on cash, some of these ideas don’t cost a thing! Looking for the most bang for your buck? I’ve recommended a few pricier conferences that may be a better fit. My goal is to utilize all of these tactics throughout the year, but here’s hoping that just one will have a big impact for yours.

I have a small bone to pick when it comes to conferences. Generally, I don’t think they are a great way to spend your time. There, I said it! But, there are a couple of good reasons to attend a conference: networking (especially if you’re looking to move into a new market), if your business fulfills a huge needs gap that most attendees have, or if their workshops or breakouts appear to have super tangible & actionable information that is highly relevant to your business. Some examples of the latter: a workshop on building out contracts as brands for influencer marketing campaigns, or a roundtable discussion on how not to fall into an accounts receivable rut in the marketing industry. These might go without saying, but reasons not to attend a conference: motivation, hanging out with people you already know (there are coffee shops for that), or talking heads regurgitating information that is already an established best practice in your industry.

These are some conferences that I think are worth attending if they fit the aforementioned criteria. 

One of my favorite ways to learn is to actually teach. If you own a business, you probably know a thing or two about your industry that the average joe would be interested to know more about, and especially keen to hear your practical expertise. That’s why I take the time to teach free workshops through my local SCORE chapter, speak on panels at local universities for marketing or entrepreneurship student groups, and even guest lecture with some of my old marketing professors.

So, you’re probably thinking, “Regan, this sounds like you’re giving an awful lot of value for free, and not getting much in return.” The first half is true, but the things I learn from the questions that are asked of me allow me to get a pulse of the industry from a variety of different perspectives. The key is to always have time for a Q&A (if that isn’t already the format). Why?! This is where you learn.

Questions marketing students ask may drive my hiring plan for the year, while local business owners just getting familiar with social media could share some pain points that are market or industry specific, whereas you otherwise wouldn’t have known about these issues. Collecting this type of data allows me to be introspective about my business and affirm or cast aside assumptions that I may have had about future clients or employees.

Teaching can occur on a B2B level, as well. I’ve been called in by (and even pitched myself to) some massive brands to provide an “influencer’s perspective” on past campaigns, and engage in a dialogue with their key members of their marketing teams. Let me tell you – those conversations get real nitty gritty, and make me a better negotiator when it comes to managing talent or pricing a scope of work.

Okay, so this is not the most traditional form of education, and you might be sitting here wondering, what the heck is a mastermind? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you! It is a group of two or more people, that meet on a regular basis, to provide mutual support, supply members with differing perspectives, learn about new resources, and are accountability buddies.

I recently created a “mastermind” with myself and one other business owner in the Boston community. We meet monthly, check in on each others goals, come to the table with one or two key questions, and leave with a to-do list to accomplish by the following month. I have found this immensely helpful and eye-opening. Some keys to having a successful mastermind:

  • Define a topic, and stick to it. By and large, the topic of my “mastermind” is our businesses, especially current pain points or road blocks. We touch base on personal stuff as well because we’re human and care about each other, but make sure to keep the personal life chat to a minimum so we can make the most out of our time together.
  • Pick members who will bring diverse skill sets to the group. THIS is where the learning happens! I personally am attracted to problem solvers who have experience in my industry, but have had a totally different function or experience within my industry. For example, my partner in my mastermind previously worked for a huge agency, and helps me think bigger. She now owns her own business in the health & wellness space, and I often provide her with actionable social media content creation goals. Finding members who have complementary skills sets allows for them to flex their expert muscles in a component of your business where you haven’t had enough experience to crank out the necessary reps to make a decision.
  • Establish some ground rules. Sticking to a schedule, giving members equal time to talk about their questions that meeting, and taking notes are all hallmarks of a good mastermind. You can decide whether you need other rules, or if you have a large group, a facilitator to make sure things run smoothly.

If you learn well in a classroom setting, consider taking a workshop/bootcamp. Resources, like General Assembly, are great if you’re looking for a one-day bootcamp, or longer-term programs. For example, there is an Adobe Photoshop Bootcamp happening this Friday in Boston, and in February, they have a Facebook Advertising Bootcamp, which is always a good refresher considering the platform appears to change and update weekly. Some other resources to consider:

At a loss of where to start in your city? Look to fellow business owners in your industry who you trust. Ping them to see if they’re doing any teaches, and ask if you can sit in.

Oftentimes, the best learning can happen from the people who know your business best: your clients. If you have ever wanted to learn about the state of your business, the industry as a whole, or your core community, one of the best ways is to just ask. This year, I am aiming to send out questionnaires to my clients, the brands/agencies we have worked with, and the talent I manage, on a quarterly basis to learn about where their focuses are in the industry, what they’re working on, and how we can be a better resource for them. They may provide requests or feedback that feels unachievable or may even hurt your ego a bit, but you’re certainly better off knowing where you can improve. You may also learn about some things that they think you do really well, and that gives you an opportunity to double-down on those strengths.

Want to do this strategy one better? Put a report together with the feedback and send it to all of your clients. Pat yourself on the pack for the things you do well, and acknowledge where you generally seem to have pain points in your business, and provide solutions. This not only lets your customers know that you’re interested in continuing to learn, it also let’s them feel heard. Win-win! 

Have you committed to continuing your education as a business owner? I’m always keen to learn more about different tactics to learn, so please leave your favorites in the comments.

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