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10 low-cost ways to market your business

Too many small-business owners think marketing is like a trip to the dentist — something you just have to do every six months or so.

But when marketing is continuous and targeted rather than occasional and generic, business gets easier. If prospects have a positive view of your wares and reputation before you call or before they start shopping, you're that much closer to getting a sale.

The next news flash is that ongoing marketing isn't tied to a price tag. It's defined only by putting the right message in front of the right person at the right time.

Here are 10 ideas for doing that — on the cheap.

1. Take steps to make customers feel special. Customers respond to being recognized, especially in these rush-rush, get-the-lowest-price times. "Even with a Web-based business, good customer service is possible," says Denise McMillan, co-owner of Plush Creations, an online retailer of handcrafted travel bags. McMillan encloses a small, rose-scented sachet in every jewelry and lingerie bag she sells and also sends a handwritten thank-you note. "The sachet and note cost pennies but add something special to the purchase," she says.

2. Create business cards that prospects keep. Most business cards are tossed within hours of a meeting. Instead of having your card tossed, create one that recipients actually will use — say, a good-looking notepad with your contact info and tagline on every page. "The business card notepad is referred to almost daily, kept for 30 days or so and carries a high remembrance factor," says Elliott Black, a Northbrook, Ill., marketing consultant who specializes in small businesses.

3. Stop servicing break-even customers. If this idea makes you gasp, think harder. You're falling for the fallacy of increasing sales instead of boosting profits. If you stop marketing to unprofitable customers, you have more time and resources for customers who actually grow your business. "More than likely, 20% of your customer base is contributing 150% to 200% of total annualized profit (TAP); 70% is breaking even; and 10% is costing you 50% to 100% of TAP," says Atlanta marketing consultant Michael King. Take a detailed look at your customer profitability data and then direct premium services and marketing to customers who count.

4. Develop an electronic mailing list and send old-fashioned letters. Most businesses have harnessed the power of e-newsletters — and you definitely should be sending out one, too. It's very cost-effective. But because e-mail marketing is now nearly ubiquitous, you can quickly stand out by occasionally sending personal, surface mail letters to customers and prospects. Just make sure the letter delivers something customers want to read, whether an analysis of recent events in your field, premium offers or a sweetener personalized for the recipient (a discount on his next purchase of whatever he last purchased, for instance). "This mailing has to have value to those that read it, so it reflects the value of what you offer," says Leslie Ungar, an executive coach in Akron, Ohio. "Remember, the best way to sell is to tell." The process is simplified by creating a letter template and envelope or customer label mailing list in Microsoft Office Word in Office 365, which you can print. The mailing list is easily created in Excel and then imported into Word.

5. Boost your profile at trade shows and conferences. You can quickly create signage, glossy postcards with your contact information, product news inserts or an event mini Web site — all with Microsoft Office Publisher. With Office 365, you’ll also have a hosted external website for your business, at no extra cost.

6. Combine business with pleasure — and charity. Spearhead an event, party or conference for a cause you care about. That puts you in the position of getting to know lots of people, and shows off your small business leadership skills. "I host an annual baseball game where I take hundreds of clients to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field," says Kate Koziol, who owns a public relations agency in Chicago. "Last year, I took 300 people and we raised $10,000 for a local children's hospital. Few people turn down a game and it's a great networking opportunity for guests. It lets me reconnect with current clients and impress potential clients."

7. Create a destination. Bookstore chain Barnes & Noble has its coffee bars. Furnishings giant Ikea offers child-care centers and cafeterias. Why? So customers gravitate to the stores to enjoy an experience and hang out for a while. Sunday morning at Barnes & Noble becomes a pleasant weekend routine, rather than a shopping errand. Steal this idea. This tip isn't limited to offline destinations, either. Using pay-per-click advertising, you can cheaply drive traffic to a one-time news event or specialty offerings, points out Jay Lipe, a small-business marketing consultant based in Minneapolis. Lipe set up a Web site for Games by James, a retailer of board games, and quickly attracted customers via pay-per-click ads. "The effect was overnight," says Lipe. "Traditionally in the marketing world, it takes weeks or even months to generate acceptable awareness and traffic. Here we saw traffic spike overnight."

8. Become an online expert. This is the "free sample" approach to bringing in business. Research active e-mail discussion lists and online bulletin boards that are relevant to your business and audience. Join several and start posting expert advice to solve problems or answer questions. You may need to keep this up for a bit. But the rewards come back in paying clients and referrals. "E-mail discussion lists have been my single largest source of clients over the last eight years," says Shel Horowitz, a small-business marketing consultant based in Northampton, Mass.

9. Court local media. Editorial features convey more credibility with prospective clients than paid advertising does. To get coverage from the local media, whether from the town newspaper, from TV or radio stations, or from trade journals, you need a fresh, timely story. It's usually worthwhile to hire an experienced publicist to position the stories, target appropriate media representative and write and send press releases. Usually, you can work on a short-term or contingency basis.

10. Finally, don't let customers simply slip away. Make an effort to reel them back in. It costs a lot less to retain a disgruntled or inactive customer than to acquire a new one. If you haven't heard from a customer in a while, send a personalized e-mail (you can automate this process), inquiring whether all is well. For a customer who suffered a bad experience, pick up the phone, acknowledging the unpleasantness and ask if there's anything you can do. A discount can't hurt either. Being kind to customers is the smartest low-cost marketing you can do.


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