We all know good marketing is essential for small businesses, but it's something that all too many owners (including myself sometimes) put to one side because we simply don't have the budget.
But increasingly I'm realizing that the best marketing doesn't have to mean spending big bucks. It's about being creative and thinking of ways to make sure your products and services stick in customers' minds without having to blow the bank.
With that in mind, I've been thinking about all the creative marketing ideas I've seen over the years. Here's what I've come up with so far...
Design some awesome business cards
Business cards may seem a bit obvious, but I've been thinking of ditching my current ones for something a bit more eye-catching. After all if your potential customer sees lots of cards each week then you want yours to stand out, right?
1. Stand out
Being in the insurance business I can't really go too wacky, but if it was appropriate I'd love one of these pop-up cards.
2. Give people something useful
A business card doesn't just have to be a card - after all, the most important thing is to get your details into the hands of potential clients. A notepad or pen with your number printed on is also less likely to find its way to the trash than a card...
3. Go virtual
Good for the environment and your wallet - virtual business cards certainly help make your business look modern and tech savvy.
Try guerrilla marketing
Guerrilla marketing is all about low cost and maximum impact, but you do have to think a bit outside the box and maybe even take a few risks. It's perfect for small businesses as it can mean reaching a large audience without spending too much.
4. Flash mobs
Not for the faint-hearted, but lots of fun and will certainly help people remember you. Flash mobs involve getting a large group of people together to perform a seemingly random act - often a dance routine - before dispersing. If you take the plunge, make sure someone videos it!
5. World Record attempts
Is there a World Record attempt related to your business you can have a chance at breaking? And better still, one you can invite customers to help out with or watch? Remember to alert the local press for extra publicity.
Leaving stickers with your company name on in random places your target audience are likely to be is a good way to get your name out there. Just remember to ask permission first.
7. Leaving branded pens in libraries and banks
Everyone needs pens - make sure it's one with your company information on they pick up.
8. Wrap your car
If you use your car regularly for business, why not decorate it with an eye-catching design and your contact details? It'll certainly get people's attention.
9. Project yourself
Using a light projector, project your company's name and details onto the side of a building overnight. This is a slightly pricier budget option as you'll need some equipment, but I've seen someone do it and believe me, it's striking.
Share your knowledge
Small business owners tend to live and breathe their industry - it's often the only way to get ahead in a competitive environment. So why not put all that knowledge to good use?
10. Host knowledge sharing events for prospective customers
Everyone loves getting something for free and once you've wowed them with your expertise, they're surely much more likely to sign up.
11. Start a blog
This is obviously one option I've chosen! Having a blog is a cheap, convenient way of sharing your knowledge and (hopefully) providing your customers - both prospective and existing - with useful, relevant information. It also plays a part in helping you get found on search engines. Just make sure you update regularly.
12. Make instructional videos
If you don't mind being in front of the camera then it's easy to start a YouTube channel. People always appreciate it when companies give them something useful, so guide them through simple tasks or concepts in two-minute videos. You can even make a video using simply your cell phone.
13. Be active on forums
If there are any forums or chat boards that your potential customers are likely to be active on, it's well worth signing up and helping to answer any questions they may have.
14. Donate your time
If you know of any raffles or competitions taking place locally, why not donate some of your time as a prize? You could help a fledgling company or give a customer some free advice.
15. Share knowledge sources
Hooked on a blog you think your customers would like? Or read a good industry book recently? Share it with your clients.
Offer a personal touch
It can be tricky for small businesses to stand apart from the big boys, but one of the best tools we have at our disposal is that it's easier to bring a personal touch into our marketing.
Chances are you've met a lot of your clients in person, or at least spoken to them, so think carefully about where they are most likely to see your marketing efforts and what they'd appreciate as well as what they wouldn't.
16. Personalized calendars
A business I used once gave me a personalized calendar for Christmas with mine and my kids' birthdays on it and our appointments for the first quarter marked on already. I've never used anyone but them since.
17. Organize a day out
Bonding with clients is a great way to ensure repeat business. Find out their interests and organize something you know they'll enjoy whether it's a ball game or dinner out.
18. Send thank you notes
Everyone likes to be thanked and that goes for customers too. Send them a note when they sign a new deal or at Christmas letting them know how much you appreciate their custom. Make sure it's handwritten rather than emailed for an extra special touch.
19. Throw a party
Had a good year? Celebrate with a party and invite all your most valued customers. It doesn't have to be a big bash - just a few drinks and snacks in your office or a bar, but it will give you a great chance to connect with your clients.
Give the people what they want
In my experience, timing is everything when it comes to marketing. The best campaigns I've run have been seasonal and involved giving customers things they want, when they want them.
20. Branded ice-creams in summer
What's better than cool ice-cream on a hot day? Nothing. I've had branded ice-creams at trade events before and I always remember who I got them from.
21. Remember the holidays
Valentine's Day cookies in February, apple pies on July 4th - let clients know you are thinking of them around the holidays with sweet treats.
22. Care packages
A care package of pens and notepads if you know a client is moving office will certainly help you stick in their mind.
Social media is one of the best free marketing tools open to small businesses which is why I'm signed up to pretty much all of them - but to get the best results you have to use them creatively.
23. Be funny
I personally love it when brands show a sense of humour and really engage with customers. There are some great examples in this article.
24. Be topical
If your Twitter feed or Facebook wall is just filled with self promotional messages, people will un-follow pretty fast. I try and comment on topical issues or share links I think my client base will be interested in so that they really get something out of following me.
25. Run competitions
Everyone loves to win things, so why not try running a monthly competition on social media?
Depending on what industry you are in, traditional advertising can be one of the more effective marketing methods. Placing ads can be pricey, but if you think creatively there are ways to make it more cost effective.
26. Share costs with other businesses
I saw a flyer the other day for both a pizza place and a DVD rental service and thought that was a great idea. Teaming up with complementary businesses can seriously cut your advertising costs.
27. Think small and frequent
Blowing the budget on one big splash ad is risky - for the same money you can get regular, smaller spots. Seeing you advertising frequently will help build up awareness among potential customers.
28. Go beyond newspapers and radio
Traditional ad slots are expensive, but is there anywhere else you can place an ad? I've spotted them on grocery carts, parking meters and taxi boards in the past month alone.
I'd love to hear what creative marketing ideas have worked well for you, or any you've seen and been impressed by.
Any sites I mention or link to in this post are just examples that I thought you'd find useful - I don't endorse them or their services. I have no affiliation with them and make no representation about their services.