When starting your business, we know there's a lot to handle and think about. There's your (growing) team, your intellectual property, product management and a pinched budget, all while you're trying to navigate the waters of entrepreneurship. But even without millions your brand can make an impression. All the free social media tools are a great start — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr,Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest are key, but there's more you can do to make an impression. We've rounded up eight ways to build your brand on the cheap — because there are more important things to spend money and time on, like your product and talent.
1. Killer Customer Service
Yes, it's annoying when things go awry with a purchase or brand experience — maybe something got lost in the mail or a credit card was accidentally charged twice. But missteps like these are actually blessings in disguise — you can use the opportunity to show off your customer service skills and turn the customer's experience around, thus winning them over. A bad-experience-turned-awesome can actually be more valuable than a good or expected experience from the get-go, because the customer will have interacted with the brand in a more intimate way and gotten to see your true colors.
People don't often tell their friends, "I bought something on Fab, and it was delivered right on time" — that's expected (and, from personal experience, it's typically what happens). But if something went wrong with the order, and the Fab team went out of their way to make it right and be sure you come back, then that's something to brag about to your friends. You could also take a proactive approach to customer service — if your team spends a few minutes on the phone to help a customer find exactly what they're looking for, that's something to brag about. Everyone's in a rush these days, so if you're willing to spend a few extra minutes cultivating relationships with customers — like Jetsetter and Rent the Runway do, to name a few — they'll tweet about your customer service and Instagram that lamp they bought from you; these positive experiences can be amplified like crazy on the social web (see also: Peter Shankman and Morton's).
Jumping through hoops makes a customer feel special, and it also impresses them and develops brand affinity. Brand affinities create word-of-mouth buzz, because people love telling their friends about new startups and businesses they have to try.
"We operate on a very lean marketing budget as a young startup," says Jamie Viggiano, director of marketing at TaskRabbit, adding that word of mouth is a major driver of the startup's new customer base. "We focus on how we inspire positive WoM — how do we get customers talking about the amazing experience they recently had on TaskRabbit? We work hand-in-hand with our member services team to ensure that every customer experience is a positive one — one that they will proactively and passionately share with their friends. You can surprise and delight customers — at minimal cost — which will inevitably generate positive WoM."
Find out where your customers are and engage with them there. "We all have access to amazing social tools, and communication is key," says Erica Domesek, founder of DIY blog P.S. I Made This.
2. Think Outside the Box
No one ever said you had to spend a ton of money to get your name out there. A big CPG brand might have a budget in the millions, but you can make a splash on a much smaller budget. Look at Dollar Shave Club, which made a splash in March with its low-budget, yet entertaining viral video featuring the company's CEO, Michael Dubin. As a result of the video — which had a budget of $4,500 — the subscription razor service nabbed five million views on YouTube, 12,000 subscriptions in two days and $1 million from VCs before launch. Not bad for a $4,500 investment. And don't think it's the last we'll see on YouTube of Dubin and Dollar Shave Club.
"Content is a big part of our strategy, and there will be more coming," Dubin told Mashable. "I wanted people to laugh, and people tend to remember something it if it gives them a visceral response."
Dollar Shave Club proves you can circumvent the traditional ways of marketing with a little bit of creativity and a sense of humor.
We've always heard that two heads are better than one. Well, two brands can be better than one, too. Brands are always looking to expand their audience, so it's wise to seek out brand partners who share an audience and work out some sort of collaboration. You see it in the fashion world all the time — Matthew Williamson teamed up with H&M, Missoni has a line at Target. These partnerships help both brands build awareness and their audience, which can boost sales. Both sides can bring something fresh to the table, and both brands walk away having learned something about themselves, the audience and what consumers want. For an early startup, you might even be able to get a bigger brand to foot the bill — approach the company with an exciting and new partnership opportunity, and see what they're willing to give you in return.
"Collaboration makes you stand out and shine," says Domesek. But be wary of who you partner with, and make sure you keep your integrity while you're getting more exposure, she warns.
4. Innovate the Innovators
Every vertical and industry — from tech to fashion and film — has thought leaders and influencers who set trends that then trickle down to the masses. Domesek advises brands to influence this top 1%, the cream of the crop, in order to reach a mainstream audience.
"These are the innovators using word of mouth through social, personally and professionally, to lead the path and spead the word," she explains. "When you get your product or brand on their lips — when you innovate these innovators — that’s when you know you've done your job."
Whether you're sending free samples or doing some personal outreach, it's worth the extra steps you take to get to these influencers, because they can move the needle for you.
Crowds are pretty smart. While collaboration is a great way to create a win-win opportunity for brands, tapping the wisdom of the crowds is also important. Sometimes you need an outsider's perspective to encapsulate or translate your vision, and crowdsourcing helps that happen. The agency Victors and Spoils launched in 2010 on the premise of crowdsourcing; it enlists a database of more than 5,000 freelancers around the globe, who offer advertising ideas for brands and products based on a one-sheet. Then there are companies like ScoreAScore(music) and 99Designs (logos) that host "contests" for businesses seeking expert work — businesses post a brief about what they're looking for, and freelancers submit a piece that fits the brief. You've likely seen a few of 99Designs logos out in wild — TaskRabbit and Cloudera, among others, have used their crowdsourcing contests to develop their logos.
Jeff Titterton, chief marketing officer at 99Designs, says his firm has facilitated the creation of more than 160,000 graphics for startups and small businesses. While professional logo and T-shirt design can cost several thousands, 99Designs offers tiered pricing that starts at $299 and goes up to $799. Graphic designers are vetted by the 99Designs staff, the business can expect to receive dozens of entries. Once the business decides on a logo and the money changes hands, the logo is 100% owned by the business, so you don't have to worry about legal issues down the road.
Another great place to find talented designers to work with is to go to design-focused communities, like Dribbble, a tactic recommended by Toni Gemayel.
6. Don't Be Afraid of Templates
Templates have a bad rap — they can conjure up thoughts of the boring or generic. But today's templates are not only beautiful and inexpensive, they're also highly customizable.
While tech startups may find web development to be a piece of cake, that may not be the case for a restaurant or yoga studio. For these less web-savvy entrepreneurs, it makes sense to utilize a template service, such as Squarespace or Wix. It's a lot cheaper than hiring a web designer to build it from scratch — plus, you'll need to call on the designer/developer to make even a small change to the site, which isn't an efficient use of time or money. Sure, you might want to develop your own site from scratch down the line, but a template can serve you pretty well in the meantime. Squarespace's newest version even offers responsive design, so you'll bang out a website and a mobile site (hugely important in today's mobile world) in one fell swoop, for less than $20 a month.
"A well-designed template comes with flexibility built in, so you can easily adjust the layout and style to match your own," says Anthony Casalena, CEO and founder of Squarespace. "Further, a great template design will keep your content as the focus of your site, rather than overshadow it."
There are also sites like OnePager, which allow for simple, beautiful one-page websites. And don't underestimate Tumblr — we've seen plenty of businesses use the blogging platform as their website (like Chicago's Au Cheval).
You can even use a template to develop your logo — 99Designs offers 24,000 templates you can get same-day, customized with your company name for $99.
7. Be Elusive and Exclusive
Sometimes all it takes to get attention is to be stealthy. Pinterest exploded last winter and people clamored for invites to the members-only service, pining to see what the fuss was about. Shortly thereafter, the site hit 10 million users faster than any other site. Go figure.
Where Pinterest was exclusive, Wander is elusive.
"Wander built such an intriguing website holding page that it attracted thousands of signups, when no one even knew what the company did," says JB Osborne, partner and CEO at Red Antler. "They successfully created enough curiosity through the holding page that people were willing to part with some of their own personal information to find out more — a great sign for a brand."
People love being early adopters and the first to know about burgeoning startups — a little coyness and exclusivity can go a long way in building and sustaining buzz.
8. Use Your Resources
You have a lot of tools at your disposal right now — you just don't know it yet. Your team isn't just a group of designers and engineers — each person has skills and interests beyond their work, and these skills can be put to use in marketing.
Sons of Essex, a restaurant in New York, uses video as a marketing tool, and while video is perceived to be a big investment of time and money, co-owner Matt Levine says the opposite.
"Our videos are super low budget," he says, adding that several have been shot on iPhones. "Our 'How to Make a ... ' videos all feature our charismatic staff, no actors, no fluff, just real employees." And he credits the low-budget approach for the success of the restaurant's YouTube presence.
"Having a limited budget gives you the opportunity to get creative and think outside the box," says Levine. Domesek agrees, adding that keeping to low budgets means you can afford to take more risks, which tend to pay off.
"Whether you're an 'accidental entrepreneur' — like me — or a serial entrepreneur, nobody’s giving 'nos' all the time," says Domesek. "Experiment and take chances with marketing ... If you don’t take those extra risks, you may as well work for someone else."