Face it: unless you’ve scored a huge investment for your startup, you probably don’t have a lot of money to spend on marketing. That’s unfortunate because if you spend countless hours building your business, how will you be successful if no one knows about it? Whether you like it or not, there comes a point where you’re going to need to think about marketing.

Most startups don’t have the money to hire a full-time marketing person or a consultant right away, so it’s up to you to figure out the best way to spread the word about your startup. When you’re working with little to no budget, that can be tough. Here are several guidelines to help you:

Solidify your brand

Before you launch a marketing campaign, you need to have a solid idea about what your company is, why it exists and what you hope to accomplish. One of the first steps in the marketing process is making sure you know who you are. Knowing this will help you figure out how to position your company in your efforts.

A few tips:

  • Be yourself. Stay true to your core business idea and don’t try to be something you’re not. Show your personality.
  • Present a consistent image. Don’t change your image to appeal to various audiences. You want to present a consistent look and feel so it’s evident who you are.
  • Figure out what makes you different from your competition. It’s imperative that you figure this out – it’s your selling point!

If your company is having an identity crisis, you want to clear all that up before you start any marketing efforts. It can be a red flag for potential customers if a brand is constantly changing up their image or approach. It could make you look confused and/or directionless. Every startup is going to face impediments that will cause them to rethink things and evolve, but branding is one thing you can control from the get-go.

Define your goals and metrics

The smaller your budget, the more important it is for you to be clear and specific about your goals.

Start by answering one simple question: What would constitute a success for you? Though you ultimately want to make money, not every marketing effort is going to bring in dollars. Determine all the possible outcomes that you would consider successful—whether that be more visits to your website, more subscribers to your email list, or a certain number of lead generations. All of these things mean more exposure for your startup and can ultimately translate to making money.

Once you figure out what you want, develop goals that are specific and measurable. Instead of saying that you want to increase visits to your website, say that you want to increase visits by XX% in the next XX months. Also, be sure the goals you’re setting are realistic!

Secondly, how will you know if your efforts are successful? Before you move forward with your marketing efforts, you also need to define baselines and metrics.

In order to measure whether you are successful, you need to know where you stand. Gather your website analytics, and determine your current financial position—put together as much information as you can regarding your company’s current status. (Tip: This is much easier to do before you’ve launched a marketing campaign!)

Once you’ve established some baselines, you’ll have to figure out how you are going to measure all of your efforts. If you’re hoping to increase visits to your website, what specific way will you measure outcomes?

Bottom line: Set measurable goals. Determine baselines. Know how you’ll measure your efforts.

Set your budget

This step is both simple AND complicated. Setting a budget simply means determining how much money you can afford to set aside for your marketing efforts. It’s about figuring out how much it’s going to take in order to reach your goals. And don’t forget about time—you’re going to have to determine how much time you can afford to spend planning for and managing your campaign.

This step can also be complicated because how are you supposed to know how much money will get you results? Unfortunately, there’s no magic number. For many startups, this could come down to setting aside whatever amount you can spare.

Everything up until this point has been about prep and planning. Let’s get down to tactics.

Marketing your startup

If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on marketing, it’s likely that most of your efforts will be done online. Here’s how to get started:

Pick your target

Your products might appeal to a large group of people, but that presents a problem when it comes to trying to market your business. The more potential customers you want to reach, the more time and/or money it’s going to cost to do so.

Pick a segment of your total potential audience to focus on. Not only will picking a segment of the audience lower your marketing costs, it also makes sense in terms of messaging. If you have several potential audience segments, you’ll want to modify your messaging to reach each of those groups—something that a small budget won’t allow for.

Pick your outlet(s)

The most important part about choosing where to market your business is to go where your customers are. If you’re a fashion startup focused on connecting with 20-something women, Pinterest is probably a great way to reach that audience. However, if you’re trying to reach teenage male gamers, spending time on Pinterest probably won’t be the best way to reach that demographic.

Study the outlets you’re considering and find out who uses them. Just because it’s free and/or easy to hop on the latest social network doesn’t mean it makes sense for you to do so. Spend your resources on outlets that will help you ensure you reach your audience.

Focus on content and engagement

You might not have a lot to offer in terms of giveaways or discounts to lure in new customers, but one thing you can offer is good content that’s relevant to your audience.

Think about it. Particularly on social media, the most successful companies are the ones posting sharable content that often isn’t a direct call-to-action or blatant advertising. Successful companies post and share things that are interesting to their audience.

It’s also important to go one step further and engage your audience. If they share or comment on what you’re putting out there, recognize them and respond! This step in the marketing process goes a long way in terms of relationship-building.

Determine influencers or partners

Find experts in your industry and engage them. Not sure where to start? Sites like Klout can help you determine who to target. Follow your industry’s influencers on Twitter and Facebook, like and share the content they post, comment on what they say without blatantly asking them to promote your business. The point is to develop relationships. And, if you’re creating solid content that’s relevant to your audience, there’s a good chance one of your influencers will pick up on that and share it, resulting in exposure for you.

You could go one step further and try to partner with another startup whose services or products are complementary (not in direct competition!) to yours. Pooling your time, ideas and resources can have major benefits for both of you.


You can’t launch marketing efforts and expect instant results. You have to listen and monitor what’s happening.

  • Set up Google Alerts
  • Use Tweetdeck or another Twitter management tool to monitor various keywords or who’s talking about your company
  • Monitor your social channels to see what kind of feedback you’re getting

It’s really important to listen and observe. By doing this, it gives you the opportunity to build upon what’s being said if it’s positive or to set things straight if you’re hearing negative feedback. Companies that are not yet established have less room for error and need to be quicker in extinguishing negative reviews.

Other ideas

One of the most valuable things a startup owner or employee has is time. If you don’t have the budget and you’ve got a successful social campaign in place, try some face-to-face time. Get out to industry events and network. Set up meetings with people who might be able to help you in some way, and those who you might be able to help. Meticulously catalog contact information and notes about everyone you meet.

Don’t give up

It’s likely that you aren’t going to nail your marketing efforts on the first attempt. Marketing is about refining and zeroing in on the method that works for you. If your first attempt doesn’t turn out the way you want or it totally flops, don’t get discouraged. Evaluate every aspect of your first campaign. Did you use the wrong communication channel(s)? Did you zero in on the wrong audience? Determine what you can fine-tune and try again.