So you've learned how to start a business, now it's time to promote it. Marketing your small business spreads the word about the incredible products you have to sell. No promotion equals slim chances of making money online any time soon.
But your customer’s attention is being pulled from pillar to post. Big brands with thousand-dollar marketing budgets drive the cost of advertising sky-high. Let’s not even get started on social media channels changing their algorithms to make it even harder for small businesses to reach the audiences they built.
It’s not all doom and gloom. You can stand out in the busiest of spaces. It just takes a little more creativity.
To get you started, this guide shares 17 creative marketing ideas we’ve seen from independent brands that are totally free (or very low cost) to replicate.
12 proven marketing ideas
- Host a social media competition
- Share user-generated content on social media
- Produce video tutorials
- Jump on trending topics
- Partner with other small businesses
- Give quirky product recommendations
- Collect customer feedback
- Enter local awards
- Attend local events
- Sell mystery boxes
- Create content optimized for SEO
- Sell gift cards
1. Host a social media competition
Couple that with the fact Facebook only shows posts to 5.2% of a page’s followers and you’ll see why social media is a pain-staking way to market a small business.
Diversify your social media marketing strategy by hosting a competition. Science proves people love free stuff. So, give away something for free—such as a product bundle or trip to your HQ—in exchange for social media engagement. Have your followers like, comment, share, and tag a friend in the giveaway post to boost reach.
Loca Foods, for example, hosted an Instagram contest that gave away dips and desserts. Participants had to like the post, follow its Instagram profile, and tag a friend. Bonus entries were up for grabs if followers shared the post to their own story:
Granted, attractive social media competitions give away expensive products. But the marketing dollars you spend on hosting a giveaway don’t have to be extreme. You can make the prize as cheap or expensive as you want.
2. Share user-generated content on social media
Another smart way to use social media to market your small business is to use user-generated content (UGC)—something 79% of shoppers say highly impacts their purchasing decisions, likely because it’s less biased than branded content. They get to see someone in their shoes loving the product.
Incentivize existing customers to share photos, videos, and testimonials of them using your products. Do regular scans of your brand name or hashtag to see social media posts people have shared without being prompted.
The goal is to build a library of high-quality UGC that convinces on-the-fence social media followers to buy, like this example from Andie Swim. Its previous customer created a TikTok video, which Andie Swim reposted to Instagram.
(Just remember to ask permission from the original poster before sharing UGC to your own page.)
3. Produce video tutorials
Continuing with the social media theme, video marketing reigns supreme on many platforms. Take a look at TikTok’s success. Its minute-long videos became so popular that Instagram, traditionally a photo-sharing app, launched its own version—Reels—off the back of it.
Use Shopify’s free online video maker to produce content to market your own business on social media. That could be:
- Reviews from happy customers
- Behind-the-scenes of running your business
- Video tutorials that show how to use your product
- Livestreams co-hosted with influencers in your space
Dope Dog is one small business using this free marketing idea. Its founder, Erin Mastopietro, says, “We held Instagram live sessions with experts in our niche, during which audience members could ask questions, and we also conducted a small interview.
“As a result, we gained exposure to the audience of the expert and provided value to our followers.”
4. Jump on trending topics
Social media is fueled by trends. Think about it: TikTok is credited for making songs go viral; artists see record-breaking streams when a dancing trend emerges. Everyone posts videos of themselves dancing to the same song.
How do you uncover trending topics before your small business’ social media content gets lumped in with the others jumping on trends? Spot them before the crowd does by:
- Asking your customers
- Reading discussions happening in forums
- Running a competitive analysis
- Celebrating annual events
Partake Foods, for example, posted this tweet that replicated Spotify Unwrapped—the music platform’s annual round-up of music a user listened to throughout the year. Only in this case, Partake Foods switched most-listened-to music out in favor of top products:
5. Partner with other small businesses
Here’s a great marketing idea if you’re working with zero budget: collaborate with other small businesses whose target market overlaps with yours (provided the products you sell don’t compete against theirs).
Let’s say you had an online store selling handmade crockery. Partner with another small business owner that sold handmade vases and lean on each other’s audience and run a co-marketing campaign, such as:
- Co-hosting a webinar
- Giving discounts to each other’s email list
- Shouting each other out on social media
- Becoming a guest on each other’s podcasts
- Going halves on fees to host a pop-up shop
The beauty of co-marketing is not only that you support fellow small business owners, but you get to tap into an existing audience for free, unlike the influencer marketing route—many of whom charge to publish sponsored posts.
6. Give quirky product recommendations
Shoppers have various things running through their mind when they’re visiting a new ecommerce store. At the forefront are questions like: How do I know this is the right product for me?
Take the pain out of comparing new products with quirky recommendations. These don’t require hours of time to go into product development. Just go beyond “you viewed this, so you might be interested in this” categories that grab people’s attention.
Digital consultant Kayleigh Töyrä recommends product recommendation lists for:
- People who already have everything
- Gifts you may keep for yourself instead
- Things you don't need, but may want
Kayleigh adds that with clever copy to increase sales, new businesses can “up- and cross-sell in a more fun way.”
7. Collect customer feedback
Existing customers are your best friends. They’re the people who have seen your existing digital marketing strategy and purchased off the back of it. Use them as your starting point when developing new marketing ideas.
Use Shopify Apps like Post Purchase NPS Survey to send a customer feedback survey to anyone who purchases through your online store. Ask what they liked about your product, how they discovered you, and the trigger that caused them to buy.
Use those insights to fill your social media profiles, landing pages, and product descriptions with customer testimonials.
Package Free, for example, has a highlight reel of customer reviews on its product pages. Anyone debating whether to trust the retailer is instantly reassured, undoubtedly improving the ecommerce site’s conversion rate:
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8. Enter to win awards
Being voted the “best” product in your industry is a surefire way to build credibility and attract attention. Stephen Light, CMO and co-owner of Nolah Mattress, explains that “awards offer businesses a solid shot of authority, which is one of the keys to successful marketing; you want your audience to know that you offer the best of the best.
“Regardless of your niche, there are countless awards and accolades offered that you can find with just a little digging.”
Here’s a starting point for your award submission research:
- The Best of Small Business Awards
- Best in Biz Awards
- Dream Big Awards, run by the US Chamber of Commerce
- National Small Business Week Award, hosted by the US Small Business Association
Whichever awards you enter to win, Stephen says, “It’s a cost-effective boost of credibility and publicity that can make a big difference with very little investment. Displaying them proudly on your website can encourage conversions.”
9. Attend local events
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking all of your marketing tactics need to be online. Granted, building an online presence is crucial. But get away from the computer and meet potential customers in the flesh by attending local offline events, such as:
- Craft fairs
- Sunday markets
- Networking events
Can’t find any? Host your own. Find a free space to host an event (like the public library), bring your inventory along, and hand out flyers to build brand awareness. Just remember to take your business card. Anyone interested in your products but not ready to buy can have information to visit your website later.
10. Sell mystery boxes
Got a bunch of slow-moving products? Sell them as part of a mystery box—something Kaleigh Moore did for her jewelry business: “Fill it with slow-moving products and promote them as a surprise, offering at an affordable price point.”
Mystery boxes work for several reasons:
- The human brain loves surprises.
- Mystery boxes induce the fear of missing out, a phenomenon that causes 60% of people to make reactive purchases.
- You shift slow-moving inventory and create space for more popular (and profitable) inventory.
Zac’s Sweet Shop is another ecommerce retailer that offers mystery boxes. Shoppers not only get the chance to try a variety of products at a low price, but the brand has a way to shift slow-moving or soon-to-expire food products inside each mystery box.
11. Create content optimized for SEO
Sometimes, the most effective online marketing ideas are the simplest. They just take a longer time to come to fruition. But lay the groundwork early and you’ll set yourself up for success later down the line.
That’s especially true with search engine optimization (SEO), the process of optimizing your online store. You’ll appear in search results when people are actively searching for information or entertainment, or to solve a pain point.
Tie SEO in with a content marketing strategy to get your small business off the ground. Write a blog post that targets low-volume keywords with a direct tie-in with your products. Go after those with minimal competition to set yourself up for success.
Here are some simple content marketing ideas to get you started:
- Solve a pain point your audience is experiencing
- Write a guest post for a popular publication in your niche
- Tell the story of your existing customers to help new shoppers themselves in their shoes
“The secret is really putting out great content. And putting out great content means a lot of different things, but to me, what I think it means is putting out content that’s relevant to your audience that people really want to read, and understanding how to monetize that content.”
12. Sell themed gift cards
Gift cards improve cash flow. You get the money upfront without immediately needing to fork out fees to produce or ship the product to a customer.
Offer them through your online store and prioritize marketing them in peak gift-giving seasons, such as:
- Mother’s or Father’s Day
- Black Friday and Cyber Monday
Starbucks, for example, sells gift cards year-round. But the retailer keeps an ear to the ground and creates customized gift card designs based on trending topics. Lyrics from Taylor Swift’s new song appeared on a Starbucks gift card just four days after it was released.
Whichever season you’re offering gift cards in, post about them on social media, send email marketing campaigns to subscribers, and add a pop-up on your website to direct first-time visitors toward your gift card options. You could even offer $10 gift cards to thank existing customers for shopping with you—and encourage them to do so again.
Low-cost marketing ideas
Exhausted free marketing ideas and looking for tactics that move the needle? Put these low-cost marketing ideas on your to-do list.
- Offer free samples
- Gift free products to influencers
- Create a referral program
- Incentivize email sign-ups with discount codes
- Make an incredible unboxing experience
13. Offer free samples
We briefly touched on the idea that people love free things.
If you can absorb the cost of giving away inventory for free (with the goal of turning those people into paying customers later down the line), offer free product samples to people who visit your pop-up store or market stall. You can even give samples to customers who’ve purchased a product from you as an incentive to buy again.
“People love getting a free gift, and then if they share that kind of thing, it usually leads to good sales on our end.” —David Gaylord, founder of
Made with Local is one brand using this low-cost marketing idea. Sheena Russell, its founder and CEO, says, “Because we are a product/food brand, we’ve had fun using Instacart to ship gifts—samples of our product—to people that we’ve recently chatted with about Made with Local. This could be business contacts, potential buyers, etc.
“You can get samples delivered to their door in less than two hours in most big cities, and folks love it."
14. Gift free products to influencers
Influencer marketing is big business. Some 87% of consumers trust advice from social media influencers when making purchasing decisions. No wonder brands will spend $4.62 billion on influencer marketing by 2023.
But instead of paying for influencers to talk about your product, a low-cost marketing idea is to give free products to them. Many bloggers have a PO box specifically for press packages.
While it’s not guaranteed that the items you send will be shared, the only thing you’ll pay for is product manufacturing costs and shipping fees—a small price to pay if an influencer shouts your small business out to their loyal audience. (Though you can boost the chances of having them open your gifts if the unboxing experience is enjoyable. More on that later.)
The Tur-Shirt Company tried this marketing idea. Its founder Terri-Anne Turton sent the brand’s clothing products to Instagram influencers in the parenting space. Many of them shared photos of their own children wearing the clothes, tagging The Tur-Shirt Company and directing followers toward its website.
“I gifted her two Tur-Shirts and her kids loved them—they were amazed when they worked out how they work. It was heartwarming and the orders started to flood in,” Terri-Anne says. “I had an influx of orders over the weekend totalling £1,300 of sales.”
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15. Create a referral program
Granted, the goal of marketing is to drive more revenue. But that revenue doesn’t always come from new customers. Many ecommerce business owners forget about one marketing strategy with a low barrier to entry and high success rate: word-of-mouth marketing.
- “Getting customers to refer other customers is a great way to get more out of your marketing dollars. You can make this easier by using an app like Smile to incentivize customers to refer their friends to buy from you.” —Jason Wong, founder of Doe Lashes
A customer loyalty program encourages your existing customer base to recommend your products to their family and friends. Incentives can be:
- Discount codes
- Priority access to new products
- Points to redeem on future orders
Use Shopify Apps like Referral Candy or LoyaltyLion to power the program for you. From there, the only investment you’ll make is a small incentive for people to join through your referral program. Choose rewards like priority access to make it even cheaper.
Derric Haynie, chief ecommerce technologist at Ecommerce Tech, did this for an online business. It added a small section beneath the customer’s email order receipt that said: "Share your unique referral code and for every customer you refer you will get a surprise gift in your next shipment and they will get a surprise gift in their first shipment."
Derric reports this referral marketing program drove more than 15,000 referrals per month.
16. Incentivize email sign-ups with discount codes
There’s no beating around the bush: every small business needs to build an email list.
Building a brand on social media alone is risky. You’re at the mercy of ever-changing algorithms—many of which are pushing brands into paying to reach the audiences they’ve already built.
Both SMS and email marketing are direct lines of communication for building relationships with your customers. Get their email address or phone number (and consent to reach them in those inboxes) by making the sign-up process irresistible. For many customers, that means offering discount codes.
Research shows that 81% of shoppers enjoy receiving emails that contain special offers, making it the preferred channel to discover coupons. Those who use a discount code spend 24% more than shoppers who don’t.
Again, this marketing idea doesn’t have to be ground-breaking. Simply create an email pop-up that offers a discount code in exchange for their subscription. Follow that up with an automated email campaign with the coupon and a list of bestsellers.
Pattern Beauty uses a discount code as the incentive for website visitors to join its email list.
17. Make an incredible unboxing experience
Earlier, we touched on the fact that UGC is a superb way to fill your social media calendars with content that turns followers into paying customers.
The unboxing experience is a simple way to do that. More than 165,000 people search for “unboxing” on YouTube every month, with channels dedicated to unboxing experiences like Unbox Therapy amassing more than 18 million subscribers.
These videos are clearly in demand. So, if you have the flexibility to subtract a few dollars from your profit margin, go above and beyond to make your unboxing experience share-worthy.
Take it from Bokksu, a Japanese snack subscription box. The retailer experimented with unboxing videos on various social media platforms, as its founder, Danny Taing, explains: “We experimented with Facebook. We experimented with Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, like a whole bunch of the social media platforms Influencers there.
“What we found has been most effective has been YouTube, and specifically has to be YouTube influencers that have really engaged audiences, and that the influencers themselves really love eating.
“Our product is so hands-on and sensual in a lot of ways,” Danny says. “You have to unbox it and show the snacks, and eat it and talk about it, like a good five- to 10-minute YouTube video gets the job done a lot better than an Instagram post.”
Marketing doesn’t have to be expensive
These free and low-cost marketing ideas prove there’s more to promoting a small business than investing in Facebook ads. The trick is to test different ideas and get creative. Attend local events. Start a podcast. Partner with other businesses in your area. Run video marketing campaigns on social media.
Just don’t forget about the easiest source of creative marketing ideas: the customers already buying from you.