IN A time when economies are crashing and people are spending less, it is critical that small business owners do everything in their power to build their businesses.

One of the most common excuses for not doing much marketing is, "I don't have enough money to advertise!" Fair enough. But there are many other things that you could be doing without spending an arm and a leg.

Here are five tips to help you increase sales without spending much money:

1. Improve your referral programme

Referrals and strong word-of-mouth advertising can make the difference between a business that struggles and one that succeeds.

Improving your referral programme can be as simple as developing incentives for your clients to refer for you; joining referral networks; setting up frequent buyer programmes; and simply asking your clients for referrals and leads.

One other key to building referrals is to find business owners in town who operate enterprises that complement yours, and set up a strategic alliance with them so that you can refer business back and forth.

For example, a number of years ago I was responsible for managing six different retail stores. We sold chocolate, and in the summer, our biggest group of buyers were people holding weddings. Recognising this, I formed strategic alliances with other stores, usually flower shops and jewellery stores. We would set up cross promotions and help each other increase our sales. Three stores working together was always easier than one store trying to do it all on its own.

2. Use the media

Learn to love the media release - releases are free and they work!

Business reporters, bloggers, local magazines, and columnists are always looking for story ideas. If you do something new or interesting in your business, especially if you offer some kind of a twist that benefits the community, send in a media release to all of the local media. This includes newspapers, small community papers, websites, television stations, radio stations, and magazines.

Just remember - those who get media coverage are not lucky, they have worked for it. The good news is that you can, too, so get writing!

3. Measure advertising response

Too many small business owners have no idea how well their advertising campaigns are working. I once worked with a business owner who was running three different advertisements, spending about $1,500 per month in total.

He had plenty of business, but he thought he was spending too much on his marketing plan. He wanted to cut his advertising budget, but he didn't know how. After some research, it turned out that virtually all of his new customers were coming from a single ad, meaning that he could drop the other two. He lowered his marketing budget, with no decrease in sales, all because he started to measure the response from his advertising.

Regardless of the method you choose to measure the response to your marketing ideas, just make sure you do it!

4. Increase loyalty

Loyal people buy more, and loyal people will refer business to you.

There are simple ways to build loyalty, starting with the personal connection you have with your clients. This means going beyond smiling and being pleasant.

Get to know your clients' names and some of their interests. Anticipate their needs, and here's the big key - from time to time give them something that they don't expect. It could be a thank-you gift or an upgraded level of service. This will have a massive impact and will help to increase loyalty for years to come.

Other ways to increase loyalty include instituting frequent buyer programmes, keeping in contact with clients, hosting special buying events, monthly newsletters, and offering special incentives for regulars.

5. Be seen

This is where I see many small businesses drop the ball. It baffles me how many owners will pour their blood, sweat and tears into their business, only to remain unseen in the community because of poor signage, a poor location, no web presence, no networking, no advertising, no media presence, no car graphics the list goes on!

Is there anything you can do to increase your visibility? Perhaps better signage or more interesting window displays would make a difference. Don't be afraid to be creative and to stand out.

Once you have looked at your storefront, look at everywhere else that you might have exposure to your buyers. Ask yourself if you have given buyers an opportunity to find you from every possible contact point.

Do you have a website? Do you attend networking events and other community events where you can raise your profile? Are you in regular contact with your clients, and are you using every avenue available to you increase your visibility? Evaluate your business objectively and make sure you are covering all your bases.

After all, you never know where business will come from, but if you do not put yourself out there, and allow yourself to be seen you will be minimising your chances to succeed.

There are many ways to increase your profile, and ultimately, your sales, without having to spend a ton of money. The important thing is to just get out there and do it!