25 Alternatives to Running Paid Ads to Promote Your Business

Illustration of a business owner in a skincare style shop browsing the shelves with products representing the many ways she can promote her business

Promotion is the secret of the most successful small businesses. 

Good products are the cost of entry, but promotion will bring you the money. Unfortunately, most owners overlook promoting their business. They assume it’s expensive and time-consuming, which encourages an “if you built it, they will come” mentality. 

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

A lot of promotional advice you find recommends pouring money into ads on Facebook, Instagram, or Google. But you can’t put all your eggs in the advertising basket—diversification is key to avoid diminishing returns over time.

You need to create a foundation for your online presence and focus on getting in front of the right people, quickly and efficiently. 

This guide will walk you through free and low-cost ways to promote your business, with examples and resources to put them to work for you today. 

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Free and low-cost ways to promote your business online

Business promotion is more than just publishing images on social media or buying ads. It’s a process to help you achieve measurable success in your business. Here’s how you can promote your business for free to drive traffic and sales for your store: 

Guest post on blogs

Free traffic—as opposed to paid traffic that comes from things like purchased ads—is often hard to come by for new websites. You can start blogging to drive traffic, but it takes time before you start seeing results. While you grow your own audience, guest posting gives you a way to get in front of someone else’s. Not only does this drive traffic back to your website, but the links to your site will help with search engine optimization.

Find and connect with bloggers who have the type of audience you want to reach. Offer to write a guest post that their audience will love. Make sure the topic you write about is also related to your business or it won’t drive any traffic.

Get product reviews

Getting your product reviewed can be a great way to spread awareness and drive sales. Instead of waiting around for someone to review your product, use a blogger outreach campaign to get the ball rolling. You may end up landing a product review in outlets like Buzzfeed, like Shopify merchant RT1home.

RT1Home buzzfeed

Contact bloggers with relevant, engaged audiences and offer to send them new products for free in exchange for an honest review. If you have a great product, they’ll love it and tell everyone.

Do an expert roundup

While blogging is a great way to drive traffic back to your store, it can be a lot of work. This is especially true if you don’t feel very knowledgeable on a topic you need to write about, or you’re not generally comfortable writing. One way around this is to solicit contributions from other bloggers or experts.

Seek out experts on a topic and ask them to contribute an idea, such as a tip, recipe, or story to your blog post. Then, publish a list of all the responses you got back. You’ll be providing your audience with great content from relevant experts, plus the contributors will want to share the article with their own readers, increasing your own reach.

Find affiliates to promote your business

If you want to take product reviews a step further and solicit even more people to promote your product, consider starting an affiliate program. Affiliate marketing incentivizes other people to drive traffic to your business by offering a commission on every sale, similar to referral programs.

Take BarkBox for example. If you look through popular dog accounts on Instagram, many will have a BarkBox affiliate code in their bio, like @henrysworldtoday.

Barkbox affiliate on instagram

Finding your first affiliates can be tough if you don’t have wide brand recognition. Use an outreach campaign to find and recruit your first few affiliates and get the ball rolling. Look for affiliates who have an engaged audience and are already writing about your industry. 

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Get included in gift guides

Gift guides are a list of recommended products or gift ideas, typically centered around a holiday (like Christmas) or a person (like your dad). If you’ve ever Googled for gift ideas you’ve likely come across several gift guides, like this Valentine’s Day gift guide by The New York Times.

NYT gift guide

Getting your product in the right gift guides can increase sales and traffic to your website. However, inclusion in these guides doesn’t happen randomly and requires some effort. In many cases, business owners and marketers lobby to get their products included. Use outreach to contact gift guide publishers and ask to have your product included.

Invest in an infographic

Investing in a professionally designed infographic is one way to drive traffic and potentially build backlinks, which are great for search engine optimization (SEO). The cost ranges greatly for quality infographics—depending on what you need and the skill level of the person you hire—but it can be well worth the investment.

Need an idea for an infographic? Check out sites like Visually for inspiration. Once you’ve chosen an idea, research the topic and identify the points that you’ll cover in the infographic. You can hand this outline over to a professional designer as direction for what you want the infographic to cover (or as a guideline for yourself if you’re going the DIY route, in which case you should check out tools like Canva or Piktochart).

Let’s say you sell bicycles and related gear. You might create an infographic that talks about the environmental benefits of bicycling. Some points or figures you might include in the infographic could be how much a daily commute saves in fuel emissions, as well as a comparison of the total number of car owners and bike owners.

That message speaks to your customer base, but is also compelling enough that many blogs and even news sites might want to feature and link back to it.

Get press coverage

Instead of hiring a PR company, take control of your own publicity. If you have a great story or an interesting product that people will want to write about, put it out there! Get in touch with bloggers and journalists who cover businesses like yours and tell them what you’re up to.

PR is free and gets in front of an audience you may not reach otherwise. Some of my demographic is men 45–50+, and they aren't scrolling Instagram and neither are their wives.

While it’s true that most writers are inundated with requests, they are still always on the lookout for a good story. Make sure you target the right publications (i.e., don’t ask a tech writer to cover your clothing line), and offer them a compelling story to improve your success rate.

When marketing a new business, press coverage is a good way to get your name out there. Mercedes shares how she got free coverage for her nine-month old brand: 

“I built a press list, drafted a strong email and press deck, and started reaching out. It’s generally a two-step email tailored to the journalist’s beat, with the first introducing my brand and the second pitching some ideas that would be well-suited to our audiences.”

Mercedes pitching was a success: she landed “a few hits, but the Globe and Mail was by far the most meaningful and biggest publication” to get cloth from. PR helped drive 50 sales in three days, which was a huge surge in new business for the new business owner. 

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Start email marketing

Email marketing is a great way to attract and retain customers as a small business. You can ask potential customers to sign up for an email list on your social media profiles or ecommerce store. Email is one of the most cost-effective ways to market a new business, with an average return of $42 for every dollar invested. 

Once they opt-in, you can send them promotions, product launches, or content to build a relationship and increase sales. Brands like Cat Caboodle, below, use email to welcome new customers:

The best part? You can create automated email marketing campaigns to send the messages for you. It’s a huge benefit for small business owners who don’t have a ton of time or resources to spend on marketing. 

Cat Caboodle email
Photo courtesy of: Really Good Emails

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Free Ebook: How to Grow Your Ecommerce Business with Email Marketing

Whether you're just getting started or dreaming up your next big campaign, this email marketing guide will provide you with insights and ideas to help your business grow.

Get found in Google Search

When it comes to promoting your online business, SEO is one of the best ways to get traffic and sales over time. Research shows that online businesses receive 35% of total traffic and 33% of revenue from search engine results pages. 

The goal is to get to position one, so when shoppers type in a specific keyword, they find your brand first. These shoppers are considered “high-intent,” which means they are more likely to buy your products compared to people who watch an ad or find you on social media. 

Gymshark ranking for position one

The problem is, small businesses often don’t have the time or resources to do search engine optimization. The upside? Executing the basics is enough to get you ahead of competitors. Use the following beginner tips to start:

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How to promote your business on social media

It’s no secret that social media is a smart way to market your business. But what are the best promotion tactics? Explore the below list:

Get on TikTok

You’ve no doubt heard of TikTok by this point. According to the latest TikTok statistics, the social media platform has over 689 million active monthly users worldwide and has been downloaded over two billion times from the App Store and Google Play. Using TikTok for business is also the easiest way to reach younger demographics like zennials and Gen Z. 

Why get on on board? TikTok uses a proprietary discovery algorithm that helps your videos go viral, whether you have 10 followers or 10,000. It helps businesses scale their social media presence and drive fast growth. 

For example, SendAFriend was able to scale to $5 million in two years, thanks to their TikTok marketing strategy.

Sendafriend TikTok

TikTok is great for building brand awareness. But you can also drive sales with a link-in-bio feature that directs viewers to a landing page. It also has free advertising features like AR filters and lenses to promote your business online in an interactive and fun way.

Learn more: TikTok Marketing: How to Promote Your Products and Connect With Gen Z

Start a YouTube channel

Did you know that YouTube users watch over one billion hours of video on the website every day? Yet only 9% of businesses use YouTube to promote themselves. As YouTube continues to grow and amass more users, it’s a prime marketing opportunity for you to take advantage of. 

First We Feast YouTube Channel

A YouTube channel can help:

  • Build credibility with your audience
  • Create engagement and loyalty
  • Increase your social media presence
  • Drive traffic to your website

Compelling video content is excellent for attracting new customers and engaging with current ones. A basic YouTube marketing strategy will help showcase your brand’s identity and connect with your target audience in a fresh and exciting way. 

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Ask Instagram influencers to promote your product

Sometimes you don’t need to write a guest post or ask other people to review your product. When you find the right match for your brand, a simple mention on Instagram can go a long way. This is especially true for apparel products, where the right mention or stylish photo can drive tons of sales.

Use an outreach campaign to connect with Instagram influencers—whether they have a blog or not—and arrange sponsored posts. Look for Instagrammers with audiences that would like your product and ask them to feature your product in a photo. Make sure you have your own Instagram account set up so they can tag you.

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Post compelling content frequently

To grow your social following over time, it’s crucial to post content consistently. Studies suggest that audiences respond differently depending on your posting frequency, so make sure you test to figure out the best cadence for your brand. You can also compare your posting frequency and engagement rates to your competitors.

On platforms like Instagram, you can post different types of content throughout the day. @kyliecosmetics publishes a mix of single image posts, Reels, and IGTV content. It shares a mix of product-related and user-generated content to keep followers interested and engaged. 

KylieCosmetics IG

Numerous companies have looked into the optimal number of times to post on each channel, and it’s worth pointing out the potential appetite of users on each platform. But as consultant Jay Baer notes, your daily or weekly cadence is minutiae compared to having a marketing plan and a process to create genuinely compelling posts on a regular basis. There are no “neutral” reactions, so if it’s not good, don’t post it.

Two helpful marketing tools for scheduling future posts are Hootsuite and Buffer. You can integrate them with your browser and dozens of other apps to schedule posts and track engagement metrics for your social networks. These apps can help you cut down on time spent executing your online marketing strategies.

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Automate word-of-mouth with social reviews

Using product reviews and testimonials to create trust and gain insights into your products is a great way to increase online sales.

Yotpo is a review app available for Shopify sites that encourages customers to leave reviews after they’ve made a purchase. The process is automated, so you don’t have to manually reach out to customers yourself.

Connect your business’s social accounts and post the reviews directly to your pages. These reviews provide fresh content and help drive traffic from social to your site, which in turn boosts online sales.

Create micro-content for social feeds

Consider the context in which most users are browsing social media. Maybe they’re on a mobile device during their commute, taking a quick brain break at their desk at work, or killing time as they wait for their show to come back on after the commercials.

There’s one thing those scenarios have in common: Social media users are often scrolling in-between other tasks. That’s why bite-sized content is an effective way to captivate your audience. This social media marketing strategy works particularly well on platforms made specifically for quick experiences, such as Snapchat.

For example, let’s say you sell products for soccer players. On your blog, you write an article titled “7 Training Exercises to Improve Your Soccer Skills.” You then repurpose that content into seven pieces of micro-content for use on social—one for each exercise. That would play much better than trying to cram an entire article into a much smaller social media experience.

Host a Twitter chat with your audience

Engagement is critical to keep any online community alive and well. A great tactic to grow your Twitter following and boost online sales is by hosting a weekly Twitter chat.

You can either co-host an existing Twitter chat or start your own. Co-hosting allows you to tap into an existing audience, while you’d need to do more work promoting it if you were to host on your own. Over time, others in the space will take part and you’ll gradually establish your brand as an authority in the space.

Tip: Pick a hashtag related to the Twitter chat and ask your community to use it within their tweets. This helps with branding, makes the practice familiar to those who choose to take part, and allows you to search the chat later for content and recaps.

Make it easy to share your products

Social share buttons are a key element to increasing the “virality” of your site, which can in turn drive traffic and boost online sales. Make sure the buttons to the popular social networks—Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest—are easy for users to find.

You might want buttons that match your store’s visual aesthetic, like Culture Kings has on its product pages.

Culture kings social sharing products

To implement this social media marketing tip on your own online store, consider an app like Social Share Buttons and Popup, which has its own analytics and can help you optimize positioning and layout.

Be active on the right #hashtags

What does a hashtag do for your marketing efforts? The hashtag has organized a big part of the social web according to conversations, making it easy to join in on discussions and events by posting under the ones that are relevant to your brand.

You can use hashtags on posts in your feed or on Instagram Stories, like @havertysfurniture for National Turtle Day.

Instagram hashtags to promote business

A social media monitoring tool like Hootsuite can help you find, like, retweet, and reply to posts under several hashtags. You can use a tool like Hashtagify to find other hashtags related to the one you’re trying to target.

Be careful not to treat hashtags the same on every channel. Here are some general best practices from various studies we’ve come across:

  • Twitter posts with a single well-placed hashtag tend to generate more engagements than tweets with three or more.
  • Instagram posts, on the other hand, see the most engagement when using multiple hashtags, even 10+ in a single post.
  • LinkedIn posts do better with a maximum of five hashtags.
  • Facebook posts do better without hashtags.

If you know of a high-profile event coming up, you can prepare in advance to make sure you’re ready to get in on the action. The more targeted, the better. If you’re a fashion brand, for example, consider live-tweeting or covering high-profile events and commenting on what celebrities are wearing.

Most events are accompanied by hashtags that you can hop on. But the key to hijacking a hashtag is not to hijack it at all. Instead, you should aim to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful, natural way.

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Create quizzes and other interactive content

In school, the idea of a quiz might’ve gotten groans all around. But thanks to Buzzfeed, quizzes have made a strong comeback.

These pieces of interactive content work really well on social media—that is, if they can provoke quiz-takers to show off their results publicly. To do that, you need to create a quiz that tells people something about themselves or how much they know so they’re compelled to share it to reflect themselves.

If you want to try building your own, I suggest Playbuzz: a free and easy-to-use tool for creating interactive content.

Enable Shopping on Instagram

One of the biggest challenges for brands on Instagram is linking. And when the main goal is to drive traffic and, ultimately, sales, that can be a big hurdle. One way to work around this to boost online sales is to add products to your Instagram posts and Stories.

Take a look at this example from Madewell to see it in action:

Instagram Shopping example

Essentially, you put virtual “tags” on your product photos (and stickers in your Instagram Stories). Mobile users can then click on these tags to see how much a product costs, and they can tap to learn more and make a purchase. It’s one of the most seamless ways to blend Instagram and ecommerce.

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Test out retargeting ads

As it becomes increasingly more difficult for business pages to gain traction in the News Feed organically, paid retargeted ads on social media have become a crucial component to many websites’ marketing strategies.

You also have more control over targeting who you want to see your content, as opposed to being limited to your existing audience for your organic efforts. The best part is, you can start with as little as $50.

When you run retargeted ads, you send ads to users who have been to your site. These ads can be personalized based on their behavior. Here’s an example of a retargeted ad from Frank Body.

Frank Body retargeting ad for business promotion

Free Reading List: Social Media Marketing Tactics

Want to learn more about how social media can help drive sales? Download our free, curated list of high-impact articles.

How to promote your business locally

Recent consumer trend data from Shopify revealed that more than half of North American buyers changed the way they’ll shop going forward. One breakout trend has been support for local and small businesses. Here’s how you can take advantage of this: 

Create a Google My Business profile

Google My Business is an easy-to-use listing tool to manage your presence across Google Search and Maps. It’s the best way to promote on Google for free and get in front of prospective customers. 

“Google My Business gives local businesses a separate online presence other than their website,” says Amy Falcione, founder of local marketing agency Big Picture Marketing. “Your listing gives a brief but detailed description of what your business offers and who you are.”

Without doing much work, customers can find out a lot about your business, quickly, through Google My Business. 

Amy explains that people use Google My Business to check and see if you’re legitimate. You can add photos and videos of your shop, and provide links to your website or appointment booking software. You can even give people a look inside your business to build trust and credibility with potential customers. 

If someone decides they want to engage with your business, they have your contact information, website, and business address right in the listing. People can easily visit you online or in-person.

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Join local events

A local event refers to any affair that attracts an audience from a local market. Artisan markets, craft shows, trade shows, and festivals are examples of events small businesses can promote themselves at locally.

“Right now, many local businesses are meeting online. They are using live streams and online meetups to show off products online and reach people at scale,” Amy tells Shopify. “But as areas start to open back up, we don’t want to overlook the power of local in-person events.”

Local events help small business owners meet customers one-on-one and create individual connections. People can touch, feel, and smell whatever you’re selling and interact with your products. 

“Another way to promote your business locally is through workshops and lectures,” says Amy. “For example, if you run a candle making business, you can run local workshops to teach people how to make their own candles. It’s a great way to build your reputation in the community and increase brand awareness.”

Offer local delivery

People are buying more from independent businesses. Our consumer trend data shows that nearly a third of buyers bought something online and had it delivered to their home during the first three months of the pandemic. 

Offering local delivery is a smart way to capitalize on this trend. When a customer orders something from your online store, you can personally deliver it to their doorstep. It serves as an alternative to traditional carrier shipping and in-store shopping, and is a thoughtful way to sell to concerned customers. 

Data from Shopify also shows that online shoppers spend 23% more and have a 25% higher cart size when local delivery and pick up are offered by independent retailers.

Chris's ice cream local delivery
Local retailer Chris's Ice Cream offers free local delivery with minimum purchase order.

Want to add local delivery to your small business? We recommend reading Add Local Delivery Service to Drive Online Sales to learn how. 

Get local press

Another great way to promote your business locally is by getting local press coverage. Getting a story in the local news is not only free but can also drive thousands of potential customers to your website or local shop. 

“Start by creating a press list of all the publications you want coverage in,” Amy says, “then write your own press release and start pitching it to reporters. Make it easy for them by getting your own quotes and statistics and making your story sound newsworthy.”

Amy recommends the following tips when writing your press release:

  • Avoid sounding salesy.
  • Focus on how your product helps the community.
  • Mention if you’ll be hiring local workers.
  • Discuss locally sourced products you use.

Press releases that focus on community empowerment encourage local reporters to cover your business. If you can nail down getting local press, you’ll be able to capture your audience’s attention and interest in no time. 

Free: Press Release Template

To help you get started, we put together this template to help you structure your story using a common press release format. You can replace each component with your own information and adapt it according to your needs.

Improving your digital marketing game

There’s no doubt that promoting your business isn’t just a nice-to-have. As we head into 2021, businesses need low-cost and free marketing tactics to help meet their business goals—whether it’s raising brand awareness, driving website website traffic, or making sales. 

You don’t need to launch all 25 of these tactics right away. Start with one or two and see how they work. Then continue to add more as you get more comfortable. It’ll make sure your marketing efforts are focused and put your time and money to good use. 

Illustration by Rachel Tunstall


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Business promotion FAQ

How can I promote my small business?

  • Guest posting
  • Product reviews
  • SEO
  • Email marketing
  • Press coverage
  • Social media
  • Locally

How can I advertise my business for free?

  • Guest post on blogs
  • Get product reviews
  • Find affiliates to promote your business
  • Get press coverage
  • Use Instagram influencers 
  • Start a TikTok

How do I get more customers for my business?

  • Build an online store
  • Get online reviews
  • Offer discounts and incentives for new customers
  • Partner with influencers

How do I attract and keep customers?

  • Offer high-quality products
  • Develop good people skills
  • Understand your customers 
  • Follow up with old customers regularly
  • Offer samples
  • Have attractive packaging
  • Create a loyalty program
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