Online advertising is a challenge for many startups. Finding the best SEM strategies that will pay off can be overwhelming, because unless you work in advertising, it’s hard to determine which investments will provide the greatest ROI. As a startup, you are competing against other businesses with an established Internet presence, so you need to outshine the competition.

Acquiring New Customers

How do savvy business owners grow their startup? The answer is this: do things effectively and early. Find ways to interact with your clients. Reach out to customers; engage in SEO and content marketing to gain exposure, and build strategic relationships where your customers are. The earlier your business is profitable, the better, so your CAC (customer acquisition cost) needs to be low but effective. Luckily, the Internet has lowered CAC for startups. The next questions are, “What are the necessities?” and “How should a startup allocate its marketing budget?”

Early on, spend advertising dollars frugally; Internet users are wary (and tired) of advertising campaigns. The perception is that high dollar ads come from aggressive, sales-focused companies, which can be negative for startups who want to brand themselves as customer-friendly.

Industry sites may be willing to publish press releases. Consider partnerships with other small businesses, especially if you complement one another. You can pool advertising funds, or get a lower rate for spending more, which in turn reaches a larger audience.

Industry message boards are great ways to reach consumers, too. Not only are these communities built around your target market, but business is generated by word of mouth, which has been shown to be one of the best ways for startups to grow their business.

Internet forums are great because they offer a chance for business owners to flex their personalities. Brands are built around reputation, and forums allow business owners to connect in ways that weren’t possible ten years ago.

A note on forum etiquette: Hard sales pitches should be avoided. Internet forums are about being a part of a community. Imagine how you would speak as a small business owner after something like a church service or other gathering. You wouldn’t ask people to stop by the store and buy something; you’d hold small talk and look for opportunities to present yourself as knowledgeable. The same is true online. Put a link to your website in your signature. That way, your website is present on all your posts. If people trust your expertise and enjoy your personality, they’ll eventually visit your site when they have the need. Remember: people like doing business with other people; not businesses. This is why it’s so important to humanize your brand through all your marketing efforts.

Establish Your Expertise

The best way to reach an audience starts with your blog as a home-base. You want to deliver a quality product, and one way to do so is to become a resource and thought leader within your industry. Most web stores have product copy that explains why that product is so great, but why should users trust product copy? Blogs build trust that the business owner has done his homework and that the business shares its industry knowledge instead of using misconceptions and secrets to score sales.

If your blog becomes popular within the industry, your business will attract a reliable pool of readers. These are the same people who will recommend your blog because of the great information it offers. Local and trade publications are always on the lookout for new, quality content for their readers, so try approaching an industry-specific magazine and pitching an article. The more published work you achieve under your name (or brand name), the stronger your brand becomes.

Social Media

Social media is required for establishing a credible, humanized brand. It’s essential to have at the very least Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ accounts. If your business seems unpopular or lacks a consumer base, it’s time to proliferate your profile. Social media shows are becoming popular, and YouTube personalities often have audiences in the millions. Smart movement can open your business to a huge gradient of consumers.

Try scheduling an interview with an online reviewer. Developing a brand backed by a big online or entertainment personality can boost your business. Many Internet radio shows and podcasts are free, held by reviewers trying to establish their own brand. Webinars can be held to deliver free training or expertise to the public and can be heavily linked, tweeted, or re-blogged by users who find the information helpful.

Focus Your Efforts

Early startups need to cast a wide net. According to the marketing department at Iowa State University, startups should devote 20-30% of their budget to advertising for the first two years. After your business shows growth, that percentage can drop below 10%. Reducing those costs are about understanding what’s driving your growth. Cut out the advertising and marketing efforts that aren’t worth their ROI and focus instead on the channels that are paying off. Are you seeing most of your business growth through Craigslist and Facebook? If that’s the case, it could be time to increase your Facebook advertising and cut out the local radio ads.

Check your blog. What type of posts are customers responding to the most? Which ones have the most traffic? Which ones have the most comments, or shares? For example, if you own a construction company and a few of your “how to” videos are showing promising view and share metrics, focus on those videos and their production. Share the videos on Reddit. Cultivate the strong points of your business and allow your brand to grow in the most beneficial direction.

Responding to Customers is Humanizing

Videos are a fantastic way to reach a wider audience while also humanizing your brand through the human touch. In essence, this causes your brand to become a salesman your audience trusts.

Read customer reviews. Understand questions emailed to your business or posted to your Facebook profile. Respond to each customer, publicly if possible. Videos can be developed and posted to your website, or you can alter your FAQ page to address recurring questions.

Lastly, provide a platform for your customers. Ask for testimonials, then post them for the world to see. Allow for comments on your blog and encourage participation; asking questions in a blog post is a great way to initiate conversation. The way of the corporation is to hit customers over the head with advertising laden with reasons people should love them. Humanizing, however, simply involves being friendly, helpful, and personable, allowing your audience to see for themselves why they should do business with you.


In today’s Internet-driven world of marketing, startups have more options for marketing than ever before. Furthermore, many of those options require not money, but time. Time is often just as limited of a resource as money in early startups, but with a willing and cheerful attitude, many effective online marketing tactics can be executed by interns or recent college graduates who are already familiar with social media platforms. Patience, diligence, and friendliness truly are key components of a successful low-budget marketing initiative; and those are traits any startup should be able to find as they execute their marketing initiative.