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A guide to running an effective client discovery process

Author's avatar By Mark Kelly 27 Aug, 2019
Essential Essential topic

How digital agencies and consultants can use Discovery on digital marketing projects to improve the value they deliver to their customers

customer-insight-discoveryOver the last few years, I have seen an increasing focus amongst agencies on improving their client discovery projects. In this article, I describe a process I recommend to run effective discovery. It can be applied both for onboarding new customers, but also applied for prospects when pitching.

The post is aimed at marketing and in particular digital marketing agencies and consultants, but client-side marketing teams looking to review their position in the market may also find it useful.

More details on the questions to ask during discovery are available in this client discovery process checklist template I have developed for Business members. You may also find the brand audit in the Smart Insights Agency Toolkit useful.

The term “Discovery” is not used universally, so let’s start with the obvious “what?” and “why?” questions.

What is discovery?

The term discovery graces a lot of agency process charts on pitches but what do we mean by it and what is its value? My view is that the purpose of the discovery stage of a project and the insight that is delivered from it ensures we produce marketing assets and campaigns that are relevant, engaging and effective for our (or our clients) audience and eventual customers.

Anthony Iannarino has a useful definition of agency client discovery :

“Discovery is about learning what your client needs, their strategic indicatives, their goals, and their outcomes. Discovery work is what allows you to neatly tie anything you propose to what your client needs and to tailor it to those specific needs”.

So, discovery is about collating and analyzing insights about brands, their competitors and most importantly, the characteristics, beliefs, behaviour and perceptions of their audiences. It should involve undertaking as thorough an investigation as possible (within real world constraints) of a range of research data that is pertinent to the engagement you are involved in.

By that I mean that if you have an open brief from a client (and subject to budget or your own pre-agreed time investment) you will look at ‘everything’, for example: the overall market, existing marketing initiatives and their efficacy, brand metrics, social network insights, existing customer, prospects or stakeholders and their personas

But more likely you will focus on discrete areas of discovery to serve a specific client brief or set of marketing objectives: ‘Market / marketplace discovery ‘, ‘social media landscape discovery’, ‘campaign effectiveness discovery’, ‘website /ecommerce efficacy discovery’ etc.

Why do discovery?

It’s simple, discovery enables agencies and consultants to formulate robust insights about the business of their clients that leads to well-written creative, content, technical and marketing (e.g. media / channel selection) briefs. This in turn should then lead to the best solutions possible, be they content strategies, SEO, website build initiatives or broader integrated marketing campaigns.

So, the aim of discovery is to eliminate hunches and subjective views and instead create sound, defensible rationale for the marketing approaches and proposals that will be subsequently discussed and implemented with clients.

The depth and breadth of activity undertaken within a discovery exercise should and will flex; depending on the requirement and timescales and budgets involved. But even if flex is involved you should always look to undertake discovery - even a ‘small’ site build or inbound marketing campaign requires some due diligence before launching.

Who should look after discovery?

The answer to “who?”, depends on the size and specialisation of the agency, but a Planner in larger agencies or a senior account handler will probably lead it with a good strategic (and organised!) head in smaller agencies. Their role is to act as the conductor of the orchestra, as it were, since will work with other team members to look at data / research sources, triangulate findings and ensure thinking is coordinated.

Whoever leads the process, they are looking to:

  • agree exactly what hypotheses or objectives are being addressed
  • manage who is looking at what within the team
  • triangulate the findings and resultant insight from the disparate research and data sources.

And are also keeping an eye on the timeframe and budget / resources that is being worked to, to create a robust, (and as mention earlier, defensible) rationale for the insights and proposals that will subsequently be discussed with client.

Charging and paying for discovery

Any discovery activity will take time (even if that may flex depending on the circumstances of the engagement), but even a shortened discovery phase should be costed out. The due diligence and thorough research that the agency will complete and the robust insights gained will only strengthen any campaigns or projects that are subsequently created. Agencies shouldn’t give away their thinking time for free in order to secure a ‘commodity’ service e.g. site builds, email production, SEO management etc.

That’s a perennial debate, up there with pitch fees of course, but one you should keep to when and where you can. Having said that, an amount of discovery will inevitably always be needed pre-sale e.g. at pitch stage or in order to recommend an overarching strategy. In that case you should invest a pre-agreed amount of time (normally agreed between the new business director and account director or board director etc.) for ‘discovery-lite’ - and stick to it. Demonstrating to your client or prospect that you have some robust initial insight based on due diligence / discovery will go a long way to selling in a solution. The level of investment you make (multiples of in-house time and / or any externally commissioned research) will depend on the potential long term worth of the client business to you.

Discovery workstreams

‘Discovery’ is a bit of a catch-all term for a range of separate research gathering and data assimilation workstreams and can involve things like desk research, face to face or distance interviews with client teams or customer groups and the use of different software platforms to mine information. Each piece of work can be substantial and in a larger agency may be completed by different team members, hence 'workstreams'.

In the second part of this article, I will explain 9 activities that can form the workstreams for the discovery process.

Author's avatar

By Mark Kelly

Mark Kelly is a digital marketing and agency growth consultant working with agencies and their client brands. He can be found at Mark Kelly Consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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