How to market your side project

Shane Labs January 18, 2015 12

Congrats! You’ve done it. You’ve worked on your side project for countless nights and weekends, and it’s finally ready for exposure. The bad news? Here comes the hard part.

A wise man once told me that you should focus 20% of your effort on creating content, and 80% of your effort on promoting and marketing it. What?! I thought as soon as I build it, they will magically come.

Side project marketing is tough

If you’re a real startup, it’s much easier to get your first users. You most likely have money from investors to help spread the word. But if you’re bootstrapped your funds are limited (or non-existent). And if you’re a sidestrapper, it’s even tougher because you don’t have a lot of free time to spend on marketing.

Here are a couple methods I’ve used recently to get exposure for my newest side project, HostBenchmarker: SEO, and personal outreach. The good news? They won’t cost you a dime.

SEO

Optimizing your website for search engines is a huge topic, and I’m only going to detail a few aspects of it here. SEO is great because it has huge traffic potential and can require less maintenance than other free methods (well, on-page SEO). But SEO is tough because there’s so much competition and search engines are constantly refining their ranking algorithms.

Long tail host keywords

My original hope was to get a majority of HostBenchmarker’s traffic through SEO. There weren’t a lot of pages dedicated specifically to hosts and their performance measures, and I could fill that void. My first strategy was to focus on terms like “HostGator uptime” and “GoDaddy speed,” and I actually did well at ranking for those terms (usually on page 1-2).

The problem was after a couple months that strategy was not bringing in much traffic. People weren’t searching for those terms that often, and if they did they’d only be interested in the top couple results. Something needed to change. I opened up Google Keywords Tool and plugged in some of my targeted search terms (looking back, I should have done this months ago):

web-hosting-keywords-1

Ouch. 10 searches a month? No wonder people weren’t coming. I started plugging in some other search terms and BINGO! I realized people didn’t search for “web host uptime stats,” instead they searched for “reliable web hosting.” No one entered “web host speeds,” they queried for “fast web hosting.”

web-hosting-keywords-2

The numbers are drastically different, even though the intent of the visitor is the same. Both sets of search queries mean the same thing, but the way they are phrased makes a huge difference – 50x the difference!

I immediately changed all the titles and headings of my pages to match what I had discovered. As an example, here’s a before and after. You’ll notice I also put a result in the title to prove I had the data they’re looking for:

web-hosting-keywords-4

Attitude of visitors

I also considered the state of mind of the people I want to be targeting. People that are specifically looking for uptime stats about a specific host already know about the host and are probably just double checking that they’re okay. I don’t want those people because they’re not going to be clicking through to learn more about the host I’ve benchmarked. Those people don’t make me money (and I get paid through affiliate referrals).

The people I do want are the people that are looking to switch hosts. Who are they? They’re visitors blowing off steam about how their current host sucks, looking for alternatives. Check out how many people are searching for these terms:

web-hosting-keywords-3

And what’s great about these terms it the competition is low. Awesome. I immediately set up pages targeting those keywords.

Personal Outreach

The other method I have been using is personally reaching out to people that are in my target audience. This usually has high effectiveness if you do it right, but if not you could be viewed as a spammer. It’s also a bit of a time consuming, manual process, but aren’t we supposed to be spending lots of time on marketing right now anyway?

Via Twitter

Just as I had identified in my SEO research, people who were upset with their current hosts searched for negative terms about them. Do they tweet about them as well? You bet! Doing a quick twitter search for “HostGator sucks” reveals lots of disgruntled customers.

Have you ever heard this quote before?

People will do anything for those who encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions and help them throw rocks at their enemies.

It’s a super powerful quote, and it made me wonder – will these disgruntled people be my friend if I confirm their suspicions and help them throw rocks at their enemies? It turns out, YES.

Here are some examples of the kinds of tweets I made. Surprisingly people have been very receptive to it:

twitter-outreach-1

And another:

twitter-outreach-2

Is this bad? Kinda. I feel a little dirty doing it. But I am simply proving objective stats confirming their beliefs, and the fact that many people are responding to (and even retweeting and favoriting) my posts is a good thing.

Via Reddit

The same approach can be used via Reddit. There’s a webhosting subreddit where many times people comment on the performance of their host, or are looking for new hosts. I have the data they’re looking for, so why not lead them to my site?

reddit-outreach

Automating your outreach efforts

If you try this approach, you’ll realize that it’s very labor intensive. You don’t want to just copy/paste canned responses as that’s tacky and will likely get you marked as spam. And searching for these opportunities takes a long time – unless you use a super nifty tool called IFTTT.

It stands for “If this, then that,” and it does exactly what you think. You can choose channels for it to monitor (like twitter search), then it will perform an action (like notify you via email):

ifttt

I set up a considerable list of search queries and let IFTTT do all the searching for me. I don’t want to list them here simply because I don’t want them indexed in this article, but you can imagine what they were. Every day I’d get about 10-20 emails of twitter and reddit conversations I could interject into.

Results so far

So, does my site have a million visitors yet? I wish. But I am seeing some positive early results. See how my rankings for some of the new keywords have improved?

seo-increase

And traffic is up quite a bit compared to normal:

traffic-increase

I can see in my Google Analytics referral report that people are coming from both Google (SEO) and Twitter/Reddit (outreach), so both approaches seem to be working so far.

However, the important thing is have I increased my revenue by making any affiliate sales? Unfortunately I don’t see a change on this front yet.  I just implemented these 1-2 weeks ago, so it could be that people are taking their time to switch hosts (or hosts are delayed in reporting) and I need to check back at the end of the month. But it could also be that this marketing it not working at all. I’ll let you know in my next profit report.

Your turn

Think about your side project. Are there alternate ways of phrasing your focus keywords that more people are searching for? Think about your audience – are there any happy/mad/sad keywords that might target the attitude you’re looking for? Are there any manual search techniques you’re using that could be automated with a tool like IFTTT? Have you tried contacting people directly that may benefit from knowing about your side project?

Have you tried either of these methods before? Did they work? What have you found to be the best way to market your side project? Comment below!

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12 Comments »

  1. Dave January 18, 2015 at 6:36 am - Reply

    Great post! It will be interesting to see if it translates into affiliate sales.

    I’m working on a side project right now and starting to think about the marketing. I think the twitter avenue might work best.

    • Shane Labs January 18, 2015 at 8:21 am - Reply

      Thanks Dave! Keep us posted on how it works for your side project too! Good luck 🙂

  2. Moodoo January 21, 2015 at 8:19 am - Reply

    I’m at literally the same stage with my side project. That article is almost a step by step of what I’m done in the past few weeks. However, I think one important point to make is to differentiate between ‘organic’ traffic and ‘referral’ traffic. The article hints that this but isn’t explicit. Organic traffic is, in theory, always better quality and should get you higher conversions. From my experience, being referral to by Hacker News, Reddit, Twitter etc may spike your traffic for a few days but the lasting affect is to be debated.

    • Shane Labs January 22, 2015 at 10:44 am - Reply

      Great point. SEO typically nets you long term traffic while the personal outreach is short lived.

  3. Dahlma January 21, 2015 at 10:43 am - Reply

    Great article. I was going to ask if you’ve seen success in niche sites, but looking at the domain you hosted this blog on versus the links you were discussing, I answered my own question.
    Do you feel referrals are a better source of income versus ad displays? I’m slowly building up traffic using similar methods and ad sense is slowly building traction, but I’m seeing lots of talk about Amazon referrals and now you mentioning hosting referrals and wondering if I should focus on that.

    • Shane Labs January 22, 2015 at 10:58 am - Reply

      Thanks! 3 of my 4 niche sites bring in money, totaling about $200-300/month. I don’t write about them much, or spend time on them much since I’m not passionate about them. However they are great in that they bring in just enough money so that I can spend on other projects without losing cash.
      I think referrals are better if your site is super focused. Otherwise if you’re appealing to the mass market don’t bother, ads are better. Ad networks like AdSense are also less maintenance, as you slap them on once and forget about them (sometimes referrals are changing offers, etc). Amazon is to be considered, but cookie duration is only 24 hours and payout usually 4%, pretty low for the industry.
      Hope that helps!

  4. Peter January 22, 2015 at 6:12 am - Reply

    thanks for the article

  5. Jack January 30, 2015 at 6:47 am - Reply

    Where are your affiliate links? I see the links to other pages within your site, but where are the affiliate links?

    Did you come up with a recommendation on which host to use? I didn’t see one.

    Maybe say something like, “after all of my research, I would chose XYZ Host (*affiliate link*) because they are the best at….. ”

    Maybe I just missed it. Who knows?

    Have a great Friday!

    • Shane Labs January 30, 2015 at 10:53 am - Reply

      Hey Jack – Some of the links go to more reports, and others are affiliate links. I’m actually going to be changing this soon so people can choose whether they want to ‘See more benchmarks’ or ‘See plans’.

      I also chose not to come up with a recommended host because I want people to choose for themselves. But perhaps I should. Not sure if people want to look through the results themselves or have the decision made for them. I fear that by suggesting a specific host I may appear biased? Do you think I can still appear impartial while making a suggestion?

      • Jack February 2, 2015 at 8:27 am - Reply

        I absolutely think you can make a suggestion without appearing impartial. I think people are looking for you to make that suggestion since you are the expert.

        “Based on my detailed analysis above, I believe xyz is the best hosting source followed by zyx in a close second.”

        People are looking for the answers. I doubt many people want to figure it out for themselves.

        • Jack February 2, 2015 at 8:28 am - Reply

          I meant without appearing biased above – not “impartial”

        • Shane Labs February 2, 2015 at 9:04 am - Reply

          Ok cool. I’m in the process of building out a little wizard that will suggest something based on some questions, but if that doesn’t help I’ll make an overall recommendation too. I think you’re right – people don’t like to have to make the choice themselves. Thanks Jack!

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