In the early days of any small business, it’s natural to get the word out the old-fashioned way: by telling your family and friends, and then letting word of mouth do the trick. When you add social media to the mix—if you use social media, that is—that can actually turn out to be a lot of people.
Eventually, though, all small businesses must face the fact that their networks are only so big, and that the number of people who might be interested in buying your product or service is even smaller.
Enter lead generation, a necessary aspect to growing virtually any business. Through the right mix of lead generation strategies, you can identify potential leads, nurture the interest, and convert the consumers you’re chasing after into one-time, repeat, or life-long customers.
Below, we’ll cover a few of the key ways to generate leads—from defining your audience, to raising awareness, to bringing them into your funnel.
What’s a lead?
First, let’s get clear on our definition of a lead. Simply put, a lead is anyone who has shown interest in your product or service, whether by visiting your website, opening an email, reading a blog post, following you on social media, attending your webinar… and on it goes. Basically, a lead is someone who commits any action in the direction of your business other than total silence or outright rejection. From there, you can draw on a host of techniques to bring them deeper into your “funnel” and eventually turn them into a customer.
Define your audience
To generate leads, it helps to have a solid sense of who your audience is—the group you’ll be trying to generate leads from—along with the want or need you’re trying to help them fulfil. In other words, there’s no point in trying appeal to everyone! There are some people out there that your product or service simply isn’t for, and you’ll only waste time and money trying to convince them otherwise. Rather than try to “boil the ocean,” as they say, you’re much better off putting your energy into defining your audience and targeting them exclusively.
Understand how they make decisions
Even with a well-defined audience, you can’t hope to nurture their interest using any old tactic. You need to understand when, where, and above all how they make decisions—in particular with regard to your kind of offering. If you sell B2B software, for instance, your audience is likely not going to respond to a TikTok video as well as they would a well-researched article. And if you’re a hip local restaurant, investing in billboard advertising might not make as much sense as, say, beautifying your storefront.
Take it from Josh Spatz, owner and co-founder of Toronto-based pizza place North of Brooklyn. With five locations (and counting), Spatz and his partner have spent a grand total of zero dollars on advertising.
“Advertising in the restaurant industry can be a detractor. To my mind, if you see a small local restaurant putting out an ad, it could mean they’re not busy. It just sends the wrong sort of signal.”
That’s not to say that Spatz isn’t investing in growing his customer base. On the contrary, he and his partner simply understand how would-be patrons make their decisions around the kind of product that North of Brooklyn offers.
“We put a lot of thought into choosing locations with solid foot traffic. I also tend to obsess over the details of our storefronts. What our physical spaces look like—that’s our marketing.”
For one kind of audience, the lead gen tactic may be an ad or webinar. For another, it may be drawing in pedestrians through smart locations and great exterior design. To determine the appropriate set of tactics, you need to know how (or where) your audience tends to make decisions.
Think in terms of a funnel
Even with a well-defined audience and a solid understanding of how they make decisions about your kind of product, not all leads are the same. Some may be only mildly interested in your offering while others are on the brink of a purchase; a smart business will use different tactics to nudge each type of lead closer to a sale.
In business language, it is important to define your sales “funnel”—and in particular to determine which tactics are appropriate for each of the stages within it.
Fortunately, you don’t have to start from scratch. Different companies tend to break down their funnels in different ways, but they all loosely fall into three major stages: Awareness, Interest, and Decision, or colloquially TOFU (top of funnel), MOFU (middle of funnel), and BOFU (bottom of funnel), with each stage nearing closer to a sale than the last.
We could write a whole article on the different stages of the sales funnel and the tactics appropriate to each, but since anything below the TOFU stage is less about “generating” leads than “nurturing” existing ones, we’ll mostly be focusing on TOFU-level tactics. The point here is this: a strong lead generation strategy will make at least some effort to distinguish casual shoppers from serious buyers, and will use the right tactics at each stage to move them further along.
At the very top of the funnel, it’s important simply to make noise—the kind of noise that will grab the attention of your specific audience. Something high on personality and low on detail to help get the conversation started. This is the “awareness” stage.
How you do so is industry and audience dependent, as we saw in the case of North of Brooklyn, but common tactics include print and digital advertising (including social media), SEO-powered content, organic social media, and outbound sales efforts. At this stage, the conversation tends to be less around your product or service than the need your offering is meant to satisfy—or problem it is meant to solve—in the first place.
Again, each of these tactics are an article unto themselves—from how to create great ads to how to refine your SEO—but the principle is to get your audience aware of, and familiar with, your brand.
Exchange value for contact information
If lead generation is essentially about bringing people into the top of your sales funnel, one of the best ways to do that nowadays is to get their email addresses. That way you can continue to send them timely content and nurture them towards a sale. To get their emails in the first place, however, you have to give them something valuable in return.
Depending on your industry, common tactics include semi-regular e-mail newsletters, live demos, online events, downloadable research reports/whitepapers, and ebooks.
All of these tactics have two things in common. The first is that they are “gated,” which means that in order to get them, you have to provide your email address (usually on a landing page). The second thing they have in common is that they are valuable. The would-be lead will only download the report or attend the webinar, in other words, if there is something in it for them, whether it’s information and data, sense-making and expertise, entertainment, discounts, etc. Depending on your product, you can even offer a free trial or consultation. Their emails will follow.
The principle is the same with social media. Get them to follow you in the first place, then figure out how to drive them further down the funnel by other means. As Spatz explains, “We do quite a few contests online. You know, as in ‘Like this post and follow us on Instagram for a chance to win a $200 gift card,’ that kind of thing. And they really work in terms of building followers.”
If the content and advertising are classic inbound techniques, it’s also important for many businesses to rely on good old-fashioned outbound sales prospecting, whether via phone call, email, or in person.
As founder and CEO of Startup Slang Damiano Raveenthiran explained in a recent Driven customer story, “We got a loan from Driven… and invested it in hiring some of the best sales consultants in the industry. They came into our company and helped us set up lead gen structures. We now have an entire team of sales development reps constantly reaching out to potential clients and building relationships.”
Investing in a sales team may be costly up front, but it can improve your lead generation ten times over and help with nurturing each lead down the funnel to a completed sale.
Advice and research for Canadian small businesses from our expert team