Promoting Your Startup on a Tight Budget: 10 Principles

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Have you just launched your first product? What is the most affordable way to publicize it?

As a startup, it’s unlikely you’ll have much to spare on promotion. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to promote your business without spending any (or much) money.

In this article, we’ll share 10 principles of startup promotion on a tight advertising budget.

Principle 1: Savor Obscurity While You Have It 

Startup promotion is tricky when you have a tight budget to work with. But as a new venture, there is an advantage to being unknown. So, don’t rush to promote your product. You might think you want everybody to know your company’s name, but obscurity has its advantages: You can try out new ideas, take risks, make mistakes, and fix problems without the whole world watching.   

Principle 2: Get Free Advertising by Posting (and Teaching) Online

Previously, you had to buy expensive ads to reach potential customers. Now, you can reach them via the Internet for free (or nearly free). Tweet about your product. Write a blog about it. Shoot promotional videos and post them on Instagram or YouTube. You’ll get a lot of attention, and if people are interested in what you’re tweeting, blogging, and posting, they will probably be interested in your products, too. 

While your competitors are out selling their products, you can make your brand stand out by teaching your customers what they want to know about your industry. To build brand loyalty, give out useful, free information on your social media channels. 

Model for success: A wine shop owner teaches people about wine on the YouTube channel “Wine Library TV.” The authors’ blog for their company 37signals features articles on industry issues. It has an audience of more than 100,000 daily readers. This kind of publicity is exponentially less expensive than buying ads or sending out direct mail.  

Principle 3: Share Your Business “Secrets” With the World

As a corollary, you can also give free lessons on how your business operates. Too often, business owners tend to think all their information should be proprietary—they don’t want their competition to know their processes. But revealing your company secrets may bring you more loyal customers.

Model for success: Consider the world’s best chefs. They go on television and YouTube and show every home cook how to make their most famous dishes. They write cookbooks and give away all their secrets. This just makes their restaurants even more popular.

Principle 4: Show How Your Product Is Made

People enjoy learning the inner workings of businesses—that’s why factory tours are so popular. Showing how your product is made builds brand loyalty because customers feel like they have “insider” status. 

Model for success: Jelly Belly, manufacturer of tiny jelly beans in unique flavors like Buttered Popcorn and Chili Mango, offers factory tours at its manufacturing plant in Fairfield, California. After touring the plant and learning how the sweets are made, visitors head to the gift shop to stock up on their favorite flavors.  

Principle 5: Embrace Imperfection

Take a lesson from the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which celebrates the scratches, dents, and cracks that develop in things as they age. An ancient vase’s tiny flaws are what makes it unique from all other vases. Be transparent about your product’s imperfections or shortcomings. Customers will appreciate your honesty. 

Principle 6: Shun the Press Release 

Companies send out mass promotional pitches to thousands of media outlets every day. They’re hoping that some writer or editor at a TV station, newspaper, or magazine will promote their product or announce their services, but that rarely happens. Journalists typically ignore press releases because they don’t know who is sending them and they rarely contain anything newsworthy. 

Instead of flooding a bunch of strangers’ inboxes with press releases, try a more targeted, personal approach. If a journalist has written a story about your industry or competitors, contact them by phone or write them a personal note that explains why your company might make a good news story. 

Principle 7: Choose Small Media Over Large 

Sure, you’d love to get your product featured on national television or on the cover of Time magazine, but that’s unlikely to happen when you’re first starting out. Pitch a story about your product to one of these major outlets and you’ll get ignored. Instead, target the niche media—blogs, newsletters, or magazines that focus only on your industry. The smaller media outlets are actively looking for stories and their audiences are specifically interested in your industry (and thus are more likely to be interested in your company). You might get a surprise bonus: Stories that are covered by trade publications are sometimes picked up by much bigger media outlets. 

Model for success: The authors’ companies have been written up in Wired and Time, but they’ve gotten more “hits” from stories that ran on Macintosh fan websites or the productivity website Lifehacker. 

Principle 8: Give Away Free Samples

The best way to promote your product is to offer a small freebie. Candy shops and bakeries know this well. Customers have a one-inch-square bite of your dark chocolate almond toffee, and suddenly they want to buy five pounds of it. Similarly, we expect software companies and app developers to give us a seven-day trial before we buy. 

Principle 9: Remember Every Action You Take Is Marketing

The business of marketing is not contained within your marketing department. Think of marketing as the hundreds of tiny actions that happen at your company every day: Each one sends a message—positive or negative—about your company. 

If you send an email to anybody, you’re marketing. If you place a candy bowl in the lobby, you’re marketing. If your assistant answers the phone, that’s marketing. If you develop an app that has glitches or a website that has spelling errors, that’s marketing. 

Principle 10: Success Doesn’t Come Overnight 

We’ve all heard about companies that became overnight sensations, but those stories are mostly tall tales. Behind the “overnight success” headline is a backstory of somebody working on a product for five years. In the few cases where a company really does achieve lightning-fast success, it rarely lasts because there’s no solid framework holding it up.

Don’t kid yourself that your new product will quickly make you rich. No one cares about the launch of a new product, no matter how much its creators have spent on a public relations campaign. Instead, focus on achieving slow, deliberate growth that eventually leads to success. (In five years, your company may be another “overnight success” story.) 

Promoting Your Startup on a Tight Budget: 10 Principles

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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