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How to Expand a Contact Database to Find More Customers Consider these tips for building a robust contact list on a budget.

By Sheryl Johnson

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Have more customers, money and time than you know what to do with? Many entrepreneurs always seem to be struggling with finding the time and money to market effectively. Expanding a contact database beyond friends, family and close business acquaintances on a budget can be a challenge.

One option may be to consider buying a contact database. Automatic leads, right? There can be potential problems with this route. A list can be expensive, and it is only effective if you can get a list specific to your target market. Another difficulty is that the contacts are usually completely cold and they have no prior relationship with you. What's more, the contact information may be inaccurate by the time it gets into your hands.

An alternative can be subscribing to a service that provides more accurate contact information on a real time basis such as Hoovers, but this, too, can be an expensive way to get an optimal, but cold, contact list.

So how can you expand your contact database on a budget? By practicing the few simple steps discussed below:

1. Embed networking naturally into your day-to-day life.
Start by brainstorming everyone you know, and I mean everyone. What organizations to you belong to? Who are your kid's friend's parents? Who do you know in your neighborhood? What about your barber? Your cleaning lady? . . . Literally, everyone.

During conversations you have, casually mention what you do using a well-crafted elevator pitch that is compelling and memorable. If people are clear about what you do, how you help and who you help, they are better able to make qualified referrals.

Gather information that you receive and incorporate into a contact management system for future follow-up.

2. Network strategically.
Create a goal-oriented plan. Hang out where your customers and most qualified prospects are, both in person and online. This very personal strategy serves three purposes. You can stay up to date on industry trends. You may get access to people who may be interested in your products and services and, importantly, they can get to know you on a personal level. That personal connection can make the difference between you and your competitor.

In-person opportunities include networking events, conferences, and tradeshows. Often, there are costs to participate, but the personal connection is worth it. One way to attend at no cost may be to be a guest speaker or to facilitate a workshop. A big advantage to attending or speaking at conferences and tradeshows is that you typically get access to all participant contact information.

You can make a personal connection online as well. Participate in blog discussions. Connect with other business professionals on LinkedIn and set up networking conversations. Join online communities and participate by providing your expert opinions on topics and sharing advice.

Whether you are networking online or in person, it is important to have a plan. Know who you want to target and be clear on how many people you want to meet (either per event or on an ongoing basis, whether it's weekly or monthly). Establish a follow-up strategy with your qualified contacts and continue to build your relationships.

3. Build strategic alliances.
Partner with other businesses that offer complimentary products or services and you could grow your contact reach instantly. The overall marketing investment can stay the same, but now the cost per partner will be reduced. Most small-businesses owners can't do everything on their own and having a strategic business partner allows you to work together more efficiently with shared resources. The key is to make sure you are targeting similar markets.

When people visit your website, always have a "call to action" on a page. A call to action is something that encourages interaction with your website visitors and provides you with the chance to capture contact information. A call to action can be a free download of a whitepaper, an invitation to a webinar, a free/discounted trial of your product or service, a discount on your product or service, to immediately be able to purchase your product. Consider requesting contact information to access these materials.

4. Ask for referrals.
There are many opportunities to ask for referrals, but many people just plain forget. The times that make the most sense are right after the sale, after receiving positive feedback about your product or service, in your newsletter, or in any correspondence with your customers and prospects.

Continuously find ways to drive traffic to your website and don't forget to have a compelling call-to-action and an ability to capture contact information.

Send out a newsletter on a regular basis to stay in touch with your contacts. If you have relevant and interesting information, they will potentially share it with others. Press releases are a great way to get the word out about your company and drive traffic to your website. You can write about industry challenges and how your product or service can help, about a new hire and how that person will benefit your customers, or anything interesting going on with your company.

Also don't lose sight of your employees. They like working in your company, right? So give them incentives to think about people they know that would be good candidates for your product or service.

5. Have a follow-up strategy and use it.
Your leads may become stale if you don't have a process to follow-up and stay in touch. A contact management system can help you to stay organized.

When you go to networking events, strike up conversations with people you don't know. When you exchange business cards, write down details on the back so you have some information you can use for your follow-up.

When you call a referral or someone you met at a networking event, don't use a prepared script that you read word for word. Do research on the people you are contacting before the phone call and have a list of your talking points, so you can refer to it during your conversation and remember to address key points.

Johnson is the founder of BD-PRo Marketing Solutions, a marketing firm based in Pittsburgh.

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