If Cheryl Ng hadn’t prepaid the $8,000 it cost to attend a major pet-supplies trade show in Las Vegas last fall, she might have considered passing on the event. With a recession looming, Ng, president of FouFou Dog, a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based distributor of designer doggywear, was worried that buyers would stay away from the trade show altogether.
But when only half as many of Ng’s competitors attended as in the year before, Ng seized the opportunity to put $2,000 worth of branded tote bags, pet treats and flyers in the hands of potential clients. “We ended up taking [our rivals’] business,” she says. In all, Ng landed more than a dozen new clients at the show.
When cash-strapped business owners struggle to do more with less during a downturn, they’re often tempted to slash marketing budgets. But that only results in missed opportunities, says marketing professor Ken Wong of Queen’s University. He cites a 1986 McGraw-Hill study that found that firms that maintained their marketing spending during the 1981-82 recession increased sales by 32% during the downturn and by 275% within two years of the recovery. But those that cut spending in the same period saw sales drop by 12% and recover later by just 19%.
The good news for business owners with miniscule budgets: you don’t have to spend much to ratchet up your marketing efforts. Here are five ways to do so:
Hit the online forums: Jason Shron, CEO of model-train manufacturer Rapido Trains Inc., says using online public forums to launch new products and answer customer questions ranks among his most effective marketing strategies. “It’s a free but targeted way to get involved with your customers,” says the Concord, Ont.-based entrepreneur. Rapido’s website traffic jumped by 1,000% after Shron posted a message on a popular online forum for model-train enthusiasts, compared with a 300% jump after being featured in a Toronto Star article.
Offer yourself as a speaker: In stormy economic times such as these, offering to speak at events sends the message that your company is a stable industry leader, says Leah Andrew, marketing director at Toronto-based marketing and sales consultancy Mezzanine Consulting Inc. She recommends providing relevant industry associations with a list of topics you could speak about at their next event—or offering to be part of a panel discussion, which is less work and offers similar networking opportunities. Either way, try to obtain a list of attendees for followup calls or e-mails to convert your appearances into new business.
Send an e-newsletter: Newsletters are cheap, you can write them yourself and they allow clients to get to know you personally, says Shron, who sends them to customers and suppliers every four to eight weeks. Newsletter software such as Constant Contact, which provides templates and helps manage contacts, costs about $50 per month. The key to winning readers and expanding your subscriber database is to provide interesting, personalized information about your new products, as well as industry news your customers can’t get elsewhere. “People want to feel they’re getting to know you,” Shron says, “not reading a boilerplate press release.”
find free labour: Lots of things are scarce during a slump, including jobs. Entrepreneur Andrea Lown of online bridal boutique smartbrideboutique.com says hiring an unpaid intern last fall has helped her stay on top of some of the most labour-intensive marketing tasks, such as website updates. For an investment of about four hours per week in training and mentoring her intern, Lown accomplishes marketing tasks that wouldn’t otherwise get done. And while she found her intern through a friend, Lown keeps an eye out for eager new recruits at networking events.
Network, network, network: There is such a thing as a free lunch—as long as you pay for it first. One-on-one contact with prospects can keep you top of mind for their own business. As well, says Mezzanine president Lisa Shepherd, it boosts the odds that they’ll recommend you to someone else. Networking events are another affordable way to gain exposure to plenty of potential customers. Shepherd recommends setting a goal for the number of events you’ll attend and the number of contacts you’ll make each month. And don’t forget to follow up. “Don’t just send them an e-mail—ask them out for coffee,” says Shepherd. “Use it as an opportunity to build the relationship.”