So often as a mission-based business owner, it can feel like I have the most important message in the world—but nobody wants to listen to it.
When I first started building Diversability with the vision of creating a community of people with disabilities (and the allies who support us) elevating disability pride, I kept encountering roadblocks when trying to get the word out. When we were first getting started as a student club in 2009, I remember initially struggling to get my peers to join. In 2015, when I relaunched Diversability after graduating, I struggled to gain visibility for this side hustle while working my full-time corporate development job. There were a plethora of events happening in New York City, but I wasn’t sure how to become a speaker. I’d reach out to journalists via Help a Reporter Out and hear crickets. I couldn’t figure out how to get people to care about disability.
And then I remembered a lesson from my own disability experience. One of my arms is paralyzed and I’ve always found that, if someone hasn’t designed something for me, I have to figure out a way to do it myself. I decided to take the same approach to marketing Diversability: If people wouldn’t hand me a microphone, I’d become my own hype person instead.
Now, in 2023, we have 80,000 followers across our social networks and 5,800 in our closed communities. Here are some of the surprisingly easy and affordable DIY strategies that my team and I used to get there, and the lessons learned that can help any business owner generate their own buzz.
We created our own events
After struggling for a while to find events for me and our disabled community members to speak at, I decided to start hosting them myself—and was surprised to find how easy it was.
I leveraged some early connections I made with disability organizations and other advocates, offering them a stage to share their story. I was fortunate to make some connections with venues that offered to host us for little to no charge (a coworking space that let us use the facility on nights they didn’t have other bookings, a tech company that opened their office to community events). In 2020, we moved to our events being held almost exclusively virtually, which lowered the bar even more for how easy it was to do.
We used Eventbrite to sell tickets for our events on a sliding scale basis (and still do!), which helped us cover event costs while making sure that they are accessible to those who want to attend. I would create the event graphics myself using Canva, and use them to promote the events on Diversability’s social channels, amplify them on my personal accounts and within other disability communities (like Facebook groups I was part of), and share the marketing materials with our speakers to help expand our reach. In the early days, I was doing much of this by myself (we now have a team of eight), and each event would take me about 10-15 hours and cost $50-$100 to make happen.
In the first year, we had “sold out” events with more than 70 people and also had much smaller events with only eight to ten attendees. But every time we hosted one, someone would reach out either asking to speak at an upcoming event, wanting to get involved in another way, or just making sure they’d be notified when the next one was happening so they could come again. We knew we were onto something.
We now call ourselves “year-round disability conference,” hosting monthly virtual Diversability Unplugged events with topics ranging from financial equity, sexuality, work, and Gen Z through a disability lens. In 2022, our events welcomed more than 1,100 attendees, not only giving an incredible platform to diversity thought leaders who may not have found one elsewhere, but helping grow our own brand equity and reach.
We created our own list
I was always frustrated that, even with the rise of “list culture”—Forbes 30 Under 30, Create and Cultivate 100, Inc 5000, etc—I rarely saw people with disabilities featured. So, I created our own list to elevate those doing big things in the disability world.
The D-30 Disability Impact List honors 30 disabled leaders annually who are making an impact in their community. Again, this was surprisingly simple to launch. We created a Google Form to collect nominations. We reached out to people with strong networks to be part of our selection committee in the hopes that they would help us get the word out. We created a folder of marketing assets (like graphics and social media post copy) to make it easy for others to promote the nominations form, and did the same when announcing the honorees to help people celebrate them.
In the past three years that we’ve published the list, we’ve received almost 1,000 nominations, and we’ve been able to share the work of 91 truly impressive disability advocates. On top of getting to honor their work, we always see a bump in website traffic during nominations and after the list is published, and find that many new members discover our community thanks to this list.
We created our own press
From the start, I was intent on public relations being a part of our marketing strategy. Not only did I want the Diversability message to be featured on as many platforms as possible, I wanted to share press opportunities with our community members in order to elevate their voices. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a place to spend thousands of dollars a month for formal PR support and couldn’t justify the cost for this “top of the funnel” marketing. So we started creating our own original content across multiple platforms to serve as a sort of press outlet.
I started by writing posts on Diversability’s blog and connecting community members to write guest post features of each other. In 2022, we brought on a dedicated writer on a part-time basis to create three articles a month featuring our community members, both for our own blog and to pitch to other publications. Our blog pieces have been syndicated on MSN and Medium and we have been published in Thrive Global, Women Enabled International, Ability Magazine, and World Institute for Disability.
We also started treating social media as a sort of press, focusing on creating educational content about the disability experience and opportunities to highlight our members, like my “Anti-Ableism Series,” which has over 5 million views. Our original content about the disability experience reached over 140,000 people last year.
Finally, we launched a podcast. We tried to make this as low-lift as possible, using Zoom to interview members of our community recording both audio and video so we could use the content for our YouTube and social channels, and leveraging Zoom’s captioning feature to include a rough transcript of the conversations.
Ironically, creating our own “press” helped us tap into more traditional press outlets over time. We’ve recently gotten inquiries from journalists at The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Mirror, Yahoo Life and more looking for quotes from the disabled community—no cold pitching required on our end.
I’m not saying that every business owner should use these exact strategies. Even though they are extremely affordable, the tradeoff is that they take time. Plus, not all approaches work the same way for every business—you have to make it your own and find what works for you.
But I do think it’s helpful to call out the common thread between the DIY marketing approaches that have helped my business succeed: bringing other people in. My marketing is not just about promoting Diversability. It’s about promoting other leaders and influencers in the disability space, relying on the power of community and the network effect to raise their voices and raise our brand equity in the process.
Even if your core business isn’t as community-oriented as mine, it’s worth considering how you could apply this. Could you host an event or an Instagram Live where you chat with a thought leader your users would care about? For example, we at Diversability have recently partnered with a body positivity conference, a therapy platform, and a youth social impact group, cross-pollinating our audiences. Could you find a meaningful way to highlight your customers or users on your blog and make that a place where people want to be featured?
There are so many more pathways now for getting the word out about your business and your mission. Instead of waiting for other people to tell that story, why not take matters into your own hands and show them why they should start paying attention.