Long time lurker checking in. I had some good success with free marketing with one of my businesses and thought it could be useful to the community as a case study. This business is now set to turn over $100k so it's done pretty well!
Anyway. Here's what we did. First, we negotiated with suppliers and they stated that we'd need to order a minimum of 25 units to secure a bulk discount. Before we did this, we wanted to validate that the product would actually sell since we didn't have money or time to play with. First, we created a simple e-commerce site that allowed us to collect pre-orders. This cost around $6. We then drove traffic towards it using exclusively free marketing sources. Given our margins, we needed 15 pre-orders to raise the capital to buy 25 units and secure the discount. Consequently, we decided that if we collected over 15 pre-orders from free sources then we'd proceed with the business and invest more time/money. If we received less than this, then we'd simply refund the money.
The free marketing went a lot better than we expected and we ended up raising the capital for 45 units. Our market was new students arriving at University, so here's what we did to target them:
1. Identified top academic Forums for the country (where incoming students posted questions and messaged each other before arriving). Found University specific subforums and identified incoming students through posts/threads. Sent them all highly personal messages. These often answered their questions and told them who we were, the reasons why we'd created the product and how they could get it. This was done in a very conversational and un-selly way, which we think was the key to our success.
2. Identified relevant Facebook Groups/Pages. We then took the same approach to messaging students as (2), however, we also messaged group administrators and asked them to post about us. 2/25 of these said yes, but these posts had very large reaches. These were probably better given they could see exactly who they were talking to.
With all these we made sure to a) make every message unique b) follow up every answer c) ask for feedback/ask them kindly to refer us to their friends. We think this highly personalised approach was the key to our sales - those that didn't buy told their friends or liked our social media page, further increasing our reach.
Anyway hope this was useful.
I wrote about this all in much more depth in my blog if you're interested. (what we wrote, how we validated it further with market research/competitor research/margins, how free marketing results informed paid marketing, etc). I tried to write it in a really informative, transparent and actionable way so any feedback would be great.