Small businesses have long faced extra marketing challenges compared with larger companies. Since smaller businesses don’t have big budgets for advertising, traditionally they were unable to spread the word about their products or command the attention of a large audience. Instead, small businesses have had to rely on smaller scale, person-to-person “grassroots” marketing efforts, like word of mouth and referrals.
The good news is that today, with the various social media channels and online tools available, it’s easier than ever for small businesses to make the most of grassroots marketing. Instead of trying to buy advertising in the hope of taking your message directly to a big audience, small businesses can use grassroots marketing to amplify the effects of a few people. Who are these people? Well, they’re the ones who believe in your business, are passionate about what you sell, and can spread the word on your behalf.
We talked with a few small business owners and marketing experts on how small businesses can get better results from grassroots marketing. Here’s what we found out:
Diane Eschenbach, Marketing Consultant & Business Coach
Diane Eschenbach is a marketing consultant and business coach who advises small businesses and startups on how they can use online and offline marketing to easily and cost-effectively attract new customers. Diane has written a book, How to Quickly Start A Business Online, which is available for download for $14.99.
Take a look at Diane’s suggestions for how small businesses can use grassroots marketing most effectively:
- Become a Sponsor for a Local Charity: “This works best when the charity is something that makes for good photos, such as animals, kids’ sports teams, motorcycle runs for charity, or gourmet food events,” says Diane. She encourages her clients to get high quality photos and video of the charity event, with the sponsor company’s logo prominently displayed in as many places as possible, and then use the images on Facebook and Twitter and the videos on YouTube.These sponsored events will give you a great source of content for grassroots marketing because you’ll have a compelling story to share with your audience of customers and prospective customers. “Link back to the videos, email them out to your customer mailing list, and tell local papers what your company has been up to with high quality images they can use in their stories,” Diane says.This type of grassroots marketing is also a great conversation starter for your in-person business networking. “When you sponsor charity events like these, it gives you a great way to talk about your business by pulling out your phone to show a prospective client a cool motorcycle, or a cute puppy photo,” says Diane. “It’s a natural segue to conversation about your business without being pushy.”
- Have an Open House: Another way to generate grassroots marketing buzz is to choose a special day to open your business to the public, or host a reception outside of regular business hours and dedicate a portion of that day’s proceeds for some good cause related to your business.This is a great way to offer goodwill to the public by offering free food, fun activities, or free samples, and perhaps partner with other businesses or non-profit organizations. For example, you could hold a canned food drive, a Toys for Tots collection, or collect children’s books or winter clothes to donate to local schools or charity organizations. Make it a festive occasion! Hire a photographer to run a “photo booth” to take good quality pictures of people in attendance, and then ask people to sign their names to confirm that they attended the open house so you can tag their photos on Facebook. This is an easy and effective way to get grassroots marketing results on social media, because people love to see photos of themselves on Facebook, and every person you tag will help spread the word about your business to their audience of friends.Open house events and other grassroots marketing activities can be as creative as your imagination will permit. Diane says that she’s seen everything from simple fundraisers to collaborative art projects. “Recently I saw a company bring in a white sided truck, and they asked participants to use special markers to draw their idea of happiness on the truck, creating a huge collage,” says Diane. “Grassroots marketing needs to be inventive and non-traditional.”
Follow Diane Eschenbach on Twitter at @Cheers4Startups.
Bryan Clayton, CEO of GreenPal
GreenPal is an online platform that connects pre-screened lawn care service providers with homeowners. The platform allows lawn care professionals to bid on jobs and makes it easy for homeowners to quickly find, hire, and pay for lawn care services online.
It’s fitting that a company dedicated to mowing lawns would use “grassroots” marketing to get started. When Bryan Clayton and his fellow co-founders needed to acquire new users for early testing of their GreenPal app, this high-tech company went back to the basics and started going door-to-door.
“When we launched our lawn mowing app in the middle of the summer in Nashville with no user acquisition strategy, it was daunting,” says Bryan. “We needed people to use our invention, right now, like yesterday. So, taking a page out of my former playbook of building a landscaping company, we started hanging door hanger flyers all over Nashville.”
Bryan and his team distributed approximately 10,000 flyers all over the city of Nashville in the hope that enough people would respond to this “old fashioned” marketing technique.
“We walked all over the city on many hot days, and it was quite an experience for my three co-founders and me,” Bryan says. “Gene sprained his ankle, Ross got heat exhaustion, a homeowner offered Zach marijuana (he didn’t inhale), and I was bitten by a dog. But ultimately, we got the early testing users that we needed!”
Bryan Clayton says that this simple, direct grassroots marketing technique was the best way for his new company to get itself off the ground. “We quickly began to understand through talking with our customers, trial and error, rapid prototyping, and experimentation how our product ultimately needed to look and feel to our customers and vendors,” says Bryan. And it all started with the simple act of grassroots marketing – going directly to people where they live, and starting a conversation.
Follow GreenPal on Twitter at @YourGreenPal.
Patrick O’Keefe, Clutch Learning, Inc.
Patrick O’Keefe is Vice President of Marketing at ClutchPrep, an education technology startup that sells textbook-specific online tutoring videos to college students, helping them better understand the content of their college classes such as Organic Chemistry.
Patrick says that Clutch uses a few methods to encourage college students to talk about their business. “We have both a campus representative program and a referral program set up to encourage word of mouth. Inside our product we have modals that provide students with referral codes to refer their friends/classmates to get greater free access to our product. It’s important to build word of mouth sharing through the product itself. This allows our most passionate students to keep using our site for free, and in exchange, we gain a large amount of new users.”
Another important aspect of grassroots marketing is to share the stories of people who use your product. When people see your business sharing their own stories online or on Facebook, they will help spread the word about your business in an act of mutual benefit. “We have ‘featured student’ blog posts where we sent email marketing campaigns to our highly active users inviting them to be on our blog,” says Patrick. Clutch also uses social media for grassroots marketing by delivering entertaining content which reminds readers about Clutch, while also trying to get a laugh or encourage people to share the content on Facebook (thus attracting more of an audience for the business). “Our scheduled posts on Facebook and Twitter are mostly entertaining and are used as a branding mechanism to continuously remind our user-base about Clutch. “For example, we try to find and share a lot of entertaining memes that poke fun at science. This works for us as we mainly provide content for science-based classes like Organic Chemistry.”
Clutch also uses traditional in-person grassroots marketing by working with a network of on-campus representatives at the colleges that Clutch serves. “We have on-campus representatives who sign up students to use Clutch and who post on many of the Facebook groups that students at their university frequent,” Patrick says. “Handing out flyers is one successful tactic, but getting a piece of contact information is the most important element of any in-person grassroots marketing campaign. Attention spans are often short, but getting an email address or phone number allows you to continue dialogue.”
Patrick says that small businesses need to strike the right balance between online and offline grassroots marketing. “It all depends on cost per acquisition and how well a marketing channel can scale. Grassroots marketing can be highly effective for businesses who know very specifically who their target audience is and where those people are on a regular basis. But it has to be targeted – I don’t believe in marketing gimmicks, like someone standing outside your store flipping a sign. It’s important to measure every tactic and decide how long that tactic can be used.”
Follow Clutch Learning, Inc. on Facebook or Twitter at @ClutchPrep.
Shel Horowitz, “Green and Profitable,” Author & Marketing Consultant
Shel Horowitz is a marketing consultant and author who specializes in helping businesses be “Green and Profitable” by making a difference on environmental sustainability, anti-poverty, and global development issues, while using ethical marketing to promote their business’ values.
Shel says that in his own business, he has seen big results by actively encouraging referrals and testimonials from happy clients. “I’ve been told many times that my testimonials pages, such as this one, have directly influenced prospects to contact me,” Shel says.
Are you actively seeking testimonials from happy clients? If not, start today. Seeing real quotes on your website from real people (with names and photos) who had a good experience with your business can be a powerful way to get new customers.
Another form of grassroots marketing that Shel recommends is to promote yourself as an expert commentator in your industry. “I do short informational videos interviewing interesting people in my world as part of a content marketing strategy. And I do regular speaking engagements – which are a great way to market yourself – along with radio interviews and podcasts, and I use Twitter and LinkedIn to share the links to recordings of these appearances.”
Whether you’re on a radio show or using your own podcast recorded from your laptop, business owners today have many accessible resources that they can use to share thought leadership. Tell the world what you think about your industry and where it’s headed – share your insights, advice, and expertise. People might get to know you from a podcast or blog article before they happen to visit your actual website.
Shel also believes that grassroots marketing is becoming more important for small businesses, and that having a sense of “mission” around your business is part of what makes grassroots marketing successful.
“Grassroots marketing has always been important, but in an age where people are so bombarded by ads that they tune them out, and in many cases have the technology to avoid ads entirely, grassroots marketing is more important than ever,” Shel says. “Today’s customer is much more sophisticated. As marketers, we have to pay a lot more attention to a conversational, helpful approach and third-party-validated credibility, rather than shove-it-down-their-throats ‘push’ marketing. And customers are also a lot more values-sensitive, which is great for me as a marketer specializing in green, socially conscious businesses. If given a choice between comparable products from companies they perceive as helping the world versus those they don’t believe are helping the world, they’ll choose the companies who are making a difference.”
Shel’s work is a great example of how small businesses can expand their reach and find a bigger audience by using grassroots marketing that tells their story in a credible, relevant way. If people believe in your brand and see visible examples of how your business is making a difference in a meaningful way in the community, they’ll be more likely to keep buying from you.
Follow Shel Horowitz on Twitter at @ShelHorowitz.
Which types of grassroots marketing are most important to your business? Leave a comment, or tweet us at @KabbageInc and let us know.