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How to use grassroots marketing to build a buzz

Generate awareness for your business with these five non-traditional marketing strategies.

The U.S. Small Business Administration recommends small businesses spend 7% to 8% of their revenues on marketing if they earn less than $5 million.

Business owners can maximize that investment with low-cost grassroots marketing campaigns, which can turn prospects and customers into advocates who promote their businesses to family, friends, and colleagues.

Grassroots marketing — also known as viral marketing, guerilla marketing, or word-of-mouth marketing — relies on creativity instead of cash and can be more effective than traditional advertising because it is considered more credible. In fact, a 2015 Infusionsoft survey found word of mouth is the most effective marketing strategy for small business owners, 62% of whom ranked it among their top three marketing strategies.2

Here are five strategies that can help you turn customers and prospects into passionate advocates for your business.

1. Host an event

People are more likely to talk about experiences than products, so hosting an event is a great way to engage customers while giving them positive stories to share. A restaurant, for example, could host a happy hour with free hors-d'oeuvres. A florist could offer a class on arranging flowers, and an accountant could lead a seminar on basic bookkeeping. When hosting events, demonstrate your expertise by providing helpful information and answering customer questions.

2. Hold a contest

Contests can get people excited about your business by offering them opportunities to win prizes. Hold a photo contest where customers submit pictures of themselves using your products or your logo. Host a slogan contest where customers can help develop your brand, or consider a referral contest rewarding customers for recommending other customers. Make your contest rules clear and fair, and show off your products and services by using them as prizes. Consult your attorney regarding local laws governing the conduct of sweepstakes and other competitions.

3. Distribute samples

Sampling is a tried-and-true way to generate buzz because people are more likely to promote products and services they've tried and liked. If you run a bakery, drop off cupcakes for employees at neighboring businesses. Or if you're a stylist, volunteer to do makeup one day a month at the local senior center. This grassroots marketing strategy can help you connect with your community and get customers hooked on your products.

4. Leverage social media

Conversation is currency. Thanks to social media, it's easier than ever for advocates to spread your message online. Give them something to talk about by posting pictures, videos, and stories, — all of which do well on social networks — especially if they're funny or heartwarming. Keep your posts relevant to your business. A personal trainer might share inspirational quotes, for example, while a veterinarian could post funny animal videos. Even a simple "thank you" post and image for your Facebook fans could go viral within their personal networks.

5. Surprise your customers

Grassroots marketing is all about being memorable, so reach out to customers in creative ways. Recruit local art students to create sidewalk ads for your business with chalk or washable paint at a public park. Ask friends and employees to wear temporary tattoos with your logo as they walk around a neighborhood street fair, or perform random acts of kindness, such as cleaning cars after a snowstorm and leaving your business card on the windshields. These unusual marketing efforts will leave a strong impression on people, who might spread the word about your brand.

Whatever the campaign, the key to non-traditional marketing is reaching the right people with the right message.

"The success of grassroots marketing efforts often rides not only on how creative [you] are, but also on how well [your business] connect[s] with the small demographic you're going for," says Sherry Holub, creative director of JV Media Design, a web design and strategic marketing firm. "Study your demographic, and learn what they like and what they find to be fun and creative."

Ready to showcase your business? Consider hosting a small business open house event.

1 "How to Set a Marketing Budget that Fits your Business Goals and Provides a High Return on Investment." U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). (2013)

2 "Sales and Marketing Proves a Difficult Challenge for Small Businesses." Infusionsoft. (2015)