In the business world, there is no wrong time to try to curb spending. Whether the economy is strong or struggling shouldn't affect owners of small businesses to save in any way possible.
Recent employment statistics indicate that the economy may be recovering, but that doesn't mean you should relax your thrifty habits. One aspect of your venture you may be able to focus on to cut business expenses is in marketing. You don't want to become inconsistent or one-dimensional in your marketing; rather, with some common-sense ideas and practicality, you can maintain effectiveness and affordability.
Below are some affordable and free marketing opportunities you can take advantage of in order to cut costs for your business.
1. Investigate Free Options
There are ways to market your business without spending any money at all. For instance, schedule speaking engagements in your area for industry professionals, and attend local networking events. Business networking and making face-to-face contacts can be invaluable, even if online social networking seems to take precedence.
Furthermore, be sure to list your business on review sites such as Yelp, and encourage clients to write about your company. This way, you'll increase your exposure on search engines for your brand name. You can also create profiles on professional networking websites such as LinkedIn to increase exposure.
2. Optimize Your Website
Optimizing your website is a great way to improve your search engine rankings, and can reduce file sizes to speed up download times. This will certainly bring more traffic to your site, which will in turn increase sales.
Also, consider "conversion rate optimization" for your website or landing pages, which will generate more leads and opt-ins by reducing your visitor bounce rate. This is the fastest way to increase sales without spending more money on marketing: Initiate test methods to determine which headlines, images, or content are most beneficial in converting people who visit your site into people who actually do business with you. Software is available to help you with the process, and you can then enhance your website to increase your conversion rate, such as by introducing a live chat feature.
Finally, you can utilize "search engine optimization" which raises your ranking and visibility on non-paid listings of the search engine result pages (i.e. Google and Bing). There are essentially two ways that you can generate more traffic to your site: You can provide relevant, insightful content that is geared towards effective keywords, or you can attempt to manipulate search engines by adding unnecessary links and including mass amounts of keywords into otherwise garbled content. While this second approach may work in the short-term, you can only cheat for so long - you run a serious risk of getting caught by the search engine algorithms and having your site removed for spamming. You're better off producing quality content and playing by the rules.
3. Track Your Campaigns
You'll never know if you are spending marketing dollars on the correct campaigns unless you track the success and progress of each of your projects.
Utilize Google Analytics or Yahoo! Web Analytics so you know which strategies work and which do not (or are non cost-effective). As you analyze the data, scrap the marketing initiatives that provide little to no return-on-investment - either replace them with new strategies, or invest more funds in the ones that show greater success.
It is important to set goals regarding what you expect to gain out of any marketing initiative. These goals should be concise and clear, and should take both time and expected ROI into consideration.
4. Integrate Social Media
If you do not currently utilize social media, it is time to get started. A huge social media market exists, and any relevant business that wants to succeed should at the very least have a presence on the more popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter. However, merely setting up a Facebook profile for your business doesn't mean customers will immediately start knocking at your door.
It is important to gain an accurate knowledge of the customers you are trying to attract: Know what they are looking for, and shape your content to meet the goals of your business. For instance, will daily deals, discounts, or contests get them in the door? Furthermore, realize that you'll need to invest the time and effort to maintain these accounts, and be sure to quickly respond to inquiries and comments.
Look beyond the usual social media sites and consider LinkedIn, Digg, StumbleUpon, and other networking sites to bring in more traffic and customers.
5. Hire a Consultant
If staffing is an issue, you can outsource to freelancers some of your marketing tasks. This option is more cost-effective than bringing on a full-time employee, and by paying by the job, you should be able to get the same results.
However, exercise due caution when hiring a paid consultant, as work experience can easily be exaggerated. You'll want to do at least one round of interviews, where you should dig deep into work histories and backgrounds. Ask for a specific list of references from previous projects, and be sure to contact them.
There are many excellent outsourcing websites to search for competent personnel. For starters, try Elance, Freelancer, and Guru.
6. Do as Much of the Work Yourself as Possible
While you'll want to employ a paid professional for the more complex tasks, there are a number of basic marketing tasks that you can tackle on your own.
For instance, if you are familiar with using computer software for publishing, such as Microsoft Publisher or Adobe InDesign, you can create and print your own flyers or other promotional materials and save your company a bundle. Of course, if you need to launch a website to market your business and have no experience with web design, don't waste precious time struggling with something you know nothing about.
7. Barter for Services
To barter for services, network with other marketing professionals and see what tasks they can perform for you, and, in exchange, inquire as to what services you can offer to them. The only investment you'll need here is a bit of time.
Several years ago, when I was marketing my first book, I provided technical writing services to a colleague of mine who, in turn, set up a blog for me. If you're struggling to find contacts for the work you need, consider a website devoted to the topic, such as BarterQuest.
8. Think Outside the Box
The best way to affordably market your business is to be creative. I once worked at an insurance firm that offered free car detailing for any customer who came in for a quote or consultation - and the car was cleaned right then and there while the customer was in the office. The services cost nothing, as they were paid for in-trade for insurance advice.
There are a number of more basic methods of creative marketing. For instance, you can institute customer referral programs for your clientele: When they bring in a new customer, give them a discount on their account. The out-of-pocket cost is zero, and you're still able to bring in more business. You may also offer free trials for your products or services; once you've initiated first contact, the sales staff will have a much better opportunity to close the deal.
Any comprehensive marketing strategy will use a variety of platforms. Networking with other marketing professionals in your industry is a great way to get advice on which initiatives work and which are not worth the investment. And at times, you can save on marketing by simply not spending money and instituting effective, free methods. Keep a frugal mindset, take a creative approach, and remember that saving money for your company will allow both you and the organization to shine.
What other ideas for free or cheap marketing can you suggest?
David Bakke runs an online reselling business full-time and writes about personal finance issues on Money Crashers, a resource that covers topics from budgeting tools and retirement planning, to career development and the best small business credit cards.