A $29 iced-tea maker helped win James Merrill 11 new customers.
Mr. Merrill, president of Nutritional Herbs, a company that distributes Sunrider Whole Food Concentrates, held a drawing to give away the appliance at a Baltimore herb festival last May.
In the process, he added 76 names to his mailing list by asking people to write down their names and addresses for the drawing. That list has yielded seven new clients who are buying products Mr. Merrill sells. Four others have become Sunrider distributors.
"It worked out pretty nicely," said Mr. Merrill, who operates Nutritional Herbs from his Columbia home.
As Mr. Merrill's example shows, you can market your company without shelling out $60 million annually like American Express does to advertise its green card.
By using a little creativity and a lot of elbow grease, the small business can find inexpensive ways to attract customers, said Susan Saylor, president of Multi-Media Marketing Inc., a Frederick-based company that advises small businesses on how market themselves.
Giving away freebies like Mr. Merrill's iced-tea maker is often an effective method of getting a potential client's attention at a trade show or other gathering, Ms. Saylor said.
An incentive is "sometimes a conversation starter, a way of approaching the customer in a softer way," she said. "It can lead the conversation to your product or to the service that you're displaying or trying to sell."
Offering free samples of your product or giving free demonstrations of your services can also be effective marketing tools.
Two months ago, Paragon Computer Services Inc., an Ellicott City company that provides computer consulting services to small- and medium-sized businesses, held a free seminar in which it demonstrated PC-based accounting software and networking.
To attract people to the seminar, the company mailed invitations to 900 area businesses and followed that blitz with telemarketing. Eighteen people representing 11 companies attended the seminar, which was co-sponsored by International Business Machines Corp., a partner with Paragon.
So far, Paragon has received about 20 "good leads" and one new client for its effort, which cost $925, said M. Jennifer Church, a principal with the firm who is in charge of business development. Church said many of the leads are companies that didn't attend the seminar but expressed an interest in other types of computer consulting services during her telephone conversations with them.
"If someone wasn't interested in the accounting services, I'd ask them if there was anything else I could help them with," she said. "And if they sort of hemmed and hawed, I'd jump right in there and tell them what we could offer them."
Other methods of marketing on a tight budget include:
* Network. Talking to people at commerce mixers, trade shows and professional meetings is a tried-and-true way to get the word out about your product or service, Ms. Saylor said. Usually, you'll pay a couple of hundred dollars a year for membership in a professional organization. Admission to each event is usually between $10 and $20.
When attending such events, be sure you're well equipped with business cards, brochures and fliers, as well as a memorized 30-second "commercial" about your company.
Make relationship-building your goal during the event rather than speaking to every single person in the room, Ms. Saylor said. "You want to focus on quality contacts, not quantity," she said.
After the event, follow up on leads with a letter or postcard.
Also, don't forget to ask your friends and family if they know anyone who can use your services. Often, your closest contacts will yield many leads.
* Promote yourself in print. Getting the name of your company in a newspaper or magazine is an excellent way of obtaining name recognition.
Apart from advertising, one way to do this is to send out press releases about goings-on in your company to newspapers and other publications. If published, these mentions can give a boost to your business.
To make up a press list, look through local publications and write down the names of editors concerned with your business. If the editor's name isn't listed, call the publication and ask for it.
Almost any activity in your firm can be fodder for a press release: office expansions or relocations, new bids or awards, or new services being provided to clients, Ms. Saylor said.
Write the release in a concise, factual style, with the most important information at the top. The editor should be able to cut it at any point without losing the gist of the story.
"You don't want to make the editor work," said Ms. Saylor, who recommended setting aside a day every month to send out press releases.