From the June 2009 issue of Startups

You've got a great idea and a plan to turn it into a business. Now all you need are customers--and to get them, you need to spread the word about what you're doing. One problem: Your marketing budget makes your grade school allowance look like a princely sum.

Not to worry. There are plenty of ways to promote your business without spending a lot. The key to effective penny-pinching promotion, say marketers Travis Miller, 32, and Jimmy Vee, 33, founders of Orlando, Florida-based Gravitational Marketing, is to apply creativity to established techniques and emerging opportunities to reach a specific audience. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Get Profiled
In 2007, when Seth Mendelsohn founded Simply Boulder Foods LLC, a Boulder, Colorado, company that makes gourmet sauces, he started posting profile pages on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Mendelsohn, 31, estimates he has "a few hundred followers, and they all want to hear about our company," which has projected 2009 sales of more than $100,000.

Some of these sites allow users to start special interest groups or fan pages, which Miller says you can use to talk about your products and build bigger audiences.

Make Yourself a Star
Perhaps you've never thought of yourself as the next Larry King, but today's media vehicles make it possible for you to host your own show--for nothing. PR expert Karen Taylor Bass, 42, author of You Want Caviar, But You Have Moneyfor Chitlins, hosts her own show on the free network BlogTalk Radio, a social radio network where hosts can create free, live, call-in talk shows using an ordinary phone. The shows are archived and available for download as podcasts. You can also post podcasts to your website or shoot your own videos and place them on YouTube or in your blog. "Don't forget public access television, where you may be able to create your own show and reach local audiences for free," Bass says. Business owners should check with their local cable companies for terms and restrictions.

Pluck from the headlines
Publicity 101 tells you to build a media list and send relevant news releases to the contacts on it. That works, but Stacey Dolezal Susini, 35, a former TV news reporter and the founder of Zontis Public Relations in Dallas, says you can get even more mileage by watching what's in the news. First, understanding the beats--or specific topics and regions--each reporter covers can help you better target your list. In addition, by piggybacking on existing headlines, you can put yourself in the spotlight. "Is there a charitable organization in trouble? If so, host a food, coat or clothing drive for them at your place of business," she suggests. Then call your local media and tell them what you're doing.

No time to compile a media list on your own? Try services like Contacts on Tap, (which costs as little as $395 for a year-long subscription (and offers a 15-day free trial), or use a service like Bulldog Reporter (bulldogreporter.com), which lets you build a list, then pay $2 per name.

Go for the Demo
By demonstrating your product or service, you get to show prospects firsthand why they should buy from you, Mendelsohn says. While he now has a hectic grocery-store-demo schedule, he got his start at local farmers markets that only charged him a percentage of the day's sales.

"Look for local events where you can connect with a lot of people, then let them know where they can buy your product in the future," he says. Get more mileage by filming your demo or presentation and posting it online.

Find businesses in your backyard
Got local businesses that would be good customers? Susini suggests offering employee incentives to various businesses. Call their headquarters and ask how you can offer discounts or other special offers to their employees. If it's a good fit, the HR department will promote your business to staffers without you having to do more than ring up sales. Similarly, she says, you can cross-promote your business with other businesses, offering discounts to their customers--and vice versa.

Be a Winner
Jenny Hwa, 31, founder and creative director of Loyale, a New York City sustainable clothing company that saw first-quarter sales growth of 70 percent, scours magazines and trade media on the lookout for awards competitions. In 2008, she was honored in awards co-sponsored by Glamour and O magazines, as well as one from iconic fashion designer Eileen Fisher. Another award she won was judged by editors from Glamour, Lucky and InStyle magazines, as well as popular website DailyCandy.com. "It was a big year for us," she says, "and we got a ton of great publicity and met some important contacts because of the awards we won."

Give it Away
Free stuff is always a hit. Miller suggests offering free reports or special offers on your website in exchange for the prospect's e-mail address. Retail businesses might consider a small gift with purchase or other loyalty program for customers who make repeat purchases.

Speak Up
From local chamber of commerce meetings to national trade events, booking yourself as an expert speaker can be a great way to get attention--and new business. While it's not everyone's cup of tea, Bass says, many events and meetings are hungry for good speakers who can share valuable information, rather than an overt sales pitch. Best of all, she says, you can recycle your speech by turning it into a podcast for your website, a blog post, an article for a trade publication or even a series of Twitter posts. While you're at the event, be sure to collect contact information from the people there and follow up. Says Bass, more than 70 percent of prospective leads are never pursued.

Get Sourced
When reporters need sources, they may turn to a handful of services. Help a Reporter Out, also known as HARO, started as a Facebook group and is now a service with more than 50,000 subscribers, connecting reporters and sources. Sign up for free at helpareporter.com. Similar services charge fees such as PR Leads--which helped Hwa get interviewed by national magazines--and Publicity Hound.

Don't do it
There are some things that aren't worth the money, no matter what your budget. Here are a few:

Going after Oprah: Yes, The Oprah Winfrey Show is the gold standard of publicity; but it's a long shot. If you spend all your time and money going after this, you could miss valuable, revenue-generating publicity in smaller vehicles that are easier to crack, says Jimmy Vee of marketing agency Gravitational Marketing.

Printing costly press kits: PR expert Karen Taylor Bass cringes when she sees glossy printed media materials. She says, "It's far more effective to use e-mail."

Hiring a big agency: If you need to hire help, find a good service provider who works with startups and understands budget constraints, Vee says.