Whether you are just starting your business or your marketing budget is tight, there are ways to market your small business effectively with little to no money. The key is to make sure those efforts are being seen by your target market—those people most likely to buy from you. For most local businesses, this means people in your geographic area.
1. Neighborhood Flyers
No one likes to have an ad stuck under the wiper of their car. Worse, people tend to crumple those flyers up and toss them on the ground and your company could get fined for littering. Ouch. A more effective way is to print up flyers and put them on the doors of houses. If you can’t afford to print up special “door hanger” flyers, you can use a rubber band to attach them to doorknobs.
I don’t advise hiring neighborhood kids or your teenager to put the flyers out. Too often the fliers end up in dumpsters. There are companies who do this, but you can also sometimes hire local Boy Scouts or other organizations to do this at a very fair rate and the money goes to a good cause.
In addition to carrying business cards with you, always have marketing flyers. Keep them in a box in your vehicle so they don’t get faded or dinged. If you find you have extra time and you’re in a neighborhood that fits your target market, hit a few doors.
2. Shared Marketing Newsletter
This requires some effort on your part, but as the saying goes, you either spend your money or you spend your time.
You can create and distribute a small newsletter—usually an 8-1/2 x 11 two-sided page. If you can’t afford to print and mail the newsletters, find three or four other businesses that will chip in on the costs and have those fees cover your share. After all, you’re doing the work. As a side note, you can also do this as a newspaper insertion. And if your co-advertisers have brick and mortar stores or meet with clients, make sure you all have extras on hand to distribute.
The newsletter can include local attractions, a recipe, tips from your fellow advertisers, and always include a short (clean!) joke or human interest story. Each advertiser can have a business card size ad on the back of the flyer under a section labeled “Our Sponsors” or “Brought to You By.”
If you’re ambitious, you can put together a four page newsletter (use an 11 x 17 sheet of paper folded in half) and each advertiser can sponsor a page or at least have a larger ad. Color printing is expensive, but you can use a light (pastel) color paper to create a more attractive marketing piece. If you’re using a company like Staples or Kinkos to print your newsletter, it is often less expensive to buy the paper in the store and bring it to the copy center to use.
A company I recommend in my book, Marketing in 4 Hours a Week, is PrintingforLess.com, which can create a full color, 8-1/2 x 11” newsletter from your files, print and mail 500 copies for around $650 (at the time of this writing). Five hundred copies of an 11 x 17” newsletter (four pages) runs just under $900. If other business owners are covering your costs, this is a great option.
3. Write a local column
While the bigger daily papers have people on staff, the smaller local weeklies are almost always looking for articles to help fill their paper. Some of these are “pay to play”—they want you to buy a certain amount of advertising before they’ll “give” you a regular column. Depending on the price, it may be worth it. But check other local papers first.
Having a column in the paper presents you as an expert as well as puts you in front of an audience every week or month. Your column should provide useful information for people that showcases your knowledge. Avoid creating column length ads for your business. No one will read it and the paper won’t appreciate it. But do talk about the problems that you have solved for your clients (as anonymous case studies, of course) as well as give people tips and strategies to help themselves.
You don’t need to be a particularly talented writer to contribute to your local paper, but you should be well organized and a clear communicator. You also want someone other than the editor you submit your work to go through each column, looking for any spelling or grammar mistakes or pointing out anything that isn’t clear before you send it in. The good news? The more you write, the better you get.
4. Guest on local talk radio
Talk radio hosts need to fill time while keeping their shows entertaining and useful for their audiences. Go to the websites for your local radio stations (these are almost always AM stations) and look at their roster of shows. See if there are any locally-produced shows that would be a good fit for your business—that is, their listeners match up to or at least overlap with your target customer. Almost all radio stations now livestream their programming on the internet, so don’t let the AM status of a station deter you.
You’ll see shows like “Ask the Doctor” or “Ask an Attorney.” There are financial and wellness shows, real estate shows, specialty interest shows. Many are hosted by local business people. For example, a real estate broker might host a weekly show on the local real estate market. If you’re a mortgage broker, title agent, home inspector, service provider like a plumber or roofer, you might be a good fit to guest on that show. Your target customer overlaps with the host, but doesn’t infringe on their business.
Do prepare a “media kit” that is available on your website or that you can send to the show producer or host. Your media kit should include a short bio including professional credentials, introduction, a head shot, an introduction they can use (or not) on the show, and talking points or a set of questions they can ask. The easier you make it for the host, the more professional you appear and the better your chances of getting booked. If you’ve been on radio or TV before and you have audio or video clips, put those on your webpage, also. Alternatively, you could list shows that you’ve been on. This shows you have experience and are less likely to “freeze up” once you’re on the air.
While you’re researching local radio shows, you might take the time to research any podcasters that have a more local audience. Most podcasters reach for national or international audiences, but some like to stay local. Look through sites like iTunes/Apple podcasts or Libsyn.com.
5. Referral Program
In the spirit of saving the best for last, referral programs are one of the best, no-upfront-money-needed ways to market a small business.
First determine what you can afford to give as a reward for someone referring a client to you. While some people will send you referrals with or without a reward, you will receive a lot more if you incentivize your current clients and your network.
I worked with a dentist who offered a 10% discount on services for each referral he received and he allowed people to “stack” their discounts. If they referred 10 clients, they could get a free visit—even for expensive work like a crown. Now, they may have had to pay the lab fees, but the dentist’s work was free. That is a substantial reward. Not everyone can afford to do that. You may offer a 50% discount on someone’s next visit or a $25 gift certificate or any number of things. Do what you can afford but make sure it is worth people’s time.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past twenty or thirty years, you are already familiar with rewards cards. They can be as simple as a card printed on business stock paper that you mark in some unique way with each purchase. After people hit a certain number of visits, they get a specific reward, whether it’s a free pizza or a pair of movie tickets or a gift certificate.
Once you’ve determined how you will reward your referrers and have any materials you need in place, let people know about it. If you have a brick and mortar store, put up a sign asking if people are aware of your referral program. Put a flyer about it in every bag. If you send out a newsletter, publicly thank the people who have sent you a referral (if you are not violating any privacy laws such as HIPPA). Put a blurb on the home page of your website that explains how the program works.
Many businesses give referral fees, but fail to mention their program to their current clients on a regular basis. Make sure your clients know about the program and remember to thank them personally in addition to giving them whatever reward you have set up.
BONUS: 6. Write a Book
Nothing positions you as an expert and sets you apart and ABOVE your competition, like a book. It could be a short, downloadable eBook from your website, it could be your signature book on how you do business and why. It could be a simple how-to choose the best [whatever field you’re in] and why these things are important. With print on demand technology, it is relatively simple to print up copies of a book and have them available as a marketing tool. Most books cost less than $3 per copy to print and you can order as few as one or two or thousands to hand out to viable prospects.
If you want to keep it no cost, then go with a downloadable eBook or put your book up for sale on Amazon/Kindle or other online book platform. (If you’re only going to use one platform, use Amazon.) Just being able to tell people you have written a book will put you ahead of your competition, even if you never sell a copy.
When your marketing budget is limited, you need to be creative. These are just five ways of marketing a small business with no money. Your particular business may lend itself to marketing strategies that other businesses can’t use. Think about what makes your business unique and see if you can capitalize on that.
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