It’s easy to understand why this happens. The operating expenses keep the lights on and the employees working — a clear and present priority. You simply cannot manage growth without a firm hand on operations. Yet, the inverse is also true. You’ll be hard pressed for sales growth without repeated marketing and advertising sufficient to grow and maintain a customer base. So, what’s a budget-minded business owner to do?
Frugality is a necessity, but it doesn’t have to be constrictive. In some cases, a reduced budget forces creativity. It may also enforce a commitment to the “softer side” of marketing and advertising: building customer relationships and encouraging word-of-mouth.
Below are some specific, cost-cutting approaches to reducing your marketing costs.
Before we dive into those, consider that your individual circumstances, business industry, and geographic location each present unique opportunities to spread the word. Ask yourself,
What’s my budget, realistically? “How much can I afford to spend on marketing on a monthly basis?” You might only have the ability to “spend” your time — writing educational blog posts, connecting with customers on social networks, or building a targeted email and/or mailing list. These are all worthy investments of time.
Am I zigging when others are zagging? “What are others in my industry doing to market their business, and how can I do something different?” Differentiating your offer from the competition is not only necessary but can present unique ways to message your offer, too. For example, early on we marketed our business on our blog in the imagined voice of our dead founder. Cost: just the time to write it.
Am I simply and clearly conveying my expertise? Narrowly defining your products and services in your marketing materials paints you as the expert rather than the jack- or jill-of-all-trades. When you’re on a budget, distill your message to as few words as possible for greatest simplicity and maximum impact. Cost: just the time to evaluate and verbalize how you help your customer.
Now, let’s examine some frugal marketing tips.
Share advertising costs with a complimentary business.
This works best between businesses that share a geographic or thematic tie. Examples of sharing include radio spots, magazine ads, or event sponsoring.
Ask for referrals.
Don’t be shy about collecting feedback and sharing positive customer or client testimonials. Social proof — other people using your business services — is a powerful marketing tool. Depending on your business, you can do this online for free using a service like Wufoo. If you receive a nice compliment in person, write it up and then send the person an email to ask permission to use it. Be sure to get permission before sharing any testimonial.
Find your own press release opportunities.
HARO — Help a Reporter Out — is a free service that connects journalists to business experts. If you are quick to respond to media queries (you’ll need to do it the same day), you can get quoted in major media outlets. This builds your ability to say, “As seen in… .” The downside is that HARO sends a lot of email, often 3-4 emails a day. You’ll also need to have easy access to a prepared pitch, background story, and images to share in a timely fashion. Journalists will not wait for you!
Piggyback on other promotions.
A few years ago, City Hall had a month-long “Star Wars” display. This was advertised on the radio, on the local television station, and on a weekly citywide email for the month of May. (“May the Force Be With You”.)
We decided to ride this publicity by announcing on our blog and in our shop that we were “taking on City Hall.” We set up a tongue-in-cheek “competing” display using my husband’s childhood toys. This brought additional foot traffic to our shop and remains a conversation piece today.
Create your myth.
All remarkable and memorable businesses find a way to be noticed and stay in the spotlight. A friend of mine calls this “creating the myth,” that is, “What remarkable thing dependably happens when I patronize business X?” My friend runs and independent toy and bookstore. One hugely differentiating aspect of the experience entering her shop is its emphasis on handmade crafts. Children and adults alike know that when they visit her shop they will walk away with the experience of making something that they can take home. This experience is separate from her primary business of books and toys, but so memorable and desirable it brings people to her shop repeatedly, not just at holidays or birthdays.
If your marketing budget is squeezed, don’t despair. Focus on providing an excellent product and service. Find ways to be unusual — but not off-putting — and your customers will help you market through word-of-mouth. When the purse strings loosen you can go back to investing in more expensive marketing efforts.
Katie McCaskey is a small business owner, author and freelance journalist who writes for Vistaprint, a leading provider of custom promotional items, websites, and other marketing products to small businesses across the globe.
photo by nebulux