Let’s talk about marketing your small business.
How are you feeling about it? Are you locked and loaded, ready to go?
Now for the rest of you…
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed or intimidated. Marketing your small business in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world seems increasingly complicated, not to mention expensive.
But it doesn’t have to be either of those things.
There are many low- to no-cost small business marketing strategies that will attract customers. And most are pretty simple. Imagine being able to connect in a way that compels your ideal customers to come to you.
You could spend less time and money marketing to people who might not be interested in your product or service. And instead, you could focus on more important things, like running your business.
Sounds pretty good, right?
The key is understanding your target customer and determining which small business marketing ideas they will respond to.
In other words, it’s about connection.
So let’s get to it and explore how to crush marketing in 2020 and beyond. And not to worry — I will answer what I suspect are your most burning questions:
- What’s the best marketing strategy for my small business?
- How can I market my small business for free?
But first things first.
Why You Need to Start with a Small Business Marketing Plan
Or at least most of it (this post can help you finalize it.)
In a nutshell, a small business marketing plan outlines everything you need to know in order to promote your business successfully and convert customers.
So it’s an incredibly important piece of your overall business plan.
Here’s what it typically includes:
- Business description and value proposition
- Marketplace overview and competition and how you measure up
- Analysis of your target customers
- Business goals and success criteria
- Marketing strategies you’ll use to reach your target customer
- A budget
A small business marketing budget is typically…small.
Every dollar must count.
There’s plenty of guidelines, but no objectively agreed-upon amount one should spend on marketing. What’s important is dollars are trackable and results are measurable so that over time you’ll achieve a fine-tuned marketing approach that yields the best results.
From here on, we’ll focus on item 5, the strategies you’ll include in your marketing plan.
But before we move forward, we have to go back in time first — just a little bit.
Small Business Marketing Strategies: Out with the Old, in with the New?
Once the PC came to market it was no surprise that most consumers ditched the typewriter. They are still around, however, for a number of practical and aesthetic reasons.
Those who eschew the internet and its distractions, businesses like funeral parlors and correctional facilities, countries with limited electricity—they all still depend on them. And of course, there are collectors of nostalgia and vintage decor.
The point is the “old way” of doing things isn’t necessarily obsolete.
Think of marketing your small business in the same way. That is, you’ll be marrying the best practices of the past with the demands and communication preferences of today’s consumers.
In this post, we’ll use these categories:
- Tried-and-True Marketing — all things offline
- Digital Marketing — all things online
Where to focus your marketing dollars depends on your target customers, your goals, and budget.
When it comes to your target customers, speak their language. Talk about what’s important to them. Use their vernacular.
For instance, Millennials already represent the largest demographic in the workforce, and by 2025 they’ll account for 75%.
That’s a lot of buying power!
And if they aren’t part of your target market now, they will be soon.
Millennials (and likely generations that follow) make purchasing decisions that align with their personal values. In fact, 3 out of 4 are willing to pay extra for something especially important to them: sustainability.
So if your product or business practices sustainability in some way, say so in your marketing message.
Terms like cruelty-free, Fair Trade, pesticide-free, organic, farm-to-table, environmentally friendly, recycled materials, and ethical will show your customers that your values align with theirs.
In addition to adopting their vernacular, make sure to hang around the places and platforms they frequent.
For example, if you own a vaping store, your target customer skews younger. Obviously, Gen Z Zach won’t see a print ad in Sunday’s paper. You’ll need to focus more on digital.
If you develop retirement home communities, you target Boomers Bob and Betty. It would be pointless to purchase ads on Snapchat. Old-school methods would be better.
That said, the most effective small business marketing strategies will encompass a mix of both.
Let’s dig deeper into tried-and-true marketing strategies first.
8 Tried-and-True Local Marketing Ideas That Still Resonate Today
Don’t discount the old-school tactics.
They’re still around for good reason — they work!
Remember, not everyone gets their news and information from online sources, so be sure to leverage other channels.
Though you might only read newspapers and magazines in waiting rooms, they remain an effective marketing tool. Pay attention to local circulars and periodicals related to your industry where ad space comes cheaper.
Business cards haven’t gone away either. They’re just way cooler now. Always have some on hand. You never know when you’ll run into your target customers, another business owner to cross-market with, or a public bulletin board. Create your own showstoppers at Vistaprint. 100 cards start at $15.
- TV and Radio
Explore advertising on local TV programming or pay to have your business featured during a segment of your local sales/magazine show.
Learn about underwriter opportunities for your public radio station, particularly if you know your target customers’ values align with the mission of public broadcasting.
- Direct Mail
Sending a creative, targeted mailer will grab attention in a way that an email can’t.
Be creative, make it personal. If your business is new, say you’re excited to be part of the community. Include a coupon to attract new customers or as a thank-you to existing ones.
2. Give Stuff Away
People love free stuff.
I mean, they really love free stuff!
Ever seen those T-shirt-shooting air cannons at a sports halftime show? People literally knock each other over for a lousy branded shirt.
You can generate some of that enthusiasm — hopefully without anyone getting hurt in the process.
Put your logo on shirts, balloons, stickers, styluses, SPF lip balms, temporary tattoos, coffee mugs, washable face masks, mint dispensers and any other useful item to create a buzz and awareness.
Give items away at local street fairs, community 5Ks, school sport events or outside your physical location.
- Business card drawing
Keep a fishbowl at your place of business and have weekly drawings for a product or service you provide.
Over time, a free lunch, haircut, or car wash could result in hundreds of new contacts for your mailing list.
3. Sponsor Like Crazy
You can promote your business while practicing your brand’s values and creating goodwill through sponsorship opportunities in your community.
Here are a few to consider:
- Sports Teams
Youth and rec sports team sponsorship often include logo placement on uniforms and a banner at the sports complex. But it’s your investment in the community that translates into business from appreciative parents and fans.
- Events and Auctions
Sponsor a session or coffee break at an industry event; purchase a booth in the product/service showcase area.
Volunteer for a school or nonprofit auction or donate products or cash toward live auction items.
Both options pay dividends in the form of access to attendee contact information that you can use for direct mail or email marketing efforts.
- Restaurant or Retail Fundraiser
Donate a percentage of sales on a designated date to a nonprofit or school. It builds community, increases your exposure, and potentially introduces first-time customers with little to no effort on your part.
- Local Theaters, Stage and Screen
Reap the benefits of a captive audience pre-showtime by advertising in a local production’s program. Include a coupon for your service or product to attract new customers. Sponsors often enjoy exposure long past a performance date with logo placement on the theater’s website and postcards.
Explore opportunities to reach another captive audience and advertise before the opening credits at local, independent, and university movie theaters. Check out options through Screenvision Media.
4. Share Your Space
If you have the right physical space, show that you’re invested in the community by sharing it.
Welcome community nonprofits you care about or support to hold meetings, host a moms’ night out, or display the work of local artists and students.
5. Promote Yourself, the Tried-and-True Way
Embrace opportunities to get your name “out there” by sharing your knowledge and the story of building your business. Visit a high school entrepreneurship class, speak at industry events, get involved with the chamber of commerce or mentor a new business owner.
If your target customer includes other businesses, go places where you’ll meet them such as trade shows, formal networking and industry association events.
Also consider volunteering for local nonprofits. If possible, serve on the board. Both present an opportunity to meet other like-minded professionals and business owners to cross-market or build networks.
7. Nurture Existing Customer Relationships
Remember this old Scout song?
Make new friends
But keep the old
One is silver and the other, gold…
It applies to customers too.
Depending on your industry, it’s 5 to 25 times more expensive to acquire new customers than it is to retain existing ones.
So make your current customers feel valued. Seize opportunities to show you appreciate their business.
It’s as simple as distributing punch cards, sending a handwritten note or making a phone call. They’ll reward your appreciation and personal attention with their loyalty and referrals.
8. Create Referral Programs
Encourage customers to share their positive experiences by offering refer-a-friend rewards.
Old-school referral programs involved sending physical coupons or checks in the mail.
Referral marketing in particular demonstrates how advancements in technology have transformed the way small businesses market.
On that note, let’s look at digital marketing strategies.
And I get it. Technology may feel intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.
Why You Shouldn’t Be Intimidated By Digital Marketing
There’s a ton of terminology and acronyms associated with digital marketing. And every marketing guru and agency has their own way of explaining it.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter.
Just think of digital marketing as a catch-all for the following:
- Content marketing: blog posts, videos, infographics, podcasts, online courses, white papers, ebooks.
- SEO (search engine optimization)
- SEM (search engine marketing)
- PPC (pay-per-click advertising)
- Email marketing
- SMS marketing
- Social media marketing
- Hashtag marketing
Digital and tried-and-true marketing have the same objective: increasing your business’ visibility to attract potential customers and drive sales.
But digital marketing achieves that by optimizing your website and its content so that potential customers can find you.
There are two main ways to increase your online visibility:
- Paying for it through PPC ads (pay per click)
- Creating it by producing and sharing great content
A combination of both may be best for your business.
Now let’s dive into 11 digital strategies you should explore.
Online Marketing for Small Business: 11 Tactics You Should Consider
Unlike established tried-and-true methods, the digital marketing space will evolve to accommodate innovation and new trends.
Agile businesses that stay apprised of those changes are more likely to expand and grow.
You may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of digital marketing techniques, tools, and solution providers. Your budget is limited and you must be strategic with it. You want to pick the strategies you’re confident will work.
Luckily there are many free and low-priced options. You can start there first and graduate to more sophisticated methods later.
1. Leverage Google’s Free Tools
Four out of five people scope out purchases or services on Google before buying.
So make sure Google can find you first.
If your business has a physical location, use Google My Business to promote it on Google Search and Maps.
From your account interface you can respond to reviews, update your profile, and measure customer interactions (phone calls, website clicks, direction requests, etc.).
Promote your business with print-ready posters, window stickers, table tents, and ready-to-share social posts with the free marketing tools.
There’s also a free website builder if you only need a basic site.
2. Pay to Play
You may want to consider PPC or pay-per-click advertising on Google or relevant social media platforms.
With PPC you only pay for the results. In other words, when a user takes an action, like clicking over to your website or calling your business. You can adjust your ad spending at any time.
When someone searches for a specific kind of business or product, those that use GoogleAds (like Spa Brokers did below) pay for their priority position on search results.
Spa Brokers is putting marketing dollars behind the notion that people make purchase decisions based on top search results. This may be a perfectly good strategy for their business.
You may want more control over who sees ads for your business. And that’s the beauty of using social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Linkedin lead for ads). Having the ability to target your message based on a user’s network, hobbies, interests, and profession could result in a higher click rate and more effective use of your marketing dollars.
However, social ads are time consuming to create and maintain — that’s the downside of constantly changing content and trends. You may want to hire a social media consultant or small business marketing services agency to manage this piece.
Dive deeper: Top 4 Social Platforms to Advertise on in 2020
3. Build a Professional Website
Maybe you were wondering if you even need a website.
If so, consider this:
Nearly 70% of consumers say that they are more likely to buy from a business that has a website over one that doesn’t.
Sounds like a good reason to have one.
And with mobile devices accounting for a higher share of organic traffic to search engines, it must be optimized for mobile too.
Of course, you can build your own website, and there’s plenty of resources to help you do that.
Here’s a great tutorial:
Or maybe you’ll decide this task is best left to a professional. Either way, get’r done!
4. Create Content They’ll Want to Click On
Adding a blog or videos to your website is a great way to connect with your customers and attract new ones.
If you’re not sure where to start, create a blog or newsletter. Repurpose old posts if you have them. Find relevant industry studies and make them better with added insight, images and infographics.
You’re only limited by your imagination.
Though it is important to share relevant information, like what your product and service can do for your customer, it’s also important that your content is meaningful too.
That may mean sharing your business’ values, social responsibility practices, or insight on an issue affecting the community and local business.
To illustrate, the owner of my local premium butcher/fine food stores recently blogged about the meat outlook for the summer of 2020.
His post was both factual and meaningful. He explained the price increases due to the pandemic and his continued commitment to quality, even if it meant he had limited product to sell.
He eloquently expressed his gratitude that he was able to keep all 200 staff fully employed while continuing to support small and large farms, suppliers, and truckers, and that his customers stood by him too.
I patronize this business because it sells humanely and sustainably sourced meat. But as I read his blog, I was struck by his concern for everyone, including me and my family.
I felt a connection.
He didn’t include a coupon or freebie. It wasn’t necessary.
That’s how you build loyalty and a following.
5. Master Basic SEO
Instead of purchasing ads, you can boost your website’s visibility organically through SEO or Search Engine Optimization.
That means optimizing content with the keywords customers would use to find your business or product.
For example, say I just moved to a new town, and I want to find a therapist who offers the Chinese practice called cupping. I did a Google search for “cupping in Littleton.” Every Littleton (or nearby) massage therapist, wellness center, chiropractor, and acupuncturist that used “cupping” and “Littleton” as keywords in their business profiles or websites appeared in my search.
The first three businesses used GoogleAds to secure their positions as the top search results (as shown below).
To ensure your business listing or website appears in searches, use keywords in:
- Headings and content
- Image titles and alt text
If you haven’t identified keywords for your business, there are plenty of tools available. Here are some free options:
Be sure to consider adding keywords to accommodate subtle differences in searching with voice (for Alexa, Siri and Google Home).
Dive deeper: SEO Tips for Beginners — Google Boost Your Web Site
6. Embrace Social Media Marketing for Small Business
According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of the public uses some type of social media.
So you’re missing a huge opportunity to amplify your business if you don’t leverage at least one platform.
Each offers free business pages and paid targeted advertising. Of course, you should prioritize the platforms your current and target customers use most.
- Facebook: A no-brainer given its reach, but it can’t be your only platform if you target younger customers. If you own a niche business, look for a devoted group of potential customers.
- Instagram: For when a picture’s worth a thousand words — a great platform for any business where “showing” is as important as “telling.”
- Twitter: Sharing your own or others’ content relevant to your business that gets retweets can increase your visibility and build a following.
- Pinterest: Consider this platform a giant visual search engine. Used for inspiration and planning phases of purchasing.
- LinkedIn: Best for businesses that are very niche or selling B2B services. Great if you’re looking to network with other businesses.
- YouTube: Second only to Facebook, it’s the platform to share products and services that transfer well to “how-tos” or product demonstrations.
- Snapchat: Hang out here if you target the 18- to 24-year-olds. But it’s high maintenance, and you’ll need to post frequently as content expires after a day.
- TikTok (not pictured above): The newest platform boasts 500 million active monthly users primarily in the 16-24 age group. It’s all about creating fun, visually appealing short videos mostly of people lip-synching and dancing. But you don’t have to sing or dance. You can capture this crowd by showing off your space, introducing your team, sharing tips, or launching a hashtag challenge.
Hit ‘Em Right Between the Eyes With Hashtags
A hashtag is a keyword or phrase preceded by # that brands or users attach to the content they create and share, for example, #ThrowbackThursday and #SmallBusinessSaturday.
The hashtag serves as an index, making your content discoverable across social media platforms by anyone, regardless if they’re fans or followers.
When used strategically, hashtags further amplify your brand, improve your SEO, and, ideally, expand your customer base.
If you’re not sure what hashtags to use for your business, check out these tools:
Examples of Small Businesses Rocking Social Media
LowDown Brewery & Kitchen churns out award-winning craft beer and farm-to-table menu items that impress even the most serious foodies.
In a departure from their typical fun, irreverent Facebook posts, the owners recently posted a 533-word statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
While some businesses avoid wading into politically polarizing issues, LowDown chose to speak the values they hold dearly and encouraged patrons to do the same.
The fact is, today’s consumers care about what your business stands for more than ever before. And as I mentioned earlier, they base purchasing decisions on whether or not brands and businesses align with their own values.
My guess is LowDown didn’t spend too much time worrying about alienating customers. They probably weren’t surprised by the overwhelmingly positive feedback about their strong public stand.
You know why? They know their customer.
And that single Facebook post may have connected with customers in a more powerful way than their best beer on tap.
Orchid House Interiors chose Instagram to share favorite client projects and build a following by leveraging design trends.
Ducky’s Formal Wear uses TikTok to engage with customers in a creative way while showing off new inventory.
Tattered Cover leverages hashtags and Twitter to promote its business to consumers who favor independent bookstores and are committed to shopping locally.
Manage Social Like a Champ
I know what you’re thinking.
This social media stuff seems like a lot to manage.
And it could be depending on how many platforms you leverage, how often you post, how much customer interaction your brand attracts, etc.
Of course, there are plenty of small business marketing automation tools to consider incorporating into your social media strategy.
They can schedule your content, provide analytics, monitor customer comments and your competitors’ social media activities — from all social platforms through a single dashboard.
Check out a few of them:
Again, you may decide to let a social media consultant or agency manage this part of your marketing strategy.
7. Crush Email Marketing Like a Boss
With a whopping ROI of $38 for every dollar spent, email marketing is arguably the most effective digital marketing technique.
To convert new business, emails should be frequent (but not too frequent), engaging, relevant, and compelling enough that the person takes a specific action.
With inexpensive software options to design and automate your campaigns, your biggest job is gathering emails.
Here’s a few to consider:
Dive deeper: 15 Creative Ways to Grow Your Email List
8. Crown Some Brand Ambassadors
Brand Ambassadorship. Think of it as referral marketing for the digital age.
Through online word-of-mouth — turbocharged with their social network following — empowered employees, loyal customers, local personalities and influencers amplify your business.
It’s a wise strategy to incorporate given that:
- 71% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase based on social media
- 92% of consumers trust referrals from people they know
Ideally, you’ll develop authentic employee ambassadors by creating an awesome place to work and a culture of ownership in your business’ success. And you’ll build a great brand to attract authentic nonemployee ambassadors.
That doesn’t mean you can’t send some product or offer a service to an influencer or local personality. You may gain a new following as a result!
Once you have ambassadors, you can create your own simple incentive program. For example, you can ask that they post to their social networks with specific hashtags a few times a month.
9. Try Before You Buy
There’s a lot of competition for consumers’ attention these days, especially within the most social media driven, smartphone dependent, constantly-inundated-with-content demographics.
(I’m looking at you, Millennials and Gen Z.)
It’s ushered in inventive new marketing techniques like experiential marketing, or immersing consumers into the world or experience of the brand.
The objective is to connect with the target market on a personal and emotional level.
Do it right, or better yet, in dramatic fashion and they’ll share their experience on social media.
Though experiential marketing is usually associated with big brands with big budgets—remember Red Bull’s Stratos campaign?—it’s not out of reach for small businesses.
Here’s a few ways to incorporate it into your marketing strategy:
- Live discussions on social media
- In-store experiences
- Product sampling
- Pop-up retail shop
- Off-premises gear or product testing
- Cross-marketing events (restaurant cook-off, wine shop/cheese shop)
- How-to demonstrations (beer brewing, baking, DIY projects)
Dive deeper: Experiential Marketing: Strategies for Beginners
10. Stalk Your Customer (Legally)
Image credit: example of SMS text from SlickText
According to EzTexting’s 2019 Mobile Usage Report, there’s a 98% open rate for text messages.
Compare that to email marketing’s 2019 average open rate of 18% and it is clear there’s a huge opportunity to drive sales with SMS/text marketing.
In addition, 90% of texts are opened and read within a half hour, making this marketing technique perfect for flash or same-day sales.
Consider one of the following to incorporate this cost-effective strategy:
Now, if you pursue SMS marketing, know that it could backfire on you. Your customer could find it annoying and intrusive — even stalkerish.
So proceed with caution, and make sure you have an opt-out on your messages!
11. Promote Yourself, the Digital Way
Build awareness and get your name “out there” whenever you can.
- Apply for business awards and place the badge on your website.
- Comment on discussion boards like Reddit when you have authority.
- Generate publicity by writing a press release announcing your business opening or new products and services. Share with local media or distribute through prlog or 24-7pressrelease.
- Use products like Notify.ly and Brandwatch to be alerted when your business is mentioned on social platforms. Engage with those users and share their stories on your website.
- Gain media coverage as a quoted source for journalists through HARO and JustReachOut. Share mentions on your blog and social media.
- Use tools like Feedly and BuzzSumo to see what’s trending on social media. Find creative ways to harness their popularity to promote your business.
The owner of Five Wellbeing Studio & Spa leveraged a locally trending event to promote her business in a creative way. The city’s decision to close Main Street on summer weekends to give restaurants more patio dining space attracted tons of attention on social media.
Although her business wouldn’t directly benefit from “Weekends on Main,” she’s entering every client who books a service into a weekly drawing for a $50 gift card to a participating restaurant.
Pretty cool way to reward loyal clients and give an extra nudge to others who haven’t visited her business. Not to mention she has something to shout out on social media every week!
Dive deeper: How to Write a Press Release for Your Small Business
So that covers it for the digital methods you should explore as you create your small business marketing strategy.
Now, back to those burning questions.
What’s the best marketing strategy for my small business?
The truth is, there’s no magic bullet. The best marketing strategy is different for every business.
But it is critical that you take time to really get to know your target customer. Only then can you select the techniques that will resonate with them in a way that compels them to purchase your product or service.
Whether you have a storefront or you’re strictly online, you should choose a combination of tried-and-true and digital.
How can I market my small business for free?
To summarize, here’s how you can market your small business for free:
- Build your own website
- Share your space with the community
- Speak at industry and community events
- Use Google’s free tools
- Create a presence on the social media platforms your customers use
- Use SEO organically
- Add a blog to your website
- Create an email newsletter and send it manually or with free tools
- Write your own press releases and share through prlog.org or on social media
- Comment on discussion boards like Reddit
And here’s that link to the 50 free marketing tools article again.
Go Make it Happen!
See, choosing the right small business marketing strategies doesn’t have to be overwhelming or intimidating.
Now that you understand your options and you’re armed with real-world examples of how other small businesses connect with their current and potential customers, I hope you feel empowered!
You know your target customers. And you have a darn good idea of what they’ll respond to.
Test out some techniques and see what resonates most, what will bring customers to you.
You got this.
Now it’s time to go show everyone how it’s done!