July is a fun month for marketing. On July 11 every year, 7-Eleven gives away Slurpees. July is also host to Chick-fil-A's Cow Appreciation Day, when a cow costume will moo-ve them to give you a free entrée. There are similar fun events throughout the year, like Chipotle's BOOrito promotion on Halloween--a costume gets you a discounted burrito--and Ben & Jerry's stores' Free Cone Day.

Wacky promotions are fun, and can help drum up business and generate goodwill. Minor league baseball teams are particularly inventive, and have hosted brilliant events like the Jose Canseco Juice Box Night and Office Space Night. The problem with freebie promotions is they require considerable resources. They're prohibitively expensive and need extensive marketing campaigns, and the promoter might not get much value out of it. They're simply out of reach for many small and midsize businesses.

So what is an entrepreneur to do? Sometimes you can really think outside the box, like the marketer who got sponsorship for his wedding at a baseball stadium. But there are safer routes to take, with better returns on investment. Here are seven ways you can market your business with little cash but big payouts:

1. Share knowledge locally

There may be tons of untapped potential customers in your current network. If you can get the word out to these preferred clients and show them how great you are, they'll be more likely to come to you when they need something. Demonstrate your expertise by hosting a breakfast keynote address, or delivering a webinar for your school's alumni association. Volunteer as an expert speaker at a panel event at the local chamber of commerce, or offer a local reporter your take on a relevant issue. Once your prospects get a taste of what you have, they'll want to come back for more, and pay for the privilege.

2. Customer referral bonus

You can make your customers your best marketers. If one of your existing clients refers a new client, offer a discount to both. It helps get new clients in the door, and it encourages existing clients to buy more to take advantage of the discount they earned. Even a small token discount is a sufficient incentive. Remember that there's no endorsement more powerful than that of a happy customer.

3. Cross-marketing

Consider entering into a promotional partnership with a complementary company. You can refer clients to each other, and offer a discount to increase the likelihood they'll follow your advice. Both companies will generate new business, and you'll keep existing customers happy by ensuring they're getting the subject-matter expertise they need.

4. Thought leadership

One powerful way to boost your profile and generate new leads is to become a thought leader in your field. You've worked in the business and know the ins and outs as well as anyone. Contributing to the body of industry knowledge will establish your credibility, at a local level and beyond. Consider writing a column for an industry blog or a trade association newsletter. Make sure your content is well written and insightful, and don't make it one big advertisement for you. Approach it from a best-practices perspective, and find subtle ways to highlight what you do best or differently.

5. Smart social media

In the right hands, social media can be a powerful promotional tool. Establish professional social media accounts, separate from your personal accounts -- and don't post on the wrong one! If you've never used social media before, start with Twitter. Make your feed the place to go for industry information. Don't worry about posting every day or being clever. Instead, share compelling articles, post about what you notice in the industry, or share your guest spot on a colleague's podcast. If someone comments, don't miss an opportunity to engage.

6. Do well by doing good

Sometimes what's good for the world is also good for business. Some companies offer customers a choice of charitable donations with their purchase. One minor league baseball team raffled off a seat in a community college class on College Course Giveaway Night. Another team offered free tickets to people who donated blood on Twilight Night. These types of promotions don't cost much, make your customers feel good about patronizing your business, and are good for your karma -- and maybe your taxes!

7. Total originality

If you can think of a fun, clever idea that connects back to your business, that's great! It's not always easy to do. Make sure you don't let the novelty blind you to what's most important -- promoting your business. One of my favorite successful examples is a Scottish radio station that promoted its launch with an Air Guitar Giveaway. It got them great publicity, and all it cost was the price of the racks and the signs.

Published on: Jul 11, 2018