Focus on referrals. It is exponentially more difficult to persuade a stranger to buy from you than it is to get business referrals from your existing customers. (This goes for up-selling current customers as well.) If your clients are happy with your product or service, ask them to recommend you to their friends, workmates, customers and relatives. Make it easy for them to find your website and Facebook page. When you do offline networking, pass out extra brochures and business cards that prominently feature your website address. Give clients an incentive (a 25% off coupon, maybe) to send leads to your website. Let them know that any prospects they refer will get first-time customer perks at your company. That way, they can demonstrate their savvy about your fantastic value and help out their friends at the same time. Who wouldn't love that?
Run contests and surveys. You want qualified leads? We all know that you have to give something in order to get something. Design an entertaining survey about your industry, with intriguing questions that shed light on some business conundrum or subject of long-time debate. Invite your website visitors to take the survey (keep it short and sweet) and view the results instantly. Of course, you'll ask them to fill out a brief contact form first, giving you just enough detail to know if they might transform into one of your "perfect" customers - or a dud. Same principles apply to contests, except that instead of survey data you'll be giving away a free trial offer or half off on a new product - again, in exchange for adding contestants to your prospect database.
Produce white papers and research. Pity the poor service provider. They not only have to sell their expertise, but also has to persuade potential clients that they need that expertise. How to do it? Establish credibility by commissioning industry research and writing it up with all the authority and experience you can muster. The biggest hurdle for most service providers is explaining to potential clients why consulting, or your new methodology or skill set is worth investing in. How will paying you result in an improvement to their bottom line? Your white paper can explain exactly how, and then go on to present case studies of existing clients that demonstrate your tangible results. Post your white paper on your website and make it available free for download to those who fill out your demographic profile. Make sure you get contact information from anyone who takes the time to download your white papers. They are likely to be well-qualified sales prospects.
Create a community. Demonstrate your thought leadership by establishing an online presence that attracts a healthy following. This is tricky and usually takes a long-term commitment, but it can deliver blockbuster results. The best way to start is by stirring up controversy. You don't want to be a jerk or start a flame war with your customers or competitors, but you do need to demonstrate that you have something interesting to say. Take a provocative position on a pressing business question and defend it on your company blog or in a trade journal article. Be an early adopter and let your customers know what you think of a new gadget or business service. Come down on one side of an argument with a persuasive - even passionate - comment online. The keys to this approach? Be experienced enough to take a reasonable stand, be sincere in your opinion and be mature enough to agree with or disagree with your detractors. Potential customers will sniff out a marketing ploy immediately. If you can pull this off, your company website will become an online hang out that customers and potential customers visit over and over.
How do you generate sales leads online? Share your best strategies with your fellow entrepreneurs.
Pirates gold image by Flickr user Mykl Roventine, CC 2.0