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Marketing Your Business on a Shoestring Budget

Open for businessIt's a dilemma as old as time: Small businesses must focus on marketing to win customers, but lack the budget or resources to wow people with flashy ad campaigns.

"Sales are the lifeblood of your business and marketing is your lifeline to generate sales," says Barry Cohen, author of 10 Ways to Screw Up an Ad Campaign (Adams Media, 2006). "Without it, you will be swallowed up in the tidal wave of competition."

The good news is that today's technology has made it easier than ever to get your name out there without breaking the bank. There are even some free ways to market your company. Here, experts share the best ways to promote your business on a shoestring budget:

Go grassroots with referrals

Some things never go out of style. One of the best ways to get people to buy your product or service remains referrals from friends, family, and other customers. Some businesses offer discounts or freebies to customers who provide a referral. Often, this offer is established online via a company website or social media platform. If you're lucky, customers will hop onto your social media page and leave positive comments based on their experiences without any prompting at all.

If you can put a little money into your strategy, you might invest in direct e-mail lists, so you can introduce your target demographic to your offerings and start the word of mouth yourself. "It may look expensive at first because real, deliverable lists can cost a little, but if you do it right, the ROI is far higher than almost any other medium," says Rob Frankel, author of The Revenge of Brand X: How to Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else (Frankel & Anderson, 2010). "Target tightly and create relationships with organizations whose agenda would benefit from yours."

Network with influencers

Indeed, partnerships are a great way to promote your company without blowing your budget. The key is to find other businesses that serve your customer base but are not in direct competition with you, says Kevin Jordan, owner of Redpoint marketing Consultants in Farmville, Va. For example, one of Jordan's clients, an insurance agent, partners with an attorney to host joint workshops for business owners about how to form an LLC. "They share the costs of promoting the workshop," adds Jordan, "and both get business out of it."

In addition, owners and senior executives should go to professional conferences, trade shows, and industry events, to meet influencers who might plug your brand to others, says Cohen. Also, remain visible, he adds, by participating in non-profit and pro-bono work. While these things cost you time and a small amount in entrance fees (in the case of some events), the price is still generally low, especially considering the rewards.

Tap into your inner content producer

Creating and maintaining an attractive and informative website should be a top priority. Develop high-quality content that has information and keywords relevant to your audience and industry, suggests Jeff Kear, owner of Planning Pod in Denver. "This has lead to lots of sites referring to our content and has elevated our search engine rankings," he adds. "And this effort costs us nothing out of pocket other than the minimal hosting costs for our website and blog." In fact, Word Press offers many customizable themes for blogging that make the process both cheap and painless.

There's no need to stop with content on your site, especially if you establish yourself as an authority. The experts quoted in this story responded to a query on Help a Reporter Out, a site that matches reporters on deadline with appropriate sources, providing a great outlet for people looking for free publicity. Also, many business owners create media kits for a minimal cost to send to reporters and potential clients or they write columns and op-eds in local newspapers and magazines.

Get social

The most obvious way to connect with customers without spending much (or even any) money is on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. If you're effective at engaging with followers without constantly bombarding them with ads, you could have great success. "Early on in the process we leveraged Twitter and Facebook for giveaways," says Brad Summey, owner of Savage Jerky Co. "We also leveraged the advertising platforms for both of these networks as they're cheap and we could narrow our target demographic considerably."

You can also use these vehicles to drive sales by offering deals to fans. For example, a local diner posted photos of food they were making and offered a free hot chocolate and dessert to anyone who stopped by during a major snowstorm, and another continues to offer free delivery when it rains. "They turned a bad time," says Shmuli Rosenberg, CEO of fwd/NYC marketing in Howell, N.J., "into a booming time at no cost."

Truly, the Internet has leveled the playing field in many ways. "Because of the Internet and social media," says Jeremy Montoya, host of the Final Clock Out Podcast in Phoenix, "the bar has never been lower for entrepreneurs and business owners to get their name, face, and message in front of those who need it." In fact, all you have to do is get familiar with your story and start spreading the word.