Kill your blog: Why side projects are the future of marketing

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It may seem ironic to be writing a blog post about getting rid of your blog, but the marketing landscape has changed, and those who don’t adapt, die.

While it’s true that blogging can be an incredible way to build a loyal following and promote you and your company, there’s no way to force results.

Too many companies fall into the trap of believing they ‘have to start a blog’ and start pumping out listicles and ‘X ways to….’ articles thinking that writing anything is better than writing nothing.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Researching and writing articles that your audience and potential customers will value and share takes time. And in the typical startup, time is second only to money in resources that are scarce.

But what’s the other option?

Ads feel too ‘pushy’ for most brands, and as web guru Jeffrey Zeldman explains:

“We hate advertising so much, we’ve trained ourselves not to look at the top or right sidebar on most sites.”

You need something to boost your profile, raise awareness, and bring in the right customers. Now.

You need marketing that isn’t perceived as marketing.

The marketing landscape has changed drastically. Click here to join the 7,034 people staying ahead of the pack by getting our weekly newsletter. 

Why you need to give your customers a shovel

When you create value first, people pay attention.

That’s exactly what a pair of researchers found when they looked at which articles from the New York Times are shared the most.

New York Times most emailed articles

Articles that provided practical utility—actionable advice and tips—were shared far more than those that were merely interesting or even surprising.

So, if a story with practical value can have this level of impact, what would happen if this practical utility could be applied to something even more useful than a blog post?

What if you actually gave your customers a tool they could use, and use regularly?

As Jay Baer, author of the New York Times bestselling Youtility says:

“Create marketing so useful people would pay for it.”

You can tell someone how to dig a hole, but actually give them a shovel and they’ll remember you forever.

The best marketing is when you don’t know it’s marketing

While the proof is there that practical tools are marketing gold, working on these ‘side projects’ still gets a bad rap.

We often abandon our ideas after asking:

“Do they make us look distracted?”

“Why should we take time away from marketing efforts (not to mention building our product) to take on a completely unrelated side project?”

But in the context of marketing, we need to reconsider what is defined as a ‘side project’.

If you’re doing a project to create value for your company, this is no different than working on any other value-creating project (like your blog). A side project such as a website or app might just be an advanced form of marketing.

You need to think about the purpose before casting the idea aside.

But what about social media and leveraging the channels and networks that are already available to you?

Sure, these are great. But as Baer explains, when you rely on channels like social media, you’re not only fighting against other brands and content, but against the people closest to your customers. Your company messages are mixed in with photos and updates from friends and families.

You become part of the crowd. Part of the noise.

Side projects let you stand out from the crowd.

“When you create value first, people pay attention.”

For us at Crew, every single one of our side projects, from Unsplash to How Much to Make an App to Moodboard, brings in more customers than social media or ads.

In fact, more than half the monthly traffic to Crew is referred by one of our side projects.

The ROI of side projects is real. There’s no longer a question of ‘if’. It’s now ‘how much?’

How to build a side project the right way

Now, don’t get all excited and dive headfirst into your first side project idea. Not every idea is worth the time and effort it takes to build something useful.

When we have an idea for a project here are the questions we ask ourselves and the process we go through:

Does the tool solve a problem the kind of people we want to work with have?

It’s more likely you’ll use a good product many times than read a good blog post over and over.

That’s why your first question has to be: What problem is our tool solving?

And who will be using it?

When the Glitch team built the first version of Slack it was to solve their own team communication issues.

Similarly, when we built Unsplash it was to solve our own problem of finding good, free-to-use, high-resolution photography.

The value of these projects was clear from the start because we built the tools we wanted to use.

If you would use the side project you’re thinking about, there’s a good chance your audience will too.

Test your idea on yourself.

Can we start with something small?

All great tools solve a problem in a much simpler way than what has been done before.

The first version of Unsplash was hacked together using a $19 Tumblr theme and some leftover shots from a photoshoot.

An early version of Unsplash on Tumblr.
An early version of Unsplash on Tumblr.

2 years later, Unsplash photos are viewed more than 350 million times a month, and it has become the #1 referral source for Crew.

Even Crew itself started as a Wufoo form and Mailchimp newsletter.

Test your idea in the easiest possible way before putting more resources in.

Start simple.

Can we use something we’ve already built?

A side project doesn’t necessarily have to be something brand new. In fact, there’s a good chance it won’t be at all.

Repurposing research and insight you’ve already gathered into a tool is the easiest way to quickly move from idea to execution.

Why not start with a blog post as your tool’s MVP?

Do you have content that you’ve already seen resonate with your community?

Can you use it to create a tool that will give even deeper value?

Slack vs. HipChat
The idea for Slack vs. HipChat started as a simple blog post.

The success of How Much to Make an App made us ask, what other similar problems do our potential customers have?

So we built How Much does a Website Cost, App vs. Website, and have more similar projects in the works.

With the framework already in place, building these tools took very little resources. So why not?

Make the most of the work you’ve already done.

Will it need regular updates?

Your aim should be to get the project working so it either needs no future updates, or very few to continue to provide value.

If you’re tempted to update one of your marketing projects, ask yourself:

“Will improving this be more valuable than building something new?”

If you release a project and it doesn’t resonate with your audience, leave it and move on to something else.

Make sure your side project stays a side project.


Marketing today is defined by how useful it is to your customers. And the bar has been risen.

Where blogs, infographics, and webinars were once marketing gold, websites, apps, and tools are taking over.

Don’t think you have to follow what everyone else has done. Because if you do follow, the best you can expect to be is #2.

Think about what real value you can create for your customers.

Give them a shovel and watch them dig.

Image credit: Markus Spiske

Crew gif

The marketing landscape has changed drastically. Click here to join the 7,034 people staying ahead of the pack by getting our weekly newsletter. 

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