What can a $0 marketing budget get you in 2021?

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Hint: It’s a heckuva lot.

The short answer: There are numerous possibilities of what can be achieved with a $0 marketing budget. Here is my list of marketing activities that become significantly easier, even with a $0 marketing stack:

Read on, if you‘re ready for a detailed overview, or jump straight to ZeroMarketingStack.com to see the full list of tools.

The possibilities of marketing something with extremely limited resources is far greater today than it was even a few years ago. It is now increasingly possible for a medium-sized business to run marketing with effectively little or no software, technology or toolkit costs.

The best things in life are free

A $0 Marketing Stack can provide anyone with an internet connection the ability to run powerful marketing campaigns right from their couch. 

In this post, I hope to provide a basic primer for anyone looking to make their marketing challenges just a little bit easier with the help of technology.

Note: Tools, however powerful, can only take you so far without the right knowledge to apply them. I have tried to incorporate guides and resources along the way with advice to help you make the most of this $0 Marketing Stack.

Defining ‘free’: Given the various monetisation models out there, ‘free’ can mean different things. It is important to understand that free stuff requires compromise. In most cases you are paying one way or another, with your attention, your data or with the promise of becoming a future customer.

Free* in the context of this article includes always free as well as free trials limited by features or time-bound.

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Here is the short-list again. You can also click on each of the following to jump straight to that section:

Let’s go over these in detail.

Build a Brand

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Designing a brand is a critical step in marketing which involves naming, defining, and determining the palette as well as symbolic elements to create a distinctive identity.

My personal favourite and the defacto Swiss Army Knife of the freemium design world is Canva — a powerful design platform with an ever-evolving list of features.

My recommended list of tools for brand building:

  1. Brand Name: Namelix helps generate brand names with a little help from AI. Shopify also has a nifty little business name generator.
  2. Brand Voice: Take a brand personality quiz to define your archetype. Copywriter Chanti Zak also has a nifty brand voice quiz on her website which I found quite illuminating. A more comprehensive resource would be Hubspot’s guide for developing a brand identity.
  3. Colour Palette: Use a palette generator such as Coolors, Colormind, Adobe Color Wheel or this spiffy little gadget from Canva which allows you to upload an image and extract a palette from it.
  4. Logo & Identity Design: There is no dearth of logo makers out there. Some of my go-tos include Hatchful by Shopify, Canva’s free logo maker or this logo creator by Squarespace. Both Canva and Pixlr are great image editing tools.
  5. Brand Story/Narrative: Hubspot’s guide to building a brand story and Creative Supply’s Brand Story Canvas which includes a downloadable template. Given the importance of this step in building a brand, an investment here would be worth every dollar. Even though it’s not free*, I recommend Storytech which is an interactive brand story crafting platform that guides you step by step through the process of getting a world-class brand narrative.
  6. Miscellaneous: Here are a smattering of tools that can help in your journey. Google Fonts is a great place for finding typefaces. Zippy Pixels has a cool brand guide boilerplate template and Styleguides.io has 100+ tools to help you make your own style guide.
  7. It’s been said that building a brand is like building a house. There is so much more to brand design and we’ve only just scratched the surface. I will continue to expand this list with more useful tools as I come across them.

Craft a Marketing Strategy

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A Marketing Strategy can be broadly defined as a game plan for identifying and reaching prospects with the goal of converting them into customers. A Digital Marketing Strategy further extends this definition by incorporating data and technology along with carefully selected tactics to achieve and perhaps even extend that goal (e.g. from Customer Acquisition to Retention, Repurchase, Advocacy, etc.)

In his book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt describes the kernel of a good strategy as containing three elements:

The Kernel of a Strategy
1. A diagnoses that defines the challenge.
2. A guiding policy (or principles) for dealing with the challenge.
3. A set of coherent actions to accomplish the policy.

This article by Jeff Zych captures the essence of the book and makes for an insightful read.

A good marketing strategy then must identify the challenge to be overcome and design a way to overcome it. 

Hubspot’s digital strategy guide is a great resource to start with. Other recommended readings from Hubspot, Neil Patel and Hurree.

Once your marketing goals have been defined, crafting a strategy generally involves researching your market, profiling your customers & competitors, crafting the communication, developing tactics & setting KPIs, testing your hypothesis and building an optimisation plan.

Here are some useful resources and tools to help you elevate your marketing strategy.

How to approach marketing with first principles thinking — Philip Kotler

Research: There are a collection of primary and secondary research tools available to inform your planning. The following is a non-comprehensive list of research methods and tools:

  1. Surveys to understand your audience types, preferences and much more using SurveyMonkey. A guide for building effective surveys from the XM blog. A plethora of free survey templates from Qualtrics.
  2. Observational research to analyse website interactions, online behaviour and user experience — HotJar and Crazy Egg
  3. Social listening — Talkwalker Social Media Search, Real-time social media search and insights from Facebook audience insights and socialmention
  4. Google Trends to understand what topics are up/down-trending for your audience and Alexa to find new opportunities to grow and engage your audience.
  5. Alerts to be notified when a new website, blog or forum mentions a topic you’re monitoring — Google Alerts, Talkwalker Alerts),
  6. Interviews (use Google Forms) and data analysis (use this guide to analysing open-ended questions — includes a template). Also, here is a quick start guide to market research.
  7. Competitors research: Use SimilarWeb for analysing competitor’s web/app traffic, Ubersuggest to reverse engineer your competitor’s content marketing, analyse competitors ads using Moat for display ads, Facebook Ads Library for social ads.

Personas, prospect-customer lifecycle, user journeys
Defining the right audience personas is integral to your marketing strategy and will in turn inform all the actions that come next.

Narrow your target down to specific people with faces, names, goals and challenges

  1. Customer personas and journey maps platform from Cubb
  2. Step by step instructions to create personas using Hubspot’s Make My Persona Tool
  3. Generate effective personas and map them to user stories using Userforge
  4. Step by step guide to building a customer journey map from Hotjar or this one from Hubspot which includes examples and templates

Messaging & Content: This is a dense topic and for the uninitiated can only be grasped through some necessary reading. The links below provide a good starting point to help you develop your marketing messages.

  1. Guide to building an audience-centric brand communication strategy from Hubspot
  2. Uhuru Network’s guide to crafting a powerful marketing message
  3. Brand messaging framework and brand matrix templates from CoSchedule and one from Column Five
  4. Content marketing messaging architecture tool from CMI

Customer Experience (CX) Strategy: A CX Strategy involves mapping customer interactions across all touch-points to deliver consistent, positive experiences. A solid CX strategy is built around empathy for the customer and relies on leveraging customer intelligence to create personalised and highly targeted customer experiences.

Your call is important to us

This guide from Qualtrics on designing a CX Strategy lays out how to conduct customer experience research, mapping customer experience and building the future state. Some tools that can help enable your CX strategy include: 

  1. Qualtrics Survey — Create, distribute and analyse customer insights through well-designed surveys (refer to the previously suggested guide for building effective surveys from the XM blog) 
  2. Hubspot Service Hub — A Customer Intelligence tool to help identify best-fit customers for effective targeting and provide a frictionless customer experience. The free plan includes features such as Contact Management, Ticketing, Live chat and more 
  3. Segment — a Customer Data Platform to collect, unify, clean and control customer data 
  4. SurveyMonkey — Create and send surveys to track and measure your customers’ experience 

User Experience (UX) Strategy provides a roadmap to align priorities and focus on delivering the best possible experience in the areas that matter the most to your users. UX Strategy helps consistently and accurately deliver the intended user experience to every touch-point where users interact with your product or service. UX Design isn’t as much about aesthetics so much as it is about keeping the user at the heart of the solution design process. 

  1. Some useful resources in learning how to create a UX Strategy include this article from MentoMate about User Experience Strategy 
  2. UX Strategy Toolkit from Jaime Levy includes a spreadsheet to document competitive research/analysis, user research studies, and funnel design strategies.

Create Marketing Assets

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Once the brand identity has been defined and the strategy worked out, you’re ready to get executing on those plans. There is a multitude of ways in which you can bring to life your strategic approach. This section deals with individual tactical elements such as websites, apps, social media, marketing automation, CRM, SEO, paid media, measurement and analytics. I expect this section to be a work in progress and new tools to be added periodically.

Web & App Development (Design, WYSIWYG, No/Low Code)
Web Design is the process of orchestrating and strategically bringing together aesthetic and authored elements in crafting a website. Websites are integral components of digital strategies and the process of web design incorporates translating those strategies into tangible elements such as content, layouts and visuals. Increasingly, web design today uses themes/templates as starting points and seldom involves building something from the ground up. 

Concept, Prototypes, Wireframes, Design Systems

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This stage of web design offers integrated tools that can transform simple ideas in your head into working prototypes and much more. Sketch is a design toolkit which offers a feature unrestricted 30 days trial and Figma which has a forever free tier which should be more than sufficient to get you started. Both these tools are industry standards at this point for low/high fidelity wireframing, building design systems and prototyping. Another powerful multi-dimensional tool is Adobe XD which offers a free starter plan with layouts, design, prototyping and animation features.

Building a Website
For nearly two decades, open-source Content Management Systems (CMSes) have dominated the web-scape and truly revolutionized how we build and manage websites.

WordPress is the undisputed leader here —  used by 39% of the top websites on the internet and also happens to be my top recommendation in this category.

The WordPress community maintains a massive ecosystem of templates, extensions and plugins making it one of the most powerful and customisable website builders, period. There are several ways to establish a web presence using WordPress:

  1. Create a WordPress website using a free WordPress.com account which comes with dozens of free themes. This is likely to be the easiest option for most users. As your website needs grow, it will be well worth upgrading to one of their premium plans.
  2. Set up and host WordPress using the forever free tier of Google Cloud Platform. This is for advance users and provides extensive control. Some helpful resources to accomplish this include this GCP setup guide from TerminalBytes, or this step by step instructional video from Utechpia.
  3. Download the installer package directly from WordPress.org and set it up on your own web server.

Medium is another great option for publishing a blog which offers powerful publishing tools, an already captive audience of users and great search engine visibility for your work.

Webflow can help you build professional, custom websites in a completely visual canvas. You can create two pages including 50 CMS ‘items’ and publish on a webflow.io domain for free.

WebsiteBuilder.com offers an intelligent site builder, unlimited storage, SSL, CDN, direct integration with the Unsplash image library as well as email marketing and online shopping.

Weebly and Wix both offer free website builders with 500 MB storage, SSL, SEO features, lead capture forms. Some functionality may differ but they largely provide the same type of drag and drop website editors.

Free resources for your website

  1. Icons: Thousands of free icons which you can configure as you see fit on Iconmonstr, and Font Awesome
  2. Stock Images & Videos: Many high-quality resources at Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay
  3. Fonts: Beautiful typography at Google Fonts,
  4. Hosting: There is a service for free hosting without ads which is literally called Free Hosting No Ads.
  5. Free Cloud Services: An assortment of services in the free tier from Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform

Content Planning & Development: Insights & strategy, AI-assisted writing tools

  1. Content Research — BuzzSumo is a tool to find the most popular content in any category. Identify potential influencers and understand which type of content resonates with your audience
  2. Writing Assistants: The Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear. Grammarly is another option that also includes integrations with browsers and word processors to help eliminate grammatical errors and improve the quality of your writing.
  3. AI-Assisted Copywriters: Some tools which are not entirely free but offer full feature trials include Copysmith, Copy.ai, InferKit with a live demo.
  4. GatherContent is great for content planning and collaboration which offers a 30-day full-feature trial.
  5. CopyBlogger although isn’t a tool but contains a wealth of resources for anyone trying to create compelling and effective content.

Social Media Marketing: Planning and preparation, scheduling/publishing, response management, reporting,

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  1. Craft beautiful and engaging social media posts using Canva which is the defacto swiss army knife of online creative tools or use Pablo from the folks that brought you Buffer.
  2. Publishing & reporting: Hootsuite offers 3 social profiles with 30 posts for free, while Buffer allows for 10 free posts including an app for easy calendar management
  3. listening & analytics — Real-time social media search and insights from Facebook audience insights, socialmention
  4. Social Bakers offer a suite of free social media tools which include Facebook & Instagram performance quadrant reports, Social media benchmarking, Facebook ads performance prediction, etc.

Emails — Beefree is one of the best drag-and-drop editors to create beautiful, mobile-responsive emails.

Ad Banners: Bannnersnack is a powerful tool to quickly make original ad banners which can automatically be adapted to all standard sizes in a few clicks. You can create static, animated or interactive HTML5 banners.

Set up and Execute Marketing Campaigns

Campaigns can bring your marketing strategy to life and help realise the marketing tactics laid out in the strategy development phase. The following tools and platforms can help orchestrate and launch a marketing campaign.

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Marketing Automation and Email marketing platforms, triggers, workflows

  1. Hubspot Marketing Hub is one of the best integrated marketing automation tools out there. The free plan includes Contact Management, Deals, Ticketing, Forms, Ads Management, Email Templates, Reporting Dashboard and much more.
  2. MailChimp is yet another integrated marketing platform but it really shines for its email marketing capabilities. The free plan allows up to 2000 contacts with email templates, landing pages, sign-up forms and a marketing CRM all built right in.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
CRM systems can be used to manage sales, marketing and service interactions. They can ingest diversified sources of data and integrate external/internal data which also includes both online & offline.

  1. Hubspot CRM is a free yet powerful tool that offers Company Tracking, Deal Tracking and Pipeline Management along with a customisable reporting dashboard.
  2. MailChimp also offers a free CRM solution which includes holistic views of your audience, segmentation tools, personalisation and a mobile app to manage all of the above on the go.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
Once your website is ready, you need to ensure a steady flow of traffic coming to it. Search Engine Optimisation help create conditions that make search engines rank your website when your target audience is looking for your products or services. It is invaluable to rank for search terms which are most relevant to your business and the tools listed below can give you a head start in the process.

  1. SEM Rush offers a comprehensive SEO toolkit to help identify keywords, analyse backlinks, run technical audits and track SERP positions. A free trial allows you to take these features for a spin and get some value from it.
  2. Screaming Frog SEO Spider crawls websites to extract data in real-time to identify and fix common SEO issues. Features include finding broken links, discovering duplicate content, generating XML sitemaps, and creating rich visual website architecture.
  3. GrowthBar is a powerful SEO plugin for Google Chrome that provides keyword suggestions, backlinks, google ads support and keyword tracking right in your browser.
  4. Yoast is the most popular SEO plugin for WordPress for good reason. It helps optimise WordPress websites for keywords/keyphrases, find high performing keywords, seamlessly add structured data blocks, implement canonical links, provide technical SEO fixes and much more.

Influencer Engagement is an effective method of leveraging the social clout of influential persons within your community to build a strong and authentic brand affinity with your audiences. 

Here are some tools to help get you started:

  1. Upfluence Analytics Google Chrome Plugin is a free tool that helps analyse potential influencer profiles for key performance metrics. These include engagement rate, reach, audience demographics, etc. to help build a strong influencer list. The Upfluence blog is a meaty resource to help you learn the intricacies of incorporating influencers into your marketing strategy.
  2. HypeAuditor is an influencer analytics platform that helps run transparent and fraud-free campaigns. The free plan provides access to their reports hub and includes audience quality score, demographics and language insights, engagement analytics, etc.
  3. Influence.co is a global community of influencers which can help you connect, engage and collaborate with influencers.

Measurement & Reporting

Frameworks and Tools for tracking data from websites, social media, emails. Data Analytics and Visualisation to build dashboards and extract insights.

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  1. Google Analytics:  Website analytics, cross-device/cross-channel campaign performance tracking, reporting, etc.
  2. Lighthouse: Improve the quality of web pages – audits for performance, accessibility, progressive web apps, SEO and more
  3. Hotjar or CrazyEgg: Identify most/least engaged parts of websites using heat maps, analyse user funnel, etc.
  4. Google Data Studio: Build interactive dashboards and beautiful data visualisations
  5. Facebook Analytics: View customer journey across mobile/web, drive growth to website/social, etc.
  6. Quantcast Measure:  Real-time insights into audience demographic and psychographic, understand motivations how they engage with your website content

Does that mean it’s the beginning of the end for the marketing agency business?

Not exactly.

Is this goodbye?

Access to powerful tools and platforms makes it all the more important for brands to find the right partner that can help them stand apart and leverage the marketing stack to their advantage. The right agency is able to continually invest time and resources in identifying, curating and in some cases even developing the right solutions/products to provide brands an advantage over their competitors. 

While remaining objective, unencumbered and decoupled from the marketer’s blind spots, the right agency can be the voice of reason and innovation in the stasis laden world of traditional marketing.

A well-informed brand marketer can be a strong ally and partner for the right agency. Speaking the same language and unified in objective instead of the agency having to educate and in some cases spoon feed the next course of action. This partnership of equals can potentially create an outcome several orders of magnitudes greater than the sum of its parts.

This puts an added burden of responsibility on the agency. Those that don’t create value at scale for their clients will soon become irrelevant and be left behind. Perhaps what is happening at the network agency level is an early warning system, a canary in the coal mine if you will that agencies need to smarten up and shed all preconceived notions held onto — sometimes simply due to tradition.

Already independent offshoots are sprouting up all over vying to optimise and turn every little sliver of the customer’s journey into a product. Whatever is on offer and done poorly, will in a matter of time become a specialised service provided by an expert. An expert-as-a-service (EaaS) if you will.

The writing is on the wall for marketers and agencies alike. Offer specific, infallible value or software will soon be eating your lunch.

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