Does Free Marketing Work Anymore? | LearnCube Blog
Below you'll find Herbert and I discussing: Does Free Marketing Work Anymore?
While nothing comes free in life, some free marketing methods are extremely effective if you put in the time. Below is our conversation on how to market your online language school or tutoring business with no or low budgets.
Does Free Marketing Work Anymore?
Alex: Hey! Welcome to another episode of the Get More Students podcast! I'm your co-host, Alex Asher, and CEO of LearnCube.
Herbert: And I'm Herbert Gerzer, founder of herbertgerzer.com.
Today on the podcast, we are focused on the topic: "Does free marketing work?" Everyone loves the word free. And why are we talking about this topic? Well, Alex and I are both entrepreneurs. We run companies, and not only do we manage our own marketing budgets, marketing campaigns, but we also help our customers with their marketing campaigns as well. We all know that advertising costs money, whether to print a brochure or a flyer, run google ads or Facebook ads, but what are some marketing methods or strategies that cost nothing or very little? That's what we're going to talk about today.
Alex: Absolutely! Now I'm really excited about this conversation, and I think both you and I, when we were discussing this previously, we were going back to our own stories of starting out, not really having any budget. How do you get to that next milestone? Actually, for those that don't know what LearnCube is, we specialize in helping online language and tutoring businesses to grow with two particular products: our virtual classroom and our online school. Herbert, you started from nothing and have had to build your business. Tell us about what you do.
Herbert: Right. I run an advertising agency, so marketing is really our bread and butter. Every day we're running experiments within the agency on behalf of language schools and education companies to see what marketing works. New platforms, new strategies. This is a great topic.
Alex: Yeah, and I think the initial part of this is really interesting. Just to acknowledge what we've also been doing over the last year, we've been doing these Q&A sessions with tutoring companies that are asking us: 'Hey, what do I do with this budget?' or 'I only have this, what can I do?' So the conversation can often go to this idea of: 'Can I do this for free?'
I think one of the things that are going to be fairly apparent is that there is some free marketing out there that definitely works, and we're going to talk through that. But also keeping in mind that free is usually not just that. It's not free of anything. It's often either free of money or free of time. People get more time by paying more money and vice versa. They use more time so they can save more money. And so, a smaller business often has a lower budget and less money available to them. They're really looking for value for money or value for time.
But there's some really good compromise, and I think we'll have some fun coming up with those. So let's start with this. We're also going to use some categories that I think we found quite helpful. This idea of what you have control over with that marketing. Some marketing you have a lot of control over, and you really have a predictable result. I put this input, and I get this out of it. Some tools you have very little control, very little visibility. You put something in, and maybe something comes back. So we will use that idea of less control, lots of control. Then we're going to look at what are those in-between scenarios. The first one that we talked about, Herbert, was this idea of the one you don't necessarily have much control over but is incredibly effective, which is, of course, word of mouth.
Herbert: Absolutely. Very powerful. A referral can mean the difference between getting that client, getting that contract, or not. It's difficult to even put a dollar figure on what a referral or good recommendation is worth. However, you don't often have a lot of control over when and what and how people give those referrals.
Alex: Yeah, particularly if they're a customer. Customer referrals and testimonials are by nature opportunistic because if they are genuine word-of-mouth customers, it's usually not that they're trying to sell. Sometimes it's brilliant if you can get some sort of evangelical kinds of customers that go out of every opportunity to try and push your product, service, or offering your contribution; that's brilliant. But a lot of us, a lot of the people that rely on referrals, are going to be opportunistic. They're going to be at a dinner table, they're going to be at a conference, somehow the conversation is going to turn into something, and hopefully, that is your product or service.
Herbert: Exactly, so obviously fantastic, and word of mouth is where a lot of businesses start. They grow their businesses to a certain level, but I guess in order to expand beyond that, you need to look out and adopt some other ways of marketing.
Alex: What are some types of marketing, just headlines, where you have a lot of control?
Herbert: Email marketing, of course. One of the top marketing tools and is still very effective today. Strategic partnerships. We'll talk about it as well.
Alex: And email marketing is an interesting one because it's not like email marketing is new; it's not like any of the tools are new. This is a very well-known area, and it hasn't gone away; some people say this is the end of the email, but this remains an incredibly powerful engine not only for day-to-day business but also for marketing.
One of the things we were discussing before was this idea that email marketing, to be effective, relies on the amount of permission, the amount of trust you've been able to gather in order to get that email. If you've done very little to build trust, the people that are on your email list, the worst-case scenario is they don't even know you. Some people have no relationship, and they just do cold emails. That's an example of absolutely no permission. That's basically what spam is, right? That's why the email engines like Gmail and Hotmail, every email client, now has a pretty sensitive trigger when it comes to spam. There's a real disincentive to abuse that trust because you'll just be flagged as spam every time you send something.
Email marketing only really works when you're offering value, and the recipients want to hear from you. I think we had a really fun discussion, Herbert, and I want you to talk about it. What are you giving? They might be your students, your customers. What are they giving you permission to do? Tell me about that.
Herbert: Well, it really depends. I think it's a bit different for, let's say, a language school or a tutoring company, to a clothing brand, for example. Just from personal experience, I love signing up for newsletters from shopping or e-commerce websites, so I know when they're having a sale or a promotion. I don't mind them sending me three emails a week about promotions because that's what I'm looking for.
However, when it comes to language education, tutoring, you really have to build value and trust with that person. They'll be investing possibly quite a lot of money into your program, and you don't want to be spamming them with sales and discounts all the time.
Alex: Also, if you unpick that, the emails you're wanting, these promotional emails, that's the permission you're giving. It's like I expect you to provide me with information about sales. I think one of the other differences there is that typically this is already a known experience, slash a known product. If you're trying to get new customers to your education organization, typically, you're an unknown. When you're an unknown, the value of your promotion is not nearly as high as it would be for: 'hey, I always buy this brand.'
But there's no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. That's going to cost the organization money and particularly if that's your reputation for offering sales. People will think, 'Just wait until sales, and they'll email it to you, and then you just buy at a quarter of the price.' Now, if that's what you can do, then maybe that'll work for you, but typically the way to make email marketing free and fruitful is by showing value, which is typically around education. That's a free add-on, a free value add that you can provide to the recipients of your emails, and of course, your list and your customers.
Herbert: Definitely. Educate or entertain.
Alex: Yeah, I like those two. Educate and/or entertain. So we'll come back to more about email marketing, but long story short, it works; it is free up to a point. We can talk about where the grey level lies there, but it is remarkably effective and free. The other thing you mentioned was strategic partnerships, and this is where you partner with somebody, usually with a similar customer base, but you are not similar in what you offer. You offer things that are complementary rather than competitive. When you're using partnerships, it's very much a win-win. The only way it works is basically the sum of your two parts is greater than individually doing it yourselves. We have a wonderful example of that.
Herbert: We do. LearnCube and herbertgerzer.com. For over a year now we've partnered up, doing live webinars, Q&A calls, now this podcast. We have both definitely profited from that relationship by building both of our networks or expanding our networks and building authority in our niche.
Alex: And I think what I've really enjoyed about it as well, this is a content partnership, right? We both get together on this podcast and we share our expertise, and we share our audiences, and that makes both of us better off. But there could also be financial partnerships that some people go into. Reseller agreements are very common in education. Agents are basically an example of that, right? The agency relationship is basically a partner, right?
Herbert: Yes, a very trusted partner to promote your school on behalf of you.
Alex: There could be other, but basically, when you're looking for strategic partners, to make them free and as profitable as possible. The other side needs to be looking for the same kinds of customers and offering a complimentary service. Those are two examples where you have quite a lot of control over it, and it's still effective and free.
What is an area that you have less control over? You can put something out, but you don't know what's going to happen. It's going to be social media.
Herbert: Right. Some people would say that you have a lot of control because you post what you want to post, but because of the respective algorithms, not everyone sees your post, so you can't influence who will see what you post.
Alex: Just again, that contrasts to email. Email assumes that it will be sent. It assumes that the inbox will remain open. Of course, spam filters close that up quickly if you don't have that permission, but that's the assumption. Whereas with a Facebook post, you have no real control. Hopefully, you understand the algorithms enough to know this has a good chance of working. I think people that are really professional and do a lot of Facebook posting have enough data to statistically get an idea of whether it's going to work, but it's also very creative. It's so experimental that you really don't have that same level of confidence in whether something's going to work.
Facebook and Instagram are definitely your jam here, Herbert. Tell me if you've got anything else that is helpful to know about. Why social media in the first place then, if not for marketing?
Herbert: Well, it's all part of that 360-degree approach and being present on the main platforms where your target audience is spending their time online. Usually, that is either Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Linkedin, depending on your target market. These platforms can be effective even though you may not get hundreds and thousands of likes and comments, but they act as social proof. When people are searching for you, they inevitably click on your social media profiles. They want to know. They want to see what's happening at your school, what your students are experiencing, does it look fun? These are the channels that you can show that.
Alex: It's like a trust verifier as well because it's hard. I'm pretty sure you can't fake the dates of when you do posts and that kind of thing, which means that there's basically a chronological account of your business online. So when people have a look, they might not necessarily care about the marketing aspects of it, but they're really looking like, 'Hey, this is a real person.' They're legitimate. This is an organization I can trust here.
Herbert: Exactly. Again, you should be using your social media channels to educate or entertain. Depending on the social media platform, you can entertain a lot. Instagram and TikTok are great platforms to jump on trends and go viral with some fun videos. Or you can go the LinkedIn route, more professional, provide education or material and value to your specific target audience.
Alex: Yeah. LinkedIn was one that we were quite convinced on in a way, in terms of free and being able to post and feel like your posts might be seen a lot more. Certainly, we've had a lot more confidence with LinkedIn, and we were trying to figure out: a. Why isn't it full of spammy kinds of promotions, and then b. How is it still effective? It's so well used in so many parts of the world. Why is it still effective as a way of communicating a company's message?
Herbert: Right, especially if you are in the B2B space for language schools or tutoring companies, selling programs or courses to other companies, your decision-makers are on LinkedIn. By, one, connecting with them, sending a connection request, and two, posting regular content that applies and is relevant to them, you can again build that trust. Trust is a huge factor when it comes to B2B because usually, the dollar amount or the dollar of your product or services is higher.
I don't think a lot of people do a lot of self-promotion these days. They probably tried it at the start, but then Linkedin's algorithm is pretty sophisticated to know if you're not providing valuable content. Then you don't get any engagement. So a lot of the content on LinkedIn is actually very educational and very valuable. I love reading people's posts and seeing their insights and stories and tips and strategies. Of course, every now and again, though, they will have a call to action, so to say, to book a call, to visit their website, to get in touch for more information.
Alex: We'd also talked about this idea of it being fairly well self-policed. I've definitely seen, particularly around the last US election, anything that seemed political; people pull people out really quick on it. Because it's not a personal platform, it's a professional platform, you don't want comments saying this is totally unprofessional on LinkedIn. So it was very effective, and I still think they've got that community balance pretty good, especially when it comes to a professional community.
One of the other things about it is that it's free to connect. As long as you know who the person is, you can look them up and connect with them. Now there are some limitations, and we can go on to whether or not it's worth paying a bit of money to get around those limitations. But theoretically, if you want to meet with somebody, you can provide a LinkedIn request, and once you're connected, it's just like an email. If you want to message them, that's going to go right into their message board. Plus, you can keep a relationship warm or hot just by using that by posting. There's an entire chance that those people that are connected with you are going to see those posts, in which case, again, you've got the ability to keep your leads warm, which is an incredibly important part of marketing. A lot of time, people aren't ready to buy immediately, but they might be willing to buy at some point in the next months. That's again where that keeping things warm comes from. The other platform that's free and is incredibly powerful as well is Youtube.
Herbert: Video content. Everyone loves consuming video content, and Youtube is the number one video platform and can also be extremely effective for language schools and tutoring companies to provide value to their target audience. In the form of mini-lessons, showreels, virtual tours, testimonials, and of course, student stories. I think youtube is a fantastic platform to really show your school or your company's personality and, of course, to build social proof and trust.
Alex: And it is really free, right? You can host any video on it. You can host unlisted videos. So if you want something only shown to certain people, you can do that through an unlisted link, but you can also do it publicly. There's almost no cost of producing any kind of content now. You just get on, you do a recording of you doing anything that's educational and helpful or entertaining and post it on youtube, and you've got a massive audience. That can help with search as well.
We were going to talk about another really common concept, this idea of a free lead magnet or right hook. Somebody to, for example, in exchange for their email, get the old free pdf. Give us an email for a free pdf has probably done its day. But what is very common still and very, very effective is this idea of a free video, some kind of educational delivery but using video. That again goes back to Youtube. If you have an unlisted youtube video, you can use that as the hook. Hey, I'll send you this if you can subscribe to my newsletter list. That's really common.
Herbert: Yeah, I myself use lead magnets. It is very effective.
Alex: So lots of free tools that you can use, and I think if you're small, free is fine because you're not needing huge volumes; you don't need to take over the world. You just need enough clients to be able to get you to the next stage, and usually, that next stage means that you've got a little bit of money. If you use it wisely, you can turn that into a lot more money. So we're going to talk about this idea of what marketing is not free, but by putting a little bit of extra money on it, you can make it a lot more effective. One of the areas that we were going to talk about was this idea of service providers.
Herbert: I know that you can spend a lot on certain software, tools, automation to make your life easier and improve your sales process. There are some amazing platforms and services out there that can really make your life easier. For example, as soon as you hit a threshold of newsletter subscribers, then you might have to invest in getting an email mark or a monthly subscription at an email marketing platform like MailChimp so that you get the data you need in order to improve on your email marketing campaigns and send the content that your target audience wants to see.
Alex: I mean again, you can do email for free. You just bcc everybody and send it out. It's totally fine if you've got an initial email list of very few, but if you have a very large list, particularly if you're going blind, you don't know if they're spamming every one of them. If you get on a spam flag list, that's not a good thing. You'll want to know that. So I think it was an example of just paying a little bit of money once you've reached a certain milestone made a lot of sense.
This podcast, for example, is free marketing for LearnCube and herbertgerzer.com, but yeah, we pay a little bit of money. Why? So that we can actually host it on multiple podcast environments. Apple, Spotify, and Google, and we get analytics, so we know what's hot. For example, surprisingly, Herbert, Google Podcast is actually one of our most popular.
Herbert: There you go! I wouldn't have thought either.
Alex: That's right, and so it's just an example of where had I not known that, I actually probably would have never even put it on that platform. So it was a curiosity, but what I'm getting at again is that there will be a return on even a small investment in many places.
LinkedIn we will talk about again. Totally free if you want to connect, but a lot of the time, you can't connect outside a certain number of first, second, and third connections. Right? So if you're too distant, you've got no mutual connections, it's actually quite hard to connect with, particularly maybe the more influential customers you might really want, that might be the really valuable ones, you might not be able to connect with those. But if you put it in context, they get you, but paying some money, you can use it for their sales navigator, and what can you do? You can skip the receptionist. You can go on LinkedIn: 'Hey, who's a product manager here?', and then connect with them directly. You might need to get the CEO, but you start with a product manager. That product manager, if they're connected, can give you maybe enough social proof in a way, right? Then the CEO might then connect with you. That's just an example of you need to put a little bit of money in, but if the value is there, it makes total sense.
Even at LearnCube, this happens all the time. An online classroom like ours can make or break whether or not you can deliver an online lesson, whether you can make your business grow. Now, there are free products. There always have been free products when it comes to video conferencing tools like Skype and Zoom. Particularly if you're willing to cut your lesson short, like 40 minutes. Cost you nothing. But just like anything, if you want professional tools, you either need to upgrade to a paid product like Zoom or a paid product like LearnCube.
If you're going to do exactly the same thing, for example, on LearnCube that you're going to do on Skype, well, there are few incentives to switch. Even myself, as the owner of LearnCube, would totally understand because you're not seeing that value. If you're wanting to really take advantage of the more advanced sophisticated tools that LearnCube offers: content library, reporting, all of those kinds of features that really add value to the lesson delivery. This whole idea is looking at the value rather than the price when you're a buyer.
Herbert: Good one. I like that!
Alex: We had further ideas on what was not free because I think only thinking free can really stop you from getting the full value out of your marketing. Let's talk retargeting. This is something you're really strong on.
Herbert: Absolutely! It's one of the things I preach and really one of the things that every company out there should invest in. I'm talking from as low as a couple of dollars or euros per day on retargeting ads on Facebook or Google. Basically, it's not free, but it's low cost and highly effective because you keep it in front of potential customers. People who follow you on all of your social platforms, newsletter subscribers, unconverted leads. All of these people need some reminding, need multiple touchpoints in order to make that purchasing decision. So a simple retargeting campaign for a couple of dollars a day can be one of the most effective things you do in terms of online advertising.
Alex: It makes sense, and then also you had a real interest, and I know this is one of your absolute biggest messages. It is all about creating really authentic, powerful assets that can be repurposed across all of your marketing channels. Whether it be in social media, your ads, whatever you're doing, blogs, it can offer now. What do you mean by that? And why is that such a good investment?
Herbert: Absolutely, you know it will be a small investment; you can reach out; you don't need to get a professional videographer or photographer to take photos and videos of your school or of your students. You can possibly get even one of your students to take it, so it looks authentic, it looks real. You want to use or get this authentic content and build really a library of assets for you to use and repurpose for all of your marketing campaigns. Using photos of your teachers, of your students, of your school, videos of student stories, testimonials, activities as much as possible.
This is an ongoing project, right? It's not a one-off thing. Building a library of assets. Really, it should be an ongoing thing, doing it every month, investing a little bit here, a little bit there, to get those good quality assets that will last you a long time.
Alex: That's right! Those assets, just again, what we're talking about before, could be in the form of video, could be in the form of pdfs or that kind of thing. Canva is a very common, well-known tool now that's free. We haven't actually ever needed to go into that professional tier, but there might be a point where we do, and maybe it's totally worth it then. But at the moment, totally free but absolutely makes such a big difference because I'm not a great designer. It just takes the idiot-proof way of getting something professional, looking good, and well-designed that doesn't stand out as bad, at least.
So we've really got some takeaways here, which is that there's definitely free marketing that works. But free in itself, the idea of not paying anything is not good in itself. It can cost you too much time, or it can cost you an opportunity cost, or basically this idea of the potential. Let's say that you never used an email client or email marketing platform, you continue to do the bcc's, you actually create great content, but then you miss out on the opportunity of having so much more effective with your marketing because then you might have the analytics or the reporting.
Another example is LearnCube. Your online classroom experience can really make or break your business. People have been using free tools like skype before, literally, since it started in 2004. Then the big question when it comes to any kind of tool is: 'Is this offering me value?' Our entire goal is to improve the quality of language and tutoring. That includes the training and being able to use the tools. So if you're maximizing the tools, then you get the value, and it's worth the price. That's just one example of where you spend a little bit of money, but for a particular purpose, and you get that value.
Don't rely on free if it's not actually serving a purpose. It could actually be costing you both time and actual money. I think that's the balance that is worthwhile for people to keep in mind. Paying for something is only bad when it doesn't give you the value that you expect. The great thing is, most services are monthly subscriptions. Test them out. If they offer you value, then keep them. If they don't, then you get rid of them.
The key takeaway we want to get across is that free marketing does work. It is effective. The second thing, though, is that often by paying a little bit of money, you can really maximize what is already working. It could be that your email marketing is working fantastically, then paying a little bit of money can optimize it.
Herbert: And I guess the final point is that paying for something is only bad when it doesn't give you the value you expect it to. So make data your best friend and measure what you're getting out of your investment.
Alex: Thank you all for listening to today's podcast. We've really enjoyed it. It's been some really fun discussions. Hopefully, we've delivered what we said on the tin, which is to provide insights, inspiration, and motivation to language and tutoring companies. We release a new episode every week on the Get More Students podcast, so you'll get a shiny new episode if you hit that subscribe button right now, and we'll see you next week.
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