The Side Project Marketing Checklist: Making it Go Viral
Like many developers, I’ve been building side projects in my spare time for years. One of the most fun things about being a software developer is having the ability to build tools that solve your own problems, so most of these projects have been very specific to my needs, but a couple have had potential for market appeal.
The problem for me has always been effectively marketing my side projects. Typically, I build a product for myself, try a few things to get the word out, and then lose interest. This has led to most of my projects languishing in obscurity, but this year I’m trying to change that.
The Side Project Marketing Checklist
I like organizing things, and after reading Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto a couple years ago, I’ve been really into checklists. Since I wanted to get better at marketing my side projects, I figured the best thing to do would be to make a big checklist for them. I put the checklist out on Github, and soon after I built a landing page and posted in on Hacker News.
In the first 24 hours, almost 31,000 people saw the list.
I was blown away. The repository has been trending on Github for the past two weeks now, and it’s been linked to and shared on hundreds of smaller sites as well. I quickly put up an email signup form and got a few hundred email subscribers. Hundreds of people shared it on other social networks as well.
Creating the list
I spent about an afternoon compiling the first version of the list. After a couple re-works and reorganizations, I felt pretty good about it. Most of the tactics were things I had either tried or been told about by friends at startups. No project will use every item on the list, but I wanted the list to be comprehensive. That way, when I started a new project, I could copy the list, remove the items that didn’t apply to this project, and then I’d have a simple step-by-step guide for marketing the project.
Making the whole thing fit into a single page was important to me. Side projects aren’t companies with dedicated marketing resources - they’re just something you spend a few hours per week on - so I knew that spreading the list out across a bunch of pages wouldn’t work.
I also knew that I wouldn’t have space in the checklist to include tutorials for how to do everything, so instead I linked out to other resources that other people have written on the topics.
Initially the list was just a markdown file, but after I had a good working version, I decided to use Github Pages and Jekyll to build a little landing page around it. I bought a domain name and put it all out there at SideProjectChecklist.com.
I also decided that there were two things I wanted users to do when they got to the site:
- Star the repository on Github.
- Sign up for my email list.
I made those two calls to action very prominent on the site without being annoying that way people would gravitate to one or both of those options.
My plan from the start was to use the side project checklist to market the side project checklist. This was my first project where I used the checklist from the start (here’s how I use it), and I’m actually surprised at how well it worked.
I had no idea that the checklist would resonate as strongly with people as it has, but I do think that a big part of its success was luck. Still, there were some things that made an outsized impact when I was promoting it:
- I posted it on Reddit first. There are a lot of great subreddits for side projects and startups that appreciate this kind of post.
- Next I shared it to some Slack groups I am in.
- Once I had a few stars on Github and another contributor, I shared it to Hacker News. The crowd on Hacker News loves posts about side projects (that’s where IndieHackers built pretty much all of their followers) but the post hadn’t picked up a ton of traction on Reddit earlier, so I wasn’t sure.
As it started picking up steam and hit the front page of Hacker News, I started making a plan for following up on its success:
- I made an email list and put two sign up forms on the checklist. A couple people said that was too much, but I thought it was better than adding a popup or one of those exit-intent things.
- I started thanking people on Twitter who were sharing it. Twitter makes it easy to search for tweets by URL.
- I made a plan for weekly blog posts and a weekly email newsletter. While I knew the success from Hacker News wouldn’t last forever, I wanted to capture and hold at least a little audience to help me improve the checklist over time.
While I still don’t have a rock-solid plan for monetizing the checklist (I’m not sure it’ll be worth it until it’s a bit bigger), I do have a roadmap for marketing the project and getting more contributors.