Don't skip out on marketing because you think you can't afford it. You can't afford to fail at marketing, so use these budget-friendly ideas to build your business.
1. Get promotional business cards made by a discount printing service. Leave them everywhere, hand them out to everyone. The business cards should offer a specific discount or coupon code to be used on your website or in your store. (Track how many are used.)
2. Collect e-mail addresses and send out e-mail newsletters, promotions, or updates (depending on your customers and what they'll like). The only cost initially is your time; once you get past a certain number of subscribers, you'll need to pay for a service. Still, not costly.
3. Donate some of your products or services to a charitable event.
4. Get a magnetic sign made for your company car. For the one-time cost of the sign, your business name will be on display everywhere you drive. (Don't cut people off.)
5. Hire a teenager to stand by the road and hold up your sign. You'll invest in the cost of the sign plus minimum wage for a couple of hours a day, during the busiest traffic time. See if you can't get one new client for each day of sign-holding.
6. Buy someone's dinner (or soda, if you can't afford more than $1). Then give them a business card. Then walk away (no sales pitch!).
7. Offer a free class or seminar, print up a flyer and put that flyer up at every community bulletin board you can find in the area. These bulletin boards often won't allow businesses to put up advertisements, but will promote free educational seminars and classes.
8. Go to any community event and give away balloons. Have them printed with your business name, if you like. 250 custom printed balloons will run you around $100. Helium tank rental will cost $45 to $60. Happy kids with a free balloon equals happy parents. Happy parents can become happy customers. That's less than $1/each per new potential happy customer.
9. Donate magazines and books to any business with a waiting area (doctor, dentist, government offices, so on). Make sure your business address label is on the front, or stamp the inside cover with your business name and information.
10. Contribute expert articles to local publications. Contact the editor to get started; write an article so they can see your writing style and that you know what you're talking about, and share your credentials so they know you're qualified.
11. Create tip sheets on your area of expertise; this could be a one or two-sided piece of paper filled with helpful tips from you, the expert. Put your logo and business information somewhere on there, of course. People like reading tips, and they like getting free stuff. Hand them out, pass them out, mail them out.
12. Do a demo. If you don't have retail or office space to hold a public demonstration yourself, get in touch with a related business that could benefit from some publicity. Host or co-host a public demonstration of your service or product. Let local newspapers know and be sure it's on all the community calendars.
13. Create a referral program for your existing customers; they get a free product or coupon or reward of some kind for every new customer they send your way.
14. Send hand-written thank you notes. Include a $X dollars off your next purchase coupon.
15. Send hand-written "We Miss You" notes. Review your “best customer” list and contact the ones you haven't seen or heard from in a while.
16. Hold a contest; it doesn't have to directly relate to your business. It could be something seasonal, like a "Karaoke Christmas Carol Contest."
17. Participate in local contests by donating your product or service as a prize.
18. If you've got great office, warehouse or retail space, allow community organizations and non-profits to use it for events.
19. Participate in online forums related to your business. Offer helpful advice, solutions and insight. Don't spam. Don't pitch. Just be helpful.
20. Hang out where "your people" hang out. Know your target market? Know where they hang out? You should be there. Meet people. Talk. Be a cool person.
21. Write good reviews for local businesses. Local businesses love positive reviews, and the more they have on the Internet, the better. So help out your local businesses by being a good customer, then getting online and writing about your experiences. You'll gain favor from your fellow business owners and potential customers who are researching local businesses will keep seeing your name pop up.
22. Go over-the-top with your holiday decor. It doesn't have to be tacky, just big and bright, and bold enough to be noticed.
23. Hire the local high school cheerleaders to cheer in front of your business for a few hours on the weekend.
24. Offer free hot cocoa, coffee and cider on cold days. Make a big sign and put it in the front window. Be clear that the free beverages are for everyone, not just paying customers (that's how you get new customers).
25. This one's a bit costlier, but can make a big impact if you're in a B2B business. Purchase a good, top-selling business book in bulk. Inscribe each one with a personal message (e.g., "Dear Bob, I found this book insightful and thought you might like it. Please let me know if I can help you with XYZ Service. Sincerely, Me"). Send the books to business owners and managers.
Annie Mueller is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. She covers small business topics with a focus on lean/zero budget startups, business blogging and simple (sane) ways business can use social media without selling their souls to Facebook. Her work can be seen online at Investopedia's Financial Edge blog, Young Entrepreneur, Wise Bread, Organic Authority, Modern Mom, and her own site, AnnieMueller.com. Find her on Twitter: @AnnieMueller.