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How to Develop an Inbound Marketing Budget (When There is No Budget)

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I won’t sugar-coat it. If you want your business to grow, you have to have money set aside for marketing. It’s a painful part of the budget, but a necessary one. I get it… we’ve all been there. Trying to build a skyscraper with 4 bricks just isn’t fun. I won’t spend time harping on about cost, quality, and necessity of marketing. Instead, let’s focus on how to move forward with what you’ve got. Here are some strategies for how to develop an inbound marketing budget when there isn’t a budget.

First, let’s clarify. I didn’t say we’d develop an inbound marketing budget with no money; we’re creating a budget when there isn't money originally set aside for marketing. This means you need to focus on the absolute smartest strategies to market the business out of the gate so the little money you’re able to get your hands on isn’t wasted. So let’s focus on a few cost-effective ways to market your business and build your marketing budget around them.

Cost-Effective Strategies

If you don’t have much money, you can always invest time. One of the smartest things you can invest in (and if you’ve read any of our posts in the past, you’ll know this would be our first answer) are inbound marketing campaigns, an extremely cost-effective strategy. They include:

  • Content development
  • Strategic website
  • Social media
  • Blogging
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)

That’s a lot, I know. But, simplify the list by picking the top 2 or 3 things that will do the most at helping you achieve your specific goals. Do you know what they are?

  • Do you need more website traffic? Invest more in on-page SEO and content development
  • Are you getting traffic but need more converted leads? Focus on conversion rate optimization with better web copy, landing pages, and clear calls to action.
  • Need more customers? Try supporting sales efforts with a webinar or setting up a free trial on your website. Just make sure you’re not forgetting about those leads and leaving them hanging.

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Work Backwards

You have to invest in inbound marketing (should be at least 2.5 percent of revenue), and give it time in order for it work effectively. Look at it as an investment, not a cost.

Rather than starting with an arbitrary dollar amount, start with your strategy and work backwards to identify what you can afford. Then, develop your inbound marketing budget from there. Your budget will also depend on your timeline and how aggressive your goals are.

(As you achieve success you might be able to add budget to lower priority items.)

Budget Items

Here’s a pretty standard budget you might find at a small business that is willing to invest 3% of its annual revenue into inbound marketing. By the way, we’re certainly not saying 3% is the standard budget; that averages between 7-12%. However, if you’re just starting to invest in marketing, it’s best not to die of a heart attack before you even get started.

If you expect the businesses to drive about $3M in revenue, then let’s set your fictional inbound markeing budget at $90,000 for the year. That isn’t a lot but, let’s see how we might make that work:

If you’re looking to drive more (of the right) traffic to your website, then the most important things to keep in your budget are probably people (time), the right tool (or tools), and maybe paid advertising to help amplify your message quickly. Here’s what that scenario might look like:

People (Time) - $69,000

This might buy you one full time marketing manager (depending on where you are, this could cost more or less, but it’s not a bad starting place for an annual salary). The trick with this is finding someone that is a well-rounded marketer with the knowledge and skills to manage all of your marketing (writing, social media, design, etc.). This is hard to find, but it is possible. Also know that this might not be enough to cover benefits and taxes. If you can only hire one person, get creative, but don’t look for an intern or go cheap. It will end up costing you more in the long run.

Before you say, “no problem, I can do all that myself,” I urge you to stop and think first. If you’re running the business, you don’t have time to do the marketing too. If you want it done well, marketing needs focus, skill, and consistency. Invest in your business. Any marketing done well should be able to increase your revenue by at least what you invest. How do you know? Use the right tools.

Tools - $12,000

I recommend budgeting about $1k monthly for good tools. Depending on your industry, business needs and goals, the right tools for you might change. You can get a few really good tools that work well together or find one tool that does everything you need. Whatever you do, don’t look for free tools and spend hours upon hours trying to make them do what you want them to do. You’ll end up with a technological disaster (trust me, I think we’ve all been there).

Look for tools that are reliable and will be able to produce reports that help you make better business decisions. Some examples of the best tools are:

  • HubSpot (totally doable within that $1K/mo range) can do literally just about anything a $3M annual company would need it to.
  • For more complex businesses that need complex databases, look at a CRM like Salesforce that integrates with just about any marketing platform available. Beware though, while Salesforce is robust, it is expensive for the tiers that are above basic (and has very limited functionality in the lowest tier).

You might be thinking, “well what about Mailchimp?". I don’t typically recommend this tool because it just doesn’t carry the functionality of a tool like HubSpot. I recommend only using this for your business if:

  • You don’t need to segment your customers or audience (which I almost always advise).
  • You’re comfortable working behind the scenes on Wordpress (or whichever web platform you use for your website) to make the MailChimp integration work with online forms.
  • You have a few extra hours every month to analyze multiple reports, because it’s not only lists you can’t segment, but reporting isn’t optimal either.

Most of the “cheaper” email marketing platforms are cheaper for a reason. Typically they’re not fully-functioning “automation platforms” and only automate portions of your marketing. Keep in mind that while you might save money now, you’ll pay for it later when you’re left questioning your ROI due to lack of functionality and reporting. You really do get what you pay for.

Paid Advertising - $9,000

If you’re not sure how to make paid advertising work for you, I recommend finding someone to help you. It’s not just time you’ll waste, but money too. And like many things in marketing, this takes time, testing, tweaking, and patience.

If you do want to try your hand at paid advertising, try starting out with paid ads on social media before getting nutty with Google AdWords. AdWords are tricky and, for many industries, have an incredibly low success rate. Facebook, Instagram, and even LinkedIn can be much cheaper and are a little easier to manage.

What if I Don’t Even Have 3%?

What happens if you can’t afford to hire a full time marketing person? There are a few options that can help you keep up with marketing as efficiently as possible until you can find more dollars in the budget.

  • Partner with an inbound agency. We won’t go into too much detail here, but you can read more about that in this post.
  • Don’t overcomplicate your strategy. Focus on what will give you the biggest return for the smallest amount of work (and that work might differ depending on who you have helping you). Keep it simple. Try it and keep it up for 3-4 months before worrying whether or not something is working. Marketing takes time, patience, and consistency.
  • Know your buyers and target the easiest segment to reach. If a good chunk of your buyers hang out regularly on Facebook, consider spending a good amount of time engaging with your audience there versus spending 10 hours and several hundred bucks each week on paid ads.
  • Don’t waste money on PPC out of the gate. Organic traffic, although it may take longer to see results, costs only your time (including learning the right way to do it).
  • Repurpose your content. This is an often-forgotten trick and can help small teams seem very big. If you have an ebook, that ebook can typically be used to create another 6-8 blog posts, an infographic, a few emails, and possibly even another ebook, slightly tweaked, and marketed to a different audience.

This list is far from being comprehensive - it's simply meant to help get you start developing your inbound marketing budget. If you need more ideas on how to run a successful campaign with your small team, we recommend you download our free eBook below.


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