Small businesses face some unique challenges when it comes to promoting their business and driving qualified traffic—whether in person, online, or both.
Small business advertising doesn’t need to be expensive to be effective. Brands need to get strategic with their ad spend, repurpose marketing assets when possible, and target audiences with expert-precision.
This article offers up some small business advertising ideas that won’t wipe out your budget.
What We’ll Cover:
- First, build a strong brand
- Set SMART goals
- Target the right audience
- Set up campaign and performance tracking
- Submit for online brand awards
- Work with other brands
- Business card drawings
- Join a professional association
- Try Pinterest ads
- Become a Podcast sponsor
- Repurpose videos
- Connect with your community
- Participate in Twitter Chats
- Use Snapchat to promote time-sensitive offers
- Use Facebook ad personalization tools
- Host workshops or events
- Try guerilla marketing
- Create a referral program
- Use influencer marketing
- Consider TV ads
- Connect media ads with social
- Try remnant advertising
Before we get started, it’s worth noting that the term “small business” refers to all types of business models, across just about every industry imaginable—it’s not just the local mom-and-pop.
1. Before You Do Anything, You’ll Need a Strong Brand.
Your brand is more than a logo and a killer tagline. It’s a promise to your customers that it shows consistency, reliability, and quality at every touchpoint.
It’s also the stories, voice, and values that make your business different than the competition.
As I’ve discussed in the past, strong branding is becoming increasingly important as a digital marketing strategy.
Because organic marketing is becoming a fragmented, omnichannel affair, it’s harder to rank on Google or stand out in audiences’ social feeds.
While paid advertising (in any format) is still one of the best ways to reach your audience, small businesses won’t see much ROI unless paid ads are part of a broader branding strategy.
In this article, I go into more detail about how to build your brand voice, but for now, here are a few key things to establish before you start mapping out campaign ideas:
- Invest in design. Work with a designer to develop a simple, memorable logo you can use on all channels. You’ll also want to find the colors that best represent your brand personality and use the same version of those colors in all branded material.
- Define your message. What are the most important things that your customer should know about your brand? Start by coming up with three words that you think describe your brand. From there, you’ll want to determine if those words match your audience’s perception of your brand. If they don’t, you may need to make some adjustments.
- Maintain consistency anywhere your brand might appear. This includes everything from your chatbot scripts, blog posts, and PPC ads to television ads, emails, and speaking appearances.
- Give your brand a voice. A B2B brand might develop a “friendly-expert” voice, while a fashion brand can embrace a playful or edgy tone that reflects their core audience. While your voice might shift slightly when speaking to different groups, all content and copy should point back at that unique value proposition.
2. Set SMART Goals
Establish goals based on the popular SMART framework, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. Here’s a quick overview of what that all means:
- Specific: Get specific in your goals. Don’t say “I want to increase sales.” Instead, aim to increase revenue by 25% over last month’s earnings.
- Measurable: Measurable goals are tied to metrics with tangible outcomes, like the number of new leads or subscribers or how much revenue was generated by a campaign.
- Attainable: You also want to make sure you set goals that you can actually achieve. Aim for realistic improvements to your strategy that help you identify new opportunities and address weak points.
- Relevant: Small business advertising hinges on making the most out of limited time and money. As such, you’ll want to make sure that you keep your goals focused on strategies that have a direct, positive impact on your business.
- Timely: Goals should come with an end-date, be it the next month or quarter. Aiming to increase sales in general won’t be as effective as setting short-term goals and making improvements with every subsequent initiative.
3. Get Serious About Targeting the Right Audience
Many small businesses don’t do a great job running targeted campaigns, even though targeting is one of the key benefits associated with online advertising.
Ad success (and SEO) depends on understanding your audience’s motivations and what their intentions are at any given moment in the sales cycle.
As such, your copy and imagery, regardless of platform or format, should consistently reflect what you’ve defined in your branding strategy.
To get this right, you’ll need to define your audience personas (I go over persona strategies here, if you’d like to learn more). Otherwise, you may end up spending your entire budget chasing the wrong audience.
Survey your audience. Get a sense of where they like to hang out online, what books and magazines they read, what podcast and radio shows they listen to, and so on.
When your advertisements match with the right understanding of your customers, you’ll begin to attract more valuable leads to your business.
- Local-specific targeting. Local businesses might use tools like geotargeting and geofencing to connect with audiences based on their location. This might include offering a special deal to audiences within a two-block radius to drive foot traffic.
- Target searchers based on your top-performing organic terms. By targeting search terms, rather than demographics, interests, or behaviors, you’re able to reach high-intent searchers looking for your solution that haven’t yet encountered your brand.
- Use YouTube’s custom-intent audiences. Custom-intent audiences are used to reach users that are currently in the process of making a business decision, as they consume content on YouTube. Check out this article to learn how to set up custom intent audiences and learn more about its benefits.
- Use Google remarketing. Using the Google Ads Editor, you can build remarketing campaigns by uploading audience lists from Facebook or your email list,
Depending on the campaign type you choose, you can also target new audiences using life events, interest categories, demographic groups, custom combination lists, and data sourced from your remarketing campaigns.
4. Set Up a System for Tracking Campaign Performance
With less time and fewer resources at their disposal, many small businesses don’t have any idea whether an advertising strategy is working or not.
Any digital ad platform, be it Google Ads, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, comes with comprehensive reporting tools, which can help you determine which strategies work best for your audience and business model.
Audience targeting needs to be measured and refined continuously. As such, you’ll want to evaluate your progress by asking yourself the following questions:
- Are ads getting in front of the target audience?
- If the answer is no, who are you reaching?
- Is your product/service relevant to that group?
- If yes, then is your target audience taking the desired action?
That said, answering those questions, and from there, making improvements to your ad strategy depends on your ability to track actions, engagement, and reach.
Though you will need to experiment with different headlines, formats, and copy, accessing your data and understanding which metrics drive results is the first step in creating ads that get the results you’re looking for.
Key metrics to track include:
- Conversion rate
- Retention rate
- Churn rate
- Return on Ad Spend (ROAS)
- Quality score
Just about every industry has digital awards it can win.
The benefit is here is that you’ll gain visibility on external platforms, which can drive new traffic to your website. And, in many cases, you’ll receive a badge you can display on your site to boost your credibility and put new visitors at ease.
6. Work with Other Brands on a Co-Marketing Effort
Teaming up with another business is another low-cost advertising strategy for small businesses.
The right partner should be a brand that offers a product or service that complements your offering and a similar audience profile. Examples include RedBull’s partnership with GoPro or a local flower shop banding with a nearby salon to promote a joint wedding package.
Co-marketing efforts offer a few distinct benefits, compared to going it alone.
For one, partnerships are hard for competitors to replicate.
7. Business Card Drawing
Yeah, sure, business card drawings are a call back to the past days of analog lead gen. But, it still works, provided the giveaway is something that your target audience is interested in.
All you’ll need to get started here is a bowl and some signage that explains the big prize.
At the end of the month, you’ll choose a winner, and have a whole stack of business cards you can use to build out your email list. Alternatively, you could use an iPad to collect email addresses digitally, if that works better for you.
Another blast from the past, coupons aren’t exactly a new advertising tactic. But, there’s no denying that people love getting a great deal.
Use discounts or extras to entice newcomers to become customers and keep existing customers coming back for more purchases. If you have a subscription service, it can also be helpful to offer prospects a code for a free trial so they can test it out.
Or, maybe try out the post-purchase discount to get a jumpstart on that next sale.
According to research from Internet Retailer, about 95% of sales are one-off purchases. They also noticed that returning customers account for an average of just 5% of all sales, spanning all industries.
Traditional coupons and promotions might not work for every business model, but you can make some adjustments to the strategy to reap the same benefits as supermarkets and e-commerce platforms.
Consider what you can offer without breaking the bank: Free consultations? A BOGO?
In this article, Shopify warns against over-discounting—noting that it could cause damage to your brand or eat into your margins.
Instead, you might approach the special offer like Brandless does below to entice cart-abandoners to come back and complete the purchase—offering $1 shipping on the first order.
They don’t devalue their brand (or, I guess, non-brand) by slashing prices, but they provide a slight incentive along with a reminder to encourage shoppers to take a chance on their products.
Another solution is to set limits on how many people can take advantage of the offer.
Hype’s coupon taps into that sense of urgency, combining the time incentive of a flash sale with a first-come, first-serve discount system.
Shoppers are encouraged to act fast—or else they miss out on half of the discount.
9. Join a Professional Association
While joining a group isn’t an official advertising strategy, it is an effective way to connect with others in your industry.
Many of these groups put on events, host networking sessions and seminars, and provide a platform for meeting new contacts, which can help you find partners for joint marketing efforts and receive referrals.
For more experienced small business owners, professional associations can offer speaking opportunities at events, allowing you to demonstrate your expertise and promote your business at the same time.
10. Consumer Brands Should Give Pinterest Ads a Try
According to a recent study from Neustar, Pinterest was the most efficient digital marketing channel for retailers, generating more sales at a lower price point than channels like Google and Facebook.
The report found that Pinterest represented 11% of ad spend while generating 18% of revenue.
Ad types blend right in with organic content and include the following formats:
- Promoted Pins
- Promoted Video Pins
- Promoted Carousels
- Promoted App Pins
Because 90% of Pinterest users say that they use the platform as a tool for helping them decide what to purchase, this is a great way to reach prospective buyers performing unbranded searches.
11. Become a Podcast Sponsor
As I’ve discussed in another recent post, podcasting is becoming an impactful way for brands to connect with their target audiences. Whether you have time to create a podcast of your own or not, the medium is also an effective place to advertise.
The numbers speak for themselves. Reportedly, there are approximately 67M monthly listeners in the US, and an estimated 50% of those listeners say that they support the brands that sponsor their favorite podcasts.
Typically, businesses pay a fee, and in exchange, the podcaster reads a sponsored message during short breaks in each episode. Keep in mind, fees are dependent on podcast network rankings, downloads, impressions, and other factors, so some of the bigger names might be out of reach.
12. Create a Few Videos that to Repurpose in Several Different Campaigns
I won’t go into every reason that video is an effective marketing tool. That’s been covered extensively over the past several years.
However, for small businesses, using video in your advertising can help you quickly communicate your brand’s core value proposition within a couple of minutes.
- Brand Videos. Create a video to tell your brand’s story. How, and why, did you get into this business? What do you offer that other brands don’t? Keep in mind, while people like a good story, they don’t want to commit to watching you talk about yourself for 10 minutes. Keep it under two minutes or so for best results.
- Go Behind-the-Scenes. For a less-formal approach, take viewers behind the scenes. You might interview your staff, post quick tours of your facility, or film tutorials that show off your expertise—and add value to your viewers. For example, you could demonstrate how to make small home repairs, prepare a simple recipe, etc. Anything goes as long as it relates to your business and your audience.
- Test Content with Organic Posts. Beyond providing content you can use in your ads, behind-the-scenes content also works as a free promotion strategy to use in your organic marketing efforts. This is a great way to test content for free before investing ad dollars in something you’re not sure will work. Then, use your best-performing content to reach lookalike audiences through awareness campaigns on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or the Google Display network.
- Introduce Your Team. Video is also a valuable tool for showing off your team, your brand personality, and communicating your point of view in a way that text can’t quite provide.
13. Connect With Your Community
Advertising is crucial for sustainable growth, but good old fashioned word-of-mouth remains the holy grail for marketers.
Local businesses should look toward getting involved with organizations that share the same values, whether that means starting a networking group for other small business owners or getting involved in a cause you care about. Engaging with people on a personal level can open the door to new partnerships and referrals.
If you’re a small online-only business, that same logic extends to nurturing relationships through closed groups on platforms like LinkedIn or Facebook. While digital communities aren’t especially new, brands are beginning to use them in new ways.
A lot of brands—regardless of size or industry—have racked up huge followings on their public social media profiles, yet fail to generate any engagement.
In 2020, businesses are beginning to evolve their social strategies in a way that encourages engagement and drives more conversions.
Closed social groups give brands a space to share their authentic voice, guide conversations surrounding specific topics, and connect prospective buyers directly with existing customers.
Smaller B2C brands might also want to check out Instagram Threads, a camera-focused messaging app that allows users to share Stories, videos, and messages to a private thread.
You can run ads to drive memberships, then prove your value by offering something members can’t find elsewhere, such as industry insights and giveaways.
14. Participate in Twitter Chats
For those unfamiliar with the concept, Twitter chats are moderated conversations that focus on a specific topic. Users join the conversation by logging on at a certain time and using the dedicated hashtag.
Here’s an example of what Twitter chats look like in the wild:
These chats also offer a unique opportunity to collect really useful information about your audience on what motivates them, what kinds of language they use, and so on, which can help you create more relevant content and campaigns.
15. Use Snapchat to Promote Time-Sensitive Offers
Snapchat’s ephemeral content is ideal for using organic social media to tap into customers’ sense of urgency. While the platform works best for “behind-the-scenes” content, or give followers access to special deals or coupons.
You might try something like what Current has done here with its “lunch hour flash sale.”
16. Facebook Ad Personalization
One of the biggest challenges smaller organizations face is creating personalized content with limited resources and time. Facebook’s recently launched personalization tools present a solution to this problem with dynamic ads.
17. Host Workshops or Events
Whether you’re a brick-and-mortar business or an online brand looking for a way to connect “IRL,” hosting events or workshops bring that tutorial experience into reality.
Online plant store, The Sill, has two physical locations in NYC and LA. While it seems that its core business is e-commerce, the brand offers workshops on things like terrarium building that bring people into their stores for a hands-on class.
18. Give Guerilla Marketing a Try
Guerilla marketing is a marketing strategy defined by its ability to capture audience attention with out-of-the-box ideas.
19. Create a Referral Program
Referral programs are another tried-and-true strategy small businesses can use to advertise their brand.
Given that an estimated 83% of consumers of customers say that they trust recommendations from friends and family more than traditional forms of advertising, incentivizing customers to promote your business is one of the best ways to increase your reach.
Whatever incentive you go with, make sure you track the following metrics to measure your performance:
- Who was referred to your business, and who referred them?
- Did they convert?
- How much time passed between the referral and the conversion?
20. Tap into the Power of Influencers
While you might assume that influencer marketing is a strategy reserved for large companies, small businesses can also leverage influencer marketing to drive traffic and reach more qualified leads.
You can read more about the costs associated with influencer marketing here.
Influencers also lend some credibility to smaller brands, helping them meet Google’s increasingly high expectations when it comes to trust and authority by boosting engagement on your website and social accounts.
To get started:
- You’ll need to establish a goal for your campaign. What do you hope to achieve here? More followers? More sales?
- You’ll also need to figure out which influencers you’d like to work with.
- Which influencers are popular with your audience?
- How many followers do they have?
- What kind of engagement are they getting on each post?
- Are they working with competitors?
- What kinds of brands do they work with?
Strategies you might use here include:
21. Don’t Discount TV Ads
TV ads aren’t just for the kinds of brands that can afford the Super Bowl slot.
While prime-time slots aren’t exactly an affordable tactic for most small businesses, there are plenty of more reasonable options for advertising your brand.
22. Extend the Impact of TV Spots with Social
In the spirit of omnichannel, it’s worth mentioning that TV ads work better when used alongside social channels.
According to Twitter data, about 60% of regular TV viewers use the platform to watch video clips, and nearly as many follow hashtags to keep up with specific interests.
Drive cross-channel engagement by using the following strategies:
- Share clips from your TV commercial in your organic posts. This can help improve recall and focus audience attention when your ads play–ensuring that your brand stays top of mind.
- Include branded hashtags in your TV ad. For example, Calvin Klein’s #MyCalvins hashtag campaign has grown to over 180,000 Instagram user photos since launching in 2014.
- If you do end up creating a TV commercial, get more bang for your buck by repurposing it as a YouTube ad.
23. Try Remnant Advertising
Remnant advertising is essentially an outlet store for buying ad space.
Remnant advertising gives small businesses a steep discount for digital billboard space, TV & radio spots, online publication ads, and more so they can fill whatever slots didn’t sell earlier in the process.
As you can see, you don’t necessarily need to spend a ton of money to promote your business.
I should acknowledge, once again, that developing great content—be it a compelling behind-the-scenes video, a blog post, or writing copy for podcasters to read out loud–does require a time investment and potentially some equipment or software.