INEXPENSIVE MARKETING IDEAS FOR SMALL BUSINESSES: A CASE STUDY
cheap marketinG ideas FOR small businesses: A beautiful and effective local business COLLABORATION IN THE BRISBANE CITY CENTRE
Today I want to share a case study of a collaborative marketing project on a tiny budget that my team and I undertook when the design store I founded, Showroom, first moved from the suburbs to a big, beautiful, heritage listed space tucked up a flight of stairs in the Brisbane City centre. The total cost to my business: $80 plus some time and effort.
Let me set the scene: When scouting new locations for the store, I discovered that beyond the bustling high streets and arcades, the Brisbane CBD was (is!) home to a burgeoning foodie and independent retail culture sprouting a new crop of cool. It seemed like the right atmosphere for my brand, and the perfect opportunity to join forces with other independent business owners on inexpensive marketing strategies.
Just after our launch, my assistant Anwyn Howarth and I set about creating a self-published brochure in collaboration with 7 other unique small businesses who were also tucked down alleys and up staircases... We called it The Brisbane Hidden Gems Guide and it was one of the smartest, most cost effective marketing projects I undertook as a retailer. Here's why:
WHY DID WE CREATE THE HIDDEN GEMS GUIDE?
1. I wanted to spin a potential negative as a cool brand feature.
Moving locations is tough when you're a retailer. But after a year in business, I decided to look for a space where my shop would benefit from more passing foot traffic and a more useable layout. The problem was, I couldn't afford the overhead costs of a large street level space in the densest part of the city, and the strong aesthetic I'd cultivated in my shop meant that not just any old strip mall space would do. I wanted some heritage, architectural detail, and incredible natural light. I found all that, on budget, up a flight of stairs off one of the busiest streets in the city centre.
I was sensibly nervous about not having street level displays to entice passers by ... But rather than apologise for being tucked away, I chose to make a feature of my store's hidden gem status by promoting it as a haven for those in the know. I wrote a press release about the trend towards upstairs retail in cities around the world and the story was picked up in the local press. The Brisbane Hidden Gems Guide was another way to promote the idea that off-beat city locations were a cool trend that consumers should be interested in.
2. I wanted to go after tourists.
This was an opportunity I had in mind when I moved the business into the downtown core. The Brisbane city centre is home to all the big hotels; it's where the majority of tourists to Brisbane stay. Because my shop offered such beautiful designs, many of which were produced by local makers, I figured that discerning tourists wanting to buy something besides the usual souvenir tat would love to know about us... Especially since Showroom was pretty well the only design store in the city.
3. I wanted to do something newsworthy to promote my shop's new location... Again.
The Brisbane Hidden Gems Guide became a story in itself, and I was able to reach out to the local publications and social media influencers who'd recently written/posted about the shop's re-opening in the new location and give them something to write about us again from another angle. That spread the word even further and helped the business make up for the temporary lost traffic and revenue caused by closing up shop and re-opening a month later where our customers weren't expecting us.
4. I believe that collaboration is the backbone of small business.
I strongly believe that working with other like-minded brands that share the same target customer but don't directly compete is the most effective, connective, and cheap way to creatively market a small business. I don't believe in trickle down economics, but in the case of small business collaboration, I know that the rising tide really does lift all boats. I wanted the customers who were already loving the cool independent cafes and shops that'd been in the neighbourhood longer than my business to love my store too. By joining forces, I was able to introduce my followers to some great spots that they may never have tried... and the other business owners shared their followers with me in the same way... All while sharing the costs of a single marketing campaign to keep the price tag low. Win. Win. Win.
How Did The Guide Come Together?
Here was the process Anwyn and I used to create The Brisbane Hidden Gems Guide:
1. We came up with the concept and created a design template in InDesign (you could also use Canva).
2. We called round to local printers that friends and colleagues had recommended, compared costs, and found a company located just a few blocks away who could deliver the project for a reasonable price.
3. We approached the businesses we wanted to collaborate with via email. Those emails included a fully formed pitch that explained how, when, and where we would distribute the guides, and the benefits we saw in working all together. We asked each business to promise to share the guides with customers at their physical locations and to promote them on their social channels. We were upfront about asking each business to contribute towards printing costs, which worked out to around $80 per business for the first round of guides.
4. Anwyn photographed each business. That was an important decision that we got right, because by creating the imagery ourselves, we were able to keep creative control and ensure that the brochure looked visually consistent. If you ask businesses to submit their own photos you'll often get images of varying quality, tone, and with clashing compositions that make the final product look less professionally pulled together. Marketing materials must be stylish and beautiful!
5. We mocked up the design, checked it twice, and sent it to the printers.
6. When the printed Hidden Gem Guides arrived, we took a stack to each business so that every customer who wandered into any one of the participating businesses could be offered a useful map to the other independent stores, cafes, and eateries nearby that they'd probably really like.
7. We also took a stack to the local tourist information office and to all the city centre hotels. Although this part of the plan did not go as well as I'd hoped, I'll explain more about that a little farther down.
8. We did a photoshoot at Showroom with the brochures styled into flat lays for social media, and put a digital copy up on our blog so people searching online for cool independent shops and cafes in the Brisbane CBD could also access it. We posted about it on our own channels and sent the imagery to each of the included businesses so they had easy access to beautiful images for seamless promotion.
HOW WELL DID THIS Cheap MARKETING CAMPAIGN WORK for the collaborators?
Although reception to our brochure was mixed, over all the Brisbane Hidden Gems Guide was a really successful marketing campaign for Showroom and the other businesses involved.
Local cafes (especially Gramercy Coffee) gave us the biggest boost by keeping stacks of our brochures on their bar and communal tables. I often walked passed and was gratified to see people picking them up to look at while they sipped, and dozens of customers told me in store that they'd come because they'd seen the Guide at a cafe earlier in the day.
Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, it was other small businesses who were much happier to help promote our campaign than corporate players, who might actually have stood to benefit more from working together.
I'd assumed that the local tourism office would be keen as anything to get their hands on our Guide. Why? Because there was nothing else like it to help visitors looking for beautiful, stylish, and distinctively local eating and shopping experiences... And that's what A LOT of visitors to Australian cities are looking for! However, when I took a box of Guides to the office, I was asked to pay over $1000 to become a member of their organisation for that year before I would be allowed to display the brochure alongside the others on their enormous brochure wall.
I couldn't see how spending that money would really benefit Showroom, and I didn't feel right about hitting up my collaborators for more after the printing costs had been agreed on, so no Hidden Gems brochures were ever available through Tourist Information. However, the social media team of the local tourism board was really supportive, and they were happy to post about the guide, which was wonderful.
The hotels in the city threw up another problem. I have to admit that I'm a small boutique inn / Air BnB traveler, so it'd been a while since I'd seen the inside of a Sofitel or a Hilton. I didn't realise that these corporate hotels which dominate the CBD have strict branding policies and do not allow any materials not designed and approved by their own head office to be displayed. Gone are the days of the local brochure stand!
I did speak directly with concierge services in the major hotels to explain why guests would be helped by the Guide, and in each case the staff was happy to take a small number to keep behind their desk because they recognised how useful it would be to their guests. I have a feeling those brochures were either binned or are still collecting dust on a lonely shelf somewhere.
Missed Opportunities: What I could have done To promote the hidden gems guide better
Learning from mistakes or missed opportunities is just as important as recognising what went well... so here's where I think I dropped the ball.
I have to say, I still love the way the Guide looks and I wouldn't have changed a thing about it as a piece of marketing material. But...
I should have found a way to link in to Air BnB hosts to make sure that my Hidden Gem Guides were included in their accomodation too. I know that there's a pretty good likelihood that the people who stay with Air BnB are the same people who seek out cool independent shops, espresso bars down alleyways, and secret bars when they travel. They're looking for a more intimate, less corporate experience of the places they visit and I bet we could have added to our tourist trade if I'd persisted in finding a way to access this group.
Why didn't I? I thought about it at the time, but I got busy and put off figuring out how to make it happen.
I should also have hired some students to hand out the Guides on the busy corned right next to Showroom. At lunch hour, when the pedestrian crush was at its peak in the city, I could have used it as a way to drive more foot traffic up the stairs and into my store. The truth is, there are real disadvantages to being tucked out of the way as a retailer. Months and months after Showroom opened downtown, customers were still wandering up the stairs and, at reaching the beautiful, airy boutique up top, exclaiming that they couldn't believe that they'd never noticed the entryway before!
Why didn't I? Again, I thought about it and then got busy and just kept putting it off. I was also afraid to make the investment in more brochures and hiring more staff to hand them out. I was anxious that because I didn't have the time to personally supervise them, the students would just chuck them in the nearest bin rather than doing their job. In retrospect, I should've arranged for those brochures to be handed out instead of letting my fear of not being fully in control of a process... and fear of spending too much on marketing... lead to inaction.
Are you thinking of creating a collaborative marketing scheme for your small business? Here are 4 takeaway lessons from the Brisbane Hidden Gems case study to help:
1. Whatever kind of content you're creating, consider taking you own images. And, if you're not much of a designer, hire someone skilled to mock it up. The point is that the visual branding of marketing materials is SO important. To get it right, you must really understand the tastes and the values of the customer you and your collaborators are courting. In our case, we were appealing to urban, sophisticated people who love exploring the newest, coolest spots in the city and who take pride in avoiding super corporate run-of-the-mill spots. Our design, therefore, had to look fresh, modern, personable, and beautifully curated to pique their interest in what we had to offer them.
2. If you marketing materials are tangible, include a digital copy on your website that Google can read. That means you shouldn't just post a PDF copy of the guide, but actually re-create it with text and picture boxes so you can reap the SEO benefits of customers who're looking specifically for what you and your squad have to offer.
3. Encourage the media, local influencers, and the brands you're collaborating with to share about the project by regularly sending them updated imagery and swipe captions (including hashtags) to make posting on social media a breeze.
4. You do need to spend a little to see a return. I made the mistake of spending on creating the product, but not spending to have it touch as many potential customers as possible. So budget for strategies to get your campaign seen by the right eyeballs, whether it's online or in the real world.
5. Make your collaborations newsworthy. If you and some other businesses have teamed up to make or offer something cool, remember to let local press, bloggers, and social media influencers know about it. It's a great way to keep your business on local consumers' lips while connecting with new customer bases brought into your mix by the other brands you join forces with.
Here's What the Brisbane Hidden Gems Guide (2015) Looks Like:
104 Edward St
Showroom is a concept store featuring an eclectic curation of design wares made by local and international artisans. Perched in the upstairs loft of a beautifully restored 1880s building shared with La Bon Choix, Showroom is the ideal shop to find gifts for your friends and treasures for yourself.
1/105 Albert St
In the gentlemen’s street
style category,Apartment is Brisbane’s go-to source.Their forward-thinking collection includes brands like Comme des Garçons, Kenzo and Head Porter – just to name a few. Find them upstairs next to Violent Green.
109 Edward St
There’s a little piece of Modern Italy in every thriving city – Brisbane included. Down the flight of modest stairs in the Metro Arts building is the scrumptious, vegan-friendly Verve Restaurant – also the city’s coolest artisan cider house. Bet you didn’t expect that combination!
8. VIOLENT GREEN
1/105 Albert St
Sharing their Albert St loft space with Apar tment, Violent Green houses a curated range of respected Australian and international fashion labels. The store has developed a strong cult following among Brisbane’s style set, and strives to stay true, stay young and not be dictated to.
1. GRAMERCY COFFEE
200 Edward St
Tucked inside the Edward Street entrance of the Wintergarden, Gramercy is the hub where corporate hip- sters flock for their quotidian espresso.This petite nibble nook is known for its home- made almond milk, green juice and the most coveted fresh doughnuts in Brisbane.
3. JOHN MILLS HIMSELF
40 Charlotte St
Adventure below Archives Fine Books on Charlotte Street to find the exposed brick corner that is John Mills Himself. Be greeted by a selection of hot drinks, craft beer and organic aperitifs to get you started. If you come across some Dutch courage, tinkle out a classic on the upright piano!
5. CORBETT & CLAUDE
283 Elizabeth St
Tucked in beside the cathedral on Elizabeth Street, Corbett & Claude is a cool meeting place for the walking weary.This café/bar draws inspiration from the historic dining hall it inhabits and is best loved for it’s comfort food share plates.
50 Burnett Lane
Café by day, winebar and restaurant by night, Felix make all their food from the best local, organic produce. With an ever changing selection of seasonally inspired plates and a thoughtful selection of Aus- tralian wine, beer and spirits on offer, it’s the perfect spot to treat your palate in casually cool surrounds.