I would argue that when it comes to making money online, the most important skill you need is not in being able to find untapped niches, knowing how to do A/B testing, creating attractive websites or even having a great ability to write. Instead, the most sought after skill in my eyes is being able to generate website traffic. To get eyeballs on whatever it is you have created.
After all, a lack of (targeted) traffic is often the reason why most online ventures fail. If you can’t get enough people to see what you’ve built then you’re never going to get any kind of financial return. Today I want to share a way to drive traffic to your website that doesn’t follow any of the traditional methods you may be accustomed to hearing about.
It is perhaps one of the most effective ways online to get people to your website yet it’s probably one of the most underutilised. So much so in fact that I can guess with 99% certainty that you aren’t currently using this to promote your core online business.
I won’t claim it’s some mind-blowing idea you’ve never heard of or considered before, but I hopefully want to present it to you in a new light that may convince you to give it a serious try. While success with this method is far from guaranteed, the potential upside is so large I think you would be doing yourself a disservice not to attempt it.
While there are no certainties it will work for you, this ‘tactic’ should really be focused on in terms of giving, without expecting anything in return. The reason it can work so well is because it doesn’t have any kind of negative connotations that you’re ‘marketing’ but instead providing a lot of value to a loosely defined target-audience.
If you’re struggling to get people to your blog, Saas offering, eCommerce store or other kind of website, it could just be the key ingredient you need to take your traffic and income to the next level.
Introducing what I’ll simply call, the Traffic Side Project.
The inspiration for this blog post came around three months ago when I read an article on Medium about ‘Side Project Marketing’. In the post, author Ali Mese makes a very compelling argument for online business owners to create side projects – often on new websites – that give great value to a particular industry and lightly promote your core venture.
Core meaning a site that you actually plan to make money from.
Although Ali shared a lot of examples in his post – a few of which will be covered here – I couldn’t help but think of far more in other industries that could give you inspiration for your own successful side project.
The key to creating a successful traffic side project is to provide value to a niche-focused target audience without asking for anything in return. This value can be in the form of insights, humour, practical advice or any other kind of angle which would make a general member of your industry online glad they stumbled across it.
While the bigger aim is to make more people aware of your services and offerings, you’re far more likely to succeed if you can put that as far back in your mind as possible. Your intentions for your ‘traffic side project’ will present themselves in the little details and it’s the end user who is supposed to benefit the most here.
To give an example that’s close to home I want to talk about a website I created a few years ago.
At the time, bloggers were reliant on RSS subscribers more than ever and many of them used Feedburner to track how many people subscribed to their feed.
I still have an RSS feed through Feedburner if that’s your preferred way of receiving content, but RSS feeds are largely ignored these days (even by tech-savvy web users) due to increasing usage of social media and the downfall of services like Google Reader.
After Google’s acquisition of Feedburner in 2007 they provided very little in the way of updates or support the following years. As Google started to kill a few other web projects, Feedburner users became increasingly worried that Feedburner could be next on the chopping block. It certainly didn’t invoke confidence when it would take weeks or even months to fix issues the service sometimes had.
With fuel added to the fire from likes of TechCrunch and CNN speculating on the services’ potential demise, it was a very scary time for a lot of bloggers.
We relied so heavily on our RSS feed readership to drive people back to our websites the concern wasn’t to dissimilar to how you would feel today if Facebook announced they were closing down fan pages. You would likely be losing a core portion of your audience and have no easy way to export them anywhere else.
On a whim, I decided to create a website to try and get Google’s attention and some answers about the future of the service. I creatively (heh) named the site, Please Don’t Kill Feedburner.
The site has turned into some kind of Japanese sex-advice blog so I won’t link to it, but here’s an idea of what it looked like:
Since the topic was getting a lot of press at the time, a lot of fellow bloggers supported the idea – though none knew I was behind it – and started using the example tweets I had created to spread the message. The site and the relevant hashtag, #pleasedontkillfeedburner, started to pick up a bit of steam.
I went to sleep that night happy the website was finished and hoping someone from Google would actually see it and prompt them to give us an update.
Unbeknownst to me someone had just submitted the site to Hacker News and a few hours later it would make its way onto their homepage. I woke up to see that thousands of people had landed on the website overnight.
While it’s not the millions of visitors people might associate with ‘going viral’ these days, I was quite proud of the result. Not only did the site reach 9,000 people in its first 24 hours but there are a few other notables:
I never created the site to help grow ViperChill but it definitely could have been used to do so. I only took credit for the website a few years later as it wasn’t my aim to get anything other than Google’s attention. Then again, I did get to guest post about it on Moz which sent traffic back to ViperChill eventually, so (in part) you could call this a successful TSP.
One thing I could have done to promote ViperChill at the time and still have the site go viral would be to put a little link in the footer to take credit for the idea.
It’s certainly not unheard of for a credit link in a website to generate a financial return. Just ask Jessica Hische.
In 2011 she launched a simple flowchart website entitled, Should I Work for Free, which you can see below.
If you’re not a web designer yourself, show this to one and watch as their face lights up while reading through all of the scenarios. Their face will light up because this website covers something very personal to them in a fun way. Any designer has no doubt been asked at some point in their lives to create a free website for someone; whether it be a colleague, friend or family member.
According to Ali, after the website went viral among designers online, Jessica received more client inquiries than she was able to handle. The site doesn’t even link directly back to her design work but instead an online store where you can buy a print version of the flowchart.
If you look at the about page on the site she links to, her self-descriptive headline says all you need to know. “Jessica Hische is a letterer, illustrator, and crazy cat lady known for her silly side projects and occasional foul mouth.”
Maybe it’s time you helped your online business grow through ‘silly’ side projects? It’s certainly better than not growing at all.
Before I get into how you can do this for your own online ventures I want to give some more examples to not only show the power of a Traffic Side Project but hopefully get your creative juices flowing as well.
WIth just three months of cash left before they went bust, Crew founder Mikael Cho needed something to help turn his company’s fortunes around. After a photo shoot for their website redesign they found themselves with a lot of extra pictures they didn’t need and decided to give them away for free on a website called Unsplash.
That simple decision became the best the struggling company has ever made. Unsplash is now frequented by up to 11 million visitors per month as they continue to follow a very simple concept: Every 10 days they give away 10 high-resolution photos absolutely free.
The photos are absolutely beautiful and perfect for designers around the world. On Unsplash you’ll notice a header link which says “Made by Crew” which redirects you back to their core service of matching people with the best designers and developers in the world.
In no uncertain terms, this traffic side project saved their business.
Once Crew saw the power of traffic side projects like this they created many more including:
These side projects have brought in over 100,000 email subscribers and make up three of the top five referring websites back to Crew.
Over the past year search engine DuckDuckGo grew from 5.3 million search queries per day in January to over 9.3 million by the end of December. It’s no surprise then that Moz.com’s Rand Fishkin predicts it will be the fastest growing search engine of 2016. Based on those numbers, I would have to agree with him.
If I ask anyone who uses DuckDuckGo why they chose that search engine over Google, it’s unlikely their innovative search features are the first answer that comes to mind. Instead, the answer almost always has to do with privacy.
DuckDuckGo have done a great job at branding themselves as the search engine for private searching. They did this by not only creating one traffic side project (TSP), but a number of them. The most popular, DontTrack.us, is little more than 15 images on what other search engines do to track you as an individual (which DDG don’t).
This one-page website has been shared 46,817 times on Facebook and reached the homepage of Reddit without having a single social share button on the site.
Another traffic side project by DDG, known as DontBubble.us, has been shared on Facebook 24,643 times.
I came across both of these TSP’s naturally over the years, multiple times, and it really reinforced my belief in the service as one that truly cares about your privacy. Aligning with the ideals of an end user is a sure-fire way to increase visitor numbers which is shown in how fast they’re growing.
With my most recent post covering the Pomodoro Method, I thought it would be nice to show a potential side benefit for anyone who was willing to try and build the site I mocked-up in the article. (As a side note, there have been a few attempts submitted to be via Twitter and email, but I’m yet to see any finished projects I could actually use.)
Marinaratimer.com was created primarily for users of the Pomodoro Technique and features a typical 25-minute Pomodoro timer, a custom timer and also a kitchen timer. This simple but beautiful site has clear branding on it by an agency called 352. You can see this most clearly in the headline of their about page.
It’s likely that people using this method of being productive – which is a little more ‘nerdy’ than most – are going to be freelancers and more tech-savvy web users. That audience is not a million miles away from being the type of people who could be interested in the development services of an agency.
SimilarWeb reports that the site receives up to 200,000 visitors per month with 53% of their traffic coming back to the website directly. I can’t tell you how many of them have converted into clients, but I’m sure Marinara Timer has been a highly successful TSP for 352 Inc.
In 2011 Natasa Lekic left her job as an editor of a book publisher in New York to seek out a new career. Two years and dozens of interviews later, she was still searching for something to do. After failing to get into other industries she decided to focus on what she knew and loved, which was book publishing.
She launched NY Book Editors as a way to give authors the chance to work with some of the best editors in the world that they would never normally get access to.
With just an $80 investment (spending $20 on Squarespace and $60 on an SEO class), she knew that she needed to get eyeballs on her new venture.
On a whim she created a map to curing writer’s block that she knew her target market would no doubt struggle with at one time or another.
This very simple infographic received over 54,000 notes on Tumblr and sent tens of thousands of people to her website thanks to the link back to it underneath the graphic and the branding on the top left corner.
Among other things, it helped launch NY Book Editors into the mind of wannabe authors and just three months later her business was already doing over $8,000 per month in revenue. By the middle of 2015 it had passed the $55,000 per month mark and is continuing to grow.
While Crew created Unsplash to give away photos, the founders of Veed.me decided to create a version for videos known as Coverr. If you’re a developer looking for videos for your clients websites or you have a video as the background on your own homepage, Coverr offers options to match any industry.
In the middle of 2015 SimilarWeb estimates that Coverr was reaching 150,000 unique visitors per month which no doubt sent a lot of traffic back to the Veed.me website it’s branded with.
Like Crew once again (do they use the same marketing company?), Veed.me created an interactive website to help you determine the cost of a video, not dissimilar to Crew’s interactive site to help you determine the price of a mobile app.
After you go through their 10 questions, you’re presented with an estimated cost of the video and a link back to their site where you can find the type of people who can create that video for you.
The site reached over 60,000 people in its first month of launch and once again sent traffic back to their money-making site. In fact, Veed.me’s best ever traffic month is the exact same month that their traffic side project, How Much to Make a Video, launched.
Take a look at the graphs below to see what I mean.
There’s no coincidence here. TSP’s really can help take your online business to new heights.
Since Ali was the inspiration for this post, I have to give him more credit by highlighting one of his own personal success stories. Back in January of 2015 he wrote a blog post covering some of the tools he uses to help with building and marketing an online business. This included the likes of free image editors, on-site seo analyzers and tools to help you generate content ideas.
In February he noticed the post was starting to go viral and by March he had received over 600,000 visitors to the guide. This prompted him to create a new Tumblr blog on a separate domain so it was easy for him to keep the list updated and (possibly) hide any type of self-branding which could hinder further sharing.
Since then it has become one of the most popular items on Product Hunt (with 1,600 votes at the time of writing this) and the site has received over 2 million visitors. I seem to be seeing Ali’s name a lot more often these days so it’s doing wonders for his personal brand.
He’s sold over 700 copies of a $129 digital product on how to get website traffic so there’s at least a $90,000 return, no doubt in part from his success here.
The thing I love the most about this example is that while it’s an incredibly useful resource, it really isn’t that difficult to put together. You could create something like this for all kinds of industries.
Samuel Hulick is a UX designer from Portland, Oregon and also happens to be the brains behind what is one of the most popular usability sites for marketers, UserOnboard.
On the site Samuel literally tears down the onboarding process (the way apps and websites turn visitors into members) highlighting not only what they do well, but where they could improve their process as well.
It’s clear that Samuel has a great grasp on what it takes to get people interested in what you’re doing without having to go out and actively seek customers. Here’s the top tweet on his Twitter page which has been retweeted over 350 times, “The secret to successful customer acquisition is realizing that you don’t acquire customers — they acquire you.”
I reached out to Samuel on Twitter to see the reasoning behind starting the site:
Through the website he is able to sell his book, training programs and consulting services. The site currently reaches over 130,000 visitors per month in the USA (again, according to SimilarWeb) and is one example where what started as a traffic side project to sell his book is now actually a full-time gig.
The more I’ve been thinking about this concept over the last few weeks, the more I’ve found ideas to be jumping out at me at random times. I’ve often found myself opening Evernote to add them to the list in order to make sure that I don’t forget them.
The aim with this section is to share some of those ideas and help you generate many more of your own.
First of all, I want to make it clear that I think your traffic side project should be niche-defined, but fairly loosely. This gives you the potential to reach enough people to share your project but still be relevant to enough people who could be interested in your main website. In other words, I would recommend focusing on reaching 100,000 people over a million, but also 100,000 over 10,000.
Narrowing your focus-reach means you’ll be more likely to create something that a particular audience would be interested in, rather than creating something generic that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Before creating a new tool as a side project, the team at Crew always ask themselves one question, “Does the tool solve a problem the kind of people we want to work with have?”
As I have mentioned a few times in this post, it’s imperative that you’re happy to create your traffic side project whether it actually sends traffic back to your website or not. There has to be some other motive to create it than potentially growing your core business.
While there will of course be somewhere in the back of your mind hoping that your TSP takes off (I wanted my Feedburner site to spread so that someone at Google would notice it), there has to be something more than traffic that drives you to create it. You have to care about creating something useful, humorous, interesting or insightful for your target audience far more than the potential upside for yourself.
This mindset is going to give you a far greater chance of making something that can drive traffic your way.
Although you may have a few ideas running around your head already for a traffic side project, it certainly doesn’t have to be based on an entirely new idea. In fact, it may be the case that you’ve produced popular content before which you could repurpose in another way.
For instance, some of the top blog posts on ViperChill have been:
Any of these could be repurposed onto a separate site and promoted again without having to come up with an entirely new idea. I would remove much more branding this time around so that they stand out on their own and then bring a small percentage of traffic back to ViperChill.
An example of content I could promote again is my free video series Cloud Blueprint. It’s a few years old now and seriously needs updating (that’s why I didn’t link to it here). The method I cover in the video series is still very solid so I could create a brand new website and share updated videos alongside social share buttons.
With a little push from my current audience I’m sure I could get an updated version out to thousands of people who hadn’t heard of the ViperChill brand before.
Maybe I should do just that.
I don’t know how they managed to get the word to spread so fast but it seems like I’ve been hearing about Product Hunt everywhere. I actually haven’t even found a good use for the site yet so I don’t even know how it’s taking off. Then again, I don’t use Pinterest and that has hundreds of millions of active users.
One interesting use of Product Hunt is to find the items on the site which have received over 1,000 upvotes (we still call them that outside of Reddit, right?). Since they’re enjoyed so much by the community it’s a great resource for you to find ideas to build for your specific industry. Some of the most interesting popular items include:
That last item is none other than a Traffic Side Project in itself, with clear promotion for a community app called Telescope.
While it may look pretty, there is very little to the guide and I’m surprised it was actually so successful.
One tool I used a number of times while writing this blog post is called Link Tally which seems to be a side project of Hubspot, a marketing company that has received more than $100m in investment capital.
Link Tally ranks highly in Google for variations of search queries like “Find how many times a link has been shared” and that’s exactly how I found it. The only problem is that it doesn’t work anymore.
The only count that ever seems to work is how many Facebook shares something has received. I’m sure Hubspot could fix it but I doubt they really care (it has probably been broken for a while). I know I could have my programmer code up a solution in about 20 minutes if I asked him to then all I have to do is put it on another domain.
Maybe there has been a TSP in this post that you thought you could improve upon? If so, don’t hesitate to see what you can do. The original idea has already proved there was someone who wanted the solution you’re going to create.
Similarly, I said that the Brick by Brick guide to building awesome communities may discuss awesome communities, but the guide itself is far from awesome. All I can tell is that if you’re going to create a minisite like this where content is your main focus, make it pretty.
Make the content awesome and relevant to your niche and you’re onto a winner there as well.
Telling you to build a blog is about as 2010 and unsexy as it gets, but you can’t discredit the power of blogging. After all, you’re reading one right now and any link I share has the potential to be viewed thousands (if not tens of thousands) of times. That’s powerful.
Blogging, which can often be thought of as one of the slowest ways to generate traffic and get people to a website, can certainly be used as a traffic side project as well.
Although I’ve said many times that you shouldn’t follow my blogging schedule of posting a lot of content very infrequently, I would actually say it’s one of the best strategies to follow if you’re just starting out.
Don’t try and please all people with random articles here in there. Instead focus on writing truly epic guides for your industry.
If you’re building a real estate blog for example then don’t tell me how to make my home look better for selling (everyone does that) but instead show me all of the realtors having success promoting their listings on Instagram, and then teach me how to do the same.
Writing amazing, in-depth content takes a lot more work than writing two or three generic articles, but nobody remembers the generic articles so why even bother?
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of ideas have been whizzing around my head the last few weeks while thinking about this article. Most were for my own sites which hopefully gives credence to their being some great possibilities with this angle but there are a few I would like to share in the open.
You’ll notice these generally have a marketing / freelancer vibe to them as it’s the niche I tend to be involved in the most, but also so you could see how these ideas could work in one industry that you could then apply to your own.
We’ve already looked at the “How much should my video cost” app.
We’ve seen the “Should I use an app or website?” app.
I also shared the “How much should my app cost” interactive site.
I know from my experience in the internet marketing world that people just getting started online would absolutely love a quiz that helps them determine whether they should start a blog, podcast, forum or other type of website based on their current skills and personal interests.
The design of AppvsWebsite, shown above, would be a great template to build upon.
Once you provide the answer then link back to your own site with a guide for that specific medium.
Of course, this wouldn’t just work well in the internet marketing world but could be used in so many different industries. I am going to make something like this for another blog I run which I think could really take off.
Not everyone is going to be interested in learning all of the tools of the trade when it comes to Google shortcuts but those that are probably have a few things in common.
Don’t those sound like the characteristics of someone who could potentially become a client of your SEO company, or at least have the ability to spread the word about your cool interactive site to someone who would be?
The structure I envision for this idea is a simple full-screen slideshow which shows you the results of certain search queries. In some instances it would show you search results side by side so you can see the different results when using specific queries. For instance, here is how I would show off the difference in using quotes and not using quotes for search results.
Not all examples would be able to use side-by-side comparisons like this but you should be able to easily skip to the next option with the slider icons on the left and right. A visual representation like this would surely make the search operators much easier to remember as well.
There are hundreds of millions of blogs on the internet and a large majority of them give away some kind of eBook as a lead magnet for their email list. Writing an eBook is fairly simple, but creating the cover isn’t. It’s a process that more often than not has to be outsourced to someone with more skills to you. Even if that job is found on Fiverr.
A designer looking for clients would do very well by releasing a free eBook cover every week that people could easily edit in Photoshop. Each week they could be branded around a different theme or for different industries. You would only have to create a tutorial for editing the PSD’s one time then you could continue to release them for life. If you have an actionscript to go with it then that makes the entire process even easier.
If the idea were to take off – which I’m sure it would if the covers were of a high quality – you would no doubt find yourself clients looking for custom covers or other graphics they are likely going to need for their blog.
If you aren’t already aware, Twitter allows its users to share images alongside their statuses. Many website owners have been using static images as an opportunity to draw attention to their tweet, but few have been using interactive GIF’s because they’re generally harder to put together.
One GIF that really caught my eye was shared by Barry Schwartz in relation to Google confirming their latest algorithm update.
If you saw that in your Twitter stream, would it get your attention?
I have no idea if Barry made this himself or he took it from Google (Update: he made it himself) but I do know that even with my decent ability in Photoshop, I don’t have the skills to make this, nor the patience to learn.
I would love to share GIF’s like this alongside my Twitter statuses though so if someone were to create ‘generic’ GIF’s that could apply to many different types of content I think they would be on to a winner.
You’ve already seen Ali’s list of tools for businesses that received over 2 million visitors. While it was helped to go viral in large by being featured on Product Hunt, it’s not actually the top item of its kind on the website.
In fact the most upvoted ‘product’ ever is a website called Startup Stash which is very similar to Ali’s idea but some would argue it’s laid out in a more beautiful manner.
It’s such a simple idea but so useful at the same time. I could see this working so well in an unlimited number of industries. Just a few ideas that come to mind include:
I’m just sprouting off a lot of random ideas here but it’s all done purely with the aim to help you see if this idea could be relevant to your own specific industry or perhaps an industry you have a client in.
The only real criticism I found towards Ali’s original article on this topic was that people wanted to know how to promote their side project once it was created. Just because you build something else on a new domain, it doesn’t mean you suddenly then don’t have to worry about traffic. If anything, the more traffic side projects you build, the more websites you have with a lack of traffic problem.
In a moment I’m going to recommend some tools and services to use that can help send some initial traffic your way but they should only be thought of as secondary option. No amount of free or paid traffic is going to help your side project go viral if it simply doesn’t resonate with your desired target audience.
If my Feedburner side project was more about making sure ViperChill didn’t lose subscribers rather than bloggers as a whole, I doubt anyone would share it.
If Crew decided to put their watermark on the free images they give away on Unsplash, I doubt anyone would put them on their site.
If App vs Website required me to tweet or Facebook share the site before revealing which one I should build, I don’t think that would send more customers to Veed.
There’s no real way of knowing whether the side project you’re looking to create will pay off. All you can do is make sure at least someone in your audience will benefit from it.
You simply can’t predict what will work and what will fail. You can get better at it, but there’s still an element of luck involved when it comes to these things.
All I can say is that none of these side projects would have the chance of helping their creator if they weren’t created in the first place.
There is a risk that the time you spend on a side project would have been better spent on your core project (most likely because it didn’t ‘take-off’). The only way to offset the loss is to view your side project as nothing more than being an additional benefit to the audience you currently have and view it ‘taking off’ as something that either happens or doesn’t.
Don’t rely on it, but do give yourself the best chance for success. Here are a few options to help give you that initial push:
This was a tough article to put together if for no other reason that I keep coming up with ideas to create a TSP for the various industries I’m involved in an honestly just want to get started on them straight away. If you feel the same way, then my job here is done.
I would love to hear what you think about this article in the comments. Thank you so much for reading!