Getting a small business up and running is hard work—there’s no easy way to rake in profits. And lead generation can be time-consuming if you don’t know how to approach it.

Some small businesses struggle with lead generation because their level of effort and their desired outcomes aren’t aligned. Some entrepreneurs might think you just make a couple of calls, send a couple of emails, and poof—customers are trying to beat down your door.

But the truth is, like any other aspect of starting a business, you get out of lead generation only what you put into it. If you invest tons of thought, energy, and resources into your long-term sales and marketing strategies, such as content marketing and SEO, but you throw phone calls and emails at the wall as a short-term way to supplement your pipeline, you’re missing a huge revenue opportunity.

I get it: Not everyone has a dedicated employee or team who can anguish over the details of every outbound email or call script. For some organizations, that’s just not feasible. But every team, even a team of one, can spare the time to devote some degree of attention to these areas. Doing so will lead to a substantial increase in both your reply rates and your conversion rates.

Nurturing leads is key

Lead generation is especially important for small businesses because it’s a way to level the playing field. As HubSpot’s guide to lead generation suggests, lead generation options aside from cold emails and calls can include live events, online content, coupons, job applications, and blog posts.

Lead generation is a major priority for companies of all sizes. A Content Marketing Institute study found that 80 percent of respondents were prioritizing lead generation in their content marketing strategies. Additionally, companies that focus on nurturing their leads generate 50 percent more sales, but it costs them 33 percent less, according to Forrester research.

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Sure, companies from large to small are using these tools, but those that wield them best are the ones that win. Even if your competitor has 10 times the people, software, and resources, any creative team has a chance to succeed. If you have an employee willing to take the time to prospect, engage, and nurture the right leads—or you’re ready to do it yourself—you’ll win every time.

Implementing a lead generation plan that can help your small business starts with four simple steps:

1. Build your buyer personas

Identifying and creating buyer or user personas doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process. A buyer persona is a fictional representation of your ideal customer—your personal should have a name, a specific age and occupation, and a particular reason for being in your ideal target market.  

I highly recommend taking the time to build out detailed personas. Dozens of examples are waiting online. Data points like title, industry, revenue, challenges, and goals are great to have in your buyer personas.

If you’re not sure where to start, conduct an audit of your current clients. What industries do they focus on? What is the title of the decision maker who greenlit your contract? Identify the most frequently appearing industries, titles, and more, and use those as a foundation for building a persona. You can’t effectively create marketing messaging or content campaigns until you know exactly who it is you’re trying to attract. Similarly, you or your salesperson need to know what kind of leads you need to convert.

2. Obtain a small email list

Let’s say your buyer persona research gave you two clear winners: You sign more CEOs of SaaS companies and CTOs of logistics companies, for example, than any other customer segment. Consider how different messaging might appeal to each of these types of people before you launch your email campaign. Once you’ve determined what message your emails will contain, generate the list of people you’re contacting.

Ideally, your list will start out with 500 to 1,000 emails of relevant recipients. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of list resources out there. But if you don’t want to purchase a list, you can always look at your inbound marketing-qualified leads who are “stuck” in the pipeline. For whatever reason, sales conversations haven’t taken place with these people. They could use a push, and marketing content can be the perfect nudge in the right direction.

3. Write two email sequences

Write clear, relevant emails to your target audience. Start with an introduction. The sweet spot is between 90 and 120 words. The intro should serve as an introduction to your company and should compel recipients to respond. Follow up with two “bump” emails—that’s right, you’ll need multiple follow-up emails.

These should serve as a reminder that you and your company still exist. Your best strategy here is to use one or two lines to point the recipient back to your intro. Remember that all people, your email recipients included, would rather be talked to, not at. That’s why tailored emails lead to 58 percent of total revenue for certain businesses.

If you don’t receive a response, the fourth email should be used to reintroduce the reader to your company. Try a different value proposition than you used in your introduction. Your last message should concede that perhaps you haven’t reached the reader at the right time. Say that you’ll reach back out in a few months. The secret sixth step is that you actually do reach out in a few months. Your goal is to get a response—it’s important to keep trying until you get a clear answer.

4. Send email sequence A to half of your email list and email sequence B to the other half

Following our example of primary buyer personas above, let’s say that 250 to 500 of your emails go to CEOs of SaaS companies, and the other 250 to 500 go to CTOs of logistics companies. Monitor the results and field responses as they come in.

Monitor the right metrics

Once this campaign is complete, consider what worked and what didn’t. Did you have a low open rate? Try out a new subject line and different preview text. Did you have a low rate of replies? See whether a different value proposition offers more for your audience to resonate with.

Identify benchmarks and set goals

Some easy benchmarks to aim for are a 20 percent open rate and a 3 percent reply rate. If your results aren’t quite there, keep tweaking until they exceed these benchmarks. If your results are exceeding these thresholds, on the other hand, spend some time reverse-engineering what worked so well. While you don’t want to use the identical messaging in every campaign, having some underlying principles from the get-go will save you time and get you more leads in the future.

Dedicating time and energy to lead generation is one of the best ways for small companies to level the playing field. Like any good marketing strategy, lead generation is a long-term process; when done well, it brings about huge results. Use these four steps to implement a plan that helps your business keep up with—or even overtake—the competition.

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Ryan Myers

Ryan Myers is the creative director at Sapper Consulting, which replaces cold calling for its clients. It’s cooler than it sounds. You can also follow him on Twitter @parergone.