Lean Marketing for Startups and Small Businesses: How to Make the Most Impact with the Least Investment

Most startups and small businesses have limited budgets for marketing.

But, we all know that it’s essential to spread the word, build relationships, and make sales.

So what’s a startup or small business to do when their need for marketing is big, but their budget is small?

National television campaigns are definitely out. But, there’s plenty that you can do… if you embrace lean marketing principles.

Lean marketing is a philosophy that emphasizes executing campaigns quickly, getting feedback from your audience, analyzing the results, and optimizing the campaign – all in rapid succession.

Any type of marketing is speculative – we can make educated guesses, but we can never truly guarantee results.

Traditional marketing practices may direct you to invest a lot of time and effort into a campaign to get it “just right” before launching it. Lean marketing, on the other hand, acknowledges that we can never truly know what “just right” is.

And, as the saying goes, “perfect is the enemy of good.”

So, lean marketing strategy suggests that it’s best to act quickly (without investing too much time trying to reach perfection) and get feedback sooner so that you can optimize your campaign sooner… based on actual data.

In practice, this means that you can avoid over-investing into a campaign that won’t deliver – saving you both time and money.

How you can put this lean marketing framework to work in your business?

Here are 5 lean marketing principles and 22 actionable lean marketing tactics you can try in your small business or startup.

  1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
  2. If you can’t measure it, don’t do it.
  3. Ready, Fire, Aim.
  4. Rely on your customers.
  5. Don’t go it alone

Let’s take a look at the 5 principles and the 22 tactics in detail.

1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Small businesses and startups with equally small budgets can’t afford to sink all of their resources into a single all-important marketing campaign.

Such a desperate “Hail Mary” practice could ruin your business if that campaign doesn’t pay off.

You’ve got to diversify your marketing channels and tactics.

A diversified marketing strategy not only serves as a safety net but is also key to the lean marketing process.

Test marketing campaigns across multiple channels to gain a wide range of information quickly. To keep this process lean, don’t invest too much time, money or resources in any one campaign. Act quickly to gain quick results.

You’ll learn that some platforms may not work for you at all. And, that’s okay – it’s valuable information. You can always circle back and try again later (if it seems worth it).

Other platforms will allow you to connect with your audience. And, now you can say (with evidence to back you up) that this is where your efforts should lie.

Now, the resources you can free up (by eliminating the campaigns on platforms that aren’t delivering), can be redirected into optimizing campaigns on the platforms that are.

This diversified strategy will ensure that you can find the right channels to market in before spending too much time on the campaigns themselves.

Be sure that you maintain consistent brand identity across all marketing channels. Some marketers and business owners think that each channel requires a unique brand identity and approach. While it’s true that marketing channels are unique and often require unique approaches, your brand identity should stay constant across all marketing efforts.

Remember that your brand identity – including your company logo, is everything visual about a brand. It’s what you, customers, and prospects can see. If you start changing your brand identity, you’ll confuse your customers and prospects.

Here are just a few options to get you started…

  • Test low-cost ads in local publications
  • Build relationships with potential customers on social media
  • Launch targeted online ads
  • Include marketing flyers inside your product packaging
  • Create specific landing pages to drive conversions

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2. If you can’t measure it, don’t do it.

Lean marketing is about building and executing quickly so that you can learn from the results.

It’s absolutely essential that you find a way to track the results for your marketing efforts. The right metrics will let you know what’s working and what isn’t. Data is one of your most important lean marketing tools.

Poor email open rates indicate weak subject lines. Low click-through suggests that it’s time to test new calls-to-action. And weak conversions may mean that your copy, call to action, or design is weak. 

This data (among other metrics) is what allows us to intelligently optimize our efforts. Without it, we’re simply wandering in the dark.

So, especially while you’re trying to operate as cost-effectively as possible – if you can’t measure it, don’t do it.

Here are some examples of inexpensive and measurable lean marketing examples for you to try…

  • A/B test landing pages for your product or service (measure with Google Analytics)
  • Launch an email marketing campaign (measure with internal tools provided by email services like MailChimp or Constant Contact)
  • Poll your customers or clients (track results using SurveyMonkey)
  • Hold an event (track attendance) and provide discount promo codes for all attendees to track resulting sales

3. Ready. Fire. Aim.

The lean marketing process is intended to be fast and iterative. 

Each version of a campaign should be adjusted (based on your findings from the last version) and quickly redeployed to bring you yet more data. Ideally, each subsequent version of a campaign should deliver better results due to what you’ve learned.

This is a distinct break from the more traditional “ready, aim, fire” sequence that we usually hear.

This technique of aiming (or optimizing) last should be applied across all of your campaigns. Here are some ideas you can try…

  • Send email newsletters and A/B test your subject lines to hone in on what captures your audience’s attention
  • Create social media profiles on the platforms that make the most sense for your business and track which perform the most strongly. Be sure that the profiles reflect your business name so that your customer and prospects can connect your social media profiles to your business
  • Send follow-up emails to customers who abandon their online shopping carts – test copy, design, and CTAs
  • Start a blog and track which topics deliver the highest interest, adjust your content strategy accordingly
  • Send out customer satisfaction surveys after a big launch, adjust your product or service based on the feedback provided

4. Rely on your customers.

Your best resources for learning about how your business is performing are your current customers or clients.  They know what’s working and what isn’t. Tapping into this insight allows you to optimize your product or service for their friction points.

And, best of all, people who have already committed to doing business with you know what they want from your business. Chances are good that if you can get them to share, you’ll be able to market to new leads more effectively.

But, not only that, investing in your current customers is more cost-effective than constantly seeking new ones. As we previously explained,

It’s 5-25 times less expensive to maintain relationships with current customers than to acquire new customers.

As a result, prioritizing marketing efforts to your current customers has a higher chance for a strong ROI than approaching new leads.

So, get feedback from your customers early and often. And, don’t neglect them as you plan marketing campaigns to drive new sales. Ask what your current customers want. Listen. And deliver.

Consider if any of these inexpensive lean marketing tactics would work well for your business…

  • Start a customer referral program rewarding both the current and referred customers
  • Ask your support team about customer and client pain points, then improve your product/service accordingly
  • Reward regular customers with a loyalty program for repeat business
  • Ask customers or clients for reviews after every transaction and use those reviews as testimonials or guidance to grow

5. Don’t go it alone.

Small business owners and startup entrepreneurs often feel like they’re all alone.

They take on so many tasks that it can be downright overwhelming. And, their employees (if they have any) can expect them to be the final word on every topic.

But, it’s foolhardy to think that you’re alone. And, even more, foolish to reinvent wheels or work inefficiently when there are other options. These tendencies to hoard tasks and work in a vacuum run directly counter to the lean marketing philosophy.

Lean on and learn from relationships with others in your industry. And, look for ways that you can partner with others to leverage your marketing efforts to greater heights.

This is important, especially if you’re starting a new business. The lean marketing process works best when you have others to back you up and boost you ahead. Try these techniques…

  • Learn from the marketing experts in your local library
  • Join a professional organization to learn from and network with those who have gone before you
  • Attend trade shows and marketing workshops to expand your skills and gain new ideas
  • Develop a partnership with a complementary business

If you’re tight on time, money, and resources, the lean marketing philosophy is the one you should adopt.

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