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Marketing on a budget: Shout about it

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Any small firm will need to let potential customers know that they exist and why people should buy from them. What works best will depend on the type of business and customer, says Rob Gray.

Marketing is fundamental to business success. It’s how you build your brand and relationships, differentiate your products or offer in the marketplace, and boost your appeal to customers. 

All businesses need to market themselves. But for start-ups, seldom blessed with deep pockets, the trick lies in identifying and focusing on marketing techniques 
that deliver results without breaking the bank.

Fortunately, there are plenty of potentially cost-effective options available. What works for you will depend on the type of business you’re in and the main objectives you’re pursuing. 

Always begin by getting under the skin of your target market. To reach your customers, you must know who they are. “Sit down and segment your customer base so you can make an avatar of your typical customers; there may even be more than one set,” says Olga Lynch, owner of the Transfer Tutor, developer of an app that helps children pass academic tests.

“For example, you may have one customer group who are mums, aged 35-50 years and have a 10-year-old child, but you may also have a business customer who is a principal of a primary school.” 

If you’re struggling to identify your core customers, look over past orders to get clues, she recommends. Once you have a clear sense who your customer is, you’ll have a better idea of where they hang out and how to reach them. 

Customer research

Mahbir Thukral, who launched his Mahbir Indian Tea & Spices business in November 2016, initially as a saffron specialist, says scouting customers via Instagram has proved very successful for him. “Historically speaking, companies used to cold-call potential customers,” he says.

“This has now gone digital. At least once a week, I will search posts on Instagram using the hashtag #saffron in a few different European languages. I then post a comment or send a private message introducing myself with a brief explanation as to why they might be interested in purchasing my saffron for their products or dish.”

As the majority of posts come from end-user consumers posting photos 
of homemade culinary creations that happen to feature saffron, Mr Thukral concedes this approach can be time-consuming and requires patience. His focus is on brands featuring saffron in their products or hospitality businesses using saffron in their dishes and beverages.

“I’ll have a quick look on the profile of the post to make sure they’re located in Europe, so if it does become a new business lead, I am then able to fulfil it,” he explains.

“Through this method, I’ve generated new customers in the UK, Sweden, Belgium and Finland. Best of all, it’s free to do.”

Start slowly

For Ben Berry, founder of The StudyBed Company, creating market awareness for his unknown and unique product was initially challenging. Taking the view that “all marketing spend is effectively a gamble, even though it is an essential investment”, he realised he needed to be very controlled and circumspect – which translated into doing nothing 
too expensive or risky. 

“As with growing any fledgling business, lots of small but rapid steps is the key, and the answer lay with Google sponsored ads, which were controllable in terms of outlay and quickly measurable in respect of success,” says Mr Berry. “It was the number one marketing activity that got us off the ground.”

Funmi Onamusi, Managing Director of Tesla rental business 3F EV, says her mistake as a start-up in a premium-end business was jumping straight into PR and print advertising.

The results sparked some interest, but not enough for prospects to pick up the phone at a time when the concept of Tesla vehicles was still foreign to most people. 

“With our entire marketing budget spent, we crawled back to setting up a pay-per-click campaign,” admits Ms Onamusi. “It cost less than 10 per cent of what we had spent previously. The leads started trickling in, those led to bookings which led to marketing via word of mouth. Four years later, we are venturing into PR and marketing again. 

“But we learnt a valuable lesson; as a start-up you want to identify the lowest cost entry points that will start bringing in sales. Your first goal should always be your first sale and then work on duplicating more sales from that source before branching out to other sources.”

Online promotion

Jon Hulme, co-founder of Craft Gin Club (a subscription club for gin lovers established in 2016), is a passionate believer in the power of great content as a highly effective marketing tool. However, he stresses it’s not enough to have a company blog filled with articles about your company or products. “Truly effective content marketing relies on a fair value exchange,” he says. “You have to offer content that is first and foremost entertaining, educational or inspirational to your audience.”

Engaging, authoritative content can lead to new custom and loyalty. The key, once again, is “know thy audience”. Mr Hulme advises finding out who they are, what content they already consume and where they do that.

From there, you can pull together a monthly content plan targeted towards the right people. But make sure it’s achievable with the resources you have at hand. It’s more important to be able to maintain a consistent, reliable stream of content than to post something every day.

“Social media is a great way to share your content with a wider audience and to start building a community around your brand,” says Mr Hulme.

“If appropriate, humour (such as funny images or memes related to your product or industry) can be a quick, easy way to grow engagement and expand your organic reach. It’s also worth dipping your toe into the world of paid social – even a small amount of money put behind boosting a Facebook post to a strategically targeted audience, for example, can yield results.”

Meet and greet

Food business Mighty Fine started life in a small shop in Camden Market, handmaking its products in front of customers and offering up “loads of tasters”. Co-founder Kit Tomlinson says events and sampling sessions remain by far its most effective marketing activity.

Mr Tomlinson has three tips for keeping event costs down: invest in a versatile event set-up that can be used across a variety of events and formats – the more modular the better; use your core team who know the story and love the product, as outsourcing to event staff adds up and they can never bring the product to life like your own people; and plan well in advance, including every aspect – from travel and accommodation to how much stock you are giving away.


It’s also worth keeping an eye on what’s going on in your local area; this could give you the chance to develop contacts and win customers. “In every area and council there are amazing business support groups and all you have to do is find them, join them and start getting out there,” says Ms Lynch. “Networking, sharing your business news and making contacts are great ways to achieve real growth. It’s a bit like Twitter, but in the real world.”

Next steps

Once you’ve attracted people’s attention, it’s important to seal the deal. Whenever Mr Thukral secures a meeting with a prospect, he aims to demonstrate why his products would be specifically relevant to their customer base.

In the age of ‘uber personalisation’, he argues that generic brochures won’t suffice. Before meeting potential customers, he thoroughly reviews their website and social media channels. Then, in a one-page PowerPoint template he created for the purpose, he inserts their logo and some sentences and photos that explain how their positioning matches those of the Mahbir brand and products. 

“They can see I’ve made the effort to really understand what their business does, and why I believe my products would be suitable,” he adds. “In a way, it’s a similar approach to preparing a job application.”