P.T. Barnum once quipped, “Without promotion, something terrible happens: Nothing.”
Small businesses, including both storefronts and online businesses, understand how important it is to squeeze the maximum results out of every penny they spend on marketing. Luckily, there are several effective ways to market your business without spending a lot of money. Here are five of my favorites:
- Embrace visual social media platforms.
You already know that social media can do a lot for your business. But it’s not just about what you have to say—it’s about how you say it, and more specifically, how you show it.
During a recent Q&A, entrepreneur and Shark Tank judge Barbara Corcoran was asked about inexpensive ways to promote a business. “Instagram and Pinterest are free, and they’re great forums to reach a specialized audience,” Corcoran said. “You can highlight your beautiful products and drum up interest with great photography. One of my most successful Shark Tank companies, Grace & Lace, makes sexy knitware that young women adore and the majority of their sales are online. This year they’ll hit $10 million in sales and they’ve only been in business for three years. Take a look at their social media and mimic what they do.”
This is good advice for those who might not have a lot of cash, but are willing to spend some time working on their social media channels. But be aware: It’s not as simple as putting up a Facebook or Instagram page. You’ll need to invest time and energy if you want to maximize the value of your social media presence. Also remember that while social media can be a good tool for promoting your business, you could turn off your potential customers if that’s all you do. Make sure the content you share is a mix of useful information along with your marketing messages.
- Give people a reason to share their email address.
Email marketing can be a very inexpensive and effective way to reach potential customers. Because of this, use every opportunity you can to encourage people to share their email addresses with you. Offer them a free subscription to your eNewsletter or a downloadable PDF filled with tips and advice. Several years ago I helped a local nursery leverage many years of helpful gardening advice into a weekly blog post on growing healthy tomatoes, diagnosing different lawn ailments, and raising award-winning roses. Sharing that information fostered loyal customers and introduced new ones to their nursery.
What’s more, turning blog posts into a regular eNewsletter gives you an opportunity to tell your customers about seasonal offers, share your expertise, and give them reasons to visit your small business rather than shopping someplace else. To make this work, you’ll need to ask everyone who does business with you to share their email addresses.
- Traditional advertising methods don’t have to be prohibitively expensive.
I’ve seen inexpensive postcards have a big impact on sales for small merchants. If you’re willing to produce the cards yourself, along with addressing them and preparing them for mailing, a regular postcard with special offers can impact sales almost immediately. Several years ago, my partners and I used this approach to send an offer to our regular customers every Monday night. Like clockwork, the phones would start ringing on Wednesday morning.
We printed our postcards in black and white on colored card stock on our office inkjet printer and affixed the labels and postage ourselves before I ran the box of cards to the post office on the way home. We were only mailing a few hundred postcards tops, but it was so effective that we had some customers complain that they hadn’t received our postcard that week!
- Ask your current customers to refer a friend.
Over the years I’ve found that most people genuinely want to help others. For instance, I’m not shy about telling people about my dry cleaner. I’ve been a loyal customer for years, they do a great job, and they aren’t very expensive. The same is true for my favorite Mexican restaurant.
Your best customers won’t be shy—especially if you ask them! My wife has a realtor friend that she frequently recommends. To thank her, the realtor will often send restaurant gift certificates in the mail. My wife isn’t recommending the realtor to her friends because of the gift, but she knows he appreciates the confidence she has in him.
I’m sure you have many loyal customers who would be willing to do the same for your small business. You might only need to ask to give them a reason to do it.
- Give your customers a reason to visit you again.
The place I get my hair cut uses a punch card—after so many visits, I get a free haircut. A few of the small restaurants I frequent use the same tactic. A punch card is a great way to encourage current customers to return more frequently.
That said, the best way to build customer loyalty and keep them coming back for more is to make it feel random—or surprise and delight them. An example of this: A favorite local restaurant occasionally surprises my wife and me by saying, “You’re a great customer. This one’s on us.”
I’m sure they’re using a computer to keep track of how many times we visit to calculate when to offer me the free dinner, but because they aren’t making me keep track with a punch card, it feels random and like they’re genuinely rewarding me for being a good customer.
These are just five relatively inexpensive ways to powerfully promote your business. There are plenty more. Look for ways successful businesses outside of your industry market their companies to see if these ideas could work for you. As a business owner, I’ve also paid attention to the types of marketing that moved me to do something new or visit a business I’d never been to before. Sometimes it’s inspired me to riff on their marketing ideas to try something new in my own business.
What are some inexpensive marketing tactics you’ve tried? Have they worked? Share in the comments below!
Ty Kiisel is a contributing author focusing on small business financing at OnDeck, a technology company solving small business’s biggest challenge: access to capital. With over 25 years of experience in the trenches of small business, Ty shares personal experiences and valuable tips to help small business owners become more financially responsible. OnDeck can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.