Peer to Peer: What are some effective and affordable ways for a small business with a limited marketing budget to connect with customers?

Connecting with customers on the cheap means taking advantage of free tools and services

Annika Panzini, Jeff Lucas and Tim Kelly

Annika Panzini: Founder and president, Kika Marketing & Communications

There are three main pillars of marketing that will enable you to effectively connect with customers on a shoestring budget. For each pillar, we have named some inexpensive or free online tools and services that you can use to successfully reach your audience. This list is by no means exhaustive – we are barely scratching the surface.

1. Establish a brand that resonates with customers

Customers want to associate themselves with brands they can relate to. Sites such as 99design.ca and Designcrowd.ca give you access to a global network of designers who can create a unique brand identity.

2. Promote your brand with a strong marketing campaign

Armed with a kick-ass brand, you can reach out to customers with this low-cost marketing mix:

• Website – Squarespace.com lets you build websites, with no technical experience required, for a small fee.

• Social media – use knowem.com to jump-start your social media presence. Make sure, however, that you have a well-thought-out strategy beforehand.

• PPC – online ads give you immediate results, but do them well or not at all.

• Directories – list your business in local directories (print and online) and buyer guides.

• Discounts and deals – this is a great way to attract new customers.

• Press releases – send out a monthly press release to local print media for potential free editorial coverage.

3. Improve your brand through constant monitoring

With free analytic tools such as Google Analytics, you can determine areas for improvement so that your business connects even deeper with your customers.

Jeff Lucas: General manager, Traction Creative Communications

The average revenue for small and medium-sized businesses in Canada is under $400,000. That doesn’t leave much room for a marketing budget. So for the average small business, the most affordable and effective way to reach customers is by improving your website.

Chances are you already have a website, and chances are you think it’s fine. But chances are it isn’t. Depending on your particular business model, of course, the web is likely the first place customers learn about you, your products and your services.

You get only one chance to make a first impression, so think about what impression your website is giving your customers. Does it position you as a leader compared with your competition? Does it place you squarely in the middle of the pack? Or does it make you appear slow, weak and sick? Is it professional or amateurish?

These are all very basic questions, but very important ones. A properly designed website will also rank higher when customers search online for the types of products or services you provide. The days of “buying” search results are over – Google now rewards websites that stick to best design practices, which means websites that are useful to actual human beings, not just search algorithms.

Make your website attractive, easy to use and informative. Support it through affordable search advertising like Google AdWords. Monitor and measure your online presence with Google Analytics, which is free. You can also spend a little time on social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The key word here is “little.” Time is money, too. Do some research, then invest your time wisely.

Tim Kelly: Partner, Brandfx Advertising, Design & Interactive

In a world that is changing so rapidly and where media is becoming more and more fragmented, small businesses need to be nimble, using the tools that best align with their brands and their customers.

There are many affordable ways to connect with customers, but it comes down to smart strategic thinking and planning. It’s really about knowing your primary target and choosing the right touch points to connect with them. From traditional advertising options to online and social media, the choices can seem endless. Since it’s difficult from a budgeting standpoint for a small business to select a larger integrated mix, I always recommend identifying key consumer touch points that will work within your budget but also drive the brand experience you desire.

Connecting with customers using an online advertising campaign could be one option. For a small business it is much less expensive and you get wider geographical reach to a more targeted audience.

And don’t forget that your most important communications tool can be your website. A strong online presence is crucial for a small business. It’s often the first point of contact a customer will have with your brand, so getting it wrong can do more harm than good. A high-quality website is essential, but unfortunately many small businesses still fall short of having a well-designed, multi-platform-friendly site that engages customers and distinguishes their brand. Ensuring your site is up to date by using a good content management system should be a priority.

Technology will continue to bring us new ways to connect with customers, but it’s important to remember that no matter where, how or in what medium an idea is expressed, you still have to start with a good one.