Using social media, small businesses can go big on marketing with a limited budget. Here’s a quick how-to guide…

From a marketing standpoint, it’s a great time to own or start a business. The social web makes it more cost-effective than ever to get the word out about your products and services, no matter what industry you’re in. Most social media accounts are free to set up, and many targeted online ad platforms are inexpensive. The most it will cost you to get your marketing campaign rolling, at least in the beginning, is time.

In fact, the toughest challenge facing small business marketers these days is not cost, but finding a strategy to get your message heard over the din of a noisy Internet. For advice on this, we checked in with a few experienced social media marketers. Here’s what they had to offer.

Become an Expert

Advertising is not always the best way to market on social networks. People crave valuable content, and it can be as niche as the very products you’re selling. By blogging, tweeting, sharing, and updating about things relevant to your industry, you can build credibility in your field.

“Whether you’re selling specialty cookies or enterprise software, you probably have significant expertise that you can share with potential customers,” said Leyl Master Black a Managing Director at Sparkpr. “You can write how-to articles, create educational videos about your products in action, or post pictures and tweet out commentary from an industry trade show. Every piece of content you post online — whether it’s on your blog, your Facebook Page, or on third-party sites — has the potential to boost your brand and drive search results and traffic at very little or no cost.”

Black notes that YouTube is an often overlooked platform for building low cost, high impact content. A small investment in a consumer-level camera and editing software, and a bit of time learning the basics of video production can pay out big in the long term.

“E-commerce vendor BigCommerce, for example, is generating tens of thousands of views for its online marketing video series for small business on YouTube,” said Black.

Cultivate Super Users

Laptop GrassThe social web has changed both the medium and the message for marketers, and we’ve discussed extensively how the users are now in control of your brand’s image. This can be a very positive thing if you understand the social media ecosystem and leverage it to your advantage.

The key is targeting and cultivating super users — customers who are already fans of your brand, and share their positivity about it on the web.

“If I know there’s a Twitter user who loves purses and talks about them a lot (which I can find using Twitter Search), and I sell purses, I reach out to her and offer her 20% off to come in or check out my catalog online, just because I know she digs purses,” said Jason Falls, a social media strategist and consultant whose blog discusses the online marketing industry. “If she blogs about purses, maybe I send her a new model with a note that says, ‘Thanks for telling people about purses. We dig you.’ I’m betting she’d talk about me, and I didn’t have to break the bank to get the conversational love.”

When an endorsement comes from someone outside of your company, like a trusted blogger or social sharer, it has greater value and reach than anything you could send through official channels. You can’t control what the social web says about your brand directly, but by identifying and wooing brand ambassadors, you can certainly have an influence — the kind that no paid advertisement can match.

Ensure People Can Find You on the Web

Google Local Business

This point may seem obvious, but it’s a common misstep, especially for new businesses. If and when people hear about your brand, they will go straight to their favorite services — Google, Yelp, and other listing sites — to find out more about you. Take the time to ensure that your entry there is accurate, and that there are direct links to your website and phone number.

But there’s more you can do to get your brand out there for free.

“Look beyond Yelp for free business listings,” said Black. “MerchantCircle, Google Local Business Center, Angie’s List, Yahoo! Local,, SearchLocal, and SuperPages are some of the online directory services that allow businesses to create a free listing. Make sure that you’re on these sites, and if the site already lists your business, you should ‘claim’ it by adding more details to the listing, such as your company website URL, a map, phone numbers, or business hours.”

Black also noted that many of the directory sites allow customers to leave feedback and reviews. “Encourage your customers to post reviews of your products or services, or provide incentives for them to do this. For example, one merchant applies an additional 10% discount to their coupons on MerchantCircle if the consumer leaves a review on the site. This encourages repeat business as well as reviews.”

Offer Ad-Funded Payment Options

If you have a steady flow of customers, and you’re looking to boost the size of your transactions and increase customer loyalty, one low- (or no-) cost strategy is to implement transactional advertising.

“Popularized by TrialPay, this ad-funded approach to payments works to turn browsers into buyers,” said Black. “Consumers are able to get your product for free in return for buying something from a brand advertiser such as Gap or Netflix. The advertiser then pays you once the sale is completed.”

For companies selling relatively low-cost or web-accessible products, a highly targeted “reverse advertising” strategy like this could be a smart move.

“For example, IntroWizard used TrialPay to convert ‘intermediary’ customers who had tried their free Flash web design software but hadn’t made a purchase yet — boosting their profits by 15% at no additional cost,” said Black.

Posted on Mashable on 20 May 2010

Your Thoughts?

Have you found any web or social media marketing solutions that are easy on your budget and big on return? Be sure to share in the comments.