You crave attention, buzz, clicks, and mentions, because instinct (or high school) tells you that popularity = success. But dreaming of your product going viral isn't a winning strategy.

To grow your business in the long run, you need to keep your eyes on the prize at every stage of the funnel, and gear every ad, sale, and referral towards the very best prospects: the people who truly get the value of your service and will stick around for the long haul.

Here are three of the most important principles for seperating the customer wheat from the chaff, and the related tools to make sure you find them.

1. Be Choosy When it Comes to Acquisition

New founders are eager to get anyone and everyone to try out their product, but being noticed doesn't simply translate to great sales and quality customers. You don't want random people to click on your ad and then move on--you want to attract prospects who'll spend quality time on your site.

If you want your ads to provide more prospects and fewer empty clicks, you have to be exclusive and cutthroat about defining your audience. You're not just trying to attract people--you're trying to attract the right people, the ones who are already looking for your solution to their problems.

Find your audience

Social networks are great ad platforms, but only if they're used correctly. For instance, don't advertise on Facebook just for the "likes"--if your ads don't lead to conversions, they're wasting money. Many companies that resort to buying likes eventually find out that the likes were fake--either clicked on by bots or people paid to like ads--and end up looking sketchy and having their pages drowned in spam.

Instead of trying to get everyone to "like" you, focus on optimizing your ads for the right customers. The incredible thing about Facebook is that people give up so much information about themselves--information you can use to target your ads with laser precision. If your ideal buyer is 30-36 years old, lives in Kansas, drives a Prius and "likes" Chuck Norris, you can target people just like that.

With a Facebook ad optimization platform like AdEspresso, you can show people who meet that exact description hundreds of slightly different ads--different wording, images, tone--and then analyze which ones performed best. This will show you the kind of messaging your ideal buyers prefer.

Not only will you be better equipped to target those customers the next time you run an ad, you will have a solid basis on which to start expanding your audience. It's basic startup logic: dominate one small niche, then use what you learn to appeal to others.

2. Be Selective With Your Sales

Prospect management tools are great for sales and nurturing relationships, but they also help you discern the quality of prospects and their interaction with your company.

In an ideal world, every one of your sales leads is a potentially great future customer. But the more is not always the merrier. Customers that don't really understand the value of your service will make unreasonable requests, badmouth your product, and keep your customer service team on pins and needles. They'll drive you crazy, and cost you much more than they're paying.

Think of sales like gardening. It's about supporting and nurturing long-term bonds, but it's also about clipping, pruning, and pulling weeds. So stay vigilant and clip out the prospects who would stymie your growth.

Rank your prospects

If you want your best sales reps to spend most of their time on the best deals, you need to identify good sales leads and dead-ends as soon as possible. But if you're not properly managing your leads, or qualifying them inefficiently, you get bogged down in calling, logging, and tracking prospects--which means you're not spending time seperating the quality leads from the rest of the pack.

Use a sales CRM like Close.io to help stay on top of contacts and follow-ups if you're going to turn your best prospects into customers. Close.io will automatically track your emails, calls, and activity so you don't need to spend time on inefficient, tedious work. Instead, spend your time asking the hard questions: is this lead worth it, and am I doing everything I can to get them?

If you can spend your time on the potential customers who are worth your time, you'll close more deals and get customers who will commit to your business for the long haul.

3. Find customers who will work for you

Boil down your customer base to get to the true evangelists, and the beating heart of your business--those who are loyal, and truly love your product--and flip the way you think about the customer. You provide amazing support and enable customer success. Now let all that hard work pay off.

Dedicated customers make the best sales reps you could ask for--they share your product with their friends and family, who already trust and value their opinions. Tap into this organic enthusiasm, and let your best customers help you grow your business.

Turn your best customers into sales reps

Identify your most frequent users--these are your MVPs. They're the most active customers who are the happiest with your product. Use a Refer-a-Friend platform Extole to turn these users into superstar advocates, who will keep a sea of qualified leads pouring into your funnel. Incentivize top customers with rewards and keep track of new users who enjoy the referral campaign. The statistics show that referred customers are better customers--they're 18% less likely to churn, have 25% higher lifetime values (LTV), and 20% higher average order values (AOV).

Your customer advocates are your covert sales team. They do the hard work of qualifying your leads for you, and get your products out in front of the people most likely to see the value in them.

Slow down and make every step count

It's tempting to aim for selling to as many people as possible. You need the revenue and the exposure, so the idea of customers flooding in right off the bat sounds like a dream come true. But if you're not catering to the right audience, your brand will never come together and your business will shrivel up due to lack of purpose.

A startup is a marathon, not a sprint. If your strategy is to cast the widest net possible, you might as well not have a strategy at all. Don't burn out on people who would never have been valuable customers. Start small, stay focused, and enjoy the ride.

Published on: Feb 23, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.