I learned how to do small business marketing on a shoestring budget during the launch and growth phases of my first successful business. I was in my early twenties at the time, and bootstrapped my small biz back before bootstrapping was cool. It was literally a hundred dollar startup, since I had virtually no overhead and probably invested less than that into advertising my services when I launched.
Fast-forward to eighteen months later, and I was running a thriving small business in my own full-time location, serving a growing clientele in a highly desirable area. Granted, some of that growth was organic and based on positive word-of-mouth, but without implementing solid low-cost marketing strategies, my business would have never left the ground.
Even so, I think there’s a stigma that goes along with marketing a small business on a budget; that being the mistaken assumption that unless you spend a lot, your business image will suffer. Hogwash. Affordable small business marketing needn’t be bad marketing, especially in our present time when you can take full advantage of social media and other online marketing channels.
How to Do Low-Cost Small Business Marketing Right
Making your business marketing look good when you’re on a budget relies first on a judicious allocation of whatever scant marketing budget you may have. Of course, when you’re first starting out your chief aim is to generate revenue by getting new customers. No customers, no business.
And when you’re attracting new customers, image is everything. For this reason I strongly recommend you spend the bulk of your marketing budget on outsourcing anything that is public-facing to a professional – especially when it comes to designing the graphics for your website and other online marketing channels.
Both new and established small business owners often mess this up, and there’s really no excuse for it. Sure, good graphic designers and web designers don’t come cheap, but you really don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to have a professional image for your business. Here are my suggestions for getting the most from the money you spend on graphic design when you’re just getting started:
- First, get a professionally designed logo. I realize that your logo isn’t critical to your marketing message as a small business, because you’re not pursuing a brand marketing strategy (too costly). But despite that, you can get a lot of graphic design mileage out of a professionally designed logo, thus saving you a lot of money in the short-term. It can be used for your letterhead, in the header artwork on your website, on your packaging, and as part of the call to action in your ads. I suggest that you get a text-based logo (easier to use in ads and websites) and that you get two versions done – one with your contact information (physical or web address and phone) and one without. Trust me, this will save you time and money in having a graphic artist do this for you over and over later on. Also, ask for your logo to be rendered in multiple file formats (.psd, .eps, .jpg, and so on) and sizes, and in both high-res and low-res (web) and color/black and white versions.
- Next, spend money on getting a professionally designed website. A lot of small business owners simply don’t take their online image seriously. This is often a critical mistake. But, unless you have a background in marketing and graphic design, do not build your own website. DIY websites are invariably ugly websites, and this is the unforgivable sin in today’s marketing environment. Don’t do it. Instead, hire a professional to ensure your websites are professional-looking, unambiguous as to their purpose and intent, and easy to navigate.
- Finally, make sure everything matches. From your business cards to your website header to your signage on your front door, make sure everything matches and follows the same design cues and color schemes. Again, this is where spending money on a nice logo can go a long way toward improving your professional image. You paid good money to have that logo designed, so for goodness sake use it everywhere and on every bit of marketing collateral that goes out your door.
Sweat Equity Marketing = Marketing Done With Elbow Grease
Now, assuming that you’ve spent a great deal of your initial marketing budget on polishing your professional image, it’s time to introduce you to Massie’s Universal Marketing Cost Axiom:
Massie’s Universal Marketing Cost Axiom
Marketing that is low-cost is typically high-effort, and marketing that is high-cost is typically low-effort.
In other words, low-cost marketing typically requires a greater expenditure of time and effort to implement. On the other hand, more costly marketing is usually more or less hands off.
Take almost any low-cost online marketing method, for example. Blogging, SEO, social media marketing – they all can be done cheaply (even completely free) in exchange for a fair amount of sweat equity. Contrast this with pay-per-click campaigns (in extremely competitive markets), television, and radio; those marketing channels are costly, but they take little time and effort to implement.
What that means to you as a lean start-up is that you are likely going to invest a great deal more time than money into what I call Sweat Equity Marketing.
Investing Your Time Into Sweat Equity Marketing
In the early stages of your business when you’re cash-poor but time-rich, you’ll be focusing on Sweat Equity Marketing methods. These are marketing methods that are cheap but fairly time-intensive:
Examples of Sweat Equity Marketing:
- Posting new content to your business blog weekly (short posts 3x per week, minimum) -
- Spending time building your platform (including leveraging your blog and social media outposts) -
- Personally doing local direct marketing (whether B2B or B2C) -
- Spending a great deal of time driving traffic to your site (via SEO, social media, and article marketing) -
- Working hard on building and leveraging your optin email list (and sending a regular newsletter) -
- And personally following up with new clients (cultivating repeat business) -
Leveraging marketing methods such as these will be your bread and butter, so you’d best be ready to roll your sleeves up if you want to grow your business. And as your business grows and your success expands, of course you’ll find you have less and less time to spend on these tasks. This is a good problem to have.
For this reason, at some point you’ll need to determine which of your marketing tasks are critical tasks – meaning the 20% that generates 80% of your new business. Those are the tasks you’ll likely decide to keep on your plate, supervising them closely even if they are delegated to a highly capable employee or expert third-party service provider.
Other Tips for Marketing Your Small Business on a Budget
- Learn to write sales copy. Copywriters – good copywriters – are very expensive to hire, and even run-of-the-mill freelance copywriters typically charge $50 or more an hour. The good news is that the basic mechanics of writing decent sales copy are pretty simple and easy to master. Write conversationally. Focus on benefits (for the consumer). Use headings, sub-heads, and bullet points to break up the copy. Write in short sentences using simple language. Make sure you include a call-to-action. Etcetera. Buy or borrow a few books on copywriting, and study them until you understand the basic principles. Then use those principles in everything you write for your business, including your ads, articles, and blog posts.
- Start collecting customer data now! This not only includes building an email list (collecting contact data); it also means collecting data on which ads and marketing campaigns are generating the bulk of your customers. And, it especially includes profiling your customers so you can know who your best customers are and where they are coming from. This data will be essential to targeting your marketing campaigns to those markets and customers that yield the highest return on investment for your marketing dollars.
- Diversify your marketing. Don’t put all your eggs into one marketing basket, because it’s a risky way to do business. I’ve seen many small business owners who had all their marketing time, effort, and money invested in a single marketing channel. What do you think will happen to that business if that marketing channel goes away? In today’s business environment technology moves and evolves so fast that you can’t afford to rely on just a single marketing channel. So, utilize as many marketing channels as you can manage effectively, and stay on top of trends so you can spot new marketing opportunities as they appear.
I welcome your feedback. If you have a question about today’s article or something to add to what I’ve said here about small business marketing on a shoestring budget, please post it in the comments below.