8 affordable (and free) in-depth marketing ideas to grow your small business
Growing your business on a limited budget can seem like a difficult task, but it’s been proven time and again that limitations breed creativity.
This is the sort of mindset you must adopt when tackling the growth of your small business. These limitations can be a blessing, not a curse – and we’re going to prove it.
In this guide, you’re going to learn eight affordable (and free) marketing approaches you can implement today. These tactics require little-to-zero marketing budget, and you can execute each of them yourself – no expensive marketing agencies required.
Table of contents
- First thing’s first: Find out where your audience is
- 1. Tap into active communities
- 2. Run online contests
- 3. Use guerrilla marketing to hack attention
- 4. Advertise on emerging platforms
- 5. Create 10x content & promote like crazy
- 6. Tap into wider audiences with guest blogging
- 7. Build strategic partnerships with face-to-face events
- 8. Make your email marketing worth subscribing to
- Wrapping up
First thing’s first: Find out where your audience is
The marketing tactics we’re about to lay out will likely work for your business. But your time is limited, and that means you should choose a handful of those that are best for your brand.
The first, fundamental step is to figure out how to reach your audience – both online and offline. You can do this a number of ways, including:
- Interview them directly: Get on the phone to your customers and ask them where they spend their time. Which social media channels do they prefer? Which communities do they frequent? Which publications and blogs do they read? Which industry events and meetups do they attend?
- Use social listening: Before investing time and money in a social media platform, use social listening to see where the conversation is at. For example, search for relevant industry terms on Twitter to see whether or not there’s chatter worth pursuing.
- Search for top industry blogs: A quick Google search for “top [your industry] blogs” will usually yield a list of popular publications in your business category. Quantifying the size and quality of each publication and their following is simple: check out their social media profiles and see how many followers they have and if they are positively engaged with them. In my own experience, anything above 10,000 is usually a good number and valuing engagement is a good sign.
Once you know where your audience can be found, you can apply the tactics in this guide to those channels.
1. Tap into active communities
There’s a huge amount of communities online – communities that have an active audience of your ideal customers and clients.
And finding them has never been easier. There are thousands of active communities on platforms like Facebook, Reddit and LinkedIn. It’s just a matter of running a search and identifying those with ample members.
Let’s use Facebook as our example. Start by running a search around one of the following:
- A topic related to what you sell. For example, if you sell gourmet food ingredients, you might search for “cooking” related groups
- Your target industry. For example, if you sell a CRM tool, you’d search for “SaaS”
- Your target buyers. For example “restaurants” or “salespeople”
Using cooking as our example, here’s a list of groups we find:
As you can see, there’s plenty of groups with thousands of members, and daily active discussion. And if you’re selling to people in the UK, the second group on the list might be a promising option.
Once you identify active communities with lots of dialogue, the question remains: how do you use them to drive traffic and sales? First, spend a week or two becoming a known name in the community. This means engaging with members, contributing to discussion and adding value.
For example, here’s a post that shares advice around reporting on a popular marketing Facebook group:
The poster isn’t selling anything, simply sharing advice around a frequently asked question. Bring value to the community before posting anything promotional.
When you do share promotional content, it’s best to do it one of two ways:
- Ask the group owners if you can share an exclusive offer for the group before posting
- Comment when people ask questions where your product or service is the obvious solution
This way, you’re continually adding value while building your personal brand (and your company’s).
Here are some other places you can find active communities:
- Reddit: Search for a topic and identify active communities
- LinkedIn: Look for groups around your target industry or job roles you serve
- Google: Search for the term “top [your industry] communities”
- Twitter: Identify hashtags that your audience use to communicate with each other
2. Run online contests
People love the idea of getting something for free. Which is why online contests can be an effective way of building a list of subscribers and leads.
Not only that, they can create a viral loop for your business. Take Harry’s for example. When they first launched their popular shaving subscription product, they generated over 10,000 email addresses in the first week.
They did this through sharing an online contest via email and paid social media ads. The campaign also allowed people to easily re-share on their personal social media accounts to spread the word. Make sure to check each channel’s promotional guidelines before sharing campaigns.
As you can see, the more friends you invited,
the greater the reward.
To do this yourself, start by choosing a
relevant prize. It can be tempting to go down the “iPad” route. But the problem
with this is you attract people who are interested in the iPad, not your product or service.
So, choose a prize that’s relevant to your
value proposition. If you’re in the ecommerce space, give away a bundle of your
products, or a year’s supply of them. If you own a dating app, offer lifetime
access to paid premium features (which, hopefully, your users won’t need!)
With a prize chosen, you need the technology to support the contest itself. Platforms like King Sumo can help you do this without any code. Just sign up, set up your contest and you’ll have everything you need to generate email addresses using viral loops:
From here, it’s a matter of promoting your contest to your chosen channels. Share it with your customers, through communities and promote through paid channels. And have a go at the approaches we share in the rest of this guide.
3. Use guerrilla marketing to hack attention
Sometimes, grabbing the attention of your audience is simply a matter of being polarizing. If you’re brave enough to put your name on the line (especially in the early days), you’ll grab the attention of raving fans who believe in what you believe.
Take Tide member and founder of dating app Honeypot, George Rawlings, for example. To promote his new dating app, he played the role of the “villain”, placing a whiteboard on the streets of London that called out his supposed “cheating” ways.
Now before you tut and curse George’s name, the ex-girlfriend doesn’t actually exist. On his Instagram account, he even admitted that it was fake, along with an understandable reason why he did it:
This is what guerrilla marketing is about. It’s thinking outside the box to “hack” the attention of your audience. There’s no set formula to this approach, but you can adopt some mindsets:
First, look at how content and attention is spread within the ecosystem of your market. In George’s case, he knew a sensitive subject would spark social sharing in the initial geo he was targeting.
Hacking attention in this manner is polarising, so don’t be surprised if you generate some negative attention. However, the great thing about polarisation is that you’ll attract those who take a positive interest, too.
4. Advertise on emerging platforms
While Facebook and Instagram Ads can be effective channels for driving affordable traffic, they’re fairly saturated with other brands vying for attention.
Which is why advertising on emerging platforms can be a great alternative (or addition) to these efforts. For example, Quora and Reddit both have relatively new advertising solutions that reportedly offer a lower cost-per-click (CPC) than larger platforms:
Here’s what Quora Ads look like in action:
And here’s what promoted posts look like on
While the targeting isn’t as sophisticated as Facebook Ads, you can still drive the right traffic by targeting users who are interested in specific topics. Most importantly, the competition is less fierce due to how “new” these channels are.
Keep an eye on other platforms who roll out advertising capabilities. Not only do you have the benefit of lower costs by becoming an early adopter, you’ll also grow your presence on those platforms at the same time.
5. Create 10x content & promote like crazy
Content marketing can be a great long-term strategy that requires only your expertise and basic writing skills to get started. But keeping up with a regular publishing schedule and promoting that content can be time-consuming.
Instead of emulating a publication when on a tight budget, treat your content like a product. By this, I mean create the best piece of content available on a topic and spend the majority of your time promoting it.
This is how Brian Dean grew his SEO blog from 0 to over 100,000 email subscribers and $1.4 million in revenue in just over four years. Instead of grinding and publishing a large quantity of content, he focused on creating in-depth content and promoting it over time.
Of course, he also ran successful campaigns, played the long game, made outreach a priority, invested money in areas that he knew would boost his ROI, and followed all SEO best-practices. Check out a behind-the-scenes post about his path to success here.
As a result of his hard work, he ranks on Google for competitive terms like “on page seo,” and generates thousands of visits a month to his blog.
To replicate this approach, start with the following process:
- Find the right topics: Look for “evergreen” topics that people search for on a regular basis. Use a free keyword tool like Ubersuggest to identify high-volume keywords, or a tool like BuzzSumo to find the most-shared topics in your industry.
- Analyse competing content on that topic: What has already been published on your chosen topic? Look at the top 10 results on Google for that topic and look at what you could do better. Is the content lacking practical advice? Does the design and layout make it hard to read? Look for all the gaps you can fill to make the content better.
- Get writing: Start with an outline of sub-sections you should cover. Then, get writing by injecting your own expertise and curating references, statistics, examples and images from other sources (but be sure to credit them).
- Publish & promote: When your content is ready, hit publish and start promoting. You can do this by reaching out to other thought leaders and sharing it with them, repurposing into other forms of content (e.g. Quora posts), reserving some budget to promote through paid media and sharing with your existing customer base or email list.
Using this approach, you avoid running the treadmill of keeping up with a publishing calendar and, instead, focus on generating traffic, attention and leads for your business.
6. Tap into wider audiences with guest blogging
Another solid content marketing approach is to publish on other publications. Through guest blogging, you can get your brand and message in front of a wider audience. Not only that, but it’s a great method of connecting with influencers in your space by getting them featured at the same time.
As mentioned at the beginning of this guide, the first step is to find out what those publications are. A simple Google search for “top [your industry] blogs” will usually yield a solid list of blogs to pursue.
Then, identify the right person to reach out to. This is usually an editor or content marketer at the organisation you’re targeting.
Quick Tip: Your first outreach email should gauge interest and share your existing content to allow editors to evaluate your writing style, as well as the value you can bring to their audience.
Here is a template you can use when reaching out to a publication. Naturally, this will vary by industry and topic and we’ve intentionally kept this template neutral in those respects.
Hi [CONTACT NAME],
My name is [YOUR NAME] and I am the founder of [YOUR COMPANY]. You can find my blog here [YOUR BLOG URL].
I was researching the best blogs for [YOUR INDUSTRY] and came across yours — great collection of high-quality articles.
I’d like to contribute a high-ranking guest post to your blog.
Please take a look at my existing content to gauge my writing style. You’ll notice my pieces are well-researched, highly original and deliver value to an audience.
[EXISTING CONTENT 1]
[EXISTING CONTENT 2]
[EXISTING CONTENT 3]
I’m looking forward to hearing back from you. I already have some topics in mind for the guest post.
When you get a response, that’s when you pitch your topic ideas. Your topics should take into account the following:
- The needs of the publication (what content do they prefer? Look at their existing content and see what format they come in)
- Trending topics and what the market is talking about
- Your value proposition
The first two are most important. Focusing on trending topics and the content formats that your target publication prefers to publish is what will help get your pitch accepted.
7. Build strategic partnerships with face-to-face events
Co-marketing and traditional business development can be a great way to tap into other people’s audiences. But getting the attention of other senior decision makers can be difficult, especially those in well-established businesses.
To combat this, find ways to get into a room with them and build a connection face-to-face.
There are two core approaches to this:
- Attend an existing event and figure out who’s going
- Run your own event
The first option is more affordable than the second, but both have their own benefits. Let’s start with the “exhibition and conference” route.
What are the popular (and preferably local) events in your industry? It will be no surprise that we’ll take to Google, LinkedIn, Meetup and Eventbrite to identify what these are. For example, here’s a list of conferences we get from an article by Fluid Digital when searching for “top ecommerce events london”:
Most event pages will list out the event sponsors and exhibitors. These can be potential partners for your business. But instead of simply attending and turning up to the stands or keynotes, reach out to the individuals you’d like to connect with before the event itself.
An easy way to do this is through LinkedIn. Search for the target company on LinkedIn, followed by the job role that’s most likely to be interested in a partnership.
For example, if you’re looking to run a co-marketing effort where you both contribute to a piece of content, you might search for the “marketing manager” or “marketing director”.
Then, connect with them and tell them you have an idea that might benefit you both. Mention the event, and suggest meeting up for coffee to discuss (while stating you’re not trying to sell them anything, in order to overcome any objections).
Another approach involves running your own events in the form of keynotes or dinners. With keynotes (i.e. workshops and panels), you bring together peers, prospects and potential partners together by running an informative session on a trending topic or challenge. All you need to do is find an affordable venue and a series of speakers to present to your audience.
Dinners, on the other hand, allow you to build connections with a smaller group of people around a specific topic, challenge or trend. This can be great for partnerships or business development, as you can invite those you’re most interested in connecting with, as opposed to a large quantity of people.
Whichever approach you follow, the principles are the same: connect with potential partners and create deep relationships first. Show them your ideas for potential partnerships over time and find a middle ground for win-win opportunities.
8. Make your email marketing worth subscribing to
Building an email list of subscribers, leads and customers is still an effective marketing practice. The problem is, these days, the incentive to sign up for email lists can be uncompelling.
Instead of simply asking website visitors to “subscribe to your newsletter,” offer them something worthwhile.
For example, Everlane, an online clothing store, offers free shipping on your first order for joining their email list. Sure, discounts are an obvious choice, but people love saving money, and they work.
Another great example is sunglass brand William Painter’s gamified spin the wheel newsletter sign up. They offer new users a one-time-only chance to spin the wheel and win a discount.
These promotions aren’t the only way to build your list. Newsletters can be very appealing to you audience – you just need to make sure the value you deliver is worth subscribing for.
William Painter also fills their newsletter with interesting stories, imagery and memes that their customer personas take an interest in:
It’s not until the very bottom of the email you find anything promotional:
The lesson here? Make your email worth subscribing to. When including a call-to-action on your website, make the value clear.
While smaller budgets can be limiting, they don’t have to stifle the growth of your small business. Instead of copying established competitors, think outside the box and grab the attention of your audience with your strengths.
The ideas we’ve given here aren’t just to help you execute on proven techniques. We’ve chosen those that will help you take a different perspective on your marketing. Add value where others don’t.
Most importantly, experiment first before putting huge amounts of money into channels. This includes more established approaches, like Facebook Ads. Spend what you can afford, measure the results, and scale up if it works for you.
Learn all about growing your business in our whole marketing series:
3.1 How to create a social media marketing strategy in 2020
3.2 The small business guide to Instagram marketing
3.3 How to build brand loyalty with relationship marketing
3.4 How to master business storytelling
3.5 How to grow your business with video (on a budget)
Photo by The Collab, published on Pexels