If you’re short on budget you’ve still got something you can invest in the ongoing success of your business: time. With time, dedication and some know-how, you can get your business in front of people and attract prospects and new customers without investing a single cent in professional marketing services or advertising.
Ready to hear something really crazy? You don’t even need a website to do it. The most shoestring startup can generate business by leveraging the power of web, search and social marketing with only the investment of your time.* (*There’s no such thing as “only” time, of course. Time is money, and I don’t pretend these are fast and simple. But when you’ve got to choose there are creative and profitable ways to market your business online.)
You’ve probably noticed that web addresses aren’t the only things that come up in search results anymore. Along with standard website URLs come maps, reviews, and even social updates and profiles. You don’t need a website to show up in local search listings or in map results. You just need to list your business. One of the key players in local search is Google Places. It’s quite simple to list your business with Google Places. Simply enter your phone number into Google’s business search and it will either return results that already exist, or let you know that your business is not yet listed. In either case you can take advantage of your listing by publishing key information to let searchers know about your business, including:
- Your address
- Your phone number
- Days and hours of operation
- Payment methods accepted
- Service areas
- Your logo
- A description of your business, using keywords that searchers might be using
- Photos to personalize your listing and make it interesting and compelling for searchers
When you list your business, you should also claim it. This means that you have verified that you are the owner of the business and the definitive authority of published information about it. A verified listing lends legitimacy to the accuracy of the information and you can edit or update your listing at any time.
Once you have a listing, you can encourage customers to write reviews, which will be appended to your listing and act as testimonials for others who find your business. Be attentive to the reviews because they may not all be as good as you might hope! Whether good or bad, as the verified owner of a listing you can respond to reviews which gives you a great opportunity to engage customers and show yourself as a problem-solver and company that cares about its customers.
There are other local services, such as Yelp, where you can also list your business for free. Every listing is another opportunity to connect with searchers, even if you don’t have a website or an ad space. In fact, you should consider your local listing as free ad space and treat it with care.
One important local search tip: before you start throwing your business name out there, think about what you want to say, and what details you want to convey. You should be extra careful about keeping your listings consistent. Your address, phone and other contact info should be identical across listings. And by identical, I mean identical. Do not include so much as an extra comma in your address if it’s not in every single listing. This is important when it comes to boosting your listing in search results.
You may have noticed that among the variety of media appearing in search results, video makes a pretty good showing. Video is one of the most widely shared and consumed types of media so if you have a cell phone video camera or a built in camera and mic on your laptop, go set up your free YouTube channel right now.
You can sit in front of your computer or find a friend to help you by holding the camera and compose a 30- or 60-second clip of something. For more ideas about what that something can be, check out this article about creating content.
Video will put a personal touch on your marketing and let you look straight into your customer’s eyes, so to speak, and share something entertaining, educational, interesting, and uniquely you. You’re not advertising during the Superbowl; you don’t need high production and glitz and a gecko. You just need a steady hand, a decent microphone and your imagination. It’s your chance to create a commercial for your business, whether it’s in the form of a testimonial, funny skit or informational how-to.
YouTube isn’t the only player on the block when it comes to video. There are other services that you can use, like Vimeo, and I suggest you take advantage of every opportunity. This will increase the likelihood of your video showing up in search and it will arm you with content that you can use to build credibility, authority and brand awareness.
Here’s something I bet you never heard me say before (where’s that sarcasm font when you need it?): People do business with people. And they do business with people they like.
I’ve connected online with people who I’ve hired and people who have hired me without ever stepping out from behind my monitor. Before things like the internet came around, people would do business by meeting with prospects, shaking hands, having lunch or a drink, making house calls and phone calls and generally being present. That’s called networking. Lucky you, you can do a tremendous amount of networking without ever getting out of your pajamas.
The advent and explosion of social media has given you an amazing opportunity to find, reach and engage with people who may become customers, or who can help connect you with other people who may become customers. The not-so-secret secret to social networking is that you must be consistent, engaged and you must help others first. If you run around asking for help and pushing your products and services on other people, your networking efforts are going to backfire.
Networking could be a full time job by itself because there are simply too many opportunities to list. Here are just a few:
- Connect with people on Facebook. Yes, your personal Facebook page. You can have a brand page for your business but it’s a lot easier to connect one-on-one than to convince people they should Like an arbitrary business page they’ve never heard of.
- Connect with people on Twitter. Not only is Twitter free, but there are a host of tools you can use to find people who might be interested in what you have to offer. Again, you can have a business account but a personal account is easier to grow and to engage one-on-one.
- Connect on LinkedIn. Yes, LinkedIn has an option for you to simply “connect” with other people, but unfortunately that’s where most people stop. You should also find (or start) a group that will let you engage within your area of expertise.
- Comment on blogs. There’s one thing bloggers want almost as much as a good stream of ad revenue and that’s comments. Find blogs in your niche, especially those that only receive a few comments and make a name for yourself as the person who always has something helpful or interesting to add to the conversation. Commenting on a site like Mashable.com probably won’t get you noticed, but commenting on another local business or startup blog will.
- Get on Google+. There are arguments a dime a dozen about whether you should be on Facebook or Google+ and what it means and whether it will survive. I say, “Who cares?” For the purposes of this conversation, you should take every opportunity that you can and Google+ is one of them. There’s a different audience there, a new batch of people to meet and another way to connect.
Sharing your expertise on someone else’s blog is a great way to get exposure. Blogs can help promote you by showcasing your knowledge and by offering perks like an author bio and links back to your site or other profile page. The blog gets you noticed and the links get you “juice”, which is good for your search listings. You’ve also got the bonus of a built-in audience.
Start small, with smaller and less trafficked blogs. You can reach for the stars and submit a guest blog to the big industry sites but it can take time to get published since popular blogs have a long queue of people dying to get published there, and the competition is more intense. So submit to popular blogs, but in the meantime, get your name and brand out there wherever you can. Make sure that you have something valuable to say and remember that blogs are publications, too. You should create unique content for each submission because it’s unlikely that blogs will allow you to reprint something you’ve written for them.
Email as a marketing tool still provides one of the best ROIs. There are programs like MailChimp that will allow you to create a free account as long as you don’t mind their logo in your email template. It’s a worthy trade, considering that you can build, customize, send and track email campaigns at no cost. Here are a few ideas for using email:
- Send newsletters to keep people apprised of your successes, services, products or other interesting information.
- Send special offers or discounts.
- Offer tips, insight or how-tos.
- Ask for referrals.
- Tell a story. Some of the best emails that I receive from companies are the ones that start, “I was doing my grocery shopping the other day when suddenly I saw…” Kind of makes you want to know what they saw, doesn’t it?
Mostly, you should use email to stay top-of-mind and remind your customers and prospects that you still exist. It’s easy to fall of people’s radars. Trust me, nobody is thinking about your business right now except you. Even if you’re selling the exact widget someone needs, they’re probably still not thinking about you – unless you’re in front of them. Email is a great way to get in front of people so that even though they may not want or need your widget 364 days of the year, you’ll be there on the 365th when they do.
We’re fortunate to live in a time when marketing has become so personalized and the opportunities so available. Successful business has always been about relationships, so harness your time and get out there on the web where you can find, connect with and convert yours.