SOI 2013 - New Business Acquisition

Distributors Are Updating Traditional Customer Acquisition Strategies

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New BusinessDistributors are updating traditional customer acquisition strategies to serve a digital and mobile marketplace.

The mainstream adoption of mobile devices and social media has meant that distributors have more ways to connect and interact with prospective customers than ever. While the traditional acquisition methods of referrals, cold calls and networking remain the most popular ways for distributors to expand their business, now they must also navigate a crowded digital marketplace where it can be difficult to break through and get attention.

As the landscape has shifted, distributors are putting growing emphasis on more precise customer targeting and more creative networking in their search for sales leads. One of these new strategies is the use of content marketing to pique the interest of prospects and draw them to the company website. On social media, a "hard sell" approach can quickly turn off followers. But marketing aimed at attracting clients with content they actually want to read and share is proving effective at helping distributors get on the radar of new prospects.

"I would offer that the best way for small businesses to acquire new customers is through inbound marketing," says Kathleen Booth, owner of Quintain Marketing (asi/303131).

"Inbound marketing" refers to the use of content such as infographics, white papers and instructional videos to, as Booth describes it, "create marketing and advertising that doesn't feel like marketing and advertising."

Quintain runs a blog on topics about marketing strategy and offers several downloadable eBooks on its website, which Booth says has helped the company in acquiring new customers. Quintain also encourages its own clients to take this approach.

For one recent client, Quintain created an expansive inbound marketing campaign, shifting from a traditional outbound advertising approach. Launched in October 2012, the effort helped jump the number of visitors to the client's website from 25 per month to nearly 1,000 per month within the first half year and converted about 7.3% of those to sales.

"For B-to-B companies, being a thought leader in your industry is very important," says Nicole Kimmick, managing director of NTK Consulting, which works to help companies market themselves. "Have an expert in your company write white papers about important topics in your industry. Put them on your website with forms that people can fill out to download the paper. You will generate qualified leads from people who have an interest in your topic and possibly your product or service."

She adds that webinars can make for an effective lead-generating tool as well, either about the company's services or on broad points of interest, like "marketing trends in 2013." More broadly targeted topics can also be promoted to blogs and trade publications that cover the industry, which may mean added coverage.

Distributors can also attract attention to the company through other press announcements that go beyond promoting products, such as annual awards for top customers or promotional ideas connected to a holiday. According to Kimmick, the key is to offer something practical and interesting that will get prospects coming back for more.

New Ways to Network
While industry networking groups and local Chamber of Commerce gatherings remain popular choices for distributors seeking new business leads, more unconventional networking groups have proven worthwhile as well. Groups that share common interests beyond typical networking goals can be rich areas for customer acquisitions.

For example, Pam Stevens, sales manager for New Direction for Us (asi/101519), has found it fruitful to join a "mastermind" group. Based on the business and motivational writings of Jim Rohn, members of these "mutual improvement groups" gather to discuss business challenges they have faced or successes they had the previous week.

"Someone can discuss a problem that they are having with an employee or with their purchasing department, and there will be 15 other people who have had a similar problem," says Stevens.

Members range from recent college graduates in their early 20s to retirees doing projects in their spare time, entrepreneurs and employees of large companies. The focus on similar goals of improving and expanding business gives common ground for a wide range of interests, and allows Stevens to interact with people and potential customers she would be unlikely to come into contact with in her typical professional or personal interactions.

"Leads groups" are another networking approach that can bring in new business. Cyndi Stout, president of Promoz (asi/238600), is a member of one of these groups, which take a proprietary approach to new members – only allowing in one person from the ad specialty industry, for example. Her group meets once a week to share business insights and Stout has picked up several clients through it.

"It's about exclusivity," she says. "Something like the Chamber of Commerce, you could go but your competition will be there too."

Define Your Market
In trying to broaden their customer base, it is also important that distributors avoid casting their net too wide. This is one of the central points that author Susan Baroncini-Moe makes in her new book Business in Blue Jeans: How to Have a Successful Business on Your Own Terms, in Your Own Style.

"There's a delicate balance here: If you've defined a target market too narrowly, then there may not be enough people in that market to sustain you and your business. On the other hand, if you've defined it well, you'll find plenty of business," says Baroncini-Moe.

She urges business owners to define the type of customers they seek to acquire clearly – drilling down to specific industries and organizational goals that promotional products can help solve. With these clear markets in mind, distributors can go where they will be, placing their marketing messages in areas where members of that industry meet or in the publications that they read. This may include getting a presence on niche social networking sites like Reddit and Tumblr, or at the very least, using this targeting with any kind of search marketing, selecting keywords meant to appeal to these growing markets.

Increasingly, targeted online customer acquisition means thinking more broadly than catching the eye of someone typing "promotional products" into Google. Distributors can think about creating mobile apps that simplify the order process, as well as mobile versions of their site that can be easily navigated from a tablet or smartphone.

"Customers, these days, are to be found in their second and third screens," says David Amerland, an SEO expert and author of the books Semantic Search and Getting to No. 1 on Google in Simple Steps. "This requires that the savvy business owner develop a strong social signal for his business, a multilateral online presence and a clear voice."

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