Using Side Products as an Effective Marketing Strategy

One of the best forms of marketing you can have is a way to demonstrate immediate value to prospective customers via a (small) digital product or online tool.

If you can do so, it’s a way to prove to them that you’re worth a second glance as far as the main products or services that you sell.

An effective method of creating that value for people is to take the skills that you have within your team and use them to build tools or resources, which you then use to generate leads. These “side products” tend to be things that are useful, entertaining or generally a natural fit for your core business.

Let’s take a look at how this works in practice:

What is side product marketing?

Side product marketing is the creation of useful tools and resources for the purpose of further engaging prospective customers with your brand. The idea is to build visibility and credibility for your own brand. A key to doing this well is that those tools must be well-made and of value to people.

This acquisition channel is best illustrated with a few examples of how other businesses have used side product marketing to grow customer acquisition. Here are a few you can take a look at:

  • Moz is known for its excellent paid SEO programs, but it has also produced a number of free tools for anyone to use. If you look through the list, all tools make sense when you consider who the target audience is for its paid products.
  • WP Engine is in the very competitive business of WordPress hosting. It makes itself stand out by, among other things, offering a free WordPress speed test tool.
  • Hubspot offer marketing, sales and CRM software. Their free Website Grader tool is a natural fit with its paid products.
  • Shopify have built a large range of free tools to help their customers with all sorts of business-related issues. They have everything from business name generators, to refund policy generators to Paypal fee calculators.

Many other examples exist that include things like; educational microsites, calculators, development widgets and free tools or apps.

Why use side products?

“Give something valuable away in order to sell something related.” – Brian Clark, Copyblogger.

Giving away side products is also known as “engineering as marketing.” It’s an opportunity to show off your skills and, as Brian Clark states, deliver value so that people are likely to come back and buy your related product.

There are a number of good reasons why side products can be a great way to market your business. To begin with, people always need useful tools and they’ll like them even better if they’re free. Those tools can become a source to drive thousands of leads to your business, which is what companies like WP Engine have found as a benefit of their free tools.

A side product is a good way to stand out above every other company, particularly if you’ve done a good job of it. Everyone is giving away checklists, ebooks or webinars, so your useful tool is a great chance to be different.

Here are a few other reasons to use side products for marketing:

Shorten your sales cycle

For companies who have long or complex sales cycles, a related side product can help to shorten the length of time to the close. Your piece of software acts to bring part of your “middle of funnel” to “top of funnel”, giving you the chance to get ahead over complex competitors.

One strategy you can use is to target your side product to a particular segment of your audience. You can tackle a key issue of that segment with your software and move them through more quickly to the decision to purchase your core product. Look at the number of free tool options Moz has – there is something there for everyone.

Sustained growth

Think about the mechanics of paid marketing. You pay money to sponsor a post, put up a banner ad or use PPC ads, but once those paid methods are finished, the investment stops working for you. You may experience a bump in growth for the duration of the paid advertising, but it’s over and done with once you’re not showing those ads.

Most of the time, a good side product marketing strategy will be different. You make an initial investment to build and release your free tool, but once that’s done, anyone can continue to discover and use it. You get more sustained growth over time.

A good side product should not require ongoing development in order to add value. It’s possible version one can evolve slowly over many years, but you also have the option of not investing further in the product, yet it still providing value.

A Medium post by Ali Mese examines blogging and content marketing along with paid advertising and engineering marketing. His conclusion: blogging requires consistency over a long period of time while advertising annoys people, so it often gets ignored.

“If blogging takes ages and ads don’t work, is there an alternative that doesn’t cost money or annoy people? An alternative that brings quick traction and results?”

Side project marketing, he argues, can take less time and effort than a blog post and return a better outcome.

“The best marketing isn’t advertising, it’s a well-designed and remarkable product.” – Seth Godin.

It makes you likable

Blake Thorne puts it best in his discussion about how side product marketing is “good karma:”

“The likeability principle is at the heart of karma based marketing. Do good things to other people, you’re more likable as a person and a company. We’re more likely to support or be customers of products and companies that we like.”

If your tool is delivering value to others for free, you’re hitting the sweet spot of “karma marketing” and giving your company a friendly, familiar face. Jason Cohen, founder of WPEngine, uses the acronym SLC to describe the key components of his company’s side projects. Pronounced “Slick” it stands for Simple, Lovable and Complete.

It doesn’t have to be a distraction

Some might argue that a side project is just a distraction from the “real work” you should be doing, but plenty of businesses have found that this isn’t the case.

Crew tells the story of how its side project (Unsplash) saved the business. The company got Unsplash up and running in less than an afternoon, then reaped the rewards as it went viral.

From another perspective, diverting attention briefly to a side project can be a refreshing change of scene for your team. Breaking up their regular routine can help to knock out the cobwebs and have them come back to the core project feeling refreshed.

If you’re still not convinced, your team doesn’t have to be the ones who produce the side project. It has never been easier to build and launch new tools through the multiple platforms now available. You can go to a company such as Outgrow, who will build calculators and quizzes for you.

How to use side products for marketing

With so many possibilities for tools, widgets or calculators, where do you begin to devise a strategy for your own side product? Here are a few steps we would follow:

#1. Look for ideas related to your core product

This is a logical first step. You’re aiming to build up credibility and trust with people so that they’re more likely to purchase your core product, you’re also aiming to communicate with people who are within your identified buyer personas.

Therefore, it makes sense to come up with ideas that tap into that market by being directly related to what you sell, or highlighting a core benefit.

Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of search engine DuckDuckGo and co-author of Traction thought this through when coming up with a side product for the search engine. The core benefit of DuckDuckGo is that it doesn’t track visitors, appealing to those who prefer anonymity. His side product is the microsite, which explains how Google tracks all visitors and the harmful implications this might have.

#2. Identify a specific audience you’d like to communicate with

Your core business might be the sort that has many different audience segments, which may present a challenge to you when deciding on a side project. A good strategy here is simply to deal with one segment at a time. This way you can be very targeted with how you market your side product and how you move people further through your funnel.

Crew is a great example of how this can be done. Its main business is to connect people who need high-quality creative work done with hand-picked designers and developers who can make those projects happen. This means it needs to attract two types of audience – the clients that need projects done and the creatives who will do the work.

Now, take a glance through Crew’s “Labs” page and you will find free tools targeted at both markets. Clients will be interested in tools like “How Much to Make”, which estimates the cost of a mobile app, website or icon. Creatives may be interested in “Coffee and Power”, a tool that helps them find cafés with the ideal combination of good coffee, wifi and power points to plug in.

Knowing that audience you’d like to target is an important step for ensuring you create something of value. Crew now generates up to 40% of its revenue using those free tools as a gateway.

#3. Solve a real problem

Now that you know which audience segment you’re targeting, what real problems do they have that can be related to your core product? A key goal of your side product is to deliver value and solving a problem for your audience is the way to do it.

Let’s look at Buffer as an example. The social media management tool is targeted at people who aim to maximise their ROI from social media marketing through strategic scheduling and monitoring of engagement and analytics. However, there are a number of other problems that social media managers might have to overcome.

For example, where do you find enough of the right types of content to share? How can you create engaging images? How do you know when the “right” time is to be sharing posts? These are all good places to start for an app like Buffer when looking into possible side products.

Here are some side products they created in answer to those problems:

  • Pablo – Create beautiful images for social media.
  • Daily – This app has since been retired but was a content curation tool to help people find the right things to share.
  • Optimal – This is another app that has since been retired; however, Optimal existed to help with the scheduling problem many social media managers struggle with.

#4. Give it away for free

The whole point of these side projects is that those who deliver the best value tend to win. You’ve developed a great tool that solves a real problem, now you need to give it away for free ( in return for an email address, of course).

This might cause some companies to blanch at the thought of creating something truly valuable, only to give it away, but if you’ve done your homework and created the right type of tool, here is what you should see:

  1. You get a steady influx of signups from people who are within your target market.
  2. You see conversions boosted as your core product is a logical next-step for those signups.

Take a look at another example – Better Error Pages. This is the free tool of and has already proven to be a successful lead generator for them. They’ve had thousands of visitors to Better Error Pages and around 0.2% of those take the logical next step of converting to a paid account. This equates to thousands of extra dollars in annual revenue.

Your free tool doesn’t have to be overly complex or time-consuming to build. A good gauge is to check out the 1000 Upvote Club page on Product Hunt. Many of these popular tools are actually very simple, but they solve a problem that the user really wants taken care of. “Free” can end up being a very valuable investment for your company.

#5. Promote your side product

You’re going to need to do some promotion to make people aware of your free tool, but if you’ve done a great job at solving a needed problem, the good news is that people often start taking over the role of promotion for you.

Crew launched Unsplash by posting about it on HackerNews, where it reigned at the top of discussion threads. got a boost for Better Error Pages through a post on Product Hunt. Neither avenue is especially easy to get traction on, but here are a few other ideas:

  • Look for related questions on Quora, write a thoughtful response and offer a link to your free tool as a solution
  • Share through your own social media accounts and email newsletters
  • Post about it on any related forum or sub-Reddit
  • Introduce your tool while guest posting on someone else’s blog
  • Run some targeted social and display advertising

Next steps

Remember the golden rule of side products is about delivering value to your customers or prospects. It may seem like a daunting project at first, but successful companies have seen their conversions explode and have revealed that they found side products much less work than preparing regular blog posts.

Are you ready to start building your own side product? Get inspiration from our list of the side projects from over 50 leading companies, that have used this acquisition channel to significantly grow their customer base.

Download your copy here.

Stuart Brameld

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