Marketing on a shoestring: three methods, three examples and three steps to create your own campaign

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

A good marketing campaign can be a great way to help you raise awareness and stand out in a crowded marketplace, but if resources are limited – as they often are for small business owners – creating something meaningful and effective can seem like a challenge.

The good news is that limited finances needn’t be a barrier to great marketing. You just need to be a bit smarter and more creative than the next person.

In this article, we look at three different marketing approaches – and three small businesses that have mastered these methods – before moving on to offer some advice on how you might follow their lead.

As you’ll see, each approach is very different; what unites them is that they were all conducted with very little spending. This is proper marketing on a shoestring.

1: How guerrilla marketing helped achieve a #1 ranking on TripAdvisor

The Challenge

A lack of public awareness was a massive problem for The Great Escape, a Crystal Maze-style adventure game business in Sheffield. Founders Hannah Duraid and Peter Lacole launched their first themed room, The Mad Scientist, in January 2015, then started adding rooms.

On the verge of a new launch – the Homicide room – later in the year, they wanted to do something that reflected their creative edge, got people talking, but was above all cheap.

The Idea

They settled on a guerrilla marketing campaign where, using stencils, they painted ‘dead body’ chalk outlines on pavements across Sheffield. The approach was creative, in line with their brand, and was likely to stimulate people’s curiosity.

Guerrilla marketing is a strategy to promote a business in an unconventional way – usually on a limited budget. In a single night, the Great Escape team painted around 50 outlines across the city, alongside a message promoting their new crime-themed room and details of how to find them online.

The Results

“Within 15 minutes of painting our first outline, it had been tagged on social media,” says Hannah. “The stencil prank took one night and was low cost. It boosted our Facebook following by more than 1,000, and at least 5,000 people saw the ads. We couldn’t have hoped for a better way to launch our new room for next to nothing.”

In its first year of trading, the Great Escape had 27,000 visitors and a turnover of £250,000. The Great Escape is now ranked number one for Fun and Games in Sheffield by TripAdvisor.

2: How creative PR brought TV, radio, press, and social exposure

The Challenge

Sally’s Cottages is a family-run holiday rentals business in the Lake District with just 13 employees. When staff started brainstorming ideas for a PR campaign to gather publicity, they knew anything they came up with would have to fit their very limited budget.

The Idea

As the company uses freelance photographers to capture images of its cottages, they were able to draw on these resources. Sally’s business regularly posts photos of local scenery on social media, so she thought it would be great to have photos of herself sitting at her office desk on top of one of the region’s most famous fells, Blencathra.

Five hours later – at 4am – a small team found themselves hauling a desk up the Cumbrian peak to catch a sunrise for the photographs. The images were then emailed with a press release explaining the stunt to the news desks of newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations they’d researched.

The reason the idea worked was because it was innovative and depicted a clear and relevant message. But capturing a good idea is one thing, building on it can lead to a whole other level of success.

The Results

The pictures’ novelty led to them featuring in numerous local newspapers and walking magazines, and even in the Sunday Times. The story of the photo shoot was also covered by BBC regional news, the local BBC county radio station, and was popular on social media.

In fact, it helped establish Sally’s Cottages’ presence on Facebook as its regular seven or eight ‘likes’ per post grew to 418 likes – an increase of almost 6,000%.

The shoot was quick and required minimal planning. But this moment of inspiration helped Sally learn the art of the possible and paved the way for more complex photoshoots.

Sally followed the Blencathra stunt with further photo shoots, with images of her enjoying tea in a wood full of bluebells, relaxing on a sofa among the snow-covered fells, and a shoot with her on a bed that appeared to float on a lake.

In the year that followed, 80% of the owners who started leasing properties through Sally’s Cottages had seen either the Blencathra or the lake pictures beforehand. What’s more, in the three months following the Blencathra shoot, Sally’s increased its number of rental cottages by 25%.

“We found an idea that resonated with cottage owners and holidaymakers, but was also cheap to put into action,” says Sally. “Thanks to the press and social coverage, people now talk about us in relation to the campaigns. It’s been very effective.”

3: How partnering on competitions broadened awareness

The Challenge

Shaken Udder is a milkshake manufacturing business based in Maldon, Essex, employing fewer than 20 people. Although it has grown steadily since its launch in 2006, its marketing budget is dwarfed by those of its rivals. To make an impact without heavy investment, it needed to be innovative and resourceful.

The Idea

Shaken Udder couldn’t go head-to-head with bigger brands using their approach, so it had to do something different. Collaboration was – and is – the key. Shaken Udder regularly partners with similar businesses on competitions. Each offer is made on the Shaken Udder website and promoted across its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. Creating as much buzz as possible is kept high on the list of priorities during the competition.

In January, Shaken Udder ran a two-week competition with sports clothing brand Bear Strength. The competition was run to capitalise on a time of year when people are trying to get into shape, and the prizes were a £100 Bear Strength voucher and milkshakes. Entry required people to share health and fitness tips and a picture with the hashtag #shakeup2017.

The Results

“It helps that our customers love interaction, so these competitions allow them to get involved with Shaken Udder and potentially win something great,” says Jodie Farran, co-founder of Shaken Udder.

As each collaboration allows Shaken Udder to promote across its partner’s social media channels, they help it pick up more followers, understand which other users are interested in their products, and generally increase brand awareness and sales.

“Companies like Secret Hamper and Fairfield Farm Crisps are just down the road, so it’s often just a case of a chat, a decision on the prize, and then sending it out at the end,” says Jodie.

“Many of the companies we work with are small like us, we all face similar challenges, so working collaboratively can help strengthen and support each other by tapping into new or niche audiences, gathering vital data and driving brand awareness. This ultimately has a positive impact on sales.”

Last year, however, Shaken Udder started working with some higher-profile brands such as Benefit Cosmetics and Dorset Cereals – collaborations that produced great results. In some cases, Shaken Udder achieved 50% more entries than these brands’ average in other collaborations.

“Overall, we feel that competitions have helped to increase our sales. Last year we saw sales increases of around 35% and we feel these competitions have certainly had a part to play in that success, helping to boost our brand and extend our reach,” says Jodie.

How can you achieve something similar?

Now that you’ve seen a handful of approaches to marketing on a limited budget, it’s time for you to start thinking how you might apply some of these techniques to promoting your own business.

There are three main steps or stages to follow:

  • Strategy – How to come up with an overall plan – including a message you want to express
  • Ideation – How to come up with ideas that carry your message to as many people as possible
  • Execution – With your resources in mind, think how you could practically achieve your aims

I. Strategy – Finding a plan that’s right for you

Calling something a ‘strategy’ makes it sound serious, the kind of thing a bigger business would set upon, but that doesn’t have to be the case. All we’re talking about is looking for elements that make your business unique, getting your initial thoughts down on paper, and then taking some of those things and telling people about them.

Here are a handful of things you might want to think about when trying to define your strategy:

  • What’s the most interesting fact about your business?
  • What insights – if any – do you have about your customers? Who are you targeting?
  • How can you help your customers?
  • What business challenges are you trying to address?
  • What are the core values of your business?
  • What message are you trying to communicate?

All we’re trying to do here is work out what to say to people and how to say it. If we take the Sally’s Cottages example again, we can see how questions like these helped define its approach.

Sally’s Cottages knew it wanted to let cottage-owners know it was a good place to list their properties, tell holidaymakers that a cottage in the Lakes would make for a relaxing holiday, and that Sally’s Cottages was the organisation that could make both things happen.

The company knew its budget was limited, but also knew it had great photographers on hand, and that scenic photographs of the Lakes were popular with customers.

All these factors led to a strategy where the message being communicated was that the Lakes was a good place to i) do business ii) and go on holiday.

The approach was to take advantage of customers’ fondness for scenery photos, to place Sally at the centre of these images so she would be associated with the messaging, then to create an image that would also appeal to newspapers and magazines so as much publicity as possible could be achieved.

Most importantly, because the strategy proved watertight, Sally’s Cottages could repeat it again and again.

Following these steps, can you define a simple approach that’s right for your business? Your brief could include the following:

  • Your business goals
  • Your business background
  • Target audience
  • Your messaging goals
  • How you will measure success

II. Ideation – Coming up with ideas

Often people can be afraid they’ll come up with bad ideas, but there’s really no need to worry. The most important thing is that you generate lots of ideas and not worry too much about whether they’re good or bad. You can make a judgement on the quality of your ideas later, first you need to come up with the goods. But fear not, this is easily accomplished.

Brainstorming is a great way to come up with ideas (in fact, here’s useful guide to how to get the most out of brainstorming session). A good brainstorming session shouldn’t feel like work – play games, doodle, go to the pub, generally try to get away from ordinary activities to help you come up with the goods. During your brainstorming session, it might be useful to take the general themes you’ve worked on in your strategy – and refer to the brief you have just set yourself – and then think about how these could be turned into action. Write down all your ideas.

Once you have a few ideas after your brainstorming session, what about testing them before you select the one you plan to use?

You could ask friends and family what they think, or even ask your customers. How does your idea make them feel? If you can make them laugh or have a desired emotional reaction, you could be onto a winner.

When you have tested and whittled down your ideas to your best one, it’s time to turn it into something you can use.

III. Execution

Getting an idea off the ground just requires a bit of resourcefulness. If you don’t have a professional photographer, make do with your smartphone and eye for detail. Think about friends or family members who might be able to lend you their skills, whether it’s spreading the word in the street or helping you deck out your shop window with a surprise display.

Remember, the goal isn’t to create a masterpiece, just something original that creates a response. You’ve done all the hard work by thinking about your strategy and coming up with a great idea, all you need to do now is to turn your idea into an event or campaign that people associate with your business.

Before you press on, however, you should think about how those people that encounter your marketing could find out more about you, should they wish too. Can you come up with a way to ensure people can easily find out more about you after they have seen your marketing? Here are a few key questions to ask as you’re doing this:

  • How do you get press interest/coverage?
  • Can you make sure your brand name and logo are central in the campaign?
  • Where can you refer people for additional information?
  • Is the campaign sharable in any way? (Very useful for social media)
  • Can you get links to your website from press articles and other coverage?
  • Can you ensure all your marketing is consistent across the different channels you use?

Once you’ve thought about bringing these elements into the execution of your idea, the only thing left is to make a start…

If, however, you need a bit more information, why not read our guide to how your business can get started and make a lasting impression through social media?

Whichever approach you decide upon, best of luck!