7 Side Projects That Became Marketing Engines

by Today's Eggspert

Last updated on July 27th, 2017

Seth Godin, upon learning of the term content marketing, once said, “content marketing is the only marketing that’s left.”

Of course, he already knew that delivering value to your audience upfront was the best way to generate awareness, build trust, and cultivate an audience (not to mention, sell stuff).

As marketers, we know content marketing in the form of blog posts, eBooks, whitepapers, infographics, and the like. (We also know the importance of content distribution).

But, it can be so much more.

Side projects are becoming a lucrative, and often surprising, marketing channel that raises the value-driven bar and generates a massive amount of awareness, traffic, and, of course, conversions.

In this article, I want to share the stories of 7 organizations and startups that created side projects that inevitably became marketing engines in their own right and sparked huge growth.

1. Marketing Grader by HubSpot

I thought I’d start with the one you’ve most likely heard of.

Back in the day, this tool was actually called Website Grader. Marketing Grader analyzes your website’s setup and grades it based on on-page SEO, social media integrations, and content marketing.

marketing grader

Dharmesh Shah, co-founder of HubSpot, recently said that this tool alone is responsible for a huge portion of the 50,000 leads the company gets every month.

Why did they create it in the first place? Well, back when HubSpot was a three-man operation, part of the sales process was to rank how well a prospect’s website was set up for inbound marketing.

Brian Halligan, Shah’s co-founder, would send him websites to check out, and he would see if they were a good fit.

In order to do this, Shah looked at their source code for on-page elements such as title, headlines, etc., as well as their domain and Alexa rank. It was a lot of manual work, so Shah created a tool to do this for him.

It didn’t take him long to build an initial version, and once it was done, he thought it would be useful to others, so he registered the domain “websitegrader.com” and eventually used it to collect email addresses.

Key Takeaway: Some of the most successful startups and products were created by founders scratching their own itch.

Take this philosophy and apply it to your marketing. What problems are you facing that can be solved with simple software, tools, or content?

Once you’ve thought of some ideas, check and make sure your audience and buyer personas need this problem solved too. Chances are, if you haven’t already found a solution that exists, others are going to want what you’re building.

2. Unsplash by Crew

If the term “last ditch attempt” were to ever make it into the dictionary, this example from Crew would be right below it under the definition and use case.

Crew is a service that connects designers and developers with founders and business owners who need freelancers to work on projects.

A couple of years ago, they were in a sticky situation. With only 3 months’ worth of cash left, they needed to gain customers quickly. Blogging works, but for them, such a long-term strategy wasn’t an option.

Around this time, they were redesigning their website. The process included hiring a photographer to get high quality images, some of which were never going to be used.

unsplash 1

Not wanting to let the images go to waste, they purchased a $19 Tumblr theme and created Unsplash to give them away free. Their value proposition was to release 10 high quality, royalty free stock photos every 10 days.

They uploaded it to Hacker News (a great channel for content distribution) and quickly got on with other things.

Mikael Cho, one of the Crew founders, soon received an email from their photographer telling him there was a spike of traffic hitting his website.

That one submission to Hacker News generated tens of thousands of visitors within the first 10 minutes of submission, as well as hundreds of social shares. This drove a large portion of these users to the Crew website as a result.

Crew has since gone on to create other side projects, but Unsplash is still the top referral source to their website and has generated over 5 million unique visitors.

You can read the entire story in this article on their blog.

Key Takeaway: Mikael Cho’s intention wasn’t to create a marketing asset with Unsplash. As he says in their blog post, “the best marketing is when you don’t know it’s marketing.”

What he and his team did do was take assets that were already there and put them on a new platform to offer to their audience for free. As a result, they generated a lot of awareness and traffic.

What excess resources, knowledge, and assets do you have that you can turn into a side project? If there’s anything sitting going to waste, think about how to turn it into a resource you can offer to your audience for free.

3. Notifier by Content Marketer

Founded by Sujan Patel and Colin Matthews, Content Marketer is a tool that allows you to quickly reach out to other bloggers, thought leaders, and influencers that you’ve referenced in your content.

It’s a very, very specific tool and can be great for traffic generation. Because of this, it was very surprising to see them release a free tool to complement their main offering.

Notifier is a free content promotion tool that scans your content for any Twitter accounts you’ve mentioned and then tweets those people directly to let them know they’ve been featured.

content marketer notifier

Patel and Matthews discovered, from promoting thousands of pieces of content, that simply tweeting the people and companies you mention can help increase traffic.

I reached out to Patel about the impact Notifier had on growth, and he kindly shared some insights:

“With Notifier, we took everything we’ve learned from contentmarketer.io and how our customers promote their content and created a product based on the least amount of work needed (by our end users) to get the most impact.

“It’s been out for a bit over a month and it’s already responsible for over 1000 new trials/leads. To put that in perspective, that’s how many leads we had [in the] combined 6 months before that.”

The last two sentences say it all.

Key Takeaway: Using customer data from their core offering, Patel and Matthews built an incredibly simple version to get people started quickly and into their marketing funnel.

Matthews chimed in on Product Hunt, saying: “Where our parent product has a lot of advanced uses that can be admittedly a little daunting to some folks, Notifier is highly approachable and can be plugged in to your marketing routine easily because it takes only about 60 seconds start to finish.”

Is there a way you can take features from your product or service and offer them as a standalone product to get new customers?

Finding new ways to serve your audience, without them having to pull out their credit cards right away, can be an effective way to generate awareness and new customers, users, and subscribers.

4. Do by InVision

Sometimes, creating an absolute monster package of resources and giving it away free will do the trick.

UX resources are easy to come by, but the really good ones are usually behind a pay wall.

This is why, when InVision created Do, a UI kit for a mobile to-do app, it got a lot of attention from both designers and the startup community.

It was even featured on Product Hunt with 627 upvotes, which is a good indication of the amount of traffic it generated (and still does).

product hunt invision

It’s a meaty resource – the entire pack comes with:

  • 130 screens
  • 10 themes
  • Over 250 free components

It is available in both Photoshop and Sketch formats, meaning designers can download and start using them right away. Even the landing page looks beautiful.

InVision’s core value proposition is a prototyping platform that allows designers and developers to create UI interfaces for their apps and collaborate quickly. So, some people might look at Do and see it as detrimental to InVision’s efforts. Why give away so many free resources to be used on different platforms?

But, the InVision team knows that their product is solving a specific problem, one that sits away from the likes of Photoshop and adds value in its own way.

envision do 1

Creating resources like Do provides an insane amount of value for their audience, customers and otherwise.

Because of the amount of value it delivers, it also inevitably gets picked up by the press and other communities, spreading awareness and driving fresh traffic.

Key Takeaway: InVision understands their customers’ pains, and they know what their customers value. Finding good UI kits that include certain elements or entire screens is a huge pain for designers.

InVision went out of their way to create a resource that, clearly, took a lot of time and effort to build. Why? To create goodwill within the design community, to give back, and to generate traffic as well as new users in return.

Content marketing is great. It works, but it can only go so far.

So, how can you create an absolute monument of a resource that gives so much value that it generates lots of buzz within your target market and community?

The quick way to do this is to simply ask them, or even ask your own teams. Remember, the best products often come from scratching one’s own itch.

5. Open Site Explorer by Moz

If you’re reading this, then I’m 99% sure you’ve heard of Moz.

Before they even built products, they were creating content around SEO and positioning themselves as key players in the digital marketing space.

Since those days, they’ve gone on to create several products that help marketers get more out of their SEO efforts, as well as some free tools.

One free tool that particularly comes to mind is the Open Site Explorer (or OSE for short). It’s a tool that has generated over 14,000 backlinks and generates over 8,000 visitors each month from organic search alone.

moz open site explorer

OSE has become part of the overall Moz offering. More advanced features are available if you’re a customer, but you can still use it without having to sign up.

The basic features are more than enough to get a broad overview of your competitors’ SEO efforts.

Key Takeaway: OSE has certainly evolved over the years, but it’s very clear to see where it fits in Moz’s strategy.

For anyone serious about SEO, or even for those just starting out, their journey will more than likely take them to Moz – most specifically, Open Site Explorer.

This is because it comes with some great free features right out of the box and can quickly become part of any digital marketer’s stack. The genius is in how it links directly to Moz’s core product and therefore plays a massive part in generating new users.

Similar to what we learned from Notifier, you should find clever ways to provide a version of your offering, or features of it, that you could give away and position as a free, standalone product in its own right.

6. Pablo by Buffer

Social media is an ever growing and evolving beast. Facebook, Twitter, and the like are constantly making changes that cause us marketers to tweak our approach.

Luckily, startups like Buffer are on the case. Buffer, in particular, is always creating original, informative content on their findings.

Through their research, they discovered that tweets including images enjoy 150% more retweets than just plain text.

It has been clear for some time that visual content on social media outperforms text-based forms. That’s why Buffer created Pablo.

pablo by buffer 1

Pablo is a free tool that makes it super easy to create social media-friendly images quickly.

Since its launch as an MVP, more than 500,000 images have been created, and Buffer has since expanded the product to include more features and cater to other platforms.

How successful was it? The first version generated over 1,800 upvotes on Product Hunt, with the second enjoying more than 1,400.

Key Takeaway: Scratching your own itch is great, but reacting to massive changes in your market and building tools and resources based on your findings works effectively too.

As I mentioned earlier, Buffer is at the forefront of social media marketing, and by creating a tool like Pablo, it shows they understand what’s important.

Creating content around changes in your industry is a great content marketing technique in terms of positioning yourself, but creating a side project that innovates and makes life easier for rapid changes can really give you an edge.

7. Year In Music by Spotify

So far, I’ve focused mostly on startups that serve a B2B audience or individual professionals. To wrap up this article, I thought it would be fun to delve into the B2C world – specifically, Spotify.

We all recognize Spotify as a brand. You know, the largest music streaming service in the world.

Just do a quick search on Product Hunt for them, and you’ll see that they’re not short of side projects. Their former lead designer, Tobias van Schneider, talked about the importance of them extensively in this article on First Round Review.

I’ve picked Year In Music for this example because it touches upon something I’ve yet to do in this article.

spotify year in music

It has to do with the emotional response it elicits.

Music is a pretty powerful thing. We anchor memories to it, and certain songs always cause certain emotions to bubble up.

Music can also be a strong part of our identity and culture. We’re always messaging our friends telling them about this “sick new album” we just found.

Year In Music is something that ticks both of these boxes. As soon as you log in and scroll down, it shows you the first song you played at the beginning of the year and your most-listened-to albums and artists.

It even shows you the artists you listened to most in each season of the year. Just scrolling through these gave me a sense of nostalgia, and it’s only been a year.

This whole experience is wrapped up in a beautiful, independent user experience accessible directly from the browser. The whole thing is a delight to scroll through.

Key Takeaway: There are two lessons we can learn from this Spotify side project – lessons that can be applied to any business or industry.

The first is based on emotion. As previously mentioned, Year In Music elicits nostalgia and exposes something that makes up a huge part of our identity: our music tastes.

Can you create an immersive experience (or even content) that taps into your audiences’ emotions? This chart from Business Insider shows the emotional cues that cause content to go viral:

emotions for viral marketing

The second lesson is in the beautiful and immersive user experience. It’s super easy to navigate – you just scroll. And, the UI is beautiful. Interactive content is becoming more and more popular, and this is a brilliant example of it in play.

This kind of experience is what turns basic, plain-Jane content into a side project worthy of attention.

If you really break it down, Year In Music is user data-driven content marketing veiled as a standalone product.

In just 4 days, it generated over a thousand shares (which excludes Twitter):


7 Side Project Lessons

Let’s review the takeaways learned from each side project:

  1. Scratch your own itch: Some of the most successful startups were created by founders solving their own problems. Find a specific problem and create a free tool that solves it.
  2. Collect unwanted resources: Are there (digital) assets not being used in your business that your audience would find useful? Curate them into a resource and give it away free.
  3. Simplify your solution: Your core offering might be complicated, so can you take a specific feature and offer it for free to generate leads, users, and customers? Contentmarketer.io did this with great success.
  4. No resources? Make some: Collecting unwanted resources is one thing, but building an epic library from scratch and offering it to your audience is even better. InVision did this with Do, and their audience loved them for it.
  5. React to the market: If you’re close to the pulse of your industry, you’ll spot certain trends and changes taking place. React to the changes that make the biggest impact by building tools that take advantage of them.
  6. Give it some emotion: People love experiences that play upon certain emotions. Nostalgia is one of them, but there are many more. Add virality to your side project by making people feel good.
  7. Wrap it in an awesome experience: User experience can make or break any marketing initiative. With side projects, however, you’ll benefit from raising the bar and providing something beautiful and truly delightful to use.


Content marketing is awesome. It works and gets a lot of results when done the right way.

However, the more I look at shifts in the digital marketing landscape, the more I see organizations taking advantage of and benefiting from side projects.

One way to start quickly is to take your current content and wrap it up in a user experience. Or, you can go all out and build a tool from the ground up.

Have you tried creating side projects as marketing, or do you have plans to? What experiences have you had that left you with a positive impression?

About the Author: Tom Whatley is a digital marketing consultant, helping businesses in all industries to grow using proven, scalable marketing systems. He is currently focusing on Content Marketing and Growth Hacking, teaching his lessons on his blog along the way.

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  1. Jerad Maplethorpe says:
    January 5, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    I love this article! It immediately resonated with my project which began as a side project. In fact, it initially wasn’t even going to be for the general public.

    Was this the case for Crazy Egg as well?

    • Tom Whatley says:
      January 6, 2016 at 2:10 am

      I can’t speak for the Crazy Egg folks, Jerad! But I think this was very much a business venture from the get go :).

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