Startup guide to (virtually) free digital marketing


With the number of startups rising and the economy still taking it’s Jack and Jill like tumble down the hill, it’s no surprise that cunning entrepreneurs are trying to delve into digital for as little cost as possible. It would seem the smartest ones aren’t just engaging with their audience and heightening brand awareness but are seeing healthy ROI on their minimal pocket manuevering.

I thought it would be cool to write an article that kickstarts startups (Yes, I know that’s a mouthful!) into using digital marketing to their advantage from ‘Day 0’. If you like, the crib sheet that students pass around after they’ve registered their 5 letter domain name that no doubt in a few years’ time will be a household name. Keep your eyes peeled for DKSLW.COM, future billionaires!

So, on the first day came marketing, and of course we all know what the early adopters of that strategy did right? Drink, smoke, philander with the nearest intern, and when they had a minute, come up with a slogan or two. That might be a slight generalisation. Fast forward 60 years and we are now in a world that ‘Mad Men’ would be totally lost in. In fact, I would argue that there has never been an age in marketing which drives people as mad as it does today, however the digital marketing avenues open for start-ups to drive their rusty, backfiring hatchback down are wide, plentiful and often financially fruit bearing.

One of the most brilliant things about the digital marketing age is how well documented it is online and how much free educational material there is available. Throughout this article I’ll let you know some of the best resources out there.

Let’s get going as I take you through 6 key digital areas that I believe your startup can benefit from virtually for free.

1. SEO

Get educated:

Seo Moz
Search Engine Land
Distilled U

SEO or ‘search engine optimisation’ is the practice of making your website appear as high up the search engine results pages or ‘SERPs’ as possible. People often think about it as a highly technical process carried out by Mark Zuckerberg’s and Bill Gate’s robotically created love children, re-writing code for a business’s website over weeks and weeks of red-bull-drinking, frantic-keyboard-tapping madness.

While that may have happened at some point in time (or not), the ways in which you can get friendly with Google, Bing or Yahoo these days has changed and although they’re always playing hard to get, there are some basic (and free) ways in which you can ask them out for dinner and they accept with a wink and a smile.

Get your hands dirty with basic HTML – Cost: £0

HTML really isn’t as scary as it sounds, after all, like other coding languages, it’s been designed by people who want to make it easy for themselves to work with. It’s become the most used code for a reason, and because of that, there are tonnes of free resources available like w3schools and

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty with your website code, no matter what your developer told you, making sure a few basics like ‘title tags’, ‘meta tags’, ‘meta descriptions’ and ‘h1 tags’ are correct is easy and allows your website to be seen easily by search engines.

Get out there and build links – Cost: £0

The fundamental ‘link building’ theory is that if has 10 links pointing to it from around the web and has 100 links, search engines are likely to rank higher.

I used to work in the music industry, and I remember speaking to an A&R guy once who said the first thing a band should do is get a local following. If a band can’t do that then why should a label be interested. I think it applies to link building, and marketing in general, very well. Get your local community involved first.

This doesn’t always have to be relevant to your industry. Let’s say you run a hair salon and you have a favourite coffee shop nearby. There’s nothing stopping you from writing a blog about how much you love it, see if they’ll post it on their blog and ask for a link back. There’s so much opportunity for getting great links, you just have to get out there and do it!

Create quality content – Cost: £0 (virtually)

Another way to get links is by sharing some great content. That could be a brilliant blog, an imaginative infographic, a memorable meme or a viral video, anything that you think people would want to spread around online. The more people link to it, post it, pin it, tweet it or embed it, the more links you’ll have going back to your site and that will have a positive effect on your search ranking.

Now you may feel that nothing you produce could ever penetrate the swathe of content that is out there but if we all thought that, no one would bother! You don’t have to make the next viral phenomena, create something for your industry, online or local community, or importantly, your customers. If it’s something that people near to you want to share, it’s a success!

You might be wondering how creating great content can be virtually free and as I think content is the most important part of digital marketing I’m going to write a whole other section on it, including ways to keep the costs really, really low. Keep reading this article to find out more.

2. PPC

Get educated:

Google AdWord Online Classroom
PPC Blog
PPC Hero

‘Pay-Per-Click’ is a type of online advertising that search engines offer to anyone to help them promote their business. Of course by definition there are costs involved with any PPC campaign, however the great thing about this kind of advertising is that you are totally in control of the budget.

You can also set limits on how much you spend per day or over the entire campaign. If your website is optimised so users can easily buy your product, sign up to your mailing list or get in touch with you, this way of advertising can reap some pretty tasty rewards.

Become best buds with Google AdWords – Cost: £0

With 82% of all search queries in 2011 being entered into Google’s no frills text box, it’s no surprise that the most powerful tool in the PPC shed is Google AdWords. If you can get your head around it, you’re in a powerful position to take advantage of one of the most targeted forms of advertising that’s ever existed, and it’s not that hard to get your head around!

Research and define your keywords early – Cost: £0

You’ve probably seen the term ‘keywords’ crop up a lot within the digital world and with good reason. They are as fundamental to SEO and PPC as a knife and fork is to eating and the sooner you have a think about them, the better. They are often mistakenly thought as singular words but a keyword can be made up of a few words as we know them. For example, if you’re a florist in London, a keyword could be ‘pink wedding flowers london’.

Put yourself in the mind of someone sitting at their computer looking to buy from you. What are the words they are going to type in that search box?

With PPC, essentially you enter a bidding auction to appear in the paid advertising space. The more broad and competitive the keywords are, the more they’ll want to charge you to appear in a certain position, so there is a skill in choosing keywords that work well for you. It can be a bit of trial and error at first but once you have your core keywords working for you, you’ll soon notice a smile on your face when you cash up in the evenings.

Monitor your campaign closely – Cost: £0

You can’t just setup your PPC campaign and expect the profit fairies to look after it for you. Whether you’re running a campaign on Google AdWords, Facebook or LinkedIn, the various platforms provide you with in-depth performance data so you know when to spend a bit more here, change the ad copy there, or come up with some new keywords or creative. A few minutes a day is well worth the effort.

3. Social Media

Get educated:

Digital Buzz
Mashable Social Media

Probably the most underused marketing platform in existence!

Sounds like a bold statement I know but it’s true. Almost all businesses who want to make an online effort have a Facebook and Twitter page, of course they do, but very few actually use it to its potential. It’s not just about posting updates on what blog you’ve read, or something funny you’ve seen in the paper. Although they can be interesting for your audience, chances are they’ll skip over it and you may well have not bothered.

Another thing to think about is choosing the correct social network for your business, not everyone needs a Pinterest page, and not all businesses need a YouTube channel. There’s nothing worse than sending a potential customer to a social channel that has nothing going on, so be selective. Better to have one that’s active and actually creating results, than many that are ineffective.

Get your social media and brand looking the same – Cost: £0 (virtually)

It really doesn’t take much to achieve this. The first two are your Facebook cover photo and your Twitter background. Other networks like LinkedIn and MySpace are also easy to customise. The way in which you stamp your brand on your social networks can be as simple as keeping the imagery colour consistent with your logo or as clever as having your Facebook cover photo cleverly interact with your profile picture, like these.

If you’re wondering how to make the graphics for each space, as someone who used to work as a graphic designer, simple is always better. That’s something to keep in mind with your logo too. Places like Fiverr are great for this sort of thing. Even a local designer will do you a logo for less than you think, they usually like supporting startups.

Engage with your audience – Cost: £0

You can post videos of skateboarding cats all day long but not only is it irrelevant, it’s rather one dimensional, don’t you think? Even posting blogs related to your field is cool but doesn’t give people a memorable experience.

Like my point about SEO, it’s all about content here so take a leap and come up with something that involves them. A lot of the time this can be the digital recording of an otherwise analogue event.

Say you own a cake shop, why not run a competition for customers to win a free cake making class. Get it filmed and edited in a nice way, again keeping it looking consistent with your brand, even if it’s just your logo in the corner. Pop it on Facebook and say you’re running the class again for 10 people who share the video. This gives the participants of the class a memorable experience, they will of course want to share the video, and for those watching on your social network, it shows them you appreciate your customers and gives them an incentive to share it also.

Inform customers about your products – Cost: £0

All too often I see social media that forgets the most important thing of all. Promoting what you sell! As I’ve said, it’s all about showing who you are and engaging with people but don’t forget to mention your products/service!

I’m not saying it has to be shout-it-out-loud obvious but there’s subtle and then there’s silence! Let’s take the cake shop example again. There’s no harm in mentioning in the video while using various utensils or decorations that they’re available in your store. When you post the video on Facebook, you could say you’re running an offer on one of the items used in the video.

4. PR

Get educated:

PR Media Blog
In Front Of Your Nose
PR In Your Pajamas

Tell your own story – Cost: £0

The most unique piece of marketing ammo you have is you, so don’t tell your story by pandering to what you think others will want to hear. Tell YOUR story, the way YOU want to tell it. Let’s take this article, I’m writing it in my style so that people can get a sense of who I am as a person. I would hope that people can tell right away that although I talk a lot and make often terrible jokes, I’m actually a savvy guy who can communicate himself in a way that sticks with people, not just generic drivel that puts people to sleep. (Hold on a minute, wake up! WAKE UP!!!)

For example, let’s say you want to do a promo video for your latest product or offer. Don’t deliver to camera exactly the same as your competition. Find a way that sets you apart from the rest. This can be as simple as delivering your message amongst your team or customers around a sofa as opposed to by yourself from your desk.

Exaggerate (within reason), sell yourself – Cost: £0

People call me cynical for saying so but there is PR in everything! The most magnified example of that is celebrity PR and we don’t have to go far to find the latest scandal. I very rarely believe anything in that fabricated world. These ‘leaks’ and ‘revelations’ are part of mammoth master plans by PR consultants to keep their clients names in the paper and profile high.
I know what you’re thinking, what on earth has this got to do with your digital marketing plan? If you have three 5* reviews and one 4* review, your allowed to have made a ‘generalisation’ on your press release saying that you have all 5* reviews. Hopefully you see where I’m going with this one. Don’t be afraid to ‘enhance’ your company in your PR, trust me everyone does it.

Get amongst it with journalists – Cost: £0 (Depending on how many drinks/coffees you have to buy!)

In ye olde days of PR, the consultants certainly were the gatekeepers to the castle that kept all the journalists sat high in their publishing towers. Now though, those gates have started tumbling down and although there are of course very successful consultants who make it their business to form strong relations with journalists and succeed in landing their clients the big prizes, the opportunity to make direct contact with journos has never been better.

You only have to take one look through the papers now to find the Twitter, Facebook and a lot of the time, direct email address of the contributors, most of which these days are freelancers who may write for other publications that may be relevant to what you do. Will you have to work 10 times harder to land the story? Probably, but as an old boss of mine who used to run a major record label used to say, “They’re waiting for you to go away.” In other words, perseverance pays off!

So what about writing the press release? Obviously, experienced PRs can do these for breakfast but it’s no dark art, you just have to practice. When it comes to writing your press release, there’s usually no one who knows your business better than you so have a go yourself. This guide from PR Web is a brilliant. ( One thing I would add is to ensure a ‘tone of voice’ that is yours. As I mentioned previously, make sure YOU come across in the release.

If you really aren’t comfortable doing it yourself, try Fiverr (US) or FiveSquids (UK) where people offer all sorts of services for a measly 5 dollars/pounds. I found this guy offering a press release.

5. Website

Get educated:

Web Designer Depot
Cool Home Pages

DIY/Low Cost Website – Cost: £0 (virtually)

The thought of building your own website may be a bit daunting and until a few years ago, I would agree. However, we have a new dawn of content management systems (CMS) that are so user-friendly it’s unreal. WordPress ( was originally designed as a blogging platform but it’s quickly become an awesome tool for web development, offering pre-designed ‘Themes’ to customise your site.

I think this vid tutorial is great from, Part 1 &  Part 2. His tone of voice does make me laugh. Frustration at how simple it is!

If you’ve got as far to have a WordPress site up and running, head to sites like ThemeForest or TemplateFreak to find some stunning themes that are simple to install to your site.

Of course, there’s always the option of getting a web developer to build your website and there isn’t anything wrong with that! There are many budding designers trying to boost their portfolio, and of course there are many who will take on the job for a fee. Either route you take, the costs will probably be smaller than you think, with quality WordPress sites being regularly available for around the £1k mark, still nowhere near the £5-6k one would have paid a few years back for a full site.

Create a clear user experience and journey – Cost: £0

This is something to address from the moment you start thinking about developing a website. You could spend thousands on a site build but if you haven’t thought through how the user will interact with it, that money could end up down the drain.

The site needs to be made as simple to use as possible. If you want people signing up to your email list, it should be in a prominent place that is always visible and the process should include as few clicks as possible.

Encouraging people to engage in your social media is an important part of your strategy but don’t litter the pages with social icons everywhere! Keep it sparse and consistent throughout. Of course you shouldn’t forget about clinching the sale but the route to the ‘Buy Now’ button is just as important.

Another thing to consider is internal linking. If on one page you mention something that you have gone into great depth about on another page, link to it from a useful keyword that helps Google understand what the receiving page should be ranking for. It allows people to move throughout your site and as long as your ‘Call to Actions’ such as ‘Follow Me’ or ‘Sign-Up’ or ‘Buy Now’ are consistently visible throughout, the user always has the option to commit to that action.

What you say on your website should be an exact representation of how your business works, if you’re a cool and funky business then your website should have that feel. The way the website looks is equally as important as your content. I’m sure we’ve all clicked away from a page based purely based on looks, I know I do but maybe I’m just fickle.

Drip, drip, drip over splash, nothing, splash! – Cost: £0

You need to lay out a clear strategy of what content you are going to create and most importantly how often. It will take time to fine tune this but eventually you’ll find what works best for your business. We are in a culture of goldfish attention spans with users clicking from one page to another within seconds so it’s better to regularly put out small bite-size chunks of content than massive lumps less irregularly.

6. Content

Get educated:

Planet Content
Brand Republic
YouTube – Yes the whole thing! Just search for ads, marketing, campaigns etc. that may be relevant to your sector.

I cannot emphasise enough how much it’s all about the content!!! This applies to all the areas I have discussed in this article. It’s so often overlooked yet it’s the most important part of the digital marketing strategy. Your product/service can be amazing, but if your online presence is stagnant, lacks personality, and doesn’t inform users of what you offer, it’s all a wasted effort as people will just click away.

You need to give users on your website and your social media, interactions, experiences, emotions, something that moves from the screen into their mind or heart. This doesn’t have to be an epic special effects ridden, mega viral that has a gazillion views on YouTube, not at all, it just needs to be a slice of the way YOU do business. Always remember, it’s people that do business with each other.

Get content for free – Cost: £0

For the most part, online content is made up of images or video and there are so many young talents out there who are looking to add work to their portfolio. You just have to make the effort to find them. Websites like Mandy or ProductionBase are full of creatives in all areas and they’re free to join as an employer.

If the content you’re after isn’t video or images, fear not. Fancy an article written on your business, get in touch with a blogger direct. Want to make a podcast? Contact the local university radio station. A poem? Contact a local club. Whatever you’re after, there’ll be someone that can help you out, often with little or no cost.

There you have it.

So there you have my pennies worth on 6 areas of digital marketing you can take advantage of for your startup, virtually for free.

I hope you’ve found it useful and I hope it’s inspired you to take on digital marketing for your startup with more confidence. I think that there are many opportunities to make digital work for you.

The way in which you and your brand comes across is important and if there had to be one way in which you approach digital, be passionate about what you do. I don’t mean you have to be super-enthusiastic and lively in your content, everyone is different, we all have our own personalities and whatever that is, let it into your content. You will win over many more customers this way.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the people buying your product, using your service, sat at their computer looking at your website are human beings, just like you and I. Make people laugh, pluck at heartstrings, dazzle your customers. As I said, this can be a simple personal message to them on your website, or an ingenious viral video that goes global! Some of the most successful campaigns have been done on a shoestring and as a startup, I’m sure you’ll come up with some great ideas!

I wish you all the best with your business venture whatever, whenever and wherever it may be. By all means get in touch, follow me socially, say hello. Would be great to hear your business successes, and lessons learned. I’ll leave you with this.

My older brother is an entrepreneur, started his first company in London when I was 12. As I was growing up, I noticed one constant, his cars and his clothes. Never fancy, never expensive. Now working for Passion Digital and dealing more and more with startups, I’ve noticed other entrepreneurs are the same. It’s the mentality you adopt when starting your own business and sacrificing what genuinely doesn’t matter for success. For any startup, it’s a good way to be and when I rock around Shoreditch, London on a Friday night, I’m happy in the knowledge that the dude in the ripped jeans and the check shirt could be the owner of DKSLW.COM!


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