Low-cost and no-cost advertising ideas

Happy businessman in glasses holding money over gray background

When you’re short on cash for advertising, use your time, effort, and ingenuity instead.

A recent Google search on the question “How much should I budget for advertising?” yielded 106 million pages of answers.

At the very top of the list was this article from Entrepreneur Magazine, in which the author (who happens to be one of my mentors) provides a sensible, specific, and successful formula for calculating an appropriate ad budget for any business.  In his words: The formula I’ve given you is the only one that reconciles your ad budget with your rent as well as the profitability of your average sale.

But what if you’re just starting a business and lacking the ready cash to make a meaningful investment in advertising and marketing? How can you let potential customers know you’re available and eager to help them?

Roy H. Williams, aka The Wizard of Ads®, in a 2004 memo entitled Shoestring Marketing for the One-Man Band, offers several suggestions, beginning with the reminder that time and money are exchangeable commodities: when we’re short on one, we invest the other. One of the first things you can do is to run off flyers or coupons and hand them out, or place them where your prospects will find them, e.g., under windshield wipers or on the front doors of homes. This is also an easy way to test different offers, to see which ones pull the best.  When you identify a message that resonates with the recipient, stick to it.*

The smaller your budget, the more crucial it is to get your message right. A weak offer won’t attract interest. Yours must be compelling; better still, irresistible.

Another recommendation where applicable is the use of free samples to attract new customers. The beauty of sampling is, of course, that it directly connects your prospect with your product.  Furthermore, as the Wizard points out: “The cost of free sampling is incremental. If no one responds to your offer, it costs you nothing. If you spend a lot, it’s only because it worked well.”

Many businesses will say that word of mouth is their best advertising. Only problem with word of mouth is the glacial pace at which it travels. As one sales trainer put it: “Advertising was invented when Mrs. Smith got tired of waiting for Mrs. Jones to tell Mrs. Brown how good her pickles were.” (Those of us in radio agree that word of mouth is best, and we hasten to add, “We have the biggest mouth in town.”)

Some marketing consultants believe that word of mouth can be bought. For instance, in his Monday Morning Memo of February 6, 2007, entitled “10 Unusual Ways to Advertise,” Williams offered this surprising suggestion:

Ride up and down in the elevators of tall buildings, stand at bus stops, wait at crosswalks or hang around in coffee shops to tell strangers about your business. “Have you heard about _______? It’s awesome.” It sounds nuts, I know, but it works. Pay a kid or do it yourself.

Other low-budget ideas from that memo: project your logo or other message onto a building at night; print t-shirts with your advertising message (a modern variant of the sandwich board); create hand stamps; use hand-painted signs; you might even come up with a novel publicity stunt.

IMG_0408In many cities, supermarkets and other high-traffic businesses provide community bulletin boards, where you can tack up an advertising flyer or poster. Contractors and handymen often leave business cards at businesses catering to the trades. your local chamber of commerce may provide display racks for members’ business cards.  Business cards are often under-utilized for marketing and advertising purposes; learn how to use yours more often and more effectively.

IMG_0410If your business is located in an area that gets good traffic, customizable signage can get your message in front of prospects. Electronic message boards are wonderful, if you can afford one; but even low-cost whiteboard or chalkboard tents placed at the entrance of your business can provide valuable exposure.

GoodDeedsChaseAnd if you happen to have a vehicle wrapped or painted with advertising for your business, it’s a bill-board on four wheels. Driving it around different areas of town every day can make it seem as though you’re doing a lot of business. Or you can simply park it in high-traffic areas, where passing motorists might notice it. If you’re especially audacious, you can even park it in front of a competitor’s business, where their visitors can see it.

Donating goods or services to fund-raising auctions for non-profits can provide limited (still valuable) exposure for your business. You might also be able to do some bartering with advertising media. Some radio stations offer on-air or online auctions, providing cash-strapped businesses with an easy way to obtain radio advertising without having to write the station a check.

Have you run across other low-cost or no-cost ways to advertise and promote a business? I’d love to hear from you.

*In his wonderful semi-autobiography, Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Ogilvy enumerated eleven “commandments” for creating successful advertising campaigns. Number 8 addresses the benefits of sticking with a message that works: “If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops pulling. Sterling Getchel’s famous advertisement for Plymouth (‘Look at All Three’) appeared only once, and was succeeded by a series of inferior variations which were quickly forgotten. But the Sherwin Cody School of English ran the same advertisement (‘Do You Make These Mistakes in English?’) for forty-two years, changing only the type face and the color of Mr. Cody’s beard.”


Rod-148x150Rod Schwartz backed into a lifelong career in radio advertising in 1973 in Springfield, Illinois. He became sales manager for the Pullman Radio Group in 1979 and served in that position until 2006. He continues to serve clients in the region as the stations’ senior account executive. Since 1991, Rod and his family have operated Grace Broadcast Sales, providing short-form syndicated radio features to radio and TV stations across the U.S. and Canada. An avid photographer, Rod shares some of his favorite images of the Palouse at PalousePics.com.

About Rod Schwartz

Rod Schwartz backed into a lifelong career in radio advertising in 1973 in Springfield, Illinois. He joined the Pullman (Wash.) Radio Group in 1979, where he worked until his retirement at the end of 2022. Since 1991, Rod and his family have operated Grace Broadcast Sales (GraceBroadcast.com), providing short-form syndicated radio features to radio and TV stations across the U.S. and Canada. Rod also operates an independent advertising, marketing, and communications consultancy for small business owners and professionals, FirstStrikeAdvertising.com. An avid photographer, Rod shares some of his favorite images of the Palouse at PalousePics.com and on his Viewbug gallery.
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