The greatest of business ideas remains just that: A vision of things to come – if only you knew how and what to do to get your start-up off the ground and running at full tilt. Entrepreneurs can manage core operations almost instinctively; it is often something they’ve done their whole lives or even runs in the family. However, building your customer base, which is crucial to long-term viability, is another matter altogether. I have put together some customer-building strategies based on the experience of seasoned entrepreneurs, including some ideas I have used personally and had success with:
1. Develop a Customer Persona
You know the product or service better than anyone does, and you may even have thought of the potential end users during product development. Define the characteristics of your target audience, starting with basic demographic data that would include:
- Age range
- Income range
- Possible occupations
- Hobbies and interests
The basic data outlined above is only scratching the surface. It is important to be as detailed as possible when defining your customer persona. Find out their shopping habits including how they find the products and services they need, who or what influences their buying decisions and how they rank their decision factors.
Depending on whether your product or service is in the business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C) category, discover the purchasing process and who makes the buying decisions within your target companies, families or individuals.
All the above provides you with vital data and statistics with which to tailor your marketing strategy.
2. Positioning for Better Visibility
The benefits of a strategic location are well-known: Foot traffic converts to sales for most mass-market products or services. Prominent business signage is a beacon that brings in shoppers, while accessibility increases the likelihood of impulse shopping.
It also helps to co-locate where businesses that may not be directly competitive but serve the same demographic set are located. A business offering high-end accessories for men would do well to locate itself close to men’s clothiers and shoe stores. Businesses involved in the sale and rental of health-related supplies would cluster around medical districts where physicians’ offices are also located.
Obviously, for those dealing with non-consumer items, positioning strategies would differ.
3. Brand-Building Online
Regardless of the type of product or service, a fundamental to getting more customers is to make sure that your target market knows about you and can find you. The Internet has provided different channels of interaction between businesses and the public, and start-ups should examine how they can leverage their Internet presence to build their customer base.
Brick-and-mortar operations can gain a wider audience through an online store that complements their traditional retailing or wholesaling program. Businesses without a storefront component must work constantly to reinforce their online presence, as the Internet has become the world’s marketplace for anything and everything that can be described with text or graphics.
Company websites should always have a contact form, email, phone or chat line (or all of the above) that customers can access on any page of the site. This method applies whether the website is an extension of a retail storefront, an informational site for a service business or a web-only retailer. Contact forms should be brief, requiring only basic information that will allow you to follow up with an email, phone call or a catalog.
Potential customers tend to shy away from hard-sell efforts to solicit information, so offer people something to encourage them to sign up. If you intend to provide useful content relevant to their needs, offer them a sign-up for updates. To share your expertise in your field, write a white paper or an e-book that interested parties can download free of charge, giving you the chance to capture their contact information.
4. Share Your Expertise
Customers will gravitate to websites and stores that offer more than merchandise. Craft sessions in art stores, construction labs in home improvement stores and gaming marathons in electronics stores are some examples of promotions that can bring in new customers.
Online, you can offer tutorials to demonstrate how your product is used, maintenance tips, and a wide range of advice not even directly related to your product or service. When you find ways to share your expertise through useful articles and blog posts that customers can act on, you could be converting browsers to buyers to loyal customers before you know it.
Another effective system, when done correctly, is to own a wide range of domain names and set up multiple websites. These should integrate with your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy and providing well-written and useful content to potential and existing customers and clientele. If you decide to go this route, enlist the help of a professional who is well-versed in internet marketing so as to avoid getting blacklisted by Google. Make sure that whoever you use has a successful track record in the area.
5. Master the Ways of Social Media
While it is a noble quality to be humble, the fact is that self-promotion is key to gaining traction in the business world, especially with the limited resources of a start-up. Social media provides practically unlimited channels that savvy entrepreneurs can take full advantage of to build a following that coverts to sign-ups and sales.
The fact that it is “unlimited” also presents a problem: How do you avoid wasting your time and money into campaigns and ads that don’t result in sufficient business? The answers lie in the customer persona (aka identities) noted above, accurate market research data and strategy, and yes, a certain amount of trial and error. When putting together a social media campaign, the tendency will be to go for short-term gain, and while that is important, you should ultimately be interested in the long haul.
These are some of the most popular social networking sites at this writing (depending on who you ask):
- Google Plus (Google+)
A Facebook page that states who you are and integrates well with your website is pretty much essential these days. Twitter is popular amongst youth and you may find it useful, depending on what you are offering. For businesses that can benefit from graphics presentation, Instagram and Pinterest may draw the type of following that will convert to buyers. Service businesses may find review sites such as Yelp and Foursquare useful to their customer engagement process.
These platforms are intended to be interactive: Followers can respond to your posts while you can respond to relevant posts. Study the specific advantages of these platforms to your business model. Engage your potential customers through real-time interaction, and take every opportunity to show your appreciation for positive responses. Make sure to manage and edit these sites on a continuous basis.
6. Advertising on Digital and Traditional Media
Depending on your type of business, advertising through traditional print, radio and television can help to build your brand. Internet advertising can bolster your marketing through a more direct approach using strategically placed click-through ads. Monitor these ads and determine if the cost-per-thousand impressions or cost-per-acquisition makes sense in terms of lead generation and conversion.
7. Networking the Traditional Way
As interesting as Internet marketing and social media may be, start-ups should not forget the tried and true ways of traditional networking:
- Participate in local community events as a sponsor, volunteer or supporter.
- Join professional organizations relevant to your expertise and your business, including the Chamber of Commerce.
- Attend conventions, trade fairs and meet-ups that provide opportunities to present your business pitch and meet potential customers.
- Give out free samples, test products or coupons for free services.
- Work your personal network of family, friends, social acquaintances and business peers.
Generating leads is important, but lead conversion is even more critical to establishing a customer base. Make sure to follow up with potential customers using excellent communication skills. How the phone is answered is critical and can make or break your conversion rate; so is the ability to make a sale. All told, networking is a continuous action and can also be a lot of fun!
8. Use Your Imagination.
Lastly, there are ways to get new customers no one has tried yet. There are imaginative techniques you can experiment with and see what happens. I’d recommend starting on a small scale and seeing how it goes instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.
Some of the more ingenious marketing I’ve been looking into costs very little compared to the potential return. One system I’ve been interested in recently is called a strategic alliance or a host beneficiary relationship. In essence, you connect with established businesses who service the demographic you are interested in. You set up a free offer that the existing company sends out to their clientele email list (or by other means) as a gift. They get goodwill and you get a flood of potential new business. Make sure that you are offering something that has a good chance of developing into a paying customer, whether it’s in the form of people in your door, contact info, or whatever is applicable to your business.
Use your brain power and you’ll come up with inventive ways to reach people. Just because someone hasn’t thought of it yet, does not mean it won’t work. Good luck!