marketing but no budget

What to do when you want to start a marketing project, but don’t have the budget

marketing but no budget

You know you need this marketing…thing. A new website. A refreshed (or entirely new) brand. Monthly outsourced marketing. Social media support. Custom pages for your proposals. Whatever it is.

Maybe you had an amazing meeting and you got all excited and YES THIS IS WHAT I NEED and they said they’d go away and put a quote together.

And they sent it and you got all excited because here you go, it is happening, you are going to achieve this and then….


“That is WAY beyond what I was expecting,” you think. “I literally cannot for the life of me find that money – or even if I could, I’m not sure this is what I wanted to spend all of that money on….”

What do you do now?

It’s happened to us, getting quotes from a provider on something we’re less familiar with. Lawyers’ fees on a particular project, or app development, or something very customised.

And accountants have felt that way at times when getting a quote from PF. Most people are aware by now we’re not going to be the cheapest by a long shot, but it can still be a shock to get a quote for a website or a branding project that’s in the £10k range or more. Literally not what you were ready for.

And for smaller and startup firms it’s even more shocking – or it might even prevent you getting a quote at all. (To be fair, if you are a smaller firm we wouldn’t even recommend you spend that level of money on a new website even if you had the money sitting around, because that’s not what you need yet. We have different services especially for startups and small firms for that reason.)

Regardless of what budget you do actually have or don’t have, there are questions to ask yourself when you get that sticker shock. (Many of these questions can apply to other types of services too, like support with setting up technology or apps, or HR/legal support with terms and conditions or employee contracts. The principles are similar.)

Often when we say something isn’t in our budget, what we really mean is “I don’t understand how it will be worth that and how it will pay itself back” or “I didn’t have a budget in mind but that feels high”.

Ultimately, at PF we want you to actually get help with your marketing, even in a small way to start. “Start small, start safe,” we say. Better to invest a very little, and do some prep work, than throw money at it and get frustrated because it’s overwhelming.

Here are some questions to ask yourself – honestly.


1. So, that’s not what your budget was. Okay, so what IS your budget for [this]?


We often have a number in our heads which even we don’t know is there – until we see the actual. I’ve been planning a new kitchen renovation for a while and I thought I had “no idea what it could cost”. If pressed I would have said somewhere between £3k and £25k, which is not really a range as much as “any number at all”. As I met with the kitchen company and had the joiner come out to take a look and talked to other friends and considered what was reasonable, I started to form a sort of £7k – £14k range in my head.

I had no idea that was really my budget until they came back with the actual quote, and I thought oh, okay, yea that makes sense. But if I had gotten that quote on day one, I might have thrown it out entirely.

One way to work on this is to imagine in your head you’re getting an email, or a quote, or a proposal. It drops into your inbox and it says “Thanks so much for meeting with us! We’ve reviewed everything and the total is…£x. (Or $x.)”

Then think about how you would feel if that number was £3k. Or £7k. Or £50k. Do some dramatic numbers one way or the other. “What if it was only £500, how would I feel then? What if it was £75k?”

And then you think wait…where did that number come from?


2. Where does that budget number come from? What’s it based on?


The problem with “it doesn’t fit within my budget” is that often our “budget” is an arbitrary number. We’ve literally imagined it, made it up, based on one or more of these factors:

  • Comparison to another kind of service (not this kind). Maybe you’ve never gotten a custom built website from a creative agency exclusively working with accountants before, but you HAVE gotten quotes from agencies on other design work. Or a logo design. Or a templated website. And your budget number is vaguely connected to those other services.
  • Comparison to this same kind of service from a completely different person or company. “Our clients do websites on the side and they only charge £2k” or “My friend got her whole WordPress site built by a freelancer for less than a grand” or “One of my clients just spent £100k on their new brand and website”. Your number has, probably subconsciously, settled there in your mind based on your and others’ past experiences.
  • Comparison to a different service you got from this same company. This would be like signing up for PF’s 12 week group Accelerator course, and then getting a quote for a logo refresh. Or going through a foundations workshop, and then getting a quote for a branding project. The number you paid for the past service is setting the tone for the number you’re expecting to get for the new one. (Even though they’re very different.)
  • A longer-term, and vague, understanding of what a service like this “goes for”. This is again arbitrarily gathered from conversations over the years. That marketing client you had used to charge this. An agency you know charges that. You heard someone mention they paid that amount, and you were shocked. But if you think about it, some of those expectations are two years old. Five years old. Even ten or twenty years old. Your imaginary number hasn’t shifted for inflation.

3. What are you expecting [this] to do over the next 3-5 years?


One of the reasons some marketing projects can “feel really expensive” is they’re foundational. Setting the tone for other marketing which will stack on top of it, beyond just the item itself. Branding and websites fall within this category: it’s really hard (if not impossible) to see the true return on the amount you spend on a good brand for your accounting firm, or on a custom built website.

In some ways a project like a new brand is a little easier to understand in terms of value. You know over the next 3-5 years (maybe even longer) your new brand will work on your behalf, helping prospects understand what kind of firm you are. Showing your true value, not holding you back. Forming the foundation for all the other marketing you’re doing.

But for other aspects of marketing, you can feel a little unsure. What exactly is this one blog post going to do for you in the next 3-5 years? What about that video you share on social, which gets a few likes and then sits there? What will this piece of content or designed item do for you once you’ve shared it a few times?

The important principle here is stackable content.

One piece of content, or one designed item, or even a full new rebrand, does not exist in a silo. It forms yet another part of your entire marketing message, one that is repeated over and over, day after day, whether in a small or great way.

When you realise it’s not about paying this much for getting a PDF guide designed on its own, but it’s about investing in another part of your whole marketing picture, it begins to take on more value. That PDF guide will go on your website. Portions of it will be shared on your social media over the years. You’ll record a video summarising what the guide says. You may turn all the content into blog posts (or vice versa, take good blog posts and turn them into a guide). It will all stack together, interlocking so the prospect gets a picture over time.

Because we’re in it for the long term. This is not about an “instant return” on spending hundreds or thousands of pounds or dollars on one marketing item. This is about contributing another high quality marketing item to your firm’s story.

Which leads us nicely to the Great Confuser itself….return on investment. ROI.


4. What kind of “ROI” are you thinking about?


This concept of “ROI” is VERY misunderstood, particularly in marketing.

Yes, you need (and will look for) a return on what you’ve invested.

But the return will not be instant. The famous Princess Bride quote says, “Life IS pain, princess. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.” We’d adapt that to say marketing IS a long game. Anyone who tells you different is selling something…in the worst possible selling way. The old school sales way. The “get 1000x your investment in six months guaranteed” kind of way. “Do exactly this and you will get exactly that.”

Yes, some people can help you get what FEEL like “quick wins”. Get 2x, 6x, 10x your investment. Guaranteed within 30 days, 90 days, 6 months.

And maybe they will. Maybe some of the things they give you will help. Maybe you’ll get more leads, more prospects, more more more.

At PF, we’re not interested in helping you get more. We’re interested in helping you get better.

That may look like…

  • Getting fewer leads which are higher quality. The goal here is to see you working with clients you love. Who fit your values. Who think like you think and respect your advice and experience. Who invest more and more as the relationship grows. When you want to get clients like this, it’s not about more leads, it’s about leads which are properly qualified. Saving you time, in the long run. Making it so that the very best kind of clients find your marketing appealing…and the worst kind or the kind you don’t want, find it very unappealing. When we’re setting goals with accountants, and they say “we’re getting 40 leads a month of which 25 turn into calls of which 15 turn into proposals of which 8 are signed”, we talk about how their new goal is not necessarily to get 80 leads and follow the same conversion percentage. Maybe their new goal is to get 15 leads, 10 of which sign up (and do so much faster, or with a higher average fee). The increase looks small, but the impact is massive.
  • Trying things (some which work, some which don’t). There are literally no guarantees in marketing, although there are principles which apply for a certain time to a certain kind of business. As a professional service business, and an accountancy firm, there are things we’ve found which work better for you than for product-based businesses. But life and business and the world and you change so much, so often, so fast, that even the principles which worked a few years ago have to be re-evaluated. So you try some things that work, then after a while they don’t work so you adjust them. Or you try something which seems to fail miserably, but really what it did was help you see a new side to it. This is creativity. This is experimentation. This is business.
  • Creating high quality, custom content which lasts. Everything you create is for a very specific audience – with your spin on it. Nothing generic, nothing bland. This has your stamp on it, your opinion, your perspective, your brand. If someone took the logo and colours and website away, someone would still recognise it as yours. Which is why this is well worth investing more in than a templated, blanket-approach. Your clients will spot it straight away as being at best “okay”, and at worst boring. It’s like investing in a desk. You could buy a DIY desk from IKEA and it would do the job. I’ve got one which I bought for maybe £90 over ten years ago, and I’m still using it. But now I’m going to invest in a hand crafted wooden topped standing desk, with real wood by someone who knows what he’s doing….and you would never dream of spending such a tiny amount on that. If you want the good stuff, you pay for the good stuff. (Side note: we completely understand you sometimes need the IKEA desk to tide you over and just give you something while you build up the investment for the real thing. But just be careful not to delay too long, because you’ll get used to your boring generic desk and forget what the custom crafted one can do for you.)

Finally and most importantly, ROI is not the other person’s responsibility. It’s not the coach’s responsibility, the marketing agency’s responsibility.

It’s yours.

Let me say that again. It’s really important. The ROI you get on your marketing is NOT OUR RESPONSIBILITY.

It’s yours.

It’s yours because the business is yours. The time you invest is yours. The team is yours. The money is yours. The ownership is yours. It’s all yours, and that’s the beauty of it! We recognise your need to see a return: and we’re excited to see all our clients who follow the marketing map and invest not just money but time and effort and partnership and opinion, see their numbers go up. Their website numbers, their social numbers, their sales, their profits.

But we don’t take credit for that. WE aren’t the ones who did that: you are.

You’re the one who shared with us your goals and perspective. You’re the one who set your firm’s values and shared what matters most to you in life. You’re the one who hires the team, and trains them, and helps them work with your clients. You and your team are the ones who decide whether to take on a client, or not. You’re also the ones who decide to sack a client if they’re not living your values and aren’t a fit anymore.

And when you place the burden of responsibility on us – or your coach or your designer or your website developer or your advisor – instead of yourself, there’s an abdication of responsibility.

You’re saying, this is your job to get these results for me.

And we’re saying, with respect, it’s not. It’s your job. We’re still here to help every step of the way. It’s our responsibility to advise and direct and share and train and educate and support. We’ll rejoice and groan with you in appropriate measure. We’ll celebrate the wins and work through the losses and look for patterns and help you see what can be hard to see because you’re so deep in it.

But the wins (and you will get wins, and they will be big, and you’ll be so excited) are all yours. We don’t take credit for those. We share case studies and are so pleased at what you’ve done, but YOU are the one who’s done it. You’re the one who “got the ROI”.

You’re the hero.

Not us.

We’re just the guide. Remember Donald Miller’s book “Building A Storybrand”? He says in every great story, there’s a hero – like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen or Luke Skywalker. And in every story there’s a corresponding guide, like Dumbledore or Haymitch or Yoda. But Dumbledore isn’t the one who gets celebrated when the enemy is defeated. Haymitch is actually kind of a mess, really, and Katniss gets all the acclaim when she wins the games. That is right. That is correct.

I was talking to our own accountants about this the other day. I meet with my client manager monthly, and we go through the accounts. We identify what went up and what went down, and we discuss why. We celebrate when the profit percentage is rising and we consider carefully what to do if it’s not. We meet annually to set budgets and targets and goals.

But when we have amazing results, he says, really good job. Well done to you and the team. YOU did this.

We thank him, and the whole firm, for how they contributed. For being a calm voice of reason when we get worried. For pointing out things we can’t see as well because we’re in the trenches. For helping us see what other agencies like ourselves are doing (or not doing), and how we can learn from that. For being there, supporting, advising, guiding.

But ultimately we are the ones who “got the ROI”. With help.

That’s what we want for you.


5. What do you understand about the process, what’s required, what’s involved, and what’s delivered?


Sometimes the reason our budget feels small in our head is because we don’t really understand what’s involved in the project.
In order to compare apples with apples, you need to know what’s involved. It protects you from presuming PF is like the last agency you worked with, or presuming two different kinds of services are not that different, or attaching value based on that random number in your head.

Some of the things you can ask are:

  • How does this work? Do you have an onboarding process, a journey, a structure, a “way”?
  • Can I see it? Do you have a diagram or a visual based on what you’ve done before?
  • What happens first? What happens next? What is required from me now, and what will be required at different levels?
  • How much time will you and your team be spending on this? How much experience do you have? Remember, prices are not calculated merely based on time. At PF we do not charge an hourly rate – it’s our responsibility to be efficient and effective. You’re not penalised if it takes us a little longer on this project than that one, as long as the scope doesn’t change. The fixed quote is based on our experience doing these before, the time and effort from all the team members involved, and the value to you of the work we’re doing.
  • Who will be working with me? Just one person? A whole team? That will impact the cost and the ultimate value of what’s delivered. At PF, you aren’t just hiring one graphic designer. You’re getting a Client Marketing Manager who has worked with hundreds if not thousands of accountants for years, and has expertise in the strategy and the big picture and the detail too. A graphic designer, a content writer, a website developer, an SEO expert, a head of branding, and on and on and on. That is absolutely going to cost more than your friend’s brother or your random freelancer or the tiny agency just starting up. Yes, you can get it cheaper: but do you want that? What happens when your cheaper person suddenly gets a sense of their own value? You’ll be back to square one, and have to restart the whole relationship and conversation and discussions.

This is why we encourage you as accountants to create pricing information for your own marketing which goes far beyond three packages, or no estimation at all. Your prospect wants to know the way you come up with the quote, what it’s based on, what and who’s involved. Your whole pricing methodology.

Some firms share a range. Some give a starting or minimum fee. Some show examples of “sample clients” to give an idea. And some just say “we can’t possibly tell you yet, so you’ll need to have a conversation with us”.

Remember the point of pricing is to show you aren’t afraid of the question or the conversation. Don’t make your prospect feel like you’re hiding the numbers on purpose: help them feel like the delay is actually a protection for them, to help prevent a wrong quote which would get them over-excited or over-discouraged.

Read about some of our pricing approaches here:

How much is monthly outsourced marketing?

How much does it cost to rebrand my accounting firm?


6. How well do you know the person/agency who would be doing this work? Do they have a good track record (with you or others)?


The relationship you have, or how much you already know about the agency you’re getting a quote from impacts your understanding of the value. PF believes in sharing as much content as we can for free, so you can learn and try things and understand what could work for you. Part of the reason we do it this way is we want to be a good example of how you can work, too.

The progression model explains how your prospect doesn’t very often (if ever) leap from “I’ve never heard of you before” to “okay let’s spend all the monies now”. They move slowly. They read articles. Follow you on social. Meet some of your team, or follow them. Watch your instagram or LinkedIn stories. Comment on your posts. Download guides and free stuff. Attend live sessions and webinars. They gather, gather, gather – sometimes with intention, sometimes just casually.

Our advice is: Give away information, and charge for implementation.

Give away as much information as you can which is applicable to everyone who is in that category. Helpful tips for startups. How-to videos for people signing up to a new software. Pros and cons of choosing an app. Translating your monthly management accounts.

As long as it’s information which is broadly true, and they need to apply it to their own unique situation, you literally cannot give too much of that away.

Because the second they need help applying it, or have questions not answered in the free information, they’ve moved into the implementation stage and you can quote them and they can decide if they want help or will do it themselves.

So, if you’re deciding on a marketing project, think about how well you know the agency or person who will be doing the work. If it’s PF, make sure you’ve done these things. (If you haven’t, we’ll encourage you to do them anyway, so you may as well get started.)

  • Watched the marketing map webinar to understand the tried and tested ‘marketing journey’ for accountants
  • Download as much free stuff as you can find
  • Watch videos and webinar recordings to get a sense of how we educate and the marketing philosophy we follow
  • Read through the case studies
  • Read about the wins and successes from some of our monthly outsourced marketing clients
  • Consider joining the 12 week Accelerator to get a full view of how marketing works for accountants, and how you can and need to be involved (also watch the videos from those who have gone through it already)

We’re not perfect in this area – because of how 2020 has gone, we’ve actually got a TON of incredible stories and case studies and videos and quotes from clients to share. We’ve been focusing so much on DOING the work we literally haven’t had a spare minute to showcase how we’ve done it, and what our clients have achieved (what THEY have achieved – remember, the accountant is the hero!).

And plus we were down a PF marketing manager during that time. But she’s here and the content is there and she’s pulling it all together for you… and it is going to be amazing. One of the things we saw from April to July was that EVERY SINGLE CLIENT we had on monthly retainer, getting co-pilot reports on their marketing statistics and analytics, was seeing increased numbers. Increased website visitors. Increased social media followers and engagement. Increased average fees. Increased sales and profits. Increases, increases, increases.

That was because during that time, all those accountants stepped up to the content plate (so to speak). They wrote more blogs themselves. Sent emails. Ran webinars. Posted on social. Recorded videos. Went live and shared the video recordings. They stopped worrying about content being perfect, and just got it out there. Not perfect but done.

And at the same time, because we knew them so well, we were able to support them with design and editing and copywriting and publishing and all the things. Teamwork. Partnership. That’s how marketing is done well.


7. What’s the cost of NOT doing this now?


This is a big question, and a good one. Because every moment you delay on a marketing project is actually multiplied over time.

For example, if you were considering a rebrand for your accounting firm, or a new website, you need to do a foundations workshop with PF first. That’s because the things we work through with you in Foundations are core to whatever you end up doing. (It’s also because some accountants think they need a new website and once they’re in the middle of the Foundations workshop, they discover to their surprise they need to take a step back and revisit the name or logo or other branding of their firm, first. We want to make sure you’re not leaping into a big project without seeing the whole picture.) And no matter what project you do, we’ll still need to understand your personal and firm goals, your brand, your website, and the whole marketing plan.

So if you want a foundations workshop, and you know you’ll end up doing it sometime, but you feel like you can’t just now – either for money or time or whatever reason – delaying a day or a week doesn’t mean you’re delaying the whole process by a day or a week.

Here’s why:

Say for example you’re in the month of October (for talking’s sake). At that point PF has capacity, time available, people who have space to run these workshops. If you booked a workshop then, you’d have gotten your workshop sessions booked in within a few weeks at the most, and you’ll be done with all five sessions within 6 weeks, and ready to move on to your brand. (Or whatever comes out as the next step from the workshop.)

But say you aren’t quite ready. You say yes, I know I need it, but that’s a lot of money or it’s going to require time I don’t have, so I’ll wait a month. And you wait a month, and get back in touch with PF in November. And then you discover we’re on a waiting list (which we are right now). And your first session isn’t going to be in a week or two – it’s going to be in a month or two. And instead of starting in November you’re actually starting in January, which means it’s done in early to mid February, which means your branding project starts in mid Feb, which means you’ll have a new brand by the end of March, which means you’re starting your website build in April.

By delaying just that one month, you actually ended up losing almost three months.

Now, we’ll always do everything possible to help you through the interim time if we’re fully booked. We’ll get you booked in with a deposit, send you homework, give you Gsheets to fill in and questions to answer and videos to send to us. Your time won’t be wasted. But you will be moving a little more slowly than you could have done.

I know it can feel like a ‘sales tactic’. I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you at PF we only set up waiting lists when we literally have had so much demand it would be unfair for us to let you book something, because we wouldn’t be able to give you or the project our full attention. You want the best from the PF team, and sometimes that means waiting.

Still, always ask yourself what you could be losing besides just time. We’ve seen people get a new website page created and the new page is put together so well with the right messaging and the right calls to action that people who are looking for that particular service sign up within minutes. Think about how many people are coming to your website, or your other marketing, and saying “ehhhh, I’ll decide later”.

Does your marketing cause them to hesitate, or to hurry up?

Because if it causes them to hesitate, you’re losing business – and probably from the very best kind of clients, too. The kind you really like and really want and wish you had more of. And many of you have some clients still who are not living up to your values and they’re frustrating and difficult and the team grits their teeth a bit when they get in touch….and you need to replace those clients. That’s a big cost. Think about what it’s costing you to wait.


8. What CAN you invest in, just now, that’s small?


OKAY FINE, you say. I get it. I see your point. But I’ve looked at my bank account and I’ve lost some clients or they’ve gone out of business and I’ve done everything I can and I literally do not have that money right now. So this is all very well but I just can’t yet.

If that’s genuinely the case, there are some things you can invest a little bit in, to start. Start small, start safe.

Note: I do want to challenge those of you who have a very hefty bank account but are holding onto it out of fear, or a misunderstanding of the value you’re receiving, or a mismatch of perceived ROI, or any of the reasons we’ve mentioned above. If you have lots of money but you “just don’t want to spend it on that”, I’d suggest items 1-7 need a revisit.

But for those of you who literally don’t have the cash (or you’re saying to us “is it a good idea to get a grant or a loan so I can do this with PF”), think about what you can do that isn’t a few grand or ten grand or fifty grand or whatever. This could be….

  • Joining the 12 week Accelerator. This is a training, a coaching, and an accountability. You plus 20-30 other accountants who are all in a similar place, learning about marketing, creating your own content, and getting feedback from the PF team. Right now the early bird tickets are £395+VAT, and they will increase steadily until the course starts in Feb.
  • Book a one to one strategy call with Karen, or with the team. If you genuinely aren’t sure where to start, book a 1.5 hour session just with Karen, or with 2 PF team members, and get value from the discussions and suggestions there. Depending on the area you need help with, we may suggest the team instead of Karen. Say for example you want to talk branding: it’s best to start that conversation with one of the CMMs, because that’s who you’d be working with on your branding project. Not that Karen couldn’t help you, but her calendar fills up pretty fast, and she’d send you to the team anyway.
  • Book a breakthrough session. These are 4 week mini-courses on a specific area you want to learn more about. Websites, branding, choosing a niche, blogging, video. Pick one and attend a live session once a week for four weeks, and then see what that directs you to.

We believe in the progression model at PF, and will always encourage you to start where you’re ready. Some of you will be instantly ready for a full foundations workshop (and maybe a few other things besides). Some of you aren’t. Either way, we’ve got you covered.


9. What can you do without spending anything yet?


Finally, you can choose to spend nothing at all. I’d refer you back to the previous points to challenge you as to whether you literally CAN’T, or whether you just think you can’t. Or are scared you’ll waste your money. Or had a bad marketing experience and you DID waste some money. Or you don’t understand what the value is, or are too confused to even start.

But for those few of you who are not ready, at all, for any investment… there are always things you can do. So by the time you do start your marketing project, whatever it is, you’ve got some prep work done so you’re a more informed accountant when it comes to marketing. More willing, more ready, more excited!

You can….

Read good business and marketing books. Here are our top 5 book recommends for accountants.

Write blog posts. Even if it’s not perfect, even if it feels like it’s boring or stale. Just start: you will learn as you go. Here’s how to write even when you’re not in the mood.

Record videos. These can be one to one videos for a particular client, or short training videos for clients, or just thoughts on something useful for your clients. Use Loom – it’s free, and easy to use, and includes camera or screenshare or both. If the video is great and you want to use it elsewhere, you can download it. If it’s a one-time video and that’s it, you’ve still gotten some practice.

Watch free marketing training. Here’s where you can watch videos and webinar recordings all of which are entirely free.

Join the PF Marketing Community on Facebook. Meet and connect with other accountants who are feeling like you do. Ask questions, share content you’ve created, get feedback, get access to free Facebook lives with more training. Join FB community

Get marketing tips (like this one) by email every Friday. You can sign up here

Follow PF on the socials. We are regularly sharing marketing ideas, training, links to other resources and other companies who will help as you build your accounting firm and your own skills. Here are the core socials for PF itself:

PF Facebook (public page)
PF Marketing community (private for accountants only)
PF Twitter
PF LinkedIn
Karen’s profile on LinkedIn
PF Instagram

You’re also welcome to follow my own personal social accounts which are usually @karenlreyburn.

For those of you who have read this far and consumed this much, thank you. Genuinely. It shows you have a heart to learn and a curious spirit and a willingness to consider different perspectives. You might be our kind of people, with those kind of values. You might be part of our tribe (or we part of yours!). We look forward to connecting with you no matter what you spend, or don’t. Our heart’s desire is for you to understand and love marketing, so you get the very best clients ever. The kind you love to work with.

See you soon.