Vector creative illustration of business startup word lettering

By Pam Webber

What if marketing were free? I ask because we who handle marketing for startups tend to get caught up in how much money we have to spend; or more commonly, how much we don’t.

But the reality is that worrying too much about your marketing spend can get in the way of the true strategic thinking you need to do no matter how big or small your budget happens to be. No matter how much you have to spend, you will still need to figure out what to do, who’s going to do it, and ultimately, will it really work.

Marketing a startup without spending a lot of money requires superior knowledge of your audience. After you understand how they value your product and what message resonates with them, you can develop a marketing strategy that will maximize your efficiency and effectiveness.

Here are five ways to accomplish this goal.

1. Choose Marketing Tools with the Highest Return and Lowest Cost

Imagine different marketing tools are stocks in an investment portfolio. You can use SEM, SEO, trade shows, direct mail, public relations and more to reach out to customers. Just as an investor picks stocks, you should also choose your most profitable tools. Lyft, the popular ride-sharing service, grew quickly by investing in a referral program upfront. Although this cost a good deal, it was a program that provided a good bit of scale giving the company an investment vehicle that is delivering long-term growth.

2. Play to Your Risk Profile

Make sure your advertising strategy is in tune with how much risk you can take on. For example, if you are starting out with a small advertising budget, be conservative with spend. Your best weapon is SEO. Online advertising can be prohibitively expensive. You will see a better, more targeted reach with SEO than if you were to use paid sponsorships. You can also utilize social media, creating online quizzes and post them on sites such as Facebook. This could help you grow an email list of prospective customers.

3. Use Asymmetrical Information

Start in markets that you know well. When you’re looking to grow, you want “easy wins.” You don’t need to overcome extreme challenges. This is the time to grow your user base, collect emails and get referrals. Customer service support provider Zendesk found its representatives were fielding questions on how to hire great customer service reps. In response they created a blog post on that subject and made itself the authority on the matter. This blog post is still driving over a million visitors to the company’s web page per month.

4. Look Where Others Aren’t Looking

Sometimes your best marketing tactics can be the least obvious ones. As a graphic design marketplace, we thought it seemed counterproductive to advertise in podcasts when we first started. Visual media might seem a natural choice for our designers to showcase their work. Yet, many of our clients enjoy listening to podcasts, and sponsoring targeted shows has been very effective for us. Language, tone and expressions have proved valuable and important to our advertising strategy.

5. Draft to Get Ahead

Create opportunities where your company can become a part of, or attach itself to, the success of another entity. This will showcase the fact that your company is cooperative, organized and dedicated to finding good solutions that fit customers’ needs. When I worked at eBay, we tried to drive payment transactions through our own proprietary module. PayPal realized it could create a button for sellers to insert into their eBay listings, and as eBay’s sales increased, so did those of PayPal. Eventually, eBay acquired PayPal because PayPal had become the preferred payment method.

Now it’s Time to Execute

Marketing doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective. When you are ready, think like an investor. Utilize your time and money wisely in the areas that you have identified. Plan your investment portfolio according to your overall strategy. As you proceed with your campaigns, look for ways you can take advantage of low-cost channels of communication. If you get discouraged because you have a small budget, don’t despair. Focus on building a good reputation and scaling over time. You can do more with less and learn from others’ success stories as you grow.


Pamela Webber is chief marketing officer at 99designs, the global online graphic design marketplace.