A statistic shared by Harvard Business Review suggested that within three years, only 50% of venture founders would still be leading their companies as CEO. And as the years go by, more and more founders transitioned to other roles and projects, leaving vacancies that must be filled. But stepping into the shoes of the company founder is a daunting task, to say the least. And while you’d think, tapping an insider CEO, someone who potentially has trained and been groomed for years to take over, might be smooth sailing. In fact, their challenges are often of the same scope, if slightly different, than someone coming in from outside.

What are some of those challenges, and what should agencies and executives preparing to transition be mindful of?

That’s exactly what Megan Bowen‘s going to talk to us about. Megan has spent twenty years working at B2B tech startups, leading customer success, account management, sales, marketing, and operation teams. Currently, Megan is the CEO at Refine Labs, a digital marketing and demand generation agency, after having worked there for years as the CEO. 

Listen to the full episode below. Or read on for a summary of the conversation.

Mike: My pleasure. I’m so glad you’re here. Let’s start by talking about Refine Labs.

Please just let us and the agency in the audience know what kind of agency you are and the kinds of clients that you serve.

Megan: Refine Labs is a B2B digital marketing and demand generation agency. We work with any B2B company that is on or above ten million in annual recurring revenue, with higher ACVs and sales led motions. As I tell my mom, we help our customers get more customers, and so we ultimately help our customers stand up a modern demand engine to drive brand awareness, and capture, create and convert demand ultimately to build pipeline and help our customers achieve their revenue goals.

Mike: I love that you’ve got that explanation that even your mom would understand. We all need that. I think a whole agency could be built around. Let’s explain our job roles to our mothers, because I know my mom still doesn’t understand what I do.

You’re the CEO now, but you didn’t start out as CEO. What was that journey like?

Megan: Back in 2020, I had actually left a job at a company that was negatively impacted by the pandemic. And I had a pretty good run-in my career, and I was actually thinking about starting my own consulting company, but in the summer of 2020, Chris Walker, the founder of Refine Labs, reached out to me. Him and I had been slowly developing a friendship on LinkedIn. We had made some content together. We met one time in New York when he came down to visit. So, I knew him a little bit, and we were building a relationship. He pitched me on joining him at Refine Labs to scale the marketing agency. And at the time, I was intrigued, but I was also debating whether I wanted to start my own consultancy firm, and with the pandemic and all the uncertainty, I felt like that was an interesting time. Chris and I spent a lot of time getting to know each other and talking about the business. And ultimately, it was a great opportunity. So I said, “Yes, let’s do this. Let’s build this as business partners, and get it up and running.” 

He took on the role as CEO and was our external face of the company. He’s an amazing marketer, and that’s one of the unique things about Refine Labs: Our ability to grow was predominantly rooted in the marketing strategy that Chris had developed. I joined as the COO and took over management of everything else in the organization besides those key CEO responsibilities like company strategy, evangelism, and business development.

Even my initial role was pretty big. I was going to come in and manage all delivery operations, all back office support, and he and I led as co-leaders of the company. We had a great partnership where we really leveraged each other’s strengths to grow the agency. I was in that COO position for a little over three years before we made the change in January of this year.

Mike: Talk to us about some challenges stepping in as CEO. So talk to us about that.

What else was going on there that was a struggle for you?

Megan: It’s important to talk about the trajectory of the company between 2020 and 2024. When I joined, there were about four other employees. We had about six customers, so it was pretty early days. And as we were scaling the agency in 2020 and 2021, we were riding the COVID boom, so there was a huge injection of money into the B2B ecosystem. Companies were embracing the growth-at-all-cost mindset. They just wanted to raise money at digital marketing programs to grow, grow, grow. The demand for our services skyrocketed during this time. So in an eighteen month period after I joined, we went from one million to twenty million in ARR. We almost grew too fast to keep up with the demand for our services. Obviously, in a high growth environment, it can be stressful and chaotic, but it’s also really exciting. And we were driving a lot of momentum, having a ton of success.

Then as we came into 2022, we were starting to see the macroeconomic conditions, especially in B2B tech, start to change dramatically. So as a result of that, our customers were really impacted by the fact that funding started to dry up, and companies were running out of cash. Companies needed to preserve. So we had layoffs and constricting budgets, especially how much people were spending in paid advertising.

So I would say from about mid 2022 until about early 2023 was a really difficult period for the company, because the customers that we serve were going through these dramatic shifts and ultimately were canceling their contracts with us. We were a very high-priced agency at that time. The average retainer was in the forty thousand dollars per month range, and we were able to command that price given the demand.

We went through a challenging period where we had a lot of customers leave. As an agency, our labor costs, our primary costs, are all to serve our customers. And so we did have a couple of layoffs at Refine Labs as a result of that. Given that we were a bootstrapped company and didn’t have a lot of extra cash to cover that type of expense, it was a very challenging period, which we navigated.

One of the other things I think that Chris is great at is being a visionary founder and constantly innovating. He’s constantly finding new and interesting signals from the market to explore further and to validate.

Chris was a first time CEO. I had been a COO before. I hadn’t been a CEO before, but I had worked as a COO and led many companies. And so I was doing my best to help navigate us through these tough times, because I had been in similar ones previously.

I had some pattern recognition around that.

Coming into 2023, then we were trying to rebound the company. Chris was continuing to find interesting signals that were more broad than digital marketing and demand gen, which was where we started Refine Labs. He was seeing that there was a gap overall in looking at companies’ go-to-market strategies, how they were using their data, to make decisions, and to allocate resources and expenses. We started diversifying our offerings at Refine Labs and introducing some new services in response to these signals and trends that Chris was seeing in the market.

Ultimately, Chris and I came to a realization in 2023, though. What we realized was we were almost building two different companies within Refine Labs, and it was a very clarifying moment for us. We were starting to confuse the market about what Refine Labs offered, what services we provided, who we were, what our market positioning was, And so, in this transition, Chris was focusing more and more on this, and I was stepping in to really manage the entire sort of digital marketing and demand agency space already.

I would say starting in the beginning of 2023, I took over management of the entire leadership team and, while Chris was doing his evangelism, as well as focusing on the next wave of innovation that he saw and was motivated by. It was a fairly kind of gradual transition where then we decided he would separate this new idea into its own entity, and we were going to clarify and crystallize the Refine Labs positioning as a B2B agency.

We had clarity in our positioning, and we could focus on operational excellence and delivering for our customers in that way. And so we did the big announcement in January of this year, but you could argue that almost for a year, I was operating in that capacity to a degree.

One other thing to think about or to consider is I recruited everybody on our team to have great relationships with our team and our customers.

So from that aspect, the transition was relatively smooth. It was well received. I had built trust over the years of working at the company. The biggest challenge for me has actually really been within myself: I’m an operator.

And I’m a get-sh*t-done kind of person. And the biggest challenge for me has been shifting and not being the COO anymore. I was able to elevate someone at our company, to really take on the CFO/COO position from me while I could step in and really embrace being a CEO. And I think I’m still in that transition where I just default to the things I’m really good, when I really need to be reprogramming my mindset and having a different set of priorities relative to the new role that I’m in.

So that’s been the biggest challenge for me. And I had to be very intentional about how I’m spending my time, how I am prioritizing things. I see something, and I just want to jump in, because I owned it before, and I know how to fix it. But I just can’t. I need to trust that the team is going to handle it. And I think making this type of transition is really difficult because it’s a materially different set of responsibilities than if you’re operating the day to day versus needing to be more forward thinking.

Chris is a LinkedIn celebrity. I know that. I’ve known it from the beginning. I’m not intimidated by that. I’ve built my own reputation in the space. I have a lot of great relationships with people. I’m not trying to compete with Chris in any regard. In fact, we still greatly benefit from his evangelism and his personal brand and that halo effect that he has. I’m confident in my abilities there. And we’re just different leaders. We’re different leaders with different styles. I post on LinkedIn. I do podcasts. So I have my version of that, which is a different flavor than what Chris is, right? But I think that’s definitely one of his superpowers: his sort of visionary and innovative thinking. And, you know, he’s sort of the ultimate marketer, if you will.

I’m leaning into my strengths at the stage of where the agency is now. What’s actually most important is operational excellence, predictable customer acquisition, and retention. We have this new content product called the Vault, which we’ve struggled to figure out how to leverage and monetize. That’s another key priority that I have as well. But from a challenges perspective, I think making the shift from a COO role to a CEO role is hard. I don’t really think I’ve actually completed that transition yet. And I need to continue down that path to truly embrace what the new role is and really shed all of those other responsibilities. But other people at the company are more than capable of handling it at this point.

Mike: What a fascinating set of circumstances, and I appreciate that you shared all that with us. You’re talking about an agency who was going through these macroeconomic issues and having to lay off and deal with customers who are struggling and that’s impacting you, then we talked about it. You’re essentially a celebrity leader, and he’s going off and taking a different direction and basically starting a new company and splintering a little bit. And sounds like it was all amicable, which was just terrific, but that in itself is a very unique situation. He’s not retired. He’s still out there, working on different projects for a different company. So you have to step in in the aftermath of all that. And then you shared something that I think everybody listening is going to be nodding their head if they’ve been in a place where you’ve stepped into a new role, but you wanna default back to your old roles because it’s what you knew. It’s what you did for years and years and years, and I can relate to that. 

You’re comfortable with that stuff. You said you have had the wherewithal to realize that, “okay, I need to let other people do that. I need to step into this new role and have a certain mindset,” but that’s not something you’ve been trained to do. So where did you figure out how to be a CEO? Were there people you turned to, were there resources that maybe you leveraged? How did you figure that out?

Megan: Yeah. It’s a great question. I would say that in almost every role that I’ve had in my career, I’ve always worked really closely with the CEO. So even though this is my first formal CEO position, I’ve had a lot of exposure to how many different CEOs operate. And I think over that over the course of my career, I’ve sort of developed my own point of view of what type of leader or CEO that I would want to be.

Of course, I have formal and informal mentors. I’m actually in the market and looking and interviewing for an actual executive coach so that I have someone external to really provide some support and push me and challenge me even more. I’m a big believer in that type of support system and creating that outside of the company so that you don’t overly lean on the people on your team internally.

I think that I did have a perspective of the type of CEO that I wanted to be. You know, on paper, I can describe the job that I should know the things that I should be doing, right? Like, you’re the vision caster, you’re the storyteller. You are making sure the company doesn’t run out of money. You are always thinking six, twelve, eighteen, twenty four months ahead about what’s coming, staying up to date on what’s happening in the market, what’s happening with you today. I happen to also be selling every new customer at Refine Labs. I handle all sales calls.

Interestingly enough by doing so, I talked to probably seven to ten marketing leaders per week, which actually allows me to have a pretty strong pulse on what’s happening in the market. What challenges people are facing, what problems people are trying to solve, what the conditions are within the companies, are interesting. I think a lot of the ingredients are here. I think my nature though is to be the doer and the executor and the operator. And the biggest shift I’m trying to make is creating more free space for me to really think critically for me to read and absorb important new interesting information. For me to make space to build relationships with partners or other stakeholders in the ecosystem that it’s important for me to have space and time with a relationship. Making time for podcasts, so that in my own way, I can also evangelize and get Refine Labs out there in the world. So I think it’s something that I think I just learned from experience: developing my own perspective on the type of leader that I want to be, as well as understanding that there’s a certain set of core responsibilities that I believe every CEO should own. I think for me, my leadership style is that I lead from the front. I’m a believer that if I’m not going to ask anybody to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. I’m going to take the first step into uncharted territory and carve a path for the rest of the team to follow so that they feel safe coming with me.

I’m going to provide clarity. We kind of talked a little bit about the positioning. Clarity is something that I crave so much. I’ve had to train myself to be effective in dealing with ambiguity, but I know most people crave clarity, and I like to provide that to people. Feels good. It creates trust and credibility and psychological safety. And so those are some of the things that I think are really important. Those things have served me really well. And I think what I need to continue to work on is shedding those old responsibilities and continuing to delegate more effectively and leaning into that set of responsibilities that I just walked through. 

But those are really the most important areas of focus for a CEO.

Mike: I love how you talked about the fact that you’ve had exposure to a CEO for many, many years. I personally relate to that. I’ve been with Agorapulse for six years. For the first five years, I reported directly to our CMOs that we’d had over that course of time.

I got firsthand experience with how they operated. And I got a tutorial, basically, on how to be a CMO just by watching them. And for the last six to twelve months, I’ve been reporting directly to the CEO. So I’m seeing how he operates. I’m seeing how he interacts with me.

I want to call out the wisdom that you’ve shown in understanding that you are not the same person as the previous CEO. You have your own leadership style, your own strengths, and you’re leaning into that. And I just want to applaud you for that because that is a true benefit to your company that you’re not trying to be the person that used to fill those shoes because that’s not going to work.

Megan: Nope. That’s not going to work. And it’s funny. A lot of people ask me this privately, and another podcast asked it, “Were you intimidated by stepping into Chris’s shoes? He’s got this larger than life personality.”

But the truth is I wasn’t, and that’s not in any way meant to be a diss on Chris. Again, he’s probably the best marketer out there right now, and he’s proving it with what he does for his personal brand.

I feel confident in my own ability and my own presence and just the warm reception that I got from the external LinkedIn community to our internal customers, to our internal team, the people that know me, and that have worked with me know what I bring to the table.

I am appreciative to Chris because I think what he realized was what Refine Labs needed for the next phase was more in line with my strengths and where he, you know, where his zone of genius is is in that building phase. Right? That’s when he is really on fire and brings new ideas to life and recognizes that we were at this juncture where it was time to make a change. I give them a lot of credit for that because I think it’s hard for some founders to let go of their baby, if you will.

It takes a lot of courage and self awareness to recognize that and be willing to figure out what the right next steps are to navigate a transition like that. We still do Refine Labs events with Chris Walker, right? Like, there’s still a lot of things that we’re doing with him and together. So he’s not completely removed from the company, either. Like, he still has a role. There’s still a lot of involvement with him and the team and myself. He’s just taken on a different set of responsibilities while he’s also getting his new project up and running.

Mike: In all fairness to Chris, like I told you in the green room, you’re the one that I’ve been following for years, and I’ve seen you speaking on stages. And I’m sure they have you on this podcast, not Chris. 

But what other advice would you give to other agency leaders who might be transitioning into this CEO role?

Megan: So, there were a couple of things that I did when we made the announcement.

People talk a lot about the CEO’s hundred day plan. Like, “what are you going to do in the first hundred days that you’re in this role?” And I put a lot of thought and sought out a lot of guidance and advice from my team and external people on how to think about what I’m doing in these first ninety days, that I’m still in right now. And there were a few key things that came to mind. 

Number one: Strategic clarity. If you think about the context I gave you earlier in this conversation, there was a lot of company positioning pivoting happening from late 2022 into sort of mid 2023. It created a lot of confusion externally and internally and some frustrations as well. I spent a lot of time and energy putting together a really comprehensive and clear and specific 2024 strategic plan. I only had five strategic imperatives for the entire year. And I put an entire deck together because I knew I wanted to present this to my team.

So, right after the announcement, we brought everybody together for an all-hands meeting where I presented the plan, so that people immediately had clarity on what I was intending to do and confidence that I was capable of executing against my vision and my strategy. It was a lot of information, right? 

Then we did what I call a CEO listening tour. So after that initial all-hands where we presented the information, we had an open forum Q&A, but then I went around to all of the individual subteams into much smaller groups. We had open Q&A sessions where the team was able to, in smaller group settings, after they had a chance to digest all the information, ask more clarifying questions, or give feedback on what was presented to them. I did that. Had several different meetings with all of these different teams to validate and make sure that they understood the direction and they had an opportunity to share concerns or feedback or ask questions to get everybody on board.

At the same time from an external perspective, I knew I had some more work to do to create more market clarity around what Refine Labs had to first. It wasn’t uncommon to take a sales call in 2023, and the prospect would come inbound to us. They get on the call. And my sales calls would start and they’d be like, “Oh my gosh, I love Refine Labs. I’ve been following Chris on LinkedIn for years. What do you guys do?” And I’m like, “Okay. Let’s start from the beginning. This is what we do. These are the services we offer.” 

It’s been awesome to see as I’ve been pumping out content that is with the goal of providing external market clarity on our positioning. We are a B2B digital marketing and demand generation agency. This is who we serve. This is what we offer. This is the qualification criteria. If you don’t meet this, we’re probably not gonna be a good fit to help you. So just that ongoing and repetitive cycle of getting that content out in the market, my last thirty to forty five days of calls have been amazing because people get on and I’m seeing that clarity come through. I don’t get that “what do you do?” question anymore. People come in knowing that we’re a paid media and creative agency with a unique strategy, overlaying those execution services.

So that’s been really awesome. And then I think finally, in putting together the financial plan and the four cast, especially remembering the context I provided of hyper growth, contraction, layoffs, all these things that were happening, right? It creates a lack of psychological safety. And what was most important to me was that the team felt psychologically safe that they trusted me and that they had clarity on what we were doing and their contribution to our vision. And so we put together a you know, achievable financial plan.

And it’s been awesome because even we’re not even done with the first quarter yet, but we’ve already seated our Q1 financial projections by a meaningful amount.

I was hopeful that it would pan out. You don’t quite exactly know how those things will happen until the time passes and you’re able to, you know, put your points on the board. But that was a key focus of mine. Like, we had to start the year strong. I could demonstrate from a financial and revenue standpoint, that I’m the right leader to continue to lead this company in the next phase of growth because I will make sure that we continue to grow. And so I think those were the most important things, and I felt there are probably other things that I didn’t do that I should have.

But I did those really well, and I think those set me up for success and put me on a good strong footing.

Mike: So we’re getting a master class here. I would be the CEO of a marketing agency. Whether you’re transitioning into that role, or you’ve been in that role for years, this is fantastic advice from Megan.

Now we’re talking with Megan about the challenges that can face agency executives when they’re transitioning into that role, even if they’ve come from within, but we’re gonna shift gears for a moment and talk more about how Refine Labs operates.

But first, let’s hear from a few other agency owners, how they’re working with their clients.

Agorapulse Reporting and Analytics 

Erin Giefer (Catalyst Communications): I actually can’t say enough great things about the reporting with Agorapulse. I feel like that is my job security every month. My clients aren’t that active on social media, which is why they have me manage their profiles for them. And when they get that report, it verifies that they’re making a good investment.

Agorapulse Client: The metrics downloads are so simple and easy to read. It really helps me show where we are doing things right on social media and where we need to improve.

Megan Conley (Social Tribe): I think one of the main reasons why we decided to move to Agorapulse is because it’s a more comprehensive integrated tool for all of our marketing needs.

So rather than what we had to do historically with Sprout, which uses certain parts of that form that work really well and then supplement it with other outside tools. By moving to Agorapulse, we were able to keep all of that into one in one technology platform, which is not only a time saver, but it also makes sure that our analytics and all of our reportings on point because we’re pulling all from the same source.

Anne Popolizio (Social Squib): It’s a really great platform for agencies.

It makes it really easy to manage, but gives me really, really, really robust information that actually helps me, develop better strategies for my clients and better plans of action.


Back to Megan

Mike Allton: I’d love to know more about some of the tools that you guys use at Refine Labs because many of the agencies that we talk to help boutique agencies grow, get beyond that 1-4 people phase into that, 10-20+ agents phase and multiple clients. 

So what’s what’s in your MarTech stack? What are you guys using today?

Megan: It’s a really interesting question. And, I would say that, actually, I get this a lot from our potential customers as well. “Oh, what tech stack do we need to be successful? Do we need to have all these different more tech tools to run your program?” We have tools internally that help us be efficient and deliver our service to our clients.

From our when we work with clients, we predominantly work within their CRM, which is a salesforce, their marketing automation which is typically like HubSpot or Marketo, and then obviously the ad platforms.

But our core services and our execution services don’t really require some crazy MarTech stack to use either for us to deliver or for us to like leverage with our customers tech stack as well.

And so, what I’ll say though in response to that question: AI is the hot topic right now. Everyone’s talking about it. Obviously, everyone talks about AI, ChatGPT, etc. Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI. He’s famous for saying this quote recently, which is basically, “AI is going to effectively replace ninety five percent of what a marketing agency does within the next five years.”

The thing that I’m thinking about relative to tech stack and tools and how we think about how to sort of operationally evolve over the next few years is what are the right what are the right AI tools for us to be leveraging that are gonna help our teams be more efficient, more effective, but not impact the quality of the work that we’re providing. Where is it that you want that the human powered work vs. the AI powered work? This is the the most fascinating question relative to what’s your tech stack? What is the tool set that you’re using?

My team and I were currently just in our exploration phase right now. So we’re trying out a lot of different, you know, these AI tools, both with our customers, both within our internal delivery mechanisms. We want to figure out what’s going to be the right tool set that is going to allow us to deliver better customer outcomes while ensuring that we’re having the humans do the things that humans should be doing and really leveraging AI for for what’s needed. So I wish I had more details to share, but because we’re still in this exploration phase.

We’re just researching. We’re experimenting. We’re learning.

It’s going to be a little bit more time while we do this before I’m able to form a more concrete point of view of what I think a future agency is gonna need to operate in this new world that we are just about to enter into. I mean, that’s pretty fascinating to read this Altman quote. In five years, if we didn’t change anything, would AI replace a marketing agency? Probably could. And so I’m thinking ahead and I’m trying to do my own research and experimentation to come to a perspective on what that evolution is going to look like. 

Mike: I appreciate that transparency because, in reality, no one has answers today. You’re literally in the midst of this. I’m sure you probably know Paul Rhodes through the marketing AI Institute. They had this tremendous conference last year. The marketing AI conference in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Huntington Convention Center was filled with agencies just like you, owners, and so on who were there for that exact same purpose. They’re asking that same question, “How is AI going to impact my agency in the next three, five, eight years? What do I need to be doing now to prepare for that time in the future, whether it’s MarTech stack or not?” It’s a lot of understanding and preparing ourselves for the reality that we do need to start using AI, but what does that look like? And how can that best serve my client?

Megan: It’s interesting because when you think about how currently we provide the core part of our service is managing paid advertising for our customers. Over the course of the pandemic, especially, that was the only way everyone was communicating was on digital channels or social media.

I am absolutely observing the noise level increase and the saturation increase. This is still going to work for a while. So don’t get me wrong. But, eventually, there’s going to be a new phase that is ushered in just ten to fifteen years ago when everyone was following the HubSpot inbound playbook for marketing, and that doesn’t really work anymore. Now, we’re all doing the sort of social media marketing.

Eventually, we’re gonna move into another era that is going to demand an evolution of the strategy. Ironically, it’s so funny how what’s old is new again. I think when we think about, like, the expansion of AI and the erosion of trust of what you’re seeing online, with people questioning, “is this real? Is this even a real person. Like, can I believe this information?”

It’s going to be interesting how I think more peer-to-peer word-of-mouth is going to continue to be the predominant driver of purchasing decisions. Of all the crazy things that people can do digitally, people will become more distrustful of what they’re seeing. 

Social media is a double-edged sword. The reason that it’s an effective marketing strategy is because everybody spends three to five hours a day on social media. But from a human and a society standpoint,  something is going to give at some point, because there’s a lot of negative implications to that as well. So I see it’s not gonna change overnight.

It is still the right strategy to reach your audience.

People don’t want to learn about things other ways right now. So we are catering to what people want, how people consume information and make buying decisions. But these things are going to change over the next five to ten years pretty significantly.

Mike: Now I know you’ve mentioned a couple times that you’re most on the paid side. So I know you’re not doing a lot of organic social media, but I always like to know (and you can answer this question then however you’d like)

How are you currently measuring that business impact of social media for your clients at Refine Labs?

Megan: (Just to clarify, we do consult and advise on the organic strategy. And we have different partners that we recommend people leverage if they need some help. For example, like using Hatch for podcast post production and micro video clips that you’ll publish on LinkedIn.)

We absolutely recommend that as part of our customer strategy. We advise on how they should do it, but we encourage those CEOs and founders or subject matter experts to own their LinkedIn profile, or should they need to secure one of those, as that’s not our sweet spot based on the skill set that we have on our team. So it is part of the mix. It’s just not something we execute. But we absolutely recommend that. Obviously, that’s our entire refined marketing strategy is that organic play.

We do a little paid advertising for our agency too. We predominantly rely on our podcasts, B2B revenue vitals, Chris’s podcast, the stacking growth podcast, which is a Refine Labs property. And then obviously, Chris, me, and many of our employees post on LinkedIn every single day to drive awareness about our offering.

That said, when we think about how we’re measuring success with our customers for the programs that we’re deploying, we use an approach that we call hybrid attribution. Hybrid attribution is leveraging both software-based attribution and self-reported attribution for a more holistic view of multiple inputs into what is driving demand.

A lot of people think Refine Labs hate software attribution. We don’t hate it. It gives them good data, but it’s heavily skewed to demand capture. Paid search, direct traffic, and organic search are the three primary lead sources for all your inbounds that come in. But when the software attribution tells you it was direct traffic or organic search, guess what? If it was direct traffic, someone knew your website address. And went to your website. How did they know about your website? They probably found out about you on social media. So on the primary conversion form of all of our customers, we have them implement how they heard about us. Open text field, not a drop-down required. And then we’ll build a hybrid attribution dashboard within HubSpot or Marketo to basically show them what software attribution measures and what self reported attribution measures. The biggest trends we see is whether it’s direct traffic or organic search and think about organic search.

If I went to Google and typed in Agorapulse, I’m basically just going to your website but passing through Google. I didn’t know your URL.

In both cases, I didn’t find out about you from Google. I knew about you before I went to Google, and I entered your brand name into that. And so typically what we see is self-reported attribution will say LinkedIn podcast, Reddit, a friend, a colleague, Chris Walker’s YouTube videos, or whatever it happens to be. Match those answers up, and you’ll see distinctions between those. We like to use both so that you can really paint a complete picture of what’s working and not working.

Mike: Thank you for sharing that. Particularly, the point about how not all Google organic search is going to be truly search traffic. It may be, like you said, someone just going to their default homepage.

Now one of my last questions (and I like having fun with this) but what shouldn’t clients do? What would actually get them fired as a client?

Megan: I think beyond the base line of honesty, integrity, and respect, I don’t condone any disrespectful behavior from customers to our team. That’s not allowed. Usually that doesn’t happen with rare exceptions. I would say the biggest thing is what I would like to call philosophical alignment.

Don’t hire us if you are going to freak out three months in and force us to run lead gen campaigns with your ebook. That’s not what we do. Sure, we can do it, but if we know it’s not going to work, we’re not going to knowingly spend your money on things that we know are not going to work.

That’s the biggest issue that I would say that I try to do my best to get ahead of in this process. And to clarify, there are nuances. There are certain use cases where it actually is a good idea to run a lead gen or direct response campaign. Drive event sign-ups, newsletter sign-ups, and certain other campaigns for certain types of businesses or offers can make sense. But as a general rule, if you are not willing to adopt our philosophy, we are not going to be a good partner to you.

This is how I run my sales processes. I’m like, “look, this is a dual qualification for us. You are evaluating Refine Labs. If we’re going to be a good partner, I’m evaluating if you’re gonna be a good customer. Here are the things that we need from our customers to be successful.”

If I learn from talking to a CMO and I’m still trying to convince him about this new approach to marketing, but their CEO doesn’t really get it. He’s not on board. I’m like, “I need to talk to your CEO, then, before you become a customer, because this will blow up in our faces if we do not get that alignment up front.”

Whether it’s doing some due diligence and getting us historical data set in the sales process, or being able to project out results in a timeline that is reasonable and walking through that with the CEO and the CMO, we’ll tell the executive team, “If you hire us, this is what you should expect. It will take a little bit of time, but this is typically what we see in terms of incremental lift when we think of more web traffic, more web conversions, more pipeline, more revenue. And does this how does this match up to your goals?” And I’ll tell companies, “Your goals are totally made up. Like, there’s no way in hell you’re gonna hit that even if you don’t hire us.”

So, if you have crazy goals and a lack of philosophical alignment, we’re just not going to be a good fit. And I don’t think it’s about firing a client. For me, what I try to do is make sure that we never start working with clients without vetting out those key criteria to begin with.

Mike: I loved how much you focused on that qualification perspective and how it’s just as much a qualification of them as it is of you. I know many small agencies who might be struggling. They have a high degree of difficulty turning away any business, even if they know. I mean, they just hit them upside the head. They know this is not the right job or client situation for them. They’ll take it anyways because they want the money. And in the long run, they’re hurting themselves.

Megan: It ruins your reputation, at the end of the day, if you do that too much. And we’ve made some mistakes. We’ve onboarded some customers where in hindsight, we didn’t do enough due diligence.

Not to say that we’re perfect, but especially now, we’ve had different people take that over the course of time. But, that’s a big one for me. And I tell people, too, “I’m not here to convince you to buy my stuff. I’m here to find out if we should work together. And then you can decide if you want to hire us.” And by approaching the conversation in that way, it actually lowers their defenses. It creates trust and credibility. They know I’m not trying to sell them anything. So that approach actually has really worked in my favor.

Mike: I love the fact that you you talked about that being a good fit, and you mean it. A lot of people say that, and they’re just being salespeople. That’s exactly what you should be trying to find.

Is it truly a good fit? The other thing that I wanted to call out, because you talked about this earlier, but it really stuck with me is how much you’re communicating because you referenced it again just now. You’re talking to your customers.

You, the CEO of the company, on the phone, multiple times a day with potential customers. It’s seven to ten sales calls a week. And then just a couple months ago, you did a CEO tour of the company and talked one on one or small groups with every single person in the company. You’re spending a lot of time, you’re devoting a lot of energy into communicating, and I think that’s making you an outstanding leader.

Megan: Thank you. I am. It’s a lot of work, but it pays off.

I feel like, especially in this remote setting that so many of us are working in, leaning into over-communication is so important. And it really comes back to cultivating trust and psychological safety, both for the team and my customers. I’ve been in the customer’s shoes. I get it. They’re under a ton of pressure. They’re coming to us because they think we can help them achieve goals that they’re not sure how they’re going to achieve.

I want to be honest with them. I’m like, “This is what you should expect. This is what we’re gonna do. This is what results will look like. This is the timeline. Is that gonna work?”

I get the pressure that people are under. But, at the same time, I want people to be clear about what they should expect if they decide to hire us.

Mike: You have been truly amazing. This has been such a fun interview, and I know it’s going to impact a lot of people in a positive way. For folks who wanna learn more about you or Refine Labs, check out Megan Bowen on LinkedIn, or Refine Labs’s website.

That’s all we’ve got for today, friends. Don’t forget to follow Agorapulse on all social media platforms. We’d love to know what you think! Until next time.

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