Over six years ago, when I started my first business, Bridesmaid for Hire, everyone wished me good luck. But that statement always came with a caveat. People told me that if I wanted to have any chance at being successful, I needed to pour as much cash as I could into my business.
Their reasoning? The only way to get clients would be to buy their attention through social media ads, paid search, and other marketing efforts, like influencer marketing or doing sponsored posts with well-known publications, that I couldn't afford.
I had just been laid off from my full-time job and I was using my savings account to help keep me afloat. I didn't have the capital to invest in my business and knew that I needed to find other ways to get new clients and people's continued attention on my business.
That's when I decided that I'd set out to prove people wrong. What if I didn't put a dollar into marketing and advertising but could get a steady stream of clients and website traffic anyway?
Today, I'm still following that game plan. I haven't spent a dollar on marketing or advertising. Here are the free tactics I used to turn my side hustle into a six-figure full-time business.
Rather than viewing Bridesmaid for Hire's social media presence as a promotional driver that would push people to make purchases, I saw my social media accounts as a relationship building tool.
So when I made my social plan, I created three content categories.
- Educational and engaging behind-the-scenes content
- Press and testimonials from clients who have used the service, which allowed us to take a break from talking about ourselves and pulls in a variety of other voices
- Promotions ("buy this package, grab this deal" — only 10% of our posts)
Doing this allowed people to gain value from our social media channel feed. It allowed us to build brand loyalty and awareness, and that often turned into people heading to our website to learn more and work with us.
I also tapped into free tools like Canva and Headliner.app to help me create professional looking content.
Doing my social media strategy on my own and using free tools saved me thousands of dollars that could have been spent hiring an agency or a designer. I used a fraction of that money, instead, to invest in video and photography assets for the business.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
One big thing I realized about myself as a consumer was that I didn't start caring about a brand or business from their ads or marketing messages. I did, however, seem to give them a second look when I encountered them in an article or a TV segment, or on a podcast interview.
That's when I realized that getting constant PR around my business and even around myself could be a valuable way to get new clients.
I made a list of publications I knew my audience cared about, from bridal magazines to podcasts, and sent pitch emails around the purpose of my business, uniqueness of my services, and even some unusual stories of what it's like to work this job.
Over time, I had success getting the media's attention, especially once I learned how to pitch stories around their editorial calendar and current trends. I have been able to be featured in over a hundred different stories and segments over the past six years.
I also used two free services, Help a Reporter Out and Qwoted, which brought press opportunities to my inbox. These websites share alerts when reporters or publications are looking for specific kinds of people as sources for articles. If you reply, you have a chance of being featured. This helped me secure various media placements.
Getting press helped us stay top-of-mind status in potential customers' minds and allowed the news of our business to be shareable. It also allowed us to show up in the prime real estate locations our audience was already going to for news and updates without having to spend money advertising there. While I can't measure an exact number of clients I received from this, it helped with brand exposure, brand awareness, and remaining top-of-mind status with my audience.
Dedicating a few hours each week to pitching the media in lieu of working with a PR agency has saved me thousands of dollars over the years.
A few months into launching my business, I created a master list of other companies and brands in my industry, who didn't provide the same service I did, but still attracted my audience. I brainstormed ways to work with each of these companies that would be beneficial to both of us and reached out to ask if they'd be open to collaborating.
Some said yes to things like joint social media content through Instagram story takeovers, guest blog posts on each other's websites, giveaways, and more. All of these collaborations were free, meaning I didn't pay to work with these companies. To get them to say yes, even though I was new to the game, I provided a list of what I'd bring to the table: content creation, strategy, multiple promotional posts, and more.
This gave me exposure to their audience while giving them exposure to the small audience I was quickly building. It was a win-win situation. I've done over 20 brand collaborations over the past six years. While in some instances you can pay brands to do these partnerships with you, I didn't go that route. Instead, I approached brands with a detailed strategy of how we'd add value to each other's business.
For social media content, I was able to get traction in terms of building followers and getting website traffic. For giveaways and blog posts, I was able to help build up my email list, which allowed me to keep in contact with my audience and share news or offerings.
After working with my first 10 clients, I decided that it would be a good idea to have a referral program. I decided, since I didn't want to offer a money reward, that I'd offer a product instead. I sent an email to my clients and offered them a free book, or phone session with me, if they sent over a referral.
This referral system worked and currently accounts for 15% to 20% of my new business yearly and it doesn't cost any capital. Sure, I am giving away something for free, which costs the business a small amount of profit, around $50 to $200 a person. But it ends up being worthwhile since the amount of money a new client will spend is way more than the cost of the freebie I give existing clients when they send over a referral.
Video by Courtney Stith
A good lesson I learned early on from my business mentors was to always offer a lot of free content for your audience to consume. I created high-value content, such as blog posts with practical tips to podcast episodes with popular guests, as a way of getting people to come back to my website and care about my brand, without asking them to buy something.
Doing this was a powerful way of creating constant brand awareness and a great strategy for getting people to come visit my website and stay for a while.
It's hard to track which new clients or sales came from this method but either way, it's a necessary thing to do as part of your overall strategy. Without free content, people might not pull out their wallet and buy from you, especially if they've never heard of the brand before, regardless of how big your ad budget is.
A final free thing I did to scale my business was to get in front of my audience whenever I could. I made lists of conferences and events I knew my audience would be at and pitched myself to the organizers to be a guest speaker.
Showing up at these events and hosting a workshop allowed me to get in front of people who were my direct target audience. It often led to immediate sales or even an increase in people knowing about the business and referring friends in the future.
You can find trade shows or events, even virtual ones, where you have to pay to present or display your product.
Working with no budget made me think outside the box and offer up my advice and knowledge as a thought leader instead. This added to the event's programming and allowed me to meet hundreds or thousands of prospective clients, without paying to be there.
I view all of these strategies as puzzle pieces. Each have an importance and together they lead to business growth and a constant influx of new clients. Not having a big budget, or any budget, to spend on marketing or advertising won't set you back if you find opportunities to enter the space of your audience and engage them in unique ways.
Jen Glantz is the founder and CEO of the business Bridesmaid for Hire, the voice of the podcast "You're Not Getting Any Younger,″ and the author of the Amazon-bestselling books, "All My Friends Are Engaged″ and "Always a Bridesmaid for Hire."
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