Marketing when you don’t have a big budget can be a challenge, but there’s plenty a small business owner can do to attract and maintain a customer base. The rise in digital marketing has made it all the easier for the small business owner to find a way to create a presence and attract an informed buyer.

Before your business starts marketing a product, it helps to create a buyer persona whom you want to reach with your promotional materials. Once you have your ideal customer, you’ll have a wide choice of marketing methods. Most of these are low-cost or no-cost tactics (sometimes called guerrilla marketing). You may use different ones at different stages of your business cycle—or you may utilize them all at once from your business’ inception.

When you build a business, the first thing you want to secure is a customer base. With a decent printer, a phone, and an internet-connected device, you can put together a fairly extensive advertising campaign without having to pay for space. We’ll look at seven of these small business marketing techniques in more detail.

Key Takeaways

  • Small businesses don’t have the advertising budget of larger rivals, but there are plenty of inexpensive ways to build a customer base.
  • Hitting the pavement with flyers distributed door to door (where allowed) and placing posters strategically can help get the word out.
  • Follow up with customers after the first round of ads so as to reinforce the initial message. Don’t fear cold calls—they can be effective.
  • Value additions, such as discounts or freebies for repeat customers, are a big boon once the business is up and running.
  • Referrals—both from customer to customer and business to business—are important as well.
  • Prioritize digital marketing, including traditional websites and social media.

1. Flyers

This is the carpet-bombing method of cheap advertising. You find an area where you would like to do business and distribute flyers to all the mailboxes within reach. Your flyer should be brief and to the point, highlighting the services you offer or products you sell and providing contact information. Offering a free appraisal, coupon, or discount never hurts.

2. Posters

Most supermarkets, public spaces, and malls offer free bulletin board space for announcements and advertisements. This is a hit-or-miss method, but you should try to make your poster reasonably visible and have removable tabs that the customers can present for a discount. Make each location a different color, so that you can get an idea from the tabs where the most leads are being generated. If one area is producing the majority of your leads, you can better target your campaign (flyers, ads in local media catering to those areas, cold calling, etc.)

3. Value Additions

This is one of the most powerful selling points for any product or service. On the surface, value additions are very similar to coupons and free appraisals, but they are aimed at increasing customer satisfaction and widening the gap between you and the competition.

Common value additions include guarantees, discounts for repeat customers, point cards, and referral rewards. Often the deciding factor for a person picking between one of two similar shops is which shop has a point card or preferred customer card. You don’t have to promise the moon to add value; you just have to state something that the customer may not realize about your product or service. When you are making your advertising materials, the value additions should be highlighted.

4. Referral Networks

Referral networks are invaluable to a business. This does not only mean customer referrals, which are encouraged through discounts or other rewards per referral. This includes business-to-business referrals. If you have ever found yourself saying, “We don’t do/sell that here, but X down the street does,” you should make certain that you are getting a referral in return.

When dealing with white-collar professions, this network is even stronger. A lawyer refers people to an accountant, an accountant refers people to a broker, a financial planner refers people to a real estate agent. In each of these situations, the person stakes their professional reputation on the referral. Regardless of your business, make sure you create a referral network that has the same outlook and commitment to quality that you do.

As a final note on referral networks, remember that your competition is not always your enemy. If you are too busy to take a job, throw it their way. Most times you will find the favor returned. Besides, it can be bad for your reputation if a customer has to wait too long.

5. Follow-Ups

Advertising can help you get a job, but what you do after a job can often be a much stronger marketing tool. Follow-up questionnaires are one of the best sources of feedback on how your ad campaign is going.

  • Why did the customer choose your business?
  • Where did they hear about it?
  • Which other companies had they considered?
  • What was the customer most satisfied with?
  • What was the least satisfying?

Also, if your job involves going to the customer, make sure to slip a flyer into nearby mailboxes, as people of similar needs and interests tend to live in the same area.

6. Cold Calls

Unpleasant? Yes. Important? Yes.

Cold calling—whether it happens over the phone or door to door—is a baptism of fire for many small businesses. Cold calling forces you to sell yourself as well as your business. If people can’t buy you (the person talking to them), then they won’t buy anything from you. Over the phone you don’t have the benefit of a smile or face-to-face conversation—a phone is a license for people to be as caustic and abrupt as possible (we are all guilty of this at one time or another). However, cold calling does make you think on your feet and encourages creativity and adaptability when facing potential customers.

A combination of old-fashioned pounding the pavement and modern-day pounding the keyboard will provide the best results for a small business looking to market itself.

7. The Internet

It is difficult to overstate the internet’s importance to building a successful business. Methods of marketing have stayed pretty much the same across the last 50 years, except for the birth and rapid evolution of the internet. No company (even a local café) should be without, at the very least, a website with vital details such as location and hours. You need a point of access for everyone who Googles first when they want to make a buying decision.

You also need a social media presence (Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter accounts) combined with a content management system (CMS) with good search engine optimization (SEO). All this digital dexterity may feel intimidating at first. However, publishing technology has evolved to the point where Wordpress—just one example of a free CMS—can meet all these needs. Yes, the internet is a beast. Make it your friendly one.

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5 Biggest Challenges Facing Your Small Business

The Bottom Line

More than likely you will find that the conversion rate on marketing is very low. Even the most successful campaigns measure leads (and converted sales from those leads) in the 10% to 20% range. This helps to shatter any illusions about instant success, but it is also an opportunity for improvement.

Do you want a company to buy your product? Give a presentation showing its benefits to that company. Do you want someone to use your service? Give an estimate or a sample of what you will do for them. Be confident, creative, and unapologetic, and people will eventually respond.