For small businesses, beyond tackling advertising and getting a marketing strategy together, figuring out how to get free publicity is another challenging nut to crack. You need to figure out how to get in front of your target audience. How do they know they want to use your product or service if they’ve never heard of you?
What is free publicity?
Public relations is the practice of managing communications between the public and an organization to create positive perception. Publicity is the net result of those communications. You don’t need to have a PR budget to get free publicity.
There are many free publicity opportunities your small business can take advantage of. People are attracted to the up and coming, especially in the current “always on” landscape. As you get more guest bylines, invites to podcasts, or requests from journalists, more and more people will be interested in hearing what you have to say. And, they’ll also be interested in the products and services you’re offering.
Let’s take a look at 13 free ways to promote your business with a non-existent PR budget.
1. Run a word-of-mouth or referral program
When publicizing your business, it’s easier to let existing customers do the talking. Not only is word-of-mouth marketing effective, but a seal of approval from friends and family makes people four times more likely to convert.
Eric Elggren, co-founder of Andar, says, “By sharing, liking, and commenting on your social media posts, your customers are helping you get the word out about your business without spending money. Take advantage of the customer relationships you have by asking them this favor, and in return offer them discounts or early access to new merchandise.”
- Offering high-quality products and services
- Beating competitors on price
- Providing proactive and helpful customer service
You could also gamify the experience to convince customers to share your products on social media.
Shawn Munoz, Brand Manager of Pure Relief, uses a rewards program to incentivize customers to produce content. Each action—be it signing up for the mailing list, purchasing a product, or shouting about the brand on social media—earns the customer points.
“For example, customers can score 50 points for uploading photo images of our products with personalized reviews,” Shawn says. “Video reviews earn 75 points and are featured on our social media in posts and stories to drive exposure for our business and supporters.”
Shawn says, “We love seeing our customers’ support and want to create mutually beneficial programs that sweeten the deal for their efforts.”
2. Collect and showcase reviews
Speaking of existing customers, use their endorsements in your publicity campaigns to further build credibility. Feature them in every potential touchpoint you have with customers, including:
- Directory listings
- Google Business profile
- Your online store (particularly on product pages)
But how do you collect reviews in the first place? Deepak Shukla of Pearl Lemon Café uses QR codes: “People can put their phone over it and just pop open a review platform and dump a review into Google Maps.
“To take that a step further, in the actual reviews, if you leave a name of something that’s from your menu, if you leave a reference to the area, that’s also going to help with Google Maps optimization, with you being found online, with the whole discovery process.”
Cody Arsenault, founder of Baby Waves, collects reviews by sending post purchase emails 14 to 20 days after a purchase is made. Customers get a discount on their new purchase in exchange for evidence of the review they’ve shared.
“This has worked really well for providing us with free publicity and reviews,” Cody explains. “I’d say we get about a 5% uptake rate on this offer. It’s really a win-win—the customer gets a discount and we get social media exposure as well as a repeat purchaser!”
3. Donate products to influencers and creators
Social media has allowed small business owners to reach their target audience, regardless of who they are, what they’re interested in, and where they live. But algorithm changes are making it harder to connect with people who already follow a business’s account. Social media platforms are pushing brands into a pay-to-play model.
Workaround this organic reach restriction by partnering with influencers and creators. With the rise of TikTok throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s estimated 50 million people around the world now consider themselves to be “creators.” It's likely why half of surveyed merchants plan to work with influencers to develop co-branded products next year.
Get on a creator’s radar by donating free products to them. While it does cost you to produce the item(s) you’re shipping, the free publicity may not cost a dime—especially if they’re impressed with you, your product, or your brand.
4. Partner with other small businesses
Entrepreneurs are a supportive bunch. Many of them are in the same boat, trying to acquire new customers without spending a fortune on publicity.
Darren Litt, co-founder of Hiya Health, says, “Try partnering with other businesses in your industry to cross-promote each other's products or services. This could involve doing a joint social media campaign, running a contest or giveaway together, or even just exchanging links on your websites. By teaming up with another business, you can reach a whole new audience of potential customers.”
Popular ways to collaborate with other small businesses include:
- Co-hosting a pop-up shop in your local area
- Shouting out each other in an email to existing customers
- Selling collaborative products and splitting the profits
Haley Hamilton Berger, founder of Haley Hamilton Art, took this approach to generate free publicity for her business: “I partner with craft studios and local community groups in and around the Atlanta area. This enables me to expand my network and reach new audiences.
“In addition to promoting the workshop through my social media pages, website, and email marketing, the group I partner with does the same.”
Haley’s free publicity strategy contributed to her sold-out first in-person workshop. One attendee enjoyed the session so much, they introduced Haley to another craft studio owner in the local community.
5. Write guest posts
Guest blogging works by posting your content on another website. It’s a great way to get free publicity and build backlinks for your website, which help with search engine optimization (SEO). You just need to invest time into writing an article that showcases your expertise.
Find guest blogging opportunities by searching for:
- “[topic] + guest post”
- “[topic] + submit an article”
- “[topic] + write for us”
As Alexandra Fennell, co-founder and CEO of Attn:Grace, says, “Thought leadership and brand partnerships are two of the most effective ways to increase brand awareness and boost reputability. You demonstrate your expertise when you appear as a guest on a business podcast or write posts for respected blogs and sites like LinkedIn.”
“People viewing that content already trust the publisher, so they will trust your insights and check out your brand,” Alexandra says. “Content is king, whether you post it on your website or your brand partner's platform.”
6. Start an email newsletter
With the rising costs of small business marketing, consider a platform that allows you to connect directly with customers in the long term: email.
- Online courses
- Free downloads
“Brands frequently default to flooding customers’ inboxes or text messages to push sales—and wind up appearing intrusive and causing subscribers to churn,” says Brendan Brosnan, co-founder of Yogaste. As an alternative, keep in touch with your users by sending tailored, relevant, and valuable content, i.e., tutorials on using or maintaining the product they purchased over time.
Rather than treating texts and emails as an avenue to repeatedly press for conversions, they can be another funnel for generating genuine, helpful rapport with your customer base.
7. Enter awards or competitions
Awards go a long way in building credibility for your small business. They also provide free publicity (should you win).
- Best in Biz Awards
- Best of Small Business Awards
- National Small Business Week Awards
- Dream Big Awards
Put your most impressive accolades into your submission, including positive customer reviews, previous awards you’ve won, and endorsements from experts in the industry. The most eye-catching submissions will stand out from the crowd.
You don’t have to win the award or competition to use it as free publicity. If you’re shortlisted or come as a runner up, display that proudly on your website to encourage people to buy.
8. Run a giveaway or competition
Who loves a freebie? All of us, it seems. Research shows Instagram accounts that run regular giveaways grow 70% faster, receive 3.5 times as many likes, and 64 times more comments than those who didn’t.
Use contests as part of your publicity strategy. Challenge customers to a task that involves your product, upload the video to social media, and tag your brand. It’ll give you a ton of user-generated content to repost to further publicize your brand for free.
Sonoran Spice Company is one brand using this strategy to get free publicity. Its Ecommerce Manager, Jason Marston, says, “We created a Carolina Reaper eating challenge, where customers record themselves eating the world’s hottest chili pepper.” (What daredevil can resist?!)
“We send out free shirts and koozies to those who dare and submit a video recording of themselves doing so, which creates a ton of great content and laughs.”
Jason adds that the virality of these contest-style videos help increase brand awareness. “We recently had a product go viral after this big YouTube channel featured them on their Try channel, which has been viewed over 240,000 times in two weeks. It boosted sales of that product by over 1,300%.
“You never know who might share something or the kind of press this sort of thing can naturally attract.”
9. Guest on podcasts or speak at events
Instead of looking for a sale, try to educate your audience. Showcasing your expertise and subtly guiding someone toward a purchase often works better than the hard sell.
“Speaking engagements at conferences, podcasts, and webinars are a means for small business owners to promote their brands and establish their personal brands,” says Steve Pogson, founder and Ecommerce Strategy Lead at FirstPier.
“Speaking opportunities include trade shows, online forums, radio shows, and YouTube channels with similar target audiences. Create an engaging subject line and email offering the executive a speaking or interview opportunity. Or collaborate with another company to create and publicize a webinar.”
10. Quiz your customers
People love talking about themselves. Help them do that through your website, using a quiz as the foundation of your free publicity campaign.
Jones Road Beauty is one ecommerce brand using this free promotion strategy. It uses social media channels like TikTok and Instagram to direct potential customers toward a free quiz that unlocks their shade match. At the end, quiz takers see their shade match and personalized product recommendations based on their answers.
About half of adult US internet users said that when brands use their data in advertising, it helps them discover products that interest them. It’s why 42% of brands plan to offer their customers personalized product recommendations through tools like quizzes this year.
11. Run a crowdfunding campaign
Need a cash investment alongside free publicity? Crowdfunding helps small businesses achieve exactly that. You’ll receive investment from people who support your idea, while generating buzz and brand awareness.
Popular crowdfunding sites include:
The Ridge Wallet took this approach to build momentum and get free publicity. Its creator, Daniel Kane, raised $400,000 through Kickstarter—enough to get the prototype into production and prove the business was worth the time investment.
“At the time, [Kickstarter] would take the projects that were new and getting a lot of traffic and a lot of organic reach by just people browsing the site and that would get put up into the popular list,” Daniel says. “That’s when you really start to see it kick off. You’re either featured on the home page or you’re on the popular list when people go to just browse projects.
“We were lucky enough to get a lot of backers early that liked our products that pushed us into that popular crowd.”
12. Build a community
Research shows brands will invest more in customer loyalty and connection than almost any other strategy this year. Find communities on Facebook Groups, Slack channels, or Reddit forums. Members should share similar interests to your target customers, to which you can subtly pitch your products or services to get free publicity.
Community building is such a powerful promotion strategy that Kimberly Smith, founder of Marjani and board of directors member of the National Retail Federation, believes, “Some brands have yet to even explore digital marketing or paid advertising because their community is so strong. They spend so much time [building] it that it drives the direct-to-consumer revenue.”
13. Pitch stories to journalists
Journalists are always looking for new and interesting stories to share. Put your brand at the forefront of that story and get free publicity that reaches your target market.
Start by pinpointing which publications your target customer reads. That could be:
- Local publications, such as the Los Angeles Times
- Regional sites, such as Michigan Live
- Industry publications, such as Food & Wine magazine
Find the contact information for journalists working at each publication and pitch them a story their readers would find interesting.
This is Public Relations 101, and Kirby Wilkerson, founder of The Impact Kind, knows its impact is enduring. Kirby works with entrepreneurs to pitch journalists and secure small businesses local and national press.
“One client has over 550,000 people visiting her site every month, taking her from $100,000 to $300,000 in two years,” Kirby says. “Another client increased her Instagram following by over 3,000 and increased profits four times in one year. The publications they were featured in were Parents, Business Insider, Yahoo Finance, SheFinds, and local publications where they were building an audience.”
Get free publicity for your small business
Fierce competition and industry oversaturation doesn’t mean your small business has to pay for publicity to be seen. Use these free publicity tactics to spread the word about your product or service, reach your target market, and more importantly, generate a profit.
How do you get free publicity?
- Run a word-of-mouth or referral program
- Collect and showcase reviews
- Donate products to influencers and creators
- Partner with other small businesses
- Write guest posts
- Start an email newsletter
- Enter awards or competitions
- Run a giveaway or competition
- Guest on podcasts or speak at events
- Quiz your customers
- Run a crowdfunding campaign
- Build a community
- Pitch stories to journalists