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How cash-strapped start-ups and SMEs can maximise their brand exposure with a small marketing budget

13 minute read

megaphone drawing on chalkboard

Few new start-ups and local businesses today have the benefit of a large marketing budget to help them to compete with bigger brands and established firms, but as everyone knows, you have to spend money to make money. This paradox is one that most SMEs face during their first few months of trading.

Without investing in marketing and advertising, few businesses are lucky enough to be able to bring in enough revenue to fund the ongoing expansion of the business. But without that initial stream of revenue, launching a marketing campaign or funding essential adverts in the first place may well be out of reach.

Cashflow difficulties during the first few months of trading or an inability or unwillingness to free up funds for marketing can herald the end of even the most ambitious of new ventures, and without a plan in place to maximise brand exposure and reach out to prospects, few small businesses can hope to compete in today’s fast-moving digital world.

However, even if your marketing budget is small or your business is cash-poor and you don’t have a lot of funds for ads and raising brand awareness, there are still a variety of things that you can do to get your name and offerings seen by prospects, and to help to spread the word.

This isn’t always easy and can take a while to pay off, but today’s successful SMEs have learnt the importance of innovation and creativity when it comes to marketing to prospects, without having to spend a lot of cash that the business simply may not have.

In this article, I will explain how cash-strapped start-ups and SMEs can maximise their brand exposure successfully with a small marketing budget, and share some advice on approaches to consider: 

Why SMEs with small budgets need to be ready to innovate and put the time in to reduce the disadvantages of a low marketing budget

Can SMEs raise brand awareness and market themselves effectively without a competitive marketing budget to support this? Yes, definitely – but this is rarely quick or easy to achieve. To counteract the disadvantage of a small marketing budget, you have to be prepared to dedicate quite a lot of time to the endeavour, and this is something that anyone seeking to raise brand awareness on a shoestring budget must be prepared for.

Theoretically, marketing any endeavour can be undertaken with a low or even non-existent budget at the outset, but if this was quick and easy, nobody would bother throwing money at their marketing at all. When you don’t have the budget to pay for a lot of ads, you have to pick up the slack in other ways, taking care of things manually; and this takes time and effort.

There’s no shortcut or one size fits all solution, and it is important to bear in mind that achieving a good level of brand awareness organically without any ad spend can take up a lot of your time – time that you need to find alongside running or managing the day-to-day operation of your business.

To compete against others with a bigger budget, you have to try out new and novel approaches that others are ignoring or aren’t utilising to their full potential, be prepared to experiment, and be ready to put the work in to pick up the slack.

Initial approaches that are designed to bring in an initial trickle of revenue

Once you have begun to bring in a stream of income from your efforts, you have the option of increasing your marketing spend for future campaigns and building up a self-sustaining momentum that will continue to bring in revenue, and reinvesting in your marketing efforts on an ongoing basis is vital to your long-term success.

Here are three free and low-cost marketing approaches that are designed to kick-start your revenue streams and form the basis of future marketing campaigns:

1. Building your social media collateral

No SME is likely to thrive today without embracing the power of social media for business, and once you build momentum and have some funds behind you for paid campaigns, social media can bring in a potentially rich, ongoing stream of income and prospects for your business.

However, you can build the foundations of social media success with a low or even non-existent budget if you are prepared to put the time and effort in, enabling you to build brand awareness and generate sales from the outset that will help you to fund future endeavours.

Creating and populating business pages on popular platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be the first thing that you do, and you can then share these pages far and wide across your platforms of choice to attract that initial expression of interest and catch people’s attention.

Engagement and interaction on social media (both on your own pages and across related pages, accounts and groups) is often very time-consuming, but there are few more effective ways to build followers and enthusiasm. The personal touch that comes as standard with this approach has a lot to recommend it too.

Prospects remember personal interactions with brands and tend to view them in a more positive light as a result, which is where this time-intensive approach can really pay off, without the need to pay out. Research by eMarketers reveals that 56% of CMOs experienced higher social media engagement rates with personalised content, and a high volume of individual interactions with prospects on social media is essential to achieving a meaningful number of organic appearances within users’ newsfeeds.

2. Well-targeted Google Ads campaign

Google Ads is one of the first areas that a budget-limited SME should consider utilising, as it’s highly scalable and offers a high level of control over your ad spend and budget.

Even with a budget of just a couple of hundred pounds per month, SMEs can set up successful campaigns without breaking the bank by being innovative about demographic targeting, chosen keywords, and the bid value of each click.

Targeting lesser-used or more niche keywords than well-funded competitors can allow SMEs to compete on a more level playing field with established brands, partially negating the need to compete for prime keyword searches and ad placement slots against businesses who have the funds to set higher cost per click values.

To make the most of a limited Google Ads budget, you need to be ruthless about culling useless search terms and wasted clicks, so monitor your account closely and add negative keywords and search terms as and when needed to avoid wasting valuable funds. Find out more in this ultimate online guide. 

3. Incentives and promotions

Everyone loves a freebie, and offering incentives, promotions and special offers to prospects achieves a number of different aims. First of all, you have the opportunity to ask for something in return from your prospects – such as sharing a post in order to be in with a chance of winning an incentive.

Secondly, by getting your products or offerings into the hands of people who might want them or be willing to give them a go without the need to gamble on a purchase, you have another valuable chance to spread awareness and garner positive comments and reviews for what you offer.

If someone has received something that pleased them or made them happy, they are likely to tell others – especially if they got it for free or at a significant discount in the first place.

To make incentives and promotions work for you, your demographic targeting has to be spot-on and your offer itself enticing and valuable. Ten 10% off coupons for ten prospects aren’t likely to make as big of an impact overall as one high-value offer a single prospect could gain (and tell ten others about), so be prepared to be fairly liberal with your use of high-value offers, promotions and incentives during your early days of operation.

These are just three suggestions of some free and very low-cost approaches to take to bringing in revenue to get you going and fund your future marketing endeavours, and ones that should be within the reach of even the smallest of start-ups.

Why reinvesting some of your profits in marketing is vital for new start-ups

If you are successful with your initial free or low-cost marketing approaches, it can be tempting to think that you don’t need to spend cash on campaigns and ads in the future. However, this belief can be very self-limiting, and failing to appreciate the value of effective paid marketing and ad placements can soon curtail or even put a premature end to your initial success.

Whilst continuing to utilise free and very cheap methods of spreading the word (such as my examples above) is certainly wise, unless you’ve managed to hit the winning formula and get prospects talking enough that they’re doing most of the heavy lifting for you, these approaches will only take you so far.

As your business grows and more revenue begins to come in, the demands that running your business places on your time will only increase, leaving even less time to take care of time consuming, low cost approaches. Many SMEs struggle to dedicate enough time to marketing even when business is slow, and if your revenue streams seem to be consistent, it is all too easy to let your marketing fall by the wayside.

If you’re not prepared to invest in the ongoing success and expansion of your business by paying marketing sufficient gravitas (and funds) you are soon likely to top out in terms of what you can achieve, or even begin to backslide and have to go back to square one to build up your brand once again.

However, by reinvesting revenue into your marketing endeavours and spending your budget wisely, you can build upon your initial success and keep your business growing and expanding as you go. The chance of an SME raising a high-impact marketing budget within their first couple of years without a lot of initial start-up funding is still fairly low – but having a little more free cash at your disposal a few months in opens up a range of new options that you can dedicate some of your marketing budget to, and that can help you to keep moving forwards effectively.

Five cost-effective ways of increasing brand exposure with a low budget

So, how can you increase your brand exposure with a low budget? Here are five of my suggestions, all of which have proven to be effective for other SMEs and that can help you to circumvent the challenges of a low budget too.

1. Focusing on the mobile channel

Smartphones and tablets have become ubiquitous in the UK over the last few years, and today’s online consumers are just as likely to browse the net and make purchasing decisions via their smartphones as they are their desktops – if not more so. This is something that Google has recognised and encouraged, such as by the introduction of mobile-first search indexing.

If your website doesn’t display properly on smartphones or is deemed by Google to be mobile browser unfriendly, your search results will suffer; both on mobile browsing devices and on desktops too. This is something to correct immediately if your online collateral is not already up to scratch, in order to avoid falling at the first hurdle and being penalised within Google searches.

The mobile channel offers a wide variety of paid ad placement options for businesses too, such as in-app and in-game promotions and pop-up ads or sponsored ads on mobile browser pages, and much more besides. However, despite the growth of mobile browsing and the ever-increasing popularity of mobile shopping, even many big brands don’t make full use of mobile ads and promotions, and SMEs in particular are falling behind the curve in this respect too.

Mobile ads can be a highly cost-effective way for SMEs to get their content, brand and offers seen by a wide audience of potential prospects, and so this is definitely something to look into once you’ve ensured that your website is mobile-friendly and ready to meet the needs of your potential buyers.

2. Targeting areas other competitors neglect

Going head to head on ad spend with competitors that have been established for long enough to have built up a good reputation and that have a large ad budget available to them is unviable for most start-ups and SMEs with limited budgets.

The cost of competing for clicks for high-value, competitive keywords will soon wipe out a small business’ marketing budget without having any meaningful impact on revenue, and so you have to think outside of the box to remain competitive by targeting channels and areas that other competitors neglect.

This might include setting up Google Ads campaigns for more obscure keywords and search terms, common misspellings or contractions, and other niche-specific cues that often fall by the wayside for businesses that aren’t busy chasing every penny in revenue.

Additionally, whilst most of us under a certain age view Google as the only useful search engine to work with (and Google does hold over 72% of the total market share as of November 2018) it would be a mistake to ignore the value of competitors such as Bing and Yahoo, particularly when trying to reach out to prospects whilst on a low budget.

Bing and Yahoo hold 13.68% and 3.87% respectively of the remaining market share, and whilst these figures might seem negligible when compared to Google, they still represent millions of users and potential prospects that are often ignored or neglected due to their choice of browser.

Placing paid ads and search promotions on browsers such as Bing and Yahoo can help you to pick off prospects that competing brands aren’t targeting to full effect, and this can be a very cost-effective way of identifying prospects, raising brand awareness and raising revenue on an ongoing basis.

3. Using Google Smart Goals

Even if you don’t have a lot of cash to dedicate to a PPC campaign, you can make your available budget stretch as far as possible by making full use of the various tools that Google offers to help you to track conversions and identify who your prospects are.

Google Ads can take a while to get to grips with and is often confusing for the owners of SMEs who are wearing many hats and juggling many responsibilities just to keep the business going, but dedicating a few hours to familiarising yourself with the platform, how it works, and how its analytics can help you is an investment that will pay off in the long term.

Conversion tracking capabilities are built into the platform to provide insights and direction for businesses looking to identify growth areas and cut out dead wood, enabling you to scale your campaigns to maximise their yield on-the-go.

When you know what works and what doesn’t, knowing where to concentrate your ad spend and where to withdraw it is much simpler.

Google’s Smart Goals dashboard within the Analytics platform is a vital and widely underutilised source of information that can help you to collate anonymous buyer data to build up better demographic profiles, and identify converting traffic as opposed to that which doesn’t pay off.

The information collected by Google Smart Goals enables you to determine not just how much traffic an Ads campaign brings in, but also the value of that traffic; how likely each person who clicked an ad was to purchase or take another desired action.

The information you find within Smart Goals can then be imported into your Ads account to set an appropriate cost per acquisition bid value per click, which enables Google to show your ad to people who are most likely to convert, within your set capped budget.

4. Using flexible targeting on Facebook

Facebook is another platform that offers a wide array of different types of paid and promoted ad options for businesses. Getting to grips with how all of them work, which is best for you, and how to use them to their full potential can be a challenge much like building familiarity with Google Ads.

Again, dedicating some time and effort to working through the available information and options to find the best fit is well worth it and can save you from wasting money you can ill afford to lose in order to get things right.

One option that holds a lot of value for SMEs seeking to build brand awareness on a budget is Facebook’s Flexible Targeting option, which allows you to target demographics along the lines of individuals who each match two or more benchmark characteristics – such as those with both children and pets, or those who live in a certain geographic area and own a specific type of car.

This can enable you to increase the accuracy of your ad targeting and scale your campaign without a correlating need to significantly up your ad spend.

5. Generating organic social media engagement

A little ad spend can go a long way on social media platforms, if you can encourage your prospects to take up the call and spread the word for you, as a high-value form of organic word of mouth advertising.

Building up a strong social media presence and interacting with prospects and fans is something that I mentioned earlier on as an option to begin to bring in a trickle of revenue to get you started, and as mentioned, this can be an onerous and time-consuming task.

You can take out some of the hard work (and time) involved by integrating paid ads and promoted content into your campaigns when the budget allows for this, but neglecting personal engagement and failing to keep your finger on the pulse of what people are saying about your brand and the ways in which they want to engage with you is a huge error.

Keeping the momentum going on social media requires producing a regular stream of new, fresh content to engage and generate a buzz, even if your campaign is supported by paid ads too. Managing your reputation and brand persona is vital as well. Getting into spats, inconsistency in your brand’s tone of voice or an erratic presence across your main social channels can quickly reverse a positive social media trend, leaving you with the work of not only starting again but also, undoing previous damage that could have been prevented entirely.

“Like and share” style promotions and giveaways work well on social media if your incentives and targeting are right, but interaction, personal responses, and a likeable brand image and persona go just as far, and will help to cement the name of your brand in your prospects’ minds for all of the right reasons.

When you combine personal engagement with paid social media campaigns you can theoretically achieve a yield that is far greater than the sum of its parts, but doesn’t lose the momentum when you begin to succeed, or neglect the more time-intensive side of your social presence in favour of throwing money at it alone.

Bringing it all together

Tracking the progress and success of any ad campaign or marketing approach (paid or otherwise) is vital to ensure that you’re dedicating your resources of time, money or both in the right areas. Establishing what’s going on behind the scenes and what is and is not working can help to save you time and money, and provide direction to help you to make better use of approaches that are paying off.

You also need to put the work in before you start trying to raise brand awareness at all, by identifying your target demographics, finding out what they have in common, determining what makes them viable, and establishing where and how to reach them. This is something else you need to revisit and assess regularly too.

This is particularly important for businesses without a lot of cash to play with, as you’re unlikely to get a second bite of the cherry if you get it wrong at this most important stage of the process.

Knowing what channels or areas to concentrate on when your budget is very limited is one of the biggest challenges faced by cash-strapped SMEs, and this is something that can be difficult to determine. However, one common mistake to avoid is stretching a limited budget too thinly to be effective across any medium by spreading it over multiple different channels and approaches at once.

It is better to dedicate a larger spend to just one or two strong approaches and campaigns in order to give them the best chance of being effective than it is to take a more scattergun approach and hope that you hit the target somewhere.

Finally, I said it earlier but it bears reiterating once again: maximising your brand exposure without a lot of funds is almost certainly going to take up a lot of your time. This is something that few small business owners and start-ups have a lot of, given the number of competing demands faced every day just as part of running the business and keeping everything going.

It is all good and well to draw up a plan for raising revenue and increasing a brand’s profile on a shoestring budget, but if you can’t dedicate at least a few hours a week to doing just that until the revenue really starts rolling in, your progress will be much slower, or it may never really take off at all.

Polly Kay is a British copywriter and content writer with a digital marketing background. After studying Marketing (BA Hons) at university, she first honed her skills as a copywriter by working in-house for an award-winning creative agency in London before branching out on her own in 2012. Today, Polly Kay Copywriting and Content Writing serves clients ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK to well-known multinational brands. Polly specialises in SEO-friendly content writing for online use, and both brand-led and direct response copywriting for all applications.

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