The Best Guerrilla Marketing Tactics for Small Business Owners


A bare-bones marketing budget doesn’t have to mean the death or delay of your marketing plan. These guerrilla marketing tactics can be deployed by small business owners at a low cost (or at no cost at all).

There’s an old adage that says you have to spend money to make money. This quote, attributed to a Roman playwright named Plautus who lived about 200 years B.C., has been quoted so often that one would think it was an irrefutable business tenet; but such is not always the case.

As evidence, consider nearly every single video, photo, meme or other digital content that has “gone viral” during the past decade, and pit those examples against the marketing campaigns and ads that had thousands-if-not-millions of ad dollars behind them that fell flat. If it were true that you must spend money to make money, then wouldn’t these well-funded marketing efforts be the most rewarded?

If it doesn’t take money to make money, then what does it take? One answer to this question is guerrilla marketing.

Marketing tactics must have three characteristics to be considered “guerrilla marketing.” Specifically, they must be innovative, unconventional and low-cost. Guerrilla marketing tactics are deployed with the goal of getting maximum exposure for a brand or its products or services for a minimal investment of time, money and other resources.

Although tactics that fall under this category have been deployed since the beginning of trade and commerce, the phrase “guerrilla marketing” was first coined by Jay Conrad Levinson in his book of the same name. Written to inspire business owners with limited budgets with the idea that it doesn’t take money to capture the imagination of their target audiences and convert that interest into new sales, he identified six guerrilla marketing tactics as essential to success:

  1. Understanding the way target audience members think (and behave)
  2. Being creative when developing marketing tactics
  3. Measuring success not by numbers of new customers and profits instead of sales
  4. Developing strategic partnerships with other organizations to achieve shared goals
  5. Leveraging free media
  6. Making fast decisions and using agility to outflank larger competitors

It was not the first time that the ideas put forward in Levinson’s book had been used or suggested; however, by giving a name to innovative, unconventional and low-cost (often no-cost) marketing tactics, he helped small business owners and marketers think about marketing in new ways. When the book was first published in 1984, it’s not likely that Levinson could have imagined the tools that would be available to marketers today – tools that make it even easier and cheaper to effectively use guerrilla marketing tactics and get a good return on investment. Let’s take a closer look at Levinson’s ideas as they pertain to today’s small business marketing landscape.

Guerrilla Marketing Tactics for Small Businesses That Still Work Today

  1. Do you know how your buyers think?

Unless you are the type of person that is identical to your organization’s “ideal buyer type,” it’s a mistake to project your own way of thinking onto that of your prospective buyers and customers. For little more than the investment of a few hours of time, you can gather information about your customers and target audiences and turn them into buyer personas. Understanding how your buyers think, what “pain” brought them to your products or services, what selling point made them pull the trigger, what motivates them to tell their friends and loved ones about your brand and what makes them feel good about continuing to do business with you – these are the questions you should be asking to understand how your buyers think.

  1. Are you being creative?

Copycat marketing can only take you so far. One recent example of this is the Ice Bucket Challenge, which saw millions of people around the world posting videos and photos of themselves being doused in ice water to raise awareness – and an unprecedented amount of donations – for Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the wake of the campaign, other charities tried to mimic the idea in an attempt to do the same for other causes; most of these efforts fell flat and felt contrived. Today’s consumer is experience-hungry, and will often respond with interest when presented with creative marketing; while attempts to repurpose other people’s creative marketing may be a turnoff instead.

  1. How do you measure success?

By now most of us have heard stories about small business owners that sold hundreds of deals through Groupon or other daily deal sites; in fact, they sold so many deals that it (literally) put them out of business because they were taking a huge hit to profit margins and lacked the personnel and inventory to make good on the deals they had sold. Sales are not the only measure of success, and maybe not even among the best ones. Customers acquired, increase to profit margins that often occur when customers are turned into more loyal customers or sales of upgrades and add-ons are achieved and other measures you identify as essential goals of your guerrilla marketing strategies can become far more important benchmarks for business success.

  1. Are you trying to go it alone?

Strategic partnerships create win-win scenarios; actually, make that win-win-win scenarios. Because not only should both organizations in the partnership win with increased brand awareness, sales, customer acquisitions and so on, but the customers should come out on top as well. There are several characteristics that might indicate another business would be a good marketing partner, such as:

  • Shared target audiences
  • Shared mission and vision goals
  • Shared values and similar cultures
  • Shared campaign or seasonal goals
  • Willingness to share contacts (and bring new contacts to the table)
  • Extending a high-quality or valuable offer to your customers

It’s also important to remember that when you partner with another business for shared marketing, you are giving them an implied endorsement. If your customers have a bad experience with their business, it could damage the way they perceive your brand too.

  1. Have you gone all-in?

Have you ever been in a networking scenario where a business owner was lamenting lack of growth, saying that they had “tried everything” to no avail – only to find that after asking a few questions, the truth was that they had not tried everything and in fact were leaving a lot of free marketing tactics on the table? This plays out over and over again as small business owners and marketers neglect to get the most out of (or even use) free and nearly-free marketing channels like social media, email and blogging. No business owner should be without a robust social media, email and publishing plan in today’s digital marketing landscape!

  1. Bonus Tip: Are you ready to move?

Bigger businesses might have more resources, but that doesn’t make them better. With bigger often comes increased red tape and more people to convince when it comes to innovating or expanding, bureaucracy which makes it difficult – if not impossible – to move quickly to take advantage of emerging opportunities. But it does not necessarily follow that being small equates to ability and innovation, either, because these characteristics aren’t borne of size but mindset. To turn small size and flat hierarchy into corporate advantage, you must purposefully cultivate an organizational culture with a bias for action and a fast process for evaluating new ideas.

You don’t always have to spend money to make money. Done right, these guerrilla marketing tactics for small business owners can produce a good return on investment when it comes to building a strong brand and a successful – and profitable – business. If additional funds are needed to cover expenses such as marketing, turing to small business loans can help cover those extra costs.

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