(This story has been published on Entrepreneur. I'm sharing it here solely to expand its reach.)
When I was a senior, I pitched my undergraduate capstone project proposal a little differently. I was going to start a business…on paper. As a Marketing major stuck in an artsy Honors program, my capstone project options were limited to literature seminars or the like. So, I tracked down my favorite Marketing professor and begged her to be my capstone sponsor.
My sponsor drew up a syllabus. I was to study an entrepreneurship textbook and draft a 30-page marketing and business plan which the board would then review. Now, this sounded more like it.
About a month into my project, I had another ridiculous epiphany. Ay, I thought, let’s do this for real. I had a mentor, I was already starting this business on paper, and my mom owned similar business since I was 2. I had all the resources I needed. Why not turn this into a real party?
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So, my business gained a name, a face, and a website. And I gained a title of ownership and a responsibility to deliver.
Well, I didn’t have all the resources I needed: My budget was zilch. I may have been working a part-time paid internship, but I was still in school and didn’t live with my parents. (Go me!)
Many small businesses with tight budgets believe that marketing spend should be the first to go. I was no different. But I refused to limit myself to through-the-roof traditional advertising expenses. So, I got creative.
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Here’s how I grew my business from paper (literally) to profitable with little to no marketing spend:
I worked my network. At 21, my measly network consisted of my mom and dad, my hair stylist, my college professors (that actually liked me), and my friends’ parents. But, you’d be surprised at how many people will help out a young entrepreneur. Once I built up the courage to cold call and email strangers I found online or through friends, many were willing to hear my story, give me advice, and even leverage their networks on my behalf. (I even got a lil’ mention in our local paper.)
Tip: If you plan to start networking as a marketing tactic, be sure to have your elevator pitch prepared. The average attention span of an adult (regardless of how helpful he or she is feeling) is about six to eight seconds, so don’t be boring. Also, be prepared to hear “No”. Some folks are busy or disinterested. Dust yourself off and move on.
I traded advertising and exposure. Thankfully, I live in an area that celebrated local business and where small business owners support each other. Since my business’s target audience is well-defined (which is important), I contacted non-competing businesses that market to similar clientele and offered cross-promotional opportunities. Even those small businesses that have plenty of marketing spend love free advertising.
Tip: If you’re interested in cross-marketing and aren’t yet well-known in the area, prepare your numbers. For example, my business’s events touch 1,500+ women and reach even more through social media and email. I used these statistics when selling my business to others. Established businesses may love free advertising, but they want to know they’re getting as much exposure as they’re giving.
I emailed the hell out of people. Man, oh man, oh man are emails annoying. I was apprehensive to use email with my business, but the truth is email marketing is hardly dead. Once I chose a free email marketing software, I placed a web form on my website, asked for emails at check-out, and offered an e-newsletter. Email has become the best way to reach the masses and build relationships with my customers.
Tip: Although email marketing is still alive and kicking, I do believe it’s abused and overused by a variety of businesses. If you choose to leverage emails, be gentle with your customers’ inboxes. Craft your email subject lines with grace and mystery, and only send along emails a couple times a week. I promise, the more they see your name, the less likely they are to open.
I leveraged social media correctly. After first creating my website, I jumped right into snagging similar handles on multiple networks. Bad move, Allie. Turns out, I only needed Facebook and Instagram. Once I lightened my load, I was able to give my business an online personality, post what my audience wanted to see, and even invest in a lil’ advertising.
Tip: I initially wasted a lot of time and energy because I didn’t do my research. I didn’t consider where my target audience was hanging out. I was trying to leverage social media networks that weren’t going to work. If you choose to use social media for your business (which you should), figure out where your people are. You don’t have to have a presence on every network simply because it exists.
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So, those are the basic four ways I marketed my business on a shoestring budget. Once I established my social media and email funnel, I started to leverage coupons and giveaways to drum up traffic and exposure. This year, I plan to check out affiliate marketing to creative a passive income stream as well as Help a Reporter Out to further boost my name.
Bottom line: There are many inexpensive ways to engage customers, build relationships, and promote your business. For small businesses, it’s not always about what you spend on marketing and promotion. It’s about the time and effort you dedicate and the connection it provides for your customers.