Marketing with no budget – a familiar story for most small businesses and startups. When there’s no money, there’s usually time. Time is unfortunately also limited, so the question is –  how to convert that time into money most effectively (get the biggest bang for the hour)?

You could come up with hundreds of free online marketing ideas, but in order to get results, you should focus on the few that really make a difference.

Note that these methods ain’t quick fixes, but will make a significant impact if you stick with it.

Blog

Blogging is one of the most effective marketing tools out there. It won’t do much in the short-term, but probably you’re in it for the long run. A great blog builds an audience that is looking forward to your messages and that is invaluable. A year from now you wish you had started today.

If your website does not have any content besides your product information pages, you will never have large amount of free traffic via search engines. The more content you have on your blog, the more natural traffic you get. A large amount of the people who get to your blog via search are your target market. That’s pull marketing at work. A study of 2,300 HubSpot customers revealed that businesses that blog witness their monthly leads rise by 126% more than those who don’t.

Search engine optimized posts

Your blog can be your most effective SEO provider. In order to make your posts rank on Google and Bing, make sure these 3 things are done:

  • The title of your post has to be worded in a way someone might use while doing a search. Do your research first on Google Keyword Tool.
  • Mention the same phrase as you have in your title 1 or 2 times in the body copy too, depending on the length of the post.
  • Have clean URLs: http://bla.com/title-of-your-post kicks http://bla.com?id=123 butt.

What to blog about?

“Instead of trying to out-spendout-sell, or out-sponsor competitorstry to out-teach them”, say the guys over at 37Signals (see the video here) and they’re right. This captures the essence – use your blog to teach and educate your prospects and customers.

Use a casual tone in your blog. Nobody wants to read boring academic texts. If there’s a sentence you wouldn’t while talking to your friend, don’t use it.

Goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – there is no substitution to great content and writing, so make it good. Further reading: 5 Ways to Make Your Blog Posts Outstanding.

Getting success through a blog takes time, so make sure you have persistence and patience.

A great way to speed things up is guest blogging on popular blogs. Check out a few insightful videos about guest blogging on guestblogging.com. Any post you write, submit them on social bookmarking / news sites like Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon, Sphinn or Hacker News. Where to submit depends on your field and target audience.

Create an online tool

You might not have money, but perhaps you have programmers in your company or your best friend can code. If that’s the case you can create a useful or fun tool to drive traffic and generate leads.

Hubspot, an internet marketing company, created a free tool that assesses your website. The tool claims to have assessed close to 3 million sites, and your score on the 1-100 scale represents the percentage of those sites that your site tops. Now that’s a pretty cool tool and it’s free. It has gotten Hubspot a ton of fame, inbound links and leads.

Online tests are tools too

You don’t necessarily need to create a sophisticated tool. It can be as simple as a test – and people love tests.

The One Question, a website helping people find their purpose has created a simple life purpose test, which helps people reflect. They get around 100 people per day joining their mailing list through that test.

Gemstone Shoppers has created a test where people find out what their gemstone is. Once they get their result, they can embed a banner with their personal gemstone onto their blog or website. The banner links back to the shopgemstones.com website and so the test serves also as a link building tool.

Note: Make sure your tool can capture users’ emails or generate leads in some way, don’t waste the traffic.

So think – what useful tool can you create that would benefit your prospects?

Participate in relevant forums

It’s likely that people in your target audience are already talking about your field in some sort of forums. It might be an old school bulletin board or a group on some social media network such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

Your job is to join in on the conversation and start adding value. This will help you build relationships and show off your expertise to position yourself as an authority in the field.

Don’t ever spam your product or trash the competition – that’s the quickest way to turn the community against you. You have to become a part of your community and you can do that by acting one. What goes around, comes around. You can have a link to your website in your profile and signature, but don’t go around posting your link on random forums.

If you’re a hosting company, you might want to participate in Web Hosting Talk. Sell infoproducts? Check out WarriorForum.

Go to Google now and find all the relevant forums and discussion groups.

Join Twitter and/or Facebook

Get on the social media bandwagon. Create your Facebook page and sign up for Twitter.  Depending on your field, LinkedIn and YouTube might be great matches, too.

Remember – social media is for building relationships, not selling. You should never rarely shout ‘buy my product’ on Twitter or Facebook (unless it’s a special campaign and you it’s between a lot of great content). Make friends, follow great people (your prospects) and re-tweet their stuff. This helps to boost the relationship.

Relationship bank account

If you ever read Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, you might remember the term ‘emotional bank account’ – similar to a bank account, you can make deposits or withdrawals from each of your relationships. This principle applies on social media, too. I called it the ‘relationship bank account’, and it’s the key principle to understand if you’re ever to get success on social media.

Every time you share something useful, entertaining or in other ways value-adding content on Twitter or Facebook, you make a deposit on to your relationship with the followers. Every time you ask for a sale or issue any other kind of self-oriented request, you withdraw from the relationship.

Make sure you deposit enough before making a withdrawal: share useful content (can be links to your blog), link to great articles out there, give tips on how to use your products. It’s okay to ask for a sale every now and then, but share at least 10 pieces of great content for every time you ask for something. Nobody wants to talk to people who only want to sell them something.

How to market on social media? There’s a ton of great content out there. Check Social Media Examiner as one of the best resources out there.

Pitch your story

If you have a great product that unlike no other (or slightly different), you can try to pitch it to the media and popular blogs / websites.

I’ve compiled a list of 36+ places you can submit your startup for some coverage in an earlier post.

There are also online press release distributors such as prlog.org, www.24-7pressrelease.comwww.1888pressrelease.com and many others like that – but these won’t actually get anyone to read your press release. They are useful for link building though.

What you can do is try to identify journalists that write on the field of your product and shoot them an e-mail. Don’t pitch your product, but the story of why it matters.

Have an affiliate program

Help others help you. Somebody might come across your product and see that it’s a perfect for their audience (blog readers, newsletter subscribers, existing clients etc). They might recommend it anyway, but they’ll push it harder if there’s something in it for them. Hence it’s a good idea to have an affiliate program where you pay commission per every client referred.

Don’t be stingy – if it’s a digital product, a commission under 30% isn’t gonna cut it. Have it at least 50% – most likely your margins will allow this. It’s money you wouldn’t otherwise earn at all – better half than nothing. Think long term – how much money you might make off of a client in the long run. The hardest sale is always the first one.

So there you have it

If you were looking for a silver bullet, sorry to disappoint you. You better hear it from me – it doesn’t exist. There are no shortcuts and there is no substitute for hard work (and some luck).

Image credit: NoHoDamon