Ask SCORE: Tips on stretching that marketing budget


Question: My marketing budget is very limited. Are there some ways I can get the biggest bang for the buck?

Answer: Yes there are some techniques you should know about. It takes some knowledge and creativity to get above the noise level. Let's talk about this.

First, it's very good that you're working within a marketing budget. Many small businesses just muddle through the year without a plan, and then later realize they over-spent, or didn't get the impact they wanted...or even worse, both.

Here's an interesting background story. Retailing pioneer John Wanamaker was way ahead of his time in Philadelphia in the 1870s. He originated the department store concept; introduced the notion of house brands; and came up with the idea of price tags. In 1874, he printed the first-ever, copyrighted store advertisement. Later he opened the first in-store restaurant in 1876, and installed electric lights in 1878. He also coined the term and offered the first "White Sale." But note this: he's actually most famous for his comment, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don't know which half."

When you set up your marketing budget for the year, you'll probably earmark a certain percentage of your projected sales. For example, an established retail store might expect to spend 5 to 8 percent of sales on marketing. A young service business may need to devote 15 or even 20 percent. These expenses should include all your advertising, promotion, website maintenance, local events, giveaways, marketing materials and other costs. Before you set a number, think about three things:

• Your stage in the market. Are you a startup, emerging, stable, or dominant?

• Your direct and indirect competition. Are they aggressive, or much larger than you?

• Your profit margins. What can you reasonably afford to spend?

Many businesses that buy and then resell goods from others have access to what's called "co-op advertising money." This is a reimbursement which a vendor offers to a reseller for running advertising that gives the vendor prominent mention. For example, an appliance store might run an ad for a major national brand item. The upside: You get to promote your business largely on the other guy's dime. The downside: There are some hoops to jump through.

To get you started, here are ten examples of low-cost marketing methods. See which might be adaptable for your business.

Give a free talk or seminar. Lots of local service groups are delighted to have a guest present a topic of interest to their members.

Distribute attractive flyers. Have some colorful half-page flyers printed and hire someone to hand them out where people congregate. Do not put them on windshields; in Bellingham and many other cities that's considered littering. Provide a limited-time coupon or other reason to visit you soon.

Generate some testimonials. Offer your goods or services to selected people at a reduced price, in return for favorable statements about their satisfaction. These are especially effective in a short video on your website or YouTube.

Cross-promote with other businesses. Find other businesses which target and address your same market segment, but of course with different offerings.

Attend social networking events. Many chambers of commerce offer these, and the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry is very active in this regard. Go to and click on the "events" tab. Take a big stack of business cards and any other promotional literature you have.

Issue a media release. When your business has a newsworthy event like an anniversary or significant new product or service, put the word out. Get some help on this so you come off professionally and as someone your target would want to seek out.

Build an email newsletter following. For starters, look into and similar services. You can greatly leverage your marketing effort. But beware; you'll have to deliver frequent and high-quality content, not just fluff.

Co-sponsor a local sports team. This is an inexpensive and effective way to build a local presence.

Set up Google Alerts. These alert you to searches for particular terms that you've pre-registered.

Reward your existing customers and clients for referrals. There's no easier way to get new customers than from your existing clientele.

A fun bit of history: The concept of guerrilla marketing - getting big results on a small budget - was coined by Jay Levinson in his book "Guerrilla Marketing," first published in 1983. It was an instant hit. A fourth edition came out in 2007, too early to have full inclusion of the Internet. Google "guerrilla marketing" for thousands of inexpensive marketing ideas.


To learn more about managing cash flow, and other small business matters, contact SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business." SCORE is a nonprofit nationwide organization with more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors who provide free, confidential business counseling and low-cost training workshops to small business owners. Call the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization,visit

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to

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