Engineering as Marketing: How to outrank Wikipedia with a simple calculator
Back in 2005, everyone was talking about a young, very opinionated, startup out of Chicago called 37Signals and their new SaaS (Software as a Service) web application Basecamp. Basecamp was a new breed of project management software. Every site that wrote about Basecamp also mentioned me, a little web design agency at the time in Ireland. I’m not sure it was even widely called SaaS at the time. Basecamp was one of the originators of that category of software and business model. Most people could only dream about being on the biggest tech sites at the time (O’Reilly, Gigaohm, LifeHacker, Techcrunch etc.) yet here they were giving me links and sending me traffic.
I did it again two years later with a wedding-related start up idea. After 12 months every wedding-related website and forum was linking to me with absolutely no marketing. 50,000 brides and grooms gave me their email address.
The above was achieved by building two very simple software applications and leaving them to run themselves. Overall, I think I spent about $200 in total (including time) on them.
I have repeated this tactic again and again. As you can probably guess this is one of my favourite marketing channels.
Back in 2005 Basecode launched as a basic Firefox extension for users of Basecamp. One of the key selling points of Basecamp was its simplicity. It was so simple it didn't even have a text formatting bar. Instead it used a weird-ass formatting language called Textile. Textile meant you needed to add in special characters in the text to get the formatting you required. For example, to make a word bold you had to type *Bold* and it would display that as Bold when you saved it.
Basecamp was famed for being opinionated software. I love the guys and what they have done. But that did not mean I had to agree with all their opinions.
This text formatting annoyed me so much I hired a guy online to build me a browser extension to fix it. When Basecamp was viewed in Firefox the extension would insert a formatting bar above the text field. This proved very popular with a lot of people, including 37Signals themselves who gave it a nice recommendation on their site.
This opened my eyes to the idea that engineering could be marketing.
Two years later, I tackled this more purposefully with something called Wedding Tickers.
I had a wedding startup idea at the time and got as far as doing some marketing for it with a one page web application called When Is My Wedding.
My thinking was that weddings are probably the most lucrative market to be in. They are a once in a lifetime event where money is almost no object. But I will be honest. I’m a typical bloke. A typical married bloke. Beyond the initial idea (shiny object) weddings hold no interest for me so the main business idea was doomed from the start.
But in the beginning I had a great idea for a simple lead generation web application. Somehow, I found out about something called a ticker. A ticker is an image with a countdown that updates itself every day with "X days to an event" . Brides were using these Tickers online to count down the days to their wedding and would add them to their own websites or as their signature on discussion forums.
It looked so easy. A simple one page application which brides would market for you. The image or Wedding Ticker would link back to you, attracting other brides to try it out.
I shortly moved onto another project and forgot about it. Amazingly, the app worked like a dream. Within a year of the app running on autopilot, it had collected over 50,000 email subscribers and was one of the most linked wedding sites on the web. In the end, I sold the site. It sold for a nice profit but nowhere near what it should have. However, that's another story for a later post.
Engineering as a marketing tactic.
The idea behind this tactic is pretty simple. Provide a useful resource that people can use for free that performs as a lead generator, PR talking point or link builder for your main business.
If you are building links for your website, it is a much easier ask for a link to a free resource than a link to your paid product or service.
Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares wrote the book that every marketer must read, Traction. The basis of the book is that there are 19 customer acquisition channels available. These guys show you how to test each of those channels to find the three that perform best for your business. They describe engineering as marketing as follows:
Your team's engineering skills can get your startup traction directly by building tools and resources that reach more people. You make useful tools like calculators, widgets, and educational microsites to get your company in front of potential customers.
This is one channel that has worked consistently well for me over the years and across many business types.
In 2014 HubSpot raised $125 million in fresh capital, leaving the company with a market valuation of $880 million when it went IPO. I first heard of HubSpot because of a tool called Website Grader. Since it launched in 2006, HubSpot's free tool has graded more than 4 million websites. Website Grader gives marketers advice on how to improve many aspects of their websites. It’s great. Input your website and it tells you in easy terms what is wrong and how to fix it.
The whole tool is a lead generator for their marketing automation software HubSpot.
In case you missed it, 4 million websites = 4 million leads.
Website Grader was their first but HubSpot has repeated this tactic again and again with different tools over the years.
Target existing product channels.
An added benefit of engineering as marketing is being able to utilize existing channels.
In the case of Basecode above, the Basecamp user base at the time was over 100,000 users. When I launched Basecode, the tool was 1 in a list of 1 apps that integrated with Basecamp. Now Basecamp lists over 100 ‘extras’ or integration partners. http://37signals.com/extras . It is a great partnership for these companies. These tools make Basecamp better and allow access to the large Basecamp user base and vice versa.
The extension was also listed on the Firefox browser extension marketplace where many people discovered it.
Like Firefox, the Google Chrome web browser has its own web store of extensions and add ons. The last numbers I could find for Chrome reported over 750 million apps and extensions installed from its marketplace. Building your extension or app for this channel opens you up to a very large market.
How to use engineering for marketing?
So if you are a marketer how do you utilize this channel? Here are a few categories of ideas to think about. Do not worry if you see your idea already listed. These are big channels and there is room for competition.
Types of apps and channels to look at:
- Simple web app. (Product Hunt).
- Browser extension. (Chrome Webstore)
- Calculator. (Marketing ROI, Mortgage Calculator, )
App plugins and integrations. (Wordpress, Magento, Salesforce).
Integrations with paid apps are better as users have shown they are willing to pay for a product.
- Mobile app. (Google Play Store, Apple App Store)
- A browser game.
Take an existing feature or product and make it free.
WorkCompass is an enterprise HR software application. A freemium version of the product was not possible or desired as a customer needed to commit long term resources and commitment to see the results that the app promised. However there was a survey within the app to measure your leadership skills. So we pulled out these questions and answers into its own quiz/survey and promoted it to managers (our buyers) as a free app.
We also went a step further with this leadership strengths finder application and made it embeddable, much like you can embed a YouTube video on a web page. This allowed us to offer the tool to various HR websites as a resource they in turn could offer their own readers. The survey was used by managers in some very impressive companies which allowed us to use the logos on our website.
Content as an application.
If you find you think mainly in terms of content and not applications take another look at the WorkCompass survey. The app or survey simply provides a way for the user to select the right bits of content to read. You answer the survey and tell it what your three weakest leadership skills are. You are then directed to the three answers with advice on how to address them. It's like the choose your own adventure books you might have read as a kid.
You can go even simpler. I once produced an iPhone app to market a sports clothing brand. The app was simply a series of funny and interesting sports quotes, nicely designed, that the user could flip through at random. This is probably the easiest (cheapest) type of app to build as it is essentially a random photo viewer where a few of the photos are adverts for the product. It was a good source of traffic for the e-commerce store.
Getting it built.
Inversely to what you might think, the bigger your organisation is, the harder it is to use this channel. Internal engineering resources are rare. Developers are in big demand and short supply for most technology companies who usually have a backlog of features and improvements they want to release. Your two options are to sweet talk and pay one of your dev team to build it for you after hours as a nixer, or to use one of the freelancer websites like Upwork.com or Toptal.com.
I have also done straight skill swaps with developers and development companies, swapping design and marketing for engineering time. The simplest way to do this is to swap time. E.g., I will spend 1 hour marketing your new app for every 1 hour you spend developing my app. However, again this is harder to do in bigger organisations.
Designing how it works.
First think about what is your ultimate goal of the app?
Is it to collect email addresses? Get people sharing your site? To build PR and links?
Spend some time thinking about how users can more easily do this. With the Wedding Tickers above for example, I deliberately sent the final image and instructions to the user via email so that I could capture their email for later marketing. People were happy to hand over their email address for something of value in return.
Lay out the main screens of your app using pen and paper, a mockup app like Balsamiq.com or even Powerpoint if you prefer. You should clearly show a developer how it should work.
User flow and features.
When describing an app to a developer I usually approach it with roles and what each role can do.
Using the Wedding Ticker app as an example:
As a user I can (No login required):
- Visit the main app page.
- Add the date of my wedding.
- Select a Ticker image.
- Send the finished Ticker with instructions to my email.
- Use embed code from the email to place the image on my website or discussion forum signature. (This embed code links the image back to the app for other people to click and visit.)
When creating a calculator app I created the calculator in Excel with the calculations working and sent it to the developer along with a sketch of what the layout should look like.
As an admin / site owner I can:
- See a list of people who created a Ticker.
- See their email address.
- See the date the Ticker was created.
- See the date of the wedding.
- See the user's country (based on IP).
- Search for a user via email address.
- Filter the list by Country, Wedding date (between two dates).
Export a list of emails based on filter to .csv file.
I am always guilty of forgetting the admin screens. I get so excited about the app, it is always the last thing I think about. You need an admin screen where you can see who and how many people are using your app. Can you export all users to an email list to market to them? Or delete their account if they request?
After you collect a user's email address you need to design an onboarding sequence of emails that upsells your main product / business.
For the design of the application take a look at the templates on ThemeForest.com. In a previous life I was a designer and I know the value of good design but sometimes good is good enough and you do not need to reinvent the wheel.
Be ruthless about keeping it simple. Every new feature you add to an app exponentially adds to the app’s complexity and time to build it. For example if your app has one feature, and you add one more feature, it will not double the time to build but more likely x5 times the time.
Keep it under $500. Not every app is going to work. About 1 in 5. So keep the budget low and test loads of different ideas. When an idea hits it will really hit and more than cover the costs of any that fail.
When your app is ready make sure you promote it. Build it and they will not come unless you ask.
What engineering for marketing have you done? What worked for you?