Engineering as marketing, or free tools as marketing, is a marketing channel where you utilize your engineering resources to build free and useful stuff (calculators, microsites, plugins, widgets, etc.) for your customers. Lately I've been cultivating an interest for this idea. Here's why:

  • Engineering as marketing seems like a lot of fun. As a developer, you get to build something with a hackathon-mentality.
  • Everyone keeps saying that engineering as marketing is an underutilized channel.
  • As a marketing channel, it's very non-creepy and anti-hucksterish. Engineering as marketing is not about microtargeting. Engineering as marketing is about providing meaningful value to your customers before they give you a single cent.

Here are some reasons why free tools can create high growth for a company:

  • Engineering as marketing is similar to content marketing in the sense that you are building assets. Free tools can grow virally. Free tools can stay relevant for your users even as the years go by.
  • Even if your customers have the budget to buy software, free is still a lucrative option. Expensing anything (or asking permission for buying software) is a pain in the butt.
  • You get to build trust. You are able to show your customers that not only do you understand their problems but also are able to deliver concrete value to them.
  • You have a higher chance of standing out. It's not another blog or e-book.

I think the last point is one of the main reasons why why people say engineering as marketing is an underutilized channel. But why are you actually able to stand out? Why isn't every company showering their customers with free tools? There's at least three major challenges with engineering as marketing:

1. You need developer resources

You need developers to build free tools and developers are high in demand. It's hard to recruit great programmers and it's hard to take your current programmers away from their ongoing projects.

This is why you need to timebox aggressively. Find one developer and give her a week (not weeks or months) to deliver a working version of your free tool. If you can't fit the work into a week, you need to think smaller. You're not building a product but a tool with one main function.

2. Software projects are hard to manage

The reason why software projects are hard to manage is that they tend to be rather complex ventures with both technical and management problems.

However, you can simplify things. Focus on one core feature. Assemble a team of two: one customer expert and one developer. Empower your team with autonomy. Let them manage themselves however they want to with a budget of one week.

3. It may not work out

There is no guarantee of visitors once you release your free tool. Maybe you end up building the wrong thing. Maybe people won't care enough to tell their friends about your tool. Maybe you get the traffic but you don't end up getting actual customers.

Your free tool should solve a problem for your customer that leads to them wanting your actual products and services, or it should indicate that someone is a high quality lead. For this to happen, you need to build something that's actually relevant for your customers. Do your research. Ask your sales and support teams what are the problems your customers face during the customer journey.

Final notes

This is not a free resource, but Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares cover engineering as marketing with concrete examples in their book Traction. Here's the Amazon link for it.