Entrepreneurs and small business owners know marketing is essential to business growth, but marketing costs money, and money is tight during the early stages of business development.

So, here are some free and low-cost strategies to market your business on the cheap:

1. Get promotional business cards. Leave them wherever you go. Give them to anyone who’ll take one. Add an incentive on that business card. FREE CONSULTATION, FREE RISK ANALYSIS, FREE SHIPPING FOR LIFE, 20% OFF. In addition to providing an incentive to engage your business, include all contact information so interested prospects can call you at any time.

2. Teach an adult education class. Create authority within your service area by teaching. If you’re a certified financial planner, teach a class on investing. If you’re a car dealer, teach a class on how to buy a car for less. Standing in front of a group of prospects eager to hear what you, the expert teacher, have to say, is a great sales opportunity.

However, make sure you provide good information that your students can use at any dealership or with any certified financial planner. If it only applies to working with you, it will be seen as advertising instead of information.

3. Support your communities. Spread your company name to strengthen your brand. Support a local sports team or high school band. Take a booth at community fairs in your service area. Hand out brochures. Give free advice. You may land a few new clients interested in what you say and what you sell.

4. Write for the local newspaper. Newspapers are running lean, so if an expert offers to write a free weekly column on personal health, written by a local family M.D., that medical practitioner builds authority, the newspaper fills a page, and readers learn more about protecting personal health.

If writing isn’t a strong point, hire a local writer to put together a 300-word “how-to” each week, get a byline, and see more patients in the waiting room.

5. Consider co-op marketing. Sending out 50,000 tri-fold brochures touting your business is expensive. Design costs, printing costs, the cost of the mailing list, postage – a start-up probably won’t have the cash, and if it does, it could probably be used more effectively.

Co-op marketing splits the costs associated with direct mail by the number of business participants. For example, card decks are post card-sized ads from local businesses wrapped in clear plastic. You’ve probably seen them many times.

Each card in the deck costs less than a single mailer because costs are split by all advertisers – and your promotional card and contact info still end up in local homes.

6. Follow up, follow through. After meeting with a prospect, follow up with a hand-written thank you note and an incentive to “do lunch” again soon. Follow through on the promises you made during your business meeting. If you agreed to send product samples, ship them ASAP. If you promised a free business evaluation, get it done and delivered. Speedy delivery leaves a positive impression.

7. Update “specials” regularly. Folks like variety. If you run a restaurant, post the day’s specials online for regular customers. Or, write the specials on a chalkboard in the storefront window, or on the sidewalk if local regulations allow. By changing often, you increase the likelihood that if the customer didn’t like yesterday’s special, she’ll like today’s special.

8. Add a website. Your website is the best place to tell your company’s “story” and introduce the benefits your business delivers. Your website should be super simple, mistake-proof, and the company website address, www.mycompany.com, should appear on all company paper.

9. Collect smartphone numbers and email addresses. Push useful information or incentives to smartphones and tablets. Internet users enjoy the convenience of wireless connectivity instead of being chained to a desktop. Build a database of digital contact info and send out useful information and money-saving incentives to avoid getting sent to the spam folder right away.

10. Create a loyalty program.1Buy 10 sandwiches and the next one is on us.” This is low-cost marketing at its finest, because it keeps customers coming back in order to get that reward. Big companies, like Subway® and Domino’s®, use loyalty rewards programs to keep existing customers ordering more.This is low-cost marketing at its finest, because it keeps customers coming back in order to get that reward. Big companies, like Subway® and Domino’s®, use loyalty rewards programs to keep existing customers ordering more.

A related tactic is a referral program. For every referral a customer delivers, they receive a useful or cost-saving premium or incentive. All your customers have to do is tell their friends just how good your business is.

Not all of these no- and low-cost marketing strategies are appropriate for every business. It’s probably not good marketing to promote your bail bond business on colorful balloons, but your baby furniture store may be a natural for balloon bouquets.

Watch the competition and copy the best ideas you see competing businesses using. If the restaurant offers 50% Tuesdays, you better do something on Tuesdays or lose customers.

You don’t need a bundle to build your brand or reputation. With a little imagination, you can build that brand for next to nothing, help your neighbors, and improve your community.

That’s a business with a bright future.

1. Click here for a related article on the pros and cons of using loyalty programs.