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20 low cost marketing ideas for startups

As a startup, it’s tempting to copy and paste the marketing strategies and growth hacking tactics of the big brands. But often, this is expensive and impractical. Companies with hundreds of millions or more in revenue can afford pre-roll video advertising on YouTube, a billboard campaign in San Francisco and New York City, or sponsoring popular podcasts with countless listeners. More importantly, the strategies they use today aren’t the marketing tactics they employed in the early days to land their first customers.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak famously presented their first iteration of the Apple computer to technology enthusiasts at the Homebrew Computer Club. Dropbox started a referral program, giving users 500MB of free space for inviting friends to the storage and file sharing platform. Slack used classic word-of-mouth marketing, with early employees asking their friends to implement the team communication app at their own companies.

Like these companies in their early days, you need to be scrappy and resourceful, leaning towards low cost marketing ideas for startups that get your product in front of customers while spending as little as possible. From PR and partnerships to content marketing and crowdfunding, embrace a marketing strategy that will supercharge your company’s growth and drive revenue.

1. Kick-off content marketing

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From creating blog posts and e-books to producing podcasts and videos, content marketing for startups is a strong way to increase brand awareness, establish your company as a thought leader in your industry, and attract and engage potential customers.

Moz, a search engine optimization (SEO) software company, has established themselves as an industry leader in the SEO space by developing a comprehensive suite of valuable content, like educational blog posts and their Whiteboard Friday video series.

By creating and sharing informative, educational, or inspiring content that addresses the pain points and needs of your ideal customer, your startup can build a loyal following and generate leads that drive sales.

Tips for a startup business kicking-off content marketing:

  1. Start early with SEO: Writing relevant content for SEO, with a goal of having your content surfaced in search engine results pages (SERPs), is a cost-effective marketing strategy. However, this is an ongoing process that can take a long time—create content with the expectation that it will take months to rank.
  2. Consider thought leadership content: In addition to SEO, develop content with a strong point of view to establish you and your company as thought leaders in your industry. For instance, provide unique industry insights gleaned from your specific experience building your startup.
  3. Think carefully about distribution: Ensure your content is seen by distributing it through social media, a newsletter, and other relevant communities.

2. Get started with SEO marketing

Beyond blog posts, optimize the content on your website to improve your search engine rankings and visibility. This marketing strategy serves to increase your website traffic—creating brand awareness and driving revenue in the process. Understand who your target audience is and what they are searching for to develop high-quality landing pages that are surfaced in SERPs and convert visitors to customers.

Tips for a startup business starting SEO marketing:

  1. Do robust keyword research: Think through the keywords your ideal customer might be searching—for instance, if you’re a VPN service consider landing pages that target keywords like “watch US Netflix in Canada”. Use tools like Moz, Ahrefs, and SEMRush to find keywords and get information on search volume, difficulty, backlinks, and more.
  2. Improve your technical SEO: Ensure that your website loads quickly, your website structure is intuitive, your pages can be crawled and indexed, your URLs are short and descriptive, and your website is mobile-friendly.
  3. Develop a backlink marketing strategy: From guest posting to outreach, prioritize earning backlinks to your website to improve your domain authority and see improvements in your search results.

3. Build a social media marketing strategy

image alt text Amidst a slew of trending topics on Twitter or the noisy newsfeed on Facebook, establishing a social media presence as a startup can feel like a futile task. But these social platforms often have millions, or even billions of users—some of which you can reach through a dedicated social media marketing strategy. Social media has become an essential tool for businesses to reach a broader audience, build brand awareness, and monitor and engage with customers.

Tips for a startup business building a social media marketing strategy:

  1. Embrace organic social media marketing: Use organic social media to share updates across social channels like Twitter and LinkedIn can build familiarity with your brand, provide a channel for prospective and current customers to reach you, and establish your positioning in public.
  2. Avoid social platform overload: As a tech startup, the photo and video based format of Instagram is unlikely to serve you early on. But Twitter, where there’s a thriving developer community, could be worth pursuing as one of your marketing channels. Speak to your ideal customer rather than attempting to reach everyone.
  3. Join the existing conversation: Use social media listening tools and search queries to track conversations relevant to your industry, and then join in to become a trusted voice.

4. Attend events and conferences

Trello first launched their product in front of an audience at the 2011 TechCrunch Disrupt event, garnering the first users for their kanban team productivity tool. Consider attending relevant free or low cost events, conferences, competitions, trade shows, or meetups to create buzz about your startup—whether on stage or amongst other attendees.

Tips for a startup business attending event and conferences:

  1. Perfect your elevator pitch: Have a succinct description ready on what your product does, what customers can accomplish with your tool, and the overall mission and vision for your business. You never know if you might be talking to a potential customer or a future investor.
  2. Be ready to demo your product: Be ready to provide a demo of your product on a mobile device, laptop, or screen.
  3. Keep the conversation going: Note the names of the people you speak with to connect later on LinkedIn or gather email addresses so you can follow up.

5. Reach new customers with PR

image alt text Public relations—also “PR”—can be an important marketing tool for startups to establish and maintain relationships with the public, build connections with relevant journalists, industry experts, and influencers and build awareness of your company, products, and brand.

PR for startups is more than just press releases. Instead, it involves securing favorable press coverage in relevant outlets and niche trade publications that attract new customers, investors, and stakeholders. A well-placed story or piece of press coverage can garner an influx of social media mentions, lead to a bump in website traffic, and result in new leads and sales for your startup.

Tips for a startup business reaching new customers with PR:

  1. Prioritize founder outreach: Journalists generally prefer to hear straight from the source. Founders should send emails directly to relevant journalists rather than handing off this responsibility to a marketing or communications teammate.
  2. Craft a compelling pitch: Find a journalist at a publication that regularly covers your particular area of business and provide them with a pitch that’s short, concise, and newsworthy with an interesting angle—whether that’s unique data about your product or a deep insight about your specific industry.
  3. Target smaller outlets: Journalists at major publications are inundated with pitches and can’t always respond. Instead, also look towards niche publications and newsletters in your industry with readers who might be your target market.

6. Establish an email marketing function

From one-off emails to full-fledged marketing campaigns—email marketing for startups is an effective marketing method to communicate with current and potential customers, promote and provide education on your products to drive sales and retention, and have an open channel of dialogue with your audience to build trust.

Besides setting up drip campaigns and refining your introduction email, don’t be afraid to step beyond traditional email marketing into direct email outreach. In the early days of Intercom, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Office Des Traynor, described sending cold emails “morning, noon, and night” to potential companies in order to land their first customers.

Tips for a startup business establishing an email marketing function:

  1. Always be capturing emails: Capture emails and build your list, by asking for emails across multiple touch points—web pages, social media, blog content, webinars and online events, chat bots, online contests, and in-person.
  2. Use customer segmentation: Divide your list into specific cohorts and send targeted messages to recipients based on the specific product they use, whether they’re a prospective customer or a current customer, and demographic information like location and particular industry.
  3. A/B test your sendouts: A/B testing allows you to send two different emails to a portion of your email list, identify the more effective email, and send the winning one to the rest of your list. Choose an email marketing platform that has the capability to improve your open rates and conversions.

7. Setup SMS marketing

image alt text An emerging cousin of email marketing, SMS marketing, is increasingly popular—a 2022 survey of 1,314 consumers, business owners, and digital marketers found 55% of business owners text their customers using an SMS marketing platform and 60% of them plan on increasing their SMS budget.

This same survey found that this practice is most common in e-commerce and retail, but 18.9% of respondents indicated they would opt into text messages from a technology business. Consider how your company might leverage SMS marketing to drive customer consideration and engagement.

Tips for a startup business setting up SMS marketing:

  1. Provide a sign-up incentive: Consider exchanging a cell phone number for a gated content resource, a free trial, or product discount.
  2. Send only essential updates: Avoid over-saturating SMS subscribers with updates and use text messages sparingly for important product announcements or limited time promotions.
  3. Ensure subscribers can opt-out: Use an SMS marketing platform that easily allows subscribers to leave your list to keep you in compliance with anti-spam laws.

8. Host contests and giveaways

With the right rules of entry, and an appealing—but inexpensive—prize for your target customer, hosting contests and giveaways can help your startup gather sales and contact information and drive product awareness. Contests are a great way to capture email addresses or phone numbers as a condition of entry, then following up with targeted email and SMS marketing.

Tips for a startup business hosting contests and giveaways:

  1. Provide multiple relevant prizes: Multiple prizes allows you to target different segments of your audience with different prizes that appeal to their interests or needs, increasing engagement and the likelihood of social sharing.
  2. Encourage social media tagging: For social media contests, increase your visibility and reach by making account tagging a condition of entry.
  3. Announce the winner: Build trust and credibility with your audience by declaring a winner once your contest is complete. Thank participants for their entering and encourage them to continue following you for future contests.

9. Create a referral marketing engine

image alt text In the early 2000s, PayPal famously created a viral referral program; for every referral, someone would get $20 and the person signing up would also get $20. Allegedly, at one point, the company was seeing 7-10% daily growth. Referral marketing turns customers into advocates —and with the right incentives—can lead to impressive growth for your business.

Tips for a startup business creating a referral marketing engine:

  1. Provide a compelling offer: To encourage people to refer others to your business and try your product, offer a discount on your product or service, freebies, or other incentives.
  2. Ask referrals to opt-in to email: When someone refers someone to your business, ask for permission to add their email address to your email list. This allows you to keep in touch with the referred customer and build a relationship with them. Ensure that a referral opts-in and you’re following email marketing best practices regarding spam.
  3. Experiment with your offer: Test different offers, incentives, and reward structures to see what works best and adjust accordingly if your offer is not earning your startup referrals.

10. Build awareness with word-of-mouth marketing

As of 2023 GitHub has over 100 million active users. But when they first launched in 2008, it was word-of-mouth marketing through personal invitations that drew the first developers to the platform.

Word-of-mouth marketing for startups is the first step of telling those around you that your product exists—whether that’s through coffee shop conversation and emails or text messages and LinkedIn posts. The magic of word-of-mouth marketing happens when your message extends beyond your inner circle and lands in the ear of your ideal customer.

Tips for a startup business building awareness with word-of-mouth marketing:

  1. Leverage your personal network: Reach out to friends, family, and former colleagues to tell them about your business and ask them to spread the word to their extended network. Share a link to your website that they can review and share.
  2. Create an exceptional product experience: To earn coveted personal recommendations, make sure that your product or service is high quality and go above and beyond when it comes to customer service and dealing with any product bugs or issues.
  3. Encourage customer reviews: For the customers who do try your product, ask them to leave reviews on the Apple App Store, Google Play Store, your website, or third-party software review platforms, such as G2, Capterra, and TrustRadius. Respond to both positive and critical reviews in a professional and helpful manner.

11. Forge startup marketing partnerships with other brands

image alt text Partnership marketing is a combined effort between two companies, generally with complementary products or services, to provide a joint offering or deal to customers. This offer should be mutually beneficial, helping both companies reach a wider audience, increase revenue, and create value for their customers.

For example, a partnership might be two companies bundling their products for a discounted rate, a software company having their app pre-set on a hardware device, or a “better together” style brand campaign that positions both products as harmonious.

Tips for a startup business forging startup marketing partnerships with other brands:

  1. Look for aligned-companies: When evaluating partnership opportunities, find companies that offer complementary products or services. Look for companies that serve a similar customer base, but ones that don’t directly compete with your business.
  2. Punch above your weight class: Partnering with a larger or more established company will increase your visibility—and your credibility. However, also be realistic and make sure that you have something valuable to offer in return.
  3. Create a partnership agreement: Formally outline the terms and expectations of the partnership, including details on how revenue will be shared, who is responsible for what tasks, and how long the partnership will last.

12. Host internet webinars

Webinars—online information sessions for prospective and current customers—are a particularly great startup marketing option for businesses with a technical product or many feature offerings.

These information sessions can be used to present educational material about your product, answer questions during a Q&A portion, and provide discounts or upsell offers to attendees. For live webinars, it’s also an opportunity to meet them face-to-face to learn how customers use the product and how you can improve it.

Tips for a startup business hosting internet webinars:

  1. Avoid automated webinars: Automated webinars, which don’t have a live host, are a scalable and cost-effective way to reach a larger audience. But they lack the personal touch of live webinars and won’t provide you with valuable product feedback that’s invaluable in the early days of your startup business.
  2. Leave room for questions: Address any concerns or objections that your audience may have by leading a Q&A session at the end of your webinar.
  3. Include an end-of-webinar offer: Webinar marketing isn’t unlike watching The Shopping Channel or QVC—presenting production information, selling your software, and then converting viewers with a special offer. Include a call-to-action (CTA) and an exclusive offer to webinar attendees—a discount code, a free trial, or a consultation—to drive sales.

13. Organize online and offline events

image alt text HashiCorp, a software company that provides open-source products for organizations to manage and secure their IT infrastructure, garnered their first 1,000 users through hosting local meetup groups.

Hosting events—online or offline—can be a strong startup marketing strategy. It’s a way to connect in person with customers, build brand recognition, and try offline promotion. While you can keep offline events inexpensive by sourcing free event space and providing low-cost snacks and drinks, online events—hosted on a platform like Zoom—are especially cost-effective and can reach international participants.

Tips for a startup business organizing online and offline events:

  1. Prioritize connection over promotion: Company community events should focus on providing broader value to your wider industry peers. If you work on a cybersecurity tool, provide advanced workshops on preventing cyberthreats. For an open-source software, host lightning talks where people can share their latest open-source contributions.
  2. Switch up your timezones: If your startup serves an international audience, vary the time of your online events for broader participation versus biasing your events to the timezone your company operates in.
  3. Follow up with attendees: After the event, thank attendees for coming and gather feedback on your event that you can use for next time.

14. Build your own online community

Increasingly, companies are building online communities where they can speak directly to users and have their customers interact. Jasper, an AI marketing tool, has a Facebook community they’ve grown to over 74,000 members. Notion, the workplace collaboration and planning tool, has a Reddit community where users discuss templates and productivity tips. Bluesky, a decentralized social media platform, started a Discord before the product even launched.

Consider how your startup might benefit from building an enthusiastic group of users.

Tips for a startup business building their own online community:

  1. Leverage an existing community platform: Rather than building a custom community platform from scratch, use a community platform, like Facebook groups, Reddit, or Discord. These are platforms that many people already frequent, which will support discoverability and community retention.
  2. Create (and enforce) rules of conduct: Create rules of conduct about how people should behave in your space and enforce the rules with temporary suspensions or permanent bans when they’re broken.
  3. Spark community discussions: Rather than relying on community members to keep the space active, steer conversation. As your community grows, consider deputizing community ambassadors who support this role as well.

15. Leverage existing communities

image alt text If you prefer not to be responsible for an online community, become active in existing communities related to your industry. Many startups have garnered their first customers by posting and contributing information to Hacker News, a popular online community for developers. Bootstrapped founders and solo entrepreneurs regularly post on Indie Hackers. Across Slack, Facebook, Reddit, and Discord there are an infinite number of communities—some are related directly to your startup. Find them to discover potential customers and bring in new business.

Tips for a startup business leveraging existing communities:

  1. Go where your customers are: If you have a small base of existing customers, survey or ask them directly about where they spend time online.
  2. Add value for community members: Share when you have a product launch or have introduced a new userful feature, but also contribute quality content and conversation that is only tangential to your business, but adds value to the community.
  3. Measure your results: Use Google Analytics or another web analytics platform to see whether you’re seeing referral traffic from particular communities, survey your users to see what percentage came from online spaces, and track any key relationships that arise from community conversations.

16. Ask for user-generated content

In industries like e-commerce, user generated content (UGC) is king. Customers posting photos, video reviews, and testimonials about products—cosmetics, clothing, cookware—is regularly leveraged by brands on their social media platforms, website, and other marketing materials.

UGC marketing is effective at driving sales because of heightened trust—a survey of 1,590 consumers and 150 B2C marketers found that consumers are 2.4x more likely to say UGC content is more authentic than branded content produced by a company.

But tech companies can borrow this tactic, too. Depending on your tech product and whether it’s appropriate, ask users for screenshots or to simply share how they use your tool. Remember, customer reviews—both written and video—are also a form of UGC. Solicit them frequently for social proof.

Tips for a startup business asking for user-generated content:

  1. Define the type of content you are looking for: Regularly make callouts for UGC and be specific about what you want—screenshots, photos, videos, or written testimonials. This tactic is complementary with hosting giveaways and contests.
  2. Create a branded hashtag: A hashtag supports discoverability when you are searching for and saving UGC.
  3. Use UGC in your promotional activities: Showcase the best UGC submissions on your website and social media channels, building trust in what others are saying about your products.

17. Crowdfunding campaign

image alt text Crowdfunding campaigns—hosted on platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo—have two useful objectives: raising more money to fund the development of your product and building awareness of your startup’s mission, vision, and value proposition. Crowdfunding campaigns involve sharing the vision of your product, often sharing a prototype, and asking users to pledge financial support for your product, generally in exchange for the product at a later date or another incentive.

Crowdfunding is most often seen with physical products and creative projects like film, music, or publishing. In 2015, Eight Sleep, a smart mattress company, also started a Kickstarter—raising $1,231,729 from 6,048 backers for their Sleep Tracker & Smart Bed Cover product. In 2016, Light—a minimalist phone company—had 3,187 backers pledge $415,127 to help bring their product to life.

While this is not a common funding or startup marketing tactic for software companies, if you are a tech company building hardware, this route is worth considering.

Tips for a startup business crowdfunding:

  1. Create a compelling video: Use video to convey a compelling vision or showcase a prototype of your forthcoming project.
  2. Set realistic rewards: Avoid promising a wide swath of supporters hyper-personalized experiences that you cannot deliver on or that take a substantial amount of time away from actually building the product.
  3. Be communicative and transparent with backers: Keep your backers informed throughout the campaign, with regular updates and be transparent about your business goals, funding aims, how the money will be used, and any potential risks or challenges.

18. Start a waiting list

Instead of releasing your product widely to the public at first, start a wait list. This marketing strategy anticipates your product, buying time for building your product while still finding new users, and avoids product overload by letting a few people try it at a time.

Clubhouse, an audio-based social media app, garnered a waitlist of millions of users before making the platform public. Superhuman, an email client, built a waitlist of over 180,000 users. Coupled with providing an excellent experience for the beta users who come off the waitlist and test the app, this startup marketing idea is worth experimenting with.

Tips for a startup business starting a waiting list:

  1. Give a preview of your product: Create a product video or regularly share screenshots from your app to keep your product top of mind and build anticipation for those waitlisted.
  2. Grow your list with incentives: Provide ways for people to move up the list, like sharing your product with five of their contacts.
  3. Set an “open” date: Send rolling invites regularly and, eventually, release the product to the public to avoid lost momentum and distrust.

19. Launch on Product Hunt

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Product Hunt is an online community platform where people can discover and launch new tech products. With millions of users—many of which are tech enthusiasts—Product Hunt is the best place online to launch your app or latest feature.

Loom, now a well-known video recording software for companies, originally launched their app on Product Hunt in 2016. The result was 3,000 sign-ups in the first 24 hours, a great example of the power of Product Hunt. Use Product Hunt—following the company’s launch guidelines—to launch your product and garner new users.

Tips for a startup business launching on Product Hunt:

  1. Include photos and videos of your product: Provide people with a reason—through polished screenshots or a well produced video—to try your product for the first time.
  2. Promote your launch carefully: Product Hunt uses an upvoting system that crowns a daily #1 Product of the Day. Read their guidelines carefully on how you can promote your launch without gaming the system.
  3. Provide a sign-up incentive: Give Product Hunt users an exclusive and limited time offer–such as a discount or free trial—to try your product.

20. Find (and create) your advocates and ambassadors

Given the rise of the creator economy, influencer marketing is increasingly expensive—it’s not uncommon for Instagram creators or YouTubers to charge thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for brand partnerships. As a startup, this will likely be outside your budget. Instead, opt for finding and creating advocates and ambassadors over influencers as part of your marketing efforts.

These are your most vocal and engaged users, the ones who discuss your app on social media, create positive reviews on their blogs or YouTube channels, or regularly help other users in your online community. Thank, amplify, and reward them regularly.

Tips for a startup business finding and creating advocates and ambassadors:

  1. Reward your early advocates: Provide your advocates with special privileges, such as testing out upcoming features or non-public information about your product roadmap. Send swag like free stickers, T-shirts, and mugs.
  2. Turn private feedback into public praise: If you get complimentary emails from satisfied customers or a positive review in a private channel, mention that saying the same in public would be impactful for your business.
  3. Put your product in front of the right people: Instead of waiting for your product to be discovered, build a list of influential people in your industry to reach out to. Then, send casual emails or DMs that introduce yourself, explain your product, and expand on why it might be of interest to them specifically.

Grow your startup in 2023

Sidestep expensive marketing campaigns and supercharge your growth in 2023 with other low-cost marketing ideas for startups. Check out all of DigitalOcean’s resources for startups and SMBs in The Wave, our startup resource hub, for more marketing and company-building advice to help your startup thrive.

Make investments in your technology this year and sign up for a DigitalOcean account. Set you business up for future success by building your product on DigitalOcean’s virtual servers, databases, and more.

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