7 Super Shoestring Marketing Ideas for The Self-Employed

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Modern marketing is often seen through the lens of digital marketing first, and many people assume that online marketing is easier and cheaper. It may seem that way on the surface because typing and moving your mouse around is free, but you’re also competing with many more people who have the same idea as you. I always like to circle back to offline marketing ideas to see how creative I can get with them. Don’t get me wrong, I rely on digital marketing strongly, but I know I need both at the same time to get the word out about our growing business.

If you’re a startup or self employed small business owner, chances are you’re not swimming in cash for big marketing spend, but you still want to be creative with your ideas.

Here are 7 ideas to get your juices flowing:

Basic Offline Marketing Ideas

We’re starting here with some low hanging fruit for those that are just getting started or don’t have the contacts or funds yet.

1. Drop Cards

Drop cards are a funny idea, but they can work well if executed on properly. The idea is to leave around small cards that look like money and leave them in popular places. Someone picks one up, they open the folded up card and realize it’s not money, but see your marketing message. A little bit tricky, but it’s worth trying out for the cost of a stack of card stock.

2. Human-Held Arrow Signs

If you’re a brick and mortar business with a storefront, you can really utilize print material marketing more than business park businesses. Another seemingly old school idea that is still in practice is human-held signs advertising specials and deals. Every year around tax time, I can bet on the sign-twirlers from the tax filing service to be dressed up as a statue of liberty waving me on to their tax office. Works on me.

3. Announcement to Personal Network

When starting a business, it’s a bit intimidating to tell people what you’re working on for fear of failure. But you never know what can happen when you reach out. For the most party, your personal network wants to see you succeed and may have referrals for you. So take advantage of the personal network you have and announce when you’re starting your business and at key milestones along the way.

Next Level Dirt Cheap Shoestring Marketing

4. Network at Meetups

After your nervous announcement to your current personal contacts, grow your network a little bit at an industry Meetup. If you live anywhere close to a decent sized city, there is likely to be a related Meetup or similar networking event in your industry. If there’s none in your direct industry, find the next closest event and there might be a few searching souls just like you. Often Meetups are free of charge, but will generally only be up to $15-20 if they do decide to charge. Compared to an industry trade show it’s a steal.

5. Host or Sponsor an Event

What’s a surefire way to gain a little bit of clout and authority in your space? Start your own Meetup event. If there is no industry Meetup in your area, it’s a great opportunity to start something up and become a leader in your community. If there already is a Meetup, you can join forces or create a mini-rivalry all in the spirit of good competition. If you’re not ready for that level of commitment, sponsor the appetizers and drinks of an event and get a special shout out as a sponsor.

High Reward Offline Shoestring Marketing

6. Vehicle Wrap Advertising

I’m surprised this one isn’t used more. You can shell out big bucks for a full vehicle wrap, or just choose one side of your vehicle for a partial wrap at a much lower cost. You can even go cheaper and use well-placed decals to advertise your company. If you’ve got company vehicles making runs all day, or even just taking a decent commute to work there’s an opportunity for marketing. Before people complain about the commercialization of everything, keep in mind that most people would like to look at a funny vehicle advertisement than stare at nothing during rush-hour traffic.

7. Create an Outdoor Wall Mural

I’m all for public beautification in urban areas, and if you can cleverly marry this with a bit of branding – it can be a win/win. There’s a mural near a Five Guys burger joint in Pacific Beach, San Diego that’s a good example of this. A huge mural of John Lennon was painted on a brick wall and when Five Guys opened up shop they added their name to it. Did they ruin the artwork? Maybe. But I think it’s better than the art being removed completely.

The name of the game in marketing for all businesses is integrated marketing communications, with one cohesive message and strategy including both digital and offline marketing. The internet has low barriers to entry as far as cost, but there are plenty of ideas for creative offline marketing tactics to spread the word on the cheap.


Joe Robison is the head of marketing for Coastal Creative Reprographics, a San Diego, CA large format printing company. The company takes digital-first approach to selling printing products, but also advises clients on strategic offline marketing pieces and campaigns.

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