Ask 1099 Mom: How Can I Advertise my Business for Free?

We get asked this question all the time, and it's understandable; small business owners want to grow their business, get new customers, and not pay a penny.  While the best methods of advertising may require a cost up front, there are some reputable ways to get your name out there.  Here are a few of the best ideas from our community:

1.  Initial online ad credits.  Maybe you've subscribed to a magazine, signed up for a newsletter, or purchased a web package that came with ad credits.  Examples include $100 in Google Adwords advertising or $50 in Facebook ads.  These are legit, provided you are signing up for the products for the first time and don't go over your allotted "free credits."  Many of these offers are just ploys to get you to buy more ads in time, and may even require a credit card on file for when you go over your free ad limit.  Be sure to read the find print for these offers and use your credits wisely.

(A recent campaign on Facebook offered small business owners $100 in free Facebook ads, which a reader of ours jumped on!  They saw a bit of traffic, but little conversions.  The freebie was a great way for them to learn that Facebook ads weren't for them right now-- and the lesson cost nothing!)

2.  Link exchange programs.  There have been many of these over the years.  When I first started out, Entrecard was a hot site for getting free traffic, and the premise of these sites works like this:
  • You sign up for a site and put the widget on your own blog
  • You promise to keep the widget up (which displays links to other bloggers) in exhange for getting traffic back to your blog from other bloggers that also have the widget
There are usually ways to pay for more appearances in the widget, but the basic packages for such sites are free.  There is usually a "credit" system, as well as free ways to earn more credits.

Since I last participated in Entrecard years ago, there have been many, many similar sites.  They include: BlogRush, BlogGlue, and MGID.  (Note: before placing any link traffic exchange widgets on your site, please read some of the possible downsides to this method.)

3.  Word of mouth.  Yes, this is the oldest form of free marketing, but I stand by it as the best.  If you can get people talking positively about your brand and business, do it.  Ways to spur this buzz on is to regularly update your free Facebook page, engage your Twitter followers, speak at conferences, and be actively involved in communities within your business niche.  It works!

4.  Write articles.  I'm not talking the spammy kind that show up on popular blogs, interrupting the flow and making people say "huh?  What did this post have to do with anything the blogger talks about?"  I'm referring to crafting a unique, one-of-a-kind and valuable blog post or article, and then submitting it to a site that aligns with your values and business goals.  I get pitched all the time to host guest posts on this and my other site.  Most of the pitches (and articles) are horrible.  Here are tips to getting a guest post accepted:
  • Get help writing, if it's not your thing.
  • Don't make the article an ad for your business; offer helpful, entertaining advice, and link one time to your site or create a catchy, brief bio at the end.
  • Don't harrass the site owner.  If they want your article, they'll get back to you.
  • Consider working with a site like My Blog Guest.  Follow the guidelines and be patient.
I know many business owners who spend hours a day writing articles for sites like eZine articles, but I don't see the return on this investment.  Instead, work with a few bloggers you already know, submit one or two quality articles, and spend the rest of those hours on your business.  You're likely not a professional writer, so don't spend 80% of your time trying to do that work.

5.  Hang out on forums.  This is a tricky subject, but I believe you can be part of online communities without being spammy.  I can't tell you how many times I've visited a car forum about a problem with my van, and I would have jumped on the chance for a local mechanic to diagnose my problem and even tell me to come into the shop for a discounted repair.  Being helpful on community forums is a sign that you care and are knowledgeable.

If you make soap, for example, try hopping on natural parenting forums and getting to know the community.  When questions about soap arise, be the hero with your knowledge and attentiveness.  And most of all -- don't be spammy!

6.  Get in the media.  We'll go in depth on the best ways to use this method next week, but I'll tell you right now that a mention in Good Housekeeping magazine is worth more than 100 well-placed ads on Google.  And it's free.

Have you boosted your business buzz for nothing?  We'd love to hear more ideas in the comments!

*Photo by Magic Madzik via Flickr.

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