Action plan eyeglassesToo many business owners think marketing is like a trip to the dentist – something you just gotta do every six months or so. But when marketing is continuous and targeted rather than occasional and shotgun, business gets easier.

If prospects have a positive view of your wares and reputation before you call or before they start shopping, you’re that much closer to making a sale.

Ongoing marketing isn’t tied to a price tag. It’s defined only by putting the right message in front of the right person at the right time.

Here are eight ideas for doing that – on the cheap:

1. Make customers feel special

Customers respond to being recognized, especially in these rush-rush, get-the-lowest-price times. An online retailer of handcrafted travel bags encloses a small, rose-scented sachet in every jewelry and lingerie bag she sells and also sends a handwritten thank-you note. The retailer says the sachet and note cost pennies but add something special to the purchase.

2. Create business cards that prospects keep

Most business cards are tossed within hours of a meeting. Instead of having your card tossed, create one that recipients actually will use – say, a good-looking notepad with your contact info and tagline on every page.

3. Develop an electronic mailing list and send old-fashioned letters

Most businesses have harnessed the power of e-newsletters – and you definitely should be sending out one, too. It’s very cost-effective.

Because e-mail marketing is now nearly ubiquitous, you can stand out by occasionally sending personal, surface mail letters to customers and prospects.

Just make sure the letter delivers something customers want to read, whether an analysis of recent events in your field, premium offers or a sweetener personalized for the recipient (a discount on his next purchase of whatever he last purchased, for instance).

4. Boost your profile at trade shows and conferences

Attending a conference? Create signage, glossy postcards with your contact information and product news inserts. Hand them out freely. And what about a mini website just for that event?

5. Combine business with pleasure – and charity

Spearhead an event, party or conference for a cause you care about. That puts you in the position of getting to know lots of people, and shows off your small business leadership skills. It’s a great networking opportunity for guests, and lets you reconnect with current clients and impress potential clients.

6. Become an online expert

This is the “free sample” approach to bringing in business. Research active email discussion lists and online bulletin boards that are relevant to your business and audience. Join several and start posting expert advice to solve problems or answer questions.

You may need to keep this up for a bit. But the rewards come back in paying clients and referrals.

7. Court local media

Editorial features convey more credibility with prospective clients than paid advertising does. To get coverage from the local media, whether from the town newspaper, from TV or radio stations, or from trade journals, you need a fresh, timely story.

It’s usually worthwhile to hire an experienced publicist to position the stories, target appropriate media representative and write and send press releases. Usually, you can work on a short-term or contingency basis.

8. Finally, don’t let customers simply slip away

Make an effort to reel them back in. It costs a lot less to retain a disgruntled or inactive customer than to acquire a new one.

If you haven’t heard from a customer in awhile, send a personalized e-mail (you can automate this process), inquiring whether all is well. For a customer who suffered a bad experience, pick up the phone, acknowledging the unpleasantness and ask if there’s anything you can do.

A discount can’t hurt either. Being kind to customers is the smartest low-cost marketing you can do.

TIP: Business gets easier when your marketing is continuous and targeted rather than occasional and shotgun.

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