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As your company's marketing plans begin to focus on the holidays, you may want to add digital and social media to the mix. Certainly, the audience is there. But so, sadly, are increased prices.

Almost all social media advertising, like Facebook ads or Google ads, operate on an auction system. The more other brands jump in with their own ads (as they do during the holidays), the higher everyone's prices will be. The same ads you were getting in the summer for $1 per click might cost you $4 or $5. Or more.

Here's everything business owners need to know about advertising online – without breaking the bank.

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ENGAGE HEAVILY, THEN GO ORGANIC

This might be the time to rely more on organic (in other words, regular, unpaid social media) posts. While organic reach is low – sometimes as low as 1 per cent of your fan base – there are things you can do to increase this.

Reach (the number of people who see your messaging) on Facebook and Instagram is controlled by hundreds of factors, but one of the most important is engagement. In other words, the more you engage with people – asking them questions, thanking them and so on – the better unpaid reach you'll get with that person.

All year long, you should actively engage with prospects, fans and customers on social media. Posts should ask questions or create other opportunities for people to comment on or share your posts.

AVOID THE NEWS FEED

The most competitive space on Facebook is the News Feed – there is limited inventory and everyone wants to be there. But Facebook has been quietly adding new places to advertise, such as on the Messenger home screen, on videos and inside "Instant Articles." Since fewer advertisers use these placements, the bid rates tend to be lower.

TAP INTO YOUR EXISTING AUDIENCES

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As a general rule, audiences which are "warm" to your message perform better. This is where Facebook's "custom audiences" can work in your favour this holiday season. You can upload a list of your e-mail newsletter subscribers or your past customers, and advertise to them. While bid rates won't necessarily be cheaper, the results will probably be stronger.

EXPERIMENT WITH NEW AD CHANNELS

Social media platforms are always rolling out new ways to amplify your messaging – and some of them aren't tied to the competitive auction system.

Twitter's partnership with Sprout Social is a good example. For a flat fee, Twitter will boost the reach of all your brand's tweets. There are three levels of pricing, all flat-fee based, and you simply turn it on to have it start working.

For younger audiences, Snapchat might be a strong performer. You can create photo overlays that are active in a particular geographic region and for a specific time. For now, these are relatively inexpensive.

TEST, TEST, TEST

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All that said, if you still want to use regular social ads (and compete in the auction market for that space), run a small-budget test of a few hundred dollars so that you know roughly the price you'll be paying when you roll the full campaign out. And, if your budget supports it, test a variety of images and messaging to get the most bang for your buck.

In short, while holidays may indeed be a critical time for your business to advertise, by testing with small budgets, avoiding the busy placements and leveraging engagement to grow your organic reach, you can still market smartly – and cheaply.

Tod Maffin is president of engageQ digital, a social engagement agency which builds revenue for businesses using digital and social media. Information on his free workshops are at engageQ.com/sessions.

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