It’s tempting for business owners to hibernate during, this, the winter of our economic discontent. Everyone wants to freeze their marketing budgets, and hunker down until warmer economic climates arrive. We’re all feeling the effects of these trying times, especially small business owners, who must crunch their finances and try to make the marketing dollars stretch.

Luckily, it doesn’t cost you hardly anything to market anymore. Thanks to the internet, creativity and knowledge are the new currencies. Adhere to these simple promotional tools and you’ll get that extra publicity boost you need to take your business to the next level.

Advertising Vs Public Relations

Before you begin promoting your business, you need to ask yourself the following question: What’s the difference between advertising and public relations? It may sound like a no-brainer, but many business owners use these terms interchangeably. They’re different, and here’s how:

  • Advertising: This is the term for a paid public promotion of a product or service (i.e. newspaper ad or online ad banner)
  • Public Relations: This is an unpaid promotion intended to create goodwill for a person, product or company (i.e. press conference or press release).

Now that you know the difference between advertising and publicity, it’s time to consider including some “public relations” initiatives into your marketing plan. Here are some can’t-miss actions you should take:

Create news-worthy press releases:

Not all news necessarily warrants its own press release, so exercise a bit of caution, here. Before you send out a press release, consider if it’s a topic that would interest the local media (or national media – depending on the scope/region of your business).  It’s really quality over quantity, here. If you are a food supplier, get to know your local community groups so you may contact them to break your news. If you’re a restaurant, send press releases to your local newspapers, internet groups, and advertise, advertise, advertise on many social media outlets. There are many places to post your press release online, and make sure to check your press release for errors and mistakes before you send it out.

Websites, blogs and social networking sites:

These are free publicity tools (a website is more expensive, but it’s an essential long-term investment) are readily available at anybody’s fingertips. If you haven’t developed a website or created a blog, then you are missing out on crucial promotional opportunities. Social networking sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Industry Blender are tools of connectivity and promotion that you simply cannot live without. They generate potential leads and customers, and can reach many more people than traditional advertising at a fraction of the cost

Organize free or low-cost special events:

Utilize your company’s conference room or restaurant for an after-hours or off-hours event that will help you meet new people and generate buzz for your business. It’s important to thank your customers and clients in this way because the gesture makes them feel appreciated. Even if it’s only an inexpensive morning coffee event, it’s important to put a “face” in front of your clients and customers. In this age of the email, text messaging, and voicemail, business owners sometimes forget that people buy from people, and that physical meetings will only enhance your transparency and “realness” that people seek when they’re buying in person and online. Free or low-cost special events put you right in front of your clients again.

Become involved in your community:

Even if you can’t afford to make a monetary donation, your volunteer time is just as important both for promotional purposes and to help worthy causes. Involvement allows you to give back to your community and provides a great networking opportunity. You can also give in-kind donations for auctions (both products and services), which is another great way to promote your business (and are tax write-offs). Pick a charitable organization that has personal meaning for you, and become a good steward within your community. You will meet other business owners and possibly land new clients and prospects.

Attend events that really target your audience/target market:

Before you take on every networking event or trade show, ask yourself a few questions: Is this event going to help my business? How many people are attending? What’s my return on investment? Is it free or is there cost involved? How many leads/contacts do I hope to land as a result of this event? Don’t get into the bad habit of saying “yes” to every event because you THINK you need to attend them all. Pick and choose the best networking events that you think will provide the most benefit.

21st century business owners market smarter, not harder. Try out some of these cost- effective tips and you’ll boost your reputation, become more visible to your customers, and improve sales more than you ever thought possible.

Preface:  Let’s talk about comment cards.  Comment cards are made available to customers because, in theory, they’re a good way to not only gauge the performance of your business, but also collect stats such as mailing addresses, email, phone numbers, etc.  This information is used to market your business to these customers through direct-mail flyers and email updates, among other methods.

Problem:  Comment cards have some serious shortcomings.  People either aren’t interested in filling them out, won’t include the statistical information you really need, or they’re turned into personal mad lib pages for giggling teenagers (oh, that takes me back).  Plus they use paper and are somethings seen as annoying.

Consensus:  They’re sooooo 20th century.

Solution:  A more efficient and useful way to accomplish comment card goals is to hold a raffle where the desired information (email addresses) is an eligibility stipulation.  Have tiny slips of paper or a fishbowl for business cards at the front of the house and specify that a name AND an email address will be required to determine a winner.

The Plan:  Raffle off a technology-related product to justify this request.  Invest in a nice printer, or iPod, or offer to pay the winner’s Internet bill for a month (whatever you can afford), and prominently display the prize at the raffle table to increase interest.  Tell them the winner will be notified by email in one week, and will also win a gift certificate towards a future visit (whereby the winner comes in to collect the prizes, and, since they’re already there, they can plan it around another evening at your restaurant).

Is a week too long to wait?  Of course not.  The winner might not be eating any longer, so you can’t award the prize at the end of the night.  Plus, they’ll keep you in the back of their minds, thus remembering their meal and your business a little bit longer.  Not to mention the effectiveness (and fun) of dangling a juicy carrot and leaving them hanging for a little while.

Why an email address?  You’ll have to check back next week for part II where I will show you why this clever promotion will have them coming back!