Networking

Building an Audience Before Building Your Small Business

If it’s true  what Jim Rohn says, that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” then I am feeling pretty good about myself.

I have been lucky recently to spend time with a number of fellow entrepreneurs at early stages of their dreams. Some were close friends and family - others are new friends and new business. All of them impressive and inspiring.

I have found myself discussing a variety of business plans with varied leaders. Two newlyweds taking steps toward opening a locally sourced food and wine business on Long Island. Another the co-founder of a Charleston, SC based brewery. Another a distiller and expert on Korean Whiskys planning his own Brooklyn based brand. The last is an innovative furniture maker in the midst of raising a series A in New York.

These are all vastly different businesses that I felt emphatically compelled to give the same advice: Begin building your audience before you begin building your business!

People tend to humbly and quietly go about their planning, waiting until they are farther along and can more thoroughly prove themselves. But the smart move - and the brave move - is to take a risk by putting yourself out there much sooner.

Start interacting and building trust with the audience your business will serve. Learn what they like, what they want to know, and what they need to know. Then start giving it to them.

Launch a blog, or a video blog. Start a podcast or make series of educational videos. Host a webinar or interview an industry expert. Write - take pictures - network - design - create - share… Whatever!

Just honestly and vulnerably share what you know and love with people. That inspires excitement, trust and eventually loyalty. The sooner you start the better off you will be.

I have been giving this advice so much that it was clear I needed to write it down. Here are some of the benefits to beginning to build an audience before you are ready to open your new business.

Develop the habit

Creating a habit of content creation is a real challenge. Start developing that muscle as soon as possible.

Get in a mindset where every part of your journey is viewed as a content generation opportunity. Everything you learn - every challenge you face - every connection you make - All can be an inspiration to create something interesting and helpful.

People think they will immediately begin pumping out great content when their business launches… It doesn’t work that way. You need to cultivate the habit of creating and sharing until its part of your identity.

Get to know your audience

You will learn about your audience as you build it. The process of building that relationship will teach you what your audience responds to, who influences them and what they need.

You will be in a much better position to design and sell your product when you better understand your target customers.

Steepen your learning curve

Immersing yourself in the audience development process speeds up the rate at which you learn all sorts of things.

You’ll be researching posts, sharing data, interacting with people, meeting influencers, answering questions, finding new distribution channels, testing tactics and much more. Content creation puts you in the role of teacher and teaching is often the best way to learn.

All that work naturally increases the pace of your own learning. As an entrepreneur you need to be learning as much as possible and audience development can be a key driver.

Hone your message

Creating content for your audience is a great way to continually hone your messaging.

As a small business or startup owner, you likely won’t have a team of top copywriters to start. You will need to work exceptionally hard to develop messaging that will resonate with customers.

They say “if you want to be a better writer… write!” Committing to building an audience will force you to practice your craft and hone your messaging in time for your business to benefit.

Reach early adopters

A new business needs to be strategic about who they are targeting at each stage of their growth. Beginning your audience development at the earliest stages can help your reach the all-important early adopters.

The broad-market customer you may target when you are established is precisely the wrong group to target at the earliest stages. That’s because a broad-market customer won’t consider an unproven new option - they won’t consider you.

However, there is a small portion of the market comprised of early adopters that want to be first to try something new. This group will also be interested in your struggle to build something new.

The story of your entrepreneurial journey may catch the attention of this early adopter customer. And that customer type is the single most important factor in the early success or failure of your business.

As your business grows, the early adopter crowd will lose interest in you because you are no longer the hot new thing. But by then you are a proven entity which is now attractive to the broad-market audience that ignored you in the beginning.

Use content as a networking tool

Becoming a content creator can be a great way to support your in-person networking efforts.

Successful networking can be vital to the planning process of your business. Whether you are raising funding, looking for a co-founder, recruiting early employees, or prospecting for your first clients - you need to be taken seriously.

But it can be difficult to establish your expertise in the early days when you don’t have an established business - or even a business card and website.

Pointing to content you have created gives something tangible to showcase your expertise and make you memorable. Having a blog, a YouTube channel, a podcast, or some other creative output can really help bolster your credibility.

Head start on SEO

Getting a jump on content creation is going to provide you with a big SEO advantage when it comes time to actually launch your business website.

Google values unique, relevant, frequently posted content above all else. Quality is the most important factor but it is unrealistic to believe that quantity has no impact.

The majority of new small business websites launch with only a handful of pages - which makes sense. Your site should be easy to navigate and should focus only on what is most important.

But if you are able to tie in an existing blog - or other resources like video, infographics, podcasts, etc - you add additional content without distracting users. In fact, it will improve the user experience - which is what search engines reward.

Don’t worry if you don’t know your eventual company’s name or have its domain. The majority of any SEO value you gain can be passed to your site later using 301 redirects or canonical tags.

Your business will have a big advantage at launch if you have already built a treasure trove of content.

Build a photography collection

Building your community will have the side effect of forcing you to develop your own photo library.

Getting attention online generally requires great images to pair with your written work. Your posts will perform far better with a visual to help tell your story.

Getting in the habit of producing content will also get you in the habit of collecting great photos. I have written in the past about the importance of building your business photography collection.

Start producing content and you will likely become your company’s first photographer without even trying.

Build while you still can

Another advantage to building audience before launching your business: you don’t have the distraction of running your business.

The best marketing is a great product or service. I recommend you remain exceptionally focused on design and execution in the early days.

That won’t leave much time for building an audience. You will be distracted from developing your product - or you won’t have an audience to tell when the product is ready.

An audience-first approach allows for extreme product focus at launch. When the product is just right, you’ll already have loyal fans eager to hear about it.

SUMMARY

  • Begin cultivating an audience long before you launch your new business
  • Don’t wait until you are ready - Take a risk and just start creating and sharing
  • Develop a habit of being an “always-on” content creator
  • Start learning about your audience by interacting with them
  • Force yourself onto a steeper learning curve
  • Craft, test, iterate and improve your messaging before the pressure is on
  • Reach early adopters by sharing your journey as an entrepreneur
  • Use your content to accelerate your early SEO results
  • Use content creation as the impetus to build your own photography collection

How to Apply Inbound Marketing Principles to Networking

The beauty of inbound marketing is that if you execute well, you can truly build a lead generation machine. So, could you apply inbound marketing principles to networking and build a relationship generating machine? When you think about it, the parallels between inbound marketing and effective networking are quite strong.

The key there is “effective” networking. I don’t mean the process of showing up at a networking event, plastering the room with your business card, and aggressively pitching your skills and your company with an “Always be closing” mentality. Come to think if it, that reminds me a lot of traditional advertising.

When I talk about networking I mean steadily and strategically building mutually beneficial relationships with like-minded people.

Building a new relationship – not an acquaintance – takes time and energy which means you can’t cast a very wide net. You need to be strategic about where you devote your time. That relationship must be carefully nurtured from a first introduction so a rapport can be built. You need to show the person how you can be valuable to them without coming on so strong that you scare them off. And you need to tactfully develop a dynamic that is valuable to each of you.

Those truths apply to networking just as they do for inbound marketing. So how can we apply some of the time-tested principles of inbound marketing to strengthen our approach to networking?

In this post I’ll look at how the inbound marketing methodology - Attract, Convert, Close, Delight - can be harnessed to help develop a robust and valuable professional network.

Define Your Purpose

You need to develop concrete goals to drive your networking plans, just as you would in developing a marketing plan.

Those goals need to be long term and reasonably specific. Waiting until you’re in the midst of a job hunt or until your company is behind on revenue goals means you’ll be too focused on the short term to build real relationships. You’ll seem desperate – and desperation is remarkably reliable repellant.

In addition to planning ahead, you need to have an end goal in mind. Simply networking because it seems like you should will leave you untargeted and dispassionate.

Personally, I’m trying to accomplish a few specific things with my networking. First, I generally want to be a valuable resource to as many people as possible. The more times people think or say, “Sam could probably help with that,” the more I’ll be involved in interesting stuff – both personally and professionally. My own skills and knowledge are only so scalable, so for the times that I can’t be the expert, I want to make sure that I know somebody that is an expert. “I’m not sure if Sam knows about that but I’m sure he’ll know somebody that does.” I’ll take it!

Second, I want to be part of a support network of people with similar passions and goals. When I have a big failure or a big success I want to be able to go regroup or celebrate with peers that will understand. When I’m debating a decision I want to call on a mentor with more experience to help me think it through. And I also want to be a resource for other people – both because it’s good karma and because, selfishly, it makes me feel good.

Knowing what I’m after while networking allows me to filter and devote my energy to the relationships that will be most valuable.

Does this person have a valuable skill that is complementary to mine? Would this person benefit from my expertise? Does this person have similar passions and goals to me? If I can’t give a strong yes to any of those questions, it’s probably a waste of time for both of us.

Develop Target Personas

A tremendously important step of developing an inbound marketing plan is developing your buyer personas. You likely already have a vague sense of your target customers. But the exercise of defining detailed personas helps you better understand the subgroups and develop strategies to connect with each.

The same goes for networking. Once you’ve established your broader networking mission, put a semi-fictional face on the types of people you want in your network. Some personas will be in your industry and could be more senior, more junior, or at your level. Others will be in different industries but have complimentary skills, shared interests or shared experiences.

For instance, I’m on the agency side so one target persona of mine describes a marketing services professional at another agency. They perform similar services but for a different type of client. We have a lot in common with our day to day and can commiserate or share tactics.

At the same time, I’m also really interested in early stage technology startups. The folks there tend to be adventurous, tech savvy and always looking for the next big thing. Relationships like that help me stay on the front end of change. And I can be valuable to them because I spent years running an analyst group at a fast growing, mid-stage startup that was scaling rapidly and recently had an IPO. We aren’t working in the same professional sphere but there is a lot to be shared between us.

My approach and preparation for these two targets is quite different. Defining them carefully helps develop a plan to make connections with each.

Think About Your Funnel

Try thinking about the process of building relationships the same way you would think about your sales funnel.

The top of your funnel is the stage where you first making contact and catch the attention of a new acquaintance. Think of it as the Attract phase of the inbound methodology – Attract,  Convert, Close, Delight

In the middle of your funnel you’ll begin to develop a rapport and convert from being somebody they’ve met to somebody they know. This is where you begin to provide value to one another and a trusting relationship is just starting to begin.

Late in your funnel, the stage that might be closing a first sale in an inbound marketing funnel, is where you turn that professional relationship into a professional friendship. You’ve established trust with one another and have proven the relationship is valuable to you both.

And in the final stages, you’ve each found the relationship so delightful that it no longer feels like just a work buddy – there is a friendship that is personal as well as professional.

Top of Funnel Networking

The top of the funnel is where you start your networking process but, unfortunately for many, it often stops here and never moves to a more meaningful stage.

Top of funnel networking activities are things like attending a networking event and introducing yourself to somebody. Friending someone or messaging them via social media. Shooting an email to someone you saw in an interview.

The first step is to establish whether there is a basis for a relationship at all. Do they meet some criteria in your target personas? If so, you then need to give them the information they need to decide the same thing.

If they’ve caught your attention in some way, tell them and give a compliment. “I read you’re blog post about x and I was totally sucked in” or “I’ve been following your company for a while. You seem like you’re onto something.”

Demonstrating your interest invites their attention and helps alleviate any reservations they may have about whether you’re interested in what they have to say.

Also, give a bit of information about yourself - but keep it brief. It’s not time for your 15 sentence elevator pitch because they haven’t demonstrated that they’re interested yet. “I help companies develop their web presence and develop content marketing strategy. I’m also kind of a startup junkie in my spare time.”

Look for signs that they are interested in hearing more. Are they asking follow up questions? Are they telling you something they think may be relevant to you? If so, share more about what you do and what you’re passionate about. Just make sure you’re also demonstrating that you are interested in them… provided you are.

If that interest level isn’t mutual, don’t continue to waste time. You need to focus on the people that share interests with you. Building relationships takes time so you can’t do it with everybody. Focus your attention on the interactions that seem most promising.

Transitioning to Mid-Funnel

The key to moving into the next stage of your funnel is to begin some sort of exchange.

In order for a relationship to be meaningful, the give and take needs to go both ways. So start thinking about some things you can give to and get from your contact.

In inbound marketing you might be offering premium content like a whitepaper in exchange for their contact information. In networking the exchange may be more subtle.

It should start really small. You don’t go from a first introduction to picking each other up at the airport or helping with an office move… Any Seinfeld fans out there?

A good thing to offer or ask for early on is a recommendation. “I just read a great book about that. I can text you the title if you’re interested.” “There is a new startup out of Boston that’s working on a tool for that. I’ll email you a link if you want.”

A simple recommendation is also small enough that you can ask for it from someone you don’t know well. If you’re at a conference you could ask “Are there any sessions you’re excited about and would recommend?” or “I’m really trying to figure out XYZ, is there anybody you can think of that I should try to speak with?”

Plus, if you take the advice, it’s a perfect follow up. “I read that book you recommended and it was awesome. I’m going to read X by that author next. Have you read that?”

Once you have begun an exchange, it’s easier to start ratcheting up the stakes. “I’d be happy to take a look at your new website and give you my impressions if you’re interested.” “If you had any time, I’d love to get your thoughts on a blog post I’m working on.”

Just try to always be giving more than you’re asking.

In many cases the progression will stall. In an inbound marketing campaign, not every contact with become a marketing qualified lead. That’s fine. But try to keep upping the stakes of a relationship that is progressing. Offer more and don’t be afraid to ask for a little bit more.

As the depth of what you’re giving each other grows, so will your relationship.

Closing – Solidifying the relationship

I think the best way to cement a networking relationship and move it into the realm of true professional friendship is to move it offline and into the real world.

The marketing funnel equivalent to solidifying the relationship might be closing the first sale. A potential customer can get a good sense of your company by the interactions they have before they become a customer. And those earlier interactions are a necessary step. But until a prospect has used your product or service in the real world, they can’t truly know or become an advocate for your company.

Once you’ve reached a level of familiarity that feels appropriate, invite your contact to do something in person.

One good option is to simply ask the person to lunch. But that can be a little bit awkward if the conversation gets slow. You also run the risk of the invitation being confused as something more than professional.

I suggest finding some sort of professional event that you both might enjoy and ask if they’d like to go with you. Maybe there is a good speaker presenting somewhere nearby. Or maybe you could ask them to be your wingman/woman at an upcoming networking event or conference.

It won’t always work but sometimes you’re just going to click with someone. Those times that you share laughs, talk about family, or save each other from an awkward networking moment are what will advance the relationships to a friendship.

Again, it won’t always work. But you probably don’t stand a chance of deepening the relationship without spending time in-person and out of the office.

Delight – Building Valuable Long Term Partnerships

A very small number of the relationships you develop have the potential to become career defining friendships that transcend a mere work friendship.

The inbound equivalent is the customer you make so happy that they try every new product you release, recommend it to their friends, write glowing reviews and retweet your every post.

In networking, these are the people that recruit you to come with them to a new company, ask you to be a part of their startup, send you customer after customer, or ask you to join their board.

They are the relationships that truly change the nature and level of your own success. And nobody manages to achieve great success without building some of these types of relationships.

To be honest, I can’t give you any specific advice for building relationships this deep. They form in all different ways for different people.

What I can tell you is that they all start with a first, seemingly minor interaction. Then they develop over time, built on a foundation of trust and sharing.

So focus on building relationships methodically, slowly and strategically. And if you’re lucky you’ll find lifelong friendships that are professionally and personally rewarding.

Summary

  • Inbound marketing and good networking have more in common than you think
  • Understand your why you are networking in the first place
  • Develop target personas for the relationships you would like to build
  • Use a sales funnel framework to think about the process of building professional relationships
  • Focus early stages on assessing whether a new contact is a good fit
  • Advance your relationships by looking for ways to initiate an exchange of some type
  • Cement professional friendships by moving offline – Go do something together
  • Your deepest relationships are the most valuable thing to your career and your life – So get started