4 Channels to Use If Your Marketing Budget is Nil (or Close to It)

Free marketing channels for retailers | Shopify Retail blog

You need to market your business to continue growing. But you need to grow and generate more revenue before you invest in marketing.

Sound familiar? You may feel trapped in this catch-22 and for good reason: traditional marketing avenues are expensive. And it’s hard to pour any amount of profit into marketing when it's notoriously hard to measure marketing performance.

Thankfully, there is an escape. You can explore marketing channels that don’t require a huge budget — or any marketing budget at all. New ways of promoting your products and sharing your business with new audiences make it easy to market for cheap or even free.

Get started by using these strategies that incorporate everything from one-on-one connections to massive reach on social media and more.

Encourage Word-of-Mouth Marketing

You don’t need to spend a dime on marketing if you can successfully create fans of your products or brand as a whole. Transform loyal customers into evangelists who share their love of your business far and wide, and you can expand your reach through word-of-mouth marketing.

Smaller businesses can start by networking in their local area. You can look into networking groups that maintain local chapters in most major cities, like BNI. Or find entrepreneurial groups near you to meet other business owners, retailers, and service providers.

This is a baby step, but one that can exponentially grow your reach. It’s easy to explore and may only require an investment of your time and energy to show up to events and meetings.

You can also get your customers talking by providing a referral system that rewards them for bringing in new customers to your business. MOO, a print and design company, incentivizes customers to share the products with their friends by giving the existing customer money to spend when they refer a new customer — and MOO gives the new customer a freebie, too:

MOO referral marketing offer | Shopify Retail blogDepending on your business, one of the above strategies may work better than others. But no matter what kind of company you run, one of the most powerful ways to employ word-of-mouth marketing for all retailers is by getting social yourself.

Build an Audience on Social Media Networks

Getting social means getting on social media. So, don’t just encourage your customers to spread the word: get active and engage with them on their platforms.

Making use of social media provides you with a free way to build a bigger audience, expand your reach, and market both your brand and the products you sell.

Choosing the right social network starts with understanding your audience and meeting them where they are. Twitter might interest you personally and feel like a comfortable, fun network, but it’s be useless if your customers flock to Instagram and Snapchat.

Side note: What Twitter is great for is customer service. This can help build a great reputation for your business, and a lot of marketing and branding is building goodwill with your target audience.

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Zappos is great at communicating with the huge number of users who not only engage with their content, but also tweet at the company to voice complaints and concerns. They’re human, helpful, and most importantly, fast.

Zappos customer service, Twitter | Shopify Retail blogBut you must have enough staff to monitor the feed consistently. Most people who turn to Twitter to resolve problems and issues with service or products expect a response within the hour.

So what does it look like to get on social media and be, well, social? Look to these brands for inspiration:

Old Spice embraces its authentically weird and bizarre brand self — and owns it. It stands out, it’s funny, and it’s delightfully strange.

Old Spice social media brand | Shopify Retail blogThe company provides memorable entertainment that’s easy to share and spread. Old Spice gets bonus points for engaging with major influencers on their target audience – namely, professional athletes.

GoPro made a mark by using user-generated content in its early advertising. And the company still inspires its users through what they share on their social channels.

Their posts are share-worthy, aspirational, and engaging. They regularly rack up hundreds of thousands of likes and comments on each well-curated piece that they share.

JetBlue provides a great example in being human on social media. They help customers solve problems and respond quickly to individual needs:

JeyBlue social media interaction | Shopify Retail blog

You can create amazing, personal connections and experiences on social media. Interactions like this make a positive impact and contribute toward building a beloved brand. And when you give on social media, you’re likely to get a better response when it’s your company making an ask (in the form of an ad or call to action).

It’s important to look at how to do things on social right. But it’s also important to be aware of what not to do on social media.

And that includes things like hijacking meaningful hashtags to hock products, like DiGiornio’s Pizza when they tweeted with a hashtag making light of domestic violence. Or anything in this collection of social media fails from 2016.

Should You Go from Free to Paid Social?

You can run social media accounts for free, if you want. But consider experimenting with paid ads once you’re comfortable.

Social ads allow you to target your audience to send out highly specific calls to action, offers, and content for a low investment (compared to traditional advertising and marketing channels). Start by targeting individuals who have already visited your website and are familiar with your brand and products.

If they visit your site and log into Facebook where you have a targeted ad campaign running, they’ll likely see your sponsored post. Because they already visited your site, your ad becomes more relevant to them — and therefore, that makes your audience more likely to re-engage with your business from those paid ads.

Facebook paid ad example | Shopify Retail blog

This ad, for example, targets people living in or around Boston who are interested in new jobs in the tech industry. While this might be meaningless to most customers, it’s going to make a big impression on a Bostonian who spent a few hours this week checking LinkedIn for new opportunities in the tech space.

You can check out further information via Facebook’s resources for businesses. Learn more about setting up paid ads on this particular network, or see more in-depth guides on selecting custom audiences to target.

Provide Massive Value Online

What if you could build a massive audience and loyal following for your business’s website without spending a single dollar to do it? Content marketing provides you the avenue to make it happen.

You only need an existing site and the willingness to create highly valuable content to share with people whose problems you can solve. When you address an audience’s need — either by suggesting solutions to pain points, delighting them, or giving education away — you can create a blog that drives large amounts of traffic to your site.

The key to successful content marketing is delivering massive value. HubSpot, which sells marketing and sales software to companies, is masterful at this. Their blog contains countless articles that are highly informative and educational to their target audience.

Hubspot marketing blog | Shopify Retail blogHubSpot’s blog, by the way, is a must-use resource if you want to explore inbound marketing. Content marketing is part of inbound, and the tactics they share here to educate readers provide good starting places for anyone with a marketing budget of $0 (or close to it).

And if this is a little meta to you, know that retailers pursue the same strategy: blog about relevant information and attract a relevant audience.

Williams-Sonoma writes a blog called Taste. It features recipes, advice on how to entertain guests over a meal, and shares tips and techniques to improve a variety of domestic skills.

Williams-Sonoma taste | Shopify Retail blogOnce you generate that traffic via valuable content you share on your blog, you can capture leads by providing free offers. Giving something away in exchange for an email address (or other info) allows you to remarket to these leads over time, since you can now write and send drip email campaigns.

HubSpot not only generates a huge audience from great content, but capture the information from the traffic they generate by giving away even higher-value offers:

Hubspot content upgrade example | Shopify Retail blogAnd the higher the value of the content you give away, the more information you can request from your audience. This is one of HubSpot’s forms that you must fill out before downloading any of their freebies:

Hubspot content freebie form | Shopify Retail blogBut you don’t need to go crazy and ask for so much detail. Williams-Sonoma keeps it simple, by including a one-line form to subscribe to their blog. People enter their email address and Williams-Sonoma sends the content they request – along with occasional sales offers.

Both HubSpot and Williams-Sonoma uses the information they collect to remarket to leads over time. Eventually, they can convert an audience member who was attracted by a blog post into a paying customer through tailored offers they send to that person.

You can do the same in your business. Follow these action steps to get started:

  • Know your audience. What kind of questions do they have? How can you (or your business) solve their problems?
  • Brainstorm blog post topics based on your audience’s needs, wants, questions, concerns, problems, and desires. Write blog posts that are relevant to your audience based on what you come up with here.
  • Provide an incentive for customers to give you information. This can be as simple as an email address or as complex as much more demographic data. (Remember, HubSpot asks for a lot because they give a lot. Williams-Sonoma simply asks for an email address in exchange for readers receiving a subscription to the blog.)
  • Follow up with the content the customer asked for, be it a guide, a discount, or just a subscription to the latest posts you publish.
  • Once you deliver lots of value through your blog and your freebies, make an ask: invite someone to make a purchase with a coupon code, or ask them to check out your newest product.

Find Ways to Collaborate With Other Retailers

Your close-to-nil marketing budget can go further if you pool resources and collaborate with other retailers. You can work together with other shop owners — even if you consider them competitors — to the benefit of both your businesses.

Consider putting on a jointly hosted event, and promoting it to both stores’ audiences for an expanded reach. Or set up a rewards program that encourages customers of another store to visit yours as well.

You may also be able to barter or trade services with retailers who maintain larger marketing budgets than you do. Can you contribute product or volunteer event space in exchange for another company’s marketing expertise or a spot in a campaign they’re promoting?

Connect with others in your space and retailers you could partner with, and look to work together. It’s a great way to get a jump on marketing efforts when your own resources are limited.

How Will You Expand Your Store’s Reach?

Marketing is important, and you need to promote your business and brand. But an expensive ad campaign is not necessary to succeed. In fact, most businesses tend to overspend on their marketing efforts.

Intentionally choose the bootstrap route and use one of these marketing channels to expand your reach. You’ll save money that you can invest in other areas of your business — while still spreading the word about what you can offer to your ideal customer.