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How to Find Sales Leads on Social Media

How a gourmet cupcake shop drove sales using social media without driving away customers -- and how you can, too.

When it comes to using social media for any purpose, including lead generation, marketers need to recognize and live by a fundamental truth: It's not about them. No one joins a social network because they want to meet more brands. You and your brand are being invited into the new media social channels to entertain and contribute value. If you overstep and launch into a blatant sales pitch, you'll be asked to leave. No one here speaks "interruption marketing."

A study last year by digital agency 360i found that 90 percent of the posts on one platform, Twitter, came from consumers rather than brands, and that 94 percent of those tweets were personal and didn't mention a brand at all. U.S. consumers, Nielsen found in August, spend almost a quarter of their online time in social networks. They aren't there to get pitched--they're there to share the details of their lives with friends and like-minded individuals.

But there are ways to generate new customers within social media, ways that don't violate users' expectations.

I recently ran across a Chicago company that markets high-end gourmet cupcakes for home delivery. Foiled Cupcakes is a pure-play Internet company, with a kitchen in the Windy City but no storefront. Founded in mid-2009, the company isn't any threat to snake king Drake's cakes just yet: Foiled fills about 1,000 dozen orders a month at an average cost of $38 each. But what's interesting is whom Foiled sells to. Founder and owner Mari Luangrath says 94 percent of her clientele was developed through leads received in social media, specifically Twitter.

Where to Hear More Leads
Interested in finding Twitter conversations to join? Here are some basic tools to pinpoint the influencers you want to know.

TweetDeck: You may know it as a desktop app for managing multiple Twitter feeds. But you also can use it to save searches for keywords and topics in real time.

Social Mention: Lets you search for keywords not just in Twitter but also in whole categories of media (blogs, networks, photo aggregators, etc.) on about 100 platforms.

TweetScan: Use it free on the website or pay to set up e-mail alerts for keyword scans.

Lithium: Bought Scout Labs last May, a pro-level social media monitoring platform that offers full-featured reporting.

Twitter search: With new tools coming out daily, don't forget the original, which lets you search by keywords, locations, date ranges and more.

She was able to generate these leads within social networks through what might be described as "targeted listening": identifying online conversations that she and her company could become part of organically and building trust by contributing useful content and comments to make herself a welcome guest.

"I'm very comfortable with traditional marketing," Luangrath says. "But I don't want to market to everybody. I want to find the people who want to hear what I have to say and then, at the end of the engagement, purchase my product."

Because Foiled delivers only within the Chicago area, Luangrath and her team opted to start by looking at the Twitter followers of the Chicago public radio station. They also had a basic demographic target: women ages 18 to 40.

With the geo filter in place and a demo profile in mind, Luangrath asked herself which of her own interests might determine whom to follow within that group. She came up with three things: chocolate, shopping and shoes. (Baking was never a contender. Luangrath freely acknowledges that she's the idea person at Foiled, not the executor. "I know nothing about baking. But I do know shoes.")

She started scanning the conversations of this Twitter subgroup to see who was talking about any of those topics. And, in her own words, she began "invading" conversations--politely.

"When someone mentioned, 'I just bought the cutest pair of shoes at Nordstrom,' I'd tweet back, 'Do you have a picture? Show me!'" she says. "Or someone would tweet about wanting boots, and I'd mention that I just saw a cute pair at Macy's.

Or I'd ask a question of the group: 'What do you prefer, heels or flats?'"

After a few such exchanges, Luangrath says, someone inevitably would ask about her Foiled Cupcakes avatar. That would be an organic lead-in to explaining what the company does--and the prospecting had begun.

See? Adding value to the conversation, building trust as a contributor, showing respect for the real reason people were meeting online and only offering the marketing message on request.

It hasn't all been about shoes and chocolate. Luangrath says she also started listening in on conversations that involve brides-to-be planning their weddings, both on Twitter and on TheKnot.com. And on LinkedIn, she joined groups of Chicago administrative professionals--the people who plan office parties--and posted helpful, relevant articles for their use.

"You want to engage people, get feedback and start a conversation," she says. "Then you can say, 'Why don't we drop some cupcakes by and show you what we do?'"

It's a lot more time-consuming than renting a mailing list, and Luangrath says the process would need to be replicated all over should Foiled expand to another metro market. But her company is proof that you can build strong business from leads within social media, and you can do so without becoming a pest.

Of course, everyone likes cupcakes. If you're in the cesspool-cleaning game, good luck to you.

Brian Quinton is executive editor of Chief Marketer magazine.

Like this article? Get this issue right now on iPad, Nook or Kindle Fire.

This article was originally published in the February 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Baking, Listening and Selling.

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