Hiring a celebrity to be a social influencer. Product placement on a popular TV show. Podcasts. Blogs. There are lots of sexy, fun ways to market your small business. They’ll cost a lot of money. And they probably won’t work.
The reality is that for most small businesses, the best types of marketing are unsexy—they’re not flashy, they’re not new. But they’ll probably get you customers: paying customers who know what you do, know your name, and know how to reach you. And that’s what you want, right?
So let’s talk about “unsexy”—tried-and-true—marketing that works for small businesses. None of these are exciting, and you probably know about them all already. But remember them when thinking about how to grow your business.
Let’s talk about signs—all kinds of signs. Signs over your place of business. Signs in your store. Signs on your trucks. Signs announcing what’s on sale. Signs saying what you do.
I used to go to a small wine bar in my neighborhood. Talking with Randy, the owner, he said he made the most money from having private events. I suggested he put up a sign saying something like “Hold your private event here.” Months later he thanked me, saying that the one sign—which probably cost him less than $100—had made him tens of thousands of dollars in bookings.
Every week, I see a truck pulled into some neighbor’s driveway from a plumber, electrician, carpet cleaner, whatever, without any markings on it. If they had a sign on their truck—even one of those magnetic signs they can pull off—they’d be advertising their services, and I might find a new electrician that I need. Signs work—use them.
Everyone loves getting samples. I live in Silicon Valley, and I once saw a tech billionaire waiting for a free food sample at Costco. (And woohoo—samples are back at Costco!)
Free samples work because they make customers more comfortable with making a choice. Think about food samples—you may not want to spend $6 on a jar of jam that you don’t know whether you’ll like, but once you’ve tasted it, you’re okay with shelling out the extra bucks.
Samples work for all kinds of products—and services—not just food. A few years ago, I was invited to a new neighborhood nail salon that had an opening weekend offering free manicures. And all kinds of subscription services offer a first month free—knowing that a large percentage of customers will never cancel.
3. Advertising specialty items/swag
Remember what I said about everyone liking to get something free? The same goes for little gifts with your company’s name on them, like pens or calendars or mugs or hats or note pads or tote bags. Your customer experiences getting these little things as a free gift but they’re really a continual ad for your business.
During Covid, it’s been harder to give out advertising specialty items (except in deliveries), but now that customers and clients are coming back in, think about inexpensive advertising specialty items that will keep your name in front of customers.
4. Business cards
In my kitchen drawer I keep a small stack of business cards with the names of service personnel I’ve used: an appliance repair company, an electrician, an HVAC repair person and others. I also—once—had a Post-it note with the name and number of the plumber I liked, but that got lost. Business cards are easy to keep and make it easy for customers to find you and call you.
Your business card can also be a little advertisement—it can list a few of the services you offer. But be sure to put your contact information on it!
How many of us have stacks of Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupons around the house? After all, if we can’t get something free, we sure like a discount. Coupons give customers the reality—or the feeling—of getting a bargain. If there’s an inexpensive, easy way for you to get your coupons out—perhaps putting them in a church newsletter or distributing them door-to-door in your neighborhood—use coupons!
6. Search engine ads
A zillion years ago, small businesses used the Yellow Pages to advertise. Then came search engines replacing the Yellow Pages. And then came social media, and lots of businesses forgot about search engine ads. But you know what? When customers are really ready to buy—when they’re searching for a tree trimming company in their neighborhood—they’re going to use a search engine. So don’t forget search engine ads.
None of these marketing methods are going to get the heart racing of business school students, but they are time-tested and work. At the end of the day, it’s all just about getting customers for your small business, not being sexy.
Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2021
This article originally ran in USA Today on September 9, 2021