This is a guest post by Samar Owais

Marketing is a lot like cooking— easy for those who enjoy it and hell on earth for those who don’t.

Until a couple of years ago, I sucked at both. While I didn’t kill my business or food poison anyone in my family, I came dangerously close a few times. And while my family would love to have me publish my cooking misadventures for the world to read, it’s not going to happen any time soon.

Instead, I’m going to tell you about my marketing failure. At first, I didn’t market at all. I didn’t know how to. Then I discovered marketing blogs and got caught up in Google Adwords, Facebook Ads and Twitter, along with lots of other activities.

I marketed more than I worked and nearly bankrupted myself as a result.

The truth is, spending money on marketing your business is a slippery slope. Once you buy into the “you gotta invest in your business to see returns” mentality, it snowballs from there. Every new marketing tactic seems like the golden egg. You convince yourself you’ll get tons of traffic, clients, referrals, etc. if you just try this new marketing strategy.

Before you know it, you’ve blown away your entire budget with barely any results to show for it. Now I’m not saying you keep such a tight fist over your budget that you don’t market at all. Instead, think about ways to keep your marketing costs from boiling over. You want to spend every marketing dollar wisely.

1. Think minimal

As a reader of Tea’s blog, you’re probably doing some form of marketing. Take an inventory of every single marketing activity you’re doing right now. Are you doing too much? Too little? Nothing at all? Irrespective of what you discover, hold on to your horses and don’t make any decisions just yet. Figure out the absolute minimum you need. Do you really need that PPC (pay-per-click) campaign or those sponsored Facebook ads?

How much ROI (return on investment) has been there for you till now? How much should there be? Cancel anything whose returns don’t match the investment — but be sure you give your tactics awhile to “simmer.” Quitting something too soon can be just as detrimental. And don’t feel bad if you find that none of your marketing tactics were working. That’s actually good news. You now know what not to do. Yay!

2. Invest in the right tools

Now that you’ve stopped doing everything that wasn’t working, it’s time to invest in the right tools. Choose 3-5 places you want to focus your marketing on and find the best, most economical tools for them.

These tools don’t necessarily need to be related to marketing either. They can be anything (a course, an online app, a forum) where you’re expected to introduce yourself and talk a bit about your business. Tea’s Digital Dining Room program, for example, is a marketing cost that has paid her participants back in spades (see the testimonials on her sales page). Tea works directly with you in a small group atmosphere so you know you’re getting individual attention from the Chef, herself. She’ll even help you build your marketing plan from the ground up, if that’s what you need. You can’t get that kind of help just anywhere.

There are several great tools out there that offer a free starter-version, too. Tools like Meeting BurnerMailchimp or Aweber (newsletters); Hootsuite (social media); Free Conference Calls; or Contactually (Networking) can help you get a foot-hold and then when you’re ready to expand, they’ll grow with you (and your budget).

Just remember, whether you’re investing in a group coaching membership, an e-course, or other tools, make sure you’re only using one of each and that they’re helping your business make money—not lose it. If you don’t find yourself using any of the tools regularly, don’t hesitate to cut them out. Better yet, try them out one at a time and search for tools that can do more than one task.

3. Piggyback

When it comes to marketing on a budget, piggybacking (or collaborating in the kitchen) is the most cost effective.

Partner up with a non-competing business that has the same audience as you and help represent each other’s products or services. The most popular example of piggybacking in the freelancing industry is that of web designers and freelance writers. Businesses having their website designed are often looking for someone to write their web copy as well. And if their web designer offers copywriting services too, then who better to give it to? It’s one less hassle for the client. They’ll get copy written around their new design without the issue of emailing the mocks to their copywriter.

Similarly, a freelance writer writing an eBook will be able to up-sell design services of their piggyback partner by offering eBook design services. It’s a win-win!

So do a little research and find out which other business have the same target market as yours. Just remember – it needs to be a business that isn’t your competition.

4. Go traditional

Everyone’s so busy marketing their business online; they’re ignoring old marketing tactics. But you know what? Traditional marketing tactics still work. People are now inundated with emails instead of postal mail. So instead of adding to someone’s inbox clutter, do something different—like marketing through direct mail. Think of inexpensive ways to market your business offline. For example:

  • Send greeting cards on different occasions (Thank you, birthday, Christmas etc.) to your customers and clients.
  • Create brochures and fliers.
  • Put together a media kit comprised of your print marketing material and run a direct mail campaign.
  • Offer discounts to your customers.
  • Set up a referral system.

The best part is that you can do all of these activities online too.

5. Focus on customer service

Sometimes, we get so caught up in marketing our business and attracting new clients that we forget about the ones we already have. Existing customers are the easiest to sell to. They’ve already done business with you, convincing them to do so again is going to be a lot easier.

Find out what your customers want from you and do your best to accommodate them. Use a tool like Survey Monkey to ask them and analyze their responses. The added benefit of great customer service is word-of-mouth marketing. Nothing encourages word-of-mouth marketing more than great customer service. It doesn’t matter how big or successful your competition is. Customer service is the one area you can get ahead of them with a little effort.

The (General) Rule of Thumb for Marketing Your Small Business

It’s simple. Don’t invest in another marketing tactic unless you’ve recovered the amount spent on your previous one. At the end of the day, pinching pennies while you evaluate your options is always better than spending money on every new marketing tactic you learn about, hoping it’ll work.

When it comes to marketing, shooting in the dark is not a strategy.

Have you found a great way to market yourself without spending too much money? Or did you try something that really bombed? Share your experiences with us in a comment below so we can extend the learning.