Free and Low Cost Marketing For Coffee Shops

So you want to open a coffee shop but money is tight. How are you supposed to get your name out there without spending a lot? 

Thankfully, there are a lot of ways for coffee shops to advertise freely or very cheaply. Crucially though, you should still get in the habit of setting a budget. 

It’s okay if it’s $0 at first, but try to boost that number up. Even a bit of money per month or per quarter will go a long way. 

The reason a budget is important is that it lets you track how effective your marketing is, your ROI (return on investment). By asking customers where they heard about your shop, you can get a feel for what’s working and what isn’t.

That said, it’s usually a bad idea to expect all marketing you do to objectively make you a profit. A lot of marketing helps build your brand and perception in peoples’ minds. That won’t directly reflect in your revenue, but it is important. 

Essentially, come up with a simple plan for marketing and stick to it. Don’t spend more than you can afford to lose, and trust the process. 

Free Marketing Ideas

As a coffee shop owner, a lot of the marketing you do is going to be more about your time than your money. This is because:

  1. You probably don’t have a ton of money to throw around on marketing. 
  2. Coffee shops aren’t a business where a huge marketing budget is that important. 

The most effective ways to market your coffee shop are, in fact, free. Here are the ones we think are essential.

Google My Business

Setting up and maintaining your Google My Business profile is more important than anything else you do online. More important than Facebook, Instagram, and even a website.

To be clear, those are all good things to have and I would try not to ignore them, but your GMB profile comes first.

We cover Google My Business more in our article about SEO for Coffee Shops, but here are the highlights: Google My Business is a little listing that comes up in Google searches and on Google Maps. If someone is looking for coffee nearby, it will be the very first thing they see about your business. Make it good.

That means adding nice pictures, making sure all the information is up-to-date, and responding to reviews you get. 

Google prioritizes listings with complete information and lots of activity, so by doing these things you have a much better chance of showing up when someone is searching for their next latte. 

Responding to reviews

It can be a little nerve wracking to look at reviews for your business, especially as the owner. Still, you should strive to respond to all reviews, positive and negative. Seeing other satisfied customers and a responsive owner will make someone far more likely to visit your shop.

Positive reviews are easy. Simply thank the person for their review and say you can’t wait for them to come back. Short, sweet, and affirms that they should return. 

Negative reviews are tough. Here’s how to respond to them:

  1. Make sure you’re in the right frame of mind. It’s okay to come back to a review after you’ve taken the time to calm down. If you write when you’re fired up you’ll probably say something you regret. 
  2. Evaluate whether the reviewer has a point. This is probably the most important step. As much as you can, step back and be objective about their complaints. Is it something you should fix? Or is it a misunderstanding? 
  3. Decide how to respond. If you have a customer’s email (maybe they’re a semi-regular) it’s often better to try a private conversation first. It may not seem like it at first, but many people who leave negative reviews can actually be easily reasoned with. If you apologize and offer them a free drink to come back in and correct the issue, many people will agree to remove a negative review.
  4. If a private conversation doesn’t work or isn’t an option, you should respond publicly. There are three pieces to include:
    1. A simple sorry. Like “Sorry your drink wasn’t what you expected.” Starting with a simple sorry helps deflate any anger on the reviewer’s end. You don’t have to grovel, just one sentence.
    2. A possible explanation. Not every complaint needs or deserves an explanation, but some might. This should also be kept to the point. Honestly, it’s less for the reviewer you’re responding to and more for other people reading the reviews. You want to come across as reasonable as possible.
    3. An offer to make it right. Like above, you can offer a resolution to show the reviewer their problem isn’t the norm. Whether the reviewer takes you up on it ultimately doesn’t really matter because, again, it matters more that other people see your response.

If you see a review that is complete nonsense or you suspect is fraudulent, you can also get in contact with Google to see about getting it taken down.

Avoid: Buying or Incentivizing Reviews

On any platform with reviews and ratings it can be tempting to offer incentives if your customers rate you. Some businesses do this and get away with it, but it is 100% against the terms of use of any review site. 

If you’re discovered, you lose all those reviews. The risk is not worth the payoff. You absolutely should remind customers to leave you reviews, particularly after a great interaction, but there can’t be any reward in it for the customer.

You can say something like, “Hope you have a great day! We’re also looking to get more reviews on Google, so if you have a minute we’d really appreciate your thoughts. It helps us out a ton as a small business.” You’ll get a lot of people willing to help out with a good review. And since there’s no incentive for the customer, all those reviews are completely valid.

Avoid: Yelp

Yes, the site that was once the go-to place for business reviews. It’s really fallen from grace.

It’s a good idea to set up your Yelp account initially, but after that don’t bother with it too much. We have heard so many horror stories about Yelp from business owners. 

The most common complaint we hear is Yelp threatening to hide businesses unless they pay for Yelp ads. It’s really scummy and hard to deal with if you’ve cultivated a good reputation on Yelp.

The only exception to this is if your demographic skews older and will definitely be checking Yelp. Sometimes you have to deal with it, but always ignore their calls and emails. 

Press Releases

Writing a press release can be a tricky thing, but if it works it pays off in a lot of ways. 

The first benefit is obviously good publicity for your coffee shop. If the story is compelling, people will want to see what your business is like. This is especially true if your story is in a trusted local newspaper or news site. 

Sometimes we hear coffee shop owners who are disappointed that they could only get their local paper to cover them, but that’s exactly who you want to be covering you. 

Getting a lot of eyes on your business is never bad, but it’s not the only option. A smaller audience of people nearby you is way more valuable because they’re going to be the ones actually coming in. So don’t feel like pitching your local news is pointless. It’s actually the most important thing you can do. 

The other more hidden benefit of a press release is SEO. You want your business to show up when someone searches for it, and even better if it shows up for broader search times. One of the best ways to make that happen is by getting trustworthy sites to link to your site. Well, news sites are trustworthy, and if they write about you, they’ll often link back to your site. You’ve just shown Google your website is also trustworthy, so Google will put you at the top of searches more often. 

How to write a press release

While press releases can be a little time consuming to write, they are free to send, making them another good option when you’re on a tight budget. Just make sure you have something a reporter is likely to care about. 

Your shop opening is the easiest time to grab a reporter’s attention. That’s the biggest milestone for most coffee shops. If you want media attention outside your opening, that’s a little trickier. One of the best things you can do is try to tie your coffee shop into some larger event happening in the world or even your local community. For example, when the COVID pandemic was on the rise, you could have written about how it was effecting your coffee shop. Not the happiest of news articles, but it probably would be picked up. 

Always think about it from the reporter’s perspective. They need stories their audience will want to read, so make your story compelling.

One last tip: Don’t annoy reporters. Send one email with your press release, and maybe one follow up a few days later. If you don’t hear anything, they aren’t interested. It happens. Also, don’t send more than one press release every few months. Unless your coffee shop is truly on the cutting edge, there is no way you have that much newsworthy stuff going on. Spamming press releases will not endear you to reporters.

Email Campaigns

If you can’t get someone else to write about you, you can always write about yourself. Email is one platform we don’t see many coffee shops taking advantage of, but you should. 

Email marketing done well is proven to be one of the most valuable methods of marketing you can do, and it’s either free or pretty cheap in most cases. Many website builders like Shopify and Squarespace include email marketing these days. Square POS even includes it. So there’s no reason not to give it a shot.

However, email has some caveats. There are three states an email campaign can take: opened, unread, or marked as spam. You want to create emails that maximize the number of people who open them and minimize the number of people who mark them as spam. This is easier said than done. 

Rule 1 is to not send a ton of emails. As a coffee shop, if you’re sending more than one email per week, that’s too much. We recommend starting with one email every month or every two months, and maybe going to every two weeks if you’re seeing great results. 

Rule 2 is to make your emails worthwhile. Yes, you can send discounts and that’s fine, but everyone is sending discounts. It just becomes noise. It’s much better to send emails with information and resources that people actually want to read, then maybe pepper in a discount here and there. You can send anything from coffee recipes to poems written by your staff, but you should strive to make it uniquely yours and interesting to your audience. 

Rule 3 is have a plan. Come up with at least four ideas for emails to send before you even send one. Then when you send your first email, communicate when people can expect to see the next one. Having a consistent schedule that people are expecting goes a long way towards making your emails feel less spammy. Try to keep a few emails drafted ahead of the one you’re sending to leave yourself wiggle room.

Social Media

Social media is the modern classic of free advertising platforms. Most business owners know they should be using it, but they aren’t always sure how.  

The above rules for email apply to social media as well. Email and social media actually work very similarly, social media is just usually more picture oriented than text. If you’re a better photographer, spend more time with social media. If you’re a better writer, give emails a short.

It’s essential to make your social accounts informative and interesting beyond just pictures of your coffee shop though. Share tips, engage with other businesses through comments, and show the unique character of your shop and staff. Don’t be afraid to come across authentically on social media. 

Customer Service and Your Shop’s Experience

You might think this is an odd section to include in marketing, but it’s probably the most important one for coffee shops.

In marketing there’s this fancy term called product-led marketing. Essentially what it means is creating a product that is so good people who use your product do your marketing for you, by telling other people about it. 

For coffee shops, this is far and away the most effective kind of marketing you can do. Advertising and press coverage are all great, but they don’t bring people in like personal recommendations. So how can we get as many people as possible recommending us?

The first step is to be truly great at being a coffee shop. There’s no shortcut for this. You have to serve great coffee, have great service, have a convenient location and store layout, and do that for every single transaction. 

This is where our course and workshop can help. We focus on helping you create a coffee shop that produces consistently high quality drinks and interactions for all your customers.

Being consistently great is not only good for bringing new customers in, but also bringing customers back. As a coffee shop, your regulars are your lifeblood. You must work on cultivating a solid core of people who regularly buy your coffee if you want to survive. Really the only way to do this is to be consistently great.

Once you’ve got all that down (don’t assume you do, most coffee shops don’t) there are a few other tips to encourage people talking about you. 

One important thing is to use names when calling out drinks and encourage your baristas to learn names as quickly as possible. The faster someone feels like a regular, the more likely they are to tell other people about you. They start to feel a sense of belonging to your coffee shop and want others to belong as well. 

Another tip is simply ask your customer to talk about you. You can do this gently with a simple “Hey bring in a friend next time!” as regular leaves, or you can be more concrete by giving out 2-for-1 cards. 

A 2-for-1 card says a customer can come in and get two drinks for the price of one. The idea of course is that the customer will bring someone else and treat them to a free drink. This works out well for you because your markup should be at least 2x cost, so a free drink might force you to lose out on some profit, but you’re still at least covering the cost of the drink.

1 drink costs you X to make. You sell a drink for at least 2X. 2 drinks = 4X. 2 drinks, 1 free = 4X – 2X = 2X, the same base cost as 2 drinks. 

The benefit here is someone is bringing in a potential new regular who is getting a drink for free. If you can’t get someone to come back to your shop after having a free drink with their friend, either they were the wrong kind of customer for you or you’ve got something seriously wrong with your shop’s experience. 

Cost Effective Marketing 

Local Radio

Local radio won’t be free, but it is one of the most cost effective platforms a coffee shop can use. People often listen to the radio around prime coffee drinking time, and using local radio will guarantee that the people hearing your ad are potential customers. 

When preparing a radio ad, it’s better to keep things simple. Don’t try to overproduce or take on a persona that isn’t you. Just deliver a simple message with a reason to come in. This might be your new opening, a new drink, or a special you’re offering. If you have time, it’s also good to say a line or two about your space. Try to use descriptive words that evoke emotion like cozy, warm, relaxing, or words that “solve problems” for people like fast service, drive-thru, kids menu, or anything else you can think of. 

When buying radio ads, it’s always better to get high frequency, low duration ads. These shouldn’t be super expensive and you’ll ensure lots of people in your community hear about your shop at least once.

Avoid: TV

TV advertising is expensive and has a very poor return on investment. Radio advertising gets you pretty much any benefit TV advertising would get you while being a fraction of the cost and much easier to produce. Radio is actually strictly better than TV because your ad will play most often to people in cars, who are prime potential customers.

It’s also harder to target a very specific area with TV, whereas radio is limited to a specific area by design. 


Finally, don’t underestimate the power of a sign outside your shop. A good sign should be readable above all else. That means:

  • Large, straightforward font. Your sign should not use cursive or any kind of fancy font that is difficult to read quickly.
  • A very simple message. If your brand name already has coffee in it, great, just put your brand name. If it doesn’t, you may want to put something like Coffee · Breakfast · Tea below your name just to make it clear what you serve. You don’t need anything else though. For readability, your sign should have as few words as possible.
  • Good contrast. Make sure you can at least start to make out the words on the sign from pretty far away. If you’re putting a light blue on a white background, it will frustrate people trying to read it.

Place your sign by where you see the most foot or vehicle traffic to have the best chance at grabbing customers. If your city allows you to put an A-frame sign on the sidewalk, that is a worthwhile investment to grab foot traffic. 

A good sign won’t make or break your business, but don’t forget that it’s advertising to your ideal customer: someone very close to your store. It also makes sure people who already know they want to visit your store can find it. 

Avoid: Billboards

We don’t want to say billboards are always a bad idea, but they should be treated as a very niche advertising method. You must meet all these criteria for a billboard advertisement to be worth it:

  1. Located off a highway with lots of car traffic.
  2. Able to serve cars quickly, usually with a drive thru
  3. Have a good idea for your billboard, even better if you get a professional designer to help. Like our tips on shop signs above, less is more when creating a billboard.

Billboards can be quite expensive and have an iffy return on investment. If you’re not very confident that a billboard makes sense for your business, it’s probably not the right way to go. Consider investing in some of the other methods we’ve talked about here, or looking into online advertising

What to actually say when you market

Hopefully this has been helpful to narrow down the places you should think about advertising, but you still are probably wondering what you should say when you advertise.

The best strategy is to keep it simple. As a coffee shop, you’re not reinventing the wheel. You just aren’t. To your customers coffee isn’t exactly a necessity, but it’s not strictly a luxury either. You’re a little luxury. A reasonable splurge to get a day started off better. Figure out how you fit into your customers’ days, and drive that home.

Avoid: Only talking about coffee quality

I would happily walk into pretty much any coffee shop, confident that I could get a pretty good cup of coffee. There are connoisseurs out there who will be choosy, but most people just don’t care that much. They might say they do, but they don’t. Talking excessively about the quality of your coffee is a waste of time. 

It’s also a waste of time because no one would ever disagree. You can’t find me a coffee shop owner who is advertising “Hey you know what, my coffee is awful and I couldn’t care less!” Lots of big chains or grocery store brands could do that, but they don’t. It’s not attractive for a consumable good. The best marketing/advertising statements are ones that someone could reasonably oppose.

Find a statement to oppose

The best way to find one of these statements is to simply start looking for things you disagree with. For example, let’s say you want to build your shop around manual brewing. You might say, “Coffee deserves to be savored. All these fast service chains are robbing you of the experience of real, good coffee.”

I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good idea, but it is a statement that someone could oppose. Clearly, it’s right in the statement. “The chains are doing it this way, but that causes this problem. I’m fixing that problem by doing it my way.” You can build your marketing statements the same way. 

And again, keep them simple. Remember that your competition is really only a very small area near your shop. You’re not competing with a coffee shop across the country or even across the state. You only have to be different enough to be memorable.

Don’t write. Steal.

Now you might think you need to be a good writer to do this. Not at all. 

Sure, being a good writer helps, but there’s an easy shortcut that will still work better than your best writing 90% of the time. 

Just talk to your customers and write down their exact words. 

Don’t get fancy or creative. Talk to your customers using the voice of your other customers. You don’t have to guess what will bring new customers, just ask a new customer what brought them in and use it. 

If you’ve got a customer who can give you a great, short quote, feel free to use it directly (with permission of course). Sometimes you might need to change things around a little, but try to stick as close as possible to how your customers talk. It will make anyone seeing your marketing/advertising feel like you really understand them, and it’s way less work for you as the person doing it. 

More examples

Here are some examples of what I would consider to be good “angles” to take with you coffee shop marketing.

Don’t say: We value our community.

Do say: We’re willing to put building our community before making a profit. 

Valuing your community is a vague, toothless statement. If you want your brand to be known for community building, you have to prove it. 

Ben Reese, a good friend and client of ours, takes this approach with his business, Lionheart Coffee Co. When the COVID pandemic hit, he and his wife immediately started making free lunches for anyone in need in their community. His staff volunteered their time as well, and his customers started donating food items. It has since become a massive program, especially among students who don’t have access to the regular school lunches they depend on. Does this make a lot of money for Ben? No, not at all. Does it make his business a pillar of his community that people want to support. Absolutely. Will it pay off in the long run? Maybe, but that’s not on his radar. He simply wants to live by his community building principles as best as he can. 

Don’t say: You can study in our coffee shop!

Do say: Our coffee shop is the best place to study.

A big caveat here is you may not want students as your customers, so this isn’t for everyone. If you’re opening on a campus though, this is a great way to go. 

The point here is more so that you shouldn’t strive to just be “an option” for someone, you should be the best option for at least one thing. If I were building a coffee shop to be the best place to study, I would prioritize fast, stable internet. I would set up public printers for students to use. I’d try to have a mix of some bar seating and some larger tables for group projects. These are all things that would make my coffee shop ideal for students, but probably not as attractive for other demographics. That’s good. If you can’t decide who you’re trying to target, your marketing will be muddled and ineffective.

You could equally apply this to any demographic. Do your research about the people who would frequent your shop, and find out what things they look for in a coffee shop beyond just coffee. Because again, most people believe they can get pretty good coffee anywhere. 

Don’t say: Our coffee is sustainably produced!

Do say: This is one of the farmers we buy coffee from. Frequenting our shop helps ensure that he can earn a living wage.

If you’re ever taking an English class, you may have heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell”. It frustrates a lot of people because that advice is vague and doesn’t really say how to do things better. 

Show, don’t tell essentially boils down to four steps:

  1. Come up with a statement.
  2. Come up with an example that supports that statement.
  3. Remove the statement.
  4. Ask whether someone reading your example could come up with the statement you’re trying to convey. If they can’t, restart with a stronger example.

Broad statements like being sustainably produced or high quality don’t actually convey any meaning. Consider what you would think about if you heard a statement like that. 

Trick question, you wouldn’t actually hear it. You are a busy person. Your brain filters statements like that out. They have no effect on you unless you’re making a conscious effort to think about them, and sometimes even then they don’t stick with you.

The way to make people pay attention is to use examples. Show the tangible benefits of sustainability produced coffee: farmers with living wages and/or environments that aren’t destroyed. Show the tangible benefits of quality coffee: complex flavors and coffee that is enjoyable to drink without adding a ton of sugar. 

We are all fundamentally self-motivated. We’ll do things for other people of course, but we’re more willing to do things if there’s something in it for us. Any marketing you do needs to drive home what your customers are getting out of spending their time and money with you.

Applying this information for yourself

We covered a lot here. You may not remember all this right away, that’s okay. Feel free to bookmark the article and refer to it later. 

If you take away anything from this, understand that marketing is both important yet not as hard as it sounds. The best marketing is essentially the same conversations you have day-to-day with your customers at a large scale. You just want to reach people using words they understand on platforms they’re paying attention to. 

If you can do that, you’ll be growing your business in no time. 

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