How To Market Your Small Business Online for Free in a Pay-To-Play World

Pay-per-click ads. Sponsored Facebook posts. Sky-high fees paid to YouTubers and Instagrammers for brief mentions of a product. It’s enough to make any small business owner working within a tight marketing budget throw their hands up in despair. Wasn’t the internet supposed to be the great equalizer, leveling the playing field between SMBs and huge corporations by making their marketing collateral just as accessible to consumers? Whatever happened to the good old days, when your (free) Facebook page and the (free) SEO value of your content were enough to get you ranking in searches and get your posts into your followers’ newsfeeds?

While search marketing, influencer marketing, and social media marketing have without question become pay-to-play arenas, there are still ways to take advantage of the benefits of online marketing without having to pay a single cent. All you need are the right strategies, and the time and resources to execute them.

Here are three tactics for beating the system and getting your business great exposure online – for free.

Partnerships with carefully chosen influencers.

Influencer marketing is incredibly hot right now, and with good reason – an Instagrammer with a large following can drive a tidal wave of traffic to a website simply by mentioning a business or product in a post. But of course, tapping into that huge audience is expensive, and out of reach for most small businesses. The good news is that it is possible to find influencers who still have sizable audiences within your target demographic, and who will partner with you without requiring a fee. In fact, taking the time to seek out these niche influencers can even be more effective than trying to make a more general splash with a huge name online.

Rather than thinking of it as a business transaction, approach influencers with the mindset that you’re initiating a mutually beneficial relationship. Email bloggers and social media influencers in your industry.  Ask if they’d be willing to review your business, or offer their audience a special on your product or service, in exchange for some free publicity on your own site or social media pages, or some free samples of your product or service. By working with smaller but more targeted influencers, you can reap all the benefits of tapping into new audiences without having to pay a dime.

Strategic content.

Content creation has always been important for small businesses, but it can end up being a waste of time and resources if it’s not approached strategically. A blog serves several different purposes, from providing optimized fodder for search engines to giving your social media audiences something with which to engage. But one of the most dramatically effective content strategies involves writing blog posts featuring colleagues and other influencers in your industry.

The first step? Write a list of the top 5 bloggers to follow in your industry, feature a business in a complementary industry, and/or share quotes from influencers in your field. Then, reach out to those mentioned via social media or email to let them know they’ve been featured. More likely than not, they’ll share the good news – along with your content – with their own audiences, thus increasing your reach exponentially, with a minimum of effort on your part – and at no cost.

Smart social media community management.

While paid social media advertising is indisputably one of the most effective methods of getting the word out about your business, nothing can replace the value of a truly engaged, enthusiastic community of brand fans on social media. And fortunately, building a community like this doesn’t require money – instead, it simply takes the right strategy.

Making sure that every single post sparks engagement through questions, contests, and other requests for audience participation, hosting live social media events that provide behind-the-scenes glimpses, and offering insider perks to fans are all tried-and-true means of building a loyal following. And what do loyal followers do? They tell their friends about the companies and products they love. By building engagement on social media, you’ll be building up your business at the same time.

So in spite of the fact that paying for online marketing is now par for the course, there are still strategic ways to access new audiences and develop customer loyalty – for free. Small businesses can still use the internet to level the playing field – they just have to be a little smarter and work a little harder to do so. And isn’t that what small business do best?

Ajeet Khurana
Ajeet Khurana
Ajeet Khurana wears many hats: author, angel investor, mentor, TEDx speaker, steering committee of the NASSCOM Start-Up Warehouse, Director of Founder Institute, Venture Partner with the seed initiative of a top Venture Capital firm, and former CEO of IIT Bombay’s business incubator, among others. Before all this, he was entrepreneurial twice in the field of education and web publishing. As a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, he taught e-commerce back in 1993, when the term "e-commerce" had not yet been coined. An undergrad in computer engineering from the University of Mumbai, and an MBA from the University of Texas, Ajeet is presently an active name in the startup ecosystem. From starting two ventures as a solopreneur, to helping a large number of startups with their go-to-market, he has never shied from getting his hands dirty. At the same time he has helped dozens of startups raise investment. He truly believes that small business owners are driving change in the world, and need to be facilitated as much as possible. Innumerable small businesses have gained from his attitude, vast professional networks, financial acumen and digital mindset.

See all posts by Ajeet Khurana
  • All views expressed on the published articles at are those of each of the authors, and do not in any way represent the opinions of Mastercard International Incorporated or any of its affiliates (“Mastercard”). Mastercard is not responsible of the information contained in these articles.