Reposting a Quora answer on this one:
Jenna added an answer.
Startups: Zero Dollar Budget for Startup Marketing: Myth or Real?
It is very real. I do it every single day. That being said, I think the answers above outline the opportunity cost that goes along with any marketing campaign you do, whether it costs money or not, as the other important variables to take into account is time and alignment with business objectives.
That being said, I can outline strategies to make it real and myths about zero-cost marketing or acquisition that every founder/executive should understand.
1. You can rely on branding to carry buzz – Companies with strong brand equity can rely on this buzz in some ways. Although, keep in mind the types of brands with strong brand equity and what went into building this credibility that is the backbone to their buzz, (that is not just the usual ‘TechCrunch flash in the pan”). Take strong brands like Louis Vuitton, Coca-Cola, Equinox, etc. They likely spent more on building brand equity than pure customer acquisition. If you are a startup, always assume that you have zero brand equity and therefore there should be no reliance on buzz alone from any marketing campaign. You build brand equity one campaign at a time and it takes more than PR to secure long lasting brand equity.
2. Online marketing tools like social media and blogs allow us to market for free – Certainly there are crafty ways to use these tools, although without materials to give your audience something to educate or persuade, you are depending on empty amplification. Where do your links on social lead to (landing pages)? Is your content compelling? How is it different than everything else on the busy web? Why does your audience trust your content or care? Strong marketing materials to back up social broadcasting are an important piece of the puzzle…and not always free to create.
3. Our product speaks for itself – I don’t think I need to elaborate here. Although, I do hear this way too often. If you have a great product but nobody knows about it, your product does not “speak for itself”.
Real (take into account time, energy and opportunity cost):
1. Build highly engaged communities around a cause or industry your brand is within – I run a group I built from the ground-up called Fanhattan Insiders (yes, somewhat a shameless self-marketing plug, but it is an experience that helps me get the point across). I scanned the Internet to find active bloggers and highly engaged social media users who were up-and-comers in entertainment that would likely get value from knowing and engaging with each other. The group is comprised mostly of young broadcasters, journalists, and producers, although we have lots of really talented people building portfolios to make a jump form another industry into entertainment. The group is super supportive of each other by providing feedback and help promoting each others work. For example, when someone posts a youtube interview, or new blog post etc, we all share and give our feedback. Fanhattan uses this group to test products, help share our content, contribute to content through event opportunities that we get them passes to (in their home city), and to be our street team/evangelists in their city. We also look forward to building offline events for this group to further provide network value and receive value from this highly engaged group.
2. Growth hacking – “Growth hacking’s goal are based in marketing but driven by product instincts.” Gamification in the product, baked in virality, etc.
3. A marketing mix of “free” tactics – Similar to growth hacking, although different in that you are not necessarily getting creative to ‘play’ on the system. You are rather using the ‘free’ or ‘cheap’ tactics already well known by most marketers (Facebook, Twitter, pintrest). One great example of this is a widget strategy. Work with partnerships to trade real estate to drive traffic or brand awareness (take into account cost to build widget). Some businesses also build this through rev. share (which is not necessarily free, but it does not make you pay acquisition or impression money upfront for a campaign). See above for a deeper understanding of optimizing social though, as this often costs money.
Disclaimer: I would not recommend zero-budget marketing to most businesses. In many cases, if you have competitors and a low barrier to entry (which is the case for almost all businesses), you will need to take marketing seriously. I have seen countless companies fail for their lack of understanding and weighting of the importance of marketing. Most of the time, you have to spend money to make money…just be damn smart about it.