As is so often the case with these types of questions, the answer to this one must be couched with the phrase, “it depends.” In this case, it depends on what you consider free. There are many ways to get positive publicity for your local business that will not require a monetary investment, but they can be time consuming. And for most local business owners, time is a precious commodity.
Social Media and Customer Review Sites
That said, the most obvious and popular method of attracting business without spending money is through social media. Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter don’t charge business owners to create and maintain business pages. Done right, they can be a bountiful source of new and repeat business. It’s not enough, however, to simply create the page and wait for the customers to show up. No matter how much wonderful content you’re posting on your Facebook page, no one will see it if they don’t first “like” your page. Successful social media marketers actively seek out and participate in groups, engage with their customers, and employ a variety of creative tactics to build their following.
Google Search Ranking
By selecting and optimizing the right keywords, posting oodles of relevant, high quality content, building quality links and citations and with a little just plain luck, it’s possible to get to a place where your website’s Google search ranking is fairly high. Technically, in this case, every search that returns your website is “free” advertising. The cost in time and money to get to this level, however, can be extremely prohibitive.
It is worth noting, however, that Google offers a lot of useful, free tools to help in the process, including Webmaster, Analytics, Google Places, and Google+. Claiming and optimizing a business listing in Google Places and Google+ is extremely helpful in boosting your return rankings in local searches, which is of primary concern for local business owners.
For not-for-profit businesses, Google offers $10,000 of in-kind grant money to be used for advertising on Google. This is free, and is a fantastic way for charity foundations to attract more donors to their websites.
For local businesses, the most effective advertising at the lowest cost can be found through local forms of advertising. Whether that be local business directory listings, local events, local newspapers, and even flyers posted on bulletin boards around town, these are the things that will connect you more directly with your target demographic – your neighbors. And that includes one form of very nearly free advertising many business owners neglect: signage.
Good signage not only helps customers find your location, but draws the attention of passersby, like a three-second television commercial every time they drive past your business. Your signage should be large and easy to read, contain your logo and reflect your corporate style. A shabby, hand-lettered or poorly maintained sign speaks volumes about the business. Signage should be attention getting and intriguing, yet leave no question as to what type of goods and services you offer.
In a nutshell, every form of advertising has its price, in time, effort and/or dollars. The trick is to find what works best for your business and your budget. Have a big budget but little or no time, hire a professional. Have a tiny budget but an employee who rocks on Facebook? Leverage social media. The key takeaway is to think local, connect with your community, and don’t forget to constantly monitor your results so you can tweak your marketing plan as needed.