We all want the moon on a dime, but when it comes to online marketing, things can get expensive fast.
What’s a cash-strapped business to do?
In the online marketing world, you get what you pay for. Thankfully, there are smart ways to cut spending, stretch each dollar, and improve returns, all without compromising the quality of what you’re putting out to the world.
Sound impossible? Then strap yourself in. We’ve outlined every trick to make online marketing more affordable without sacrificing your brand standards.
There’s one important caveat to all this: People make their entire careers in the field of online marketing for a reason. As far as these tips will take you, nothing replaces the experience of a pro. It’s all about using those pros in the most effective, least expensive way.
Three Basic Things You Must Do, No Matter Your Budget:
You can’t do it all, and trying to will be expensive. First, evaluate where you’re coming up short and where the biggest, most sustainable returns will come. Then, direct the budget carefully and deliberately to solve that problem.
For example, if you’re already getting a fair amount of traffic from search engines and ads, instead of doubling down, consider conversion rate optimization (CRO) as a means of capitalizing on the traffic you’re already earning, instead of paying to attract new visitors.
If you’re struggling to rank in a heavily competitive niche, perhaps you can use pay-per-click to fill the gaps instead of dropping loads of cash into a channel that will yield minimal returns.
You need a plan, and you have to write it down. So much of the cost in online marketing comes from wild goose chasing and a poor understanding of the customer. As a precursor to investing in ANY online marketing channel, make sure you’ve done some preliminary research on who your customer is, what they care about, and why they buy from you.
There’s strength in numbers. If you want to save money, you need to know when to pull the plug on a failing effort or start investing elsewhere. Whether it’s pay-per-click, SEO, or content marketing, it’s important to find out upfront which metrics define success for your business so you can track whether or not an investment is paying off, and make the call whether or not to continue.
Website Development & Design
Get CMS recommendations from a developer before you build.
A quick phone call with a developer can be invaluable to help avoid signing a content management system (CMS) that won’t meet your long-term needs.
Building on the wrong platform has far-reaching (and expensive) implications for everything from design to SEO, so don’t fly in blind.
Don’t buy a custom solution (unless you absolutely need it).
Unless your site needs really advanced or specific functionality, custom solutions are an expensive waste of time. To save money and get a great end result, look at free, open-source platforms such as WordPress or Drupal, and research whether there are reliable plugins to handle the functionality you need.
Try to choose a platform with a strong developer community so you can get help when you need it.
Customize a template.
With platforms such as WordPress, there are already hundreds of inexpensive or free templates to choose from. Find one you like, then pay a developer to customize and spruce it up to fit your needs rather than build from scratch.
Don’t ever skimp on design. Your website and logo are the professional face you put out to the world. They’re also signals of how trustworthy you are.
A study by Dr. Brent Coker at the University of Melbourne showed when it comes to trust online, our offline behaviour and inclinations translate into our online existence.
Multiple studies conducted over three years by Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg, confirmed the same conclusion: “People quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone. When designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images, consistency issues, and more.”
Attractive websites are more likely to be trusted, so design is not the area to try to shave off a few bucks.
But the success of good design goes beyond attraction: Well-designed sites are easier and clearer for customers, which means more conversions for you.
Bring in an SEO as early as possible.
If you’re consulting an SEO after your site has been built, you’re late to the party and it’s going to cost you.
SEOs can contribute to discussions on how content should be organized and which CMSs are most SEO friendly. There are even design considerations, including allowing the proper amount of room for text and avoiding scripts search engines can’t read. In short, SEOs can save you from having to make costly adjustments down the line.
Invest in an audit & strategy document.
Your SEO is only as good as your strategy, so this is another place not to cut corners. Professional insight on the keywords to target and any necessary changes is really the heart of what you’d be paying the hefty fees of an agency for.
There are plenty of experienced consultants who specialize in audits and strategies that cover:
- Keyword research & mapping
- Competitor analysis
- Information architecture evaluation
- Local SEO considerations
- Analytics implementation
Pay a professional to assess your site, reveal weaknesses, and show what to target, as well as where to implement their recommendations step-by-step.
Implement everything you can on your own, then call in help for the more technical bits you’re not comfortable dealing with.
Don’t sign on for a long-term campaign.
This one raises some eyebrows, especially since SEO success takes time.
The truth: For many, the bulk of the impact of hiring an SEO comes at the very beginning, when the biggest gaps in your strategy narrow.
After that, even when results show growth, many (not all) agencies just do maintenance and reiterate recommendations for link building ideas. That means paying the same amount for less work while the agency rides the growing impact of items they previously implemented.
It’s a good idea to get a strategy document and initial recommendations, implement them, and then wait to see the results for a clearer picture of where to invest further.
Look for agencies and consultants who will work in monthly chunks or on a project basis, or deliver services by the hour. After an initial project or time period, only call upon them as needed.
Learn the basics of link building (and do a little yourself).
Start-ups and small business owners are already time starved, but if there’s one thing you should invest time in learning, it’s link building.
That’s because virtually every relationship and all professional activity can translate into improved rankings. Knowing how to take advantage of this activity will make a huge difference.
Conversely, not knowing about link building can get you deindexed from search engines or mean time wasted on vendors building links that will never help.
Link building is typically difficult, expensive, and tough to source out reliably, so learning how to manage this as part of your business processes will be invaluable. There are online resources, such as Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to Link Building, that help take out some of the guesswork.
Some quick link building to do on your own:
- Contact partners to see if they have any partnership pages, blogs to guest post on, or resources to contribute.
- Put a process in place to ask for a link whenever you’re covered by industry media, sponsor an event, or get involved in your community.
- Set up Google Alerts for your brand name to discover when you’re mentioned online, then follow up and ask for a link.
When you do have the budget, hiring professional link builders is well worth the investment. But if you’re just starting out, you can more than handle the low-hanging fruit.
Get hands on with your local listing.
SEOs are a smart bunch, but two of the most important aspects of online marketing can be handled on your own if you’re willing to set aside an hour or two.
- Claim your Google+ Local Business listing. This is free, has a huge impact, and only requires an email and 10 minutes. If you need an extra hand, this Google+ My Business guide will help.
- Hire an intern/college student to check your business listings. A big part of local SEO is to find places to list your business and then make sure every listing is consistent with your Google+ local listing. This job is easily handled by a tech-savvy person and the WhiteSpark Local Citation Finder tool (just $20 for a single month license). The tool makes it super easy to find listings you’re missing out on. An intern can quickly register your business or follow up.
Use Pay-Per-Click Ads (PPC) to test SEO targets before implementing.
Implementing new content for SEO can be an involved process—from updating site maps and changing your site’s navigation to writing and promoting new content. Instead of jumping in whole hog, you can use PPC to test how viable new content is and whether or not all that work will be worth the investment.
Pay a pro to set up your campaign.
By now this formula should sound familiar: Invest a little bit up front in setting a strong foundation and you’ll save buckets of money lost in missed opportunities and poor planning.
Pros will know exactly how to conduct keyword research, arrange campaigns, and set bids for optimal performance. They’ll also help avoid embarrassing gaffes such as targeting broad-match phrases that are totally irrelevant for your business.
Bonus: Cut down on the necessary amount of a pro’s time by sharing the keyword research completed for SEO as a launching point.
Schedule quarterly check-ins.
Sure, it’d be great to have someone constantly monitor your campaign, but in the real world, time is short and ongoing monitoring can get really expensive. The next best thing is to have the same pro who set up your campaign come in three to four times a year and perform a tune-up based on the data and, most importantly, fill you in so you can keep an eye on it all yourself.
Keep in mind: The tune-up methodology only really works with small, low-risk campaigns where the opportunity for wasted spend is minimal and seasonality is not a huge factor. If there is a risk things could run seriously off the rails, it’s best to make the check-ins more frequent.
Add your own negative keywords.
There’s nothing worse than paying for clicks on phrases that won’t ever convert. Negative keywords are irrelevant keywords that you don’t want to trigger your ad. Creating a list of them is an easy way to prevent wasteful spending.
For example, even if you sell calendars, “Mayan calendar” isn’t a phrase you likely want to target, so you can add it to a negative keyword list.
Make heavy use of retargeting.
Much of the expense of PPC is in attracting customers. Don’t lost them once they’re already in. Remarketing allows you to capture leads who have already engaged with your content, allowing you to capitalize on warm leads instead of expending budget trying to get brand new ones while the old ones wander off into the void.
This beginner’s guide will give you the basics you need to start setting this up on your own.
Create process documentation.
If you plan to do outsourcing of any kind, you will save yourself hours of time, migraine headaches, and an Olympic swimming pool full of cash by investing in a few guiding documents:
- A persona pull sheet that outlines who your audience is, what they care about, and how they consume information. (Here’s a fast way to create these.)
- A style guide that outlines your brand’s voice and tone (you can put this together yourself!).
- An editorial calendar that covers what’s being written, the target persona, who is handling the creation, and where it will be published.
These docs won’t just keep you organized, they’ll also keep content consistent, serve as guidelines for outsourced writers, and drastically reduce cost sunk into edits and rewrites.
Throw what you know.
Think you’re too busy or untalented to create content? Think again.
Don’t get hung up on writing if it’s not for you. If you’re a strong speaker, a podcast might work best. If you’re comfortable on video, film yourself. Both of those options can also be transformed into textual content when you pay a few bucks for a transcription service (often as affordable as $0.75/minute of audio).
If none of the above works for you, track down a journalist and ask him or her to conduct a quick 10-minute interview on a topic and then translate their notes into a post.
Find long-term creative relationships.
Businesses trying to save money tend to resort to freelance writing hubs, or even content conglomerates where they don’t know the writer’s name. That’s an expensive mistake. Working with the same writer over the long term means they’ll learn your requirements, understand your subject matter, and master your style guide, drastically cutting down on the costs of edits and revisions.
Get an editor.
Instead of paying top-dollar for an elite writer, find yourself a solid editor. Editors can correct, polish, and refine writing to make even a mediocre writer’s work sound sharp and professional, giving you a little leeway to spend less on writing talent.
Build permanent assets.
Blogs are fickle. They need constant updating and thus constant cash to stay afloat. Instead of leaping straight into blogging, consider investing in content you can market over and over again: e-books, white papers and guides can all be used multiple times and make great bait to land customer e-mails and sign ups.
(Hint: Combine this with retargeting from PPC and it’s a HUGE win. It costs much less to retarget a warm lead than find a brand new one!)
Repurpose, repurpose, repurpose!
Stop reinventing the wheel. The actual production of content is only one small part of its total cost. The real costs lie in the time it takes to generate ideas, research sources, and design whatever you’ve created.
To save a fortune on content, master repurposing:
- Choose one “big idea” that’s relevant to your audience.
- Plan a “cornerstone asset”: the most comprehensive piece of content you will create. Usually this is a permanent asset you can market over and over.
- Think about what else it could turn into. For example, statistics make great fodder for infographics and tweets, smaller sections of research can work well for blog posts, and the exact same information can be repackaged into a webinar, SlideShare, or video.
When you’ve planned out what to create from the same information, all that’s left is building and monitoring your biggest asset, then repurposing it over and over again for dozens of pieces of relevant content without reinvesting in initial research.
If your business has very little audience and you need fast traction, publishing to your own website isn’t the way to go. Instead, find a big industry hub and aim to publish your content there, leveraging their audience and their promotional networks instead of building yours up from the ground up.
Focus your effort.
Social media is not “free.” It requires time and attention to update, monitor, and respond to customers on the channels you choose. Avoid the temptation to be everywhere and instead zone in on two (at most) social networks where customers are most active, until you have the budget to expand.
Nothing in this world is free…
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be smart about your online marketing and save yourself a huge pile of cash. With some careful planning and astute decision making, you can earn stronger online results without breaking the bank.
One last tip! Make use of online question-and-answer forums including Reddit and Quora. Free advice should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s amazing how much free information and help you can get on virtually any online marketing issue—just by asking. Thankfully, open forums often have communities dedicated to calling out poor advice.
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About the Author:
Joel Klettke is a freelance copywriter and from the Great White North. Before he decided to write words for a living, he spent his early twenties going head to head with Google as the lead SEO at a digital agency. Today, he helps smart businesses make friends with money to spend, with a focus on website and digital marketing copy. You can check out his work at Business Casual Copywriting and follow him on Twitter at @JoelKlettke.