Lead generation, or the process of finding and nurturing prospects until they become paying customers, is the core mission of nearly every business. For a long time, salespeople relied on methods such as snail mail, cold calling, and face-to-face meetings to get in front of their target audience. While these traditional techniques can still work today, an array of new tools—email, social media, webinars, mobile marketing—have emerged and, with them, new protocols for building business relationships.
Relationships first, then sales
The first unspoken rule of lead generation is to make time in your schedule on a regular basis for actively pursuing leads and then following up persistently, without becoming a pest. "When you talk about becoming a pest, you're really talking about over-messaging," says Al Davidson, founder of Strategic Sales and Marketing, a Connecticut-based business-to-business lead generation company. "Over-messaging happens when you use only one channel of communication with a prospect and you use it over and over again."
Once you're aware of over-messaging, it's relatively easy to combat. According to Davidson, a salesperson who leaves phone messages for a decision maker that never get returned should experiment with diverse ways of reaching them—such as sending a white paper, mailing a postcard directing the prospect to a website, or meeting them in person at a trade show or business luncheon. Then, after a two-way relationship is established, a diverse mix of communications should be used to nurture it.
Diversifying the content of your message is equally critical. "If we're always in a sales mode, then we're not building relationships," Davidson says. "I think one of the biggest mistakes salespeople make is to launch into their sales pitches instantaneously. You really need to create comfort zones." Salespeople should research the decision maker they want to reach to see if they have a common interest or activity—anything that will warm the prospect up.
Leads should be ranked and not viewed as equal. "We recommend that salespeople try to develop a scoring system or nurturing system where they can rank their opportunities and then develop the necessary follow-up strategies to better address where those people are in the cycle," Davidson says.
In setting up a website that will attract the kind of leads you want, it’s important to define your audience and know what they're looking for—a crucial step that is often neglected.
"Many small businesses feel that they understand who their customers are, and then their eyes are opened when they get a report back that says the demographics are far different than they expected," says Ken Dawson, president and founder of Ohio-based eleventy marketing group. "We start by profiling the customers we want to go after, so that we're spending our marketing dollars for our clients the best way, to give a highly targeted approach."
The most effective websites will have a "newsy" look—providing useful information that can become a resource for prospects, not just a site that collects contact information exclusively. "You don't need to pound prospects over the head with an offer if you give them the right content and allow them to feel comfortable with your brand," Dawson explains. "Then they will come back and buy." An example of a content-rich site from eleventy's portfolio is Vivint, a home automation and security company.
Asking for a prospect's email address on your website is enough to get the conversation started. Since prospects consume information on a variety of devices, websites should be designed for different environments. Dawson finds that many small businesses are not making the leap fast enough from a format fit for a desktop-anchored website to one for mobile devices or smartphones.
"We find most of the transactions are happening on mobile, more so than desktop. So when we build pages, we make sure they are rendering in a responsive way and the message is coming through," Dawson explains. "You can have the best products and services in the world. But if someone is looking for you on their iPhone and you don't have a responsive design site, they will bounce and you will never ever capture their eyes."
Target prospects with social media
Social media platforms give small businesses the ability to customize their message to a specific set of prospects. As with other marketing channels, salespeople need to be aware of the etiquette for reaching out.
"With social media, you can get your message in front of the one specific person you want to reach," says Mandy Edwards, founder of Georgia-based ME Marketing Services. "You can target it in a way that you can't do with traditional broadcast media—radio, TV, newspaper ads."
For example, let's say an insurance agent wants to find out what prospects are thinking about. The agent can go to Twitter.com/search, click on the Advanced Options button, type in "my rates are too high," and Twitter will search for tweets with that phrase. The agent can then reach out to those people in a friendly, low-key way, perhaps informing them about his services. Searches can also be narrowed down geographically.
Another little-known technique that Edwards likes has to do with LinkedIn's connection message. Instead of using the standard generic message—"I'd like to add you to my group"—Edwards recommends deleting that text and replacing it with your own personal message to boost your chances of acceptance.
"Personalizing that connection, especially for a small business, shows that you're putting forth the effort," Edwards explains. "It shows you're more of a one-to-one type of person that the prospect may be willing to work with, rather than someone who just sends the generic request without rhyme or reason." The trick is to make sure it doesn't come off as too sales pitchy or too spammy, he says.
Edwards says the ads that appear on the right side of a Facebook page offer the most detailed targeting of prospects of any social media platform. "You can target any age from 13 on up," Edwards explains. "You can target based on gender, education level, marital status, even whether they work at a particular business. Facebook has all this data they can sift through."
Generating leads may be a perennial problem, but the explosion of web-enabled channels combined with traditional offline strategies have generated solutions as well.