From the February 2004 issue of Startups

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.

10 More Tips

11. Employees: Empower employees to solve customers' problems and motivate them to bring customers back. Ratner says, "I make each employee sign a piece of paper stating, 'I understand that my number-one job, no matter what I was hired for, is to make the customer come back.' This lets my employees know that we're serious about customer service."

12. Business cards: Schloeder advocates printing information on both sides of your business card. "Why should it have just your name, address and phone number, when you can include a description of your company, hours of operation, mission statement or other important information?"
Cost: a few cents per card.

13. Signage: Look for other ways to use signage-at events or even on your vehicle. A local ice cream shop owner tools around my town with the name of his sweet shop on a magnetic sign affixed to the side of his car. Everywhere he goes, he's promoting his business.
Cost: about $40 to $75 for a magnetic panel.

14. In-store venues: Your windows, countertops, reception area, walls and other on-site features of your business are great advertising vehicles. Frame advertising campaigns, and put them on your walls. Create minisigns for your countertops. Adorn visible windows with appropriate displays or graphics.
Cost: inexpensive frames for ads, $10 to $30 each; minisigns from your computer printer, pennies; a window artist, about $25 to $50 per hour.

15. News releases: Get to know your local media, and learn how to make yourself part of the headlines. A news release announcing the involvement of Schloeder's company in developing a regional Web site ended up netting a small write-up in a local newspaper. Over the course of two days, she received more than a dozen phone calls from prospective clients.
Cost: 37 cents.

16. Your expertise: Tax Mama Rosenberg routinely self-syndicates articles about tax planning and other areas of expertise to local newspapers across the country. These vehicles often have thousands of readers and are hungry for well-written, informative content. Get a list of newspapers at www.newslink.org.
Cost: $0.

17. Networking: Head to your local chamber of commerce or other networking groups with a pocketful of business cards. If your business is more national in scope, attend appropriate trade shows and conferences. By networking with her competition, Rosenberg landed referrals from others in her field when they've had too much business or a conflict of interest.
Cost: $0.

18. Referral bonuses: Inspire customers to act as your sales force by giving them an incentive to bring you new customers. This may include a discount off their next service or a small gift or credit on their account. Be sure to ask new customers where they heard about your business so you know when a customer has made a referral.
Cost: a few dollars.

19. Speaking: Rosenberg markets her business through seminars, teaching prospective clients about the tax issues about which she's so savvy. If you have a way with words, seek out opportunities to speak in front of appropriate groups. This positions you as an expert in your field. Look for groups in your newspaper's event calendar, or check with your local library, which may keep a list of social, civic and business groups.
Cost: $0-and sometimes, you may receive payment for speaking.

20. Charities: Teaming up for a good cause-whether by donating products or services or volunteering your time on a nonprofit board of trustees-fosters goodwill within your community. Most of the time, these activities are also rewarded by publicity or promotion through the charity. You can get even more mileage out of the event by posting photos in your place of business or sending out your own news release. It's a great way to do well by doing good deeds.
Cost: the wholesale cost of your time or product.

A Penny Saved...

Shel Horowitz may be the king of penny-pinching promoters. The Hadley, Massachusetts, marketing consultant and author of Marketing Without Megabucks: How to Sell Anything on a Shoestring (AWM Books), among other titles, generally spends nothing on his own promotions. Through a combination of paid speaking engagements, barter and information-sharing, he's been able to bring in lucrative marketing and copywriting assignments that pay about $125 per hour for clients as far away as Cyprus, Europe and Japan. Here are some of the tactics he's used:

  • Bartering: In exchange for writing copy for a local Yellow Pages, he received free advertising in the book.
  • Recruiting free help: For his first Web site, he hired an intern who created the site in exchange for the experience.
  • Creating a presence on the Net: Horowitz is active in Internet discussion groups and works on generating publicity to get his name-and business-in print.
  • Information-sharing: In some cases, Horowitz, 47, is paid to speak to groups or write articles to share his expertise. In these cases, his marketing becomes a revenue stream.

Horowitz shares more of his frugality on his Web site, www.frugalmarketing.com.


Gwen Moran is a writer and consultant specializing in marketing.