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A limited budget can seem like the end of the world when it comes to marketing your small business, but you’re not alone. Plenty of other entrepreneurs have come before and forged innovative new methods to drum up customers without breaking the bank.
The truth is, a tiny budget — and the restraints it imposes — can actually be a blessing in disguise. They force you to get creative and to optimize for the best possible performance within those constraints. That means you’ll be in even better shape when the cash starts really flowing, and you’ll be able to scale your marketing without breaking a sweat.
While there are tons of low-budget marketing options for cash-strapped businesses, we’re narrowing in on 6 of our favorites. We’ll break down the why and how, and show you what other people have done with each tactic.
Ready? Let’s get started.
In today’s world, consumers have a million choices when it comes to spending their money, and those choices have pasted their logo and advertising just about everywhere. How do people actually decide where to spend their hard-earned dollars?
We don’t have a lot of collective trust in advertising and brand-controlled communication, so we turn to the people we do trust: actual friends and family. Take it from Zuck (Mark Zuckerberg):
People influence people. Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend. A trusted referral is the holy grail of advertising.
Referrals are one of the most powerful marketing tools today. In fact, a 2014 study found that 85% of small businesses get a majority of their new customers from word of mouth referrals. And the power of referrals is consistent, too — a similar study back in 2005 saw 83% of SMBs report word of mouth as a top contributor.
A trusted referral (at least from a non-celebrity) can’t be bought in the same way that a TV spot or famous brand ambassador can be. Positive referrals have to be earned by providing high-quality, reliable products with an unmatched level of customer service — you have to give people a truly remarkable experience.
Consumers are in-tune with that. They know referrals from friends and family are more trustworthy than the ads they see on TV and pasted in subway cars. Because of that, they give referrals a lot more consideration. That’s why, to a business owner, a referral is much more valuable than a paid advertisement — in layman’s terms, it’s a lot more likely to result in additional sales.
The beauty of a referral engine is that once you set it up, there’s not a lot of TLC required to keep it running smoothly.
Step 1. The first step is to decide how you’ll incentivize existing customers to recommend you to their friends. The most common way to do that is to provide a discount when someone they refer makes a purchase with you. Alex Furmansky of Budsies advocates taking it a step further and offering a two-sided incentive, “I think it’s extremely important to have a two-sided referral program — the existing customer should get a reward, but their friend should get one as well.”
Step 2. Once you know how you’ll entice referrals, set up a system that streamlines the process and makes the whole referral shebang miraculously easy for the existing customer, the newbie, and you. Set up a triggered email to go out a certain amount of time after someone makes a purchase, to let them know about your referral program.
Choose a system to automate the back-end of your program, too. Solutions like Referral Rock and Influitive make it easy to manage discounts and promos for referrers and referees.
Step 3. Now that your system is ready to go, take a moment to tap into customers who are already brand advocates. Anyone who’s left a positive review about your company or said something nice about you on social media is most likely to participate in your referral program. They gave your business big ups for free, so they’ll be thrilled to give even bigger ups for a little discount.
Emma Siemasko, freelance writer and founder of Stories By Emma, says:
After I wrap up work with a client, I ask them if they’d be willing […] to share their positive feelings about the work I’ve done. If I want to ramp up referral generation, I can simply reach out to those who’ve left me a positive review in the past, and ask them to keep me in mind if they know anyone who’s looking for the work I provide.
When it comes to more elaborate marketing tactics, like hosting an event, partnering up with another business can make the process infinitely easier. Working with a partner means you both get all the benefits of a marketing initiative, and you get to split the work and the cost.
A truly beneficial partnership is driven by finding a business whose audience is similar to yours, or a new market you’re trying to reach. That’s one of the biggest perks, and a motivating factor for why businesses utilize partnership marketing — you can broaden the audience your marketing reaches.
Partnerships work as a marketing tactic for two reasons:
While the first benefit may be enough to send you running to find a partner business, it’s the second point that really drives a successful partnership. To fully reap the awesome benefits of working with another business, your audiences simply must be aligned and aligned well.
You can aim your business communication at any audience you choose, but working with someone who already has the ear of your target prospects gives you an in. Since customers already trust your partner business, they’ll be more open to hearing what you have to say. And it’s a versatile tactic — partnerships can become anything from hosting a joint event to cross-selling or collaborating on new products.
Step 1. The first step is to compile a list of potential partners based on their audiences, but it really starts with defining your own audience (or the new segment you’re trying to reach). Put key demographics, characteristics, lifestyles, likes/dislikes, etc. into a holistic customer persona (or a few). Once you’ve defined your targets, take a look at businesses in your niche, your neighborhood — anyone whose offering compliments your own.
Step 2. Next, practice putting your value into words. A partnership has to be mutually beneficial. Otherwise, why should the other guy bother? You’ll need to be able to explain what value a partnership with you has to offer — what are you bringing to the table? Why can’t they find that with any other business? Keep in mind aspects of your business like unique segments within your audience, brand recognition in the industry, and expertise.
Step 3. The last step is to pitch the partner and develop a plan. When pitching a partnership, focus on how working together will drive value for both of you. It’s best to have a few basic ideas around what you’d like to come out of the deal. If the other business agrees to a partnership, the two of you will work together to decide how to leverage it. Hosting an event, creating a joint product… the sky’s the limit.
Environmental nonprofit WashedAshore.org partnered with several local businesses to help them incentivize volunteers. Marketing Director, Frank Rocco, explains:
To get more volunteers we got almost every other small business in town to offer a discount to our volunteers as part of our “Punch Card” program. For every hour you volunteer, you get a punch. Get the PunchCard filled and you get discounts at nearby merchants. This brings us more volunteers and brings the local merchants more customers.
In today’s business landscape, email is one of the best low-budget marketing tools we have available. It’s not only super affordable — email is also crazy effective at generating revenue… when done right. That’s why so many businesses, large and small, make email marketing a substantial part of their digital strategy.
With low financial commitment required and the ability to automate almost the entire process, email is a dream come true for small, cash and time-strapped businesses. The ease of measuring and optimizing your email strategy make it a must-try tactic.
A recent study reported that 70% of consumers open emails from their favorite brands, and research shows 44% of them will go on to make a purchase. Those are pretty big numbers in our over-advertised world.
Email marketing works off of warm leads — if they’re receiving marketing emails, someone has either opted in or made a purchase. Those are the people who are most likely to buy from you in the future. Any investment you make in email has the power to bring back huge returns, and it’s incredibly easy and cost-effective to test, measure, and improve your strategy and execution, optimizing the investment even more.
It’s one of the more versatile marketing tactics — you can send monthly newsletters, intelligent product recommendations, reengagement notes… anything.
Marketing with email can also be pretty hands-off. Once you’ve set up triggered emails, a lot of the work is automated. And today’s advanced tools have made high-quality, effective emails easier than ever for just about anyone to do.
Step 1. The first step to creating an email strategy is deciding what kind of emails to send. What’s your primary goal for an email campaign? To keep customers coming back? To drive incremental revenue? To stay top of mind? Determining goals for the campaign will lead you to the types of emails you should be sending. For example, if you want to stay top of mind, a newsletter may be the best option. To drive incremental value, you’ll look at product recommendation emails.
Step 2. Next, you’ll design, test, and optimize your emails. Everything from send time, subject, design, and copy can be tweaked to maximize open and conversion rates. When it comes to design, simplicity is always best and mobile optimization is a must. You can also test things like personalization in an effort to create the most effective overall campaign.
Step 3. The last step is to automate everything. You’ll designate when each type of email should send — like product recommendations whenever someone makes a purchase or re-engagement emails after 30 days without interacting with the brand. Automation is what allows email marketing to be so hands-off. Now that you’ve put in the work of creating the strategy on the front-end, you can sit back and watch emails blast out whenever they need to.
Ben Freedland of ZINK turned to email to help keep the brand top of mind for customers.
I found that an email newsletter is the best way for me to reach my clients because it keeps ZINK constantly and consistently on their minds. The results have been wonderful and my clients often forward the newsletter onto their friends. It’s been a tremendous help with the branding of ZINK and getting people to know more about what we design, how it’s made, and where the brand is headed.
One of the biggest advantages of competing for business awards is that you often have the opportunity to pitch your business in front of all kinds of journalists and key industry peeps. That means you can tap into one of the most powerful low-budget tools — buzz.
Buzz and exposure can open all kinds of doors for your business, from networking and mentorship to investment and sales. And the best part? You don’t even have to win. Simply getting out and pitching your business means you’ll be exposed to resources you otherwise wouldn’t be.
You can also find a business competition for almost any stage your business can be in. Whether you’re just putting your idea into words or putting the final touches on a quality product, there’s a competition out there for you.
Startup competitions are the perfect culmination of buzz-worthy competition and creative collaboration opportunities. Ever since the first unicorn went public, reporters have been on the hunt for the next one — so prominent events will have plenty of journalists and bloggers prowling the grounds in search of a good story, and you can be the one who gives it to them.
There are few other opportunities that can rival a startup competition when it comes to stirring up conversations and media attention. Journalists are looking for unique, interesting businesses to write about — and they’re not picky about that business actually winning.
And most competitions are free to enter, which means all of that buzz and PR comes at a shockingly small cost to you.
Step 1. The first step is to find a relevant competition to participate in. Check out our Startup Competition Guide and peruse Google for events in your industry or neighborhood. The best competition for you will be tailored to attract peers from your audience, and local options will give you access to a nearby audience. While you don’t have to win the competition in order to reap the benefits, you still want to choose an event that’s related to your business in one way or another.
Step 2. Now it’s time to prepare your submission. Different competitions will have varying requirements ranging from a business plan to a pitch, description of your business model, or financials. Once you’ve prepare documents to submit (especially persuasive ones like a pitch or business plan), get as many eyes on them as you can. Ask friends and colleagues to take a look and use their feedback to craft the best pitch or business plan possible.
Step 3. Once you’ve gotten to the competition, network your butt off. Meet and make as many connections as possible, and take the opportunity to talk up your business any time you can. Be open and willing to give interviews or quotes to media personnel. If you manage to win, cash in on all the extra publicity.
Earl Parson entered his architecture startup, Clever Moderns, into a business plan competition. He didn’t win the whole thing, but the business still saw some awesome benefits.
I think the biggest benefit was the positive feedback on my pitch that I received from the judges, and the relationships I was able to develop from those introductions. In addition, participating and becoming a finalist brought good exposure in the architecture & design podcast space.
One of the most overlooked forms of marketing is your business card. It’s a more traditional method, which means it can get lost in the onslaught of new, digital tactics — but exchanging business cards has stood the test of time.
Most of the time, we shake hands, exchange bland, paper business cards, and go on our way. But truly unique and memorable business cards can shake up that stale routine — they can be a conversation starter, a differentiator, and a way to stick in someone’s mind, long after the conversation has ended.
It’s easy to make a great connection only to get home and realize you’ve forgotten his name. Business cards work because they’re a ridiculously quick and easy way to exchange information and cement the beginning of a relationship. The best marketing is radically easy for both you and the customer — it should feel as natural as shaking hands when you part.
They’ve been around forever, but that doesn’t mean today’s business cards haven’t evolved. Modern business cards are the perfect way to showcase your individuality and creativity, and there’s no limit to what you can do with them. The best stand out and are completely unique, making them (and the business wielding them) really memorable.
You probably won’t win a contract because of a remarkable business card, but they can help you differentiate yourself from all the white noise out there.
Step 1. The first step is to decide which tool you’ll use to design your cards. Of course, you can always hire a graphic designer to do the work, but with options like VistaPrint, Moo, and JukeBox Print, it’s definitely doable to create an awesome design by yourself. Check out each site and browse some of the pre-made templates they offer — once you find something that WOWs you, make sure the price is right and move ahead.
Step 2. Now it’s time to actually design them. You’ll want to stay within the basic principles of good design, like keeping it simple and making sure text is super easy to read. Outside of that, go nuts. Try to come up with the wildest looking business card you’ve ever seen, and don’t be afraid to ask for critiques. Show your design to friends and family — if they’ve seen something similar, keep working. If it blows their minds, you’re done!
Step 3. The last step? Hand ‘em out like candy. Now that you have remarkable, memorable cards to represent you and your business, get as many eyeballs on them as you can. The more impressions, the more potential customers you’ve reached.
Brent Hartmann and his company, Bitcookie, took a literal route with their creative business cards:
Our cards are custom die-cut cookies missing a little bite, to match our branding and business name, Bitcookie … We share them with others whenever people ask what we do for a living, and their faces will often light up at the stubby design. Some people have passed them around like they’re stickers and it’s actually expanded our brand awareness across the country, which we never expected.
According to Google, guerrilla marketing refers to “innovative, unconventional, and low-cost marketing techniques aimed at obtaining maximum exposure for a product.” That’s pretty broad, but guerrilla tactics can really encompass anything you want. The idea is to look outside the box and get scrappy.
Guerrilla marketing is the perfect example of how low budgets and other restraints can lead to some incredible ingenuity.
At Grasshopper, we tried our hand at some guerrilla marketing, too, with our chocolate-covered grasshopper mailing. When our company rebranded from GotVMail back in 2009, we sent a packet of chocolate-covered grasshoppers to 5,000 key influencers. It was a hugely successful campaign. People loved the concept — we were featured on more than 10 blogs and even got coverage on a few TV news segments.
The core of guerrilla marketing is unexpectedness. You’re reaching an audience where they don’t expect you or in a way that’s unanticipated. When people know someone is going to sell to them, a filter goes up. But when you add an element of surprise, it’s easier to pique curiosity and get them interested and listening what you have to say.
Guerrilla tactics draw heavily upon creativity and innovative tactics to compensate for a smaller budget. When your main focus is to be different and unexpected, your marketing becomes buzzworthy — and buzz can take a small town marketing stunt clear across the globe. For lack of a more precise term, guerrilla marketing has viral potential, and that’s why it’s a phenomenal strategy if you’re willing to invest in the ideation.
Step 1. To get started, you’ll need to brainstorm… a lot. You want to get to the most unique ideas you can, so there is an upfront investment in time and energy. Think about things like:
Come up with as many ideas as you can muster, then weed out the sub-par ones until you’re left with the best of the best.
Step 2. Now that you’ve chosen a stunt, it’s time to execute it. If you’re looking at a big event, be sure to plan well ahead. That last thing you need is to miss the actual event (and crowds) because of a hiccup. One word of caution here: when it comes to prominent — especially sporting — events, things can get dicey if the group responsible thinks you’re trying to nose in on sponsorship without paying up.
Step 3. Once you’ve executed a neat stunt, it’s time to tap into the buzziness of guerrilla marketing. Talk up your tactics to anyone who will listen. If you’ve done something truly different, people will want to know about it. Chat with peers at industry events, online message boards, and make yourself available as a source on HARO.
Shark Tank alum and founder of the dating app Cheek’d, Lori Cheek tells us:
I’m constantly plastering Cheek’d cards to the inside of the subway cars, movie ads on the platforms, the back of bathroom stalls and I even tag noticeable existing street art. I’ll leave the cards in the sugar stacks at Starbucks, drop them into people’s shopping bags, pockets, etc. I’ve had people send me messages that say things like, “I found your card riding uptown on the 9 train,” or “I don’t know how this card ended up in my pocket, but I’m intrigued.”
There you have it.
Effective and innovative marketing tactics don’t have to break the bank — there are plenty of options out there for low-budget marketing. So what will you choose?