When I started my first online venture – money was tight. I knew I was offering something that people wanted, but I was having a hard time getting the word out there. The problem was, I didn’t really know much about marketing or how to really make sure those who want my product got to know about it.

Initially, I put out a few requests for quotes from local marketing firms so somebody else could take that off my hands and I could get back to prioritizing other business duties. I was shocked by the quotes. When I started to look a bit more closely at exactly what they were offering for the price – I started to think I could do just as good a job myself – for a fraction of the price. Yes, these marketing firms might be right for some businesses – but they weren’t right for me.

The problem was – my business had practically no spare cash flow. It was a real bootstrap project. It needed to grow organically or it was going to fail. So I made it my goal to knuckle down and grow my business myself – finding new marketing opportunities that cost either nothing or very little. Here’s what I learned.

If you’ve got time to do things yourself – you don’t need a big budget.

Yes, time is money – but how does that work for someone who has spare time but no money?

So I started experimenting. Trial and error. I made a few mistakes – and some stuff didn’t quite work out – but a few things I did were a huge success. Now my business is actually making money, but I still use some of these cost-effective methods today. That’s how great they were.

How I used social media to market my business for free

Social media was just starting to take off right when I needed it to. Especially Twitter. While lots businesses have realized the power of an active and engaging social media presence – you’d be surprised how many are still resisting joining the 21st century.

If you’re one of them – let me spell it out for you. Social media is a hugely powerful viral marketing tool that could spread your word quickly, easily and for free.

But when I was just starting out, it wasn’t quite as ubiquitous as it is today. It wasn’t an obvious choice, but it was one that slowly dawned on me.

You see, I was looking for a way to try and marketing my brand without spending much (or any) money. Most of my business colleagues thought I was stupid and that I’d have to stump up the thousands many marketing firms were asking for.

It was one quiet afternoon in the office when I noticed how much time my staff were spending on Facebook and other social media platforms. Twitter was really taking off as well. I wasn’t really concerned about what they did on their lunch break – but I decided to try and use this social media expertise to my advantage. I gave them the responsibility to set up and maintain an active social media profile for my company.

It was an obvious choice, and one that started to pay off. My staff already knew more about social media than me, and they enjoyed the increased creative responsibility. We made it a priority to be as active and engaged as we could, and our following soon started to grow. After a while, we noticed an upturn in business that was a direct result of our increased social media visibility.

When I’m looking at reviews online, I always notice when a business has replied constructively to negative feedback. It goes a long way to let people know you’re addressing things and aren’t just ignoring the negative comments. We took this on board and made sure we actively responded to negative feedback, and went above and beyond to make sure they were happy to come back.

It’s important that you incentivize your existing customers to follow you on social media. It’s such a powerful tool because your existing friends will help spread the word to their extended network for free if you can get them to “like” or follow you. So I started running exclusive competitions and making sure our followers were the first to know about special offers and discounts (some of which were designed just for them).

Even something simply like displaying your social media account info prominently in your business, or including a link on your receipts could help grow your following. You could take things a step further and actively ask people to follow you. People don’t want to be treated simply as customers anymore, they want to be connected to a brand that offers them value for doing so. So offer it, and watch your business grow.

Some other great ways to market your business online on the cheap

I started noticing my business getting mentioned more and more online. Sounds great, right? The only problem was – they were just plain mentions of my brand or business, without a link. At first I was frustrated. While it was good to get positive publicity – I really needed links. The problem is, most normal people don’t think to include anchor text when they’re simply charring on social media or some other platform. I was also struggling to find who was talking about me (and where) with any real consistency.

Then I found Brand Mentions, a great little tool designed to do all the legwork for me and find where my business was being talked about online. The next step I took was to reach out and send a polite little request to ask the people who mentioned me to edit their message and include a link. I offered a 15% discount on their next purchase to give them a little incentive, and most were more than happy to do so. After all, they were already fans of my business, so converting them wasn’t too hard.

I started noticing my results slowly improving. Not only was I getting extra link juice to help my site rank with the search engines, but I was also getting steady residual traffic from people simply clicking the mentioned link – no search engines needed!

I also tried a few other quick and easy back-linking techniques. I found out that many other businesses were willing to give me a valuable link in return for a positive testimonial on their site. There were tons of businesses I was happy to recommend, and it was a real untapped source of good quality links.

You could also try and recapture broken links which I had some success with – although it is a lot of work for quite low gain. Simply reach out to sites with broken links and get them to “fix” them with a link to your site. It really only works with relevant niches, and the success rate is on the low side, but if you’ve got the time – it’s worth a try.

How I realized I didn’t need to put all my efforts into online marketing

As an online venture, I obviously wanted to promote my business as much as I could online. But one thing I ignored for the first few months was that I was missing a ton of potential marketing success by ignoring my local area and only trying to promote online.

So I started putting adverts up on notice boards in community centers, handing out flyers in places with busy foot-traffic. I even went door-to-door for a few days and handed out leaflets about my business. I had the time, and the cost was super-low since I was doing all the footwork myself (I even printed the flyers at home).

I really started to see my business grow. Promoting locally this way can help your business in a few specific ways. Firstly, you’re more visible in the local area and people trust this sort of business more than a faceless online entity they’ve never heard of. So they’re more likely to do business with you. Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – you’re promoting your business to people who might never have seen it online.

A lot of online marketing is done in similar niches and generally gets to the same people. People who are already aware of your market, niche or even brand. If you can bypass these people and be the first to offer what you’re offering to someone who was never aware of it before – you’re taking a big leap on your competitors. And that’s where offline marketing is so effective.

These were just a few of the tactics I used to promote my business, both online and offline. None of them broke the bank. While some of those expensive marketing firms might be right for certain businesses – they aren’t always necessary. If you’re trying to start a successful business on a tight budget – hopefully some of these tips will work for you, like they did for me.