If you own a small business, work as a sole trader or freelancer, you perform an astounding balancing act each day. Delivering the product or service to your customers that generates your income is just a small part of what you do.

As much as you might like to only focus on the stuff that inspired you to embark on your own enterprise, it just can’t be done. There’re accounts that need to be kept. The phone needs answering. And you need to keep bringing in customers and giving your existing customers a reason to keep coming back to you.

That’s where marketing comes in. It feeds your sales funnel. It helps people become aware of you. It encourages your current and past customers to become loyal clients.

For some of us, marketing is the least favourite part of running a business (for me it’s accounts…). Putting ourselves out there can feel daunting and scary and just plain old weird. Some of us don’t know where to start, and some of us don’t have the pounds (or dollars) to invest in a whole lot of promotional effort. I get it, and that’s why I’ve detailed below three quick, easy to implement and effective ways you can market your business with minimal effort so you can get back to the business you actually enjoy.

Referrals from happy clients bring some of the best business. Sometimes word of mouth or referrals are called ‘earned advertising’; this is because you’ve earned the privilege of having your customers shout about your product or service by giving them an exceptional experience. According to Neilson, word of mouth ‘advertising’ is the most trusted form of advertising and marketing by far. And by far, I mean by 84% of the people asked in 54 different countries far.

It makes sense right? I’m going to trust my friend WAAAAY more than some cleverly put together ad, or long-winded infomercial about a similar thing.

The thing is, we often forget to ask for referrals, or feel a bit odd asking, or maybe ask at a less than optimal time — like when we’re handing over the invoice. There’re a few tricks to asking for a referral to increase your chances of having your customers bring you new business.

1. Figure out who your ideal prospects are — this could be based on the industry they work in, the kind of project you worked on or the size of their order. Chances are this customer knows more people or businesses just like them. These are your ideal demographic for asking if they’ll recommend your product or services.

2. Choose your moment — instead of asking for a referral when you send your final invoice, try asking at a more opportune moment. Some clients won’t read that final email with your invoice attached, it’ll get sent straight to accounts and then your request is lost forever. If you’re working on a project with multiple milestones, try asking after successfully completing a few of them. If you sell a product, asking right after that item has been delivered — same as you would for a review — could be the best time. Experiment with timing and trust your gut with each different client.

3. Consider a reward scheme — this works particularly well for repeat services and products, like haircuts, regular blog writing, and subscriptions. Let your loyal customers know that referring your business could reward them with a discount on their next purchase.

4. Stand in their shoes — consider your request from your customer’s point of view. What’ll they get out of referring you? I don’t mean a discount or special deal on the next job, although that’s fine too, the value of giving a referral can stand that person or business in good stead with their clients, particularly if they’re the kind of business that thrives on connecting and creating a helpful network. If that’s the case, don’t be shy about pointing it out.

Many kinds of businesses offer services or products that can be complemented by other professionals. For example, as a writer of content, I can complement a web design agency by allowing them to help their customers fill their brand-spanking-new website with well-crafted SEO copy.

This is a similar idea to the customer referrals above but takes a slightly different tack. Research the businesses that are complementary to your own — if you’re an accountant, you might be looking for bookkeepers, if you’re a photographer, you might consider reaching out to wedding planners. Whatever it is you do, there’s probably some business that could pair with your service or product without directly competing. Choose carefully and consider not only how they can help your business, but how you can help theirs. Look for complementary businesses that seem to have a similar ethos to your own. The idea here is to create a mutually beneficial relationship.

Once you have a list of potential partners, craft an introductory letter, email, or a loose telephone script to work from and reach out. As my Dad told me, if you don’t ask, you won’t get and there’s no harm in asking; ‘No’ never hurt anyone.

I bet you were waiting for this one right? Everyone seems to constantly be talking about how Google Ads or boosted Facebook posts can win business. And sure, they can, but if you’re working on a tight marketing budget — or no marketing budget at all — social media advertising and marketing can soon get pricey. That might even be before you see any results at all. You should be sorting your stats and figures before you start venturing into this territory — but that’s a topic for a different article.

Anyway, I promised free marketing ideas, didn’t I?

Facebook groups are a great source for some free marketing efforts. Create a business page or profile if you haven’t already and go join some groups as that page. That’s only step one, and you shouldn’t go spamming these communities or groups, that’s a bad idea.

Choose the groups carefully, they should align with your interest area from a business perspective, have some sort of connection to what you do and what you can offer, and you should be interested in what’s being discussed there. This is a gentle form of lead generation and it takes a little time, but it can spawn good results.

To give you an example, if you run a camping ground, you might join some groups around camping — this could be motorcycle camping, women’s only camping groups, or outdoor interest groups related to your location (UK hillwalking or cold water surfing for instance). Post regularly there with helpful tips about camping, answer people’s questions if you can and offer advice that will make their camping experiences even better. This builds trust, establishes you as a helpful and knowledgeable business and keeps you front of mind for the community members; all excellent results from a marketing perspective. If you’re allowed to within the confines of the group rules, occasionally post little adds for your business in these groups — some will have specific days you can do this, others will randomly post asking for the group members to reply about what you do. So keep an eye open for these opportunities.

I’ve used these sorts of groups with great success over the past 6 months or so. Posting articles I create in the groups I am part of — if it’s relevant to the topic of discussion for that group and noting what I do on the days that members are asked to self-promote. Already it has started to generate leads for my freelance writing work and grow my monthly email subscriber list.

I limit the time I spend on social media to just one to two hours a week so that I don’t get lost scrolling endlessly and wasting precious work hours. I check in intermittently through the week for messages but also limit this time to a max of half an hour checking the various platforms I am active on. And I spend time at the end of each month crunching the numbers and checking the stats to see what’s working, what’s not and where I can improve things.

For me, the key to making social media work for my business is having a clear direction and to have a firm idea of how much time I can spend completing those posts. (I use a Digital Marketing Plan that sounds fancy but is actually just a spreadsheet of prompts telling me what to post and when with room to record stats for each action.)

There are also social groups on Facebook set up specifically for small businesses to advertise for free. I’m part of a few that are for my specific corner of the world, area of expertise and subject areas for what I write about. These are great as they actively ask members to post about what they do or know and advertise their business. The idea behind these groups is to strengthen our local economy or build each other’s businesses together, we can call upon each other easily and use the groups as a kind of local directory.

With social media, give more than you take. This attitude will give you a much higher return on your efforts and will make it all a bit more fun too. Plus, it’s good for your health to help others!

Marketing is all about standing out and creating a brand that people can identify with. That way they feel comfortable, even proud, buying the service or product on offer. If you’re anything like me, putting together beautiful posts with pretty images and the well-appointed font isn’t necessarily a strength. The good news is, there are LOADS of free resources out there that you can use to create professional-looking adverts and posts for social media, pamphlet drops (if you want to do that kind of thing when walking your dog), and just getting your business out there so people know you exist.

Two of my favourite resources for this are Canva and PicMonkey. With each of these services, you can import pictures add text and turn out your own professional looking adverts, posts and more. They have design guides and templates that you can just drop your own words and images into and voila! a professional-looking post/ad/pamphlet is ready to download.

If you want professional images, chances are you already know about Unsplash as Medium uses this A LOT, but there are a bunch of other royalty-free image sites that you can use to find pics to illustrate your business, services and all the benefits you provide to your customers. Stocksnap.io and Piaxabay are two I use when Unsplash isn’t coming up with the goods. If you can, always give credit where it’s due for the images or free resources you use.

So, if you’re planning to make the most of client referrals, forge some new connections with complementary businesses or make the most of Facebook’s communities and groups, it’s worth putting together some nice promotional materials using the free resources above.

Marketing doesn’t have to be hard, expensive or cringey. A little thought, a few free resources and a couple of hours could have you stacking the marketing and sales funnel in your favour as more people become aware of you, decide to recommend you to their nearest and dearest or choose to join forces with you to build your respective businesses together. Go forth and market with confidence!