Choosing the right tools to run your digital agency can be overwhelming. There’s so much out there that you could spend weeks researching just one category, and end up making a decision that could cost you.
If there’s one thing I love more than anything in the business world, it’s researching and trying out new tools. Sure, that makes me a bit weird. But at least it means I get to share this with you and hopefully save you a bunch of time in the process.
In this toolkit, not only will I show you the best-in-class for each category, but you’ll also see why I chose it over other options. This is probably the most important part. It’s also the part most guides miss.
Many of the tools in here are not free. That’s because the best tool for the job is very rarely free or cheap. Looking for free or cheap can cause much bigger problems than you might expect. I know that because I’ve burned myself on countless occasions. Here’s my thoughts on this topic.
Some of the links below are referral links, meaning we would receive a small payment if you sign up through these links. It’s a ‘thank you’ from these companies for referring them customers. However these recommendations have nothing to do with that payment – we used the tools before deciding to refer people.
These are the categories covered in this toolkit. Click a category to jump directly to that section.
- Marketing automation and CRM
- Project management
- Project support
- Social media
- Agency web hosting
Marketing automation & CRM
This is a pretty difficult category, because it’s so broad. Some products are only a CRM. Some are only email. Some are both, plus more. Some do everything, but are way too complicated for most businesses.
My go-to tool in this space is Active Campaign.
It combines a simple CRM with powerful marketing automation & email marketing. That’s it.
It’s not trying to do everything like some of the big players. Some products add landing pages, payment systems, affiliates etc and just do an average job of all of it.
The thing I love the most about Active Campaign is the powerful yet simple visual automation builder. Some tools allow free-reign in visual builders, meaning you’ll be trying to line everything up pixel by pixel. Active Campaign draws it all in for you, keeping things simple. At the same time there are so many different triggers and actions that make it extremely powerful.
It’s no surprise Active Campaign
Grab a free trial to see how it works for you through the button below.
If you don’t plan on doing any email marketing, you could go for a simpler tool. For lack of a better name, lets call it a pure-CRM. That is – something that’s a database of all your leads and customers, and manages a sales pipeline.
One thing to note though – even if you don’t plan on doing full blown email marketing, a system that includes email can help you in many other way. For example, Active Campaign can help you drip emails out to clients which you are completing their projects, send follow ups and request testimonials and reviews without you doing anything. A pure-CRM usually doesn’t have this functionality.
One of the best tools in this space is Pipedrive. It’s about as simple as it gets, but will do pretty much everything you need in this kind of system. Their pricing is also very attractive.
Try PipeDrive for free using the button below.
What a minefield this category is. So many options. So many promises. But it’s not until you really dive in and spend a lot of time with one tool before you start working out where it excels and where it falls down. I personally tested 10 when we evaluated software, and I’ve tried many more over the years.
Independently, some of the brightest people I know settled on the same software, so this was pretty comforting.
That tool is Teamwork Projects. But one of the things that make it so awesome isn’t necessarily the project management portion, but this part is great too.
Teamwork have another product called Desk. This is a pretty typical email-to-support-ticket style app, but it’s special because of its tight integration with Projects. In plain English, this means that your clients can keep using what they know – email – and it links up with your project management system – through Desk. There’s a more detailed run down on this at the end of this post.
On the projects side, Teamwork has basically every feature you could want in a project management system. It is especially good at:
- Task templates for standard processes
- Task dependencies
- Time tracking with billable/non-billable time so you can generate invoices easily
- Notifications (notifying a dependent task that it is ready for work)
Many project management systems say they do all of this. Very few (if any) deliver to the same level as Teamwork.
Teamwork does a LOT of stuff, so it can be overwhelming at first. However you can turn many of the features off if you don’t need them, making the interface cleaner.
Give Teamwork Projects & Desk a try by clicking on the button below.
Simple project management
A newer player in this field is ClickUp. It has one of the cleanest interfaces of this category, and has a lot of great features.
I’ve called this category “simple”, but ClickUp handles almost everything you could want to throw at it. It’s template system for checklists, subtasks and tasks is better than any other project I’ve seen. Yep, even better than teamwork.
I call it simple because they’ve managed to make it feel simple. If ClickUp had a Teamwork Desk style system, I’d likely say it was the winner in this category.
Finally, the pricing is really, really good.
Get started on the free plan by clicking the button.
For different kinds of projects, there are certain processes that project management systems usually aren’t built to handle. That’s where these specialist tools come in.
Collecting content and info from clients
One of the biggest bottlenecks in digital agencies is waiting on clients to send content or assets. It might be for marketing projects or more commonly… website content.
Content Snare is all about reducing or removing this bottleneck. It provides a central location to manage digital assets, website content or any kind of content. By automatically following up with your clients, it helps remind them what they need to provide.
This is our product. This was a problem we faced daily in our agency, so we built Content Snare to fix it.
Try out Content Snare using the button below.
Or find out more.
Getting meaningful design feedback from clients is yet another major challenge for agencies. Feedback is normally required on static designs as well as websites.
Project Huddle does both. It’s a WordPress plugin that you set up on your own website. I recommend setting it up on a clean WordPress install to minimise potential conflicts, at a subdomain like feedback.yourwebsite.com
With Project Huddle, you can set up live websites or upload designs for your clients to give feedback on.
The best part is how easy it is. Clients just click on a spot and a box opens up for them to type in feedback for that exact spot they clicked.
Project Huddle’s pricing is great. If you would rather not set up your own WordPress install, take a look at Invision.
Tired of emails from clients asking to resend deliverables, or for some info that you’ve already sent them?
The aptly named Client Portal is a WordPress plugin that gives your clients their own portal where they can go to get everything they need. Upload all their deliverables there and send them the link to their portal. Simple.
Social media scheduling
I might cop some heat for this choice. It feels like these days everyone is talking about fancy social media scheduling tools that have 1000 bells and whistles.
One of the big topics is recycling content – that is sending out the same things you’ve sent before when you don’t have anything new. Many people argue this isn’t worthwhile, and I’m seeing more and more people stop this practice.
After trying a bunch of things, I came back to the OG* of the social media scheduling world, Buffer.
It’s easy, simple and just works.
While Buffer is used by many agencies to schedule content for clients, it wasn’t built for this purpose. If this is what you’re looking for Hootsuite might be a better choice.
If you’re looking for a tool that includes content recycling, check out SmarterQueue.
* OG = Original Gangster
There are two sides to billing – one off invoices (project work) and recurring payments for things like site maintenance, marketing retainers etc.
Invoices are easy enough – whatever bookkeeping software you use generally includes this. King of this space is Xero.
Recurring payments is another story. There are so many tools for this with varied levels of complexity and capability.
Just a note here first. Some tools are ‘self hosted.’ For example, WooCommerce has a subscriptions module that you can set up on your own WordPress install. In my opinion, billing is one of those things I want offloaded to a third party system that just works. It’s too important to have to deal with maintenance issues preventing subscriptions from rebilling (which has happened to many people many times with WooCommerce).
I settled on ThriveCart. It’s a newer player, but it has quickly grown to one of my favourite tools. It is so much more than just billing. It helps with:
- Selling one-time products
- Discount coupons
- Recurring payments
- Portal for clients to update credit cards
And it integrates very nicely with Active Campaign, other CRMs, Zapier and many membership platforms.
Productivity and admin
Zapier. Oh how I love Zapier.
Just had a quick look at my Zapier stats. So far it has automated 9602 tasks this month.
So many things can be automated with Zapier. It’s a whole topic by itself, so I’ll keep this short.
It’s a tool for connecting tools with other tools. So for example, when you create a new client in your CRM, you could use Zapier to automatically create that client in your project management system as well, and set up a new project for them.
That’s just one example. There are thousands of things you can automate like emails, invoicing, social media and much more.
If you’re using spreadsheets to manage passwords, please stop now! That’s one of the most insecure ways of handling passwords.
There are several tools out there dedicated to managing passwords and letting you share them with your team.
My favourite is 1Password.
We recently switched from Lastpass. Lastpass is probably the most well known in the space, but over the last years it has become very slow and we’ve had loads of problems with it. Support is very hard to get, and hard to understand. The initial migration to 1Password had some problems, but since then it has been smooth sailing.
Agency web hosting
This is another one of those minefield categories. There are an astronomical number of options in an ever changing space. A host that is good today might degrade in a couple of years time. It’s happened with several companies over the years.
Consider how many accounts you will be handling. If you are doing a large volume, it’s unlikely you’ll want to manage billing for all of them. In that case you’d want a managed billing system.
One of the original options for billing and provisioning hosting accounts is WHMCS. It’s been around for a long time and as a result has become a bit of a dinosaur. It’s handles a lot of things, but is very complex to use at the same time.
Some web hosts enable you to push client billing to the client directly through the host’s billing system. That’s a good responsibility to take away.
The other option is simply referring your clients to a web host directly, and taking an affiliate cut. This was the model we went for, but some clients just don’t want to deal with a host directly.
Cloudways is a great hosting option. They are a platform that sits on top of several well known hosting providers. You can choose between:
- Digital Ocean
These hosts normally require a dedicated person to setup and manage. Instead, Cloudways installs everything that you need and gives you a nice easy interface to manage it all.
It takes only a few clicks to set up a new install of WordPress or a plain PHP/MySQL application. Likewise you can set up a new server in a few clicks.
Here’s a guide on how we use a development server with Cloudways to preview sites to clients.
Migrating existing WordPress sites is extremely easy and free. Cloudways has one of the smoothest migration experiences I’ve used to date.
Pricing is great, but depends on which underlying company you choose.
The downsides with Cloudways are that you need to manage the billing externally (or let the client sign up with their own account), and their support isn’t very good.
Managed WordPress hosting
Flywheel is a great managed WordPress host.
For agencies, they let you create demo sites for your clients where you can get everything up and running, then push that account to your client. From there, Flywheel manage the billing and you get a commission.
One of the downsides at the moment is that the migration process is manual. Hopefully we see this changed soon.
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