Getting the word out about your business is one way to make sure it succeeds. Indeed, many aspects of your business may depend on it. And what better way than to come up with some free marketing ideas for your small business to attract new customers.
Overall, small business marketing ideas can mean many different things: from advertising and public relations to promotions and sales. In other words, marketing is a multi-layered process in which your business is introduced and promoted to potential customers. Sounds good, right?
But there are so many marketing ideas for small businesses these days—with many varying costs and associated expenses. The cost of traditional advertising—whether a Facebook ad or direct-mail campaign—could put you in the red, for example.
But not all marketing tactics break the bank. So if your marketing budget is slim or nonexistent, be sure to check out the below list of free marketing ideas—as well as some inexpensive marketing ideas for small business—that can help you spread the good word about your business.
31 Free or Inexpensive Small Business Marketing Ideas
These free, or nearly free, marketing ideas can help you get your business’s marketing strategy off the ground.
1. Develop a customer referral program.
It’s often overlooked, but word-of-mouth marketing for small business is a super-powerful way to market your business. There’s a reason why word of mouth is number one on our list of small business marketing ideas. According to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising.
One way to boost your word-of-mouth marketing is by introducing a customer referral program. Try offering your existing customers something—a free sample product, complimentary service, discounts, or some other low-cost reward—for referring new customers. Having your customers tell their friends and family about your business can be incredibly valuable. Plus, a customer referral reward can help you show some appreciation to existing customers, as well.
2. Send out a customer satisfaction survey.
A customer satisfaction survey is not only a great way to learn about your customer base, but it’s also a great way for customers to remember you exist. Surveys have taken their rightful place as number two on our list of small business marketing ideas.
Consider it like rogue email marketing—though this can also be done totally analog in your storefront or on the street. Customers will appreciate that you asked for their opinion and they’ll feel invested in the results of the survey, which will translate into better loyalty over time. You might learn a thing or two about how your business might improve along the way. Win-win.
3. Tell a story with data or milestones.
This might be one of our favorite free small business marketing ideas.
Crunch the numbers on your business and see if any significant story comes through the data—maybe you’ve done business with over 1,000 clients in your area, or perhaps you provide your service at a percentage higher than industry standards.
Publish the results online or put a sign out in front of your store. People respond well to numbers—they’re an easily digestible data point. For example, “The community loves us” will be outperformed by “Over 2,500 satisfied customers in our area!” every time.
Conversely, say an academic study is done revolving around your industry. Use it to relate to the utility of your business by publishing it online and highlighting the most important parts.
4. Make your own infographics.
With all this data talk, it should be noted that infographics are super-powerful marketing tools—and relatively easy and inexpensive to make.
Infographics are visual and easy to understand, which is why many people love to share them. You can use online services right in your browser, such as Visme—no software or design skills required.
You can also step it up a notch and pay for a freelance designer to create a set of infographics for you—which would come in as a relatively inexpensive small business marketing idea.
5. Publish distributed content.
Most people are familiar with the wonders of social media marketing, but many sites—like Facebook and Twitter—are pay to play, often with steep costs to reach the audience you want. And although you can still invest in publishing on those sites, consider alternative content distribution networks when you’re searching for free marketing ideas.
For instance, Reddit is an old-school social network that bills itself as the “front page of the internet.” To market on Reddit, you need to find a niche—known on Reddit as subreddits, or message boards—related to your industry or business. There, you can find scores of people already interested in what your business has to offer—if you do it correctly. You don’t want to overtly advertise on Reddit without making it feel authentic to the community, so study your subreddit thoroughly before opting to post.
You might also consider LinkedIn: The business-focused social network is often overlooked but can have a great impact. By joining professional groups, participating in industry conversations, and sharing your own content, you can reach the right kind of audience that will bring you business. While this small business marketing idea will take some time on your part, it doesn’t have to cost money.
6. Engage in one-to-one marketing.
Sometimes referred to as 1:1 marketing, this is a customer relationship strategy aimed at boosting personalized interactions with customers. Examples run from sending handwritten postcards to valued customers or personalized birthday emails. The only thing this will cost you is your time, but otherwise, it’s a free marketing idea. Finding a good customer relationship management software can also help automate this process.
Personalizing interactions with customers can foster greater loyalty and a better return on marketing investment. This is a quality over quantity tactic, for sure.
7. Hold an online contest.
Prizes don’t need to be extravagant—a couple of free products or complementary services can be enough to get potential customers to invest a few seconds of their time in applying to win.
Contests are a great way to gather potential customer data—like emails—while also getting them to spread the word about your business to even more potential customers.
8. Develop an industry partnership.
Developing partnerships is a must-have on any list of free marketing ideas.
Team up with a business that complements yours (one that isn’t a direct competitor, of course) for a joint project. You can do this by hosting a joint special event or online giveaway. They can be for a short period of time or extended for as long as you want. Either way, partnering with another business will give you access to their customer base and vice versa. This kind of access would cost you big bucks otherwise.
9. Try your hand at guerilla marketing.
It may sound scary, but it just takes a little ingenuity: Guerilla marketing uses public space to make itself known—a little sidewalk chalk and a good message can go a long way at a well-trafficked intersection. Stickers and graffiti (with correct permits!) can also serve as eye candy for potential customers.
If you’ve got the creative spirit, this is one of our favorite marketing ideas for small businesses.
10. Host an event or class.
Plan an event to host or a class that will attract new customers to your business while educating them about your industry. The event or class will be its own form of advertising, as well as a good reason to advertise.
Print out flyers and post them on community bulletin boards at the library, coffee shops, or other local establishments where interested pupils might hang around. Most community bulletin boards won’t let you post business advertisements, but they’re often more than happy to post a flyer promoting an educational event or class.
We love this free small business marketing idea because it’s offering great value to your current or potential customers.
11. Hold business card drawings.
This might not be one of our most innovative free small business marketing ideas, but it’s an oldie and a goodie.
Put out a fishbowl at your place of business and ask visitors to drop their business cards in it for a chance to win something—a free product or service, for example.
By the end of the month, you’ll have collected tons of business cards—likely with email addresses you can use to reach out to customers about joining your email mailing list so you can notify them of future giveaways and special offers.
12. Send email newsletters.
Email marketing is a great way to get new visitors engaged with your business, as well as maintain relationships with your existing customers. Not to mention one of our favorite free marketing ideas.
Even the most basic email marketing plans can have a big impact.
Consider these statistics from Entrepreneur Magazine: 72% of U.S. adults prefer companies to communicate with them via email, and 91% would like to receive promotional emails from companies they do business with.
Advertise your email newsletter on your website or in your store so people can sign up. It’s a great way to establish customer loyalty or nurture subscribers to become paying customers over time. Start your email campaigns with a free email marketing platform like MailChimp or SendPulse—prices scale up as your business grows.
13. Help promote or volunteer your time for a charity event.
Charity events are a great place for small business brand visibility—and for a good cause! Potential customers will associate your business with a feel-good attitude, and you’ll just have to donate some time or possibly some product.
14. Join a professional organization.
A chamber of commerce or other B2B organization is a great free marketing idea to engender camaraderie for all parties involved. Connecting with other professional organizations will give your business more visibility to your community, as well as provide opportunities to network with other businesses in your area.
15. Create a business mascot to promote your brand.
Chester Cheeto, Ronald McDonald, the Geico lizard—these mascots extend market visibility to your customer base and make customers feel like they are in a relationship with a living thing rather than a faceless business. Consider creating your own company mascot to better market your business.
16. Take a stand on a controversial industry topic.
Politics and business are more entwined than ever, and taking a stand on an issue important to your consumer base is a great way to get their attention.
Anti-smoking? Stop selling cigarettes at your store and issue a press release.
Care about the environment? Take the steps to make your business eco-friendly, and then write a post on a publishing site like Medium about the experience.
Take a stance, act on it, and then tell people all about it. You may lose some customers in the process, but you’ll strengthen your other customer relationships and gain new ones.
17. Create a blog.
A company blog filled with useful posts for your industry and customer base is a great way of connecting with current customers as well as generating new ones. For example, Fundera’s blog has thousands of articles on starting, growing, and managing one’s small business, making it a hub for growth-minded small business owners.
18. Invest in YouTube videos.
With YouTube growing to be the second-biggest search engine in the U.S. (second to Google), making a presence on YouTube is a great, cost-effective marketing idea for small business.
You could create a short-but-sweet video that explains what your business does, or you could dive deep into a topic that relates to your business. Your potential customers might be searching for how-to videos that give you an opportunity to catch their attention. And with the ability to shoot videos on any smartphone, this is a free marketing idea that can make a big impact.
If you’re willing to invest in YouTube videos as a marketing idea for your small business, be sure to read up on YouTube SEO strategies so the work you’re doing pays off. You can check out Fundera’s YouTube channel for some ideas as well.
19. Sign up for Help a Reporter Out (HARO).
Want free press? You should be on Help a Reporter Out (HARO).
HARO is a platform for reporters looking for help on articles or other pieces of content they’re working on. Reporters submit requests for responses on specific topics, and industry leaders and specialists answer. If your answer is used in the article, your name and business will appear with it.
If you consider yourself a thought leader in a certain industry or topic, be sure to be on HARO responding to reporters. It’s a quick and free marketing idea for small businesses that want to be placed in the news.
20. Manage your Yelp presence.
This is a simple but effective marketing idea for small businesses operating brick-and-mortar stores or service businesses. Yelp is a fantastic way to find new customers, so long as you keep up a strong presence.
Depending on how much you want to invest, Yelp for business can be a paid or free marketing idea. A basic first step is to either register or claim your business, add your location, post pictures of your products, and start responding to your customers’ reviews.
21. Start a client appreciation program.
Sometimes your next best customer is your last customer, meaning you should invest in the relationship you have with your existing customers.
Starting a customer appreciation program might encourage people to continue using your service.
22. Donate to or sponsor fundraisers and charities.
Although not a totally free marketing idea for small businesses, participating in local fundraisers or contributing to local charities is a great way to show public support for the organizations you care about.
And depending on the agreement, you might be able to get some visibility with local customers if you can sponsor an event or give away branded prizes.
23. Invest in SEO.
You can shell out a lot of money perfecting your SEO strategy, but there are certainly ways to make small investments in this marketing strategy for small business.
A few things—like producing content that’s helpful and thorough for your readers, making sure your headers are explanatory and readable, or optimizing your local listings—can go a long way toward helping your small business get found on the web.
24. Build a presence on online forums.
If your customers are online, then the best marketing ideas for your small business will be online, as well.
One of our favorite free marketing ideas? Building a presence on online forums like Quora, Reddit, or just about any forum where your customers are posting.
Answering questions in a non-promotional, helpful manner will help build visibility among your potential customers. Selling your business too heavy-handedly, though, will turn potential new customers away from your business.
25. Consider vehicle branding.
If you run a business that involves driving around town all the time, then an incredibly easy, nearly free marketing idea for your small business is to brand your car.
Having a vehicle with your logo on it helps you get name-recognition in your local area, and after the initial investment, it’s like free advertising.
Have a fleet of vehicles? You could order car magnets in bulk and put them on all your cars.
26. Attend local conferences.
Conferences typically aren’t free to attend. However, some smaller conferences can be pretty inexpensive, and if you can avoid traveling, they can be downright affordable.
Conferences are a crucial marketing idea for small businesses as they help you network with other leaders in the industry (is there a partnership in your future?), gain new customers, and get your brand in front of a large crowd of people. And as you build your business and become a leader in your industry, you’ll likely be invited to speak at such conferences, which is a great free marketing idea.
27. Establish your social media presence.
While this might be an obvious marketing idea for small business, many people don’t invest in establishing and maintaining their social media profiles as much as they should.
Plus, if you have the time, you can do this all on your own with just a phone or computer, making it an effective free marketing idea.
Some businesses will be better suited to be on certain platforms. But if, say, you run a local coffee shop and you aren’t posting pictures of your perfect lattes on Instagram, you’re missing out on attracting customers to your store.
28. Interact with customers and partner with influencers.
Once you have your social media channels up and running, you should put them to good use. This means using those channels to interact with your customers who are either reviewing you or commenting on your posts. Let them know you’re listening to what they have to say and that you care.
You can also partner up with influencers on social media to help elevate your social media presence. Send them a gift and they might feature you in a post or on their story on Facebook or Instagram.
To take this a step further, you can pay for the influencer to advertise your product or services as well. They just have to be sure to comply with the guidelines on the platform they’re using. And while this isn’t a free marketing idea, it can be worth the investment if you find an influencer whose audience base overlaps with your own.
29. Host a webinar.
Hosting a webinar or collaborating on one with another business can be a great way to help potential new customers or other business owners get to know your business.
This can be fairly simple like going live on Facebook or Instagram and taking questions from the comments or interviewing one of your top employees. However you decide to format it, this small business marketing idea will likely give some new customers insight into your business, while establishing yourself as a resource in your industry.
30. Apply for business awards.
There are certain business awards out there that you can apply for and if you win, it will help to get your business’s name out in the community. Sometimes local magazines will rate businesses or produce a roundup of popular businesses—another great way to get the word out about your business. Be sure to check for the latest awards or rankings in your industry so you don’t miss an opportunity to let your business shine.
Awards like the top places to work in your area or in your industry are also a great way to get the word out about your business. Showing that you treat your employees well goes a long way with potential customers—people like to support businesses that they believe in.
31. Offer free samples.
Everyone loves free stuff. Depending on what product or service you sell, a free sample or a discount could be exactly what your business needs to gain a new customer.
If people are hesitant to switch to your service or product, it might best serve your business to offer them the chance to try it out without fully committing. This is a generally inexpensive marketing idea for small businesses to get their products or services on people’s radar.
Getting Started With Free Small Business Marketing Ideas
As you can see, if you’re low on budget but have just the tiniest ounce of creativity, you can reach scores of potential customers who will help grow your business without breaking the bank.
Plus, you can try out these small business marketing ideas and find the ones that really work. Once you determine which channels are worthwhile for your business, you can start investing more and more in that marketing strategy, throwing gas on the fire.
Want more marketing ideas? Check these out:
- Restaurant marketing ideas
- Valentine’s Day marketing ideas
- Halloween marketing ideas
- Dental marketing ideas
- Holiday marketing ideas
- Forbes.com. “Why Word of Mouth Marketing is the Most Important Social Media“
- Entrepreneur.com. “Alive and Kicking: Why Email Marketing is Still a Huge Tool for Business“
Sally Lauckner is the editor-in-chief of the Fundera Ledger and the editorial director at Fundera.
Sally has over a decade of experience in print and online journalism. Previously she was the senior editor at SmartAsset—a Y Combinator-backed fintech startup that provides personal finance advice. There she edited articles and data reports on topics including taxes, mortgages, banking, credit cards, investing, insurance, and retirement planning. She has also held various editorial roles at AOL.com, Huffington Post, and Glamour magazine. Her work has also appeared in Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan magazines.