Low-cost marketing moves

September 2, 2008: 10:18 AM ET

Hone in on your ideal customer and practice cost-effective marketing to draw more clients to your business.

Tom Dunlap, La Verne, Calif.
I own a five-year-old Internet business that sells about $100,000 worth of printer toner a year. Our clients stick around due to the savings we provide - they typically cut 30% to 50% in costs - and our customer service. We'd like to stay small, but we also want to attract more customers. How can we accomplish this without spending much money? Advertising doesn't seem to be cost-effective, and hiring salespeople hasn't worked in the past.

By Leonora Chu, Fortune Small Business contributor
Dear Tom: Let's try a visualization exercise. Before you attempt to attract more clients, write a description of your ideal customer. Spencer Tyler, co-owner of the Los Angeles branch of OneCoach, a small business growth consultancy, says it's probably the person who spends the most, complains the least and sends you referrals.

Next, hone in on exactly what that client wants. It could be guaranteed product in stock, or hassle-free returns and free shipping. Once you've scribbled down these ideas, look at your list - that's your marketing message.

Completing this strategic exercise will help you to maximize your marketing dollars and initiate higher response rates from new customers, says Tyler. Rather than casting a wide net for any customers, you'll craft a pitch that's directed towards the ones you want. "You'll end up spending less and making more," he says.

Now that you've got your message, what do you do with it? Tyler advises you to launch an e-mail campaign to attract new customers and reengage past clients. If you're looking to expand your list of contacts, consider purchasing a targeted e-mail list of potential customers from a broker.

Another way to expand your customer database is to form partnerships. Get in touch with complementary service providers such as printer manufacturers, paper suppliers or telecom equipment providers. This way, you can split marketing costs and offer multiple products at once.

Doug Williams, a Vancouver, Wash.-based market consultant, advises you to register for pay-per-click advertising with major search engines like Google (GOOG). Because you pay only when someone visits your website, pay-per-click offers a cost-effective marketing tool.

You should also focus on search-engine optimization, he says. Improving your placement on search results will drive traffic to your business. You can hire a consultant to analyze your site and make suggestions, but there are cheaper ways to work on your SEO.

Start by making sure your home page contains plenty of keywords that characterize your business. The text should appear in the upper quartile of the home page. "Keywords at the bottom of the page won't come up high on search engine rankings," Williams says. "You can hit the sweet spot by using just 400 to 600 words of text."

Another inexpensive way to get noticed is through social media. Set up a blog to share your expertise with potential customers. Williams' ideas: Write about what to look for in a toner supplier, the differences between different types of toner cartridges, and the pros and cons of buying versus leasing copiers. "People use blogs when they're looking for information, so it's about branding yourself as the authority or expert," Williams says. "Everyone likes to buy from the authority or expert."

You should maintain a consistent theme and schedule with your posts, says David Jaeger, the president of About Results Marketing in Los Angeles. Blogs are search-engine friendly, so posting frequently will help you pop up higher on results. "If you invest 10 to 15 hours a month blogging, you should start seeing an increase in your rankings and an increased readership within two to three months," he says. Considering the low cost of blogging, that's time well spent.

Give us your advice: Check out recent "Ask & Answer" questions.

Related links:

Luring prospects to your website

4 ways to market your business online

How can I market on a shoestring?

Get your e-store noticed online

Tips for a local marketing campaign

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