Creative Marketing on a Shoestring

You've ransacked your brain for a shred of creativity, and you still can't come up with some decent marketing tactics. Good news: We've done the work for you.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the April 2002 issue of . Subscribe »

In a world where a decent print ad can run to five digits, Internet ads start at hundreds a month and direct mail costs a dollar a pop, what's a cash-strapped entrepreneur to do? Fear not. If you're willing to put in time in lieu of money and aren't afraid of a little adventure, there are always ways to market your business-all for the price of a large pizza or less. Just avoid blowing money on methods that don't work for start-up businesses. Instead, try these unorthodox but effective (and inexpensive) marketing measures.

Pull a Stunt
As you sit in a sidewalk caf�FD one sunny afternoon, you notice heads suddenly swiveling. A woman is walking down the a boned, laced bodice that gives her a silhouette that would make strong men faint. She hands out leaflets to her entranced audience. She makes more than $3,000 in bodice orders within the week. Not bad for a marketing outlay of $10 and a couple of hours.

A good publicity stunt is a startlingly effective way to catapult your business into the public eye and gain exposure that could otherwise cost you a fortune-if you're the kind of person who's not afraid to be a bit wacky. Think up a clever, funny, outrageous idea and tell the local media-newspapers, radio stations, TV stations-all about it. Call everyone you know, and ask them to spread the word.

If you're starting a homemade jam business, for example, put out a public challenge for a jam-sandwich-eating contest. Or stage a "live" commercial in a crowded mall or even the street. (Get permission first.) See if you can convince (or entice with free offers of whatever you sell) friends or family to take part. Otherwise, you can probably hire aspiring actors or musicians from local schools and guilds for very little money.

Even if you're not willing to go quite that far, you can whip up some public interest by adding theater to your business. If you're selling hand-painted silk accessories, give a full-blown silk-painting demonstration in the park, complete with flying painted-silk pennants. Or spread a bright cloth on the grass by a high-traffic area of the park, sit down in a suit with a briefcase, and put up a big sign that reads "Tax accountant for hire." The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.


Before there was money, there was bartering, the direct exchange of goods and services. You might not have money for marketing, but you do have something to trade: your business.

Call your local radio stations and offer free gifts, appointments, coupons-whatever you've got and can afford-to be used as prizes in their promotional draws or contests. In exchange, you get to include your business name and contact information on all these products, and they make periodic announcements on the air that sing praises of your contributions.

You can also barter with other small businesses in your area. Are you an information broker, plumber, candlestick maker? Find a copywriter, Web site designer or desktop publisher and offer to trade your services for professionally written ad copy and polished Web sites and brochures.

Give Away Tips (and Your Name)
Name recognition: that's what those giant billboard ads and full-color magazine spreads are trying to build. Name recognition sells because people fall back on the things that are familiar. You, too, can cash in on this tendency-and spend nothing more than your time and photocopying costs.

Start by writing a short article that offers a set of tips related to your business. Remember, on this topic, you're the expert. Pick a catchy title that promises secrets, numbers and reasons ("Become your own boss in five easy steps," "Three things to try when your computer dies" and "7 mortgage mistakes to avoid," for example). Don't overtly sell your business, though you can make references to it. Many people who never read ads will read an article, especially one that promises a tangible benefit.

Format the article so you can fold it into a convenient shape for mailing or handing out. Include contact information and a clear but brief description of your business where they're visible but not obtrusive. Hand out the "free tips" at networking events, send them to relatives and friends, and post them on bulletin boards in coffee shops, Laundromats, public libraries and malls. Offer them free from your Web site if you have one.

Ask compatible local businesses to keep a stack of them as a service to customers. "10 things to look for in a good pet sitter" would probably be welcomed at your vet's office, "Beat stress through aromatherapy" at a natural products store. And the next time someone is going on holiday in Europe or runs into a stressful spell, your pet-sitting or aromatherapy massage business will be first in line for consideration.

Stand United
This is probably the most effective and least-utilized way you can get more business fast: Join forces with other entrepreneurs who run businesses complementary to yours. If you're a copywriter, seek out a graphic designer and a printer. Interior designers can team up with house painters and custom furniture makers, resume writers with employment consultants.

Market your services jointly, and refer your clients to each other. Offer coupons that offer discounts to each others' services. Not only do you get many times the exposure you'd get if you were marketing alone, but you'll also attract extra customers who want the convenience of one-stop shopping for all their needs.

Influence the Influencers

Say you're a photographer who specializes in wedding pictures. If you can get just one bridal store to recommend you to its customers, you've done the equivalent of advertising yourself to the dozens or hundreds of people who shop there every week.

Make it convenient for your host store to recommend you to its customers. Run off simple, persuasive leaflets that describe your service, a big glossy photograph of your product for permanent display (alongside business cards for people to take away), or coupons that offer special discounts. Then start approaching local businesses whose clientele might also be interested in what you sell.

"Would You Like Fries With That?"
This simple question rakes in so much extra profit for McDonald's, employees probably have it sewn into their shirt collars. There's a lesson in this for you: Don't be so focused on getting new business that you neglect your most promising and potentially profitable market-your past and current customers.

After a sale, always offer clients companion products or additional services at a discount-if they buy now. If your business has built-in repeat potential (pet grooming, accounting or carpet cleaning, to name a few), drop a regular postcard or phone call to solicit another appointment with past customers. There's a good chance that they'll become regulars who then recommend you to people they know.

Even if your business offers a one-time service, ask your clients' permission to retain contact with them. Then send them an e-mail announcing a new and improved product, a holiday special or a discount for anyone they refer to you. Think how much more successful this would be than to start over with folks who've never even heard of you.

Searching for some more creative marketing ideas? Search no more:

  • Small Business Now : a large site devoted to marketing, with free quizzes, a collection of more than 50 articles, numerous links and more
  • BusinessTown.Com : a large index of business articles, with separate sections for marketing and advertising
  • "Stand-by space": If you think newspaper ads could work for you but you can't afford the rates, ask your paper if it will hold your ad until they have unsold space left. This usually gets you a discount of two-thirds or more.
  • E-mail marketing programs: If you like the direct-mail approach but can't afford the postage and printing costs, consider e-mail marketing.
  • Niche newsletters: The circulation might be small, but if you pick a niche that fits your business, you'll pull lots of leads for ads that cost a tiny fraction of what a general publication charges.
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