By Amanda L. Sage owner of Gong Gong Communications in Columbus, Ohio.
Ask any business owner what their biggest struggle is and undoubtedly they’ll almost always say it’s finding new clients and getting leads. It’s the axiom of business. Everyone will fall into selling/marketing groove that works for them, however the key is to be diversified so that if one well dries up, there is another to draw from. Keep in mind that what works for you now might not work in ten years! A lot of these venues for finding new clients are also great places to find mentors, partners, and service providers, so keep an open mind.
1. Have good marketing materials.
This is a very comprehensive topic, but boiled down it means that your company should have at the very least, a website, business cards and some sort of brochure or flier, the more creative the better. This is one area you should almost always hire out. Microsoft Word doesn’t cut it.
Once you have your marketing under control, be sure to use it. Hand out your business cards and brochures, don’t leave them in your filing cabinet. Make sure your website’s URL is on everything you pass out and make sure its content is relevant and updated.
Personal Tip: I have made sure I have unique literature and I always get positive comments because of it. I also like fun, inexpensive giveaways as a way to stay memorable (who doesn’t like stickers!?) Whatever it takes to stay positively implanted in your audience’s mind!
2. Hit up friends, family and former colleagues.
How often have you run into a friend who knew you started a company but didn’t know what you did? Then, they say “Oh, I just hired a so-and-so two months ago, I wish I would have known!” It happens all the time.
Send personalized e-mails out to your old coworkers, classmates, friends, and even family members. Tell them what you’re doing now with a brief description of who your target market is. Make sure they have your contact information and chat them up every few months so they remember that you’re still out there.
Personal Tip: Do you know how many people have been referred to my company from my mom? Accusations of nepotism are rare. If you have the chops to back up their referral, who cares how it was passed on.
3. Attend networking events.
Yes, they’re often very early. Yes, sometimes you have to pay to attend. Yes, you run into some really annoying people who won’t shut up. However, the exposure you obtain at networking events can really be surprising, and usually in abstract ways.
It is often hard for people to strike a really good chord when they meet for two minutes. But if you’re attending a few such events a month, you’re going to start running into a few of the same people, and that’s when the real relationships form.
Personal Tip: I generally dislike networking events, but I can’t say that they haven’t worked. At most of these events, the usual suspect is a 40-50 year old WASP male, so anyone different is going to get noticed. This is a good thing. Don’t be shy, but don’t be obnoxious, either.
4. Join a group.
This could be a professional trade organization, the local chamber of commerce, an alumni club from your university, or something based around a hobby or interest. Attending the meetings will give you a chance to meet other business people who may need your business, or will at least keep you in mind for friends who will.
Don’t spend hundreds, or even thousands of dollars joining the big, national organizations unless they have an active chapter. You need to be involved in a group where you’re meeting often and have the opportunity to network.
Once you join a group, be sure to volunteer your time to the organizations. For example, marketing folks and designers are very useful to a communications committee and it’s a great way to impress people with your abilities. But even helping in an area that is outside your expertise is beneficial because it opens doors and introduces you to people you likely wouldn’t get to know as quickly.
Personal Tip: I joined an entrepreneurs group before I even had any clients and it was the best move I made for my company. Besides great support and wonderful advice, an obscene percentage of my clients have come directly from my participation. I serve on the communications committee, and even though it takes a small chunk of time out of my schedule each month, it has helped me show off my talents and has connected me with people I’d never have gotten to know otherwise.
5. Do pro-bono work for charities.
Non-profit organizations need all the help they can get, especially in a bad economy. Lucky for you, they need everything from tech support to plumbing to copy writing.
Call up the director of a few non-profits you’d like to support and tell them that if they’re ever in need of your work, you’ll be happy to give them an in-kind donation. They get the service or product they need, and you get a tax write-off and some great exposure. Plus, it feels good to help out!
Personal Tip: When I first started out as a freelance writer, my target market was the non-profit community. Every single one I talked to said they couldn’t afford to pay me, but would be very appreciative of any free work I would do for them. Especially when you’re first starting out and you’re trying to establish a portfolio or even just a list of references and testimonials, pro-bono work is a great place to start.
6. Sponsor a group or an event.
No one is expecting to see your name on the side of a stadium, but on the back of a softball player’s t-shirt is another story. Whether you’re donating cash or in-kind services, it is a fantastic way to get your name out there. At the event distribute literature or product samples to keep your company’s name in front of your audience a little longer.
Personal Tip: Sponsorship impresses people and sometimes can make you look bigger and more established than you really are. Take advantage.
8. Form strategic partnerships.
This may be more difficult when you’re first starting out, unless you’re bonding with other new business owners. Whether you work on projects together, like say a freelance designer and a freelance copy writer, or you are able to refer clients to businesses in other fields, like a real estate agent recommending an interior designer or a landscape company, these partnerships can pay off. Everyone is out to help each other.
Personal Tip: I am constantly recommending my colleagues to clients and even people I meet casually or at a networking event. Your friend won’t forget the effort and will be just as eager to return the favor.
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