10 Ideas for Small Business Marketing on a Shoestring Budget


If you run a small business and have a specific budget set aside for marketing, consider yourself among the elite few. The ideal marketing budget is unique for every business and often seems impossible to tie back to your bottom line with any precision. That can be problematic for fledgling small businesses whose very existence hinges on making the right decisions on how and when to spend money.

While some large companies can ride on the coat tails of a well-established brand, small business owners have a much more palpable sense of what marketing means to the success of their businesses—namely, your revenue will take a nose dive if you aren't actively marketing your business.

When you're not sure what works and how much you can afford to spend, an investment of time may be the only lever you can pull. Luckily, time is the main thing you need to pull off some of the most effective marketing tactics.

Here are ten small business marketing ideas that may require a few extra cups of coffee, but won't do too much damage to your shoestring budget.

1. Quit Automating and Start Engaging

Since most of my suggestions here involve the use of social media, I want to be clear about one thing right off the bat: if you're pushing salesy content through your social media accounts to a bunch of fake followers, or simply letting your accounts run on auto-pilot, you're doing it wrong. To beat a horse that is (or should be) morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead: social media is about engagement.

You'd be hard pressed to find an example of someone who's done a better job at using community-specific best practices to effectively attract an audience than Michael Krigsman, Founder and Co-host of CXOTalk (@cxotalk on Twitter). According to Krigsman, "For small companies, social media offers tremendous opportunity to engage a community of potential customers at low cost. The key is identifying topics that matter to your audience and then finding ways to pull them in. Ask questions, solicit opinions, and recognize great comments are all important. Use social media to communicate and engage, rather than to sell."

2. Build Your Brand on Instagram

If engagement is the goal, then Instagram is a great place to start. Instagram is the fastest growing social network in the U.S., and is expected to top 100 million users by 2018. For small businesses who take the time to understand the audience, there's still ample opportunity to gain significant exposure for free.

Beardbrand is a great example of a company who has embraced the channel, boasting more than 60,000 engaged followers. According to Beardbrand Founder Eric Bandholz, "Instagram is a great platform because it allows us to visually build a brand and lifestyle surrounding our company. The brilliance of Instagram is that the audience can very quickly and effectively consume content without a big time investment. Essentially it respects the time of the consumer and is a very efficient mode of brand building."

3. Get Chatty on Twitter

Twitter has always been amazing in its ability to provide direct and instant access to all kinds of people whose attention you'd otherwise never get. Still, Twitter can feel a little unstructured to newcomers trying to understand where to jump in. Twitter chats provide a way to access Twitter sub-communities in a more structured manner and are a great way to build some initial relationships.

Nicole Miller, Community Champion at Buffer, knows her way around a Twitter chat and wrote pretty much everything you need to know about running or participating in them in Twitter Chats 101. When I asked for her thoughts on how small business owners can benefit from the real-time engagement format, she had this to say: "Twitter chats are a wonderful opportunity for small businesses to connect one-on-one with their community. Chats allow businesses to show their human side and create new bridges within their community. Whether hosting or joining a Twitter chat, the opportunities are endless. Contributing to conversations with helpful tips and advice is a great way to build loyalty and be seen as more than your product or service."

4. Publish What People Are Googling

Interruption marketing has been dead for years. Consumers these days research products on a self-serve basis through search and social media, long before your sales team gets the opportunity to speak to them. Creating and marketing content that anticipates your clients needs at every stage of the customer lifecycle - from awareness to advocacy - is a highly effective strategy that produces compounding returns.

When it comes down to the brass-tacks of executing a search-centric content strategy, keyword research is still one of the best ways to understand and/or validate what topics your customers are searching for. Small business owners have easy access to free tools like the Google Keyword Planner, UberSuggest, and Soolve, and relatively inexpensive paid tools like SEMRush, SimilarWeb, and SpyFu can help you gain valuable insight on what's working for your competitors as well.

5. Help a Reporter Out

If creating informative, in-demand content serves as the fuel for gaining exposure for your small business through search and social media, you're going to need a spark to get your content strategy to catch fire. For that, there's nothing better than some good old fashioned media exposure.

A powerful tool that any small business owner can leverage to get free exposure in the media is HARO, which stands for Help a Reporter Out. "HARO is, hands down, the best tool you can use to regularly get in front of journalists who cover your industry. If you regularly read and respond to HARO queries, you WILL get coverage—if not of your business or service, of your expertise in your industry," says Kari DePhillips, owner of digital PR firm The Content Factory. "We've used HARO to get our clients in publications like the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, CNN, the Today Show and many, many more. And it's free. What's not to love about that?"

6. Pay to Play on Facebook

It's tough to pay for something that used to be free, but the reality is that paid promotion through Facebook advertising is still relatively cheap, highly targeted, and very effective for the right small business.

Jon Loomer, digital marketing consultant and Facebook ads guru, reports getting traffic from multi-product ad units as low as $0.08 per click using Facebook's new multi-product ads feature. And for small businesses selling consumer products, dynamic product ads allow you to automatically promote relevant products from your entire catalog across any device.

In my experience, promoting blog posts on Facebook to people who have already visited your website is a no-brainer. Start building that list of visitors today by creating a Website Custom Audience and support your blog posts with a few bucks in paid promotion if you want to stop hearing those crickets chirping every time you click "Publish."

7. Build Stronger Rapport with Video

Video is exploding. A recent study by SocialBakers shows that organic reach increases 135% when you post a video instead of a photo, and according to eMarketer, video is the fastest growing ad format.

Felena Hanson, Founder, Owner, and Franchisor of Hera Hub says, "Video is one of our most successful marketing tools. It's the most succinct way to share a message and build an emotional connection. We have a video room set up for our team and our members to use." Hanson's most effective tip: "We always embed the video on our website and then share it on all our social channels, which means it has an opportunity to reach thousands of people."

Some might be deterred by the idea that video content is expensive to produce, but unless your brand guidelines dictate that anything you put out there has to look like it was directed by Michel Gondry, you have tons of inexpensive options at your disposal. Consider doing interviews via Google Hangouts or starting a Whiteboard Friday.

8. Organize a Local Meetup Group

Everybody knows that networking is a great way to establish relationships that potentially lead to new business, valuable partnerships, the latest information, and fresh talent. But if you're like me and find that your attempts at initiating small talk tend to get awkward very quickly, being a presenter or hosting an event are great ways to instantly gain credibility and give people a reason to approach you.

For the small business owner, Meetup provides a perfect platform to organize a local event. Balki Kodarapu, Co-founder & CEO of career-advice platform DreamPath, uses Meetup groups to get several different audience segments together in one place.

"In the last 4 months we've been doing the meetup, we've had sold-out crowds, and as the word spread, more and more of our target segment audience (career directors, career counselors, advisors as well as employer recruiters) are coming to us," reports Kodarapu.

9. Let Your Customers Ask You Anything

One of the trendiest and effective ways to get exposure these days is by hosting an AMA, which stands for "Ask Me Anything." The near-real-time question and answer format is pretty much synonymous with Reddit, and there are some great examples out there of how to run one successfully, such as this one, hosted by Credit Karma CEO, Kenneth Lin.

To make the most of your AMA, it probably goes without saying that it helps to be a noteworthy or interesting person. Whatever your status, these tips provided by Dan Scalco, owner of Digitalux, will help ensure a smooth and successful AMA:

Don't over-promote your business. One link to your website in the description is enough.

Be as open and honest with your questions as possible – Reddit will respect you for it.

Be prepared to spend at least a few hours answering questions. AMAs can explode with questions. It is important to make sure you have the opportunity to answer the majority of the questions you're asked.

While it may seem like a good idea to post your AMA in the AMA subreddit, it could be ideal for you to "niche down" and find a subreddit in your industry. If you're an author, try /r/writing. If you're a designer, try /r/design. There's a subreddit for everything!

To set up your AMA, it may be best to contact the moderator of that subreddit first so they can advertise the day and time you'll be hosting your AMA. Moderator details can be found in the sidebar.

10. Get In On Podcasting (while you still can)

Podcasts have been around for a long time, but in recent years have exploded in popularity. They seem to be in that sweet spot these days where they've achieved critical mass, but are still ripe with opportunity for small businesses willing to dig in and find an interesting niche.

I've never been heavily into podcasts myself, but I got very interested in them recently as my friend Nate Musson took his podcast from concept to eyebrow-raising success within a few months. Musson, who runs a small company selling high performance boot insoles for snowboarding, started the Not Snowboarding Podcast last fall, and within four months had more than 20,000 downloads and climbed to #7 spot in iTunes' New and Noteworthy. "It's humbling to now have relationships with so many of the people I've looked up to for years—because of the podcast, I'm constantly being contacted by snowboard industry elite and fans of the show," said Musson.

What's Your Best Small Business Marketing Idea?

You don't need a large budget to effectively market your business. Some of these ideas do take a significant investment of time, but for many small businesses, the time investment may be more feasible than a large cash investment. The good news is that most of the tactics above represent highly effective approaches to gaining exposure for your small business that aren't completely saturated with competitors, mainly because most of your competitors are only giving it a half-hearted effort and not taking the time to study what works. You can do better.