In 2018, the number one question on my website, HelloAlice.com, was how to get access to capital. Now, our data shows that the most common theme is customer acquisition. The top search is "Can you help me find customers?"

And I'm happy to help. But there's a good chance that your customer isn't who you think it is. Depending on your product, success may depend on identifying a need, and then finding the people who have it. Here, I looked to three of my favorite customer-acquisition superstars to gather their tips.

1. Find opportunities where there's a need

I met Ajaita Shah in India, where she started Frontier Markets in 2011, a company that helps provide clean energy products in rural communities. Frontier Markets' products have grown to include other necessities such as cellphones, internet connectivity cards, and home appliances.

Shah has built a successful business by giving customers not just what they desire but also what they require to function in today's society. More than 500,000 households in Rajasthan now use her products, and Frontier Markets is expanding to three other states where it will likely gain another million customers.

So, who needs your product? It can be useful to create customer avatars to help you figure it out -- my co-founder, Carolyn Rodz, and I have four central characters we focus on at Alice -- and then seek out those people and market directly to them.  

2. Meet your customer where they already are

Marie Rosecrans, senior vice president of SMB marketing at Salesforce, knows something about attracting followers. At presstime, Salesforce had more than 469,000 of them on Twitter and 748,000 on Facebook. That's why she's someone to listen to when she says to meet your customer on their home turf: social media. 

But being available to customers through social media is only part of the story. What Salesforce does well once it has those potential fans visiting its pages is show off a robust, likable brand. How can anyone not fall in love with Astro, its raccoon-boy mascot, and his stable of furry friends? Compelling content keeps users clicking -- and draws them to use Salesforce when the need arises.

Yes, a cute mascot is great, but having something of note to link users back to the website is key. Not everyone needs to return to the Salesforce website every day for the products, but thanks to a well-written, regularly updated blog, there's a reason for users to check back more than once a week. 

3. Have the right tools

Shah's advice is for starting a business. Rosecrans's is targeted for a company that has already begun to find its legs. Once you have a bit of money to throw around, listen to Erik Day, vice president and general manager of North America small business at Dell Technologies. He says that to drive new customer growth, you need to have the right customer relationship management (CRM) tool. He explains that it allows you to understand what your customers are buying, when they are buying it, and how you can drive the right campaign to retain them and acquire more.

Why should you listen to him? Dell revenue jumped from $61.6 billion to $78.7 billion from 2017 to 2018. It's an established company that's still growing by leaps and bounds, apparently at least in part because of its CRM.

Small businesses have access to affordable programs that are dedicated specifically to small businesses. This is a clear example of spending money to make money. As you grow, you'll be able to partner with agencies that can help you collect, analyze, and report on customer data that will tell you more about how to acquire new customers. 

Basically, the cycle of working to acquire customers never stops. But that means you have a healthy business. So go out there and use these tips to multiply your customers. I know I will.

Published on: Oct 23, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.