Figuring out how much money to allocate to a marketing budget is always a challenge. According to Capital One, 64 percent of small businesses don’t know how to effectively market their services. As the saying goes, “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

Now, with online marketing, every campaign’s results are measurable. But many small business owners are still afraid to put any money into marketing — or they execute a single large campaign that yields minimal results, and then never try other tactics.

Every marketing initiative needs to be tested to see what works and what doesn’t.

In every marketing campaign, the goal should be to find prospects who have the need that your solution addresses, and to find these prospects efficiently. Every marketing initiative needs to be tested to see what works and what doesn’t. And once you’ve found some success, the results need to be analyzed and scaled to attract more prospects.

Here’s how to market your business on a budget and drive your desired results.

1. Use content marketing to establish yourself as an expert

Content marketing has become an integral part of small business operations, because it shows that your business is an industry expert — so prospects will think of your brand when they’re ready to buy. This type of marketing puts your business in the “maybe pile” of brands that customers will choose from to solve their problem. Content marketing comes in many forms, including articles, blog posts, white papers, videos and social media posts. This is where to start:

Test

Test different content to see what gets responses from specific audiences. If, for example, you sell fun T-shirts to the teenage market, posting funny GIFs on Instagram or videos on TikTok could be an effective marketing strategy. But if you’re a business consultant, sharing thought leadership articles on LinkedIn will likely be more effective. Vary your content types, such as how-to’s, visuals and videos. You should also test different elements within the content, such as the headlines, images and keywords, to see what garners the most interaction from your audience.

Vary your content types, such as how-to’s, visuals and videos.

Analyze

By testing different types of content, you can figure out which social platforms, industry websites and other online venues your target prospects frequent, and the common questions they have about the type of product you sell. To measure your results, use tools like Sprout Social for social media engagement and Google Analytics for web traffic.

Scale

Create a monthly content marketing plan. This plan should specify what types of content you will share, where you will share it and when. You don’t need to create entirely new content for every marketing channel; you may be able to repurpose what you have. Make sure to optimize the content for mobile devices, which many customers will be using when they see your emails, social media posts or website.

Make sure you include a call to action (CTA), such as “Download our white paper on [hyperlink]” or “Attend our webinar on [hyperlink].” These CTA links should lead readers to a relevant landing page where they can take the next step.

Budget

Writing content can be done inexpensively by hiring freelancers, if you don’t have internal resources. I have personally hired copywriters and designers from sites like Upwork and Freelancer for $50 to $100 per piece. If you’re going to do it yourself, Canva is a free resource for creating professional visuals like infographics and charts. Using these resources, an annual marketing budget starting at $5,000 can provide new content every week.

2. Use email marketing for lead qualification

One of the most cost-effective ways to grow a small business is through email marketing. Not only can you attract and retain customers, but you can communicate with them in a highly individual way. Personalization is critical in turning a prospect into a loyal customer. This is where to start:

Test

To test your email marketing strategy, you first need to build a list of at least 100 contacts. You can accomplish this by adding a subscription box to your website, adding links to your social media posts or putting these links in your email signature. Encourage prospects to sign up by offering a reward. I offer my email subscribers free access to my book “25 Ways for Small Businesses to Get Unstuck.”

The key to this strategy is sending valuable and relevant content on a consistent basis. Don’t send messages just for the sake of meeting a weekly or biweekly quota. Make every message informative rather than sales-focused: Think “5 steps to prevent pipes from freezing” as opposed to “10 percent off our services this month.”

An email’s subject line is the No. 1 reason why people choose to open or delete. Make sure your subject line grabs the reader’s attention. For example, I once sent a marketing email about best practices in family businesses and used the subject line “Why Never to Hire Your Relative.”

Analyze

To analyze your emails’ effectiveness, you’ll need an email marketing program like Constant Contact or Zoho One. At a minimum, you want access to the open rate and click-through rate (CTR). It’s also useful if a program can segment your contact list for greater personalization, and provide auto-responses that follow up with readers based on their interaction with your message.

Make every message informative rather than sales-focused.

Scale

Once you know what content gets opened and generates engagement, make email marketing part of your content calendar. Schedule content to be sent at least once a week, so that prospects and customers keep your name top of mind.

Budget

Repurpose your existing content. Write a short email introduction and link to that content. The only added cost of this strategy is for the email marketing program — which may be free or, for more feature-rich programs, up to $50 a month.

3. Use SEO and SEM to get found

Every small business owner’s dream is to appear on the first page of Google results for their search terms. The way to do this without buying ad space is to set up your website so that search engines easily find it and point prospects toward your business.

Test

Tell the story of the problem your business solves how you solve it. This means you need in-depth content that’s relevant to what you want to be found for. Describe each service or product you offer in at least 300 words, each item on a separate page. Search is no longer about single keywords, but rather keyword phrases of three to four words. For example, the single keyword “cleaners” might become “dry cleaners with drive-thru.”

Make sure your website is optimized for mobile, since that’s now where most searches happen. If your site isn’t mobile-responsive, you’ll rank much lower in search results.

Analyze

Search engine optimization (SEO) tools like Google Analytics are essential to seeing how your prospects are finding you. If most visitors arrive at your website by manually typing the URL, then they’re not new prospects. You can use Google Search Console to see which keywords people are entering before they click on your website. Try an incognito search to see where you rank for specific search terms and in location-specific results.

Scale

Search engines are always refining their results; find ways to incrementally add more content. Customer reviews, blogs and up-to-date product photos can all keep your online content fresh and relevant.

Search engines are always refining their results; find ways to incrementally add more content.

Budget

SEO is a bit of a mystery to many business owners who don’t have a background in digital marketing, but there’s no shortage of professionals who want to help. Once you’re done with the basics, budget $500 to $1,000 a month for a SEO service to see if it improves your rankings.

You can supplement your SEO efforts with search engine marketing (SEM) — paying for your company to be listed on page one of Google results for specific keyword searches. You can also use SEM on social media platforms to have your brand advertised to specific audiences.

Test

The first step is identifying your ideal target customer. Consider the specific types of customers you’ve had repeated success with.

Choose keywords from different parts of the sales funnel. Start with the top level of the funnel, to find people who aren’t familiar with your business. You can target this group by choosing broad keywords that describe who you are and what you do. Next, write ad copy that explains your business so people can get to know you.

Analyze

Before you start running marketing campaign, it’s important that you already have a trusted SEO program such as Google Analytics installed on your website. This tool will show you the overall performance of your campaign — in terms of dollars and in terms of clicks — which will help you make well-informed marketing decisions.

Scale

Start to target other parts of the sales funnel. The next level contains people who have already started to search for your product or service.

Budget

SEM is an auction model; you get to set what you want to buy. You know your cost of acquisition, so you can decide how much you’re willing to spend to identify a prospect. Each advertising platform has forecasting tools. Give a new campaign two weeks before evaluating its success. I personally recommend hiring a professional to help with this, because it’s tough to be successful at SEM long-term without experience.

4. Get customer reviews to gain trust

Customer ratings and reviews are crucial to driving new business. Numerous surveys have shown that consumers trust online reviews as much as they trust recommendations from their family and friends. If you don’t have enough online reviews, new prospects may choose a company with more public feedback.

Test

When a review site provides you a branded placard or poster, display it in your brick-and-mortar location(s). Not only does this welcome reviews, but it’s extremely inexpensive. Share this information on your receipts by adding a simple CTA: “Like us? Review us on [X].”

After a customer has made a purchase, send a follow-up email to make sure they’re happy with your service. Include a reminder about where they can leave a review, and encourage them to share their honest feedback.

After a customer has made a purchase, send a follow-up email to make sure they’re happy with your service.

Analyze

Analyze where customers are leaving reviews and why. Bad reviews are all but inevitable, and you should answer them. Customers know that no business is perfect; they want to see if you care when they’re dissatisfied.

Scale

People will be more inclined to leave a review if it’s not a hassle. Add hyperlinks or logo buttons on your website that take customers directly to the review site.

Budget

Even though the costs of these efforts is minimal, you may have huge results, as long as you use a long-term strategy. Auto-responder tools like Nice Job and Thumbs Up can cost less than $50 a month and allow you to follow up with customers automatically, either through text or email, to increase the chance of them providing a timely review.

Key takeaways

No matter what type of business you have, you’ll connect with more target customers by strategically choosing the right marketing channels and applying your budget effectively. How do you accomplish this, particularly when your budget is limited? Simple. You choose the channels that make the most sense for your business and test different tactics — then measure the results to see what’s working.

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Barry Moltz

Barry Moltz has founded and run small businesses with a lot of success and failure. He now helps business owners get unstuck by unlocking the potential in their companies. As a small business expert, speaker and author, he helps businesses in sales, marketing, social media, customer service, finance and people management.

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