Small Business Marketing on a Shoestring Budget
The Comprehensive Guide to Budget Marketing Strategies, Free Marketing Tools, and Effective Marketing Ideas for Entrepreneurs!
What do you do when you have big ideas but a tiny marketing budget? You get creative! I often joked that we operated on a zero-dollar marketing budget when running my dance studio and nonprofit dance company. While that wasn’t entirely accurate, it was pretty darn close to the truth. I’m a bootstrapping-kinda-gal, which means I take pride in figuring out creative ways to grow a business without breaking the bank. When you take a look at the list below, you might be tempted to ask how these seemingly disjointed efforts make a difference. It’s because all the little initially disjointed efforts work together to make you and your brand become more visible, more trusted, and more top-of-mind. Let’s be honest—running a small business (or even a solopreneur endeavor) takes so much time and effort, and you often initially have to do almost all of it by yourself. But with a bit of imagination and a whole lotta soul, you can make marketing magic happen. Here’s how to market on a shoestring budget.
Become a Thought Leader
There are so many free and low-cost ways to become a thought leader in your industry, which in turn, boosts your personal credibility, and therefore, the credibility of your brand. Let’s talk about some ways to do this:
“HARO” or “Help a Reporter Out” is a free online platform that connects journalists with experts. When you sign up as a Source, you’ll get emails three times a day every weekday with queries from journalists who need to find an expert to comment on the stories they’re writing. Not every day will include a query that is relevant to you, but you will likely come across something at some point that you can comment on to boost you and your brand’s visibility. HARO has been instrumental in elevating my own personal and professional brands. I’ve been quoted in or interviewed over 40 times for major publications, all through connections made via HARO. I also received the unique opportunity to become the Ballet Expert for Nike’s Livestrong.com years ago. You never know what you might stumble across!
- Podcast guest appearances
Sign up for a service like PodcastGuests.com to receive twice-weekly emailed newsletters containing featured guests who could be booked for your own podcast (more on that idea below) and podcasters looking to interview new guests. This is a free service (and it is mandatory that no one pays or is compensated as part of the process), and many opportunities are available to be a guest on a wide variety of podcasts.
- Host a podcast
Consider hosting your own podcast! Many podcast platforms offer a free or very low-cost option to host your podcast, and it’s fairly straightforward to record, edit, and publish episodes. My favorite podcasting resources are Zencastr to record, Descript to auto-transcript and edit, and Podbean to host, publish, and even monetize. Whether you want to do a solo podcast to talk about topics that are pertinent and timely for your ideal client, or if you want to do an interview-style podcast that includes other expert guests, or whether you want to mix and match the styles, hosting a podcast will allow you to become known, liked, and trusted—which are crucial elements in building your brand and business!
- Interviews/press releases
Again, resources like HARO and Qwoted (similar concept to HARO) can get you started in the right direction when it comes to earned media placement. You can often pitch yourself for the stories that need experts because you already know exactly what kind of expertise and experience you have. You don’t have to stop there, though! Whenever you have an upcoming event, have won an award, have developed a new service offering or product, etc., you can write a press release about it and send it to local media outlets for consideration in publishing. Sometimes those press releases spark attention from reporters who ask for further interviews or information. Need help writing a compelling press release? Check this out!
- LinkedIn posts
LinkedIn is an excellent platform for entrepreneurs to share their thoughts, advice, and commentary in small, bite-sized posts that allow for a quick read, a reaction or comment, and hopefully, a reshare or two. While it can’t and shouldn’t be your only method to become a thought leader, combining it with your other methods can be extremely effective.
I am also a strong advocate for repurposing the content you create. Do the work once, and then use it across as many different platforms as possible. For example, if you complete an interview, take “soundbites” from it and create social media posts (both written and audio, if available). The more reuses, the merrier!
Claim Your Google My Business, Microsoft Bing, and Yelp Listings
- Ensure all info is up to date
On any online platform that you can claim your listing, make absolutely sure that you do. Add all the information fields you can fill out, and ensure your hours are up-to-date (including the holidays and other special occasions when your business will be closed). Post photos and videos, include your website and other contact information, and be as thorough as possible. You want the information to be accurate and helpful to potential clients, and more importantly, written by you so you know it’s representing your business correctly.
- Ask for reviews from happy clients
Make it a habit to ask for a review from your happy clients. Incentivizing people to write reviews is unethical and potentially unlawful, but most delighted customers will be glad to help you out. I’ve found that personally asking (rather than sending a generic email) is the best way to get a response. Those reviews can then be repurposed by sharing them on your website, marketing materials, and beyond.
- Organic SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
Respond to every review your business gets, whether it is positive or negative. If the review is positive, enthusiastic acknowledgment and gratitude are sufficient. If the review is negative, respond diplomatically while gently correcting any inaccuracies they may have said about the situation. I have found the phrase, “I’m sorry to hear that your experience with us did not meet your expectations,” to be very helpful when you receive an unfairly-critical review and do not believe you are at fault. It acknowledges that the person has frustrations, but does not take responsibility for their expectations not being met (because sometimes people’s expectations are outrageous or unrealistic).
Create Online Listings
- Magazine directory listings
When appropriate and available, create online magazine directory listings to list your business as a resource for industry/lifestyle/interest magazines, such as parenting magazines, city-specific magazines, or neighborhood magazines. These websites often have both paid and free listing options available, including the ability to submit events to be published on their sites, as well.
- Local news outlets
Create your free online profile for your business on all local news outlets’ websites. Then, post every special event your business plans to increase visibility and attendance.
- Alignable profile
Alignable is a social media network for entrepreneurs and small business owners. You can find and meet other like-minded people, connect via message or in person, and ask/give recommendations to each other. It’s not a time-intensive endeavor but it is an efficient way to collaborate with other complementary businesses.
Attend Networking Events
Networking events are one of the easiest and fastest ways to increase awareness both of yourself and your company. They are often free or low-cost to attend/become members, and they give you plenty of opportunities to expand your network. People buy from people who they know, like, and trust, and the more time you spend at networking events with like-minded people, the more you’ll see a return on your investment. Check out your local chamber of commerce, events posted on Meetup.com (there are always a myriad of opportunities, many of which are free), and either industry-specific, interest-specific, or demographic-specific groups. A quick Google search will reveal many such organizations.
Join Coupon/Marketplace Websites
- Coupon sites
Groupon and LivingSocial are not always the best sites in terms of you being paid fairly for your services/products that you offer at a discount due to the nature of the sites, but they are a great way to get your name out there to your local community. For budget-conscious clients, offering one or two deals on these sites may make the difference between them never learning about you versus them becoming loyal customers. I highly recommend you only offer discounted products/services on these sites that provide a valuable experience for a new client, and you can immediately offer an upsell or continuing engagement option. For example, if you’re a massage therapist and offer a discounted massage package on Groupon, give each new client a loyalty card that rewards them for coming back to you (i.e., one free massage for every ten purchased, or a discounted massage for the next three booked, etc.).
- Marketplace sites
If you’re a service provider, there are also sites like Lessons.com and Thumbtack that give freelancers/small business owners a listing and the opportunity to purchase “credits” for a small fee that enable you to talk with interested potential clients who are searching for exactly what you have to offer. Although not a perfect system, I utilized these services often at the beginning of owning my dance studio in order to get new clients through the door for an introduction class or limited-series class, and then enroll them in a package or ongoing class series.
Optimize Social Media
I know, I know. I feel like a broken record, and you’ve probably heard the advice to be on social media from everyone and their second cousin. Unfortunately, it is necessary for you to have social media accounts as a business owner. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be on every single platform—in fact, that’s unsustainable without a full-time social media manager, and the key here is to be consistent on whatever platforms you do choose.
- Pick a couple of platforms that are right for you and appeal to your target customers. For example, if you make and sell cupcakes, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest are great for showcasing your products through beautiful pictures. If you have a business-to-business (B2B) service, like cleaning offices, then a platform like LinkedIn would be relevant. Consistency is key; post regularly and interact with your followers to foster a loyal community.
- To save time, consider utilizing a social media planner tool that connects with your business social accounts and allows you to draft, schedule, and then auto-post to multiple platforms at the same time. Try MeetEdgar, Buffer, or Hootsuite.
- Not a graphic designer? Me either! But I love the tool Canva to design quality graphics for my social media (pro tip: you can use Canva to design just about any kind of document, including logos!). You can get a variety of free stock photos and clipart from Pixabay. If you prefer outsourcing some of your more critical designs (like your company’s logo), services such as 99designs or Fiverr offer very affordable, professionally-created artwork.
- Utilize a combination of photos, videos, stories, lives, etc. The more, the merrier. Post about your customers and their success stories after using your product or service. Showcase the human side of your business by including pictures of your staff. Tell authentic stories through your posts to nurture a sense of community.
- Encourage your clients to take and post pictures, tagging the business and utilizing your specific hashtags to increase social proof and visibility. Let trusted staff members do “takeover days” on your social account to showcase a day in the life of a staff member. You can also post tutorials, giveaways (always require a follow, post like, share, and tagging of friends to enter), and inspirational content.
- One easier way to handle content planning is to determine what kind of content will be posted on what day. Even if it’s just an internal way to keep track, knowing that you’ll always do “Meme Mondays” and “Top Tip Tuesdays” will help guide your plans so you won’t run out of things to say.
Utilize Your Email List
- Client newsletter
Use your email list to send a monthly (or more frequent) newsletter. Don’t just focus on business updates, but also reuse some of the social content you’ve already created for those who prefer a different format to digest the information. This is a great place to highlight case studies of specific clients who have had success using your product or service. Show off your fun side by including some less serious content, too.
- Sales nurturing campaign
Put prospects and leads into a nurturing email campaign that includes short videos that are not salesy but that clearly demonstrate your passion for your product or service. Different emails can have different messages, such as an introduction of you as the business owner, an introduction of staff members, a business tour (everyone loves a behind-the-scene glimpse), current client testimonials/spotlights (get a diverse group of folks to share their stories so you get a wide variety of perspectives), and the benefits of your product or service to potential clients.
I’m a huge advocate for the idea of simply showing up and helping any chance you get. There will always be businesses and organizations that need help when putting on an event, festival, or fundraiser. When you show up and give at local community events, people notice. They will not only appreciate your time at the event, but they will more likely remember your generosity when a referral is requested for a product or service that your company provides. Pick causes and organizations that align with your personal and business goals and values, and prioritize a regular volunteer commitment.
Collaborate with other local, complementary businesses to increase the visibility and cross-clientele for both businesses.
- Host a “neighborhood” open house/festival with surrounding businesses
Schedule a fun weekend day full of activities provided by or sponsored by your local area businesses to create hype for all. Plan on offering shortened versions of your service offering (when able) and/or give product samples. Offer valuable prizes for contests, raffles, spin-the-wheel games, etc. Also offer can’t-miss deals that are only available the day of the open house—these need to be high-value offers for complimentary add-ons or steep discounts.
- Swap flyers/postcards/brochures/business cards to display at each other’s location
Think about the types of businesses that are complementary to yours but not your competitors. Establish informal referral agreements with them and swap marketing materials to display at each other’s business locations. You can take the idea one step further and coordinate an informal photoshoot highlighting your business partners by posing and posting about your partners’ places of business. (Bonus: more social content for you!)
Host Special Events
Ideally, the special events you plan and host will also include a partner or two, or have a charitable component. The idea is to introduce folks to your business who may not otherwise learn about it (especially if those folks aren’t directly interested in your product or service, but who may end up becoming great brand ambassadors and recommend your business to others). Think out-of-the-box so that your open house isn’t the same as everyone else’s. Here are a few ideas:
- Interactive Animal Playdate
Partner with a local animal rescue to host a community playdate at your business where adoptable pups or cats can socialize and hopefully find their fur-ever homes.
- Happy Hour Open House
Schedule a happy hour where folks can come to your business and receive tours/samples/demos while also networking with a little wine or beer and light snacks.
- Product Showcase and Charity Auction
Organize an event where you unveil your latest products or services to attendees. Combine this with a charity auction, where a portion of the proceeds goes to a local or global cause. This not only introduces your offerings but also showcases your company's commitment to social responsibility.
- Innovative Workshop Series
Host a series of workshops or masterclasses related to your industry. Invite experts to teach attendees valuable skills, and provide them with a hands-on experience using your products or services.
- Community Art Project
Collaborate with local artists and the community to create a large art installation or mural that incorporates your products or services. This interactive and visually appealing event will generate buzz and allow people to engage with your brand in a unique way.
- Tech Demo Carnival
If your business is tech-oriented, set up a carnival-style event where attendees can experience interactive tech demos and games. Offer prizes and giveaways, and partner with local tech enthusiasts and organizations to make it a community affair.
- Culinary Adventure
If you're in the food or beverage industry, host a culinary adventure event. Bring together local chefs, food vendors, and mixologists to create a unique tasting experience featuring your products.
- Product Design Challenge
Challenge local designers, artists, or students to create innovative designs or solutions using your products or services. Host an exhibition to display their work, and invite the community to vote on their favorite designs. Offer prizes for the winners.
- DIY Community Improvement Day
Give back to the community by organizing a day where volunteers can come together to make improvements in a local area, such as a park or school. Your business can provide tools, supplies, and refreshments to participants while showcasing your commitment to community betterment.
- Supply Drives
Organize a supply drive to donate to local nonprofit organizations. Consider the following ideas:
- Back-to-school supplies
- Hygiene kit items
- Non-perishable food
- Jackets and warm clothing
- Children’s toys
- Baby essentials
- Pet supplies
- Art supplies
- Household essentials
- Children’s books
Create a Loyalty & Referral Program
Increase loyalty by incentivizing clients to return and to refer their friends to your business.
- Offer a loyalty program to encourage clients to return. This can be as simple as a punch card (receive one punch per visit and receive a free item or service after the 10th) or as complex as clients accumulating points per purchase that add up over time to receive discounts, merch, or other freebies.
- Offer a referral program to encourage clients to recommend your business to others. You can offer “bring a friend” days where each person receives a special discount on their purchase, or hand out referral cards where current clients can fill in their name and give the cards out to their friends, who can them redeem them for a discounted product or service on their first visit. Collect the cards and offer a special deal or freebie to your referees after a certain number of successful referrals.
Perform a Website Audit
While an in-depth how-to guide is out of the scope of this article, I’ll provide some high-level checklist items to ensure you are marketing your business effectively via your website.
- UX (User Experience)
User Experience (or UX) is the single most vital website element. I cannot possibly overemphasize how important it is to provide your website visitors with a seamless and coherent experience. Your site needs to:
- Be easy to navigate (clear and logical menu and submenu options)
- Be easy to get the information people need (see above and don’t be a mystery to your potential clients; consider including a search bar)
- Allow easy ways to contact you (provide a variety of options: website form, email address, phone number, and physical address as applicable)
- Be accessible (font, colors, etc. need to assist those who may have differing abilities while using your website)
- Be simple (you don’t need all possible information on your site; in fact, that can frighten people away—provide just enough to get the critical messages across)
- Keyword research
It’s important to do keyword research to ensure that your website’s content speaks directly to the people who are looking for your product or service. By doing keyword research to discover exactly how people are asking search engines to find these solutions, you ensure your content is relevant to your ideal client. Use resources such as the following, and then edit your page content to include relevant keywords (while ensuring that you aren’t “keyword-stuffing,” which search engines penalize—simply use the keywords appropriately throughout your content when it makes sense and where they fit best):
- Google Trends
- Ahrefs Webmaster Tools
Thankfully, you don’t have to be an SEO expert to do some basic tweaks on your website to help optimize it for search engines. You want to do this to increase your website’s discoverability via search queries, and hopefully turn those interested clients into lifetime brand advocates. Here are some quick things to do:
- Include well-researched and well-utilized keywords in your page content (see above for how to conduct that research)
- Properly utilize tags (your title tag should contain correct keywords prioritized with an H1 header; after that, use H2 or lower tags for subtitles/headers and “paragraph” for the body of your content)
- Fill in all metadata/schema fields (page description, alt image text, etc.)
- Include external links to trusted resources outside of your business when appropriate (always choose the option to “open link in a new tab” when incorporating links so that people do not leave your site when clicking on the link)
- Write engaging, helpful content (the number of words on each page should ideally be between 600-700, but never fewer than 300)
Finally, online advertising is relatively inexpensive and is a great way to introduce your company to people who are eagerly searching for your type of product or service. Try YouTube ads as your first exploration. For me, they easily provided the highest return on investment. I saw a substantial increase in website traffic and inquiries into my programs when I ran those ads.
Additionally, dabble with Google Ads, alongside social media advertising such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc. Again, focus only on the platforms that your ideal client is likely going to be on. Whatever platforms you choose, ensure that your images and video are instantly compelling—you want to draw in potential clients immediately so they stop scrolling to learn more.
You see? The road to marketing success can be paved with creativity, ingenuity, and a shoestring budget. We’ve explored a variety of innovative strategies that prove you don't need a massive marketing budget to make a significant impact on your business’ growth. From leveraging the power of collaboration, social media, and website optimization to harnessing the potential of local partnerships and guerrilla marketing, these budget-friendly approaches can help your business thrive in a competitive landscape.
Remember that the key to success lies in understanding your target audience, staying adaptable, and continually refining your strategies. By thinking outside the box, embracing the power of storytelling, and nurturing authentic connections with your audience, you can make every dollar count.
So, whether you’re a scrappy startup or a seasoned small business owner, take these creative marketing techniques to heart. With determination, creativity, and a modest budget, you can effectively promote your business, establish a strong brand presence, and ultimately drive growth without breaking the bank. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, unleash your creativity, and embark on a marketing journey that proves you don't need a fortune to make a lasting impact in the business world.