While there are plenty of services that can provide you with digital marketing services, there are also plenty of things you can do for free to help promote your business online. I've gathered a number of ideas here to help you with your online marketing efforts.
SEO and Local Optimization
Search engine optimization (SEO) is one way to drive traffic to your website without paying out of pocket. Of course the more competition in your area of business, the more time consuming this becomes. Anyone retailing on a national scale is likely to have someone doing SEO full time, or to be hiring an outside agency like mccardellwrite. So in this case, you can't call it free. But SEO is technically just something that takes time, so if you have more time than money, explore this topic and put it to work for you.
I've written one overview on SEO that you may find helpful.
If you're a local business only, then there's much less competition, and you have a better chance of succeeding on your own. To do this, make sure you are clear not only about your business type, but also about your business location. Some businesses will do this in the footer of their website, so the areas served appear on every page of the site. This helps the search engines connect your area to your products and services, so if someone types "Your City, Your State, Your Product / Service" into Google ("Rochester Michigan barber," for instance), you're more likely to show up.
Use Local Online Directories
If you're a local business, you also want to make sure your business is listed in the most important local directories. While there are paid options to get your details out to several data feeds, you can list your business for free and get plenty of traction with a few of the biggest sites.
The following links take you to the local directories for the three big U.S. search engines; the others are high-traffic sites people specifically visit to learn about and review local businesses. (See "Online Reviews" in a next section.)
Google My Business | Yahoo Local | Bing Places | Yelp.com | Angie's List
Get Online Reviews
Be aware that people can review your business in online directories. This isn't great for those who offer poor products and services, but it's great for you. The more people review your site, the more likely it is to get increased online visibility and credibility.
In the strictest terms, some of these sites don't want you requesting people to review your business, but businesses have always asked for testimonials. It just makes good marketing sense. The key is not to incentivize them to leave a review. Let them know they can find you on any of the above sites, and that you welcome honest feedback about your business so you can offer the best possible service. Those who use the sites may choose to review you. This helps keep you and your employees on your toes, too, to offer the very best experience you can for each customer. Because it will matter.
A word of caution: people may review your site only to have the review site then negate the review. This can happen for many reasons, and it's a bit controversial, but the idea is that the review sites are trying to prevent spammy reviews, which makes sense. So not all reviews you receive will do you good, but positive reviews can't hurt!
Social Media Marketing
This refers to connecting with others on social networks like Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Twitter, and others for business purposes. Of course it's probably a good idea to focus your efforts on a small number of social networks, and potentially even just one.
Choose the networks you want to spend time on carefully so you're connecting with the right audience for you and not spending too much of your work day on these networks. Pinterest, for instance, is a great place to focus if your audience includes more women than men and involves products -- especially unique products -- that allow you to post unique, fun, or interesting pictures. Facebook has the largest audience, but has made it increasingly difficult to reach an audience without paying. (There are also a lot of e-commerce plug-ins for Facebook. These aren't free, but can plug into the free community you're building.) Google+ has Google's fantastic search built into it, but it's not a terribly active community. LinkedIn is better, in my opinion, for business to business networking.
Key to any of these networks is to remember that people don't socialize to get sold on products. They love finding cool products, and don't mind these being part of a conversation. But make sure you're engaging them with news about your industry, or tips on how to improve their lives with things they've already bought from you, etc. In other words, remember to give as well as ask. Even better if you're giving much more often than asking.
Note: many of these sites require you to set up your business page through a personal page. So you have to personally log in and then choose to build a business page from there. There is a certain level of connection that has frustrated many a business owner, but this is necessary at least at the time of this writing.
Note #2: services like Buffer allow you to line up several social posts ahead of time and schedule them for later posting. Buffer is free up to a point that will be just fine for many businesses.
Help a Reporter Out (HARO)
If you can spend 5 minutes a day scanning an e-mail, you can watch for bloggers and reporters writing stories on a variety of topics. If any of these topics relate to your business and you reach out quickly to the writer, you could get featured in an article and potentially score a link to your website. This is the most natural type of link possible, as it is someone else developing serious content and linking to an authority on the topic. And it's related to your business. So this is potentially very beneficial to you in terms of search engine visibility ... and of course people can learn about your expertise as well, reinforcing your credibility in the marketplace.
Join Help a Reporter Out for free.
Become a Resource
You don't just have to wait for a writer / reporter to be doing a story that's related to your business. You can actively reach out to related blogs or media and simply let them know that you are available as a resource. Let them know that you're happy to answer questions by phone or e-mail, and that you will do your best to respect their time and deadlines. Let them know you can even provide articles if that will help them out. In short, be ready to give. (And sure ... you can hire an expert writer to assist if you need to, though then this stops being a "free" marketing idea. If you could just find an expert writer around here somewhere. ...)
Again, any coverage you get can help to provide credibility and the most useful kind of links in an age when a legitimate link is not easy to come by. This can mean a lot to your business long term.
You can also, by the way, add articles and meaningful blog posts to your site, which provides the media (including bloggers) resources to link to when they want to reference facts in your industry. These articles / blog posts also provide a number of other benefits in your overall marketing efforts, and might even be a nice outlet for someone in your business with industry knowledge they want to share!
Free E-mail Tracking
Do you use Gmail for your business? If so, you can track all your e-mails to see when people have opened them and when they click on links with MailTrack. The service is free if you don't mind having the MailTrack signature -- personally, I pay a small monthly fee to have this removed (and get other features).
Alternately, for either Gmail or Outlook, Yesware allows you to track up to 100 e-mails per month for free. Since most of us would blow through that pretty quickly, you can choose which e-mails to track. Or, upgrade and get unlimited tracking along with other features like "Send Later" and "Reminders" to follow up on important e-mails.
Probably the most popular social bar system available, AddThis is free (with upgrades available of course) and allows you to include social buttons on your site (to generate engagement, which may be useful for search engine purposes besides driving social traffic). It also lets you add a message bar to the top of your site, drive readers to content across your site, and much more.
A word of caution: some studies show that these boxes don't add a lot of sharing, and the extra code can slow your site a little bit. But the service offers several functions for your website, and it's worth checking out to see what meets your needs.
I look forward to adding more ideas over time. If you think of something that ought to be listed here, feel free to drop me a line!