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Promoting for Pennies

Marketing costs weighing you down? Here are 20 creative ways to boost business without breaking the bank.

Startup businesses need to maximize every opportunity for promoting themselves. Surprisingly, that doesn't necessarily mean pricey advertising campaigns and time-consuming promotional programs. Many startup business owners overlook simple, inexpensive opportunities to promote themselves, reinforce their brands and increase sales through vehicles they already have in place. These opportunities cost far less than most traditional marketing methods and have been very effective for many entrepreneurs. Here are 20 methods to get you going.

1. Invoices: Stuff your statements with special offers or information about new products and services. Graphic designer and marketing consultant Jo Schloeder, 41, sent coupons for a free hour of services from her Wall, New Jersey, firm, Creative Approach Inc. Since few people in her line of work use coupons, it got attention-and several new projects.
Cost: a few cents to print an information sheet.

2. On-hold programming: Use on-hold time to communicate to a captive audience. Instead of playing elevator music, use that valuable time to remind customers about special promotions or relay useful information.
Cost: Record it yourself, and it's free. Professional systems may run upwards of $40 per month. Find providers in the Yellow Pages under "Phone Systems" or "On-hold Messaging."

3. Cash register receipts: If you generate receipts for your customers, they should include more than just a transaction record. Dave Ratner, 52, owner of Dave's Soda & Pet City in Springfield, Massachusetts, an award-winning chain of pet-food and soft-drink retail stores, uses register receipts to periodically tell customers about specials, events and product reminders in his four stores.
Cost: If your register offers customizing options, $0. If not, staple receipts to information slips for pennies.

4. e-Mail signatures: When you get an e-mail from Eva Rosenberg, 50, publisher of TaxMama.com, you'll also get her contact information, a description of her site's unique selling points, and a tip about what's new at her site. The Northridge, California, tax consultant says her e-signature has helped customers find her contact information easily and has also helped facilitate media interviews.
Cost: $0.

5. Voice-mail messages: Instead of wasting time with instructions on leaving a message, remind callers to visit your Web site or take advantage of upcoming seasonal promotions. You could also use your company's tag line or slogan in the message to reinforce awareness.
Cost: $0.

6. Phone manner: Be sure whoever answers the phone at your place of business is upbeat and helpful to callers. "That person is your vice president of first impressions," says Ratner. Employees fielding phone calls should be able to answer simple questions or know where to get answers, especially when a customer or prospect calls.
Cost: $0.

7. Stickers: They're not just for preschoolers. When Rosenberg launched her tax consulting business and Web site, she bought 100 red heart stickers that said, "We love referrals."

"We plastered them on everything that went out of our office, and business poured in," recalls Rosenberg. "Simply telling people we wanted referrals made a big difference."
Cost: $7.50 for 100 stickers.

8. Frequent-buyer clubs: Ratner believes in rewarding loyal customers with gift certificates to his store. He tracks purchases, and when customers get to a certain dollar amount or quantity, they get a gift certificate for anything in the store. For nonretail businesses, other ways to apply this might be a discount or free gift after a certain number of hours or frequency of purchases.
Cost: For 500 small, black-and-white punch cards to track purchases, approximately $50 to $75. If your point-of-sale or invoicing system already has a method of tracking volume, you can do so internally for even less.

9. Product shipments: When you ship or deliver products, include an extra catalog, sales sheet or coupons in the package, making it easier for customers to place additional orders.
Cost: a few cents to a few dollars per piece.

10. Occasion cards: Send birthday cards, Thanksgiving cards, congratulations cards-they're great ways to let customers know you care.
Cost: about $1.50 per card, plus postage.

Help on the Cheap

If you still need assistance in developing your marketing plan, here are a few places to turn for low- or no-cost help:

  • Your local Small Business Development Center: This resource can provide help with marketing and much more.
  • The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE): SCORE offers free counseling to start-up or established business owners.
  • Your local college: If you can offer a meaty assignment, you may be able to attract a marketing student to intern with your company in exchange for credit. If not, see whether the college has a marketing or advertising club that can help.
  • Trade associations: Your industry group may offer assistance, statistics and research that can help you refine your marketing. Visit the association Web site, or call for help.
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Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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This article was originally published in the February 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Promoting for Pennies.

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