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June 1, 2012

Free Marketing

by Howard Fox Chartered Marketer

‘Free’. It’s one of business’ most powerful concepts. So is it possible to market your business ‘for free’ – that is, without cost?

Sorry, no it isn’t. But it is possible to market your company or product without monetary cost, which for many start-ups, privately held companies or those in a strong growth phase with high working capital demands, may be the only option. Of course there is always some cost to ‘free’ – usually your time, shared profits or intellectual capital.

Marketing can seem intimidating. It is in Marketers’ interests to keep it that way. We like to tell you that an advert during this year’s US Super Bowl costs over $3 million for 30 seconds’ screen time (that’s over R21 million in real money). We like to talk about ‘gamification’, ‘ cloudsourcing’, ‘social engagement’ and other marketing peripheries. However, in reality when you strip away the complexities, marketing is extraordinarily simple. Here is my analogy: Think back to school. Remember the popular pretty girl (substitute ‘pretty boy’ to preference – preventing accusations of gender or sexual-orientation bias!). When said pretty girl held a party, she merely had to whisper the date and time to a couple of class-mates and voila, a modest deluge of eager revellers showed up. Unfortunately when the more-plain girl with limited social skills tried to drum up a party, in spite of elaborate personalised invitations, posters and personal intervention from her mother, the turnout was inevitably disappointing.

The same holds true in business. The primary driver of marketing success is to have a product or service closely aligned to what the market (really) wants. Think about successful products. They seem self evident, right? Low-cost airlines – who doesn’t want to fly, who doesn’t want to pay significantly less to do so?; Facebook – everyone wants friends, it’s free, or the IPad -virtually all the world’s books, literally touch the internet, become the envy of your friends, just a centimetre thin with an eight hour battery life. So how does your ‘party’ (read product offering) look? If your offering is unattractive to the market, you can expect to spend a vast marketing budget just trying to convince prospective customers that it’s “ok”. It’s the equivalent of the plain girl’s mother begging kids to come over to the party. Even if they do pitch up, they will inevitably be disappointed by the experience and certainly won’t be recommending their mates attend next year. So the point is that the biggest payoff in marketing comes from ensuring your offering is attractive, long before tackling how to communicate it to the market.

Every party attracts gatecrashers who lower the tone of the whole event. “I know that half of my advertising dollars are wasted … I just don’t know which half.” John Wanamaker.[1] Your biggest ‘cost free’ marketing investment is deciding whom you are not going to do business with and firing those customers who cost you more in acquisition costs and to maintain, than they are worth. Early in my marketing career, I substantially improved the profitability of the chemical portfolio I was managing by simply identifying those customers where the delivery cost exceeded gross margin. My colleagues were horrified at the prospect of lost business as I hiked prices. But profitability soared. Businesses in their growth stage are inclined to grab any customer in their effort to gain critical mass. Is it time to humanly cull your customer base?

In my analogy, even the pretty girl had to communicate at least a little. The critical question for your business is: are you best served communicating to the market yourself, or are others better placed to do so? A number of businesses have made not marketing a point of advantage. These include those companies supplying supermarket in-house brands. Supermarkets are in a unique position to create powerful brands for lower explicit marketing cost, simply by virtue of the fact that they control the distribution channel (think of Woolworths success in this area). By holding no marketing costs themselves, manufactures should be more cost competitive. Affiliation marketing works on a similar principle. The product manufacturer or service provider utilises another’s brand rather than their own, to mutual advantage. An example is Kaizer Chiefs Financial Services, underwritten by Hollard Life[2]. Kaizer Chiefs Football Club provides the brand and strong market position and Hollard Life supplies the product fulfilment and legal compliance required of financial service companies. Both organisations concentrate on their areas of strength and share the business benefit. This is a popular model within Internet marketing. Are there similar opportunities within your industry, which might negate the need for any marketing effort on your part?

Having determined there is a business imperative to undertake marketing communication yourself, you will inevitably come across the quote “Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing but nobody else does.” by Steuart Henderson Britt. It’s a great quote, but it comes from the early seventies. These days, there are many more options than simply paying for advertising.

Howard Fox at Future of Media conference

Howard Fox at Future of Media conference – Sandton South Africa


Make your business locate-able across the web.
A professional website is a critical expectation of even the smallest company. Many businesses start off with ambitious web intentions, before losing interest. Outdated content on your website not only creates a poor impression with prospective clients, it also restricts your ranking on search engines, which take the relevance and “freshness” of content into account. Although not free, you can also advertise on Google search [ ] on a “pay per click” well as display ads on their network of affiliate websites.
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Use your good name
Many companies are synonymous with their founders, particularly in the services game. It is generally easier to raise individual’s profiles within the digital realm (for no cost), than companies. Do a Google search on yourself and your company and see what comes up. Then get started raising your profile.

Ensure you have a comprehensive ‘Linked In’ profile ( This is especially useful where you are a previous corporate citizen who has now struck out on his / her own and needs to take his corporate “CV” into his new career. Ensure you are listed on industry specific websites and the likes of Who’s Who [ ].

Look like you are a serious business:
Even if you are a small business, you don’t have to look like one. A very small investment in a professional graphic designer goes a long way in ensuring your business communication instils confidence. “Shelf co 59 trading as HowFox Marketing” shouts amateur hour – ensure your name, company legal form, stationery and invoicing look the part. Don’t use outdated details, or a residential address on your communication collateral. Not having a VAT number really does say you are a small operation. Do have a landline – if you are a one-man band, simply route the landline number straight to your cell. And do buy an appropriate web domain name (which costs less than R100).  This allows you to have an email address in the name of your company rather than “Google”.

Become an expert.
Write articles like this, both for print as well as appropriate industry websites. Speak at seminars – where else will someone else gather a range of industry heavyweights together in one room, introduce you are a guru and let you impress them for an hour? Tweet on your area of expertise. Write an industry blog. Join your industry associations – and go to their events, they are filled with contacts. You could consider writing a book (but make it a reasonably good one!) Self-publishing through the likes of Amazon has significantly reduce the barrier to becoming an author. Form relationships with academic and educational institutions. They are often looking for functional experts and it’s a great endorsement.

Hang out your shingle – literally.
If you have prominent offices or manufacturing facilities, ensure you have prominent contemporary signage. Signage on company’s own premises has fewer legal restrictions than billboards and as a result premises visible from major roads or highways have significant marketing value.

Leverage satisfied customers
Unless you are a very recent start up, your greatest prospective source of new business is your existing customers. Cross selling is an obvious, high return strategy. However even large marketing orientated companies seem to overlook the full potential of their own customers. Leverage social media such as Facebook and Twitter to develop a community of customers. Offer satisfied customers an incentive to introduce others to your business.

Press releases
Most media, especially online media, are hungry for content. However, you need to understand that they are interested in news and content rather than thinly disguised advertising. If you have news of substantial interest, send short press releases (think single page in length) with your contact details to industry publications and websites.

There is no doubt that classic marketing activities such as advertising, sponsorships and direct marketing have their place, and if well thought-through should generate a substantial return on investment. But never let your lack of marketing budget prevent you from joining the marketing party.

[1] John Wanamaker July 11, 1838 – Dec 12, 1922) US merchant, religious leader, civic and political figure, and marketing pioneer.
[2] Kaizer Chiefs Financial Services
[3] Marketing Management and Administrative Action by Steuart Henderson Britt, Harper W. Boyd Jr.
Hardcover, 466 pages Published February 1st 1978 by McGraw-Hill Companies (first published January 1st 1973)
ISBN 0070079234 (ISBN13: 9780070079236)

First published in Your Business


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