Working Without a Marketing Budget Isn’t the Same as Working Without a Net

“I can’t start a business without money! I may be able to bootstrap the company, but I still have to pay for advertising.”

I have heard variations on this theme for years. I even heard a version from a family member attempting to convince another family member to invest in her business when I was about ten. Maybe it was true fifteen years ago, although I don’t remember enough about the pre-web world to say.

But a marketing budget isn’t all that necessary these days. It’s rare that paying for marketing is the only way to get a product or service in front of the right customer. Odds are good that a single honest review on the right website will get you a lot more business these days.

A Short Case Study: reddit*

I had the pleasure of hearing Alexis Ohanian speak about entrepreneurship last month. Ohanian, who co-founded reddit, noted that the company’s entire marketing budget when starting up was $500. That was spent exclusively on stickers. He notes,

After we were acquired, Condé Nast funded an openbar meetup tour (Drankkit) for redditors and also prize money for a build-a-subreddit contest I ran early on to encourage folks to create & grow subreddits.

That’s been the extent of any marketing dollars we spent on growing reddit and they all came post-acquisition.

To give you an idea of the enormity of that statement, here are some figures.

  • In February 2011, the site received one billion page views.
  • I found conflicting reports of the number of active reddit users at this point (ranging from 8 million to 20 million), but that same announcement in February showed over 13.7 million unique visitors.
  • Condé Nast, the company that bought reddit in 2006, is also the publisher of The New Yorker, Vogue, Wired Magazine and a bunch of other big name publications. (For the record, earlier this year, reddit was split off from Condé Nast and now operates as a subsidiary of Condé Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications).

But What About Viral Videos and All the Rest?

There’s a certain sense that we’re living in an age of amazing marketing: Old Spice can create a series of amazing videos that become a part of our culture overnight. Social media, content marketing and all the rest make it possible for marketing materials to rival the winners of Pulitzers, Emmys and other creative awards.

I’m a fan.

But this age of amazing marketing also has opened up opportunities for new businesses to get by without spending any money. It seems counter-intuitive, I know, but hear me out. Marketing is no longer wholesale. If you can slide an absolutely fabulous product in front of one right person, you’ll get the right coverage on social media, through word of mouth or wherever else you need it. You just need to think retail — making that one perfect sale or, rather, connection.

The Old Spice videos were fairly retail, when you get down to it. Here, watch one:

I promise: this post did not start out as an excuse for me to go watch Isaiah Mustafa. But the fact that I enjoy watching these videos over and over again is interesting. I’m right in the group that Old Spice was reaching out to with these videos. I’m nerdy enough that I can navigate my way through a throng of response videos on YouTube. My sense of humor is just a tad quirky. I’m firmly in favor of Isaiah Mustafa walking around without his shirt on. I’m not an Old Spice user, but I encouraged my husband to try out Old Spice after seeing this series of ads.

I’m certainly not the only person who meets that criteria, or the video above wouldn’t have reached 37 million odd views on YouTube. But it’s still not everyone. My dad doesn’t fall into that description, despite being a potential Old Spice customer. My granddad certainly doesn’t, either. Old Spice went retail, in targeting younger consumers who meet a certain set of qualifications. They have other promotions to get their products in front of other demographics.

Don’t Worry About the Marketing Budget

If you have a trust fund or other giant pile of money that you’re just itching to spend, I’m all in favor of devoting some of it to marketing. That is, of course, assuming that you have something great to market.

For those of us starting with a little less backing, coming up with a little cash for a marketing budget is not going to offer any sort of safety net. Rather, you need to build something fabulous. Write the best book possible. Design the best web app on the face of the plant. Whatever you want to sell, knock it all the way out of the park. When you know you’ve got a home run on your hands, start thinking in terms of specific connections you can reach out to or build.

For the best children’s books ever, start reaching out to big name mommy bloggers and book reviewers. Send them emails, follow them on Twitter and — preferably without being a suck up or pain in the posterior — build a standing connection with them. When you’re ready to start selling, then it’s just a question of asking to send such folks a review copy. If you’re shooting for a small business web app, a sports shoe, a non-profit fundraiser or anything else, the type of person you’re looking for changes, but the strategy does not. Think of the individuals who are going to be interested in what you’re offering and go from there.

*reddit is uncapitalized. I’ve got some great editors in the audience and I don’t want to give anyone a heart attack when you see how many times I’ve left this business name uncapitalized.

Image by Flickr user Freddie Brown