Entrepreneurs, start-up companies and even well establish small-to-midsize family-owned, privately-held businesses often face the challenge of building name recognition and brand awareness without having much of a budget to invest in the process. Just like its name sake, a “shoe string,” (which is considered a cheap, low cost item) a ‘shoe string budget’ is low cost, requiring minimal cash investment. 

However, for a shoe string marketing budget to be effective, the cost of marketing will not necessarily be measured in dollars but in hours.  In other words, you can build your brand without spending a fortune – but not without an investment of time and energy.  After all, we know that marketing is essential to any company’s success, no matter what size it is and no matter how large the budget. If you need to get the job done and you do not have the financial resources of a larger, more established organization, you can leverage your passion and invest your energy instead.  

The bottom line is that no matter how small your marketing budget may be, you cannot achieve growth goals without a solid marketing plan. Why is that? Well, marketing communication initiatives help you tell your story, gain attention, demonstrate your distinctive advantages and build connections with your audience. Marketing is the first step in business development, introducing your company to the community you serve and encouraging interaction and eventually, a sale.

Marketing is essential, but knowing that your time (how many hats do you actually wear as the owner of a family business anyway?) and your financial resources are limited, how can you prioritize your activities to be most effective for you?

Having a plan helps

To be effective, start with a written plan. This document doesn’t have to become an unmanageable document weighing in at 15 pounds, but it does have to flexible and adaptable enough to serve as a realistic blueprint for your continued success. Having a written plan provides you with a structured and consistent approach that ensures that you will build your brand in a purposeful, rather than haphazard, manner. 

It is recommended that you include this information in your plan:

  1. A statement that clearly describes what is unique about your company; what is the value you offer to your audience?
  2. An honest assessment of the business landscape that takes into consideration your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
  3. A list of what services and products you deliver
  4. A description that identifies your exact target audience – and also identifies who the influencers are in this market. Do you know these key players?
  5. A list of priorities based on all the possible ways you can build positive name recognition; rate them by aligning them with your company’s personality, commitment and situation
  6. A budget to help you stay focused
  7. A measurement of your efforts – have reasonable metrics and reasonable expectations but keep an open mind to fully understand what is working, and what isn’t

Promotional strategies on a budget

When you are considering all your options, think about how the opportunities that fit with your company’s plan and determine what the cost of these will be for you to use them most effectively:

  • Public relations
  • Authoring articles
  • Speaking at events
  • Writing a blog and using other social media platforms
  • Networking and building strong relationships

While you cannot do all of these things all at once, you can begin by selecting those tactics that will demonstrate your distinctive expertise while not ‘breaking the bank.’  

Writing a blog, authoring articles (like this one!) for local organizations or newsletters, or even speaking at events, do not come with a high price tag but they do require a serious time commitment from you. Since time is money, you need to be careful about where and how you invest your time. If you have the opportunity to address an audience that represents your target market – whether through writing an article or speaking in person or using social media to send a message – this can be an excellent use of your limited shoe string budget. 

Building powerful relationships is another way to generate interest, establishing your credibility, strengthening your brand and developing awareness within your market segment.  You want to be known as the ‘go to’ person in your field.  

While there are some costs associated with networking – including association dues or fees for events – these are usually very worthwhile expenses if you have done your homework and identified the organizations that best represent the demographics of your customer base. Networking, building powerful and mutually beneficial relationships, and at the same time creating alliances with others who share your niche, can be very efficient and effective marketing.  An excellent example of how networking can help to build your reputation, think about Commerce and industry Association of NJ. Business leaders and individuals join CIANJ to meet their colleagues, form connections, add value to each other and, ultimately, to do business together.  

It is a lesson worth repeating: investing in appropriate business groups and nonprofit organizations that reflect your strategic plan targets is important. After all, we know that people want to do business with people they like and trust.  And so, you need to analyze your business landscape and begin to develop genuine and sincere relationships that are built on trust and respect.  

Ads, newsletters, email alerts and especially  your website content are all necessary for your sustainable success, but it is also important to attend events, leverage ‘face time’ as well as building a social media community with your prospects and current customers and get to know others who are active within this same group.

An unlimited marketing budget would be exciting to have, but it is very rare!  Instead, there is much you can do ‘on a shoestring’ when you are creative, know what your audience values and can consistently tap into today’s technology tools to accomplish your growth goals and continue to be innovative and evolve to be a cutting edge authority in your industry!

About the Author

John Mellage is a Member of the Firm. He has extensive experience in food + beverage, manufacturing/distribution, nonprofit, and construction. John's real-world, practical advice provides the firm's mid-size, privately-held clients with the knowledge they need to have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Drawing on his deep knowledge gained by managing audits, compilations, reviews and other attestation engagements for clients of all sizes – from start-up entrepreneurs to established co...