10 Ways Startups Can Market on a Shoestring Budget

Marketers know it is important to stay current on today’s trends and emerging consumer attitudes. It is crucial for them to keep their business(es) competitive in an ever-evolving marketplace. However, for a small business on a very little budget, this task is much harder; it is one thing to stay current on trends and another to have the capital necessary to follow those directions.

Content marketing cat
photo credit: Gregory Han / Flickr

In today’s marketplace, where the conversation is focused on new technologies like advanced Big Data analytic software, VR experiences, cloud integration and more, it can be difficult for a small business to compete on a shoestring budget. Marketing under these conditions, especially if you are trying to thrive in a very hotly contested marketplace, requires frugality, creativity, insight and even a little bit of luck.

Fortunately, if you have none, or only some, of these traits, this list of 10 ways startups can market on a shoestring budget should help you get the gears turning. Ideally, it will help inspire some ideas of your own.

1. The Power of the Pen (well, Keyboard)

Posting superb blog content is still one of the best marketing strategies out there. And, since no one knows your business better than you do, no one is better equipped to blog on behalf of your organization than you are. A lot of business owners worry that they aren’t a good enough writer, so their content won’t be readable, but it boils down to practice. Once you’ve produced a couple of blog posts, you won’t think twice about it.


Blog content is advantageous for a ton of reasons. It creates easily shareable content (through social media channels or others) that provides real, relevant value to consumers. When we talk about improving the customer experience, offering value, especially for free, is a phenomenal start. Additionally, you can post/submit to popular industry websites or publications. While advertising on these platforms could cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, it costs nothing but time to contribute an article and it is an excellent way to build your reputation as a business owner and generate traffic to your company website.

If you have no affinity for the pen or simply don’t have the time to sit behind a keyboard and produce blog content, outsourcing the work to a freelance writer isn’t incredibly costly. If you find the right author, for the right price, you can achieve excellent blog content at a low-price point.

2. Free E-Book

Nothing says value to a consumer like all-time favorite four-letter word: free. Now that you’ve got your sea legs for writing (or found an inexpensive freelance writer), you can consider taking it a step further and producing an informational E-Book. Not only is this a great strategy for driving traffic to your website and getting some recognition in the industry, but customers will look favorably on you for offering this free info guide at no cost.

When people sign up for your free E-Book, they are putting themselves on your list, which means you can begin cultivating this consumer-brand relationship and edging them down the funnel towards becoming a brand loyal customer. This strategy lends itself towards making any email newsletter or list you have much more impactful.

Early when I was starting my company, Bizness Apps, we focused heavily on creating content that would help educate people on how to create an app for free and we are still seeing returns from these efforts today.

3. Email Your Way to Success

Some people claim email is a soon-to-be-dead technology. We imagine that the ancestors of these individuals were the same ones arguing that the Earth was flat. Email is far from dead and, from a marketing standpoint, it has the highest ROI of any other channel, and it is 40x better than social media platforms at customer acquisition. The reason that email is so useful is that it is so deliverable. Thanks to smartphones and other mobile devices, people check their email accounts more than ever and open most emails they receive.

I want your email
photo credit: 28 Dreams

The hardest parts of email marketing used to be generating an extensive list of interested consumers and managing and producing newsletters. The first issue is covered thanks to your free E-Book and other strategies that point users towards signing up with their email. The latter problem is easily handled by one of the many free or low-cost email management services, such as MailChimp. These third-party solutions take away a lot of the headaches, design and other issues associated with an email marketing campaign. They have intuitive interfaces and user-friendly templates. Most are free if you have a certain number of subscribers (for MailChimp it is under 2,000). Thus, you don’t have to pay until your company hits that peak.

4. Create a Network

Another opportunity to get that email list flushed out or only make new connections is to attend networking events in your local business community. Your local chamber of commerce or small business association will likely have regularly scheduled events that offer the chance to mingle with other business owners and potential customers/partners and share your ideas about marketing within the community.

If there aren’t any local networking events, there are plenty of online communities that offer a similar experience. Conversations taking place on LinkedIn groups or even some Facebook pages can simulate these types of connections and foster good relationships throughout the global business community.

5. Establish Partnerships

One of the greatest things that can come out of attending networking events is finding businesses with similar interests, but not direct competitors. This means there is the possibility of a partnership occurring, which will help serve the interests of each business collectively.

For brick and mortar businesses, this could mean partnering with the nearby coffee shop and engage in a promotional event that links your two locations together. For example, every time a customer presents a receipt from your store, they receive a free small cup of coffee. This helps stimulate business for both parties. Alternatively, you could partner to create a contest, whether locally or on social media.

6. Trade, Swap, Hustle and Barter

Anyone with a frugal bone in their body knows the beauty of getting the best deal. Sometimes that deal means trading instead of buying. This is another key benefit to partnering with another business, especially if your product is a service or trade skill. Rather than paying for a mobile developer to create an app for your business, you can use the service you provide to barter. For example, if you operate a finance company, you might be able to trade free accounting or investment advice.

There is also a lot of to be said about only asking for a better deal. Depending on the transaction, a lot of times there’s wiggle room. A lot of people are afraid or uncomfortable with calling for a lower price, but businesses want to make a deal and more times than not they are willing to work with you. “I’d like to do business with you, but the price is just out of my range right now. Is there anything you can do?”

7. Incentivize Word of Mouth

On the topic of asking for a little bit of help, don’t also forget to turn to your existing customer base. Word of mouth is one of the most efficient ways for news about a company and its products to spread. People trust their friends’ opinions. So, when a friend tells them about your newest product or this great new website/service they came across (yours), they tend to listen up.

Word of mouth

When people spread information word of mouth, they pick the friends or family members that have the most interest in the subject. You wouldn’t recommend the next violent action thriller to your great aunt Susan with the heart condition. Thus, there is a higher chance for that individual to become interested and ultimately become a customer themselves.

The tricky part about word of mouth business is it can be hard to generate. Your company must be significant and noteworthy enough to your customers that they want to share you with others. However, one way you can help encourage word of mouth is to incentivize it. Even offering a small discount or coupon can help galvanize your customers to want to get the word out. DropBox did a great job of this when they gave users 500MB of free storage for referring a friend.

8. Leverage Existing Communities

The Internet brings together groups of people with similar interests, problems, and questions. There are millions of niche forums and community sites where like-minded individuals gather and communicate. These Internet groups can provide a wealth of customers for an organization that is aligned with their interests, solves their problems or can answer their questions. People may not be gathering on your website to read your blogs or see what your company can do for them, but these websites have steady, existing traffic that you can leverage and bring that content to them. For instance, AirBnB, in its infancy, used to leverage the Craigslist community to gather local prospects.

Craigslist and other sites, like Reddit, Quora, and many niche forums, are places where you can join and contribute to the communities that will most benefit from being customers or partners with your company.

9. Compare Social Media Strategies

Almost every business out there today has at least one social media page, whether it is a branded Facebook page, Twitter handle, Instagram account or what have you. But, very few brands or companies run their social media strategies exceedingly well. Success on social media is determined by what level of engagement you reach. In other words, how well do your customers and followers respond to the things that you post on social media channels? If you are only getting a couple ‘Likes’ and an occasional comment from Mom, it is time to rethink your social media strategies.

The best way to do this? Cheat. Okay — not cheating exactly, but looking at your competitors’ answers. The beauty of social media is every page is free for you to explore, which means you can peek at how your competitors are doing on social media and use this information to your advantage. A comparison analysis of social media pages doesn’t require a fancy Big Data analytics tool to perform (although they certainly help). This guide by SmartInsights breaks down the entire process and teaches you how, with only some research time and an Excel spreadsheet, you can start uncovering actionable insights towards enhancing your social media strategies and finding areas of “Big Win” opportunity.

10. When in Doubt, Go with Google

Aside from being the premier search engine (and our new favorite verb), Google offers a lot of free or very inexpensive tools for businesses. G Suite provides all of Google’s typical tools (Drive, Gmail, Calendar, Google+), but catered for use in business. So, custom email addresses, drive accounts that each department can share and collaborate on, etc. Google My Business puts your hours of operation, contact information and address on search results pages when people Google your business (hence the name). It also puts your business on Google Maps, which can help new or visiting customers discover your business.

And, if all else fails, Googling your marketing questions can help continue your journey towards successfully marketing your small business with a shoestring budget.

Social media marketing for blogs

Final Thoughts

These strategies cost very little money or none. The only resources required are time and a little creativity. When you do have to invest some money into a marketing strategy, always do your homework and triple check that such an investment will have a positive return. With your tight budget, you must be counting cards at the poker table and trying to tilt the odds in your favor; you can’t be going all in on a pair of 3’s, no matter how good that gut feeling of yours is.