Unconventional (Cheap) Advertising Ideas for a Tough Economy

Whether you are a small business owner or a person launching a side hustle to supplement your regular income, effective advertising is key. But when the economy is in a slump and your revenue has flat-lined, it may be tempting to kill your advertising budget.

Windshield Flyer by Joelk75 on Flickr

Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater

Look for ways to cut costs, but never stop advertising. You can reduce your advertising expenditures without undermining your marketing strategy. Jay Conrad Levinson’s book, Guerrilla Marketing, published way back in 1984, revolutionized marketing for small businesses by focusing on unconventional, personal, sensational, or interactive marketing techniques. Now, more than ever, guerrilla marketing is the smart way to reach your target audience. The good news is that many of these unconventional techniques are also less expensive that traditional advertising channels such as the yellow pages, newspapers, and direct mail.

Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter and consumers no longer feed at the trough of formerly reliable advertising media such as the Sunday newspaper or TV “events” such as the Olympics or Oscars. Nowadays everything is fragmented, granular and personal. So your advertising needs to be too.

That’s actually good news, because as a small business, you are in a much better position than a larger corporation to connect one-on-one with customers. Here are a few ideas advertize your business using a targeted approach:

Create a Website

Every business should have a website. For a few dollars a month in web-hosting fees you can create and maintain a simple website, as long as you don’t plan to do any e-commerce from the site. Hosts like hostgator.com or godaddy.com have entry-level packages with DIY templates and that will have your business online in a matter of hours. Don’t forget to set up an automatic email signature in your email account that includes your new website, so all of your outgoing messages contain your URL and a blurb about your business.

Try Signage

A sign in your yard, in a window, or on your mailbox can be an effective way to advertise your business within your local community. If your business mainly draws clients from your local area, a tasteful sign is an excellent promotional tool. Check for neighborhood association or zoning restrictions before ordering, and make sure the sign you order will hold up to the elements so that it looks neat and professional.

Hit the Road

Have a magnetic sign made for your car to advertise your business. Keep it simple so it can be read even while you are driving down the road. These signs spread the word about your business, even when you are parked at the grocery store. It also helps you start conversations with potential clients you bump into while making the rounds.

Post Flyers

Flyers under the windshield wiper may be annoying, but they are an undeniable way to get your message into your potential customers’ hands–as long as you have permission from the parking lot owner. Rather than papering the entire parking lot, focus on cars that meet the selection criteria for your business. For example, if you have a daycare business, you can place flyers on cars with car seats inside. Note that the U.S. Postal Service prohibits placing of flyers and other materials in or on mailboxes, and any items placed in or on mailboxes are subject to current postal charges. .

Wear Your Ad

Print t-shirts or hats with your business’ name and contact information, and wear them—a lot. Sites like Vistaprint.com and Zazzle.com have decent prices for even small orders of custom merchandise. Wear your ads to school functions, to the gym, to the kids’ soccer match, and don’t be shy about striking up a conversation about your business.

Take Advantage of Free Sites

While no one likes a Facebook contact who relentlessly spams his friends, restrained self-promotion is perfectly acceptable. Create a Facebook page to highlight your business, and post periodic updates about new products or services, promotions or special deals, and recent awards and recognition. It’s a good idea to also post hints and tips for potential customers to create a congenial atmosphere of trust. For example, a CPA can post tax tips at tax time, and a photographer can offer tips to help customers with their own snapshots.

Promote your business on Craigslist or other free classified ads site. A few kooks may reply, but you’ll also generate serious leads for your business. Craigslist can be especially productive if your business client base includes college students (for example moving services or tutoring).

Avoid the Yellow Pages, Unless…

National and Local Yellow Page advertising is expensive, and many marketing experts think the end is near for this musty device. However, if your business if in one of the top-yielding Yellow Page headings, you might want to think twice before yanking your ad. The most frequently searched yellow page headings result in reliable leads and a steady stream of customers. After all, when the plumbing backs up, most of us still let our fingers do the walking to the Plumbers heading.

Go Viral

Whether it’s a silly youtube video, a guy in a gorilla suit on the street corner, or an airplane banner flying overhead with a pitch-perfect message, try some alternative forms of advertising to create buzz about your business. Like the saying goes: any press is good press, so anything that causes a stir and gets people talking about your business will help generate interest and new leads.

This article was written by contributing author Laurel Gray.


  1. Posting flyers on people’s windshields is more than annoying, it’s littering by proxy. Most people, upon seeing a flyer stuck on their windshield, simply remove it and toss it on the ground. I think the company posting the flyers should be required to police up any of the ones that have come loose or have been discarded and are then blowing around the parking lot.

    • Agreed. I liked Laurel’s idea to target specific vehicles rather than simply attaching flyers to every vehicle on the lot. May require a bit of stereotyping, but would probably improve results, and reduce littering opportunities.

    • I would say it’s not littering by proxy. It’s simply littering. However, the driver of the vehicle is littering in his own right if he does not dispose of the paper properly.

  2. @James: Littering by proxy? While I *despise* flyer ads on windshields, I would never expect anyone to blame the ad placer on an inept individual’s disregard for the law, respect for one’s home community (most people are inside of 25 miles of home), or environmental discourse by putting a littering charge on the ad placer himself. It is up to the individual to clean off his own property (car) and place unwanted papers in the appropriate disposal area. I do it, and so can the rest of the populace! On the other hand, what exactly is the difference between placing a flyer on a windshield and spamming someone? They are both unsolicited by the end user. It’s junk mail. A sign can be ignored, but something must be done with this ad. It should be outlawed in places that have not yet done so. I run a successful business without such disturbances in a tough market in the current economy. Survival of the fittest. I don’t do business with businesses who place those windshield ads as a matter of principle.

  3. My wife makes and sells her own crafts on Etsy as well as in several local boutiques and at seasonal craft shows. Recently she and her partner have created a little gift bag that has a few samples in it and have even convinced one store that only does consignment to buy their goods wholesale based on the quality of the merch in the gift bag and the attention to detail in putting it together. It took some effort on top of her regular work, but they’re pounding the pavement anyway.

  4. I think stickers could also help. Also, with so many social networking sites now a days who says only 1 can read your post? Its easy to advertise and share to your friends.

    “We help Americans find jobs, prosperity and explore Asia.”
    For details, visit http://www.pathtoasia.com

  5. I’m a one-woman business who needs to market to certain types of physicians and attorneys. For years, I have used vistaprint dot com to design and print very affordable postcards to mail to my target markets. I also use them for business cards. It’s super cheap, good quality, and you have a lot of freedom in designing them yourself, e.g. uploading your own logos and photos.

    • I agree. With the right knowledge of your target market and a good concept in marketing your product, you are good to go.

      “We help Americans find jobs, prosperity and explore Asia.”
      For details, visit http://www.pathtoasia.com

  6. I have been a small business owner for many years. I always had a small budget and more time than money (well not really, but I didn’t have much money!) I had to be smart about my marketing. It helps if in your business you have a niche and not try to sell to anyone who lives and breathes. Like the woman above who markets to doctors. My market is overwhelmed, stressed people, typically those close to the age of 40 and over. I reach out and market to them online. Being in the phone book or even putting flyers on cars (taboo in my book) would be a waste.
    Years ago I had a cleaning service. In neighborhoods where I already had clients, I did put flyers on the mailboxes (I know there are regulations abt that as well). The flyers stated I had clients in the neighborhood or area and that was kinda like referral advertsing. When potential clients responded I would give the name and number of my referral.
    Great tips!
    Setting boundaries while working at home

  7. Oh! I just wanna add to the list. This is sort of related to flyers but instead of putting on windshields you can directly drop it on their mailbox! Normally people check their mails every morning.

    “We help Americans find jobs, prosperity and explore Asia.”
    For details, visit http://www.pathtoasia.com

  8. I’ve used flyers to roundup some people for my guide team on ChaCha. In a city of about 75,000, I’d say it worked fairly well. I have two main sources of stub takers. A bus stop in the nicest section of town, and the best coffee shop in the area. With 15 stubs per flyer, I usually replace the flyer every 1-2 weeks. It’s certainly a good way to get out there.

  9. This is a great article. My side hustle is selling ad services on eBay. I use the college printers to produce the ads since it’s already paid for.

    I sell the eBay listing for a dollar. It’s like a signing fee. We work a deal out from there, and they pay me via PayPal.

  10. Ok, I hate the flyers on the windshield too! But the person that paid for them is the one who ultimately loses out big time. At least people are trying to earn a honest living. I do give them credit for trying.