Low- and No-Cost Advertising

There are many things you can do in the way of advertising, promotion, and publicity that cost little or nothing. And when you become successful enough to be able to afford more sophisticated ad techniques, there are ways of measuring to some extent just how effective these methods are in terms of your business growth. As always, the chief concern is that the advertising do what it is intended to do: cause more people to purchase more from your business.

Like all entrepreneurs, let's start at the bottom and work up with a menu of ad ideas using freebies and mini-media up to mass media and emerging techniques:

  • Ask for referrals, consistently!
  • Choose a simple logo that may be used on all printed material to identify your company.
  • Print attractive and informative business cards that include your logo and hand them out everywhere, consistently! If appropriate for your business, you can use your card as a discount certificate or other incentive. Or, you can have it placed on a magnetic backing so that it (hopefully) winds up on a refrigerator. If you use letterhead stationery in your business, have it match your business card. Keep your identity as consistent as possible.
  • Print up some gift certificates. These let your customers introduce you to new customers. Since you get paid up front for the product or service, these are cash-flow friendly.
  • Birthday and holiday cards sent to clients could show your logo and remind them of your continued interest. Customer comment cards are a great way to solicit feedback and involve your clients in your business.
  • Brochures let you provide a lot of detail about your product or service. Simple three-fold brochure stock may be purchased from mail order suppliers such as Paper Direct (800-272-7377) in small quantities. This type of stock comes in attractive cuts and colors. Template software can be obtained that permits you to use your computer to generate classy looking brochures at minimal cost. Make your headline stand out. Use clip art or graphics. Give your customer as much quality information as you can pack into this identity piece. Keep it up to date and personalize it when possible (by writing in the margins or underlining specifics that might interest a particular prospective customer). If you have a slightly bigger budget, go for a slick four-color piece. You'll need a printer who can do four color separations, so if you're in a small town market with few hi-tech services, you may want to call a national firm that specializes in doing short runs. Firms such as MultiPrint (800-858-9999) do high-quality, low-cost work for small businesses. They also have a wealth of samples to get your creative ideas flowing.
  • Flyers are the thrifty entrepreneur's dream. You can create them very inexpensively on your computer, or your local print shop can do them for you. You can use as much color as you like, with either a color printer or old-fashioned colored paper stock. Pack them full of information and post them on every bulletin board you can find that'll allow you space. Easy to distribute in bulk, these handy attention-getters can also be used as bag stuffers or inserts to put in with billings or to include when mailing payments to your suppliers. In fact, don't mail anything out of your business without including some little sales piece. Take advantage of piggybacking on that postage stamp. Placing stacks of flyers in building lobbies and tucking them under windshield wipers are done frequently, but you must be willing to alienate some people if you use these methods of distribution.
  • Doorhangers are very effective and widely used by fast food and home delivery and service businesses. If you choose this medium, don't scrimp on the stock. Make it heavy so it won't blow off doorknobs and litter the neighborhood. Add a coupon or some other incentive to your copy. Doorhangers are a good way to focus in on a specific target buyer.
  • Inserted ads include mailbox inserts and free-standing inserts. The science behind the mass distribution of inserts is beyond the scope of our discussion here. If you think that inserts could successfully reach your market, call one of the big distributors and learn how much it would cost you to try this kind of program. The industry leaders are ADVO (call 860-520-3200, and they'll give you the local contact) and Val-Pak which is so big that you can look under "V" in most local phone books and find your neighborhood outlet. If you're just starting out, you may want to wait a bit before venturing into this zip code math contest, but keep it in mind as an opportunity for the future.
  • If you could afford a billboard or a blimp, you probably wouldn't be reading this. But often you can create little traveling billboards at low cost. Matchbooks or boxes with a logo and vital information were always the thrifty solution, but nowadays smoking is on the wane. So try something different such as boxes with little toothpicks instead of matches. This has been very successful in several markets, particularly with upscale restaurants. Keychains, pens and pencils, and calendars are premiums and ad specialties. If they are appropriate for your kind of business, they're worth their weight in ad dollars. People use them. They don't usually end up in drawers or wastebaskets.
  • Bumper stickers, balloons, buttons, decals, and even T-shirts are examples of ad specialty signage that works. Your local promotional supplier will have hundreds of examples of walking ads you can adapt to your needs.
  • Paper or plastic bags and packaging make economical billboards too. Print your name, logo, and message on anything you can, on all sides. Don't miss an opportunity to get your word out. Mailing labels are a perfect medium. Everyone who handles your mail will see your ad at no cost to you.
  • If someone says or writes something good about your product or service, put out reprints and let the world know how good you really are. Flyers are good for this purpose.

Try to remember that frequency and consistency are key to effective advertising. Always send the same message, and send it whenever the opportunity arises.