19 low-budget marketing ideas to take your small business to the next level

Corporate meeting

The key to growing your business is marketing—in other words, finding a way to break through the clutter and connect with your audience. But when you’re a small business, you might not have the same budget as some of your larger competitors. So how, exactly, do you do that?

We spoke to a number of small business owners, entrepreneurs, and marketing experts to get the low-budget marketing ideas they’ve used to deliver big results for their small businesses—and gathered their insights on how you can do the same.

There’s no arguing that a major portion of your business’ resources needs to go into marketing. But when you’re a small business—and you don’t have the same kind of mega-budgets as a Fortune 500 company—those resources might be pretty tight.

When you’re a small business trying to make a big impact on your marketing, every dollar (and minute!) counts. To be effective, you need low-cost marketing strategies that are going to deliver a high ROI.

But what, exactly, are those strategies? How do you break through the clutter of competition, connect with your target audience, and drive real results for your small business—without completely emptying out your corporate bank account in the process?

Start conversations in the right Facebook groups

If you want to connect with your target audience—and not pay a dime to do so—a great place to do it is Facebook groups.

“Facebook groups are filled with people looking to create and exchange information about specific topics, and providing them with this information is a very powerful way to drive traffic,” says Syed Irfan, growth marketing manager at Ridester, a ridesharing blog that went from 253k monthly visitors to 650k monthly visitors in just seven months.

Find groups relevant to your niche—and then start adding value by answering questions and providing information. Just make sure not to post links immediately.

“Engage in insightful conversations with group members before posting links to your content. Spammers are easy to spot, and you'll likely be called out for it if you don't provide real value to the groups,” says Irfan.

...and keep those conversations going

Once you’ve established yourself as a presence in Facebook groups relevant to your niche, it’s important to keep the conversations going. Not only does it help to further establish you as a valuable resource, but it can also increase your reach within the group.

“Actively engage with members who respond to your post. When Facebook's EdgeRank algorithm sees a high level of engagement, it considers the post ‘highly relevant’ and will show the post to more members of the group,” says Irfan.

Outdo your competitors on the content front

When it comes to marketing in 2018, content is king.

Content marketing is one of the most cost-effective ways to drive engagement, leads, and sales—but if you want your content to really make an impact on your business, you need to do it better than your competitors.

“Use a keyword research tool like Moz or Ahrefs to find out what competitors are ranking for, then create similar content that is more robust,” says Irfan.

Figuring out what keywords your competitors’ content is ranking for—and then creating better content around those keywords—will pretty much guarantee your content will drive results. “Keyword tools tell you exactly what a URL ranks for and how people are finding it, so there's no reason to publish content hoping it will work,” says Irfan.

Add images to your content

“According to Brainrules, adding an image to your content can increase the amount of information remembered after 3 days from 10% to 65%,” says Irfan. So, if you want to make a lasting impression on your audience, you need to make all your content image-centric.

If you send an email promoting a flash sale, make up a “sale” image and include it at the top of the email.

If you write a new blog post, whip up a featured image to grab people’s attention. If you’re running a new social media promotion, make sure to design a host of corresponding social media images to break through the clutter on your audience’s feeds.

The point is, whatever you do, if you want to make it memorable—and effective—include images.

Drive engagement with infographics

Building on the last point, if you have interesting data, try sharing it in a visual way—with an infographic. “Infographics attract tons of publicity and backlinks. This, in turn, leads to improved keyword rankings and increased 'free' organic traffic,” says Irfan. “For any small business, this strategy only takes some time and little or no cost.”

(Psst! Canva has an infographic creator to help you translate your data into a visually impactful infographic to drive traffic, leads, and engagement. And it's free!)

Establish yourself/your business as an SME

When it comes to marketing, it’s important to market your product and/or service—but it’s just as important to market yourself and your business.

Establishing yourself and your business as an SME (subject matter expert) doesn’t cost much in terms of budget—but it can pay off in a major way when customers start looking to you and your business as a go-to in your industry.

Personal branding is an excellent way for small business owners to differentiate themselves from their competitors," says Irfan.

Building a strong personal brand in their area of expertise makes them recognized as the thought leader, expert, authority, and influencer.

“For instance, a restaurant owner can write for local health magazines on topics like cooking, [and] nutrition. A psychologist can start a podcast—using Anchor.fm for free—and share his/her insights on mental well-being from his phone. A graphic design expert can organize free workshops in local colleges, universities, and business incubators on how to use Canva for creating great designs and visual assets.”

“The motive behind sharing all this information is to spread your message and earn the attention and trust of your target audience,” continues Irfan. “This strategy is in line with the ethos of inbound marketing which can get you more conversions than outbound marketing tactics like cold emails [or] telemarketing.”

Narrow your focus on social media

When you’re working with a small budget, every dollar counts—and trying to spread those dollars across too many social media platforms can actually be counterproductive. If you want to see real results with your social media marketing, you need to narrow your focus. Focus on one or two social media platforms—not all of them.

“Instead of creating a social media presence on every single platform, focus on the top one or two platforms your target consumers use the most,” says Emily Sidley, Director of Publicity at content and social media marketing firm Three Girls Media, Inc. “For example, if you’re trying to target millennial women, you probably want to invest in Facebook and Instagram. However, if your target is millennial men, Twitter and YouTube would be better sites to focus on. Or, if you’re a B2B company trying to reach older decision-makers, you may want to spend more of your social media marketing efforts on LinkedIn, and then secondarily invest in Facebook.”

By funneling your resources into the platforms your audience uses most, you can get the most bang for your marketing buck—and avoid wasting budget trying to spread yourself thin across too many platforms.

Repurpose your social media content

The key to successful social media marketing is having plenty of content—but you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you tweet or post a status update. Pull thoughts and ideas from your existing content and repurpose on social media.

Repurposing your social media content—whether that’s finding new and innovative ways to present existing content or tweaking your presentation style across platforms—is a great way to squeeze the most benefit out of everything you create (and save budget in the process).

“[For example,] in addition to sharing links to your blog posts, you can pull thoughts or ideas from them to create compelling images in Canva,” says Sidley. “You can also share the same content on multiple platforms—just make sure you change the way you introduce it so it fits the social media network’s culture and voice.”

Split test your ads...

You need a budget to advertise—but if you take the time and effort to split test your ads, you can optimize each campaign to make sure you’re getting as many leads as possible from your ad budget.

“Run two nearly identical ads at the same time, with one differing factor. This can give you really valuable information about what resonates with your audience, such as a type of image, type of ad, tone of the copy, etc.,” says Sidley.

...and then use Facebook’s targeting features to get those ads in front of the right people

Once you have A/B tested your ads and have an ad that’s a slam dunk, you can use Facebook’s targeting features to get that ad in front of the right people—and you don’t need a huge budget to do so.

“If you have a Facebook business page, you can create and promote ads that will be shown to your target audience whether they’re local or spread out across the country,” says Nicolas Straut, marketing associate at Fundera, which helps small businesses find funding and financial solutions. “Facebook advertising is very cheap and can be launched successfully with a budget as low as $10. You can experiment with different budgets, ad types, audiences, and designs to find your sweet spot.”

Create exclusive offers for social media

Building a social media following is one thing—but figuring out how to convert those followers into customers is another.

Creating exclusive offers for your social media audience is a win-win; not only does it drive sales for your business, but it also keeps your audience engaged. “This marketing tactic will allow you to move [product] if you need to and increase customer engagement on certain platforms [since they’ll learn to] anticipate deals,” says Straut.

Run a direct customer outreach campaign

Sometimes the best—and most cost-effective—way to reach your customers is to connect with them directly.

“Never underestimate the power of direct consumer outreach. It's one of the most high-value, low-cost ways of marketing one's business or brand,” says entrepreneur and author of top-100 Medium publication The Ascent Steven Campbell.

“Chances are, the people you most want to be associated or involved with your business are already active on platforms [like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter]. You just need to identify them (whether by searching for a specific hashtag, group, or job title), engage them in conversation, and, ultimately, solve a problem or provide real value to them.”

Become a valuable resource on Quora

Quora is the corner of the internet that people go to get their questions answered—and that includes your customers. Not only is Quora a great place to do marketing research and figure out what problems your customers are struggling with, it’s also a great place to solve those problems—and drive traffic and sales in the process.

“I would first advise small business owners to research their industry and audience on Quora. What kinds of questions are they asking? What are the problems they are having?” says Campbell. “If you can answer those in an engaging, authentic way—[and] link to your business resources organically—you can drive a lot of traffic to your business.”

Partner with other businesses to increase your reach

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If you want to get your business in front of new eyes without spending any budget for a marketing campaign, try reaching out to other businesses that already work with your target customers.

“One place for business owners to start is by identifying businesses that serve a similar audience to their own, but with different products or services,” says marketing consultant Meghan Hardy.

“Business owners can then review their own marketing channels to identify potential placements for partner messaging—for example, a mention in an email newsletter or social media post, or placement of flyers in physical storefronts. From there, business owners can start reaching out, learning about opportunities for placement in potential partners’ marketing channels, and negotiating co-marketing agreements.”

Get your business in the media

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Getting your business in the press typically doesn’t cost much (if anything)—but the exposure can have a major impact. “Media coverage not only drives awareness of small businesses, it can also lend legitimacy,” says Hardy. “Small business owners can start by identifying relevant media outlets—[which] could include anything from local blogs to national publications—[and] then developing a press release highlighting a newsworthy milestone or relevant data point.”

To up your chances of securing media coverage, make sure the angle you’re pitching is relevant to the publication (so, for example, if you’re promoting a new product, tailor your pitch to speak to each publication’s audience).

Go long with your keywords

Google AdWords is a great way to target potential customers, but it can get expensive. But by “going long” with your keywords, you can make sure that you’re getting the most bang for your buck—and typically get better results with a lower budget.

“With Google, you have the ability to bid on certain keywords. For example, you could tell Google that you are willing to pay $2 for a click from anyone that searches ‘things to do’ in your area. To take that one step further, you can use something called a long-tail keyword,” says digital marketer Brandon Bateman.

“Long-tail keywords aren’t searched as often, but they say more about the person entering the search query. You can usually bid on them at the same price, but you spend less money and only spend it on people that are very likely to use your service.”

“Let’s say you have a business that provides a fun, indoor date,” continued Bateman. “Instead of bidding on ‘things to do,’ you could bid on searches like ‘Indoor date ideas in (city name)’ or ‘fun date ideas.’ That way, you only spend your budget on people that are very likely to be interested in your service.”

Create incentive programs to encourage referral business

“There’s nothing that’ll get you more bang for your buck than having a customer base that trusts and vouches for you,” says Jolijt Tamanaha, director of marketing at Fresh Prints, where she drove revenue a whopping 440% to over $5mil in three years. And when you have that kind of customer base, you need to take advantage—and create an incentive program to drive referral business.

Offering incentives to your existing customers to refer friends and family to your business costs next-to-nothing—but can pay out in a BIG way.

The key to successfully using incentive programs to drive referral business is to make it a win-win for both your existing customer and the new customer they’re referring.

“To get past the awkwardness people feel profiting off of friends, promise your customer something for themselves and something for your customer’s friend,” says Tamahana. “For example, we’d say ‘If you can introduce us to XYZ sorority and they order, I can give them $100 off that order and you $100 off your next one.’”

Run a contest (and drive leads in the process)

Most people will jump at the chance to win free money or product—and you can use that to your advantage. “Giving away money sounds like the opposite of low budget. but you’d be surprised at what people will do for $100,” says Tamahana.

“Run a contest and promise one winner or a handful of winners a prize. Make the cost of entry whatever contact info you need to convert your contest entrants into customers [like an email address]. Track how many customers each giveaway actually nets you and adjust your strategy accordingly.”

Take risks with your marketing

One thing you can do to help yourself stand out from the competition without spending a penny? Don’t be afraid to take risks in your marketing.

“A lot of small business owners are too scared of upsetting people to make edgy jokes or take a strong stance on an issue,” says Tamahana. “But words that grab someone’s attention are, by definition, low budget marketing. Doing so doesn’t cost more than it does to put out boring content—but can have a much bigger return.”

Don’t be afraid to take risks with your marketing. Be edgy, be different, and stand out—it’ll make a much bigger impact (and drive better results) than playing it safe.

Wrapping things up

When you’re a small business, the key to success is making a big impact on your customers with a not-so-big marketing budget. And now that you have these low-budget marketing tips, you have everything you need to get serious results with your marketing efforts—no matter how small your budget.

Ready to put these low-budget marketing tips into action? Get the ball rolling by exploring Canva’s database of templates and start designing the marketing assets you need to get your marketing strategy off the ground!