Photo Credit: Unsplash

By Geraint Clarke

“Can you sell my product?” says the client.

“What’s your budget?” you respond.

“Nothing.” says the hopeful client.

Is that even possible, you wonder. Can you market a product effectively with no budget whatsoever? Of course, everyone’s first answer would be “make it go viral”, meaning organic reach that begets more organic reach.

All viral campaigns seem to occur for free and although true in a small percentage of cases, most viral products are bought in one way or another — *Spoiler alert* through publicists, blog-networks, sponsored posts or influencer shoutouts.

Worse still, virality doesn’t always equate to sales. So if we can’t rely on organic virality, how can we market products, services or causes, for free?

Is it really possible to market for free?

The short answer is yes, but to varying degrees of success. To answer this question properly, however, you first need to ask yourself what can a marketing budget buy you? The answer is attention.

The more you spend, the more attention you can buy and if your product is good enough, that will entice a percentage of those views into becoming sales.

The real question becomes, how much attention do you have at your disposal right now? This could be from:

  • An email list
  • An SMS marketing list
  • Social media followers

An in-person audience (like a concert or religious gathering)

If the size of the audience you already have is extensive, you’ll be able to reach more potential buyers for little to no money whatsoever. Thus creating sales on a non-existent budget.

However, the only free channel listed above is social media. Email services like Mailchimp or Sendfox cost money (with good size audiences) and in-person events cost money in flyers, hand-outs and running costs.

Zero to one, for zero

To run a truly successful marketing campaign for free then, your expectations need to be lowered in line with the phrase ‘you get what you pay for’. If you take a brand new company, with an unheard-of product and spend $0 in marketing spend, yet manage to achieve its first-ever sale — that’s a success.

Seriously, go and celebrate, you’ve managed to leverage a completely free audience into profit with no ads, sponsored posts or commissions. You’ve made the impossible, possible — and you can tell your boss from me that you’re so good, your face should be on money.

But how can you get more than just one sale?

Leveraging free sales into further marketing spend.

There is a method to leverage your first free sale into more sales. Below is a graph to show you what I mean. By definition, this campaign would start with no marketing budget.

Custom graph by Geraint Clarke

The first sale is achieved for free but you take the profit and buy ads. Those ads draw in more sales and the cycle continues. You’d expect there to be some correlation, perhaps not as neat, but definitely some correlation between marketing spend increases and sales volume increases.

If not, you’re spending your money in the wrong place.

Here’s an example of what you’re looking for:

  • Spend $0 and sell a $10 item. $7 profit after cost of goods is deducted.
  • Keep $2 profit and spend $5 on ads to sell 2 x $10 items = $11 in total profit after COG + ad spend.
  • Spend $10 on ads, sell 3 x $10 items. $22 in total profit after COG + ad spend of all sales so far.

The cycle will continue, slowly gaining more profit and more sales as you advertise more.

This method of marketing is known as bootstrapping. You’re only using current or incoming resources to grow the business. Perhaps with organic reach but often with the reinvestment of capital into the business.

In conclusion, the idea of marketing for free is a myth. The problem with organic reach is that everyone has it, making it almost impossible to leverage truly free attention into sales. You’re competing with everyone and their cat — literally.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” — Milton Friedman

Even if you focus on ‘free’ methods like content marketing or social media, they still take time, or cost money to create those video/photo assets. The hosting for your blog costs money. The hours you put in cost money.

Once in a blue moon a product, service or cause will go viral because someone else with a huge audience sees it — and shares it. Until then, don’t stake your reputation on non-existent budgets.

You can’t drive a car uphill without fuel and you can’t guarantee to drive sales with no money.