Spending money on marketing your start-up business can seem an unwelcome expense, but unless customers find you, they can’t buy your products or services. Start Up Loans talked to new business owners about how to market a business on a shoestring and the marketing strategies that worked for them.
Marketing your start-up and finding customers can be a challenge for a new business owner.
With a limited budget, many traditional marketing methods may be beyond your reach.
Yet marketing success isn’t directly related to how much money you spend.
The key is to make your marketing as effective as possible and get the best bang for your buck.
The good news is you don’t need to employ a marketing agency or pay for a snazzy advertising campaign.
Instead, you can use cost-effective marketing tactics to reach your target customers.
You may need to put in a little more effort, such as writing blog posts and posting on social media, but marketing on a shoestring can be surprisingly effective.
Learn how to think creatively and define your brand with our free Marketing in the 21st Century course. Part of our Learn with Start Up Loans partnership with the Open University, our online course is free to join, delivered by experts and includes a free statement of participation on completion.
Budget-friendly marketing tactics
1. Promote your business on social media
Social media is a great way to find and engage with potential customers.
From joining Facebook or LinkedIn groups to make contacts through to posting time-limited discounts, social media posts are free to create and can reach a large audience.
Incentivise customers to follow and share your social media channel by giving them access to special offers and competitions.
“I set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account,” says Susan Bonnar, founder of The British Craft House in Lee-on-the-Solent. “Every day we would put our crafts on the Facebook page, we would all like each other’s posts, and within about three months, we had 10,000-page likes.
“Have a look at all the social media platforms and pick the one you like best,” she advises. “Try to establish yourself on at least one platform.”
Kate Collins, founder of My Outdoor Classroom CIC in Merseyside, uses Facebook to connect with parents about events and offers.
“Facebook is really good because you are directly in contact with parents,” she says. “We’ll post if we’re putting on a programme of activities or we’ll advertise our parties, and that tends to get the most amount of people contacting us directly.
2. Get others to sell for you with affiliate marketing
Affiliate marketing can be a quick way to reach customers, especially if you have a niche product. It works by offering a commission – usually between 3% and 25% – for each customer introduced by a third-party, such as a blog or voucher code site.
These sites promote your product and earn a commission for each sale they generate.
You can either set up affiliates yourself or join an affiliate network.
Networks will help manage the relationship between you and third parties, including tracking sales and handling commission payments.
3. Invest in Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising
PPC advertising can be cost-effective as you only pay when a potential customer clicks on a link to your website, usually after they’ve typed specific keywords into a search engine.
The trick is to make sure PPC is effective.
That means researching target keywords to bid on so that when potential customers search for that term, your PPC ad appears at the top of the search results.
You’ll need to identify keywords relevant to your business, such as ‘Leeds gardening services’.
Create a web page that potential customers land on after clicking your PPC ad that tells them about your service.
4. Take advantage of free credits
Companies such as Google, Facebook and TripAdvisor regularly offer free advertising credits for businesses.
With free advertising worth up to £150 on offer, it’s worth snapping up free credits and using it to test advertising before committing your money to it.
Some platforms, such as TripAdvisor, are best suited to particular businesses, such as hotels and restaurants.
Anthony Quinn, founder of The Pudding Pantry in Nottingham, says using free credits opened the door to new business.
“We’re probably spending a few hundred pounds on TripAdvisor each month, which has been fantastic. We ignored it in the past, but they offered some free credits, which we used, and suddenly we saw a huge surge in sales,” he says.
5. Create social media ads
Social media advertising is different from PPC.
It allows you to target a specific customer demographic – for example, women aged 40–50 living in Birmingham – and show a sponsored post or ad in their social media feed.
For some businesses, this can be highly effective.
“I invest quite heavily in ads including Facebook and Instagram ads,” says Susan. “I outsource the ads, and we went from spending maybe £5 a day in ads to now hundreds of pounds, but it has completely paid for itself.”
6. Build an email mailing list
An active email mailing list can save a fortune in marketing spend in the long term.
Provide incentives to encourage customers to sign up for email newsletters by offering discounts and special offers via regular emails. Make sure you get their permission to send them marketing.
Email services such as MailChimp, HubSpot and Sender are usually free to use when getting started, with costs kicking in once your email mailing list hits a certain size.
Many services include design tools to create professional-looking emails easily.
Look for email tools that automatically send emails to customers when triggered, such as reminding them that they have products in their shopping basket but haven’t completed their purchase.
Read our guide to email marketing tips for your start-up
7. Encourage customer referrals
Positive word of mouth can work wonders, especially for local service businesses such as dog groomers and gardening services.
Create discount offers such as ‘refer a friend’ to encourage word of mouth.
Jane Crane, founder of Your Tribe in Newcastle, relies on customers telling their friends. “There’s nothing better than a referral because people saying how much fun they’ve had is the best form of advertising you can get.”
Kate agrees: “I’ve never spent a great deal of money on marketing and advertising. It’s mainly been through word of mouth. We ended up getting a good reputation, and so other people would book.”
8. Get listed in directories
Make sure your business is listed in as many directories as possible.
These can be general business directories such as Yell, trade-specific ones such as Checkatrade, or industry bodies that list companies such as accountants or marketing agencies.
It’s worth investigating joining industry memberships, especially those that include member directories that customers can use to find services.
Many offer discounted memberships for start-ups.
9. Guest posting
Research the types of publications – from blogs to magazines – that your customers read and contact them to see if they’d be willing to publish an article that’s useful to their readers and relevant to your business.
Articles that offer expert advice, tips and tricks or a fresh take on problems that your business solves can generate a lot of interest.
Make sure you include links back to your website or even run an ad with discount alongside it.
Victoria Griffin, co-founder of Goji Hair in Cardiff, took advantage of winning ‘Best hair & beauty salon 2020’ in Cardiff Life magazine to run ads. “Our strategy was that we took a couple of ads out in local magazines, such as Cardiff Life, offering 20% off and that’s been really good for us.”
You should also keep an eye on the #journorequest hashtag on twitter.
This is the hashtag that many journalists use on Twitter to find companies to feature in their publications.
Follow key journalists who feature on small business/enterprise/startups in both local, regional and national press.
10. Optimise your website
Most businesses have a website, but it’s worth investing some time and money in SEO (search engine optimisation) to ensure that your site appears high in search results.
For example, you could create web pages for each type of pest control service your business offers, such as ‘rodent control’ and ‘bird nest removal’, with each page providing tips, advice and information about your service.
You should also consider including a blog on your website where you can post relevant, quality content which can help build your reputation.
Whether it’s starting a discussion about what’s going on in an industry, an advice column or explanations of your products and services, make sure the blog has a clear ‘Call To Action’ and directs people to where they can buy your product or service.
Read our guide to making your website more effective.
11. Attend networking events or host your own
Networking is a great way to meet aspiring and existing business owners.
It can help you get business advice by talking to like-minded individuals, and is a chance to pitch your business to potential customers.
Check business hubs, co-working spaces, libraries and business centres in your local area as these places host a number of networking events.
If you’re running your own event make sure your event has a clear purpose, and by charging a small fee and using free ticketing applications like Eventbrite, you can keep the costs of your event relatively low.
12. Enter free awards
There are lots to choose from that target startups and small businesses.
Even if you don’t win, there will likely be a page that advertises the entrants or semi-finalists so this can create some free exposure.
Check out The Pitch and if you’re under 30 Shell LiveWIRE who offer a monthly award.
Want to market your start-up business? Check out our free online courses in partnership with The Open University on effective marketing techniques. Our free Learn with Start Up Loans courses include:
Plus free courses on finance and accounting, entrepreneurship, project management, management and leadership.
Disclaimer: While we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.