Marketing On A Shoestring Budget

Running a small business can sometimes seem like being alone in a dark room; you know you are there…but no one else does. So how do you turn on the light and let the world know you are out there?


Yet for some small businesses, marketing is a real challenge. Sometimes the problem is a lack of time, but most often it is an issue with money. Convinced getting the word out will cost a small fortune, these entrepreneurs simply avoid the issue altogether.

Big mistake.

The good news is that these days, marketing need not cost a lot to be effective. Indeed, there are so many shoestring marketing tools out there now that it would be a shame not to take advantage of them.

Here are some of my favorites:

Online Options

Social media: Oh sure, I can hear you now: “Great tip there Steve, I’ll jump right on that as soon as I finish this afternoon’s meetings, get these orders filled, return emails…” Yes, I know that for many small businesses, social media seems like just one more thing to do, but let me suggest that thinking of it that way is a mistake.

Here’s why: Online it is very difficult to create a connection. Oh sure, when someone comes to your website or blog they can get an idea of your business, but can you create rapport? No, not really. But with social media you can. You can converse and interact with people. Whether it is on your Facebook fan page, Twitter, or other social media, the fact is, you can connect with folks on social media in a way that you simply cannot in other places online, and that alone makes it a winner.

Not only that, but on social media you can meet people you would otherwise never meet.

The thing to do is to master one platform – the one that your customers tend to use most. If they are on Facebook, then you should be there too. If they like Twitter more, then tweet away.

Craigslist: Who jumps onto Craigslist to read the ads? That’s right, people who are ready to buy something, that’s who. And many Craigslist ads are free. How great is that?

E-newsletters: Here’s a cool trick; locate some big websites that have e-newsletters that cater to your specific, desired customer base and advertise in those e-newsletters. For example, if you own a bridal business, advertise in the e-newsletter of a big wedding site. The reason this is such a great option is that the people who get these newsletters are 1) self-selected, i.e., they want to get this e-newsletter, and 2) specific. That is, only people interested in this topic get the e-newsletter.

As a result, you marketing dollar goes a lot further here because, although you are reaching fewer people, they are likely the exact people you want to target if you select the right e-newsletter to advertise in.

Traditional Options

Gift cards: Gift cards are now the most popular present people give, so jump on the bandwagon and make some of your own. Not only is this a guaranteed sale, but it is also a referral as it is, essentially, a present customer telling someone that they should become your future customer.

Smile and dial: If you have an intuitive, reliable phone system that can be customized to your needs, such as the Synapse business phone system by AT&T, as well as some inexpensive hired help, cold calling is still a very viable, affordable way to get leads and business.  Purchasing a targeted list of your ideal customers is easy and is a great way to introduce your business.  Then you simply smile and dial!

Mass Media Options

Buy unused time or space: Websites, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations all sell ad space / time. But often, it is not all sold. If you go to them right before their ad deadline, you will likely find they have space that has not yet sold and are willing to unload it at a steep discount. This is called “remnant” space (for print media) or time (for the electronic media.)

Overnight radio and television: While primetime ads are very expensive, you can still target a fairly large audience at about 1/10th of the cost if you advertise overnight or at other odd times.

Co-op advertising: My dad used to have a billboard on the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles that hundreds of thousands of people a day saw. It read: “Carpet World… Elegance Underfoot. Featuring Ban-Lon Carpets.” Ban-Lon paid for most of that ad. That is co-op advertising.

If you have a supplier or manufacturer that you work with, see if they have a co-op (it stands for cooperative) program. In exchange for featuring one of their products in your ad, they will pay for a portion of the ad.

So you see, marketing doesn’t cost, it pays!

Steve Strauss – Senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible, Steve is your host at

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