A few weeks ago, I was attending one of those wonderful small-town community festivals that pop up all over the United States during the summer months.
While we were there, we had a minor medical emergency of sorts - nothing too serious, but something that required a stop at a pharmacy. Since we were unfamiliar with the town, we asked around. "Where's a good local pharmacy?"
The first person we asked pointed us toward the local Wal-Mart, but at the end of that conversation, a nice lady walked up to us and said, "I work at a pharmacy on Water Street. Here's a card for it ... here's the hours and the phone number. If you give them this card there, they'll give you 10% off whatever you buy!"
I thanked the lady and then asked her about why she handed out the cards like this.
She said, "Each time a new customer comes in the door with that card, I get a point. At the end of the year, the employee with the most points gets $500." I flipped the card over and saw that it featured her signature. "All you have to do is sign the back of the card yourself, just to make sure I'm not giving the cards to the same people over and over."
I was impressed - and, not surprisingly, we immediately decided to use this pharmacy. And it was a good experience - not only did I pick up the medical product we needed, I also picked up a beverage and a piece of candy for my son and for my daughter. When I handed the card over, they knocked ten percent off the purchase (and gave me a card without a signature on the back).
This business tactic is a brilliant one - it turns the employees of the business into public advocates for the business while also providing a great hook for getting people in the door in the form of a 10% discount. Without that program, I would have never even heard of that pharmacy, let alone gone there.
This small-town pharmacy didn't have the resources to afford a sales department. What they did have is people that were already members of the community working for them. By simply giving them a bit of a carrot - in this case, the "points" program - these people happily become advocates, spreading the word in the community on your behalf without costing you much at all.
Many small businesses don't need a big marketing budget in the traditional sense. Quite often, they have everything they need already in the form of their most valuable resource - their employees. Treat them well and give them incentive and they'll come through for you time and time again.