Marketing on a small business budget can be something of a challenge, particularly when a recession hits and sales are down. But this is exactly the time to promote your business like never before. Too many business owners lose sight of this in the daily struggle to keep their heads above water, but setting aside time to work 'on' your business as well as 'in' it is critical in these difficult times. Carve out some time to work on your marketing strategy. Learn from what's worked in the past and what hasn't, and most of all, consider what your clients need from you most right now. The businesses who fail to adapt when a market changes, fail to seize (or even see) the opportunities the change presents.
So here are a few ideas to inspire you and to prove that some of the best marketing can be done on a shoestring:
1) Get your business noticed in the media
Whether it's the local newspaper, a national trade or retail magazine, a radio slot or TV appearance - offer yourself as an expert in your field, available to comment at any time or provide material for their writers or producers. Never written a press release before? Check out these free guides to get you started: http://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Press-Release, http://www.ehow.com/how_8793_write-proper-press-release.html. Remember, this is free PR, not paid advertising. And guess what, it's often more effective!
2) Offer to run a competition
Contact the publications that serve your target customer groups and offer to sponsor a competition. Typically you write a short article, as you would for a press release and announce that 'your company is offering one lucky reader a chance to . . . .' Then all you have to do is make your ' . . . .' count : for example, if you offer a service that can be delivered to several people at once you have a chance to reach a greater number of people with your business offering. Consider offering a taster or sampler package to a group of friends, or a local business - whatever you can think of to make the most of this opportunity. One caveat though - there will be a cost to delivering this 'free' package so make sure you can afford it.
3) Offer existing customers a reward scheme for referrals
Whether it's a discount for future work they place with you, a commission on every referral or even just a thank you note or small gift in the post everytime they recommend you, this is a great way of engendering loyalty and goodwill with existing customers. Not only will they come to you first if they need more work, they will be more inclined to recommend you to their friends.
4) Give your customers something of value for free
Everyone likes a freebie, so whether you have a bunch of samples you could send, a coupon to offer, or an informative guide or article, this is a great way of keeping in touch with customers and prompting them to remember you as a business that has served them well in the past.
5) Build partnerships
Also known as host relationships, this is where you pool your marketing resources with another business whose products or services are complementary to your own. Ideally you target the same kind of customer and have similar business ethics. Remember that for this to work there must be something in it for both of you!
6) Offer yourself as a speaker
Business groups and associations, universities, colleges and schools, local authorities, trade bodies - they're always on the lookout for people to give interesting talks or presentations to their members. While you probably won't get a chance to pitch directly to the audience, your business will gain exposure to your target customers and you will raise your own profile as an expert; and this is an excellent opportunity to pass out business cards or informational brochures (see online printer reviews here). Do your homework, though--make sure you are confident enough to stand in front of people to make the presentation, and make sure that your talk is interesting, inspiring and at times lighthearted.
7) Make your website work for you
If you haven't had your site optimised (SEO), that's something you should look at when finances permit. In the meantime, do whatever you can to raise the profile of your site for free. Join online directories, business and community networks, get reciprocal links between you and your partners (see 5 above) and link your website to and from anything else you do on the internet such as blogs and social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc).
8) Devise special offers
In a recession, people expect you to cut them a deal. But don't just slash all your prices without thinking. Instead why not develop a new range of 'taster' packages, or consider a limited time offer on an existing package. Develop services or products that your customer needs now and if you can, offer guarantees.
9) Increase your payment options
Can you give your customers an opportunity to spread the cost of something they once paid up front for? Can you offer a trial period or 'buy one, get one free' deal? These might be the added incentives they need - the difference between 'buy now' and 'wait 'til payday'.
10) Make the most of your satisfied customers
Satisfied customers are your biggest secret weapon - and the more vocal they are, the better! Why not ask them to write a testimonial for you, or alternatively ask if you can use the job you did for them as a case study. Always ask permission to do this - particularly if you're using their images - and give them the opportunity to approve the final draft. Publicise this on your marketing literature or website, or put a portfolio together. Speak highly of your customers, and whoever they refer will think well of you.
Above everything else though, treat your customers with the utmost respect and gratitude. They are the reason you have a business at all, and in a recession that key business principle really is worth its weight in gold.