How To Advertise Your Small Business On a Tight Budget


Probably the most asked question I get from people who are just starting their own business is what’s the best way to advertise without spending a lot of money.  Although no one wants to spend a lot of money on advertising, it's a double-edged sword if you’re just starting out with a limited budget.  You really can’t afford to advertise, and can’t afford not to advertise.  My answer has always been to spend your time and money in networking, and then branch out into newspaper, radio, billboards and the like once your business has grown and is ready for it.  It should be noted though that what you will save in "money" you will spend in "time".   But if money is tight, especially in the beginning of your new business venture, your "time" investment will be profitable if you're able to network effectively.

Why hold off on newspaper, radio, and other forms of mass media in the beginning?  Cost and frequency.  Most small business start-ups don’t have the financial resources to buy the required amount of frequency needed to make their advertising effective and efficient.  One of the big mistakes that small businesses get caught up in is that they end up buying newspaper ads or radio/TV schedules that are too small because they think they “have to” be in newspaper or radio/TV to promote their business effectively.  While you could find businesses that will say they received good results with this strategy, the vast majority do not, and it becomes nothing more than an unwanted expense for most of them.  For more on this, see my article Money To Burn on Advertising

So that leaves most small business start-ups with networking.  Networking means joining your local chamber, service organizations such as Rotary or the Lions Club, or local charities and meeting people through your active participation.  Even your church can be a great source of networking too.  But it’s important to know how to do it and which style best fits the group you’re trying to influence.

The purpose of networking is to have people remember who you are and what you do so they will think of you when they have a need, or to be able to refer someone else to you when they think you can help them.  It's a simple task that takes time, effort, and the right approach.

Over the years I have found that there are a three of variables that make networking effective:

Awareness:  People have to know what you do before they will remember you for their need or can refer you to someone else.  It’s incredibly important that as you begin to network that people are fully aware of what you do.  Take every opportunity you can to be able to describe your product and services to people to be certain that they will remember what you do when they have a need for your product or service.

Timing:  You have to be at the right place at the time when the need or opportunity arises.   And if you can't be there, then your previous impression on someone has to be memorable enough so they'll be able to effectively refer you when a need or opportunity arises. 


Sincerity:  The best way for people to remember you is when you sincerely connect with them on a personal level.  That means approachability with no conditions.  For example, while you can send someone a greeting card with your business logo on the outside and your business card on the inside wishing them a “Happy Birthday” it doesn’t always come off as sincere.  A much better way is to just send them a personalized birthday card.  You’ll be very surprised at the results when people feel that you sincerely were thinking of them instead of their pocketbooks.

Relationship type marketing (networking) also includes taking clients out to lunch, thank you calls, thank you notes, and as previously mentioned membership in your local chamber and other community organizations.  But just don't send in your chamber dues and expect advertising results.  Become active in the organizations you join so you can build relationships face-to-face that in return will build your business.

After you've become active in your local chamber of commerce and local service groups, and you've gone to all the mixers, meetings and banquets to build your network, there is one more step that will help make your "time" investment really pay off.  It's the practice of solidifying yourself in the memory of your new contact by sending them a card.  Not an e-mail, but an actual “hold-in-your-hand” card.  What I've found to be the most effective is to   personalize the card with a sincere and unconditional message with no strings attached.  There is always someone I can thank, recognize, celebrate, or sympathize with each day and it’s amazing the type of response I’ve received both personally and professionally.  The process I do is very simple but requires discipline and time, but it gets tremendous results.  Here it is: I send one card to one person, every day.  That's it.  I’ve also found it to be highly effective if I don’t send the same card to everyone, so that means I have to have a variety of cards on hand. Experience has shown me that people will display the card I've sent to them on their desk, and because of that I don't want someone that I've also sent another card to say "Bill sent me that same card". 

One of my favorite examples of networking comes from a friend of mine who started her own business from home a few years ago.  She had joined the local chamber, became active within the organization, and had even been awarded the “Newcomer of the Year”.  Even though she had made many contacts, her business was still struggling to get over the hump between just making it and being where she hoped she would be.  Trying something bold, she decided to send out notes and cards to her core group of contacts and told them the situation she was in, and asked if they would help her to find a business deal that would bring her over that hump.  She wrote in each note that she was looking for a company to do some contract work for, she needed so many hours per week to make it worthwhile for the client and for her, and she would be willing to work with them in negotiating a fair price depending on the length of the contract.  Within a couple of days she was negotiating her largest contract ever because of a referral from a person from her core group of contacts that she had sent out.  Awareness, timing, and sincerity.

It does take time, planning, and discipline, but networking through local organizations and making yourself memorable with follow-up and recognition cards is indeed that best type of marketing I have seen achieved successfully time-after-time for only a few dollars.


Bill Grady
About the Author, Bill Grady

Bill Grady has over 35 years of marketing and advertising creation, sales,
and management experience.


He began selling advertising at age 20, became a radio station General
Manager at the age of 23, and has personally sold millions of dollars in
local advertising over his career.


Bill is a former President of the Iowa Broadcasters Association and his
stations were recipients of multiple National Association of Broadcasters
awards for excellence.


Since 2002, Bill has brought his marketing and advertising knowledge to
thousands of small business owners in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota,
Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.


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