After putting in the hard work of getting a business up and running, you might hope for customers to automatically start buying what you’re selling. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for many small businesses.

Entrepreneurs need to promote their business to remain top of mind among potential customers, as well as suppliers, distributors and influencers, said Heidi Cohen, founder and chief content officer of Actionable Marketing Guide, an online resource for business owners. And the work doesn’t stop once someone makes a purchase, she added — you’ll need to live up to your own hype to maintain customer loyalty.

Continue reading to understand the importance of branding and how to promote your business so you can reach and retain customers.

Start with brand strategy

Brand strategy is the precursor to marketing, said Lara McCulloch, a small business marketing consultant. As she noted, your brand strategy should answer the question of why customers should choose your business instead of the countless other companies in the marketplace.

“Without knowing the answer to this very important foundation, your marketing falls into the sea of sameness,” McCulloch said.

Businesses have an easier time advertising than ever before, McCulloch said, creating more noise that you must compete against. Your brand strategy should incorporate a compelling message to grab the attention of your target customer, she said.

McCulloch advises clients to focus on three areas to develop a brand strategy:

  • First, identify your micro niche, which would be the narrowest possible audience that could sustain the growth of your business. You need to understand your micro niche’s motivators, behaviors, values and pain points when it comes to purchasing products like yours.
  • Next, you should have a handle on the gaps between what your competitors offer and what your micro niche wants.
  • Then, determine where your business excels and how you can achieve results for your micro niche.

“It’s at the intersection of these three things that you can find what I like to call your disruptive cure,” McCulloch said. “Your disruptive cure is your brand’s positioning.”

The key to successful branding is consistency, Cohen said. Your business name – ideally something memorable and easy to spell – should be the same across all of your online and offline platforms. Your colors and tagline should also be the same. In addition to social media, create a website on your own URL to establish a digital home base for the business, she said.

“Branding doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive,” Cohen said.

5 ways to promote a business

Once you’ve nailed down your brand strategy, you could begin promoting the business. There’s not a certain monetary figure or budget percentage that business owners need to spend on marketing, Cohen noted. While some marketing efforts may cost money, others could cost time instead.

The amount you spend on marketing should be tied to the results you’re looking to generate, McCulloch said. Set a revenue goal for your marketing efforts and determine what it would cost to get there.

To promote your business, you don’t need to break the bank. Many promotional strategies could be relatively inexpensive, or even free. Here are a few ideas to get started.

1. Go offline.

An online community can be valuable, but you should build your network in-person as well, Cohen said. After meeting someone, follow up within 24 hours to reinforce the connection. Consider getting together with your social media contacts offline to bolster relationships, or attending networking events to meet new people.

“Remember, loose connections help your business the most,” Cohen said.

2. Speak at conferences or other events.

Attending a conference or similar event as a guest speaker could help you build authority, trust and likability as a business owner, which could boost your brand perception, McCulloch said. Go into these events with a business goal in mind as well, whether that’s converting attendees into sales leads or making onsite sales with other offerings, she said.

But be careful to keep your sales pitch out of your actual presentation, Cohen said. Outwardly promoting your business from the stage could result in you not being invited back. Instead, your presentation should focus on the audience’s needs and provide actionable takeaways, Cohen said.

3. Write a book.

A book could build your credibility as an expert and influencer within your industry, Cohen said. However, it would be a significant investment. While you can self-publish a book, you may still need to consult others for editing, copyediting and design. You would also need to develop an individual marketing plan and budget for the book to at least reach a break-even point, Cohen said.

4. Create content.

If you don’t want to go through the hassle of publishing a book, you could write content for your business website. Creating pages to explain or discuss specific topics would allow you to establish your personal expertise.

Search engines like Google would also see your site as an authoritative voice if you have individual pages exploring separate topics in depth; that could drive more traffic to your business’s website. You would also be able to point customers to other areas of your site from your content pages.

5. Set up email correspondence.

Consider collecting email addresses to directly communicate with current and prospective customers. Email marketing platforms can compile your contact list so you can share campaigns and promotional materials with everyone at once. Unlike your social media following, you have ownership of your subscriber list.

Prices vary for marketing platforms, so you could find one that fits your budget.

Marketing and branding missteps to avoid

When establishing your brand and promoting your business, watch out for these mistakes.

Using industry jargon. As an expert in your field, you may be accustomed to using specific language and terminology. However, those technical terms likely won’t mean anything to customers, McCulloch said.

Lacking proof. Without evidence, any claims used in your promotions are meaningless “marketing speak,” said McCulloch. Consider ways to add proof to support your claims through case studies, statistics, testimonials, survey results or ratings.

Relying on earned traits. Owners often make claims like “amazing service” to differentiate the business from competitors, McCulloch said. A prospective client wouldn’t know whether or not you provide great service until they give you money.

“If you hang your hat on this when someone hasn’t had the chance to work with you, it will fall on deaf ears,” she said. “It means nothing to someone who doesn’t know you or how you work.”

Failing to match expectations. If your product or service doesn’t live up to the promises you’ve made, you risk losing customers, Cohen said. Neglecting to support even a single customer could have even farther-reaching repercussions.

“She’s gone. Even worse, she’ll tell everyone she knows how bad your business is,” Cohen said.

The bottom line

Effective branding is crucial to the success and growth of your operation. Before you promote your business, you need to understand the details of your brand strategy and what you want to say with your materials. And, according to McCulloch, it could take days, weeks or even months to get the message right.

Your promotional strategy would be specific to your business. There’s not a predetermined path to follow or a certain amount of money you should spend; it will depend on the needs of your business and the goals you’d like to reach through promotion. But as a small business owner, aim to be smart and efficient with your resources, Cohen said.

“Since small business owners are time and cash constrained, they must be smarter with every activity to get the most results from each,” she said.

This article originally appeared in Lending Tree.