Get Your Message Out--On a Shoestring

4 easy ways to create a successful advertising plan without spending a bundle

By Roy H. Williams

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: I don't have a very large advertising budget. What are some really inexpensive ways I can advertise my business?

A: The four things to remember when considering a shoestring marketing plan are these:

  1. Time and money are interchangeable. You can always save one by spending more of the other.
  2. High rent accomplishes the same thing as advertising. It gives you exposure.
  3. The cost of giving away a sample is often less expensive than the cost of advertising.
  4. In the end, it's what you say in your ad that matters most. So say something irresistible.

Now let's look at those in order:

Time and money are interchangeable. I have a young mechanic friend who specializes in older model BMW automobiles. In his glove box are several dozen 5-by-7 fliers that say "I specialize in fixing BMWs just like this one. Is it running like it should?" Whenever work is slow, he drives through big parking lots where there are hundreds of cars and looks for older BMWs. When he finds one, he slips the flier under the windshield wiper after scribbling a personalized note to the owner, such as "Arctic blue has always been my favorite color on this model. You should be proud of it." He usually begins getting calls on his cell phone while he's still out distributing fliers. Another friend specializes in replacing old picture windows with fancy bay windows. Guess where he puts his fliers? You guessed it: on the front doors of old houses with big picture windows. Works like a charm.

High rent is another form of advertising. Be where the people are and let them see you at work. Have you ever noticed the shoeshine guys at airports? They usually make a small fortune, even though they have to pay the airport unbelievably high rent to be there. But it's still a lot less money than they would have to spend to generate the same amount of business through advertising. Is there a place you could be where people could see you at work? Imagine the volume of business a shoe repair person could do at a kiosk in the mall. After having seen him at work there once or twice, hundreds of people would begin tossing their old shoes into the car whenever they were headed to the mall. Why isn't anyone doing this?

Free samples are often cheaper than advertising. A few years ago, I began working with a client in the frozen custard business who said he'd be happy to invest $10,000 in advertising if he were guaranteed 500 new customers. When I pointed out that this was $20 per new customer, he reminded me that anytime a new customer tried his product, they were usually hooked for life and he would soon make back his investment. It was the middle of winter, and his two custard stands had no inside dining. I told him to prepare all the custard mix he could use if he kept his machines running nonstop from 9 a.m. until midnight and to get a good night's sleep. The next day, I began airing a 60-second radio ad twice every hour on a midsized station in his town offering a free, full-sized cone to everyone in town--all they had to do was get there before midnight. We gave away more than 11,000 cones that day at a total cost of $1,900 for custard mix and $1,200 for advertising. His business literally exploded after that, and now he's franchising nationally. The cost of free sampling is incremental. If no one responds to your offer, it costs you nothing. If it costs you a lot, it's only because it worked well. What are you waiting on?

It's what you say that matters most. When you have a small ad budget, it's especially important that you make a compelling offer. There's no "right people to reach" when you're saying something that no one cares about. I've never seen a business fail because it was reaching the wrong people. But I've seen hundreds fail because they were saying the wrong thing.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

Roy H. Williams

Roy Williams is the founder and president of international ad agency Wizard of Ads. Roy is also the author of numerous books on improving your advertising efforts, including The Wizard of Ads and Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads.

Related Topics

Editor's Pick

Have More Responsibilities at Work, But No Pay Bump? Use This Script to Get the Raise You Deserve.
Black and Asian Founders Face Opposition at All Levels — Here's Why That Has to Change
Business News

'This Made Me Physically Recoil From My Phone': Lingerie Brand Apologizes For 'Creepy' Ad Referencing Ryan Reynolds and Bras

Online lingerie retailer Harper Wilde is under fire for a bizarre sponsored post it has since pulled from Instagram.

Business News

'Harvard Should Be Ashamed': Kim Kardashian Slammed For Giving Lecture at Harvard Business School

Kardashian visited Boston on Friday with Skims co-founder Jens Grede to talk to students about the shapewear company.

Thought Leaders

5 Small Daily Habits Self-Made Millionaires Use to Grow Their Wealth

We've all seen what self-made millionaires look like on TV, but it's a lot more subtle than that. Brian Tracy researched what small daily habits these successful entrepreneurs adopted on their journey from rags to riches.

Business News

The 90-Year-Old Owner of Ray's Candy Store Was Brutally Attacked Outside His Shop

Ray Alvarez was attacked in front of his iconic NYC candy store around 3 a.m. on Tuesday.