When you run a social media management agency, time is your most precious resource. You have to be protective of it from the start, because there’s only so much of it to go around.
Some will argue that working extra hours for free is a great way to build your portfolio of experience early on.
Yes, late nights certainly come with the territory, but you should never work for free.
In defining the ideal client profile for your social media agency, consider preferable personality characteristics just as you would business models and industries.
You want clients to feel like partners — partners that respect and value your time.
Additionally, remember it’s your responsibility to set expectations during the client onboarding process. If you take on extra hours of work at no charge, you shouldn’t be surprised when clients continue to request them. The same goes for free hours when you’re working through your client onboarding process. Don’t set a precedent that makes some of your hours more valuable than others.
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What is client onboarding?
Client onboarding is the process of kicking off a project with a new client. For marketing agencies, it can involve multiple steps to get up to speed including meetings with the client, competitor research, brand building, and initial content development.
With a thorough approach, the client onboarding process can span many hours and a lot of back and forth communications with the client. As such, you’ll want to charge for your time accordingly.
Should I charge a one-time setup fee for social media marketing services?
Consider what you would define as “setup” when working with a new social media client.
It likely entails some combination of deliverables including social profile creation and/or updating, company onboarding, defining client-specific best practices, imagery creation and/or photography, ads manager setup, and more.
These tasks should be allotted hourly estimations and charged for accordingly.
Your client onboarding checklist for social media clients will take time
One of the main reasons you should charge a setup fee for new social media clients is that you value your time.
During the client onboarding process, you are dedicating your business hours to support a client’s success. There’s a lot to go over in terms of your client onboarding checklist.
More often than not, as Jason Parks of The Media Captain points out, these hours will be many.
“There is so much legwork involved in onboarding. Just gathering all of the credentials can take hours if the client is unorganized. Not to mention properly setting up eCommerce tracking and tag manager. There’s also a great deal of time involved in getting to learn the business and figure out a social strategy that aligns with their business goals and objectives.”
If you hired a professional service, you wouldn’t expect them to work for free, would you? Of course not.
This should be the mentality for businesses utilizing agencies and freelancers as well.
Brett Downes, Head of SEO at Studio 54, elaborates saying:
“Setting up social media usually takes 3/4x the time that the weekly management of the account would take.
Ignore the “free” in “freelancer” as they are just as skilled, if not more so than companies who may employ people with a broad set of skills to cover their various clients and niches.
Setting the stance of payment for work will bode well for freelancers in the future and prohibit companies from mainly subconsciously taking advantage of freelancers.”
Transparency builds trust
People will often argue against setup fees during the client onboarding process, saying they’re vague and an easy way to deter clients from signing on. But transparency goes a long way in building stronger, long-term relationships.
When creating your social media proposal for a new client, explicitly detail related activities as the line items that make up your setup fee. Be as detailed as possible and ready to address any questions.
Content creator Darice Chang gives context to what’s typically included in her setup fee for clients.
“Some people will calculate [setup] costs into the monthly retainer. I prefer to charge an upfront fee since it is a lot of work to onboard a client and I want to be as transparent as possible.
Setup covers the initial meeting and follow-up where we meet and talk about the client’s current status and what they are looking to achieve. It will include a social media audit, TA [target audience] profile, and posting calendar setup. Since I specialize in media and communications, I will usually include a digital press kit in the setup as well, since these come in handy once your following really starts to grow or you start to receive media inquiries.
If anything, clients should be wary of services operating under deals that sound too good to be true. Agencies that promise top-dollar results at a low cost are likely not delivering on the types of KPIs [key performance indicators] clients care about most.”
Matthew Rogers, a Senior Editor & Researcher for MangoMatter Media, calls for transparency in an effort to combat unsavory business models.
“I absolutely think all digital professionals should charge an onboarding or setup fee. This is because the social media marketing agency business model is tainted with bad operators who rip off clients in the first 30-60-days [of] so-called onboarding. I feel as though certain get-rich-quick influencers have flooded the market with bad monthly retainer advice and as an industry, we need to embrace transparency.
Like all deliverables, these should be line-itemed, described (in full), and explained to the client beforehand. I feel many social media marketing vendors prey on small business owners who don’t know better and end up paying an entire month’s worth for so-called setup processes. As such, onboarding should be detailed and the client should receive a list of things that will be done so that there is transparency in what they’re paying for (even if it is reflected in the first monthly retainer).”
Client onboarding best practices: more than an afterthought
Even though your client onboarding process might not deliver immediate results, it’s still equally as valuable to the end-goal. Frame your efforts in the context of how other industries operate.
Brian Robben of Robben Media, for example, views setup fees through the lens of what’s acceptable across other professional services.
“Social media agencies should charge for everything they do. We’re professionals in our craft. The same way lawyers charge per minute on the phone, we need to charge for set up. Besides this principle, charging sheds value on the importance of the set up for a well run long term campaign. There’s value in setup, so charge for your sake and mine.”
Similarly, Mike Zima of Zima Media views setup fees as a sign of quality assurance. Clients should feel more confident in your execution of client onboarding best practices when you display the value of every component from beginning to end.
“To offer the highest quality, clients need to meet a minimum. Let me explain if you don’t have conversion tracking; it’s hard to make an ads campaign work. If you are optimizing your website for the wrong keywords, it’s hard to rank better on Google. Having a setup fee should signal that someone has already figured it out, went through the trouble to test it, and it’s quality assured by previous clients.
Also, the setup fee is supposed to provide a lot of value upfront. I cannot express how much advertising budget leaks into a black box without proper tracking. You need confidence in your business marketing objectives, and your agency or freelancer must be a part of the solution. If you’re left asking yourself the same business questions without an answer, it means you’re not better off with your new partner.”
Quality should be the top priority
This mention of “quality” is just as important to your agency’s operating model as it is to your client’s return on investment (ROI). To grow and provide a high level of service, you have to give yourself room to do so.
Julia Joy of Z Group PR speaks to this idea in a way that makes a lot of sense.
“There are a lot of freelancers that are willing to manage social media for ten dollars an hour. That seems like a great deal for clients, but what often happens is the freelancer gets burned out because the ten dollars does not cover all of the creative efforts that go into crafting a vibrant social media experience and then the client is disillusioned because they thought they were going to get six-figure branding results for ten bucks a week.”
Be realistic about the workload you can feasibly manage while still delivering quality. Anyone can charge $10 an hour and bring on new clients. Knowing what you’re worth, charging accordingly, and retaining clients is what takes real skill.
Final Thoughts: Client Onboarding Process: Should You Charge a Setup Fee?
Charging a setup fee for new social media clients is a no-brainer. It signifies value and worth to both the agency you represent and the portfolio you’re trying to build. Start by sending a client onboarding questionnaire and work with your client to get up to speed about their brand.
There’s a time and a place for being flexible — for cutting deals with clients you’re especially excited to work for and learn from. However, keep the frequency of those instances low and recognize that businesses are more than capable of acknowledging your level of expertise when you are.