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Many entrepreneurs are great visionaries, proficient builders and competent operators; however, when it comes to being creative, flexible and innovative marketers and salespeople, many of us — especially first-timers — fall flat. I can’t tell you how many entrepreneurs have come to me with the assumption they’ll simply “run ads” or “pay influencers” to grow from an idea to multi-million-dollar profits. While I’m not suggesting ads and influencer promotions can’t work wonders for some companies, it should come as no surprise that with their ubiquitous proliferation, their efficacy has waned.
Audiences have come to expect, and therefore oftentimes ignore, these marketing methods, which means a lot more capital (money) may be required to reach a critical mass of prospects to arrive at an acceptable conversion rate that ultimately leads to actual profits. That’s a long-winded way of saying pay-to-play digital marketing is doable, but oftentimes more difficult, time-consuming and costly than first-time entrepreneurs expect.
That said, the vast majority of first-time and early-stage entrepreneurs fail to recognize or take advantage of the multitude of free, highly-effective marketing tactics sitting at their fingertips. These commonly overlooked growth hacks can yield millions in low-CAC (customer acquisition cost) sales, and I’ve experienced this firsthand, as have a handful of my fellow profit-focused founder friends. Here are four underrated, free marketing hacks you can utilize to catapult your venture’s growth — plus, a fifth bonus hack that made my friend millions without a dime spent on ads or social media.
This first hack isn’t scalable, but it is a great launchpad. When you’re first building your business, the most important thing is creating happy customers, even if that means doing the unreasonable or unscalable. Why? Because these first customers will create the testimonials, reinforced confidence, potential referrals and the overall inertia to push you from a handful of customers to hundreds of customers to thousands and so on. One of the biggest mistakes forward-thinking entrepreneurs make is attempting to build a well-oiled, scalable machine at the expense of the customer experience.
Simply put, customization is one of the greatest free hacks you have at your disposal as a first-time, early-stage entrepreneur and CEO of a small, fledgling venture. While you shouldn’t plan or expect to bend over backward for every customer as you grow, doing so for a few key clients early on can pay dividends for months, years and even decades to come. Don’t be afraid to win over your first customers with unscalable customization; it may pay off tenfold (or more) if you leverage it wisely.
2. Leverage customer testimonials
Speaking of leveraging unscalable customization wisely, that all begins with robust client testimonials. One of the most devastating missed opportunities I’ve witnessed far too many entrepreneurs suffer is the lack of testimonials, simply because they never thought to ask the customers. It is ten times harder to track down customers weeks or months later and reach them, let alone actually capture an enthusiastic, contagiously positive testimonial in comparison to doing so during a customer’s current experience with your company.
One of the most strategic moves I made early on was to include a customer testimonial and feedback form that all clients have to fill out before the last piece of their service is delivered for one of my companies. In so doing, my team has garnered hundreds (maybe thousands) of detailed glowing testimonials without lifting a finger. These are in your own backyard if you act swiftly.
3. Tap into your former clients’ networks
Along the lines of leveraging former customer testimonials as a growth hack (to wildly increase your free marketing content and purchase conversions, due to the plethora of credibility and social proof), you can also tap into those former clients’ networks. One mistake I’ve made in serving a client base who may compete with one another is capping their likelihood of recommending others for our service. If, however, you serve a broad client base that isn’t competitive with one another, then offering an attractive (lucrative) affiliate incentive program to those early customers can be a great way to grow sales passively, thanks to your motivated crew of evangelist former customers who love your product, money, and spreading the gospel of their positive experience with their friends (for a financial upside).
4. Don’t underestimate email marketing
People can knock email and the written word all they want, claiming video or audio is all that matters these days, but as someone who’s sent close to 100 million emails over the past three years — and profited handsomely from them — my results prove otherwise. The biggest mistake entrepreneurs make with email marketing is to assume that sending one, three or even “seven” (that’s commonly touted as the magical number) emails is enough to judge a sequence’s success. There are customers who were on my company’s email list for over two years, received over 60 messages from us and ultimately spent hundreds or thousands of dollars when that right time, subject line or message hit them. There are also customers who purchase within the first few emails they receive, making up for the former.
The point being: If you’re willing to be patient, experiment and analyze the data from your email marketing, it’s entirely possible to build a marketing strategy all around the written word. It won’t, however, likely happen overnight, and you can’t simply pay your way into accelerated success with this channel.
5. This free tool built my friend’s multi-million-dollar agency (ad-free)
Though my current companies don’t employ this method, I have peer founders and friends who’ve built multi-million-dollar businesses all around DMs (direct messages) on channels ranging from Facebook groups to LinkedIn. No, they didn’t have large followings prior; they simply identified the right audience, crafted a client-centric message (or many) and began testing their luck. Similar to email, this strategy is a bit of a numbers game and will surely take some trial, error and improvement — but it’s a free option first-time founders shouldn’t sleep on.
The early-stage advantage
So many bootstrapped, first-time and early-stage (pre-revenue or pre-profit) founders lament their lack of funds or marketing muscle. While capital can surely expedite some methods of marketing, it’s oftentimes a crutch used to minimize the amount of time and hands-on effort founders need to put into marketing. That said, one of the advantages of being a first-time, bootstrapped and early-stage founder is that time, creativity, flexibility and resourcefulness should all be growth hacks you have on your side. You may not be able to out-spend a VC-backed startup’s digital marketing blitz, but you can out-strategy them if you’re willing to get a little bit creative, roll up your sleeves and do a few things that may not scale.