Content Tools and Side Projects: Re-thinking the Traditional Marketing Approach

August 2, 2017 | Kaleigh Moore

You’ve probably heard of content tools before – in fact, you may have even used them.


Content tools are the side projects companies put out as helpful tools and resources for their target audience (and they drive some important lead generation efforts and traffic, too.)


Crew’s free stock photo site Unsplash is one example of a content tool you may be familiar with.


Unsplash isn’t Crew’s product, per se – it’s a free image resource that drives more than 5 million unique visitors and has become the number one referral source to their main site,, a platform for hiring freelance professionals.


As valuable as these assets can be, it’s still fairly early in the conversation about how these tools may be the future of marketing.


Let’s take an in-depth look at what content tools are, the strategy behind them, their advantages and disadvantages, and some examples of successful content tools.


Content Tools: What Are They?

First, let’s get on the same page about what content tools are and how they work.


Content tools are essentially targeted, free tools aimed at helping companies drive traffic, increase brand awareness, and ultimately boost lead generation.


Sometimes they’re a resource (think interactive calculators, headline analyzers, etc.), and other times they’re something like a free browser extension that improves an online process or experience.


Content tools aren’t to be confused with the freemium model, however. These aren’t products being offered on a free trial basis with the hope that down the road the user will purchase the tool, or upgrade to a higher service level.


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Instead, they’re handy, forever free tools that require the user provide some initial information (an email address, most often) to the company in exchange for use of the resource.


Once the company has the user’s email address, they can continue the conversation via email or through a different sales funnel process.


The Strategy Behind Using Content Tools

The strategy behind content tools is fairly simple: Create a valuable, helpful tool for the target audience, and then promote and share through normal channels. If the tool is valuable, it will gain traction and build organic exposure all on its own.


A great example of this takes us back to Crew’s Unsplash. When this site went live, they shared the news of its release over on HackerNews. It was upvoted to the site’s number one submission and comment thread slot – which resulted in more than 50,000 visitors in just a few minutes.


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Because the audience found this tool so valuable, they were excited to share and talk about it.


The goal of creating any content tool is to make it so good that your target audience would be happy to pay for it (even though it’s free.) The tool should have enough value that it gets used, shared, and talked about again and again.


Why Use Content Tools? Advantages and Disadvantages

We understand what content tools are and the strategy behind them, so now let’s move on to the pros and cons list and see some of the advantages and disadvantages of using them.



  • Drives lead generation and traffic. Crew recently shared that content tools and side projects make up three of the top five referral sites to their website, have lead to 100,000+ email subscribers, and drive 40% of their revenue – which makes it pretty clear that these assets create important marketing results.


  • Builds authority within a niche. Being the brand behind a go-to resource for your target audience is a fast, easy way to build authority within the niche. When you’re known as the company that built one of the most widely-used resources for your community, that builds trust and respect.


  • Doesn’t feel like “marketing.” Often times, these tools don’t feel like marketing – which is part of their appeal. Instead of being sales-y and informational, they are completely user-centric, and often put the user’s interactive experience above everything else. The good news: You can still collect all of the lead gen data you would on a more traditional marketing asset.


  • Longer shelf life. Because content tools are often infinitely useful, they last longer than traditional marketing materials that show their age with time. A headline analyzer tool, for example, has a much longer shelf life than a blog post on a marketing trend.


  • More press and SEO opportunities. As side projects, content tools create more opportunities for press (as in, here’s a new tool we just released!) as well as unique SEO opportunities based on the tool’s name. Plus, you can work your company name into the link for these–which helps reinforce your main brand.



  • Time and resource intensive. It takes time and money to develop worthwhile content tools, and sometimes, those are things that companies just can’t spare. Plus, if you start creating too many content tools, your resource control can quickly get out of hand – and that’s why Crew recently shut down 75 of their side projects to focus on only the best ones.


  • Requires ongoing maintenance. There often needs to be someone who takes charge of overseeing maintenance of the tool, whether it’s fixing bugs or making updates over time. These aren’t “set it and forget it” assets, so this can become a time-suck for your team and lead to overstretched departments.


  • Can make the company look distracted. If you launch too many content tools, you do risk looking a bit distracted – like your company is trying to do too much too quickly instead of keeping a tight focus on the core offering. This is a risk anytime you launch a new side project, and is something to be mindful of.


  • Can lead to a cluttered, disorganized collection of systems. Crew shared that at one point, they had eight different platforms and a completely chaotic collection of software that was not native to their tech environment. Especially when you have external help taking the lead on content tools, you can lose control over these types of decisions.


The bottom line: There are positives and negatives to any new venture – and most of the time, they can be managed with a strategy, proper guidelines, and solid delegation.


How to Use Them: Examples of Content Tools

Now let’s check out some examples of content tools and see how different companies are putting them to work.

1. CoSchedule: Headline Analyzer

This free tool lets marketers drop in any headline and get free analyzed results plus suggestions for improvements.


Before results are generated, you must enter your name, website, and share a bit about your marketing goals through a quick form.


From there, the tool offers tips on words to use and tips for making the headline more impactful, plus an overall score out of 100 to help gauge effectiveness.


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2. Wistia: Soapbox

This content tool is a free Chrome extension for recording, editing, and sharing videos. Essentially, it allows you to capture your screen and share it as a broadcast.


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Here’s what they had to say about why they made this tool:

“When we set out to build Soapbox, our goal was to remove the barriers that prevent businesses from using video. At Wistia, we’ve always believed that video will become as ubiquitous as text for communication, so we aimed to build something that was as quick and frictionless to use as any email or messaging platform.”


By creating this valuable resource, Wistia is able to start a relationship with users and earn their trust. It boosts brand awareness and makes users think, “Oh, Wistia–I know them! They made Soapbox. Love that tool.”


3. Crew: How Much To Make

This interactive calculator can be used to find the cost of an app, website, or logo for more accurate project quoting. As quoting these types of projects can be difficult, this type of content tool is extremely helpful – and it provides valuable information for Crew on the back-end as well.


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For their audience of freelancers, this content tool is right on the mark.


What you’ll notice about all three of these examples is that they share some common features:

  • They are all interactive. These tools require inputs to generate personalized outcomes.
  • They are highly relevant. Each addresses one of the target audience’s pain points.
  • They’re easy and fast. There’s only a few steps to using each one of these content tools – it’s not a long, drawn-out process.


Implications & Wrap Up

Maybe at this point, you’re thinking, “Okay, I get the gist of content tools…but what does it all mean?”


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Ultimately, buyers are continuing to evolve – and so are their needs, wants, and desires. As a marketer, it’s important to keep these changing interests in mind and to be explorative with marketing.


These interactive tools are just different forms of interactive marketing – and it’s very possible this may be where the future of marketing is headed.


The good news: You can harness the interest and value of these tools into smaller sizes with the help of interactive content platforms.


No longer relying on lengthy and pricey custom creation – your content tools don’t have to be large, unruly projects that require tons of developer time and maintenance. You can start small and still drive big impacts.


Think about beginning with more micro-content tools: Things like interactive calculators, assessments, etc. that allow you to deliver an engaging experience without having to invest a ton of up-front resources.


Take a look at this example from Paycor:


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This interactive calculator targeted a new regulation and made it simpler for employers to see how they might be impacted by it. There’s an interactive element, it generates a valuable output for the user, and it helped Paycor collect some important lead information, too.


They didn’t have to build a standalone site to promote this content tool and it’s pretty low maintenance. Win-win.


The thing to remember is this: As audiences become more jaded about traditional marketing materials and they begin to lose their effectiveness, marketers will need to find new ways to revive their approaches – and content tools offers a viable path for this.


Now is the time to start thinking about interactive content you can create as valuable content tools for your audience.


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