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

The ultimate research methodology

This blog is about the light that the cumulative searches of hundreds of millions of individuals can shine on the world in a way that traditional sources of insight cannot.

So what makes keyword research better than other research methodologies? It’s primary strength lies in it’s lack of bias. This impartiality is born of the intimacy that exists between a searcher and their search box that simply can’t be replicated at scale any other way.

For example it’s unlikely that if asked in a survey, many of the 165,000 global searchers using Google to find information about ‘flatulence’ in July 2012 would admit that it was their primary concern. Perhaps they might instead choose to align themselves with the more socially concerned (and fragrant) 60,500 people searching for ‘cure for cancer’ in the same month.

When a user enters their search they are speaking to a machine, they have a need and, as best they are able, they clearly and explicitly state that need.

These searches range from the mundane; “where can I buy Nespresso capsules” to the hilarious: “why does my mom smell”, to the potentially tragic: “test for aids”.

Whatever a searchers intention, every time a search is made it is added to aggregate statistics for the informed researcher to mine.

The strength of this new source of understanding is not only in it’s candour, it is also unprecedented in terms of it’s scale. Google with around 66% of the search engine market is queried 400 million times per day. Extrapolated to the whole search market that’s around 600 million searches, a sample size that few other research methodologies can hope to match.

Search data versus social data (Part 1)

Social networks such as (in Anglo-Saxon countries) Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are often portrayed as the modern mirror of the people.

The immense data held, particularly by Facebook, is often quoted as having the key to understanding people on a macro and individual level.

For example, Facebook knows where you live, who your friends, colleagues, family are, where you go for fun, where you go on holiday and your favourite TV shows. Surely this is the ultimate data set for understanding humanity on a grand scale?

Well, no, and here’s why.

Perception versus reality

When an individual creates content on a social network, particularly those where real names are encouraged such as Facebook or Google+, they are typically at least as conscious of the impact this will have on others perception of them as they would be talking in person with people they know.

The reason for this is that the average Facebook user has around 130 friends, but 7 close ‘real life’ friends, therefore any statement on Facebook is likely to reach a much wider and more diverse audience than one made in person.

As such, most social media users will screen themselves, conscious that their content may reach the eyes of family, co-workers, less close acquaintances and quite probably strangers and that each group of people may react in different ways.

For example political opinion expressed to 4 or 5 close friends is less likely to be challenged than one made to a diverse group of more than a hundred people from separate parts of one’s life.

Beyond the user’s direct connections, the ability for a particular piece of content to be shared is virtually limitless as a number of individuals writing indiscreet Twitter updates or posting Facebook photos have found.

Instead, individuals conduct themselves on social networks in the way they wish to be perceived by this broad community of people, rather than as they truly are.

In social, users update with socially acceptable facets of their life.
“I’m on the train”
“I’m looking forward to my holiday”
“My cat is adorable”.

It would be an unusual breach of convention for users of social media to ask where they can find at some good pornography, and yet that demand clearly exists, there are 277 million porn related searches from the comfortable anonymity of the search box every month.

And it’s not only sexual interests and personal hygiene problems that are directed at search and not social. If you are in need of information regarding a specific purchase, let’s say the purchase of a lamp or refrigerator, you are much more likely to start your search with a Google search rather than ask your friends who are relatively unlikely to have specialist knowledge about specific products.

If the average Facebook user has 160 friends, compared to tens of billions of indexed pages in Google and Bing, many of them written by niche experts and specialist retailers, it’s clear that online search is a more effective way of researching your needs.

To be continued…