The marketing world offers many ways to attract attention to yourself and get heaps of potential leads. But how do you attract clients who will stay with you for years?

While running my service businesses (IT and marketing) for over 7 years, I have seen many businesses succeed through unconventional means, but what is perhaps more important, I have seen so many more fail. I have tried my best to get as much valuable information as possible in this roundup post for a new business owner to use. Anyone starting a fresh business should not only know what mistakes can be deadly for their business, but also the key factors to success.

Talking to many agency owners has shown me that although there are many roads to healthy and lasting business relationships, there are most definitely those more reliable than others.

Although all owners I’ve interviewed have reached success through different methods and strategies, there are — as you will see — a select few shared by all of them, and can also be shared by you to help you reach the success they did.

Jason Zotara, CEO of Ten26 Media

Jason Zotara of Ten26 Media, responsible for leading the direction of the company as well as supporting the clients with digital advertising strategy, communication and analysis.

Jason has over 15 years of experience and has collaborated with hundreds of companies, including well-known Fortune 500 brands.

“How did your firm get the first clients when you started out?”

Jason: I did a combination of things. Everyone in my family was in sales before I started my agency so I basically understood what it takes to sell. I did a few different things like marketing and advertising, but more importantly I reached out to like-minded individuals in the industry that wanted to reach the same goal that I wanted to reach and I created partnerships with them. That resulted in them referring me to businesses and I got a few clients.

Till: How did your business change after getting some of those first clients?

J: I first helped a friend with his website, he was a hairdresser. He just needed a basic website and he wanted to do his business online as well, even though he didn’t want to do too much marketing. Still, although I didn’t have the room to go the extra mile and create a great example of my work, that got the ball rolling. I helped him and several others and I started using LinkedIn

T: You wanted to reach out to more people over LinkedIn. What results did that bring?

J: LinkedIn got me a couple of clients. Believe it or not, LinkedIn actually works! It was a combination of marketing, advertising, partnerships and social media. At the same time, it’s like anything else in today’s day and age: it’s more about who you know and not what you know.

You have to prove your worth and your value, that’s how I started out.

T: You started getting more and more clients at this point. How did you manage with the increased number of leads?

J: I tried to have multiple clients, from twenty to thirty, and at one point I had around fifty clients. Still, although it was great to be expanding, I decided my goal is to make it a boutique agency with a one-on-one approach to every client.

My mentality was “If you want to work with the best company in town, one that works with thousands of clients, be my guest. But if you want to work with someone who has 15 years of experience and who focuses on a one-on-one relationship with you, you come to me.”

“How did the lead generation evolve over time?”

J: Now I get leads from partners mainly. It’s important if you’re looking at it from an agency perspective as I’ve done the agency style of work for a long time. I worked for another agency and I talked to partners in other agencies. And that’s where the quality lies.

From the leadgen perspective, the quality leads and leads that are gonna be long term will come from partnerships. That probably won’t be the result from your website, but you can get a few that way. It is not an entirely ineffective way, of course.

T: What other methods of quality lead generation do you find the best?

While partnerships definitely remain number one, a strong number two are social connections over LinkedIn and social networks. White label is good too, it can get you some results. I did some marketing and advertising but not too much but that’s because I focus mainly on getting partnerships.

“Did you find out repeatable systems to generate leads? If so, what worked?”

J: Yes, I did at the beginning and I do now. I started in 2012 with this agency and about a year ago I started doing work for a bigger agency and I wanted to be around more people, to be in that environment. I do have a process set up now and I’m developing a process again. I use hubspot and CRM to manage that side of it, but I’m a Google sheets kind of guy. I don’t need it compex, I just need something simple and to the point.

T: You’re coming from a sales background, but did you try to do something like a cold outreach?

J: Yes. I went into offices and left my business card but it’s generally to qualified people. I tried my best to qualify people who will be interested in what I’m offering. I’ll reach out on LinkedIn and reach out directly. I haven’t done a lot of cold emails in the past. Part of my plan is to build a cold email program, in a sense, or a process so I can reach out to people easier. Again, I’ve never been a hard selling guy. I just did consulting and just offering people services they’ll be interested in. Selling people stuff they don’t want just wasn’t my thing.

I had experience cold calling and walking into offices, but what I did do was I research qualified those individuals before i reach out to them.

T: What is your ideal target customer?

J: The target customer would probably be a company of a larger size, someone with a consumer product or a service. I like to work with B2B but we do well with B2C.

T: Is there a specific feature that makes you drawn to certain customers over others?

J: Ideally, it’s somebody who is trying to make a difference in the world. I turned down businesses in the past. I know that sounds crazy, but we want businesses that make a difference and that have cool product or a service. Around 5k a month is a great starting point from a budget perspective. We have clients that are 10k a month and above, but my ideal client is somewhere between the two.

You want a client that’s not too big where they don’t listen to you, but also not too small that they can’t afford you.

Blake Marcher, president and owner of Marcher Internet Marketing.

Marcher Internet Marketing is the #1 San Diego SEO expert, and focuses to provide affordable organic SEO, Social Media Marketing and web design solutions for small businesses.

Blake created the company in 2015, and today it helps small businesses from the entire country to become successful in Social media, organic SEO and web design.

“How did your firm get the first clients when you started out?”

Blake: When we first started marketing our business, we focused our efforts around Social Media Marketing, Thumbtack and local networking events as our lead generation sources.

“How did the lead generation evolve over time?”

B: Over time we noticed that Social Media Marketing and networking were great sources for generating leads over a long period of time, and we still use these marketing channels today as they are a great ROI for our business overall. When we were looking to find leads in the short term we focused our efforts and marketing budget on Thumbtack.

Till: Sounds like Thumbtack was a very effective tool for your business. Did you keep using it regularly?

B: After a while, we did not. Initially we noticed that Thumbtack was a great way to generate new sales leads quickly, but over time we found that many of the sales leads we were finding on Thumbtack weren’t serious enough to actually convert into new clients for our business. Over time we ultimately stopped using Thumbtack as a lead source because of the high costs associated with sending quotes to potential leads and the low ROI we were seeing from Thumbtack.

T: Having backed out from Thumbtack, you would have needed another tool to help you out. Did you find a replacement?

B: Initially this left us with a lack of short term leads so we decided to look for free options that would allow us to send quotes to new potential clients. After talking to a friend who said told me about the success he was having with Craigslist as a lead source for his business, I decided to try Craigslist out for our businesses marketing efforts.

T: Craigslist is a great tool for lead generation. Were there any downsides to the change from Thumbtack to Craigslist?

Craigslist was a great free lead generation solution that helped us find new short term sales leads in our local area. The only downside to using Craigslist is that it requires an hour or so each week to scan new job requests and send out emails to new potential clients in need of our Internet Marketing services.

“What are your sources of leads, sorted by significance?”

B: Today our main lead sources are Social Media Marketing/SEO and Craigslist.

“Did you find out repeatable systems to generate leads? If so, what worked?”

B: We found that Craigslist was a great way to generate leads for our business. Every week I check Craigslist for new leads and send emails to the leads that look like a good fit for our businesses services. On Craigslist you can target the kind of jobs you want to search for as well as the location you want to search in which was great for finding new leads in our local area.

T: You rely greatly on Craigslist for lead generation. Do you use Thumbtack at all anymore?

B: Craigslist basically accomplishes the same end goal as Thumbtack does, which is to help businesses find new local sales leads, but the difference with Craigslist is it’s completely free to send quotes to customers where as Thumbtack requires a cost of about $10 — $15 just to send one quote to one customer.

Ross Taylor, owner of Alameda Internet Marketing

Ross Taylor runs the Alameda Internet Marketing company focusing on forming relationships with businesses that understand the power of online marketing, but don’t have the resources to manage it themselves.

With many resources at their disposal, Ross’ talented team has proven success with their partner campaigns. Alameda Internet Marketing has built a strong reputation as a quality service provider since 2010.

“How did your firm get the first clients when you started out?”

When we first started, it was just me and I was hungry for work and tried a few different things to get business. I mainly focused on my home city, but some of the things I tried included going to local cafés, delicatessens, etc. looking for business cards local business people had left out.

T: How successful was that? Did simply picking up business cards bring up any unexpected results?

R: Once, I saw a business card for an attorney’s office while I was ordering a sandwich at a local deli. I took it, and sent them an email remarking how I found his card that we have something in common, those were some good sandwiches! He wrote back ten minutes later, I closed the deal that week, and this attorney is still a client today (and one of my most profitable), six years later. He appreciated that while my offerings were the same as so many others, I was local, honest, and genuine.

T: Have you tried any different lead generation methods, such as cold calling?

R: Cold calling is something I hate doing, but if you’re okay being rejected 199 times to close the one in 200, it does work. I don’t do this at all anymore, but at the very beginning, it was sink or swim and needed clients. Local business groups and networking groups are what really made a difference, particularly because we’re a B2B operation.

T: That must have provoked an easier access to referrals. Do you have any advice regarding referrals for new businesses?

R: Referral groups like Local Business Network or BNI can make a new business, and even things like your local Chamber of Commerce can make a big difference if you put the time in.

”How did the lead generation evolve over time?”

R: As a boutique agency, we don’t have the bandwidth for 100s of clients at one time, so our lead generation has become much more passive. We naturally earn referrals from our happy clients and partners. The important thing is nurturing those relationships to continue that growth.

“What are your sources of leads, sorted by significance?”

R: Referrals from current partners (clients) > Search Marketing > Community Outreach.

Cody Bollerman, principal consultant of Cody Bollerman Digital

Cody Bollerman is a marketer and principal consultant of Cody Bollerman Digital, a San Diego business focusing on providing digital marketing services including lead generation, SEO, web development and more.

He prides himself on getting his hands dirty with each campaign and being a technician and a strategist in an attempt to achieve the best results. Based on his current success rate, this approach certainly didn’t disappoint.

“How did your firm get the first clients when you started out?”

Cody: I got my first clients via word of mouth or referral. I’ve always consulted on the side as a means to earn more and I’ve been driven to grow as a marketer so I figured why not put in extra hours and get paid for it. There is a huge gap in business online that need help so if you are willing to take on clients and start at an affordable rate it is fairly easy to get started consulting.

T: What is the most important part of getting started with a consulting business?

The important part is you need to start at a competitive rate and deliver value, don’t focus on earning $100 an hour your first year or 2. Also, meet in person and grow the relationship with your clients — they will eventually take care of you once you deliver value. If not, you’ll learn how to fire them — which is necessary as well.

“How did the lead generation evolve over time?”

C: Over time I started reinvesting in my own lead gen. I have an SEO background so naturally I optimized my own site and began focusing on local San Diego based rankings. It proved to be a great source but it was long term and I was persistent. Now I’ve shied away from it more as I am busy and clients are referred to my by prior satisfied clients. I’d prefer to get lead this way as my past performance is a sign of trust for new clients. I’ve also done PPC, FB ads but I’d put my money on referrals and SEO.

“What are your sources of leads, sorted by significance?”

C: Word Of Mouth/Referral > SEO > Paid Search > Paid Social

“Did you find out repeatable systems to generate leads? If so, what worked?”

Honestly, the only repeat solution I’ve found is a simple one. It’s taking on the right clients and increasing their revenue more than the expense to you. Once you do that, it’s very easy to have repeat business. I don’t focus on lead gen too extensively, I’d rather focus on client relationships and value, as that comes naturally — of course after you get your first couple of leads/clients, that is.

Jim Ellis, Vice President of Signal

Jim Ellis is the Vice President and Account Director of Signal, a digital agency based in Raleigh, North Carolina. focusing on developing a strong digital strategy, building quality content and enhancing the user experience through several different languages and platforms.

Jim provides a rich set of skills to be an effective liaison between business owners and Signal’s talented creative team.

“How did your firm get the first clients when you started out?”

Jim: For the longest time, Signal never had to worry about lead generation. Work just came and things were great. Then the recession hit. We started feeling the effects of it around 2009, at which point we started making a more systematic new business effort. Still, our largest source of new business comes from client and network referrals, so most our time is spent doing good work and making sure our clients are happy.

Till: You created a more systematic business effort to adapt to the recession. What does your new strategy include?

J: Our new business strategy is 3-tiered, and follows the strategy of other agencies in our business.

  1. The world: targeting those that don’t know who we are, making sure our website converts.
  2. Our database: reaching out at the right frequency to our clients, prospects and suspects
  3. Top 25: special things that we can do to our top prospects

“What are your sources of leads, sorted by significance?”

J: Our sources include referrals, personal networks of account execs, LinkedIn, purchased lists (although we have not done much of this).

Benjamin Cargile, Founder and CEO of the Creative Website Design Service

Benjamin Cargile is the Founder & CEO of the Creative Website Design Service, a professional and creative Website Design and Internet Marketing company

Its design specialists can create beautiful and responsive websites that are Search Engine Optimized. The company prides itself on driving traffic to businesses and converting the visitors into customers. Their focus is to provide the best ROI and lead generation experiences.

“How did your firm get the first clients when you started out?”

Benjamin: I would be happy to give my opinion but I should warn you that I am a new business that is less than a year old.

I got my first clients through Google Adwords and Twitter. Google Adwords provided more potential leads but was an expensive way to get those leads. Twitter provided less leads but for no cost other than the time put into meeting people and putting out my message. I have also had a few leads come in from LinkedIn, but the only effort that I put into that is to change my personal profile and set up a business profile.

Till: Google Adwords, Twitter and LinkedIn yielded positive results. Are there any platforms that didn’t do so well?

I spent some time on Quora answering questions about SEO and web design + development. I have gotten one lead from that effort so I am limiting how much time I spend answering questions on Quora now.

“How did the lead generation evolve over time?”

B: I started solely with Google AdWords as I slowly built a Twitter following. After a few months, I switched most of my efforts to Twitter and put less emphasis on Google AdWords.

“What are your sources of leads, sorted by significance?”

As of today, my leads are coming in through Twitter, some leads from Google AdWords, and least from LinkedIn. I would say in the last month my leads were 50% from Twitter, 35% from AdWords, and 15% from LinkedIn.

“Did you find out repeatable systems to generate leads? If so, what worked?“

My best lead strategy is to post on Twitter and make 90% of my messages useful to people and about 10% more advertising. I find that I get more traction with new followers than with older followers, as far as I can tell.

Patrick Scully, Co-Founder of Possible Web

Patrick Scully is a Digital Marketing Strategist and Business Growth Engineer, as well as a Co-Founder of Possible Web. A boutique inbound marketing services company founded in 2012 in Charlotte NC, Possible Web is focused on providing premium digital services for small to mid sized businesses.

The company has gathered a group of experts in various sectors of online media to achieve the best results for every business they focus on.

“How did your firm get the first clients when you started out?”

Patrick: Our first clients came from doing a soft launch among family and friends, often doing a lot of work for free in exchange for referrals or testimonials. We also just offered a lot upfront for free. My goal when first getting clients was to of course start bringing in a little bit of revenue, but more to build up some online trust factors that would allow us to grow in the future.

Till: One of your main goals was to build online trust. What did you do to build that trust?

P: We did a lot of work in exchange for reviews, case studies, brand mentions on local websites, PR, etc. Then, when we had that presence which a prospective client could go look up and view online, we were able to charge what we wanted to because it was not so much of a gamble for the business owner. Luckily, we had some local business leaders in our circle of friends and family and were able to get some testimonials and case studies that really meant something to those reading them.

So, in short: audit your friends and family circle for business owners and connections, and offer a lot for free to build a portfolio of trust factors.

“How did the lead generation evolve over time?”

P: We were one of the first forward thinking digital agencies in Charlotte, and really there was not a lot of competition on organic search, surprisingly. Most local firms were still running PPC ads instead of ranking their sites. Google Maps was just starting to make a splash. So we ranked our site for a ton of keywords and dominated the “Charlotte SEO” searches for a long time.

T: You didn’t have a lot of competition in the beginning, allowing you to rank well. What is your current status?

P: We still rank very well, but by now a lot more companies have caught on. We still “practice what we preach.” We don’t just sell SEO, but we also use SEO to drive business. We want our clients to experience that same success and emotion of interested buyers actually finding them and reaching out consistently, and for “free.” (minus our fees of course)

“What are your sources of leads, sorted by significance?”

Referrals > SEO > Facebook ads and my personal social media accounts.

P: Referrals are most important and mean the most. It feels really good to get a referral, and of course they convert very well. SEO & FB ads are great. Love them both dearly. And my personal social media is a new one for us. We focused on the brand profiles for a while and they were non-producing. When I switched over to building my own natural following, things really clicked.

“Did you find out repeatable systems to generate leads? If so, what worked?”

P: Again, offering value upfront. There’s a 99% chance the person that just found you online has no idea who you are or who your brand is (I made up that number). Why should this person trust you? Offer value upfront, especially your time if you can. As far as sustainability, I’m again a huge fan of ranking organically on Google and for many different properties.

T: Do you have any tips on how to improve ranking? Perhaps certain content types or platforms that work best?

P: You can rank blog articles, YouTube videos, PDFs, slideshows on SlideShare, Facebook pages, etc. etc. etc. Having a portfolio of high quality ranking assets is huge for any business and will provide low cost leads indefinitely. Mixing in some type of paid advertising, specifically Facebook re-targeting, will help keep your services on people’s minds as they inevitably leave your website and go back to Facebook (it’s gonna happen!)

Taulbee Jackson, President at Rundown

Taulbee Jackson is is the founder and CEO of Raidious, a full-service digital agency serving some of the world’s largest brands.

Taulbee is also the co-founder and president at Rundown, a company helping professional content teams in media, agencies and brands to win the internet. Using machine learning, automation and predictive analytics can help teams use data to make better content, faster and more efficiently.

“How did your firm get the first clients when you started out?”

Taulbee: We relied on some existing relationships, as well as cold calling and public relations.

“How did the lead generation evolve over time?”

TJ: We use a fairly sophisticated process now that involves team selling across a portfolio of different products and services, lead scoring, specific sales training and account management methodology, and lots of other tactics.

“What are your sources of leads, sorted by significance?”

TJ: Referrals are our best source, in terms of quality. In terms of quantity, probably inbound inquiries from web, social and other digital media.

“Did you find out repeatable systems to generate leads? If so, what worked?”

TJ: What has worked for us is taking a more systematized, scientific approach to lead generation, which requires a lot of discipline. Understanding your key metrics, how to move them, what your baselines are, and where to best invest your resources — both time and money — is really critical.

My concluding thoughts

In 2017 I set out to interview digital agency business owners. Many of the talks are recorded on our YouTube channel. My experience in running my own digital agency matches what I learned from the interviewees: referrals are key, but you can do more.

For me, SaaS marketing teardowns have worked well. For others it was cold emailing. For some it was paid ads through Facebook and Google. The means are different but they all have one thing in common: they have systems.

They take action on a regular basis.

Most of them ended up using specific platforms through trial and error. However, regardless of the platform through which they are obtained, referrals are clearly the winner when it comes to the strongest source of quality leads.

It’s quite astonishing, when you think about it that regardless of today’s advanced technology, social media and various tools for advertising, people still cling to word-of-mouth advertising the most. In fact, 74% of consumers identify “word of mouth” as a key influencer in their purchasing decisions!

The start of every business is different, but it can all be summarized very simply, as one of the inverviewees already mentioned:

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

It’s simple to get leads when you have an established business, but until that point comes, you need to claw your way to the top. Walking from office to office, leaving your card to people is also a way to get a new customer. You might reach out to qualified people who you believe will want your service and succeed. On the other hand, as we have seen, you might also find yourself meeting the perfect client in a random sandwich shop.

So what is the road to success? I think it’s clear that creating quality service is a must, that shouldn’t even be a doubt. But it’s also making sure people don’t just ignore your success and send you the payment.

Referrals and trust your clients have in your abilities are critical. They can put you in the position where you can choose who your clients are more specifically.

Once you’ve reached the point when your reputation is solid, you can choose clients who share your interests and with whom you could create great things. On the other hand, if your aim is profit and spreading your business further than ever, that is also within your reach once people know who you are and what you’re capable off.

That, of course, is a matter of taste. Creating greatness, or expanding your business. Which would you choose?