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Opinion: How to market without a budget

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Wow – what crazy times we live in. I never thought I’d see a day in which a global health pandemic would cause Springfield, Missouri, to virtually grind to a halt. The changes have hit some harder than others, but startups that have been deemed “nonessential” certainly have felt the pain.

The stay-at-home order has caused many businesses at various stages of growth to pause their marketing efforts to conserve their assets until things return to some semblance of normalcy. That’s triggered moves by paid advertising platforms, such as Google Ads and Facebook, to lower their costs for some of the affected industries. Some savvy business owners are using the opportunity to increase awareness of their brands while their target markets have more time to surf the web.

It’s great that some can take advantage of lower demand, but what about the startups? What can the new business owner do to market during this time (or any time, really) without a stable marketing budget? More than you might think, actually.

The best form
Marketing seems simple to some, and it’s a complete mystery to others. When you strip away all of the shiny artificial intelligence, complex jargon and arguments about traditional versus digital, marketing is all about building relationships. It’s long been an accepted fact that word-of-mouth is the best form of marketing. If a friend tells you that you should try a restaurant, you’re much more likely to try it out than if you just see the name in a list on a Google search.

That’s because word-of-mouth bypasses the whole marketing process. In marketing, the goal is to first make a person aware of your brand, then help them to associate your solution with their problem and finally develop enough trust for them to pay you for your solution. A referral shifts the burden of trust onto the one giving the referral. This allows you to create a positive feedback loop that increases your ability to grow your business with every new person you help.

If you have started a business and have helped at least one person, you can start this process. It’s sadly underutilized and immensely beneficial. Ask your customer for a Google review and a referral. Offer an incentive if you need to. Some business owners offer a discount on future services to customers who refer friends. Others offer a check for a percentage of the revenue the new customer provides. It’s well worth parting with a small percentage of your revenue if you can get new and loyal customers out of the deal.

Other ways
What are some more traditional ways of marketing without a budget? Because marketing is all about building relationships, the best thing to do is look at how relationships are formed. Generally, people would say they’re acquaintances first, then they begin to know each other and become friends, then close friends and finally best friends. The same is true in business. People must know you first, then like you, then trust you. Sometimes they go as far as to love your business, telling everyone that’s willing to listen about it.

The way to guide a potential customer through these stages is through the exchange of value.

First, you have to provide a reason for them to give you their attention and notice your brand. Then, you have to bring to their attention a problem or pain that is causing them to suffer. Once they are aware of the problem they’re experiencing, you have to teach them more about their problem and help them understand it. When they have enough information about their problem, you can show them the solution and give them information about that. If you’ve provided value this whole time, enough that the potential customer was willing to give their time, you can ask them to pay for your solution.

As a startup, your paid options for these value exchanges may be limited, but you can take advantage of many free marketing and growth channels. You can attend networking events as a guest; you can create informational videos for YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or TikTok; you can write blogs, apply to present at our local 1 Million Cups chapter or start a group with regular live events on (after quarantine); or anything else that would allow you to provide value to groups of people and build relationships.

You’ll learn more as you go, and you’ll hopefully have a marketing budget in time. But the most important thing is to start and to put in the effort nobody else in your industry is willing to give.

Ryan Baker is the vice president of digital strategy at 417 Marketing LLC. He’s a certified Google Ads specialist and a certified customer experience professional through the Customer Experience Professionals Association. He can be reached at


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