When it comes to the best way (or ways) to generate sales leads, or find new customers, "there is a lot of buzz surrounding social media," says Mick Hollison, the CMO at InsideSales.com, a provider of cloud-based sales automation and predictive analytics for inside sales professionals. Social media "is exciting and highly utilized.
However, our research found that social media platforms -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest -- aren't very effective at generating quality sales leads," he says. "Meanwhile, some of the more effective methods, like executive events, webinars, search marketing and telemarketing, are underutilized."
While trade shows and webinars work well for certain organizations, many businesses swear by LinkedIn and Facebook (despite InsideSales.com's findings). Clearly, when it comes to lead generation, one method does not fit all.
So how do you determine which methods or media are the best for finding new customers? By testing several different lead generation strategies -- and measuring the results.
To make this task a bit easier, we asked dozens of sales and marketing experts to find out which lead generation methods yielded the best results for themselves or their clients. Following are their top nine suggestions on where and how to find new customers.
1. Customer referrals. Dogs may be man's best friend. And diamonds may be a girl's best friend. But customer referrals are an organization's best friend.
"There is nothing better than getting a sales lead from a happy customer," says JR Rodrigues, CEO, NetCablesPlus, which sells a wide variety of networking cables and accessories. An existing "customer knows what you are offering and probably has a good idea of what the referred prospect needs," he says.
"This means that the lead is probably well-qualified. Beyond this, you will have tremendous credibility with the prospect since you come well-recommended from someone that they know and trust," Rodrigues says
2. SEO, SEM and PPC. "The best way (in terms of lowest cost per acquisition) for an IT company or a service-based B2B company to generate leads is through pay per click (PPC) and search engine optimization (SEO)," says Gabriel Shaoolian, the CEO and founder of digital agency Blue Fountain Media.
"PPC and SEO are the most effective way to generate leads because when companies need IT services, they go to Google and search for IT companies. (Something like 90 percent of consumers -- business or otherwise -- go to Google search first.)," Shaoolian says.
To increase the effectiveness of your search engine marketing (SEM) and PPC campaigns, use "long-tail keyword phrases, which are highly targeted search terms typically consisting of three words or more," advises Brett Prince, president, Marketaire, a provider of social media and Internet marketing news.
"Long-tail keyword phrases drive targeted traffic due to their specificity, and they're less competitive than related, shorter search terms, which tend to be higher in volume and more competitive," Prince says.
In terms of SEO, "consider something educational, something your audience could benefit from," says Prince. "Once you've identified your target keywords, create content around it. You may be amazed at how fast you will rank and start generating traffic and leads for this term."
3. Cross-promotions and co-marketing. Consider forming "alliances with complementary, noncompetitive vendors to exchange leads, promote each others' products and services, or any number of other mutually beneficial activities," suggests Rodrigues.
"The leads generated from such activities can be quite good -- sometimes almost the same quality as customer referrals," he says. "The downside is that managing such alliances can be time-consuming and the lead flow can be unpredictable."
4. Providing useful content. "According to Google, tech buyers consume an average of 14 pieces of online content before making a buying decision (as opposed to just eight to 10 for the typical buyer)," says Kathleen Booth, owner and CEO, Quintain Marketing, which provides small to midsized businesses with end-to-end marketing solutions. "Companies that produce educational or informative content can establish thought leadership and generate leads earlier in the buying process, setting the stage to ultimately win the business," she notes. "It may sound counterintuitive," she continues, "but the key is to avoid selling. By offering prospects helpful information in the form of blogs, whitepapers, ebooks, webinars, case studies or demos, you can win their trust and their business."
5. Speaking at trade shows, conferences and industry events. "The best lead generator is to give an event presentation and follow it with customized letters, calls or emails to individuals that you met [there]," argues Susan Carol, CEO, Susan Carol Associates Public Relations.
Speaking at an event immediately gives you name -- and face -- recognition, literally separating (and hopefully elevating) you from the hundreds of other vendors or service providers trying to get noticed. And by following up with people you meet at shows in a timely fashion, you stay top of mind.
6. Using LinkedIn. "Our customer research showed that traffic from LinkedIn generated the highest visitor to lead conversion rate (2.74 percent), almost three times higher than Twitter (.69 percent) and Facebook (.77 percent)," says Mike Volpe, CMO of HubSpot, a provider of inbound marketing software. So what makes LinkedIn a good source of leads for IT companies and professional services organizations?
"First and foremost, LinkedIn has a high percentage of professionals, so the likelihood, especially for B2B marketers, that you're dealing with people in your target audience is higher than some other channels," he says. "Moreover, LinkedIn Groups are organized around the concerns and challenges faced by many buyers and/or their geographic location and profession, so LinkedIn makes it easy to view and contextualize what your potential buyers are talking about and tailor content on your LinkedIn Company pages accordingly."
Just be careful not to lead with a hard sell. "Instead, focus on creating relevant content that is highly shareable and relevant to potential buyers," says Volpe. "Infographics, quick tips and examples of success from executives in their industry are all great examples of how to interact on LinkedIn Groups to drive leads and inspire engagement."
7. Using Twitter. Use Twitter "to promote sales, products or services... and utilize hashtags so that potential clients can find your sale or topic," suggests Kimberly Judd-Pennie, the founder and CEO of CyberMark International, an integrated marketing firm.
You can also use Twitter to find potential customers by tracking "buying signals," notes You Mon Tsang, vice president of Products and acting CMO at Vocus, which provides cloud-based marketing and public relations software and services. For example, if you sell skis, search for individuals looking for ski recommendations by typing in relevant search terms (e.g., "skis recommendation") or looking for the hashtag "#skis" or "#skiing." Or create your own hashtag.
8. Providing contact information on every website page. "With search engines being such an important driver of inbound website traffic, you can't always predict where people are going to enter your website," notes Jonathan Bentz, marketing manager, Netrepid, a provider of professional services. "Having your contact info on every page of your website increases the likelihood that people will contact you."
9. Live chat. "We added a live chat box to our website and generated a request for quote the very first night!" says Bentz. "I can't stress how important that was for a proof of concept, especially since most IT pros are looking for fast answers without possibly getting stuck on the phone with a pushy sales person."
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.