3 Types of Promotion (and Lots of Ideas) for Your Small Business

August 4, 2016 • 11 min read
Ahmad El-Najjar

Ahmad El-Najjar


Google “small business promotions” and you’re going to see hundreds of articles with titles like “32 types of promotion your business,” “Top 10 promotion ideas for business” or “Low-cost ways to promote your business” and so on. The titles are appealing, sure, but what they each suggest is that promoting any kind of small business is simply a matter of following a few simple steps that can be summed up in a 600-word article. What you rarely see is anyone admitting what you already know deep down in your gut: small business promotion is hard, time-consuming, and there is no easy way to do it.

Well, here you go. Sure, there are a lot of great tips out there but most seem to be based on the faintly ludicrous premise that many small business owners have a dedicated social media expert and PR team on retainer—not to mention an email list of thousands of prospective customers. That’s not the reality for most small businesses. In fact, 22 million of the 28 million small businesses in the US are sole proprietorships with no employees. If you own a small business, there’s basically a 75 percent chance that you’re going it alone. This article is for you—and probably the other six million businesses who are mostly restaurants, retailers, and professionals with a few staff members.

So. Promoting a business is hard. If it were easy, then you wouldn’t be reading this. Let’s start with the basics: the types of promotion.

You need a website

These days, the most fundamental of types of promotion for a small business is what you can do with a website. According to a recent survey, however, nearly half of small businesses don’t have a website. It’s highly unlikely your customers are going to be pulling out ye olde Yellow Pages to find you (no offense, Yellow Pages, I’m old enough to have let my fingers do the walking). Nope, your customers are looking for you online, and if you’re not there, they’ll go to the business that is. The world is going digital and your calling card needs to be online.

A lot of business service sites talk up the need to have a robust and reactive website with all sorts of doodads making for a great user experience (UX). And while any small business owner would love to have super-slick design, automated data collection, social media plug-ins, and an online marketplace, reservation, or booking system, but all that takes time and—unless you happen to be a professional web designer yourself—can cost a pretty penny. That’s not to say that having a really cool website isn’t worth it—it is and it can be leveraged to push your product or services. But don’t get caught up in super-fancy types of promotion if it means you’re not focusing on building up that initial customer base that will keep you in business during those trying first few years.

Instead, if you’re crunched for time, resources, and web-design skills, think of your website as your online business card. It can be simple, clean, and minimal with the basic information about your business: your location, your hours, your goods and/or services, a photo of your business, contact info, links to your social media, and a way for customers to sign up for email announcements. The great thing is, having a simple site like this isn’t the struggle it once was. There are numerous website builder services that are low-cost and easy to use.

Can you check a website off the list? Great! Next in the types of promotion is building a list of customers to whom you can promote your business.

Build an email list

types of small biz promotionYou can’t promote if you have no one to promote to. I’ve written before about the need for an email list in our article Getting Customer Follow-Up Right. There, I highlighted some effective strategies for building a strong list of contacts, as well as how to manage that list. In a nutshell, though, successfully promoting your business is going to be contingent upon actually having a vehicle for reaching your customers, and email is a great low-cost data point to gather.

Here are some of those tips for creating and adding to your list of customers:

  • Create a “sign up” call to action on your Facebook business page.
  • Include a link to sign up for your newsletter in your personal email signature.
  • If you have a retail store, place a newsletter sign-up clipboard and a fishbowl for business cards next to every register. Have your employees mention the newsletter and emphasize its benefits—exclusive discounts, events, educational information, reminders, and so on.
  • Got a list of snail mail addresses without emails? Send a postcard. Include an offer that can be redeemed when the recipient signs up for your newsletter. Canva has a free and easy-to-use postcard/poster designer tool.
  • Edit your Twitter business profile to include a link to your email sign-up form.
  • Post an offer or photo of an item to giveaway on Instagram (or Twitter, or Facebook). Include a link asking people to sign up to participate.

You now officially exist online and have contacts to promote to, so let’s move on to the step you’ve been waiting for: actually promoting your business!

Types of promotion using email

We all like being rewarded for taking an action, so why not create a reward that goes both ways and rewards the customer and your business? That’s exactly what promotions are all about. The best types of promotion are a simple way for you to reward your customers for rewarding you with their business. The specifics of these promotions are nearly as limitless as the human imagination, so I’ll focus instead on the three most common channels for getting your promotions in front of customers: email, direct mail, and social.

Using email for business promotions

I mentioned earlier that there are a ton of small business promotion articles and ideas out there, and now that you have a web presence and email list, these articles can come in handy. A particularly clear and concise piece on how to maximize email promotions around a number of verticals for customer acquisition comes courtesy of the folks over at Vertical Response. They outline nine types of promotion emails:

  • Basic Promotional Email: incentivizing a customer to buy your product/service
  • New Inventory Email: highlighting new item, service, or menu on offer
  • Newsletter Email: sharing company news and brand awareness
  • Welcome Email: stablishing good relations with new customers
  • Product Advice Email: reviewing a new product or service
  • Educational Email: providing industry knowledge to your customers
  • Reorder Email: reminding customers that it’s time to re-order
  • Testimonial Email: using customer feedback to show how great you are
  • Survey Email: collecting information from your customers to improve service

These are all great ways to leverage your email list while nurturing and growing your customer base.

Of course, you always want to be mindful of how you’re emailing customers and prospects. We have some general guidelines on how to avoid mistakes.

Using direct mail to promote your business

Contrary to what most of us expected in regards to snail mail types of promotion, it looks like paper is not only still relevant to promoting your business, but also a hugely powerful—and too often underutilized—tool for small businesses.

Let’s start with some impressive numbers, courtesy of the Huffington Post:

  • 33 percent of Americans find direct mail the most effective way to remember a product or service
  • 79 percent will act on direct mail immediately
  • 80 percent of people actually open their mail
  • 41 percent of individuals aged 65 and older don’t use the internet

These are solid numbers around which you can base a lot of promotional mail. Probably the biggest factor in the success of direct mail is the fact that it’s a tangible object. We’re humans after all, and we rely on our senses to navigate the world. So, when a piece of paper with weight, texture, text, images, and even smell comes into our hands, it’s a lot harder to ignore than a bunch of pixels on a screen.

There are numerous direct mail companies out there that can help you target your customer demographic. One of the most tried and true is, of course, your local United States Postal Service which offers competitive rates on bulk mailing and services. Coupling affordability with a quick and easy to use flyer or postcard design program like Canva, and you are well on your way to snail mail success.

Using social media for business promotions

This one is last because, quite frankly, it’s the most annoying for many small business owners. Social media is a beast and no one would blame you for missing the good old days when the only social media concern was your wallpaper background on MySpace. Well, those days are gone, and more and more of your customers are spending much of their time on social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Fear not though, we’re here to help.

We’ve written in more about the nitty gritty of using social media to engage with your customers in another post. When it comes to using social for business promotions, it’s worth repeating what Townsquared NYC member Liz Loizou-Smith of LSC Studio said about how to approach your business’s social media:

  • Keep it short and simple. The most effective messages are engaging by getting straight to the point, and using links and images for enhancement.
  • Develop an online voice with personality. Yes, everyone loves a sale, but if that’s all you post, you’re going to bore followers and lose them.
  • Tag almost everything. Use hashtags where appropriate—don’t go crazy. Check out Hashtagify. It’s not a pretty word, but it is a pretty useful site. See what the top 30 hashtags are for the last seven or thirty days. Even better, discover the top related hashtags and top influencers for particular terms.
  • Be responsive! Don’t let any message or response to a post go unanswered. You don’t have to monitor 24/7, but check your channels regularly. And you can always thank new folks for following.

social media promotionThe above are general guidelines to live by when you approach how your manage your social media presence. From here, promoting your business through social becomes an investment in time and energy.

Again, there are countless blog and article how-tos when it comes to using social media to promote your business. If you can afford to hire someone to do this for you, not only are you fortunate, but you’ll be able to have a larger reach. However, again, if you’re like most small business owners, it’s just you…doing everything. So, we’re going to perhaps commit the cardinal sin of social media experts and say: focus on one channel.

That’s right, one channel. Why do five things poorly when you can do one really well? Use your favorite social media platform, the one you already spend the most time on whether personally or professionally. If you’re already spending a lot of time on Instagram, for example, then you already know how it works and you already have a network. So, why not use that?

Make sharing content regularly on your social media platform of choice a habit. There’s a proscriptive 90/10 rule, meaning 90 percent of your posts are not about you and 10 percent are all about you. Once you get the hang of that, then start sharing the content on your other social media platforms. Develop a rhythm and schedule around when and how you post. Using an automation tool like Hootsuite, which is free if you’re only using a few channels, will make this a lot easier.

There’s really no easy fix when it comes to social media promotion of your business. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was your presence on the Internet, so be patient, be dedicated, and always follow through. It’ll take time but that time will pay off down the road.

You’ve got the basics of business promotion!

It takes time and it takes work, but it can be done. You started a business, after all, so don’t get daunted by the challenge of promoting your business. There truly are many, many resources out there (many of them free) and, don’t forget, on Townsquared, you’ve always got an entire network of small business owners who can help you along the way at your fingertips.

***Stay tuned to the Townsquared for our next piece on small business promotions in which we’ll focus on some creative ideas to get promote your business using the tools described in this post.

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