15 Low-Cost Marketing Ideas for Small Businesses

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If you want to stand out from the competition, marketing your small business isn’t optional—it’s an essential part of your business strategy, and once you’re up and running, you should allocate a budget line item for it. But what about when you’re just getting started and the budget is lean (or nonexistent)? That’s when it’s time to get creative with one of those low-cost ideas that can get your name out there, tell your brand story, and reach your audience.  

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Telling Your Brand Story

Your brand story establishes your “why.” A brand story invites your potential client or customer to do more than just buy something or hire someone—it invites them to be a part of something that resonates with their taste and values. Storytelling is a primal function of the human brain, and we respond to stories in a more engaged and connected way than we do to plain facts.

Million-dollar companies have teams of marketing professionals shaping their brand identities and telling their brand stories. You probably don’t have that budget, and that’s okay. As the founder of your business, you are uniquely situated to craft and tell your brand story in a direct, grassroots manner, and with some creativity, you can do so without spending much money at all. 

Thinking of each marketing idea as more than just exposure can help you curate and decide on which ideas to go with. For example, if you’re a freelance health coach, you want all your marketing to be aligned with the value of wellness (so, partnering with a yoga studio for a giveaway is a better idea than partnering with a bakery). As you consider the low-cost marketing ideas below, ask yourself about each one, “How can this marketing effort help tell my brand story?” 

Finding Your Audience

The first thing you need to consider when it comes to marketing your small business is who you are hoping to appeal to, or your audience. You want to be thinking about your potential customers or clients, as well as the networks and communities that surround them. In thinking about how to best spend your marketing dollars, homing in on exactly who is most likely to support your business will allow you to efficiently and effectively target a receptive audience. For example, if you have a pet care business, your audience should include folks at local pet supply stores, groomers, and animal rescues, as well as pet owners. 

Once you’ve identified your broader audience, it’s time to brainstorm. Where do these people go (in the world and online)? What do they like to do, where might you find them, what kind of consumers do they tend to be? You won’t be able to give hard answers to all of these questions, but beginning to ask them can help you lay a strong foundation for your low-cost marketing efforts. 

Getting Started in Marketing Your Small Business

Whether you’re starting a new small business or overhauling your practices at a business you’ve been running for a while, it’s never a bad idea to get a bit of formal training in the art of marketing. Finding a reasonably priced online class and then making the time to take it is a wonderful investment in your business, and can help you maximize your marketing in the immediate and longer-term future. 

  1. LinkedIn Learning has a great list of small business marketing courses, such as Social Media Marketing for Small Business. Pricing is very reasonable at $39.99 monthly (or $19.99 monthly if you commit to a year) for full course library access, plus there’s a one-month free trial that you could easily use to take a free course if funds are tight.
  2. Skillshare is another great source of marketing courses like Marketing Skills for Entrepreneurs. Pricing depends on your region, but you can join for free and get a detailed breakdown of costs.
  3. Udemy has a well-priced (currently on sale for $13.99 at the time of this writing) Small Business Marketing Success course that has been taken by over five thousand remote students. 

15 Ways to Get Your Name Out There

Now that we’ve convinced you of the importance of marketing your small business, even without much of a budget, let’s get into the details: how exactly can you leverage your creativity and sweat equity to get your name out there, find your audience, and tell your brand story? Check out these 15 ideas to get started.

Social Media and Digital Marketing Ideas

  • Create a Google Business profile. It’s simple to set one up, and once you’ve done so, your business will appear on Google maps, in the local section of a Google search, and on the Google knowledge panel. Cost: Free

  • Create social media accounts across platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and LinkedIn. Post regularly, follow accounts relevant to your field, and engage often with both your followers and those you follow. To up your engagement, you can cross-post content, promote content from your website, and run polls. Always remember that you’re speaking in your brand’s voice and representing your business. Cost: Free

  • On social media, strategically share other people’s content that speaks to you, use tags to engage brands and individuals, and create your own branded hashtags to use in your posts. These are some of the best ways to grow your reach and brand presence online. Cost: Free 

Physical Marketing Ideas

  • Become a Business Card Guy and leave a business card everywhere you go: every bulletin board, office, and new contact gets a business card. Cost: under $50 for card printing, or free if you already have them

  • Do some guerilla marketing with chalk or stickers. Every sidewalk and utility pole are potential surfaces to post your social handles or website. (Note: avoid damaging or defacing property or creating litter—that’s not the kind of name you want to make for yourself.) Cost: Free, or under $50 for sticker printing

Networking Ideas

  • Have a pitch at the ready. You never know when you’re going to bump into a potential client or referral, and having a well-rehearsed “elevator pitch” can mean the difference between unexpectedly scoring a new client at the PTA meeting and giving a vague, rambling paragraph about what it is you do. Cost: Free

  • It might sound old-school, but joining an in-person networking group can be impactful. Groups like SCORE have regular events that you can attend to polish your pitch, find mentorship in your field, and make new connections. You can also search online for groups specific to your industry. Cost: Free (though some networking groups charge a membership fee)

Giveaways and Discount Ideas

  • Do a product or service giveaway, using the “every x customer gets y” model or giving a free item away to the first x customers. The success of this idea hinges on your ability to promote it, so give yourself plenty of lead time to hype it up on social media. Cost: Your loss on the product or service

  • Create a new package of your existing products or services, give it a fun name, bundle a discount into it, and blast your social media with the promotion. Cost: Free

Partnership Ideas 

  • Collaborations are often great for all parties, so consider approaching another business in your industry (or one in another industry that you can create a marketing angle around connecting, like a coffee shop and a co-working space). Work together to create an event, a social media campaign, or mutual perks (for example, 30% off a cup of coffee at an artisanal coffee shop for clients of the coworking space). Cost: Varies

  • Consider working with an influencer to get your brand name out there. There are many levels of influencers, and a trusted industry name can be a better (and far more affordable) move for local businesses than getting a shoutout from one of the Kardashians. Cost: Varies

Event Ideas

  • Host an event at your space and keep it affordable by asking local food and beverage businesses to partner with you in exchange for promoting their brand at the same time. Cost: Varies, but you can keep it pretty lean

  • Bring a booth to a local fair or festival. Cost: Varies

Referral Ideas

  • Request referrals from your clients or customers. If you feel uncomfortable, you can sweeten the deal for them by offering a perk like a discount on future work. Providing them with some email language that you create can make it easier and faster on their end, or you can add a “recommend” or “share” button on your website that allows them to share your materials directly. Cost: Free

  • Offer rewards for referrals, like an x% or $y coupon to both the referrer and the referee. Cost: Free

Finding Your People

As a small business owner, your name and reputation are everything. In a local market, you want to be known as the go-to person for whatever it is you do, from tax preparation to birthday cake baking. Marketing can seem overwhelming and complex, but at its heart, its mission is to connect you with the people who need you.