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How to Build Relationships That Grow (It's Not Through Marketing)

By Published on .

John Ferrara, founder of Nimble.
John Ferrara, founder of Nimble. Credit: Drew Neisser

"I really believe that marketing won't help you grow your business," says Jon Ferrara.

A dangerous lead given the audience of this column. But suspend your disbelief just for a moment. As the founder of Nimble, a relationship management app for those of us with thousands of contacts and no time to nurture them, Ferrara gathered 100,000 Nimble users and converted 15% of them to paid subscribers -- with no marketing budget at all.


How? By building value-adding relationships -- not with customers, but with the individuals that your customers trust. In other words, a more sophisticated take on influencer marketing. "Relationships drive everything on this planet, and if you can identify people that matter, reach out and build relevant and authentic pay-it-forward relationships, you can change the world," says Ferrara, who calls this "social selling."

In today's world, nurturing value-based relationships at scale is next to impossible for individuals and brands alike. Even marketing automation can't do it effectively. "We're all bombarded by messages that are not one-to-one, authentic, and relevant," Ferrara says. "So we throw those away and we toss them aside. If you can effectively enrich the contacts you have, segment properly, outreach in a one-to-one way, then you can drive your opens, your clicks, and your results through the roof."

Giving away your knowledge
The first tenet of Ferrara's model, which may seem counterintuitive, is to give away your knowledge. Many believe that their expertise is their secret sauce, and that divulging the recipe relieves them of any leverage for profitability. To the contrary, Ferrara says. With Nimble, he offered services for free, to build up a user base, before establishing a paywall. "You need to provide immediate value whenever you're building and delivering to the customer," he says. It's the first of his five E's: "You educate, enchant, engage, embrace, and empower your customer."

Understanding your people
To better know your other half, it's important to do your due diligence, which Ferrara says many companies skip entirely. Start with your records: "Ultimately every business has a goldmine in their accounting system. Who did you sell to before? What did it look like?" From there, scale up. "Who do you have in your CRM or your lead list that looks like those best people? And then, net-new leads that look like that person, and then outreach to them in some way that's different," and focus on optimizing your channel, message, audience and schedule.

And because relationships take two, you must participate in the other parties' due diligence. "If you want to build relationships, open up your shirt, roll up your sleeves, share a little bit about yourself. Don't just share a bunch of quotes and business crap in your social. Share what you're passionate about," Ferrara says. "I'm passionate about family, food, and outdoors. If you want to get to know me, spend five seconds on my Instagram and you'll learn a lot better how to connect with me than five minutes on my LinkedIn."

Aligning promise to experience
Relationships also require integrity, which means ensuring that the knowledge you share leads to tangible results. "What will help you grow your business is aligning the promises that you make to the experience that you deliver," Ferrara says. At scale, this requires a group effort. "Much of that experience happens through your customer-facing business team members. So if you can empower them to deliver a delight at every point of contact, I think that you can be really, really successful."

Tactical differences
Ferrara acknowledges that marketing does serve a purpose -- for consistent messaging and business development, for example -- but that it's not the most effective approach to growth. "Marketing is at that high level, where you're dropping bombs at scale in order to soften up the battlefield. But to win that war, you need to put boots on the ground," he says. "The boots on the ground are your customer-facing business team members, and for them to be effective, they need intelligence, and they need to be able to engage at scale."

Studying scale
Finally, to bring Nimble to scale, Ferrara became a student of history, and recommends that every marketer do his or her industry homework. His team recognized that Microsoft was winning the productivity war against Google with Office 365, and built an integration that Microsoft currently gives to 100 million Outlook users.

"Microsoft is having me teach their VARs social sales marketing, and they're starting to gift their VARs Nimble," Ferrara says, referring to value-added resellers. "Well, guess what? People sell what they know, and they know what they use. So history is going to repeat itself, and we will be at, I think, $100 billion-plus in revenue, and tens of millions of users, in the not-too distant future."

A ringing endorsement for relationship management if ever there were one.

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