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7 minutes read

How “Engineering as Marketing” Can Work for Your SaaS

By Jonathan Tarud
By Jonathan Tarud
7 minutes read

If there’s anything a SaaS should be good at, it’s engineering, right?

The most successful SaaS create beautiful products which are engineered to solve a particular problem that their target audience has. They pride themselves in having clean code and an excellent user experience.

What if you could take that engineering expertise and use it as a marketing tool?

Enter, “engineering as marketing”…

What is “engineering as marketing?”

In a nutshell, engineering as marketing is when you use your engineering skills to create useful tools and resources. This can also be known as “side product marketing.” You will then usually give these tools or resources away for free – the idea is to engage prospective customers and build your brand visibility with them.

There are several SaaS whom we could point to who already excel at this type of marketing strategy. For example, Moz is an authority voice in the world of SEO. They have paid products within this realm but if you look, you will also see they have created several free tools, all of which are related in some way to what they do as a company.

Each tool helps the user to solve a specific problem and logically, they may turn to Moz’s paid services to get more in-depth results.

Moz builds tools, but there are various other “side product” ideas out there. For example, some companies build free apps, some develop calculators or widgets and some have put together educational microsites.

How “Engineering as Marketing” Can Work for Your SaaS

Why use this strategy?

Alright, it’s pretty clear that using this strategy might not be the “quick ‘n easy” route to marketing. You will have to invest time and/or money into developing a good side product as the quality of it will be key to this strategy working. No one wants to bother with an app that doesn’t perform well or doesn’t solve a real need.

Given that side products take some effort, why might they be worth doing? Here are a few points for this strategy:

  • A side product can show off your skills as engineers and problem-solvers. It can logically point a user toward purchasing your core product.
  • An “engineering as marketing” strategy is different from what most others are doing. Everyone is giving away eBooks or checklists – you can be different by offering a useful tool.
  • Side products can encourage followings of their own. If you’ve created something wonderful and are giving it away, people will eagerly share the good news if they like it.
  • A side product can, in the long-run, be a cheaper and more sustained channel for growth. Consider Ali Mese’s findings in this Medium post; blogging and content marketing require continued, consistent effort. Paid advertising can cost a lot of money, often gets ignored and stops delivering when you stop showing ad campaigns. A good side product can keep delivering consistently. You may need to keep it updated so that it continues to work well, but it’s a solution that doesn’t annoy people and doesn’t require constant time and attention.

Ali’s post uses the example of Unsplash to highlight the efficacy of side products. Unsplash began life as a side product for Crew, who by their own accounts, were fairly beleaguered at the time.

After throwing Unsplash together in an afternoon, the team at Crew viewed it as somewhat of a last-ditch effort to save their startup. Their results were phenomenal. Not only did Unsplash launch to acclaim among online communities, but it is credited with turning around the fortunes of Crew. The rest is history – as most will know, Unsplash is a stand-alone product today.

While every SaaS can’t expect to get such dramatic results from side products, the fact is they are a great way to bring exposure and create general goodwill among users who appreciate getting a good tool for free.

That goodwill is another reason why side products work. “Karma marketing” has been something that has often been talked about among brand strategists because it encourages people to like you. When they like you they feel more inclined to look into your paid services.

How to use engineering as marketing

It’s always better to approach engineering as marketing strategically – you don’t want to put a whole lot of time and effort into something that’s not going to help you achieve your company’s goals.

That being said, here are few tips for effectively using a side product to market your SaaS:

#1. Identify your buyer personas

Identifying your buyer personas is an excellent place to start because you need to know your customers well to understand what might appeal to them. You also need to understand who your product is not for because you don’t want to inadvertently attract the wrong sort of customer.

Consider this from Hubspot:

“This is one place where personas can really help. At their core, your personas represent the dividing lines between different customers. When done right, they should give you cues on how you should talk to specific contacts, and what you should be talking about.”

It’s possible that you have several different buyer personas and no one side product will capture them all. You may need to identify your biggest or most lucrative group and devise something to attract them.

#2. Brainstorm ideas related to your core product

Going back to the Moz example, all of their “side products” are in some way related to the core products that they sell. It is logical to look for products that are related because you can a) attract the people who might need that core product and b) show them that you understand their needs. Potentially, you could also be showing off your excellent engineering skills.

As another example of a side product that is related to the core offer, check out Hubspot’s website grader. This particularly ties in with their paid services which fall under the banner of “increase your traffic.” SEO software is just one of those paid tools.

Here’s a key takeaway to note: not only should the side product you choose be related to your core product, but it should solve a real problem. This is how you can help to establish your authority in the niche.

#3. Give it away free

This is the part that companies may hesitate over, but the whole point is to deliver something of value to potential customers. If you’ve done a great job of creating a useful side product, it may even be a winning point of difference between you and competitors.

What can you expect to see from a great side product? To begin with, you should get a number of signups and growth on your email list, secondly, you should see a boost in conversions to the paid product. This is especially if that paid product presents a logical next-step.

Of course, to achieve those results you need to put some time into marketing your side product as well. Don’t forget to include a marketing plan to spread the word – the good news is, if you’ve developed a great product which is given away free, people will tend to help by sharing it for you.

Final thoughts

Engineering as marketing can be a great promotional tool for SaaS. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate value to prospective customers while showing your ability to engineer a reliable, useful product.

If done well, a good side product should logically guide users toward your core paid product. Look to create something which solves a genuine problem that is related to what your SaaS solves.

Giving a tool away for free might sound a little ludicrous, but this type of “karma marketing” has been proven to be effective.

Koombea builds beautiful SaaS apps as well as side products. Talk to us about your needs today.


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