Almost everyone who starts a business understands the importance of getting known--telling potential customers about your product or service.

Yet few actually budget for marketing in their start up planning.

For most, the thinking is, 'We have a great idea. It's new and exciting. People will find us. And we can always tell the press about it--that will help.'

That's a great idea. But it's outdated and won't work anymore.

"As a start up small business with limited cash flow it's difficult to take the plunge into spending precious money on advertising," said Rich Santo, President of Culture Studio. "Our initial thought is always to focus on guerrilla marketing tactics and take to the streets on our own. We focus on building the facility or product and think "they will come". When you're inside the jar it can be very difficult to see the potential ROI on the label."

I get it. But press and publicity and marketing are rapidly becoming one of those things that is worth what it costs. If it cost you nothing, it's likely worth about that much. There are exceptions--the New York Times does "discover" great ideas and companies can throw away tons of cash on bad or ineffective marketing.

But waiting for the Times or investing a million dollars aren't your only options. Good thing since, if you're a startup, you likely don't have that kind of time or money anyway.

Here, then, are five moderate to inexpensive things your startup can do to get noticed and start generating some buzz in your market.

The first--although not one of my four tips--is budget. You need to know how much you can spend. And over what time-frame. You can work with $500 one time or $5,000 a month for a year. But you need to know which league you're in.

Tip 1: Pay for social media. I know, social media is supposed to be free. And it is. But boosting a post on Facebook (they call it boosting and usually offer it after each status update) or promoting a tweet can greatly increase your reach and bring new customers and followers. And you can do it for just a few hundred dollars a month.

Tip 2: Invest in media gimmicks. Put your thinking cap on spend some money--or give it away--to get attention. Can you hold a contest and donate to the winner's charity? Or Fly them somewhere? Host a dinner? Open bar for press and industry insiders? Fund a scholarship? Members of the media and the public are more likely to pay attention when there's something in it for them. If you have a good idea, you can make some waves for as little as $1,000.

Tip 3: Google ads and content marketing. Many customers know what they want and they're looking on search engines like Google or Bing. They sell ads. Those ads, which get your name directly in the face of consumers, work. There are experts--both at the websites and at independent places--who can help. But dropping $1,000 a month for six months, for example, can really pay off in traffic and awareness.

Tip 4: Conferences and Expos. Yes, they can be boring. And expensive. But conferences and conventions and trade shows related to your business almost certainly exist. Find them. If you can afford it, get a booth. Or, better yet, be a sponsor. The access to experts, insiders and, yes, press can be a great investment. If you sponsor, tell the organizers why you're investing--press, customer exposure or something else? Be clear. You can make a nice splash at a regional convention for $7,500 total.

Tip 5: Hire a publicist or media relations pro. The truth is that even the Times usually doesn't discover a new things on its own. Usually, the invisible hand of a publicist is at work. Experienced and reliable PR pros may be experts in your market and know the writers and editors already. Negotiate a good deal for your company but you can usually expect a big-time return in media attention for $4,000 a month. But expect to budget at least six months for the returns to kick in.

You can try the 'do what you can for free' approach but if you really want to make a splash, you may need to spend just a little cash.

Published on: Oct 5, 2014