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Every small business wishes they could just pay a fee to someone, and have customers come in - say you pay $2, and for that $2 you are guaranteed one sale. What business owner would not like that?
Unfortunately, marketing does not work like that. There are all kinds of marketing methods, some that work, some that do not. I'll go over a few here, and then I'll tell you how WE make sales. The same way we have been making sales for the last 15 years. Because in all that has changed in marketing, what we do is still working, is still something we don't pay for, and it is still the most effective method of marketing I've ever encountered for frugal businesses, and that includes methods that cost much more.
So... I'm only going to hit the basic online methods, and a couple of offline methods that cannot be equalled online.
1. Business cards. They work. Get your name out. But you have to work them, not just splatter them around.
2. Local networking. It works too. Even for online businesses. People buy from people they know sooner than they buy from people they don't. Develop relationships. They are especially important for service businesses and B2B.
3. Blogging. It works if you do it right. You have to publish things people WANT to read, or view - photo blogs are just as good as text blogs, but they are more powerful when you have a good description of the image. It still has to be good stuff - otherwise you are wasting your time. You also have to have it as an integral part of your website, OR crosslink it with your website and run product promotions in the sidebars, or you are wasting your time. Blog posts are permanent in a way that social media is not. Put your effort here before you put it behind a company FaceBook Page, it will do you more good, and your efforts will have lasting effect.
4. On-Site content. Instructional resources, reviews, industry standard explanations, etc. Whatever your customers want to know that makes them a better more educated customer. This works. It works in the short term and in the long term. The right information not only results in contacts, but it delivers people to you who are already persuaded that they not only want to buy, but that they want to buy from YOU.
5. Social Media. If you can use it appropriately. It doesn't work quite like you think it will. The vast majority of small business owners I know don't make a dime from promoting through FaceBook. Some make money indirectly from Twitter (using it to attract visitors). A very few make something from a presence on LinkedIn. But honestly, other than automating a feed for Google bait, you are better off spending your time doing other things! Social Media is so temporary that your efforts can be better applied to things that are permanent in effect and that build over time. Social Media can suck you dry and leave you gasping in exhaustion just trying to maintain an active presence so three people a week can comment and nobody ever goes from the page to your website to actually buy anything! There are just too many WAY more effective things that don't rely upon being the most exciting thing or persuading a person with the attention span of a gnat to elevate your product to the status of most necessary impulse purchase for the moment. I'd rather market to people than gnats. Feed your articles in. The thinkers will read, the gnats won't.
6. Online Networking. This used to be very powerful. Lately though, nobody really engages online or thinks of other people online as real people. It has lost most of the power to draw long term customers, this, in part because the old forums have disappeared, and been replaced by transient environments where everything is temporary, and people are seeking the latest bit of titilation. Not very effective for solid businesses.
7. Ads on blogs. This can work. So can blog reviews if you can actually get someone to do one on your product. If the blog is reputable, gets good traffic, and is relevant to your product, it can work well, BUT... most blog ads are overrated, and WAYYY overpriced. They bring more traffic than customers. To be worth money, they have to result in paying customers. The vast majority of blog ads are worth about $10 per month, or $25 to $50 IF they can bring in sufficient traffic to not just PAY for themselves, but to MAKE good money. Be aware that it can take 2-3 months for an ad to really pay for itself, so give it a good chance. But after 3 months, if you can't see customers paying you because of the ad, ditch it.
8. Pay Per Click. Forget it. It takes thousands of dollars to work it to the point where a positive balance can be realized from it. When you are working with small monthly budgets, you can't blow it all on something with a horrendously high fraud and false clickthrough rate either. I've used several types of this. None have resulted in a single sale. Not one sale. The bounce rate on my website is the only thing that went up with any of it (clicks where someone comes in and immediately leaves because it was not what they wanted). If you don't have a hefty budget, plus a very significant startup (work out the bugs) budget, PPC will never work for you.
9. On page LEGIT SEO. Search Engine Optimization is a valid science - unfortunately, many people who sell it as a service are still in the dark ages, perpetuating false practices, keeping myths alive, and even doing things to your site that are downright harmful. I've had to rescue many sites from SEO vandals who destroyed search engine rankings using tactics such as keyword stuffing, and completely wrecking content. The BEST SEO revolves around your content, and the writing on your site. If it is done well (so people love to read it and so people understand it), then SEO takes care of itself! And that is the real trick to GOOD SEO. All the rest - all the garbage about changing search engine algorithms, all the trash about link formats and domain names and all that are irrelevant. If your content is good, and people like reading it, and people understand it, and if people can find their way around your site easily, then YOU GOT IT NAILED! Nothing else is needed, everything else is a waste of time, and nothing short of a scam because it won't make you one more penny of money. NOTE: SEO alone won't get you traffic. It has to be partnered with a content building and link building strategy, or you are still dead in the water.
10. Blog comments. This can work, but you have to be real, and you can't spam. Don't leave a URL in the comment area! ONLY post a URL in the URL field where you are invited to do so - generally it will link to your name. Not all blogs allow this, some are friendly to it, some are not. If you post helpful comments, your own experiences with the topic, or a valid question, it will be published. If you are stupid about it, you get deleted. Expect to drop 50 comments to get one comment that really pulls people to your site. But posting those 50 is worth it for the one that pulls because it will keep doing so month after month.
WARNING: Don't pay a company to do "article marketing" for you, or to get backlinks for you. Don't pay anyone to write your content unless you know their writing personally. There are third world companies out there (and some in developed countries) who hire non-native language personnel, who write trash articles, and they HURT your reputation and do not help it. Some can actually cause liability issues for you (I've seen this). If you hire writing, expect to pay for it - $50 an article or more, for GOOD writing that people enjoy reading. Anything else is injurious to your business.
So... what works for us? A combination of strategies. It isn't something that would work for a lot of people, because it requires that you have someone on board who can produce regular writing on topics which appeal to your audience. But it works well for us, and it works for every business that we've been able to teach to do it well.
1. We write. Everything we write is published to one of our own websites, or our blog, sometimes on other websites as a guest blogger. We do not publish articles on article database websites.
2. We have personal presences on several social media sites. We set up a section on each website that we are promoting, as a blog, so that it has RSS and will ping blog directories. This way, if we post an article there, we can auto-feed the article straight to social media. That gets a few views, but it has more power with search engines than it does with people, so it gets us more indirect traffic than direct traffic. We do NOT have business pages set up. They are too time intensive to manage, and they no longer get useful views unless you pay for visibility, which I won't do because it is not worth it.
3. We network our own websites. We generally have a dozen or more websites on related topics at any one time. Some are content only, some are content and cart. Publishing on ONE of the sites will indirectly benefit all the other sites. Increases in traffic on one site will increase the traffic on all of them. Once people get into our network, they tend to float around for a while in it. The key here, is content, and a box on each website called "Related Sites", where we place links to the other relevant sites that we own. Many businesses cannot afford multiple websites, so this does not work for everyone.
4. We optimize through content, primarily. We produce information that our customers and clients are interested in.
5. I search for blog posts with similar topics, and I leave comments. I don't do this on a schedule, but I will go hunting blogs every few months to leave comments, and these result in a fair bit of traffic that converts. I've had customers tell me that they bought from me because everyone else on a blog was being negative about a topic and I was encouraging and explained what made it work right.
6. We do pay or barter for a few select ads on blogs. It is worth doing, but only with caution. In general, ONE article, posted to any one of the sites in our network, gets 10 times the traffic (or more) that a paid ad gets. The ads get some traffic. The articles get more.
That last thing is something we've only done in the last year. All the rest of our business building has been done through websites and content.
Our backlink building strategy is also wrapped up in those articles, because when you write content that people like, they link to it. A good portion of our traffic comes from people who linked to us on their blog or website. And every link there gets us even more search engine traffic.
Building traffic without spending a fortune is kind of slow to start. Generally if you don't have a network to plug a new site into, it will grow fairly slowly without some major work hustling links and customers through personal contact.
But once it gets going, it has a lot of power, and a lot of permanence. It tends to grow year by year.
There are definitely low cost marketing methods that work, and those that are a waste of time. There are also high cost methods that work for some businesses, but which are a waste for small businesses.
The best ones center on good writing skills, and rely on a sound basis in integrity.