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To Cut Or Not To Cut? When It’s OK To Cheap Out On Marketing And When It’s Not

By July 23, 2014July 1st, 2015Marketing Insights & Strategy
To Cut Or Not To Cut? When It’s OK To Cheap Out On Marketing And When It’s Not

Try this now: go to Google and type in “when is it ok to cut marketing budget”. I’ll wait.

Were you surprised by the results?

That was exactly the search I did before writing this post. I had some thoughts on the matter but I wanted to see what other people had to say. I figured I could find one or two things to agree with – or argue against.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, I got a laundry list of articles about why it’s NOT ok to cut marketing budget. Ever.

I thought maybe I wasn’t asking the right question. So I tried “safe places to cut marketing budget”. Because really, it’s not about cutting out marketing so much as about finding ways to save money doing it.

You can try that one, too, but I’ll save you the time: you’ll get the same results.

Don’t cut marketing don’t cut marketing period end of story don’t cut marketing.

I’ve heard that before. I’ve said that before. But when I think about my small business clients, the ones who are struggling through a less-than-stellar local economy, the ones who would love to pay me to build them an awesome website or manage an awesome blog or do some awesome social marketing if they could just make payroll first… I know that the advice to “not cut marketing” rings a little hollow.

Sometimes there is a practical reality to how much money you can squeeze out of a stone.

Part of being a good marketing consultant is knowing when to advise clients to spend money and when to advise them to hold onto it. And while it’s never a good idea to cut marketing entirely, there are certainly more cost-effective ways you can do it.

Here are some places you can compromise – and some you shouldn’t – if you want effective marketing.

DON’T CUT: Planning & Strategy

True: most business owners that I talk to are caught in the weeds of tactics but have no strategy for what they’re doing.

They send out emails, pour hours into social status updates, build a website and then run around trying to keep up with it all.

Today a direct mailer, tomorrow a networking event. Another day some “SEO stuff”.

The end result is usually no results. Or not enough to make all that mayhem worthwhile.

They feel overwhelmed by marketing, underwhelmed by outcomes and don’t know what to do.

My advice? Stop!

Stop, think, plan and figure out not only what you’re doing but why.

If you’re going to spend money on marketing, use it to hire a consultant or coach who can help you plan from a 10,000-foot view. You may end up doing all the legwork yourself – updating your website, putting together your emails, writing those status updates – but at least you’ll be doing them with a purpose.

Another important aspect of planning is measuring results. A consultant can help you put stopgaps in place so that you can see how well a tactic is working and then decide wisely whether to continue with it or try something else.

You wouldn’t believe how many people are stuck in “I have to post to Facebook” mentality but when I ask them what kind of results they’re getting, they roll their eyes and say, “None.” Or worse, “I don’t know.”

Insert “I have to be on Twitter” or “I have to send out an email every week” or “I have to blog every day”. It doesn’t matter what the tactic is. If it’s not getting results, stop.

But before you stop… hire a consultant! It could be that you’re just not strategizing around a particular tactic. Posting stuff to Facebook – or tweeting or emailing or blogging – is only as good as your plan.

When you have a plan and you’re measuring results, only then can you determine the best and most effective places to spend your time and money.

DO CUT: Custom Web Design

There’s a lot that goes into building a website. Planning (of course!), design, optimization, writing. And while you shouldn’t skimp on building a good site, you can save some money on design.

With WordPress themes these days, you can have a nicely designed website right out of the box for the cost of the theme – often around $50 for a good, premium theme.

It may not look like the unique snowflake that you are but with competent custom designs running upwards into the thousands of dollars, it’s a viable alternative if you’re looking to invest your budget elsewhere.

Notice I said “competent” custom design. You can probably hire a designer for a few hundred dollars but at that point you’re better off with a WordPress theme.

Many themes can be customized to look a little less “out of the box”, too. You can change colors, fonts, layouts and of course add your own content, videos and photography to give it personality.

And if you have a competent developer, he’ll be able to customize it a little further so that your un-custom design can end up looking pretty spiffy.

DON’T CUT: Writing

Remember that website you were saving money on? Well here’s where you should spend that budget: good writing.

If you’re not a writer, hire one. Even if you write your content yourself, at least hire a good editor who can help you strengthen your writing, focus it on the right audience and incorporate good stuff like keywords, benefits and calls to action.

There are two good reasons to hire a writer or editor and one has to do with marketing and one doesn’t.

First, the marketing reason. A good writer will not write so much as mind-read. It’s a writer’s job to get into your head and to understand your business, your customers and your products or services. The trick to writing well is not to spell correctly and use proper grammar (though those things help!) but to convey information in a way that speaks directly from you to your audience.

All of that great information is in your head. Nobody knows your business and your customers like you do. But lots of business owners can’t translate all that brilliance onto paper.

And that’s ok – that’s not your job.

Your job is to educate your writer. Your writer’s job is to make sure your message is clear, benefit-driven, customer-focused and leads people to the right end – like buying your product, signing up for your trial service or joining your email list.

The second reason to hire a writer, which has nothing to do with marketing, is because you’re just too close to the subject.

Believe me when I tell you that the hardest thing for me to write is my own stuff. For example, I write LinkedIn profiles for people all the time. I crank those babies out like nobody’s business! And yet it took me six weeks, ten revisions and four editors before I could do my own.

When you’re that close to something, you not only can’t see it clearly but you are your own worst critic. And at some point, that hyper-perfection is going to cost you.

DO CUT: Kitsch And “Throwaway” Stuff

There are some things that businesses do for their marketing just because that’s what businesses do for their marketing. In other words: for no good reason.

I made this a bit of a catchall category but here are some of the things it can include: branded pens. Branded mugs. Branded anything. Brochures. Yes, brochures.

I’ve rarely met a business owner who didn’t have a stack of several hundred brochures somewhere in a mildewy cabinet along with the bleach and maybe a few leftover pens.

Every so often they’ll update and print a new batch that go into the closet.


I suppose it’s a leftover from pre-internet days when you had to “leave something behind” after a business meeting. If you’ve got an email address and can send someone a link to your website, that’s all you need to leave behind.

I’m not saying brochures are always useless but… well, they’re mostly always useless. And they aren’t inexpensive, so if you’re looking to save on budget, skip the writing/design/print job and invest elsewhere.

Pens. Don’t get me started on pens. I did a little experiment as I was writing this and looked in my drawers. I have a pen from a dentist. And a deli. And from my bank. And the last cruise ship we were on. And a hotel I stayed at once, eight years ago. I’ve stayed at lots of hotels since then and it never once occurred to me to call the one on the pen.

I guess if you’re a hotel chain and you put pens into people’s drawers (that you know they’re going to pilfer anyway) you might as well brand them. But for us small businesses? Pointless.

I’ve got mouse pads from at least half a dozen local businesses. USB drives from another dozen. Not long ago Ralph and I did a mass cleanup of our kitchen cabinets and dumped an entire shelf of mugs from [insert random businesses that I don’t remember here].

This stuff may not break the bank but it does cost money. And if you can’t afford to hire a writer or a consultant, maybe you just need to stop buying kitsch.

DON’T CUT: A Good Website

We talked about saving money on design but there’s more to a site than what it looks like. Just because you can grab a nice-looking WordPress theme and install it yourself doesn’t mean you should.

We also touched on writing – and part of a good website is good, quality writing – but there’s even more to a site than that.

There’s actually quite a lot that goes into building a good website and I bet you don’t know what most of that is.

And that’s exactly the way it should be… because, as I said earlier, that’s not your job.

Your job is to run your business. If you’re bogged down in the minutia of ALT tags and canonical URLs then you’re not doing your job.

Part of your job is also to hire a competent developer and that can be a challenge all by itself. We’ve dispensed plenty of advice on the topic before. And you can’t cheap out on a developer. You can’t hire the $20/hour freelancer to build you an effective marketing website. Because there is a difference between building a website and building an effective website.

Ralph teaches college students to build websites every day. With one lesson in HTML, another in CSS and a couple of hours to tinker around online, students in their first and second years of college can have a fully hand-coded site running within days.

Hand them a tool like WordPress and they can do it in hours.

Does that mean you should hire one of his students to build your business website? Give them a few years… and maybe. But right now they may have the mechanics of a site down but not the nuances.

And there are plenty of nuances!

Without a professional to guide you, you may have a lovely site that fails to convert. Or even a well-written one that can’t be found in search. Your forms may malfunction. It may not work well – or at all – on mobile devices.

So while it’s ok to stay simple on design, don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s all there is to a website. Find someone who can help you use your site, not just as a beautiful showpiece or a mechanical bit of technology, but as an integral part of your marketing.

DO CUT: Social Marketing


But isn’t social marketing free? And isn’t that where all the people are? And isn’t that where your customers expect to see you?

Don’t hyperventilate, but… maybe not.

The problems with social marketing are numerous. There’s the “it’s free” problem, which wasn’t true even when it was closer to true. While it may be free to create a Facebook page or Twitter account, there is time involved in managing and maintaining those accounts. When it comes to Facebook and how few of your fans will ever see anything you post, there may very well be money involved if you actually want your content to be seen.

There’s the “noise” problem, which is making it harder for businesses to get noticed. And as a result of the noise, businesses have been making even more noise to try to be heard above it all. Business owners are running around like mad, curating content, being a “resource” of information, staying “top of mind”. All for the sake of saying that they’re “doing marketing”. And probably because someone told them to.

There’s also the effectiveness problem. So few people are looking at the results of their social efforts. What is the net result of all those tweets? Those Facebook posts?

Nobody knows.

“It’s a branding thing.”


“I just want my name out there.”

Translation: “Noise.”

Much social media marketing done by small businesses is directionless, strategy-less and profitless. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, but when you’re dealing with budget concerns and looking to do more than add to the cacophony in the marketing-verse, it might be time to ditch the 1% of your 200 fans that you actually reach with that “curated” post and try something else.

Something planned.

Something measurable.

Spend your time on a great blog post (which of course gives you plenty of fodder for social sharing if you are so inclined!) Spend your money on a writer who can help with a good email campaign.

Close your Twitter account. Your 60 fake followers won’t mind.

Seriously, you are allowed to actually quit social marketing, or at least some of it. There are social networks everywhere and you don’t have to be on every one.

The Bottom Line: Watch Yours!

There are ways to spend money wisely and ways to waste it. And it’s not always apparent which are which. The problem is that you’re bound to find some “expert” somewhere who tells you this and another who tells you that.

There’s probably a web designer out there right now cringing because I just told you not to waste money on custom design. Heck, my designer isn’t too happy about that!

But as much as you may want the best of everything, there is a practical reality to running a business and if you’ve got to shave a few bucks here and there, better to do it smartly and focus your budget where it will have the most impact.

And as a parting bit of advice, the best thing you can learn to do for your budget and your business is ask one simple question:


The next time someone tells you to send out an email or write a blog or post a tweet, ask why. Ask what it will do for you. And get a good answer!

Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Another awesome post. For YEARS I’ve been telling clients that it’s important to market always…forever…always, because if you disappear when times are tough, or when you’re rolling in dough and think you don’t have to market…think again. It’s reaching people in the way in which they want to be reached, when they want to be reached, how they want to be reached, and I often joke we’re marketing 24/7….even in our sleep, haha! I say that facetiously, but then I give this example: Remember that when someone cuts you off in traffic and you flip them the bird, they might just be the potential client you’re going to meet with. When you’re standing in the grocery line looking like you just tumbled out of bed and the person behind you rams their shopping cart into your heel and you let out a stream of expletives, remember they might be the huge contract you’re hoping to get…later that day.

    Marketing…every day…customer-centric. Cheers! Kaarina

    • I think that’s a battle we all wage. The minute revenue dips, marketing goes out the door. People see it as a cuttable expense but there are plenty of things you can do to market more effectively without a huge budget. Cut where it counts but certainly don’t cut it out!

      • And you’ve made a key point: often people see marketing as an expense line. I tell them that’s like putting money on a windowsill, opening the window and letting the money fly out. Marketing should be seen as an investment, with a return on investment projected, planned for and expected…not necessarily in the short term, but over the long term. Marketing’s a “stay in the game” investment, and I encourage clients to keep marketing especially when their competitors are cutting their marketing budgets. And it’s not about creating “awareness”: it’s about getting one’s message across effectively, creatively, consistently and customer-centrically:)

        • AND to get results! That’s the part people miss way too often. A lot of people approach social the way you said – “to build awareness”. They say, “I just want people to know I’m out there.” If you’re Coca Cola, go ahead and do “branding” everywhere. But if you’re a small biz, get results. That’s why I tell people to skip the “but I want my name out there” social marketing and go for something they can use to drive leads. Emails. Blogs. Landing pages. Maybe social ads, but this idea that they just want to do something because they want to do it…. THAT is where marketing falls apart. Then people don’t see results. And the baby goes out with the bathwater.

          • You and I are sooooo on the same page, talking the same language. Eyeballs and “awareness” are worth nothing unless they convert to results. I wish I had a penny for every person I’ve worked with over the years who said things like “I just want my name out there” or “I’m building awareness”. My response? While you’re “building awareness” your competitors are selling to your potential customers. Even today, and especially with “social” I try to get people to realize that just because they have a lot of peoples’ “eyeballs” If they’re not buying/referring/recommending/doing something that brings sales, what’s the point? 🙂

    • Oh, and I should have mentioned….. YES to the marketing everywhere examples! I used to run out to the grocery store across the street in basically my pajamas – you know, in a hurry, don’t care – then I thought hm, my clients are right around the block… what if they’re shopping at midnight too?? So I’m mindful that wherever I go and whatever my actions, that could be impacting my business!

    • My good friend, Bill Seaver, says that “everything is marketing”! And, he’s right! This is yet another example of that. Everything you do can have an impact on your business!

  • This is an excellent post, Carol Lynn! As a marketer, obviously, I think that marketing is a integral component to a successful business. However, I’m also realistic that most companies don’t have stacks of money lying around to invest in it. You can’t afford NOT to market, but when you’re a small business with a limited budget, you have to learn where to spend and where you can afford to save.

    When we build marketing strategies, we make recommendations for everything we should do if we have the budget and resources for it. But, not once has a client said, “I’ll take the whole enchilada.” And, we know that. Once we build the strategy, we help them determine which areas to focus on with the budget they have available.

    • You are exactly right! Everyone wants the Mercedes but can only afford the Chevy price 🙂 So yes, outlining a full bells-n-whistles plan is great, then let people select what works.

  • Hi Carol,

    I’ve not forgotten about you 🙂

    I can speak more about writing than anything else here. At times I read blogs/blogges that have some potential but their posts are so badly written that it really makes me sad. And this goes for press releases that are not even free as well.

    So, one thing that I’ve started doing is send an email to those guys letting know how they could have said “a given sentence” better and explain to them about the positive effects that better writing would have on their business. You know what? Some people respond very well to this technique.

    I think that if you can’t do it well, it’s always better to hire someone to do it for you.

    Very good points you have here. Hope you’re doing well.

    • Hi Sylviane, great to see you! I’ve tried to comment on your blog a few times but I keep getting an error 🙁 Not sure why.

      Anyway, I could definitely guess that as a writer you would understand the importance of writing and how it’s not really a DIY project if you aren’t comfortable with it. It pays to get a writer or at least an editor because everyone can always use an objective and professional opinion. Even me!

  • This piece is so full of it! (STELLAR ADVICE, that is.) 🙂

    Don’t get me started on “pens”, either, Carol Lynn. I used to be the marketing coordinator for a doctor who loved to order pens, 1000’s at a time. My question was always the same … “Why??” They would fly out of the office but what was the benefit to his marketing?! Nothing. No benefit whatsoever. I’ll add he loved to order refrigerator magnets, too. And lanyards. And tote bags. OY. 🙁

    “Social media marketing” …
    I’ll spare you a “novel-esque” response and just say I share your thoughts on the subject. I’ll never understand why people think they “have” to be on social media channels to market their business. Maybe it’s just the blatant popularity of social media. You can’t watch a television commercial without seeing “Follow us on Facebook” somewhere on the screen. Sure, it might behoove big companies or corporations but that’s a whole other Oprah.

    Wonderful, wonderful post!!

    • Ah yes, the refrigerator magnet of death. Do you know where I put those things? IN THE GARBAGE! I have a client who insists on printing appointment stickers so he can put the client’s next appointment on them so the client can stick it on their calendar. Who has a paper calendar anymore?? Some people just get stuck in “because that’s what you do” mode.

      As for social media, that is the shiny new bandwagon. And although it can be a great tool, many people use it (again) “just because”. Pretty much anything that falls into the “just because” category can be deleted from your life!

      • “Pretty much anything that falls into the “just because” category can be deleted from your life!” Maybe your client should put THAT on a sticker … or a refrigerator magnet. LOL!!

  • Great post, Carol. I’m a custom web developer who collaborates with excellent (and experienced) designers. We can make great websites. But I just sent a link to your article to a prospect who contacted me. They have a limited budget and their message and strategy didn’t seem clear. I felt that they would be throwing their money away if they spent it on a website without working on the basics first. Your article explained my concerns much better than I could. Cheers!

  • Kate says:

    Thank you so much, you wouldn’t believe the weight that has been lifted with being told I don’t have to deal with Social media. I know I’m of the generation was brought up with it but it quickly becomes overwhelming and daunting, I don’t get any return from it whats so ever, and it takes up so much energy that i feel burned out after! I guess the issue now is what to do with all the time I’m saving!

    • That makes me happy! I’m glad that I could help you find some relief from marketing that was costing you effort without return. Now with all that extra time you can try something that might be better!