How can small VA businesses begin marketing themselves without spending a fortune? Caroline Wylie tells us how the power of ‘word of mouth’ and the strength of genuine recommendation is a huge determining factor in the success of any business no matter what its size may be.

One of my friends runs a mobile bar business. Every morning he heads from his office to pick up a coffee from his favourite cafe and on this familiar walk he passes a friendly Big Issue seller. Most days my friend stops for a chat with him, either to or from his cafe visit and one morning the Big Issue seller asked my friend for a business card; somewhat confused, he handed one over. A few days later he received an unexpected call from a gentleman to book a mobile bar for a huge wedding. The engaged gentleman was a habitual coffee drinker too and the Big Issue seller had passed on the business card. Networking happens in the strangest places so stay alert and make sure you tell people about your business, making the most of every opportunity!

Of course, it would be unwise to rely solely on ‘word of mouth’ success alone. Although many of my VA members tell me what a large proportion of new business comes from networking, when you look in detail at the time they spend at networking events, there is no denying that natural SEO optimisation can be a great deal more effective. Ensure you use relevant keywords (including where you are based as a lot of clients still pick a local VA) and list any specialisms you have using the language clients are most likely to use. For example, loads of VAs have found listing themselves as a ‘freelance secretary’ or ‘part time PA’ has produced better results than ‘virtual assistant’.

LinkedIn is great for marketing and connecting with potential new clients. I would always urge people to create an account and list all their previous jobs as soon as they get the chance. Basic profiles are free and you never know what your old colleagues are doing now or the services they may require in their new role. People buy people and they tend to trust those they know or have confidence in which is why the very first few clients for new businesses, more often than not, come through friends and family.

Testimonials and reviews are invaluable when it comes to building a good reputation. 72% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations from real people! These online recommendations work as third party endorsement. Start with Facebook and ask your clients to give you a rating out of five stars. Your clients will also have the option to add a comment supporting their rating. Once you have received a few ratings you will notice that Facebook calculates an average user rating. This information then appears at the top of your page – one of the first things visitors see and judge you by.

How about Google Reviews? Google Reviews are priceless when it comes to SEO so make sure your business is set up on Google + to maintain as high a position as possible in the organic Google rankings. These reviews not only help to strengthen client relationships but also demonstrate to search engines that your business is active and popular.

LinkedIn is also fantastic for personal branding and increased awareness of your business. If you receive a positive recommendation through LinkedIn why not use this quote, or even part of it, on your website? Don’t forget that people can not only recommend you but your products or specific services too.

When you’ve completed a successful piece of work for a client, it’s always a good idea to ask them who else they know that might benefit from your service or product? Send them a few business cards to hand out to their contacts and remind them on your invoices or email signatures that you are looking to expand your client base. These are very cost effective ways of getting referrals.

As a logical next step on from written endorsements, video testimonials are being increasingly used by businesses and are a fab way of loading up on repetitive keywords without getting penalised (if you do a transcript of your audio). Video has the power to bring to life a review and should enable its audience to relate to the contributor on a deeper level. Video testimonials needn’t cost the earth either. If you are looking to produce sub-60 second clips to use casually over social media platforms then why not use your mobile phone? However, if you are looking for something to sit on the homepage of your website then I would advise using a local production company. Be upfront about your budget and reasons for making the videos.

From word of mouth to the power of film, before you start spending money on any marketing make sure you have the basics nailed … you’ll be surprised by the difference these seemingly small points can make in terms of recommendations, reviews and referrals. Good luck!