8 affordable (and free) in-depth marketing ideas to grow your small business

Low budget marketing ideas header by the collab

Many small business owners are focused on maintaining a healthy cash flow and thus don’t invest a ton of their revenue in marketing campaigns. 

But done right, an effective small business marketing strategy will help you to attract new customers and engage with your target audience, in turn boosting your revenue stream. 

This is especially true today, as a report from IAB finds that digital advertising is crucial to UK SMEs’ recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While promoting your business on a limited budget can seem like a difficult task, there are plenty of low-cost marketing ideas that you can implement.  

In this guide, we’ll explore eight affordable (and free) small business marketing ideas you can get started with today. These tactics require little-to-no 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

Marketing campaigns are only effective when they reach your target audience. So naturally, the first fundamental step of a good marketing strategy is to figure out how to reach your audience – both online and offline.

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:

  1. Interviewing 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 (either in person or virtually)?
  2. Using 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.
  3. Searching for top industry blogs or podcasts. A quick Google search for “top [your industry] blogs/podcasts” will usually yield a list of popular publications or podcasts in your business category. Quantifying the size and quality of each publication or podcast 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 marketing tactics in this guide to those channels.

Top Tip: Every time you launch a new product or service, you should focus on ensuring that it’s a product-market fit. Why? Because launching your product or service at the right time, in the right place, to the right market boosts your chances of success. Learn more about how to do that in our 5-step guide to building an effective go-to-market strategy 🔥.

1. Tap into active communities

There are tons of online communities that have an active audience of your existing and potential customers and clients.

And finding them has never been easier. Online platforms like Facebook, Reddit, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Quora are teeming with people discussing brands and their products or services.

In fact, more than half of the world’s population now use social media. And, younger age groups now choose social media over a search engine to learn more about a brand and their offerings.

It’s just a matter of running a search and identifying those platforms or groups with ample members.

Top Tip: To learn more about how to take advantage of the growing social media presence and influence, read our 7-step guide to creating a social media marketing strategy for your small business 📱.

Let’s use Facebook as our example. Start by running a search around one of the following:

  1. A topic related to what you sell. For example, if you sell gourmet food ingredients, you might search for “cooking” related groups.
  2. Your target industry. For example, if you sell a CRM tool, you’d search for “SaaS”.
  3. Your target buyers. For example “restaurants” or “salespeople”.

Using cooking as our example, here’s a list of groups we find:

Facebook Group Examples

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 meaningfully engage with them to help 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 the discussion and adding value.

For example, here’s a post that shares advice around reporting on a popular marketing Facebook group:

Marketing ideas - Example of a community post

The poster isn’t selling anything, simply sharing advice around a frequently asked question (i.e. ‘are ad reports accurate?’).

Because this person is acting in a thought leadership position by sharing valuable advice, he’s gaining trust and building authority before posting anything promotional.

When you do share promotional content, it’s best to do it one of two ways:

  1. Ask the group owners if you can share an exclusive offer for the group before posting
  2. 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’s how to find active communities on some of the most popular online platforms:

  1. Reddit. Search for a topic and identify active communities.
  2. LinkedIn. Look for groups around your target industry or job roles you serve.
  3. Google. Search for the term “top [your industry] communities”.
  4. Twitter. Identify hashtags that your audience use to communicate with each other.
  5. Instagram. Similar to Twitter, identify hashtags that your audience use to communicate with each other.

Top Tip: Instagram can be an incredibly lucrative online environment for businesses because it helps you connect with your audience on a more personal level. This is proven by the fact that 80% of Instagram users follow at least one brand. To learn more about how to use this powerful platform to your advantage, read our beginner’s guide to Instagram marketing for small businesses 📸.

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 by 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 (note: make sure to check each channel’s promotional guidelines before sharing campaigns).

Example of a viral loop that collects email addresses
Example email signup (click image to enlarge)

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:

Marketing ideas online promotion

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.

3. Use guerrilla marketing to hack attention

Sometimes, grabbing the attention of your audience is simply a matter of being polarising. 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 are impressed with your campaign.

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.

Guerrilla marketing example from Tide member George Rawlins

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:

Instagram post from guerrilla marketing campaign

This is what guerrilla marketing is about. It’s thinking outside the box to “hack” the attention of your audience and get some free advertising in the process. 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 so he included this unique campaign in his marketing plan.

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 and marketing tools 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:

Example of a Quora ad

And here’s what promoted posts look like on Reddit:

Example of a Reddit ad

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 that roll out advertising capabilities. Not only do you have the benefit of lower costs by becoming an early adopter, but 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, we 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.

Example of 10x content from Brian Dean

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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? Do the design and layout make it hard to read? Look for all the gaps you can fill to make the content better.
  3. 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).
  4. Publish & promote. When your new 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 (i.e. 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.

Top Tip: Effectively promoting your content is all about aligning your efforts with your audience at each stage of the marketing funnel. This way, you’re getting your content in front of the segment of your customer base that will value it the most at that moment in time. To learn more, read our guide on how to create a complete digital marketing strategy for small businesses 🧲.

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.

In your first outreach email, make sure to 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.

Subject: Guest Blogging

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.

Many thanks,
[YOUR NAME]

When you get a response, that’s when you pitch your topic ideas. Your topics should take into account the following:

  1. The needs of the publication (to gauge their content preferences, look at their existing content and see what format they come in)
  2. Trending industry topics and what the market is talking about
  3. 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 to generate new business. 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 (either in person or virtually) and build a connection face-to-face.

There are two core approaches to this:

  1. Attend an existing networking event and figure out who’s going
  2. 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 what we see when we run a search on meetup.com for “ecommerce” events that are held online but for a London audience.

List of potential ecommerce events

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 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 number 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.

Top Tip: A great networking opportunity can be easily missed if you’re not fully prepared. To learn more about how to add value to each and every conversation you have, read our guide that outlines 5 useful small business networking tips for entrepreneurs ⚡️.

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 10% off your first order for joining their email list. Sure, discounts are an obvious choice, but people love saving money, and they work.

Everlane introductory offer email capture

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.

Wheel-spin email incentive

These promotions aren’t the only way to build your list. Email newsletters can be very appealing to your 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:

Example of a content-filled newsletter

It’s not until the very bottom of the email you find anything promotional:

Promotional messaging in email marketing

The lesson here? Make your email worth subscribing to. When including a call-to-action on your website, make the opt-in value clear.

Wrapping up

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.

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.

Photo by The Collab, published on Pexels

Kerstin Reichert

Senior SEO Manager and SME marketing expert

Tide Team

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