Right after starting a new small business, funds can be tight. Payroll, office space, taxes, and production can eat into capital. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have a capital investment.
If you are like many entrepreneurs, you’re not worried about investors; you’re bootstrapping your business on a shoe string. There’s no way you have $100,000 lying around to conduct a direct mail campaign (and that’s what it often costs, by the way).
Newspaper ads, telemarketing, billboards, and television commercials can also run six figures each. And what’s worse is that newspapers, landlines, and traditional TV are all being replaced by websites, cell phones, and streaming video. Even low-cost awareness building activities can eat up between $15,000 and $75,000 of your annual budget. For a small business, that’s a lot of money.
In this context, marketing or advertising can get short shrift. So what’s a small business owner to do? Give up on advertising and marketing? You can’t do that.
But what if there were a way to advertise for no money (or almost no money)? And what if that way worked better than traditional outbound marketing? Here’s the good news. There are lots of effective ways to advertise your business with no money.
Here are 19 advertising tips for business owners on a tight budget.
1. SEO your way to the top of the Google results.
Some internet marketing agencies act as if Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a magical tool that they alone can use, and you should pay them a whopping price to use it for your company. This is nonsense. Oh, when you have money, you probably should hire a qualified agency, but for now, you can make SEO work for you with a little common sense and initiative.
Create a website with some important keywords in the text and images, update it regularly, make sure it’s indexed in the search engines, and link to other relevant sites. Blogging, creating videos, being active on social media, and getting good reviews from customers online can all help boost you up the rankings, too.
2. Email your customers.
Email is one of the most effective forms of marketing you can undertake. And you know what’s awesome about that? It’s also free. Customers who opt in to your email list are already interested in your product or service, they want to know more, and they think you might have the answers to their questions. Why not reach out to these people? You can sign up for a service such as MailChimp that will help you do mass email campaigns for free, at first, plus give you important data about your customers’ email patterns.
3. Have fun with Facebook.
If Facebook were a country, it would dwarf the population of China. 2.3 billion people use the site every day. It’s the third most visited site on the internet. And 93% of businesses advertise on it. If you aren’t on Facebook, you should be. There’s probably no value in buying ad space there, though, so don’t worry about spending money. Instead, create a business page, not a personal page. Use a recognizable photo. Update your page regularly, keeping the content business focused. And get some positive customer reviews. That’s it. You’re doing Facebook marketing for free.
4. Twitter it.
Small business owners like Twitter because it’s easy to do customer service there. It’s quick, simple, and free to respond to people who approach you on the platform. You can also use Twitter to build relationships with influencers, take advantage of trending hashtags that are relevant to your industry, and hold real conversations with your followers.
5. Instagram your followers.
The photo-based social media platform is about to eclipse Facebook in popularity. Millennials especially seem to love snapping pics and putting them on the site for friends to see. If you sell a product, put your pictures up there, too. It’s a great spot to boost your brand, tell your stories, and link to your blog.
6. Google My Business.
Register your business at Google My Business in order to take advantage of this free service. Being part of the site helps your SEO, plus it gives viewers your phone number and physical address. You can even set it up to link to your social media accounts. This tool is free, easy to use, and very effective.
7. Get a ton of positive Yelp! reviews.
The most effective form of marketing has always been word of mouth. People trust their friends. The problem with word-of-mouth marketing is that it doesn’t scale. Thanks to the internet, however, you can help your customers tell their friends about your business in a big way. Sites such as Yelp! provide a place for users and consumers to rate your business. Facebook and Google do the same. Ask your customers to show you some love on these sites.
The reviews are free to you, and they can pay off in a big way. One tip: If someone leaves you a bad review, don’t get into an argument. Apologize sincerely, explain succinctly, and offer to talk offline. Your well-stated response to an angry customer can be worth more than 10 generic five-star reviews.
8. Answer questions on Quora.
Quora is the online spot where 300 million people each month go to ask questions and get answers. By writing on Quora, you put your name and brand in front of millions of people who are interested in a question related to your business. Nicolas Cole, the founder of Digital Press and an expert in internet marketing, says, “If you aren’t writing on Quora, you’re doing the whole content thing wrong.” He claims to have 25 million views on his Quora answers. If you start writing good quality answers, you can get those kind of results, too.
9. Power down on LinkedIn.
While LinkedIn used to be the lonely social media platform where people posted their resumes and left, it’s recently gone through a major renewal. It’s now the top watering hole for connecting with business leaders, top professionals, writers, thinkers, industry executives, and potential clients. Don’t be ashamed to publish often on the site provided you keep the quality of your content high. Kyle Elliott, who built his coaching career on LinkedIn, says he publishes on LinkedIn 15 times a day. Why not? Do what works for you.
10. Make guest appearances on industry podcasts.
Podcasts are growing in both popularity and influence. An estimated 22% of Americans listen to a podcast each week. Well-known leaders such as former President Barack Obama, writer Malcolm Gladwell, and business executive Carly Fiorina are getting into the podcasting world.
Even if the podcast you appear on doesn’t have a large following, you can get value if you are in front of the right audience. Also, you can post links to the podcast on your website, your blog, and all your social media sites.
11. Host an industry podcast.
Producing and hosting a podcast is no easy job, but it can pay off in a big way. Podcasting gives you a natural way to meet and converse with industry leaders while positioning yourself and your company as a valuable go-to hub of information online. James Carbary, who owns Sweet Fish Media, says, “A podcast is just one way for you to become the media company. And when you are the media company you can create very strategic relationships with a wide range of people.”
12. YouTube yourself.
The popular video platform YouTube is now the world’s second largest search engine, ranking right behind Google. About 1.3 billion people use it. Creating simple videos and posting them to YouTube can be a great way to advertise your business. Make them short or long, zany or serious, informative or inspirational. Whatever style and content work for your brand can attract a natural following on YouTube. You don’t have to pay for a videographer or expensive software. Just you and your smartphone can do the trick.
13. Blog like it’s 2009.
Yeah, after email, blogging is probably the oldest inbound marketing trick in internet history. And every year, smart people declare the death of both blogs and emails. Yet every year, smart people get proven wrong. Consumers still sign up for emails and read blogs.
If your blog is interesting, informative, well-written, and optimized for readability, you will draw the right readers. Those readers will value what you have to say. Eventually, they’ll see you as the expert. And then they’ll buy. It’s a well established process, and it works.
14. Conduct a webinar.
A creative, easy way to position yourself as a genuine thought leader in front of your customer is to host a webinar. These educational experiences help you create authority, build trust, raise brand awareness, and interact with your audience. No matter what you sell, your customers can benefit from your knowledge and expertise, so share it with them. Creating a webinar is much cheaper than hosting a conference and can be nearly as effective.
15. Create a free course.
If your webinar gets positive results, why not turn it into a full-fledged course? You can use a site such as Teachable or SkillShare to make a course with videos, workbooks, and activities. Give it away to people for free. Those folks who find it valuable will come back to you for more.
16. Get published in a leading magazine or journal.
One of the most effective ways to create influence as a leader is to publish your work in a top publication. That could be a journal specific to your industry, or it could be a business magazine such as INC, Forbes, Wired, Fast Company, or Entrepreneur. Josh Steimle, one of the world’s top internet marketers, calls his first article in Forbes, “the $2 million blog post.” That post put him in front of leaders, opened up new publications, and has generated that much revenue over time.
17. Build your own website with WordPress or Wix.
You may have noticed that nearly all of these ideas require you to have a website. Those cost money. These days, a fancy new website can run you $20,000. The good news for you, Small Business Owner, is that you don’t need a $20,000 website.
The free — or low cost — sites you can build yourself with WordPress or Wix will probably do just fine for your business. These sites look elegant, allow you to optimize for SEO, offer plenty of space for both imagery and text, and are easy for a newbie to use. You don’t need to know the ins and outs of web design. Just do it.
18. Empower your current customers to speak for you.
Remember how we said that word-of-mouth marketing was the most effective marketing there is? It’s true. So get your customers to talk to their friends. You can give them cards to hand out, offer them rewards for sharing their experience, and support them on social media by liking and commenting on THEIR stuff, not just asking for the love from them. Turning customers into brand advocates is hard work, but the rewards are limitless.
19. Provide a top-shelf customer experience.
Finally, the absolute best way to market your business is …. do a good job. Create a quality product, price it well, and treat the people who buy it fairly and respectfully. No clever billboard or pricey ad campaign can compete with a great product sold by nice people at a fair price.
These 19 tips should be enough to get you started marketing and advertising with the best of them. Note that these tips are free, but we never said they were easy. Like anything else you want to do well, good marketing habits take time to develop. You’ll need to test ideas, iterate, and test again. These strategies work well, but they don’t turn a profit in a day. So have patience, stick with it, and watch how working hard at solid free marketing ideas can pay off for your small business.
Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.
Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.