Side Project Marketing On A Shoestring


Practically everyone has, is, or will consider running a side-project at some point. It can be a hobby, a way to learn, boost your portfolio, generate extra cash or a lottery ticket out of the day job. Either way it’s tough to beat the thrill of seeing other people using your creation.

Most people though, won’t plough much money in to marketing their idea, at least until the point it starts to show real promise or generate it’s own income.

This therefore is a guide to promoting your idea with little or no money.

1.0 Set objectives

Before you start, decide what you actually want to achieve with the project e.g.

  • Test whether an idea has commercial potential before quitting your job
  • Show employers what you can do
  • Generate traffic and page-views to earn affiliate or ad revenue

Deciding this gives you a clear direction for your marketing.

2.0 Before you launch

2.1 Do your research

Firstly conduct keyword research on your market, which will:

  • Make sure there actually is some interest
  • Ensure You’re using language users understand
  • Allows you get the full benefits of SEO
  • Provide structure for your AdWords trial

This is the point where you normally find the three other tools doing your totally original idea. It’s annoying but don’t let it deter you; it’s all about marketing and execution, just ask Tom:

MySpace Tom
MySpace Tom


2.2 Setup a holder

Well before you launch, setup a holder page with:

  • A line to describe your project and it’s benefits e.g. An app that helps accountants file taxes faster
  • A more detailed (but still concise) explanation
  • A way to register for more interest
  • Social share prompts

If a representative user can’t tell you in a couple of seconds what the project is about, you need to tweak some more.

Having a good holder site will ensure:

  • Your SEO will hit the ground running
  • You can direct anyone interested there for more info
  • You gain a bit more credibility
  • You can capture the details of anyone who shows up in the mean-time

Launch Rock popularised and systematised this approach, but a basic HTML template + Mail Chimp is also free and can be a bit less fiddly in practice.

As an example here’s the pre-launch screenshot of holder page for Mustard Threads.

Mustard Threads Holder
Click for the full page


2.3 Make friends

If there are any authorities in your niche, now is the time to start making friends with them on Twitter, LinkedIn or wherever they interact mainly. Building relationships with bloggers, popular Twitter users and journalists now will pay dividends later.

Search the keywords that you have identified in your keyword research and see who shows-up in Google. Identify Twitter Hastags used by your audience e.g. for men’s fashion startup Mustard Threads, #GentsChat attracts an audience likely to be interested. Be genuine and gracious and it will work out. You can often also get new insights in to your project’s functionality.

LinkedIn can be a great way to reach people. Use RecruitEm to find journalists, industry influencers etc, connect with a personalised message.

Register all your social accounts (Twitter handle, Facebook Page name etc) at this point.

3.0 Launch!

So your creation is ready and you’ve replaced your holder with the real thing. Many people like to throw everything at a big day one launch. That can sometimes be a good idea, like when you’re gunning for an app store ‘Most Popular’ or ‘Top Rated’, but in my experience both corporate and personal, a gradual escalation of marketing is almost always better.

A ‘soft’ / beta launch allows you to:

  • Identify functional and UX bugs without alienating your most valuable users
  • Test and improve your messaging
  • Spend whatever money you do allocate wisely

It will differ by project but here’s my suggested running order:

3.1 You and the rest of the team

If you’re even remotely target market, you should definitely be using (or ‘dogfooding’) what you’ve created. This will prevent user generated content projects from being a ghost town for early users and flag up any UX / functional issues.



3.2 Your long-suffering friends and family

Your friends and family (presumably) like you, hopefully enough to give your project a go. Obviously it’s tricky if you’ve created something that’s a real niche; (your .htacess generator might be a bit lost on your grandma), but chances are you’ll have some people in your close circle who would enjoy or benefit from it.

At this point you’ll want to stay close to your new users to get any feedback as to how you can improve the UX and functionality.

Tools like Doorbell and Podio offer free feedback functionality you can embed on in your site or app.

3.3 Use your wider network

Find a way to promote your project on your every social profile without spamming everyone to death. A nice Facebook share with a request for feedback seems to work well.

Most people, inevitably, will be disinterested, but you might be surprised at the people who become users and even advocate for you.

On Twitter, unless you’re a terrible pop star with millions of followers, then make sure you do a few tweets at different times of the day, with hashtags relevant to your target audience.

If you have a personal blog, write an announcement post. Later on you can reach a wider audience on which is the derigeur place for startups to communicate these days.

Obviously also consider, Google+ , Pinterest etc etc. as suits your project and goals.

3.4 Send those emails

Hopefully during the course of building your project, some judicious social sharing, personal networking and random SEO will have generated a few sign-ups on your holder page.

Now is the time to cash this in, email them an let them know you’re good to go, let them know they’re among the first to use it and ask for as much feedback as they are prepared to give.

3.5 Accelerate SEO

SEO is a whole topic, and generally a slow burn but at minimum should have:

  • Identified the keyword to rank for
  • Included optimised metadata (and Meta Desc Tags)
  • Built links from wherever you can e.g.
    • Other personal projects and personal blogs
    • Other blogs and news sites writing about your project

3.6 Test paid search

Google throws around vouchers to encourage new advertisers on it’s AdWords program like confetti. Voucher values are usually up to around £120, so if for example you’re paying £0.30 per click will get you around 350 possible new users.

To get a voucher you can wither join up to their ‘partner program’ in which case they will start mailing you vouchers periodically, or if you’re desperate go and flip through the web development magazines in your news agent.

You can use the results of the keyword research to build out your campaign. If it turns out all the AdWords traffic bounces, you probably picked the wrong keywords.

3.7 In person networking

Check Meetup for events related to your project. Practice a little description of what you do before you go so it sounds slick when you’re mingling.

If there is nothing specific to what you do, there will usually be a generic ‘startup’ event you can attend, they do tend to be full of people too objectionable to hold down a job, but sometimes you’ll strike gold.

3.8 Press & blogger outreach

If your service is genuinely interesting, new, or a timesaver; or at least there’s an interesting angle on it (it uses a trendy a gadget, a cult celebrity uses it, you built it while in prison etc), you can usually get someone to write about it.

In my experience it’s nearly impossible to get the mainstream media (newspapers etc) to write about you, but if you fancy a go, try Muckrack. However blogs within a niche e.g. recruitment, SEO etc, will often be happy to write about you; sending you quality links (SEO win) and traffic.

3.9 Staying in touch

Encourage users to sign up to your Twitter feed, like your Facebook page and/or sign up to email alerts to encourage repeat visits.

3.10 Social Sharing

Make sure users can easily share on social. Consider what usually makes people share:

  • Ego – something about the user that flatters their ego
  • Inherent reward – get 10 extra points on your gamification system
  • Humour – Users share something funny so people think they are funny and like them more
  • Controversy – Tricky to pull off, but people do share causes etc

4.0 What not to do

This isn’t a blog post for well-funded startups working full time on their next ‘unicorn‘, it’s for those creating projects in their spare time. Don’t lean on work contacts or resources to help; it’s probably your day job that pays the rent so don’t jepordise that.

Moreover though laws differ country-to-country, if you’re using work time, computers, contacts etc to work on your project, then should it actually become commercially valuable, your employer will have a strong case to assert ownership.

5.0 Next steps

After you’ve got a solid base of users for your idea keep soliciting feedback, checking analytics (Google Analytics, Pwick) etc, doing Guerilla UX tests and improving it.

Hopefully your service should see a steady stream of new users, retain it’s existing users, and hit all the objectives you’ve set for the project.

After that, just maybe you might make it big

Parsing the Google referral string in a post (not provided) world

Note: As March 2016 Google is no longer passing this information in the referral string.


As of September 2013 Google prevented site owners from seeing all organic referring keyword data in the referral string.

However there is still plenty of data to be gleaned from the string. For quick testing the HttpFox Firefox plugin is excellent. Systematically capturing the data is easily done in any web analytics tool or server log parser using simple Regex.

It’s important to note that this data appears not to be passed from mobile searches which may somewhat skew any conclusions.

1) The rank of the link that the user clicked

To understand the rank of the result the user clicked to arrive at your site, look at the ‘cd’ key / value pair. e.g.

cd=1 indicates the clicked listing was in first place, cd=3 third place etc.

It does however get more complex when authority links and universal search are included on the Search Engine Result Page (‘SERP’), which will happen in most cases.

In this case the universal search results are counted in the SERP and must be considered e.g. in this case it’s possible to have up to a cd value of 16 on page 1.

CD variable by SERP result
Orange numbers represent the ‘cd’ value

2) The type of link clicked (search, news, image etc)

The ‘ved’ parameter indicates what type of result has referred a visitor to your site.

This has been well documented by Tim Resnik in this excellent post on

Here’s a marginally more verbose version of Tim’s table. Note these are substrings of the total value;

VED Value This means
QFj A normal organic search result
QqQIw A news OneBox link (e.g. 11, 12 & 13 above)
QpwI A news OneBox image (e.g. 11 above)
Q9QEw Video OneBox link
Qtw1w Video OneBox image
QjB An authority link (e.g. #2 – 4 on the screenshot)
BEPwd Knowledge graph image
BEP4d A secondary Knowledge Graph image


3) The local version of Google searched by the user

This is straightforward, you can clearly see the Top Level Domain (TLD) of the Google search that referred the visitor. In this example you can see Google UK;

To simulate this quickly, try the Search Latte international search tool.

4) The landing page URL

The ‘url’ variable is another nice easy one to decipher;

Note the address itself is character encoded hence; http%3A%2F%2 represents

5) Is the user logged in to Google?

Finally the ‘sig2’ parameter only appears whe a users is logged in to Google, therefore you can determine the proportion of users arriving at your site authenticated with Google.


What does any of this mean?

Obviously the loss of the referring keyword is a blow to the accuracy of any SEO reporting. But the above will at least allow site owners to answer questions like;

  • Does traffic from different ranks convert at different rates?
  • Does traffic from different types of search result behave differently?
  • What proportion of visitors arrive at your site from different local versions of Google?

Tracking a brand with keyword research

Historically brands have invested heavily in understanding the ‘awareness’ of their product. This is a time consuming, expensive and often statistically dubious process.

Querying search engines for the number of times a brand is searched for can provide a significantly better gauge of a brand’s awareness among it’s target population.

Let’s take as a simple example the Canadian airline market. Canada’s commercial airways are a two-horse race between Air Canada & WestJet who vie for the domestic market.

In June 2012 there were 368,000 Google searches from within Canada containing ‘westjet’ versus 2,740,000 containing ‘air canada’. So Air Canada appears a clear winner.

But a closer look reveals that there were 1,830,000 additional searches containing ‘west jet’. Not the brand’s approved name but nearly 5 times more popular.

So if we compare again but this time including the additional ‘west jet’ searches the score is 2,198,000 for WestJet versus 2,740,000 for Air Canada, still lower but much closer.

The lesson here is that consumers can’t be relied upon to search for your approved brand term, always consider including misspellings. This is particularly the case if you have a name which can be easily misunderstood.

For example mobile phone retailer Phones4U has a weird and wonderful presence in the mind’s of consumers.

Phones4U brand terms UK August 2012 Broad Match Google Searches
Phones4U brand terms Search volume
phones for u 823,000
phones 4 u 673,000
phones 4u 673,000
phone 4 u 550,000
phones for you 246,000
phones 4 you 74,000
phone4u 33,100
fones 4 u 6,600


Or if you have spent years educating your market about a different name, witness the 5,500 searches per month for ‘midland bank’ despite former bank ‘ The Midland Bank’ being wholly subsumed by the HSBC in 1992.


Every time a search is made it comes from an IP address which gives a very approximate indication of the searchers location.

Armed with this Google can also represent the interest in a brand, relative to all the other searches being made, geographically.

July 2012 Google Phrase Match searches for ‘west jet

A heat map showing July 2012 Google Phrase Match searches for 'west jet'
This heat map, perhaps unsurprisingly, shows how WestJet is stronger in the West of Canada, it’s home market.


An important caveat is that many people will have cause to return to your website for transactional reasons e.g. an online backing customer checking their account, or an airline customer checking in.

Thus brand term searches don’t always accurately represent your brand’s popularity versus a brand with out similar online functionality.

Because of this lack of visibility into the ‘frequency’ per member of the searching population the number of brand term searches is best used as an abstract measurement between similar businesses.

Also, as ever, it is also important to consider synonyms. To use the hackneyed example – while ‘apple’ might represent the consumer technology behemoth, it may also be a search for a record company, a flavor, or even a humble piece of fruit.


Brand term search is, used carefully an incredibly useful, statistically valid and near free indicator of your brand’s popularity versus that of a competitor.