Bringing in new clients, improving cash flow, and finding new sources of capital are a perennial challenge for every business—for small businesses even more so. But now, thanks to the Internet and social media, entrepreneurs have access to many of the same powerful marketing tools, business networks, and customer groups that were once the private domain of Fortune 500 corporations. The trick, of course, is how to use these new tools correctly.
The first step on this road to increased prosperity, however, often proves to be the most difficult—getting buy-in from the business owner. But according to Mitch Joel, author of the book Six Pixels of Separation, a company that foregoes its online potential is missing a big opportunity. “Use the cloud,” he emphasizes. “The Internet can and should be one of the most powerful channels to convey your ideas and thoughts.”
So what is so different and important about tapping into groups of people gathered together online in places like social media groups? The answer is like-mindedness, trust, and among other things, engagement—it’s the idea that these people already want to interact with you and your business.
Michael Stelzner, author of the 2011 Social Media Marketing Industry Report says that over the course of the last three years, social media has moved from an uncertain strategy to a permanent fixture to, now, a primary tool of businesses of all sizes. “Almost all marketers find that social media helps them stand out in an increasingly noisy marketplace,” Stelzner points out. In fact, the study found that 88 percent of respondents said social media helps get them increased exposure. Additionally, 72 percent of those surveyed saw increased traffic and subscriptions as a result of social media.
Malena Jackson is the founder of the Global Association of Family Travel, in Valencia, California. It’s a business she relentlessly markets through social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, as well as through traditional methods such as local Chamber of Commerce meetings.
While Jackson acknowledges that face-to-face customer interactions still hold more value, she remains committed to online networking even though only five percent of her business currently comes from social media contacts. Approximately four times a week, Jackson sends out Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter messages to her clients, which include hotels and resorts around the world who want to know more about capturing the family traveler market. “I’m always planting seeds,” she explains.
She also uses YouTube and Facebook to post short, three-minute videos that touch on family travel topics and consistently communicate her marketing message. “Social media allows you to be the expert if you do it right,” she says. When it comes to interacting online, Jackson says it’s all about letting people in and having a two-way conversation with customers and colleagues. “They want to be a part of your world.”
Stephan Laenen founded his graphic design company, Image Creation, in Atlanta 10 years ago, later relocating to the Pacific Northwest. However, like Jackson, his customers come from far and wide. And he attributes some of his recent success in connecting with potential new clients to following up on LinkedIn after real-world networking events.
Laenen says when people come to his business via a social media site such as Facebook or LinkedIn, they are 80 percent bought in to your business because they trust the people who referred them. That makes converting them into real-life customers that much easier, he points out.
“When you do cold calls or advertising, you’re throwing a lot of work out there and the customers may or may not come,” Laenen says. “By nature, I’m not a sales person, I’m more of a customer service type. It’s easier for me if they are sold already.”
Crowdfunding is another innovative way for a small business to use online resources to their benefit. So how does it work?
According to a recent Wall Street Journal profile, these online financial aggregation sites “provide platforms for entrepreneurs to get funding from various contributors, often friends, relatives and members of their community.” Best of all, the article notes, “the funds don’t need to be paid back because they’re not loans. However, many entrepreneurs give their contributors some of the products or services their start-ups sell as a way to show appreciation.” There are now several of these sites, such as Peerbackers, IndieGoGo, RocketHub and Kickstarter that let entrepreneurs tap into like-minded souls for relatively quick cash.
In New York City, Charles Hobson, founder of Vanguard Documentaries, is a veteran of the documentary film making industry and of fundraising. But for his current project, a film about the historic Flatiron building in New York, he created a Flatiron Film page on Kickstarter. For various amounts starting with as little as five dollars, people could become backers of the new project and, in return, get mentioned in his film’s credits. And though Hobson fell short of his official goal of raising $25,000 in three months, he was still able to contact the nearly 50 volunteers who did sign up and get them to directly contribute more than $5,000 to help create his film.
Calling it an “excellent vehicle,” Hobson says he would definitely try rainmaking through online crowds again, despite his initial, mixed results. “This is a good way for you to connect with people,” he says, adding that this is especially true since “in this economy, it’s more difficult to raise money.”
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