Weathering the Storm: Smart Marketing Strategies for Small Businesses in a Challenging Economy

As a veteran small business owner, as well as a person once employed by and laid off from a small business, I understand all too well how economic downturns can hit especially hard. It’s during these tough times that finding ways to connect with clients or customers becomes not just a strategy, but a lifeline.

In this blog post, I hope to offer actionable suggestions that can help you think outside the box about what would help your business, and your clients. I’ll share practical, down-to-earth ideas and strategies that won’t break the bank but can make a world of difference in attracting and keeping customers, even when the economic forecast is a bit cloudy. 

So, whether you’re a one-person show, a family-run business, or a cozy neighborhood spot, join me on this journey to discover how a little creativity and a lot of heart can keep your customer base thriving when the going gets tough.

Happy small business owners reviewing sales on a laptop computer.

Research shows that businesses that continue to invest in marketing during economic downturns tend to outperform their competitors.

John Quelch, Katherine E. Jocz, Harvard Business Review

Digital Marketing Strategies

Digital marketing can be key to the survival and growth of a small business, especially during economic downturns. In this section, we’ll explore various cost-effective digital marketing strategies that can help you reach more customers while keeping your budget in check.

Leverage social media marketing to drive organic promotion

Given its cost-effectiveness and broad reach, social media offers myriad opportunities for engaging your existing customers and attracting new ones. Below are some ideas around simpler strategies to help you take advantage of social media, without getting mired in things that don’t work for you or your business.

Choose what works for you

It’s true that a lot of social media is pay to play. But platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok do offer small businesses the chance to connect with an audience for free. Sometimes that — and showing up consistently as your authentic self — is all it takes to get the ball rolling.

It’s not just about getting your business out there; these platforms can also provide valuable feedback and interactions with your target market. Make sure your social media accounts aren’t just one-way communication. Regularly post engaging content that resonates with your audience. Respond as quickly as possible to comments and questions from your followers.

Don’t overthink it

It is work – let’s acknowlege that. But it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. A quick snap with your smartphone and a share out to your favorite platform are enough. Carefully planned marketing campaigns have their place, but it’s better to low-key connect more often than it is to show up with a big flashy post once in a blue moon.

A simple image of your newest product, a behind the scenes sneak peek, or sharing customer testimonials can all be compelling content. You can also make use of features like Facebook or Instagram stories, for time-sensitive promotions and announcements. Keep it authentic and conversational; people appreciate businesses that provide a human touch. The more personable and relatable your brand appears, the more likely customers are to engage.

Digital marketing can be a cost-effective strategy for small businesses, as it allows for targeted advertising and measurable results.

Susie Liberatore, via LinkedIn

Swim in a smaller pond

When it comes to social media marketing, please don’t think you have to conquer the world. Often it’s beneficial to focus on a smaller, more manageable pond. One way to accomplish this is by leveraging your Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business). 

Updating and maintaining your Google Business Profile can help you reach a more targeted audience. When local consumers search for businesses like yours, an optimized Google Business Profile increases your chances of appearing in local search results. Here’s why it’s so crucial: 

  • Visibility: By posting regularly, your business will likely be more visible to potential customers in your local area. This can help drive foot traffic, website visits and phone calls.
  • Engagement: Your posts could contain new products or service announcements, promotions, or upcoming events. Each of these is an opportunity for potential customers to engage with your business.
  • Trust: Regular updates give customers confidence. They show that your business is active and (hopefully!) human.

Google is a high-traffic platform. Strategically using your Google Business Profile can help you increase your reach and resonance, without a lot of extra effort.

Embrace Your Email List

If you haven’t made the most of your e-mail list, it’s a good place to start. While posting to social media is easier in some ways, remember that people on your list have signed up to hear from you. And, it’s easier to actually connect with them than via a social media post that may or may not be clicked on or even seen.

Below are some simpler ideas to bring new life to your e-mail list.

Reengage Inactive Subscribers

Start by reengaging with subscribers who haven’t interacted with your emails in a while. Craft a compelling reactivation campaign with a clear and enticing call to action. Consider offering an exclusive discount or valuable content to entice them back into your sales funnel.

Provide Value-Focused Updates

Send regular, value-driven email updates to your list. Share helpful tips, insights, or resources related to your business or niche that resonate with the current economic climate. If your business can be a source of support and expertise during tough times, don’t be afraid to make it clear. Occasional promotions or discounts can be included, but ensure that your emails provide genuine value, even if recipients don’t make immediate purchases. Building trust and maintaining a presence in their inbox can pay off when they are ready to buy or refer your services to others.

Highlight Customer Success

Showcase the success stories and testimonials of satisfied clients in your email campaigns. Highlight how your products or services have positively impacted their lives or businesses. This social proof builds trust and credibility, making your offerings more appealing to potential customers. Encourage satisfied clients to share their experiences and provide referrals, further expanding your client base without significant marketing expenses.

Easier SEO Wins

Optimizing your website for search engines, aka SEO, is a powerful tool that can help prospective customers discover and connect with your business. Even if you’re pressed for time, there are some easier things you can do to improve your SEO quickly and efficiently. 

Consider this your simplified SEO checklist: 

  • Research relevant keywords: It’s important to understand what your potential best customers will be searching for when they’re looking for products or services like yourrs. These terms should be a part of your site’s content as well as its meta data (e.g., page titles and meta descriptions). You can use Google’s free Keyword Planner to help with this. 
  • Optimize your website’s speed: Site speed matters to search engines. Faster websites attract more customers. The best way to ensure your site loads quickly is by ensuring it’s well built from the start. But there are dozens of things you can do on your own that will add up, and help a slow website load much more quickly.
  • Ensure mobile-friendliness: If your business is like most, well over half of your visitors will be viewing your site using a mobile device. If you don’t want mobile visitors to take one look and swipe to go back, make sure your website is mobile-friendly. 
  • Create high-quality backlinks: Earning links from authoritative websites connected to your niche sends a positive signal about your reputation. It may even send visitors your way. But never pay for backlinks (that often has the opposite effect). Here’s an article I like that will help you build backlinks the right way.
  • Use social media: While social media doesn’t directly impact SEO, it can spread your content and attract more visitors. Depending on niche, topic and platform, your social post may have an easier time ranking than something you post to your own website. If you already feel at home on Reddit or X/Twitter, you might focus your efforts there since these two in particular get love from Google.

With a little effort, you can start reaping the benefits of SEO. Remember, SEO isn’t a one-time thing — it’s an ongoing process. You don’t have to do everything at once. Taking small, steady steps can still have a great impact in helping your business grow.

Customer Retention Strategies

Even in the midst of a struggling economy, your existing customers are the best place to find support. It probably goes without saying, but that support needs to work both ways (many of them are struggling, too).

Bakery owner helping customer, smiling, interacting.

Existing customers know your business, trust your products or services, and, importantly, have chosen to support you before. Retaining these customers is key to weathering economic storms. Here are some cost-effective strategies that can help your small business improve customer loyalty:

  • Roll Out a Customer Loyalty Program: Customer loyalty programs, which provide rewards or benefits for repeat purchases, are a tried-and-true method to increase customer retention. These programs encourage repeat business and also promote customer engagement.
  • Enhance Your Communication: Reach out to your customers. Keeping them informed about developments within your business, or even a well-timed, “we miss you” message, can be the comfort your customers need during challenging times. Let them know about any special discounts or new products or services. Regular correspondence is key to staying at the forefront of your customers’ minds.
  • Provide Stellar Customer Service: Under economic stress, every moment of positivity counts. Ensure your customer service is top-notch; this means quick replies to inquiries, resolving issues efficiently, and always demonstrating empathy and understanding. An exceptional customer service experience can secure a customer’s loyalty.

Retaining customers costs less than acquiring new ones. On top of that, satisfied, loyal customers are more likely to refer others to your business. Implementing a few key strategies could be the lifeline you need during tough economic times.

Cost-Effective Advertising and Promotion

Maximizing a promotional budget is a concern for most small businesses – even more so in challenging economic times. One way to stretch your marketing dollars is with low-cost (or even free) creative promotional ideas. This not only reduces your expenses but also encourages innovative thinking, which can give your company a competitive edge.

Consider these tactics: 

  • Referral programs: Word-of-mouth has always been a powerful marketing tool. Some businesses try to encourage more referrals by offering discounts or rewards, but this isn’t always necessary or even desirable. A satisfied customer is your best advocate. Make the most of that natural inclination by making it easy for them to share your business with their friends and family, whether that’s in your shop or on your website.
  • Be sharable: An easy way to encourage sharing is with a visually appealing and branded spot in your business where customers would want to take photos and post them online. Think of a wall with your business’s logo, the name of the town you’re in, or an art piece that reflects your brand’s identity. You could even gamify it, e.g., with a monthly competition and a small prize for the customer whose post about your business garners the most likes or shares. The key is to create an experience that’s a) uniquely tied to your brand and b) is naturally shareable.
  • Collaborations: Joining forces with other local businesses can help draw in new customers. Consider partnering for a joint sale or event, or even simply cross-promoting each other on social media.
  • Online content: We’ve already talked about social media and email, both of which offer affordable ways to connect with customers and prospects. Blogging is another great way to both get your message in front of potential buyers and help them out while they’re figuring out next steps in the buying process. It doesn’t have to be of epic length. Just make sure it’s aimed at people you most want to serve, and uses keywords they’d use.
Talking Rock Brewery offers a great photo backdrop (although we covered it up).

These ideas are just a starting point. The best marketing strategies often come from thinking outside the box and continually testing and refining your approach.

Adapting Your Service Offering

One of the first things I did when we noticed fewer inquiries and more budget sensitivity was to brainstorm ways we could help people and meet them where they are. This is an area I’m particularly sensitive about, for a couple of reasons. At least.

Good website design is expensive. When people don’t have enough to pay a professional, they do things that best case don’t help their business. Worst case, they hurt it. That’s one reason. The second one is me.

I’m a limited resource, with a high value. If I charge less, then I am giving people deep and varied expertise for the same price as someone who’ll mess up their website and make them look bad. That’s not fair to me, and would quickly lead to burnout.

What I did instead was create a service (AFV One) that was as high quality as my custom websites, but smaller and more limited. And, I bundled it with website hosting and care. So it’s more affordable and one less thing for businesses to worry about.

Below I’ll share some ideas for ways you could adapt your own services or products. Even if they’re not the exact thing you need, I hope they’ll help you think outside the box and come up with great ideas for your business.

Identify Recession-Resistant Service Lines 

Surviving in a difficult economy requires being intuitive and strategic. Are there services or products your business offers that remain in demand, even during economic downturns? Identifying these things might be as simple as an experienced guess, or perhaps comparing current sales with pre-downturn numbers. Once you identify these recession-resistant services, focus on promoting and improving them. 

Adjust Pricing Strategies 

Another strategy revolves around price adjustments. Generally, customers become more price-sensitive during economically challenging times. Consider altering your pricing strategies to offer prices that, while competitive, still ensure business profitability. Obviously balance is key here – you want to remain attractive to clients without hurting your bottom line. 

Create Bundled Packages 

Creativity can be one of your strongest tools in a tough economic climate. Create bundled packages of related services that provide more value for your clients. This not only helps your customers save money but can also potentially increase your sales volume. Think about the services you offer – which ones naturally complement each other and could be grouped together? This tactic could make your offerings more attractive to budget-conscious clients.

Implementing cost-saving measures, such as optimizing operational processes or negotiating better supplier contracts, can free up resources for marketing efforts.

Think Outside the Box on Payment Options

With the AFV One service I mentioned above, I had a little bit of a dilemma before I’d fully fleshed out the idea. Even a single-page website like an AFV One site can feel like a big hit all at once, given what I need to charge to cover my time and expertise. So after adding more value with hosting and care, I had to think through what people would actually be able to afford.

Monthly payments seemed like the best option, but I was concerned about waiting up to a year to receive payment for all of my work. Thanks to best practices learned in my agency days, I knew to take care with contracts. In nearly 15 years of business I’ve only had three people fail to pay me, plus a few more who were late to pay.

I wanted to make AFV One clients’ sites live quickly, so they could begin benefitting from their new websites. But if I turned everything over to them right away, for next to nothing, it’s possible that a few unscrupulous people would take advantage of me. I realized pretty quickly that the answer involved a win-win: hosting. With hosting included in the price, it’s one less thing for my small business clients to deal with. And in the (now only slightly likely 🎉) event someone didn’t pay, they wouldn’t be able to “steal” their site.

When considering payment options that might help your customers continue doing business with you, you have to be mindful of your own financial health. It’s good to want to help customers, but if you go out of business nobody wins :-/

small local business window sign promo

Flexible financing is one option to look into. Services like Afterpay or Affirm can be added to a Stripe (credit card processing) setup or many other payment gateways. Buy now/pay later (aka BNPL) options like this enable customers to purchase goods or services immediately but pay for them in fixed, regular installments. Stripe offers an excellent article to help you figure out if BNPL is right for your business.

There are, of course, options beyond external financing. For example, layaway plans, installment payments, or pay-what-you-can models. While these schemes accommodate your customer’s current constraints and can help keep revenue flowing into your business, there is likely more for an independent small business to manage than is reasonable.

What’s next?

I hope you’ve found inspiration in the ideas I’ve shared in this post. While most everyone I talk to is concerned about the economy — self included — having survived past downturns I can promise you that creativity makes at least as big a difference as a fat wallet.

In other words, you don’t need a big budget or a corporate playbook to make it; your unique, personal touch and care for your customers will set you apart. Stay open to outside-the-box solutions, and get in touch if any of your ideas could benefit from creative collaboration.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.

— Winston Churchill
Photo: British Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons