Internet Marketing on a Budget

Are you $20 million short in your marketing budget? Super Bowl ads didn’t happen this year? A promising dot-com can still launch and make a big impact without a huge marketing budget. You just need brains, hustle and a willingness to work a little harder to get the word out.

For those of us who have been in the Internet business since the beginning (1992 in my case), this is nothing new. The spirit of the Internet is about being able to reach around big corporations and market directly to customers with the unique tools that the Internet has created. Internet start-ups with $20 million to spend are and were aberrations. It’s time to get back to basics. Real entrepreneurs should be excited – the time to kick butt is back!

So let’s review the best of the tricks we used in the past to get big exposure with little cash.

PR beats marketing every time. There is no better way to get the word out than a successful press release. Even a small story gets more credibility and more readership than the largest paid ad. Write a good release, pitch it like crazy and watch what happens. When a reporter covers your press release, it changes status from corporate promotion to real news. And you get more readership than a paid ad in the same publication. This is free. Do it monthly.

Steal a brand. Big companies need your help as much as you need their exposure. Partner with a large company that has an established brand that you can attach to your own. The best examples are CBS Sportsline and CBS Healthwatch. Not only did CBS invest in those sites, the CBS brand, money and free airtime catapulted them to the top of their category. This works just as well on a smaller scale. Build relationships with trade magazines and other media targeted toward your market. There’s always a mutually beneficial deal to be done.

Sales = money. In the end, you can’t beat getting on the phone and selling your product. You need real salespeople who can dial for dollars. Many Internet executives come from a media or advertising culture, and they forget about or neglect the sales force. Each salesperson usually brings in more money – via more customers – than you pay him. It’s an investment that pays off every time. The salespeople in your company should make more than the CEO – they deliver the cash.

Be a lead machine. Advertising brings in leads, but there are easier ways that don’t involve giant buckets of cash. We have interns and temps combing the Web, conference directories, trade magazines and any other source of leads. They find a name, look up the address, put it into the database and turn it over to our sales team. You can pull 100 qualified leads a day out of thin air. Spend $200 per week on an intern before you spend $20,000 on an ad.

E-mail newsletters spread the word. A good e-mail newsletter is the mother of all low-cost marketing techniques. You get to communicate with (read: advertise to) potential customers and existing customers every week for free. Even better, they send your ads to their friends, who continue to spread the word. used e-mail newsletters as its primary marketing technique to become a successful, profitable online drug site. burned $114 million, much of it on TV advertising. went through only $6 million before reaching profitability. could use some medication.

Be an evangelist. Apple Computer invented the concept of corporate evangelism. You can create true believers in your product who will spread the word to more and more customers. This is never an accident. You need full-time employees whose job it is to tell people about what you are doing. They need to talk to reporters, visit customers, work the trade shows, speak at conferences and do anything else possible to make people love your product. Companies like Sun and Microsoft each year hold hundreds of events that are more about socializing and building enthusiasm than their advertised purpose.

Let other people sell it. If you compare Web sites in the same category, you’ll discover that the one with the bigger affiliate program almost always wins. Affiliate programs let other sites drive paying customers to you. You should offer commissions that are at least as much as your cost of customer acquisition because you get the same result with none of the work. Even better, you get the bonus of all that free advertising on the affiliate Web sites. Services like Linkshare take all of the work out of the program.

Network like a maniac. The best deals are made because of personal relationships. If you’re not out there meeting people, you never will be on the short list when new opportunities arise. Be at dinners, breakfast panels and anywhere else you can meet peers. It’s exhausting, but it pays off every time.

Swap ads. One of the most beautiful things about a Web site or an e-mail newsletter is that you can create as much advertising room as you need. Swap a banner on your site for one on a site where you would have had to pay for ads. The more you trade, the more traffic you get, which gives you more inventory to trade next time. If you get good at this, you can trade for 100 percent of your advertising needs – at no cost.

Great customer service. In the end, this is all that really matters. Happy customers make a company successful. Drop everything else to make customers happy. There are lots of fancy terms for this, like “one-to-one marketing,” but it’s not that complicated. Sell a good product at a fair price and treat your customers well. They’ll be back for more.

• Andy Sernovitz is president of GasPedal Ventures, New York; founder and president emeritus of the Association for Interactive Media; and a teacher at the Wharton School of Business. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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