Marketing is something every business needs and is often the key to success, yet it is also something that many people struggle with more than they might like to admit.

It is a particular skill and not something that comes naturally to all entrepreneurs, especially if their interest is much more in building the structure of the business and day-to-day running of it rather than ‘standing on the stage’ and promoting what they have done to all and sundry. But the concept of ‘build it and they will come’ only gets you so far. Some might come, but they will not be in large numbers and retaining a small number of clients is never going to make you rich.

However, one of the biggest conundrums for small businesses is how to use a relatively small marketing budget to best effect. Does print advertising work? Should you create a radio ad for the local community? Is your business something that would benefit from national advertising? What about social media?

OK, slow down. There are so many ways that you can effectively market your business that it does become incredibly hard to work out the best way of spending your money. So to make the best start, you need to ask yourself a few tough questions. What does your typical customer look like? Not as crazy as it sounds. For example, are you marketing to, say, the building trade, working mums, professional services firms, coffee lovers, sports people? Identifying where most of your business is likely to come from is key, and you should start off by choosing two or three key groups that are likely to want your product or service.

So, let’s say your business is most likely to appeal to sports people. Maybe you run an events company and you need to get as many people as you can to come along to a sporting event you are holding. Choosing to advertise the fact to the local community through a newspaper or magazine in the venue’s location, is likely to elicit some response simply because you are bound to find some people who are interested in sport nearby. But if the sport – or remember it could be any service here – is highly specific, then this form of marketing is going to be relatively costly for a low return. So instead maybe you need to consider targeting a trade publication.

To generate local interest, social media such as Twitter and Facebook are good platforms, as you can create a buzz about an event or product by targeting the right groups. For example, check on Facebook to see if there are any local clubs taking part in the activity you are offering, and like their page if they have one. If they know anything about social media and they like what they see of you, the chances are they will like your page in return, and all of a sudden you have created the opportunity to open a mutually supportive dialogue. For free.

Recommendations from friends will always be more warmly received than cold calls, so using social media is a cheap and effective means of getting your message across. But that does not mean you should ignore other media outlets completely. The thing to remember is that you can get yourself coverage, particularly in the local media, by sending out press releases or information about your company and what it is doing. Employees who raise money for charity or take on extreme challenges always go down well, or a new product or service for your company that will resonate with the locals for a specific reason.

The one thing most people fail to realise when they send out some information to the press is that they are not going to be interested in you simply because you are you, unless you are already a celebrity. You have to have a reason to contact them, such as a special piece of research you have commissioned, or even identified by doing a trawl of your own business database. Otherwise you need to look out for opportunities to comment on topics that might be related to your business, but nothing is worse than calling a journalist the week after they have written a story unless you are adding something to it.

To benefit from being able to comment on stories, you need to build relationships with journalists so that when something relevant comes up, they think of you as the person to ask about it. Position yourself as an expert in your field and your profile will rise along with your customer base. But if you try to cultivate journalist relationships, remember that there will be times when they contact you which might be inconvenient, such as on the weekend. If you can make yourself available as much as you can, there is nothing to hold you back.

By Ali Steed, founder of The Business Powerhouse