Startups face many challenges, but none as precarious or life-threatening as the struggle to remain cash positive. The Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) estimates the average cost to start a business to be in the neighborhood of $30,000; and there’s significant variance in this figure, with some businesses starting out for just a few hundred dollars and others requiring upwards of millions.
But, remember: These numbers are only startup costs. In addition, new companies have to pay thousands a month in team salaries, office-leasing fees, raw materials and other ongoing operational costs -- all while struggling to secure enough revenue to stay afloat.
Caught in this dire financial balancing act, most entrepreneurs end up abandoning investments they come to view as superfluous, such as marketing and advertising. Yet the cruel irony is that neglecting marketing altogether stifles a business’s growth, leaving it less revenue to collect and forcing it into an even more restrictive budget.
With roughly an estimated 80 percent of entrepreneurs having no idea of how to measure a marketing strategy’s effectiveness, it’s no wonder why marketing is so quick to get the ax.
However, here's the thing: Effective marketing doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Sure, higher-budget marketing strategies might bring more visibility and consistency in their eventual returns, but there are plenty of highly effective -- and low-cost -- marketing strategies you can use to help your startup grow. Here are nine of them:
One of the best ways to market is to avoid marketing altogether; instead, create a system that lets your customers do the marketing for you. Consider the fact that people are four times more likely to buy a product when it’s referred to them by a friend.
Despite tech publication reviews, we still trust personal recommendations more than anything else. What's more, establishing a referral program doesn't cost much, and depending on how you structure it, might be entirely free. You could offer your current customers a discount on their subscriptions in exchange for referring a new customer, or offer a cash reward, if you’re really invested in this strategy. Just make sure to get word to your customers (possibly using one of the other methods listed below).
2. Press releases and news features
People read the news regularly, and if you have something newsworthy to report, most news outlets will gladly report it for you. Press releases are an inexpensive way to get your brand mentioned in major publications, and possibly pick up some inbound links along the way. If you do all the work yourself, hunting down and emailing journalists, press releases can actually be a free marketing strategy.
Otherwise, you might pay a couple of hundred dollars to have a release syndicated through a service like PR Newswire. If you’re only interested in getting yourself referenced, check out Help a Reporter Out (HARO) to provide tips to journalists just waiting for them.
3. Content marketing
Content marketing takes many forms, but none require significant investment. The simplest approach is to manage an on-site blog, adding new content a few times a week that informs or entertains your readers in some unique and practical way.
Infographics, videos and podcasts all belong to the content-marketing category as well. Reason? All these content mediums have the power to improve your brand reputation, increase your inbound traffic and complement the multiple other strategies you draw from this list (as you’ll see).
If you’re spending time writing articles for your content-marketing campaign, you might as well invest in improving your search engine optimization (SEO).
New to SEO? It might seem technically complex, but the reality is, with a bit of reading and dedication, you can easily understand the basics. You’ll use online tools like Moz’s Keyword Explorer to identify relevant keywords that could attract high traffic to your site with low competition; you'll then tweak your site to include those keywords.
You’ll also need to make structural changes, write consistently high-quality content and attract backlinks to your domain. It’s a lot of work, but if you do it yourself, your only cost will be time -- which is worth it, because the long-term benefits are enormous.
5. Social media marketing
Social media marketing isn’t something you can do casually, but it is freely available, and it’s something you can master if you invest the time. Start by establishing profiles for your business on major platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Flesh out your profiles; and start syndicating content that your target market would like.
Reach out to individuals, and make sure to stay connected. In time, you could grow an audience of thousands, representing an anchor stream of traffic to your site.
6. Email marketing
Email marketing remains one of the most cost-efficient marketing strategies around, with some sources claiming a return on investment (ROI) of 400 percent or more. As long as you have a good list (organically curated, rather than bought), and a steady but non-invasive stream of outgoing email blasts, you should be able to see a significant return on any time or money you put into it.
7. PPC ads
Pay-per-click ads can get expensive if you’re targeting high-traffic head keywords, but there are niches and platforms that are friendly even to the most budget-conscious startup entrepreneur. For example, on Facebook, you can pay as little as $1 a day for certain ads (though you’ll probably want to invest a little more than that if you want to see significant results).
8. Personal branding
Personal branding works much like corporate branding, except it’s going to apply to you as an individual. You’ll promote yourself and your expertise across social media, and possibly on a dedicated blog, earning new followers and a separate source of traffic and interest.
The value here is that people tend to trust other people more than corporations, so eventually, you’ll have a separate, powerful outlet you can use to syndicate your content or attract new leads -- all without paying a dime.
9. Forums and groups
Don’t underestimate the power of lurking on public forums and social media groups. You might see someone asking a question that you can answer (with your expertise), or catch wind of a local event you can use to promote your business. The more involved you are with your respective communities, including your local neighborhood as well as your broader industry, the more you stand to gain.
Best of all, it usually doesn’t cost anything to become a member of these communities, so you can reap the benefits with nothing more than a few hours of your time.
The takeaway here? If you find yourself struggling with your business’s budget, don’t resort to cutting marketing out of the equation. Instead, find creative ways to build recognition for your brand and products that don’t require significant up-front investment.
Once you establish a stronger stream of consistent revenue, you’ll have more freedom to invest in bigger, more expensive strategies; or you can pour more resources into the top performers from your earlier experiments.