I had an epiphany last month at the Auburn Montgomery Outreach Social Media Conference. Social Media is the new cold calling.

This may sound like an unpleasant comparison, but I think it makes sense in context, at least if you’ve ever had to do any cold calling.

During one of the sessions (Tim Earnhart, I think), this thought started working its way into my consciousness, because he discussed some of the criticism you may take when you engage with social media. Customers may complain, for example, or something you meant as a light, happy moment may draw a great deal of negative attention. While he didn’t mention cold calling, it occurred to me that this was a similar process. Cue the harp music as I flashback to my earlier career:

It was the 90s. Clinton was in the White House, there were not yet 15 versions of Law and Order, and the internet was in its infancy…

I was selling industrial equipment. The people who purchased this equipment found out about their options by attending trade shows, thumbing through the Thomas Register, or entertaining people like me who happened by. Cold calling (including the practice of hitting up people you didn’t know by phone, asking for an appointment, or even dropping in) was tolerated because there was limited access to information.

Even so, you took some good-natured, and not-so-good-natured, ribbing about what you were doing. It often felt like a waste of time. There always seemed to be something better to do; it was an exercise in territory building that often felt like a distraction from working on problems for paying customers. And every now and then you ran into a total jerk.

Some 20 years later, cold-calling is borderline lunacy. It may work in select industries, but according to Michael Gass (another presenter at the same conference), about 80% of businesses search for and find their suppliers, not the other way around. And when Gass said (I’m paraphrasing) “I don’t do cold calling any more because I’ve found social media to be more effective,” that idea lined up with my thoughts from earlier in the day, and the light bulb went on.

Social Media is almost EXACTLY like cold calling. Okay, maybe not quite as unpleasant, but:

  • You’ll take some criticism about it internally. Social media suffers from a number of image problems. You’re spending your time “tweeting” things and hoping people “share” them or at least “like” them. Left-brained people tend to look down on this kind of activity. If it works, it’s because a good product sells itself, right? If it doesn’t work (preferably overnight), why did you waste all that time on it? Speaking as someone who sometimes drove halfway across a state and didn’t really connect with a new customer, I’ll say this seems familiar.
  • There always seems to be something better to do. You’re going to spend time looking around on the internet for content to share, or write some advice for free, to people who may not even give you a “like”? In the same way, I never spent a day cold-calling that I didn’t feel I had a proposal to write (or, let’s be honest, a desk drawer to straighten out again).
  • Every now and then you run into a total jerk. By exposing yourself to the public eye, you run the risk of dealing with people who are full of negative energy. I rarely read an article on LinkedIn that doesn’t contain a negative comment. If all else fails, someone will find something to critique about the grammar. When I did cold-calling, I discovered that some people are just angry, and you showed up in time to take the punch. I once showed up at an office and was shouted out.  “You’ve come at a very bad time,” he said. I was on time for an appointment. One he had asked for.
  • And yet it’s necessary to meet new prospects and grow your business. For many industries, it’s simply THE way that new businesses are getting found. Those Thomas Registers are mostly gone, the Yellow Pages are dying off, and traditional media has splintered into a thousand pieces. And don’t even think about cold calling…

Having this click with me helped me begin to get more consistent about marketing my own consulting practice with social media. There are people who are on social media purely for fun. But if you’re doing it to grow your business it’s work, and it can get unpleasant sometimes. Nevertheless, it’s important if you’re going to find new prospects and grow your business.

Gary Smith consults with businesses on best practices in marketing, technology, and coaches business owners to do whatever it takes to get to the next level.