A business owner reviewing paperwork

This article was contributed by our friends at Forbes.

To say that 2020 was a year of ups and downs is putting it lightly. It was especially turbulent if you are a business owner. Your company likely had to contend with some major upheavals, stressors and challenges. In fact, 92% of small businesses reported that they had to “reinvent themselves” in order to weather the COVID-19 crisis.

But it’s a new year, and as we celebrate the deployment of the first COVID-19 vaccines, we’re all hoping that we might be seeing the faintest light at the end of the tunnel. 2021 will be another year of reinvention and, we can all hope, a better and brighter one for the growth of our businesses.

A couple weeks ago, I got in touch with social media guru Luke Lintz. At just 21, Lintz has built the incredibly successful HighKey Clout Inc., a social media, marketing, branding and technology group. We had a great conversation about how to grow your business and your customer base.

I thought I’d take the chance to share some of the insights he shared so that you can up your social media and sales game in 2021. So, in the spirit that next year will be the best year yet for your business, here are six tips to help you grow in the new year.

1. Focus on building lifelong relationships.

One of my favorite takeaways from my conversation with Lintz was the idea that you should treat your customers, potential clients and your team as you would someone with whom you hope to build a lasting, lifelong relationship.

Lintz put it like this: “If you have a good product and strong relationships with your customers, they will be your customers for life. And if you are a service-based business, then you will constantly be able to give more value to your clients as you expand your services in the future.”

I love this concept, because I truly believe that putting people first is the best way you can invest in your business. Strong relationships are like Miracle-Gro for a small business. To quote the legendary American auto executive Lee Iacocca: “Business, after all, is nothing more than a bunch of human relationships.”

One reason why it’s so vital to invest in real, meaningful relationships with customers/clients is that consumer trust is at an all-time low. Data shows that 55% of customers trust the companies they buy from less than they used to, and 69% of customers state that they don’t trust advertisements.

Add this to the fact that the cost of customer acquisition has risen more than 50% over the last five years. The bottom line is that there is more competition than ever, and more ads and products competing for our attention.

But you can use this to your advantage. If 81% of customers trust family and friends over advice from a business, then at least try to treat your customers like family. One company that does this brilliantly is Raj Jana’s JavaPresse coffee brand. His investment in going above and beyond in customer service is responsible for his business growth skyrocketing. Find ways to make your customers feel valued, and demonstrate that you are interested in their experience beyond the “order confirmation” page.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as making sure a customer feels heard. 2020 was a tough year for everyone; investing in relationships can look like basic listening and empathy. Indeed, studies have highlighted the vital importance of listening as a sales tool.

When it comes to your staff, you should be thinking in the same terms. Studies show that employees who build a meaningful relationship at work have 50% increased job satisfaction, as well as greater commitment to their jobs and a stronger sense of social impact. When an employee feels valued, as if they are worth more to a company than just the revenue they bring, they will feel more invested, and this will translate significantly for your customer relationships.

2. Know and focus on your core customer.

With so much competing for our attention, it’s more crucial than ever to connect to customers and clients who will have a genuine interest in your products or services. It’s absolutely crucial that you identify your core demographic and focus your marketing strategy directly on them.

Yes, in an ideal world, you’d be able to appeal both to tween skaters and to seniors who shop on HSN. Sounds nice, but let’s get real here, you have to know who your bread-and-butter customers are and appeal directly to them—their hopes, dreams and pains.

As with many things in business, this begins with data. Start with internal data on past customers, and focus on creating a customer profile. This includes basic demographic information, but it’s also important to dig a little deeper, and try to map customer’s psychographics. What are their values? What are their spending attitudes? What makes them excited and what makes them tick?

Luke Lintz also emphasized social media analytics as a critical tool to identify and begin to target your core customer. Facebook and Instagram offer analytics data on your “audience,” which will show you age ranges, geographic location and gender, as well as giving you data on how marketing content is performing.

All this data will help you put together a comprehensive picture of what your core customer demographic looks like. While the impulse may be to market to as many customers as possible, this type of target marketing will be much more effective, especially for small businesses. It will help you carve your niche within the market. With 76% of marketers failing to use this type of data for targeted advertising, you can give yourself a real leg up by leveraging data to your advantage.

3. Social media is one of the most critical tools in your arsenal

In case you needed reminding, social media is still one of the most important tools that you have at your disposal as a business owner, with 52% of new brand discovery happening on public social media feeds. More and more advertisers are looking to paid social media ads as their bread and butter. Annual spending on social ads is increasing every year and expected to hit over $50 billion in 2021.

Paid social ads are the No. 4 way consumers find out about new products, trailing behind only word-of-mouth, TV ads and search engines. When you consider that 31% of 16–24 years olds are finding out about new products through paid social ads, it’s clear that younger consumers who are gaining buying power will justify even more investment in social media advertising.

It’s not just ads that give you exposure on social media. On Instagram, 60% of users report that they have discovered a product on another person’s profile. Direct relationships with influencers will help to drive sales and business. Influencer marketing is a sure bet, with 89% of marketing professionals ranking it as a comparable or better return-on-investment than other marketing streams.

The importance of brand visibility on social media illustrates another reason why identifying your core demographic is so important. Getting your product into the hands of people for whom it is a strong lifestyle fit or connecting with clients who will be open to sharing their experiences will create more genuine interest and exposure on social media.

4. Direct connections drive loyalty and interest

Effectively communicating your brand identity and promoting your products and services on social media is no longer just about regular posting and advertising. Engagement and direct communication are very important in social media strategy.

One way to connect meaningfully with customers and potential clients is through direct messaging outreach on Instagram and other platforms.

Lintz from HighKey reminds us that “Instagram DMs are as common to look at as people’s text messages.”

Data supports this as well, showing that 47% of Millennials use Instagram as a messaging app. This should be a major area of focus for your social marketing strategy.

As an example of how this can be effective, Lintz points to his own company as a strong example of effectively leveraging direct social media communications. “Ninety percent of our business revenue has come from either us selling in the Instagram DMs or our affiliates selling in the Instagram DMs.”

I have seen the power that this type of personal connection has in driving business. I have connected with many of my clients through Instagram direct messaging. I love having the chance to chat with people who are connecting to my content. Even if they are not prospective customers, I feel that this personal connection is integral to the philosophy of my business.

In addition to direct messaging, engaging in comments and responding to outreach on social media is vital. An example of this is the fact that 77% of Twitter users had a greater appreciation for a brand when their tweet was responded to or acknowledged. If you are using social media to promote your brand, remember that you cannot let your page simply be an electronic billboard—users will expect engagement, not just content.

Build this into your business model and make it a priority. Consistency is key. Failure to follow up on engagement in a timely manner will reflect badly on your brand and could be a killer for potential opportunities.

If you are someone who is engaging with potential clients and customers on social media, Lintz has a good reminder: “It’s usually not a matter of ‘if’ someone will open your message and possibly respond, it’s a matter of ‘when,’ so you need to be available to immediately respond and spark up a conversation.”

5. Reach out with concise offers.

If you are hoping to leverage social media outreach to your advantage, Lintz emphasized that it’s important to deliver offers that are short and sweet.

While people may spend almost an hour a day on Instagram, you’d be unrealistically optimistic to think that they will give more than a glance at a cold offer in their DMs. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable to reach out. The key is to strike the balance between quality content and brevity. This is important, says Lintz because “people don’t like being overwhelmed in their Instagram DMs, and if they are being pitched, they would like to see the offer as quickly as possible.”

This is a valuable lesson not just in the space of social media, but also in traditional marketing and email lists.

Having an outreach strategy is also crucial here. Rather than mass messages coming direct from the brand pages or a generic “no-reply” email, consider delegating to team members to focus on outreach. Marketing messages had a 561% better chance of reaching customers when it came from an employee, rather than direct from the brand.

Here are a few steps from Luke Lintz for crafting a killer pitch that will definitely entice buyers and clients:

1. Lead with your product or services.
2. Make your offer more personally geared toward the person who is receiving the offer. While this may not be actionable for every message, you want to take all possible opportunities to connect meaningfully with potential customers/clients.
3. Include data that packs a punch. Don’t go overboard with a string of statistics, but try to nail a few data points that emphasize the strength of your product or service, or the relevance of it with a certain sector or market.
4. Close with emphasis on return-on-investment. Wrap up your pitch with compelling emphasis on the value that your product or service will bring. All the better if you can back it up with data or testimonials.
5. Stay away from the language of doorbusters. Don’t emphasize that buyers have a short window, or that they have to “act now!” or miss out. It’s not Black Friday, and it’s your brand’s image at stake. Customers remember how you made them feel.

The important thing to remember is that more than ever, we’re all being sold on products and offers all day, every day. To stand out here, make your sales pitch concise and personal where possible, and focus on the value that you offer.

6. Reinvest in your brand.

This one is evergreen. But for as often as we’ve all heard it, this advice hasn’t diminished at all in value.

When I connect with my clients who are entrepreneurs, I often echo this sentiment. Sometimes we’re all so caught up in the next sale, the next quarter or the next hire, that we don’t stop to ask how we can meaningfully invest in our ventures.

And I’m not just talking about turning Q4’s profits into Q1’s operating budget. How do we make sure that the money we put back into our companies is helping us grow in a holistic way?

Luke Lintz had some great thoughts on this subject. He reminds us that in today’s market, “a large part of investing in yourself and your business is with branding.”

In today’s economy, proper branding is the bedrock of a successful business. But as long as we’re talking about investing here, how do you even measure the value of a brand?

Experts often consider “brand value” to be the perceived strength of a company’s name, image and reputation, and thus as part of the “intangible assets” of a business. Based on this framework, it’s been estimated that the strength of brands can account for up to 20% of the total value of companies trading on the S&P 500.

While that might be hard to wrap your mind around, consider a well-known brand like Starbucks. They innovated by bringing better quality coffee to the world, but there is so much more to the Starbucks brand. What’s good coffee without the red holidays cups, the green mermaid, the annual revival of the pumpkin spice lattes? Starbucks as a brand isn’t any one of those things, but all of them, plus the intangible feelings they evoke.

It’s clear that investing in your brand has some of the highest potential for return-on-investment, but what does that look like?

Here’s some questions to get you started on assessing your brands for areas that need a little extra help:

  • Consider your brand aesthetics for strength and weakness. Is your branding recognizably you? Are there design areas that have been neglected?
  • Does your brand convey authenticity? This is one of the most important things that customers look for, with 86% of consumers stating that they value authenticity in the brands they support.
  • What feelings and ideas would you hope to evoke for your customers? How can you convey this through your brand?
  • Do you have unified aesthetics throughout your social media and larger branding? Consistency is key: studies found that a consistent presentation of a brand raised revenue by 33%.
  • Does your branding distinguish you from competitors or others in your sector? What sets you apart from the crowd and is this being successfully conveyed in your branding?

Once you’ve explored those questions, look for actionable ways to reinvest in your business by addressing any areas in which your branding might be lacking. This might mean hiring designers or branding consultants for a rebrand, or dedicating resources to training team members on how to effectively curate the brand identity through meaningful social media content. The steps you take are up to you, so long as you recognize the value in reinvesting in the strength of your brand.

I’ve helped so many clients launch their business, and it was so tough to see so many small-business owners struggle with the challenges of 2020.

But after connecting with Luke Lintz, I got genuinely excited and fired up about the future for entrepreneurs in 2021, especially when it comes to focusing on the DMs. Social media and new marketing strategies have opened so many doors and provided many new tools and assets for small business owners. If you are savvy and forward-thinking, there’s nothing stopping you from making 2021 the best year yet for your business.

This article was written by Ashley Stahl from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.