One of the greatest entrepreneurial challenges is how to market your business without going broke.  Perhaps it's my background in marketing but I think it's the #1 thing on any entrepreneur's "to do" list. 

The reason is simple.  It doesn't matter how great your product or service is if your prospects are buying from your competitor because they don't know you exist.   So make a promise to yourself that you'll spend at least 30 minutes per day to market your business. 

Before you start:  Do some competitive analysis online (and in your area if you have a storefront) - make sure your product or service is competitive and priced right.  Understand who your target market is and research to see how and where you can find those people. This is work that marketing professionals spend a lot of time on.  There is no sense investing your precious time and money targeting the wrong group of buyers for your product.  Document this and keep it near your computer so you're constantly reminded who you are looking for.

Step 1:  Collect an email address from every prospect and customer.  In order to have them agree to give you their address, offer something useful in exchange like knowledge, hints & tips, coupons or discounts on services. 

Step 2:  About once a month, send something useful to your list.  Based on the type of business you have, you'll have to determine the frequency that is right.  Consistency is important. If your space involves frequent small purchases, I'd aim for once or twice a month, generally not more.  Make your audience the focus of your message.  Concentrate on providing outstanding and useful content.  I often use a service called Mail Chimp to send messages to my list.  [Note that I don't receive compensation from them, or anyone else in this article, I just love the service.]  If your list is smaller than 500 and you send fewer than 3000 messages per month, the service is free.  Yes, free.  Who doesn't love that? For bigger lists, pricing is quite nominal and I find the service very reliable and  robust.  No programming is required to use it, if you're not the creative type, you can quickly customize one of their templates to meet your needs.  They also have online video tutorials to walk you through it.  If you do like design, they give you a lot of flexibility to build what you want.  Best of all, Mail Chimp takes care of the reporting and tells you which emails couldn't be delivered, which were opened and what links were clicked.  These stats are invaluable in measuring your promise.  Try to come up with a great subject line so people will want to open your mail.  They get an A+ from me.

Step 3:  Sign up for LinkedIn, Twitter, and possibly Facebook.  Again, this depends on who you sell to and what you sell.  If you are involved in business to business, LinkedIn is a must and you may find Twitter helpful.  If you have a storefront or consumer business, you may have luck with Facebook.  Do a Google search to see if you can find other social networks relevant to your business.  Participate in the discussions and groups.  Again, don't promote yourself but provide value to the other members and they will naturally look you up.   One word of caution here, don't over-network.  You could easily spend all day on it and not complete other projects. 

Step 4:  If you serve local customers through a storefront, make sure your business is listed in the local listing services at Google, Bing, Yahoo, and others as necessary.  Most of these allow your customers to leave reviews.  Encourage that by providing a coupon or discount for their next purchase.  Good ratings help keep you on track and give prospects the confidence to buy from you.  Sign up at the links below: Google -  http://www.google.com/local/add/lookup?welcome=false&hl=en-US&gl=US Yahoo - http://listings.local.yahoo.com/ Bing (MSN) - https://ssl.bing.com/listings/ListingCenter.aspx

Step 5:  If you need some basic design services for business cards, letterhead, etc., try your local printshop.  I'm a big fan of building relationships and buying local.  You should be able to find a local printer who can help with design services.  If not, check out us.moo.com for low-cost options and fast delivery.  On the issue of websites, it's great to have one but you have to spend some time optimizing it for search or it will have limited traffic.  The tools to build websites are plentiful and even someone with limited or no programming experience can build a site.  When you are new in business, many people will contact you offering to build your website.  Keep in mind that without traffic, a website is essentially useless.  Make sure anyone you hire to do this can put in some basic code called tags and your content is high quality and informative.  A website is a longer term investment and too many web designers sell them as the be-all and end-all.  This leaves small business owners disappointed and frustrated.  Before you hire a web designer, spend some time researching search engine optimization so you can have a better conversation with any potential site designers.  These are my favorite SEO/SEM sites: www,sempo.com (an organization for SEO/SEM) www.highrankings.com (SEO/SEM consultant, great content on the site) www.bruceclay.com (another SEO/SEM consultant) www.searchenginewatch.com (lots of great educational content) www.seotoolset.com (great site for do-it-yourselfers) http://www.wordtracker.com/ (helps you choose keywords for SEO/SEM)

My final caution is to beware of people selling search engine marketing and/or optimization services.  There are some great technicians out there who get results but there are many who just take your money and may get you blacklisted through unscrupulous techniques.  I saw at least one paid ad this week that was just ridiculous and attached to the entirely wrong keyword.  The company paying that vendor is being taken for a ride.  Unfortunately, this is all too common.  Clicks can be expensive.  No one can guarantee you'll be on page one of search results, regardless of what they tell you.  This is a huge subject and I'll be writing more about it later.  If you're hiring someone today, check references and the BBB and sign contracts that pay for results.  Don't agree to just give a vendor money every month with no guarantee.  Finally, be consistent and give your marketing effort time.  Marketing isn't a faucet you turn on and the results rush out.  We wish!  It takes time, persistence and creativity. If you have a good product or service at the right price, and you target the right buyers, you will be able to build your business.

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