Thinking of ways to market your small business can be overwhelming, especially when you consider the cost and return on investment. Big companies spend millions of dollars every year marketing and building their businesses. Small businesses have a similar need to get the word out but have much more modest budgets.
Here’s the secret that smart marketers hold close to their heart: marketing your small business doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
There are many different strategies and techniques business owners can take advantage of to help spread the word, and most of them are low-cost (or even free). All it takes is a little determination, ingenuity, and a carefully planned marketing strategy.
We’ve evaluated many ideas for marketing your business without breaking the bank, and want to share our top 21.
Make it yourself
Create a blog
Of all of the low-cost tactics you can deploy to raise awareness about your business and its products, writing great content is one of the best.
A good vehicle for that content is a blog. There are a ton of resources and tips out there for getting your blog off the ground, but one of the most critical things to remember is to write about your passion. You are the expert when it comes to your business — find something about it that excites you and write about it. Your passion and knowledge will help make whatever you create compelling and worth reading.
Start a newsletter
Newsletters and blogs aren’t necessarily exclusive; there are many successful blogs that effectively incorporate them. Invision, Buffer, and Hubspot are three companies with well-run blogs and accompanying newsletters.
If you prefer, you can create a dedicated newsletter that has different content than your blog, or mix and match existing blog writing with new content as you see fit. Having an email arrive regularly in your customer’s inbox with content created by you and your business is invaluable.
Do a podcast
Are you one of the lucky ones who likes the sound of their own voice? Or do you have someone on staff with the gift of gab? Podcasts can be an excellent way to build awareness while making your business more human. After all, the human voice is connecting, humanizing, and authentic in ways no other media can be. A well-executed podcast can be an incredibly valuable marketing tool.
Run a sale or create discount coupons
Everyone loves a sale, and thanks to discount tracking sites like RetailMeNot and browser extensions like Honey, consumers are finding them easier than ever. This isn’t just about offering your customers a break on price, however. This is about creating unique, interesting promotions to attract new customers and retain existing ones.
Think about creating add-on discounts to incentivize customers to spend a certain amount of money. Adding free shipping to an order after the customer spends at least $50 is a great way to remove a barrier to purchase and helps build new sales.
But keep in mind that value isn’t only measured in discounts. As we wrote previously:
Obviously, knowing your audience is the first step in determining what valuable content is. Your content’s value is measured by how useful it is to that audience. And, remember that “value” doesn’t only refer to promotions, discounts, and coupons. Informational content has great value as well – assuming it’s information that your audience will find interesting or useful.
So you might consider running a promotion around some of your content and offering discounts as part of that promotion as a way to generate some buzz.
Create product samples
Removing barriers for new customers to experience your products is an excellent way to build your base. “Try before you buy” helps customers feel confident that they can trial your products without fear of commitment or cost. Customers want to know that they’re making a well-informed decision, and providing samples can give them compelling information to influence their decision. Combining this with other marketing efforts can have a noticeable effect on your business.
Connect and Communicate
Form partnerships with like-minded companies
The old saying that “two heads are better than one” can also be applied to business partnerships. Working with another company with complementary products, services, or customers can be beneficial to both sides. You can coordinate and amplify your marketing efforts. You can also explore other ways of growing your businesses through things like product or service bundling or joint discounts.
Create a cool giveaway
Promotional giveaways are a tried-and-true way of building consumer awareness and getting your name out there, sometimes literally. There are old standards like balloons and t-shirts, and then there are more useful (and thus potentially more used) items like tote bags, umbrellas, and water bottles.
Another option is to run a contest with some of your product or services as a prize. The most important thing is to ensure whatever prize you choose has the broadest appeal to your audience. You also want to make sure to promote the contest or giveaway effectively – your customers can’t participate in something they don’t know about.
At the end, make sure you talk about and publicize the results. People who missed out on that giveaway will know to keep their eyes open for the next one.
It used to be that guerrilla marketing was the weapon of choice for scrappy startups and unorthodox small businesses, but those days are over. You can’t walk a block in the downtown of most cities without seeing posters, signage, and other elements of guerrilla marketing plastered everywhere by “street teams” hired by big marketing firms.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take advantage of this type of marketing. It can be very effective (and low-cost) if done well. The key is to make sure you hone the message you put out into the world, and you have a plan for how to onboard customers who respond. Here are some examples of effective guerrilla marketing.
Don’t try too hard to “go viral” and above all, obey the law. Guerrilla marketing is a little risky, but the risk should be in the success or failure of the campaign and not in running afoul of the law. The goal here is to foster and grow your relationship with the greater community.
There are many ways to network: send someone an email, make a phone call, engage on social media, etc. The reality is there are few things as effective as getting out and talking to people.
But where should you start?
As daunting as it may be for some, networking is a skill that can be learned. There are ample resources online and in the bookstore for how to network more effectively, but one thing that can really make a difference is to find someone to mentor you or be your “wing-person.” If you can, partnering up with someone more gregarious or at ease with networking is a great way of easing into networking.
Other than that, the best advice is to make networking a regular thing. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel and the better you’ll be at it.
Run an event
If you can’t find a business event to go to, maybe it’s time you ran your own! Holding your own event means you have more control over the target audience, the message you put out there (you did have a message, right?), and what take aways you want your audience to have.
The downside is you actually have to plan your own event. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but having a well-thought out plan is key.
If you’re stuck for ideas on what kind of event to hold, here are some ideas:
- Hold an open house where customers can come “behind the scenes” and interact with your products and your staff in ways they normally aren’t allowed to.
- Find and host an interesting speaker whose message or talents mesh with your marketing strategy.
- Have a fundraising event for a charity you support.
- Host your own networking event.
- Run an online seminar on a topic relevant to your audience. For example, many design-related businesses run seminars that cover topics specific to designers.
- Set up a “pop-up” store in a location you’re interested in but don’t have a presence yet.
Share and educate (run a web seminar, share time-saving templates, etc.)
Many companies have processes and tools that allow them to run their businesses more effectively. Think about how you could share some of that knowledge with the community. People appreciate information-sharing, and it can help build relationships that you might not have uncovered had you not shared in the first place.
The adage that a rising tide lifts all boats holds true here. By paying it forward and sharing some of your secret sauce with the community, you can create connections and encourage others to do the same.
Create a referral/affiliate program
Everyone knows word of mouth is one of the most persuasive marketing tools there are. Tap directly into that by creating a referral or affiliate program that rewards customers for sharing your business. This can be an incredibly effective way to build more business while encouraging stronger product loyalty from your current customer base.
Add a personal touch (write a handwritten thank you letter, send a video shout-out, etc.)
Adding a personal touch and providing exemplary service is a cornerstone of most small businesses, so why not take that even further? Including a handwritten note with an order, or sending customers a surprise thank you card are ways you can personalize your service and make your business feel authentic and human.
Customers remember when they’ve been treated with respect and like real people, and this can’t help but build awareness and goodwill with your audience.
Ask your customers for their input
Your loyal customers are often chock-full of ideas, criticisms, and comments on how they think your business, products, and services could be better. People appreciate being asked their opinion. There are a number of services that make gathering customer feedback and making it actionable easy. The key is to not expect your customers to solve your problems for you — that’s your job — but feedback can help you determine what kind of outcomes or results they want.
It’s important you and your company are receptive to feedback and open to change. Asking people for their input and then doing nothing about it is worse than not asking at all. Set expectations for what your company can do and what your customers can expect, then try your best to meet or exceed them.
Ask for testimonials or reviews
Another way of gathering information from your customers is to open up the floor for reviews and testimonials. Having comments made by real people about your business can be a big motivator for new customers.
It’s important to remember asking your customers for reviews is asking them to give you some of their time. Be respectful of that, and be prepared to act on reviews that are consistently negative. People want to know that reviews are fair and unbiased.
Celebrate your company’s successes
Has your business had an especially great month? Was there something newsworthy that happened recently, like your company hit a big sales mark or launched a cool new feature? Don’t forget to celebrate these events with your customers and the community. Not only does that give you a reason to publish some PR, it shows that your company is changing and evolving. So break out the bubbly and blow some horns!
Clean up your customer lists
It’s not useful for anyone if you’re sending notices and newsletters out to customers who don’t exist anymore (because their email addresses have changed, or they’ve stopped using your product). It’s hard to measure the efficiency of your marketing effort if your customer list is out of date.
We’re not talking about the demolition of everything you’ve built up to now, but a careful pruning of your customer list makes sure the people you’re talking to are actually listening.
Reevaluate your target audience – create buyer personas
Personas are fictional, generalized representations of your ideal customers. If you haven’t spent the time creating some, it’s worth the effort. The creation of personas can help you understand who your customers really are. This helps you create content and marketing campaigns that speak more effectively to them.
Personas usually come out of the combination of market research and insights obtained from your customers themselves. Surveys, interviews, polls, and other methods are some of the ways you can gather information from your customers.
Remember that you want to speak to a broad sample of your customers, both good and bad. Negative feedback is often just as valuable (or more so) than positive as it helps you determine where you need to improve, and sometimes what kind of customer you don’t want to target.
Use your employee’s email signatures more effectively
One really simple marketing tactic you can try is to take advantage of your staff’s email signatures. Every email sent by your staff is a contact point between your company and your customers and another opportunity for a marketing message. It’s relatively easy to have a bit of text added to every outgoing email.
We’re not talking about embedding giant banner ads or long-winded copy at the end of every email. A short sentence with a call to action can work well and is unobtrusive enough to avoid being crass or too opportunistic.
Optimize your site’s search engine listing
If your site is like the vast majority of sites, the amount of traffic it gets from search results is probably a lot higher than direct traffic to the homepage. Optimizing how your site appears in search results is a cheap and effective way to increase site traffic. Google has a lot of specialized search result templates that help people find the best information, and you can take advantage of these with a schema.org document.
Schema is a way to tell search engines what your content means, not just what it says. For example, marking up an article with the correct information can mean its search result includes not just the title, but the author’s name, a star rating, category, and more. This kind of metadata can really boost clickthroughs to your site.
Schema.org has a lot of Information on how to set up a schema document for your site. It can get quite technical, but the basics can be learned fairly easily. Google has a tool called Google Tag Manager that makes this a little easier, and Search Engine Land has a good primer on how to use it to tag your site with the correct schema.
Speed up your web site
All of the search engine optimization (SEO) and marketing in the world won’t matter much if your site is slow and takes too long to load. Not only can a slow site deter customers from using your site, Google’s search algorithm also punishes slow-loading sites by placing them lower in results (due to the poor user experience slow sites can have).
There are a lot of methods and tools for testing and improving site performance. Kinsta has a good introduction to website performance optimization for those looking for a primer.
Often marketing is one of the first things to get cut when businesses are trying to keep costs low. This is usually a big mistake. Successful marketing campaigns can be created by any business, even if their budget is tiny.
One of the strengths of small businesses is their uniqueness and personality. Often the humanity behind the brand is what separates small businesses from the big corporations, and this can really shine with a good marketing strategy. Thanks to social media and the internet, business owners can have just as much reach and visibility as the bigger companies, and as we’ve shown here, they can often do it on a shoestring budget.
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