Global business spends more than $1 trillion a year marketing goods and services. But even the newest and most budget-restricted start-up can market effectively using low-cost, high-impact tools. "You don't need to spend extra," says Marcia Layton Turner, author of The Unofficial Guide to Marketing Your Small Business. "Why waste money?"
Your first requirement is to understand your market's size, growth trends and competitors., says H. David Hennessey, a marketing professor at Babson College. "With the Internet, a lot of that information is readily available," Hennessey adds. Begin by running appropriate words and phrases through your favorite search engine. Next, try inexpensive online market research services -- Hennessey's favorite is RDS Business Reference Suite. Check local public and college libraries; many offer market research resources for little or no cost.
Next stop: your competitors' websites. Companies put all kinds of useful information online, Hennessey says, including press releases outlining future product plans and catalogs with detailed pricing. If you think you have no competitors, he adds, keep researching until you identify some. Then tailor your offering to fill an empty niche, or at least to avoid going head-to-head against established rivals.
Now create your own market research by surveying customers, prospects, suppliers and others. "Put together a simple survey saying, 'This is the product I am thinking of offering, here are 10 features, which are most important to you?" Hennessey says. You can do short e-mail surveys without charge using a service called SurveyMonkey that he recommends.
It's time now to choose your name. A business's name is central to its brand, and a good one should clearly describe what you do and avoid confusion with anyone else. "This is something a lot of people don't pay attention to," Hennessey warns. "They name the company after themselves and it means nothing."
When you're ready to make your company a household name, Turner's favorite tool is publicity. "Make sure your company gets the attention it deserves from the media," she says. One way is to broadcast press releases with company news to industry trade journals, local print and broadcast news outlets. Another is to target individual media people and find out how your company can fit in to their coverage plans.
"Networking is another very effective tool for getting the word out about your company," Turner adds. Attend meetings of trade and professional clubs as well as tip groups such as Business Network International where you can expect to find prospects or influencers. Dues and tip club membership fees can add up, but networking will work, Turner says.
Public speaking also is a great way to set yourself apart, she adds. "The person standing at the front of the room is the leader, the expert," Turner explains. "It's a great way to position your company as the best place to go for whatever you're selling." Secure speaking engagements by contacting groups whose members include your target audience with an offer to speak on a topic of interest.
Even if you wouldn't give a speech if your life depended on it, you can effectively market without leaving your computer. First, of course, you must have a website but, if you don't, your marketing is off to a bad start anyway, Turner says. "Too many consumers and businesses do preliminary research online," she says. "If you're not there, they won't find you and you won't be considered."
A start-up's best online marketing friends are search engine optimization, pay per click advertising and e-mail advertising, according to Ralph Wilson, publisher of Web Marketing Today, a website and e-mail newsletter about doing business online. Search engine optimization consists of making sure your website contains keywords that will cause popular search engines to list it near the top when searchers look for products and services you sell. The downside of SEO for a start-up is that it may take months to generate much traffic, Wilson says.
Pay per click advertising may yield faster results. Google, Yahoo and MSN let advertisers bid on keywords and list ads alongside search results for those terms. Basically, the more you bid, the higher your company's listing, and you pay only when someone clicks on your ad. Popular words can cost thousands of dollars, but if you string together several words into a phrase that narrowly describes your offering or company, you can get results for a few dollars a month, Wilson says.
Other online marketing tools include e-mailing information to people who have opted to receive it and advertising on websites or in e-mail newsletters. "If you look for newsletters that are narrowly focused, it gets you in front of some eyeballs at a fairly low cost," Wilson says.