1. Work With Your Competitors, Not Against Them
We all know the importance of familiarizing ourselves with the competition, but not enough new businesses consider the possibility of collaborating with them. If you can establish a good working relationship with a business that share customers within your market, they may be willing to hand you their overflow business when they get too many requests.
For example, License123.com launched a couple years ago to help customers get the licenses required to start their business. LegalZoom offered a similar licensing service, and rather than competing for customers the two services collaborated; now LegalZoom sends their overflow customers to License123, allowing LegalZoom to focus on their own initiatives when their request number gets too high, and providing License123 with an influx of referral customers.
2. Get More Specific With Your Targeting
Search engine marketing through Google AdWords and Facebook can be effective for getting new customers, but the costs can run high, especially for a bootstrapped business. If you don’t have the funds to test a lot of different keywords, consider advertising in more niche networks and sites that are more specifically catered to your exact target market.
For example, through a service like LaunchBit you can advertise on email newsletters or blogs on very granular topics, and really hone in on a particular readership of your choosing. If you like the idea of advertising on specific blogs that resonate with your target audience, you can also try using BuySellAds, which connects advertisers directly with bloggers. Being extremely granular in your targeting reduces your chances of serving ads to the wrong customer, and helps ensure that your marketing money goes a little further.
3. Don't Wait for Press, BE the Press
The first step in garnering attention for your business is creating your own voice. If you’re launching a marketing service, start blogging about some of your key learnings, and share your posts on Twitter. If you’re opening a bakery, start posting your recipes online (with beautiful pictures) and sharing them on Pinterest, or in an email newsletter. To get that extra boost, interview or feature some experts in your field, and they will be more likely to share these posts with their own following and friends.
If you want your business to be featured in press besides your own blog, consider signing up for Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which connects journalists to sources—there are always writers looking to feature quotes from small business owners; being quoted in various articles and blog posts can get your business name out there and give your SEO a little boost.
4. Sell Your Product Before It Exists
Before your product or service even exists, consider setting aside a little extra time and funds to test whether or not people will actually buy it. You can do this by building a landing page for a hypothetical product, service or business (you can easily build landing pages through services like Unbounce), and directing traffic into the landing page with PPC campaigns. If people sign up, click to read more or follow the call to action you have in place, you have some validation that there is interest in your product or service.
If you have multiple ideas (or iterations of an idea), you can test each of them to prove out which ones actually spark consumer interest; that way, when you build the product, you already have customers who have demonstrated interest in purchasing it. To learn about this process in-depth, check out this free course.
5. Offer Help and Mentorship
You never know where your next customer will come from, or how many referrals you can get by simply increasing the number of people who know what you do. If you haven’t already, get more involved in your business community.
Start by reaching out to your local Chamber of Commerce, and attend networking events. Go beyond networking, and consider how you can help the other business owners you meet. Become a business mentor through a site like MicroMentor, and offer to help other entrepreneurs who need help talking through their ideas.
If you are experienced enough, you may even consider speaking at conferences, meet-ups, the Chamber of Commerce, to MBA students or offer to be a panelist on an online web conference. This gives you a chance to tell your story while getting your business or service out there.
In reality, the vast majority of people who hear about your business won’t care, and most of the individuals who accept your mentorship will only be focused on their own endeavors. However, in the course of building relationships with the business community, you will be also occasionally expose your business to that small but proactive percentage of risk-takers and early adopters who may be interested in trying it (and who will already know and trust you).
6. Announce it to the World, But Focus on Your World
Sure, it’s all well and good to announce that you’re starting a business on Twitter, on your Facebook page and in any relevant LinkedIn Groups. By all means, tell the world. But know that when it comes to getting those first few customers, the most fruitful efforts will probably be the most personal. You don’t have a business reputation yet, but there are people out there who trust you.
Plan to do dinner with some of your closest friends, with family members or former co-workers with whom you have a close relationship, and somewhere in the course of the evening tell them that you’re starting your own business. Ask them if they have any feedback or if they have any thoughts on who might be interested in this product. People get hundreds of emails a day, so shooting someone an email will not be as effective as getting coffee or at the very least, calling them on the phone. Let people know what your do, and your closest network will be your biggest advocates; a few of them might even be your first customers.
7. Harness the Power of Referrals
Referring is one of the oldest plays in the book, but it prevails because it works. If you have a client-based business, offer clients a discount on their next consultation if they refer a friend. For e-commerce or web products, encourage people to share their activity on social media to unlock a coupon, or if customers refer a friend, you can offer a discount to both them and their referrals (this way, they feel like they’re offering their friend an exclusive deal).
The classic example of referrals is daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, which encourage customers to share your purchases with the promise that, if three friends purchase it, their entire purchase will be free. The reality is, the vast majority of these shares don’t lead to three more buys, but they do lead to free promotion of the product (and in a few cases, one or two more purchases).
8. Offer Your Product for Free
I know, “freemium” doesn’t necessarily count as getting a customer. But when getting that first paying customer feels like an insurmountable feat, the best solution may just be to give your product away. Or rather, to whet customer appetite with a delectable taste, then charge them for the full meal.
If you provide some sort of service or software, you can try offering a free trial; test different lengths of time (3 days, 15 days, 30 days, etc.) to see which is more likely to convert, and which has the highest returns based on the cost of providing it.
If you have a physical product, consider ways you can provide free samples, or at least let customers “try it before they buy it.” Even providing other free products and swag can help get your brand name out there, so people have your business in mind when they decide to buy (or if a friend asks if they know of anyone who does X).
Another big kicker for shoppers is free shipping; customers adore this feature, and if you offer it exclusively on their first purchase (especially if the shipping would normally be more expensive), they may be more likely to take the plunge.
Finally, if you provide an ongoing or subscription-based order, consider offering the first order for free. Graze, a healthy snack delivery company, employs this tactic by advertising “Exclusive Free Snack Box” on Facebook, an ad that garners a lot of attention. Many customers sign up for their first free shipment with the intention of cancelling before their second paid shipment comes in, but will either forget to cancel their subscription or be delighted enough by the product that they decide to continue receiving it.
9. Create a Clear Runway
This one is a little obvious, but it’s so pivotal that it needs to be said: before you get a single customer, create a budget and a series of benchmarks for yourself based on your available resources. If your goal is just to “get customers in the next few months with the cash you have on hand,” your results won’t be as data-driven, methodical or effective.
If you are quitting your job to make this business work, it’s essential that you carefully budget your living expenses, as well as the money you have set aside for growing your business. Determine the exact budget you are working with, and the exact portion you can allocate to customer acquisition. How much of that will go to SEM? How much will go to attending events, or building your product, or testing?
Decide what benchmarks you want to hit each month (e.g. how many customers, how many sign-ups, how much engagement, etc.), estimate the costs to achieve these goals and make sure you have the funds and time required to hit them. These benchmarks can change, but if you start marketing blindly without specific targets in mind, you will inevitably waste precious resources (and lose precious early customers).
10. Consider a Former Employer
You may have become your own boss in order to get away from your old job, but if you’re starting a business, consultancy or service in the same industry as your former companies or employers, they are much more likely to be early customers than an other client. As long as you didn’t leave on bad terms, former employers are likelier to hire you as a freelancer because it’s easy; you are already familiar with their business and they trust the quality of your work.
If you are providing a service or product that may be of use to your former companies, send them a free trial and ask for feedback. Depending on what your business entails, you could offer to create a customized version for a fee, or to take on freelance work to help them out.
The first few customers are inevitably the hardest, but ultimately your most powerful resources will be those closest to you. You don’t need to be a master networker in order to get customers, but you should be dedicated to helping out those around you. This not only plants seeds of trust, it will make you better at problem solving (which is the essence of a great entrepreneur, after all).
When you do spend money, be calculated and specific with your targeting, rather than throwing money at Google to see what sticks. Take time to really know your market, and make sure that you can help them; if people reject your solution when you give it away, it’s safe to assume they won’t be willing to pay for it either.