In 2021, 153,047 users were active on Hacker News, a tech community built by Y Combinator.
In only 24 hours, 35,000 people visited How to Say No, Starter Story’s collection of email templates to say “no” in different situations.
In less than 2 weeks, 106 high-authority websites provided a backlink to Kapwing, featuring Cartoonify, their free AI-powered tool that turns photos into cartoon drawings.
These numbers have one thing in common: they were the results of a customer acquisition strategy called “Side Project Marketing” (also known as “Engineering as Marketing”).
What is Side Project Marketing?
Side-project marketing consists of building a stand-alone product or service to attract potential customers to your business.
It’s hard to tell who coined the term, but two of the first ones to write about it were Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares in their book “Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth”.
There, they go over 19 customer acquisition channels for startups, talking in the 11th place about “Engineering as Marketing”, which they define as: “using engineering time to create useful tools like calculators, widgets, and educational micro-sites to get your company in front of potential customers. These tools then generate leads and expand your customer base.”
Note: I’ll use Side Project Marketing and Engineering as Marketing interchangeably.
Let me address two common confusions about the term:
The project can’t be focused on your existing customers. If that’s the case, it’s instead a product feature. For example, if you build a Chrome Extension that provides new features to your product, even though it is a stand-alone product, it’s not Engineering as Marketing as it’s not aimed at attracting new customers.
The project can’t be focused on generating revenue. There are some cases of side-project marketing campaigns where the product or service is sold instead of given away for free (like Airbnb’s political cereal boxes). That’s completely fine, as long as the goal with the project is still to attract new customers.
10 Types & Examples of Side Project Marketing
1) Tool / Apps
They generally are online free tools focused on satisfying a particular user's need.
Hatchful, by Shopify, is a free logo maker. eCommerce founders looking for a logo might also be interested in an eCommerce platform and might convert to Shopify’s customers.
They tend to be either fun or informative quizzes. The results of the quizzes tend to incentivize quiz-takers to buy the product or service.
RamseySolutions has a quiz that tells you what’s the best way for you to file your taxes. Through the results, they promote their tax preparation service.
They generally are online free calculators (in other cases downloadable Excels) where you can fill in some fields and get back numbers and graphs.
How Much to Make an App is an app development cost calculator made by Z1, a digital product studio. When the calculator provides you the results, you’re suggested to hire them to get your app built.
They generally are places where you can find many data or resources curated by the company that built them.
Baremetrics, an analytics tool for Stripe, has an “Open Startups” page where you can find the numbers of lots of transparent startups showcased within the Baremetrics tool.
They are places like directories, but where data and resources can be shared by anyone, not just the company behind them.
SparkToro is a market research and audience intelligence tool. As a way to attract digital marketers (their potential customers), they have built “Trending”, a digital marketing resource aggregator.
They generally are games with a strong shareability component, as what the companies commonly aim with them is to attract a lot of PR and backlinks.
Mention is a media monitoring and social listening tool. In order to showcase how interesting their data is, they created Battle of the Brands, a game that lets you compare the online mentions of any two brands.
They generally are Excel, Google Sheets, PowerPoint, or PDF files that you can fill with your data or information. In many cases, the template is a beginner's way of doing the same thing that the company does.
ActiveCampaign, an email marketing and CRM tool, provides a free CRM for Excel or Google Sheets. On the same page where you can download the template, they claim that it won’t be enough for specific needs and that you should instead use ActiveCampaign’s CRM.
They are online lists or downloadable PDFs where you can check various steps to achieve something.
They are products (not necessarily related to the business) that the companies commonly create to get shares and PR coverage.
In contrast to all of the above types, physical products have production and delivery costs. This means that these products are generally sold. Side projects can have a price as long as the objective remains to attract customers and not generate revenue.
Away, a luggage and travel accessories brand, crafted a coffee table book curating the favorite vacation spots of 40 influential people and sold it for $225 (all of the 2,000 they printed).
Side project marketing seems time-consuming and drains efforts from the product to marketing.
Why would a business do Engineering as Marketing instead of running ads or writing content? Here are the main 4 reasons:
It’s not such a competitive acquisition channel: Andrew Chen wrote many years ago about “The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs” stating that “over time, all marketing strategies result in shitty clickthrough rates.” Engineering as Marketing is a relatively new channel and requires certain resources that ads and content, to mention two of the most common acquisition channels, don’t.
It doesn’t feel like marketing: "The best marketing is when you don’t know it’s marketing." Content and ads feel a lot like self-promotion and, in most cases, don’t provide any value. Side projects themselves give value to users; the user doesn’t need to become a customer to receive value from your company.
They can keep bringing customers over time: Just as content, these projects can rank on Google for certain keywords bringing users every month, some of which might convert to customers. Unlike content, these projects can provide repeated usefulness, which means that the same user might visit your project various times (you don’t generally read a piece of content more than once).
They can generate PR coverage and backlinks: Many of the mentioned side project examples have gone viral and received thousands of shares and backlinks. With the correct timing and some luck, your project might be covered by lots of media sites, earning you backlinks and higher domain authority.
3-Step Side Project Marketing Process
1) Come Up with a Side Project Marketing Idea
First of all, I recommend you check if your competitors have built any Engineering as Marketing projects. If that’s the case, you may want to consider stealing their idea and making it better.
Then, check your website for ideas. Look in your blog, podcast, or resource pages for content in which a side project could be built on top. If you have an article about “How to Calculate Customer Lifetime Value”, you can create a CLV calculator, just to give you an example.
Finally, visit niche blogs, podcasts, and communities and search for content that can be turned into a side project.
Product vs. Audience Oriented
If you cannot come up with any side-project marketing idea, it’s probably because you’re thinking in a product-oriented way rather than in an audience-oriented one. Here’s the difference:
Product-oriented: These are side projects that are a strong fit with your product or service. You’ll reach people who are your potential customers, who are actively searching for a product like yours. Kapwing’s video converter tool is a good example - the people who use this tool are editing a video and might therefore be interested in Kapwing’s product. While this kind of project has the highest conversion rates, it’ll be hard to develop a customer-oriented project idea in every niche.
Audience-oriented: These are side projects that are a strong fit with your target audience. You’ll reach people who are your potential customers, who aren’t actively searching for a product like yours. Hatchful, Shopify’s free logo maker, is a good example - the people who use the tool are eCommerce founders looking to create a logo, not an eCommerce, which is Shopify’s solution.
If you can’t come up with any product-related projects, I encourage you to think in an audience-oriented way, as it will broaden the spectrum of possible ideas.
Side Projects that Generate Product Need
Within the product-oriented side project ideas, a few of them are able to create the necessity for the product.
Website Grader, by Hubspot, is the best example of this. This is a tool where you can enter your website’s URL and they tell you a score and what you can do to improve it.
The interesting part is that many of these things can be improved using Hubspot. As you can see in the screenshot, you can start a 14-day free Hubspot trial right away.
If you can come up with a product-oriented side-project idea that receives traffic and converts a high percentage of the users into customers by generating product necessity, you’ll be creating a robust customer acquisition channel.
Don’t worry if not! There are huge opportunities for audience-related side projects.
Need More Inspiration?
Here are +250 tools built by 8 companies that have mastered Engineering as Marketing:
In the definition of Engineering as Marketing that we saw at the beginning, it said “using engineering time”. That’s because some years ago, and still today, if you want to build sophisticated side projects, you need a developer to code it.
However, nowadays, you can build pretty much every Engineering as Marketing project you can think of with no-code tools. Calconic (for calculators), Outgrow (for calculators and quizzes), and Bubble (for more complex projects) are some of the best no-code tools for building this kind of project.
The All-In-One Newsletter for Startup Founders
Every week, I’ll send you Failory’s latest interviews and articles and 3 curated resources for founders. Join +20,000 other startup founders!
3) Promote the Side Project
Just as it happens with content, you need to promote your side project after publishing it. These projects tend to get two types of traffic:
Relying on virality for getting traffic to a project you’ve spent money and time on is quite risky, but has worked well in many of the examples mentioned above.
For a project to go viral, it has to be controversial, extremely funny, or really time-precise. Let’s see three examples.
In the 2008 Obama-McCain Election, Airbnb sold limited-edition cereal boxes called Obama O’s & Captain McCain. It was a fun campaign with the controversial component every political topic naturally contains. National television featured them and in 24 hours they sold 1000 boxes, profiting $30k.
Checkmarx, an application security testing tool, created a game called Game of Hacks where users had to identify vulnerabilities in different pieces of code. The project went viral on Hacker News, the biggest developers community, bringing thousands of users.
When GDPR regulation came out, Mailjet quickly created the Ultimate GDPR Quiz, a quiz that determined how GDPR-ready your company was. It was launched when everyone was talking about the topic, so it quickly blew up. In Product Hunt, +300 users upvoted the product.
However, even if your project has all of these components, you can’t be sure if it will go viral.
That’s why you should also consider working on the organic traffic of the project.
Some projects aren’t a good fit with organic traffic by nature. No one searches on Google for a GDPR Quiz. However, many people search every day for a video to MP3 converter.
If your Engineering as Marketing project is a good fit with organic traffic, here are some things you can do to optimize your project for SEO, along with examples.
Satisfy Users’ Search Intent (Hassle-Free)
This is the most important thing: focus on making an Engineering as Marketing project page that satisfies users’ search intent in a hassle-free way (no email or registration required).
Some things that improve the users’ experience and ensure they get what they want from your page:
No errors or bugs
Your goal is to make a page that makes users not need to return to Google's results page. This is a factor Google takes a lot into account when deciding which page ranks first in the results.
New or Current Domain?
As you may have realized, many Engineering as Marketing projects are built in separate domains. This has positive and negative SEO effects:
Positive: If you use an “exact match domain (EMD)”, meaning that the domain is exactly the keyword you want to rank for, you might find it easier to rank for the keyword. For example, Cartamundi, a company that produces board games, created a project called How Much to Make a Board Game and used the domain “howmuchtomakeaboardgame.com” which ranked well on Google for a long time. Having said that, it is unclear how much Google values EMDs nowadays.
Negative: Neither the side project will benefit from the high authority of your business’ domain (which is an important ranking factor), nor will your business benefit from the backlinks and gain in authority that the new domain will get.
If you build the tool on a separate domain, what you’ll gain in memorability and EMD power will be sacrificed in backlinks and authority gain for your current domain.
Interlinks to the Project
You need to link from various pages of your website to your project, so that users find out about it and Google understands how important that page is.
Don’t link to it just from your navbar and footer; search for related blog posts and add a link there as well.
Engineering as Marketing + Programmatic SEO
Programmatic SEO consists of programmatically generating hundreds or thousands of pages from a set of data and making them rank on Google for long-tail keywords. I wrote a long guide about Programmatic SEO here.
Gusto has done an incredible job combining Side Project Marketing with Programmatic SEO. They have created 50 pages for the keyword “[State] Hourly Paycheck Calculator” and 50 for “[State] Salary Paycheck Calculator”.
These 50 pages are almost the same between them, only varying on a small section titled “[State] State Taxes”. This makes these pages really easy to be created programmatically.
What could have been two pages only ranking for “Hourly Paycheck Calculator” and “Salary Paycheck Calculator” turned into 100+ pages ranking for lots of long-tail keywords. It’s no surprise that these pages are ranking among the top results for their keywords.
Big chances are that there are no Programmatic SEO opportunities for your Engineering as Marketing project, but it’s worth dedicating some time to research if that’s not the case.
Wrapping Up: How to Start?
There are Side Project Marketing opportunities in every niche. As it’s not a competitive channel, I bet you’ll get a great ROI if you try it.
Here’s how you can start:
Find a Side Project Marketing idea (1-2 hours).
Build the product or service with no-code tools (5-10 hours).
Launch the project to get viral traffic (2-3 hours).
Optimize your project for organic traffic (2-3 hours).
If you have any questions, shoot an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be happy to help you with any stage of the process.