To have a business, you’ve got to have paying customers. But every small business owner knows that attracting new customers takes effort. Customer engagement doesn’t happen magically—it has to be encouraged. So what are some of the ways you can find new clients and get them to engage to help grow your small business? 1. Plan Your Marketing Strategy You need a marketing strategy and budget. Everything else you do to gain a new client or create customer engagement ultimately falls under “marketing." To create your marketing budget, decide: \tHow much should you spend on marketing? \tWhat should you spend those dollars on? According to the US Small Business Association (SBA), the answer to “how much” depends on a variety of factors: \tWhat’s your industry? \tAre you a business-to-consumer or business-to-business company? \tDo you sell products or services? \tWhat’s the growth stage of your company? Roughly speaking, the SBA suggests allocating 7–8% of revenue to a marketing budget (for an established business with $5 million or less in revenue with a 10–12% profit margin). That budget would be used for both brand development (e.g., your logo, website, business cards) and brand promotion (e.g., advertising, events). Now that you know how much you have to spend on marketing, let’s explore ways to get potential clients to bite your shiny sales hook. 2. Advertise Advertising seems like an obvious solution to get new customers or repeat business. The tough question is where you should advertise—in print or digital media? Digital advertising tends to cost less than other forms of advertising, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the correct choice. Print or radio advertising works if your target market fits any of these criteria: \tDoesn’t have access to high-speed internet \tRegularly consumes a channel (e.g., reads a specific newspaper or listens to a type of radio station) \tIs concentrated in one geographic location (e.g., wants local information) Digital advertising fits if any of these describe your target market: \tHas a specific demographic (e.g., 30–35 male homeowner living in Seattle) \tIs widely-scattered or remote \tResponds to interactive or flashy ads Most likely, you’ll incorporate a mix of print and digital advertising. At a minimum, you’ll use some print advertising to create brand awareness, even if that is buying pens and magnets with your logo on them. But given that some of your target market uses the internet, you’ll spend some of your budget promoting social media posts or buying digital ads. And that mix will shift regularly based on factors like the needs of your current marketing campaign, social distancing rules, and what your customer behavior metrics tell you. 3. Expand Your Target Market Perhaps you’ve been in business for a while and your market personas haven’t been updated recently. Take a step back and think outside your current target market. Would a market research project help you find new clients? If you are a business-to-business company, are there other industries (such as the nonprofit industry) that could benefit from your product or service? If you are a business-to-consumer company, could a new distribution channel or targeting a different demographic net you more clients? 4. Spend Time Networking Never underestimate good old-fashioned networking as a method for gaining new customers. This includes both opportunistic networking and active networking. Opportunistic networking means taking advantage of those small, unplanned moments to connect. When you are introduced to a friend’s neighbor, mention your business and see if there are any opportunities. Or while getting your haircut, eavesdrop on the conversation in the next chair to discover new people to pull into your circle. Active networking means seeking to connect with people or businesses. Small business associations can be a goldmine for finding new contacts. There are associations for all kinds of interests—from industry-specific associations to groups focused on businesses owned by veterans, women, or other niche groups. And nowadays, you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your couch—networking groups have gone virtual. But whether in-person or virtual, you still have to allocate time for networking, including following-up. Plan for the long-haul as it's unlikely that every meet-and-greet will garner an instant client. Treat networking like dating. Don’t make the initial conversation all about you. Instead, find common ground, and then set a real date to get to know each other better. Figure out what you can do for the other person. Can you connect them with potential customers? Suggest a mentor? Recommend a business plumber? Eventually, the relationship may evolve into one that lands you a new customer. 5. Become a Thought Leader A thought leader is “...someone who, based on their expertise and perspective in an industry, offers unique guidance, inspires innovation and influences others." It’s not a one-and-done task and isn’t a sales strategy—it falls under the concept of building brand awareness. To become a thought leader, consistently create content—write white papers and blog posts, speak at conferences, share industry research—until you are perceived as an expert in your company’s industry. Gigi Griffis became a thought leader for location-independent freelancers by routinely sharing her actual monthly budget numbers for living in specific locations abroad. She posts about her experiences in a location without pitching her services. But by consistently publishing content, she has positioned herself as an expert in the field of digital nomads while also generating brand awareness of her writing services. 6. Collaborate With Other Businesses How about using the power of togetherness to attract new clients? Think about how you first discovered your favorite food truck. Maybe you saw them at a stoplight and decided to look them up. But more likely, the truck was parked somewhere you already frequented, like at your favorite brewery. That type of collaboration is a win-win. Cross-promotion occurs as both the brewery and the food truck advertise each other on their event calendars and social media posts. Another collaboration example exists between 2 North Carolina companies—Blue Ridge Biscuit Company and Dynamite Roasting. The biscuit cafe serves coffee brewed from the local roaster’s coffee beans and also sells bags of those beans at checkout. These 2 businesses have cross-pollinated their customer bases and succeeded in encouraging customers to support local businesses. 7. Sponsor Other Organizations A sponsorship strategy can buy you goodwill and brand awareness. Sponsorship comes in many forms—time, talent, and treasure. Your employees could staff the T-shirt distribution table at a local race. Your business’s logistics experience could help a food bank optimize its pick-up route for food donations. Your company could help purchase a softball team’s jerseys or donate your product as a prize in a silent auction “goodie basket." Imagine how that donation could translate into a paying client. Other volunteers, attendees, or staff may need your product or service. Your business, via your sponsorship strategy, is now a familiar and trusted source. Or you could parlay your free service or product into paid business with the organization you sponsored as their needs change. 8. Hold a Contest Contest marketing is exactly what it sounds like. A business holds a contest to give away something—a product, a service, or an experience. In exchange for a contest entry, hopeful participants share their contact information—and also reshare the company post or tag a friend in the comments of the contest announcement. Reshares tend to make non-customers think highly of a company if a trusted source (Mom, a best friend, an influencer) shared the contest promotion with them. Additionally, people who win tend to give back by buying more items or encouraging others to buy from your business. 9. Host an Event Hosting an event, in-person or virtually, is another way to attract new clients. Events can be anything from a full-blown conference to a training class to a social gathering. For example, a winery may host an onsite party to celebrate a customer’s retirement. An art studio could lead a “paint by numbers” class as the in-party entertainment. Party-goers are now part of the potential client base for both businesses. Virtual events, on the rise before the pandemic and now the new normal, expand your potential audience beyond your geographic location. While they aren’t necessarily less work to put on than in-person events, well-organized virtual events can be cheaper to host than in-person events and can help you build your event organization skills. Thinking about hosting training courses? Start with a free 30-minute limited-attendee “Tips and Tricks” webinar to try out your course material while building your potential client list. 10. Let Others Do the Work For You We’ve all heard the phrase, “There is no I in team.” Why not let your satisfied customers be part of your team via a referral or affiliate program? Referral and affiliate programs share a similar goal of getting others to bring you new customers but they operate differently. A referral program usually is a “share with your friends” program where your existing customers get a discount code if their friends make a purchase. An affiliate program requires you to have an e-commerce store. People or businesses (hopefully your own happy customers who can vouch for you) recommend your product or service with a unique link that earns them a small commission. Like any marketing strategy, you’ll have to take some steps to set up your referral or affiliate program. These steps include implementing technology to handle the program, writing the rules for discount codes and commissions, and then marketing the program so folks view it as a viable source of passive income. 11. Create a Customer Loyalty Program What does a customer loyalty program have to do with finding new customers? Well, it's easier to keep a customer than it is to gain a new one, and happy customers tend to recommend you to others. And a loyalty program can nudge that one-and-done customer into the repeat business category. For example, a recently widowed 88-year old senior needed her air-conditioning unit serviced, so she called the company her best friend suggested. The repair person recognized that the woman has no experience with the need for yearly maintenance checks for both the a/c and the heating unit. He explained preventive service to her and then offered her a small discount as a loyal customer if she booked her pre-winter heater checkup with his company. Based on the recommendation from a friend and the loyalty program, the widower has become a repeat customer for that business. Keep in mind that creating and managing a customer loyalty program means more than creating a punch card to give a free cup of coffee after the purchase of 10 cups. It involves understanding what makes your customers loyal, designing the right customer loyalty program for your business, and then measuring the effectiveness of your program. 12. Leverage Social Media Social media for small businesses can create customer leads and give your existing customers a chance to engage with you. View it as a place to build an emotional connection with your potential customers—don’t approach it as digital advertising. Of the gazillion channels out there, which platform is the correct choice for your business? The stock answer—the one you are willing to use. In other words, while you should use the channel where your target market hangs out, you also have to choose a platform you are willing to use consistently. If you hate editing photos, then Instagram probably isn’t the social media platform for your business (unless you delegate photo-editing to a freelancer). Forget trying to go viral or securing millions of followers. Instead, focus on building a connection with followers relevant to your business. Share stories and include some of “you” in your posts so people want to be connected to your business. Maybe that means a backstory about using your great-aunt’s recipe for a certain dessert or how your product helped a member of the community survive an illness. Private Facebook groups enable you to build a steadfast group of champions for your business. It also gives you a place to ask questions about what your followers actually need or want from your industry. Members of your group may not be instantaneous customers but evolve over time into some of your most loyal customers. Take, for example, Amanda Kendle’s private Facebook group, “Thoughtful Travellers." The Facebook group isn’t used to sell anything, but it builds a community of like-minded people who are more apt to listen to sales pitches from Amanda’s website or public Facebook page. Another option to increase brand awareness and engagement is a watch party like those on Facebook. We’ve all heard that videos capture attention more than still images or words. Take that product release video or 1-hour how-to-guide you already posted and schedule a watch party. Encourage your followers to invite their friends to the watch party. During the watch party, people watch the video together and comment in real-time. Not only have you repurposed content, but you’ve also garnered new customer leads based on who attended the event. With the right call-to-action during the party, you might even get on-the-spot new customers from the event. Reddit can be used to promote your business as a thought leader or to discover what problems your potential clients need help solving. Neil Patel, a leading digital marketer, offers tips on navigating the Reddit culture to subtly market your product while solving users’ problems or asking for advice on your marketing problems. You could even follow industry-related subreddits to brainstorm content to include on your own website. 13. Embrace Digital Tools Digital tools, whether you love them or hate them, are key to securing new customers. Customers expect a “real” business to have a professional-looking and easy to navigate website. Following best practices on the website, such as placing your call-to-action in the right spot, can increase customer engagement and online sales. And how many times have you asked Google for an “Italian restaurant near me”? Make it easy for local customers to find you by optimizing your website SEO and correctly setting up your local online presence, including Google My Business and Yelp Business pages. These help your business appear in “nearby” searches and also give customers a place to review your business. Digital tools also allow small businesses to pivot and adapt as needed to shifts in consumer spending. For example, The Spice House used its online store to capture more sales in April and May when customers shifted to cooking at home due to COVID-19 restrictions. Some museums, like the MET, have figured out how to monetize their virtual tours. Even traditionally offline industries like healthcare and memorial services have survived the socially-distanced culture we currently face by embracing digital. Attracting new customers takes time and money, but every successful business must dedicate itself to the task. While it may not be effortless, using the above tips can help you gain new clients to help grow your business.