25 free local advertising ideas for small businesses

Let’s face it: advertising can be prohibitively expensive, especially for small businesses. Experts recommend most small businesses should spend around 7-8% of gross revenue on marketing efforts, but that can sound like a heck of a lot, particularly if you’re just starting out and are pinching every penny so hard it leaves a bas-relief image of Lincoln’s head on your thumb. So without further ado, here are 25 free ways to advertise your local business.

1. Claim all your free business profiles

The following tips are listed in no particular order, but this one is at the top for a reason: the importance of claiming your business pages on Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, and any relevant industry-specific sites (such as OpenTable for restaurants, for example) can not be overstated.

An astounding 56% of businesses haven’t claimed their Google business profiles. This is crazy. There’s nothing more important for today’s small businesses than a solid online presence (yes, even for small, local shops), and without taking this step, any advertising money you decide to spend will simply drive your potential customers to other businesses.

People check online review sites for “social proof” before visiting local stores. 97% of customers read online reviews for local businesses. And 88% of people trust those reviews as much a personal recommendation family or friends.

So, it’s absolutely essential that your business show up well in local online searches, and this isn’t possible until you officially claim all your business pages. Plus, new research from ilobeau and business expert sites shows that businesses that claim their listings on multiple online business reviews sites make 58% more money!

2. Read and respond to all your reviews

Once you have claimed your business profiles, you can respond to online reviews. This is not only polite, it’s essential… and it’s effectively free advertising. When you respond appropriately to reviews, you demonstrate to current and potential customers that you are fully engaged in the process of taking care of your customers.

And since 97% of people read online reviews for local businesses, your reviews (and the “star rating” that results) are the first introduction almost all of your potential customers will have to your business.

Smarter businesses also see online reviews not as a hassle, but as valuable insights into their customers. Large companies pay millions to learn what their customers think about them, but if you pay attention to your reviews, you can get those insights absolutely free.

Reviewers might point out problems with your employees, products, or facilities that need to be resolved, and when you respond and demonstrate you have addressed any issues, you build credibility and advertise the fact that you are constantly working to provide the best service possible.

The most important reason? Studies show what when businesses start replying to reviews, they increase both the total number of reviews received and their overall rating. And a better rating means more free advertising, more customers, and more revenue in your pocket.

What’s more, Data shows that businesses that regularly respond to their online business reviews earn up to 49% more revenue!

According to an article by Chatmeter.com, Google has confirmed that “responding to reviews improves your local SEO.” And Cornell reported that a one-star increase in your rating can increase your revenue by up to 39%.

3. Post your business on free business listing websites

The more people who know about your business, the more people will decide to buy from you. The internet has dozens of free business listing sites to help local businesses get more exposure, and listing your business on these sites not only helps you get in front of customers, it improves local SEO.

To help small business owners, we’ve compiled a list of free online communities, directories, and free business listing sites where you should create a profile.

4. Create a website for your business

Full disclosure: while it’s free to build a website (if you know how to use HTML or other code—and there are free tutorials available), you’re going to have to pay a little to host your site. However, every business needs a website, so we consider the relatively low cost of web-hosting a necessary expense, similar to keeping the lights on at your physical location. It’s just part of the cost of doing business.

There are several great resources like Squarespace or Wix that provide easy, free website-building templates that anyone can use to create surprisingly professional-looking websites (and they naturally provide hosting at reasonable prices).

Don’t think you need a website? Listen up: if nothing else, a website makes your business look legitimate and improves SEO—which means it improves “free advertising” for your business.

Even if you don’t actually use your website for commerce, and all you have is a simple page listing your accurate business hours, location, contact information, and a boilerplate of your business, that will be valuable to many customers and it gives search engines one more reason to rank you higher.

Bonus tip: remember to keep your website updated, and ideally, post fresh content to it regularly (see #6 below).

5. Run a user generated content campaign

User generate content is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Your customers should be your biggest marketers (word of mouth may have moved online, but it’s just as important as ever). User-generated content shows any potential new customers that current customers are happy with your product or service, making them more confident in spending money at your business.

And while online reviews are a type of user-generated content, try going the extra mile to get customers to create (and share) content about your business.

For example, you could run a “photo contest” on instagram, where the best picture of your product or customer at your place of business can win a prize.

6. Participate on industry-applicable forums

Nearly every industry has 2 or more prominent online forums where business owners, customers, and experts can ask questions, give advice, buy and sell goods, post how-to threads, and inevitably argue vehemently with each other about unrelated political topics.

If you are courteous and have real insight and advice to give, posting on relevant internet forums (or “message boards,” if you’re old-school) can be an effective way to drum up interest in your business and establish yourself as an expert in your field.  Make sure to conform to the forum admin/moderators’ rules about any promotional material, and don’t just spam the forum with unrelated marketing posts or you’ll quickly get banned and actually hurt interest in your business.

7. Comment or answer questions on relevant blogs, articles, news stories, Quora, etc.

Along the same lines as #5, you can approach industry-related blogs, news articles, Quora questions, etc. as free ways to get your business seen by more people.

If you regularly respond to online questions, blog posts, news stories, etc. relating to your business and include a link or info about your business in your profile, search engines will start to see your business as a valuable resource that needs to rank higher in search results.

For this approach to be effective it needs to be consistent and regular, and you need to provide quality responses that others consider valuable (and which they then engage with and share/upvote). You can’t just post one random answer on Quora and expect the referral traffic to flood in. So dedicate some time to this task regularly to see the best results.

8. Write a blog

If you have solid writing skills, know someone who does, or believe you have created an interesting “niche” in the market that people might find compelling, consider starting a blog.

It can be easy to get caught up in the ego of being a “published author” of a blog, but it’s more useful to look at your blog as an advertising and SEO-boosting tool, rather than the digital equivalent of the great American novel. (Our favorite silly t-shirts proclaims, “More people have read this shirt than your blog.”)

Search engines consider all types of content related to your business from multiple sources, so the more sources that “talk” about your business in more locations and platforms, the better.

Remember, though, that you need to create regular, fresh content in order to get the benefits of a blog.

9. Write articles for other blogs, industry publications, or news outlets

If you have writing chops, you might consider writing content for an online industry publication, guest posts for blogs you find relevant, articles for your local news outlets’ op/ed pages, etc.

This kind of content almost always includes valuable backlinks to your company website or business pages, and increases the SEO value of your business. The more “valid” the sites that link to your content, the higher you rank in search engines and the more free advertising benefit you receive.

10. Develop a robust social media presence

You may notice that in addition to the standard website (which your business should also have—see #4 above), almost every notable company today has a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and/or LinkedIn account. This is not by accident. Many customers eschew review sites and choose to post feedback and commentary about your business via social media instead. In addition to the value you derive from knowing what’s being said about your business online, when you engage current and potential customers on social media (and, more importantly, when people engage with you and share/re-share your posts and content), search engines view you as more important and you show up better online search results… which means, you guessed it, free advertising.

So sign up for accounts on as many of these platforms as you can manage. Be real, be interesting (funny content helps), and definitely don’t turn every post into an ad. Repost your blog content and/or website content updates to all your social media accounts.

You can also exploit the “live” broadcasting features some social media platforms offer, like Instagram live, Facebook live, etc. to host a live event or webinar. 

11. Complete your online listings: add photos and “next-level” info

Claiming your online business listings is the first step in any effective business marketing plan, but we’re listing this one separately because it’s so important—and many businesses don’t bother to do it: Be sure to fill in every optional field of your business listings on Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc., add all relevant info (menus for restaurants, for example), and include good photos.

High-quality images of your location, staff, or products can act as free advertising when you add them to your online business profiles. Think about those results that stand out to you when you conduct mobile searches. They almost always will have eye-catching photos added.

One benefit to most review sites is they allow customers to upload photos for you, and some of them can be quite good.

However, If you’re not a shutterbug and your customers aren’t uploading any good images, it would be a good time to employ a talented friend or teenage niece who is going through her “photography” phase.

Ask for clear, high-resolution pics optimized for online thumbnail display.  Most people respond well to bright, appealing visuals and an abundance of relevant information. A little effort here can pay off in more online engagement, better search rankings, and more free advertising for your business.

12. Host local events

When you host local events you bring a lot of potential customers to your store. So consider hosting a poetry reading, pub crawl, taste of the city, political fundraiser, or a performance by your favorite string quartet, bluegrass group, or death metal band. (Pro tip… put down plastic. Those bluegrass weirdos can get pretty wild.)

13. Volunteer and get involved locally

Along the same lines as hosting local events, you can get your business noticed by your local customers if you volunteer and support local events.

Make sure you get a mention in the publicity materials for whatever event you’re volunteering for. Assuming you have some business-branded swag or clothing already, make sure you exploit it. Wear company branded hats, t-shirts, etc. If you don’t have any, consider spending some of your marketing budget on this type of item so you get the benefits of getting your business’s name in front of more potential customers.

14. Send an email newsletter

Hopefully you have a method to gather your customers’ email addresses. If you don’t, start right now. Email may not have the sexy sheen of the newer tools afforded by social media, but it is still the most cost-effective marketing tool in the small businessperson’s toolbox, with a huge 42:1 ROI.

Sending a weekly or monthly email to your list is a good way to promote sales and stay top of mind. Plus, despite what you might think, the majority of customers actually want promotional emails from businesses they like.

15. Start a YouTube channel

This might seem silly, but you’d be surprised how effective and how far-reaching a YouTube video can be, even if you don’t think your business is interesting enough.

For example, some simple how-to videos by professional plumbers, lawn-care specialists, or appliance repair technicians earn multiple millions of views, and often show up as the number-one results in related search engine queries. If nothing else, this is a way to add another source of links and traffic to your business, which search engines will see as making you more legitimate and worthy of higher placement in search results.

16. Hold a workshop or class

Even if you don’t consider yourself the expert in your field, host an expert, or just someone you know who is informative and fascinating. You’ll be awesome by association.  One advantage of this tip is it brings people who otherwise might not visit your physical store to your location, and obviously you get the word out about your business.

To extend the benefits even further, arrange with any “experts” to get free mentions/marketing/promotion of your business on their social media channels as well.

17. Host a webinar

Similarly to a class or a workshop, you can host a webinar to reach people who can’t or don’t want to attend an in-store event. There are several free webinar websites (Zoom currently offers free meeting/webinar hosting up to 100 participants), and most of the popular pay-to-use sites like join.me and GoToMeeting/GoToWebinar will give you a free trial period during which you can host your webinar. (If you like how it turns out, you can consider paying for the service in the future.)

You can host your webinar live, record it for later viewing, and/or post it on your social media channels and YouTube.

18. Ask customers for feedback

If you understand how much advertising value online reviews can provide, you should be doing this anyway as part of your standard business practice. If you’re not, start now.

Don’t be embarrassed about asking for reviews, but make sure you do it in the right way. Don’t offer free products, discounts, or gifts in exchange for a good review, and never try to “buy” good reviews from an online company.

Simply let your customers know you appreciate their online feedback, and be sure to engage with them there when they do.

19. Take advantage of local chambers of commerce and small business development centers

Almost every reasonably sized community has a local chamber of commerce and/or small business development center. These resources can provide free listings and promotional material for local businesses, as well as valuable marketing tips and assistance from successful businesspeople in your area.

20. Partner with local businesses and promote each other

Small businesses who stick together and help each other get the word out can get huge value. You don’t need to spend any money… just find something you have that other businesses want, and trade in kind.

You can co-host events, workshops, or webinars and, should you decide to spend some advertising money, split the costs and double the exposure.

21. Celebrate ‘weird’ holidays or events with special treats or offers

Just as an example, National Doughnut Day can be used to hype nearly any business with a physical location… whether you normally sell donuts or not. Everybody loves donuts, and offering a free pastry with purchase or even a visit can bring lots of new faces through your door. (Think of how many people visit “free hot dogs and sodas” events at car dealerships.) Extra-super bonus points for offering a gluten-free option.

Pair these promotions with your posts on social media and email sends for extra buzz. This technique can work for any holiday—just be creative with what treats or prizes you want to hand out to potential customers.

Now, we understand that treats and prizes aren’t technically free, but if you make or sell food or goods, you can use inventory and write it off as a promotional expense. If you don’t make or sell anything you can use as a prize, consider offering your services for free to winners.  Or, if you want to give something tangible away, this is one way you can benefit from partnering, bartering, and trading goods and services with other businesses in your area (see #20 above). Trade your tax preparation services to the owner of the local pastry shop in exchange for a weekly or monthly goodie bag, for example

22. Print physical flyers and post them on community notice boards, college bulletin boards, etc.

Okay, technically printing ink and paper aren’t free, but we’ll bet you already have these resources available to you at home or in your business.

Obviously you’ll want to conform with any local ordinances regarding posting of bills or distributing solicitations. (It’s against the law to stuff mailboxes, for example.) Consider handing flyers out personally… you’ll get to know your community better, and people have a greater chance of reading marketing materials if they meet you in person.

You might also ask any local students you know to post your flyers on local college bulletin boards.

23. Make a free promotional video for your business

Make a free promotional video with a resource like Biteable. They have several easy-to-use templates for you to use in building a fun, informative, and high-quality promo video for your business. You’d be surprised how professional it can look with a little work.

You can then post your video on YouTube, Vimeo, or other free video hosting sites, and/or use it as content for your Facebook/social media, blog, website, and email campaigns.

24. Post on Craigslist

A funny and/or engaging Craigslist post about your business can go viral and give you tons of free exposure. You should also consider posting on free local online classifieds… some areas have “the” locally accepted online classifieds, perhaps hosted by the local network TV website.

25. Let people use your space

Sci-fi nerds, book clubs, coffee klatches, PTA meetings, mothers’ support organizations, automotive enthusiast groups—whatever—everyone needs a place to hold meetings, and nobody wants to pay. If you offer your available space once a week, you could get lots of free word-of-mouth and build good will with local consumers.

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