Our Engineering As Marketing Experiment: How A Coding Project Got Us $117K In New Revenue - Blog

By Blake Thorne,
Dec 30th, 2015 | 9 min read

When it comes to marketing channels, the early bird gets the worm.

Entrepreneurs who wrote blogs in 1999 were among only a handful of voices on the web. By 2006, there were 50 million blogs. Telemarketing hung around for years for one reason: it worked. Now there are more than 200 million Americans on the Do Not Call registry and landline phones are becoming an artifact of a bygone era.

The companies who benefit most from a given marketing channel aren't necessarily the best, they're the earliest. Like comedy, timing is everything.

It's impossible to say where the next big wins in marketing are going to be. But we wanted to wrap up the year by talking about a marketing experiment we tried in 2015 that we think is going to be a bigger part of our how we and the startup community as a whole think about marketing in 2016.

It's called Engineering As Marketing.

What Is Engineering As Marketing

The tactic pretty much describes itself. But I’ll go ahead and offer this excellent summary from Justin Mares, the co-author of Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers:

“You (or your team’s) engineering talents can get your startup traction directly by building tools and resources that reach more people. We call this traction channel engineering as marketing: using engineering time to create useful tools like calculators, widgets, and educational micro-sites to get your company in front of potential customers. These tools then generate leads and expand your customer base.”

Simple, right? There are tons of great examples of other companies doing this too:

Engineering As Marketing Builds Good Karma

Engineering As Marketing lives under a larger umbrella that Colin from calls Karma Based Marketing

“Your Karma based marketing efforts are about building trust with people. Yes, ultimately I hope they’ll lead to sales for you. But today, as you help prospective customers solve their problems, help them as humanly as possible with genuine care. Good things will happen later. I promise.”

Doesn't this sound like the main idea behind other well-known growth and marketing opportunities?

I can think of two:

Good content marketing is good karma marketing.

Content marketing is all about providing value to prospective customers via content that is informative, entertaining, makes them better at their job, or provides thought leadership. You build up good karma by giving people something valuable for free.

Great customer service is a killer growth strategy.

At big corporations, customer service is a pricy nuisance — something to be dealt with and outsourced. Small companies have a unique advantage, where customer support can wow people. It can get people talking about you. It’s more than just troubleshooting or churn-reduction, it’s a marketing opportunity. Do great things for others, they’ll do great things for you.

Karma Based Marketing Is Rooted In Likeability

The likeability principle is at the heart of karma based marketing. Do good things to other people, you’re more likable as a person and a company. We're more likely support or be customers of products and companies that we like.

Consider how this aligns with Dr. Robert Cialdini's 6 principles of persuasion. Here’s a summary from Psychology Today:

In brief, we are inclined to go along with someone's suggestion if we think that person is a credible expert (authority), if we regard him or her as a trusted friend (likeability), if we feel we owe them one (reciprocity), or if doing so will be consistent with our beliefs or prior commitments (consistency). We are also inclined to make choices that we think are popular (consensus), and that will net us a scarce commodity (scarcity).

When prospects like us more, they have a higher probability of becoming customers. Engineering As Marketing contributes directly to that.

SaaS Tools Are Uniquely Positioned To Do This

There has never been a better time in history for Engineering As Marketing. Especially in tech, where the things we make are practically free to share and distribute. Imagine, for example, we built cars instead of tools for the web. It just wouldn't be possible to build and ship a bunch of free cars without going bankrupt.

Even in software, the time has never been better. Twenty years ago we would have had to mail you a copy of Better Error Pages on a CD-ROM. Ten years ago you would have had to download it over a slower internet onto a smaller hard drive. Now, with web apps and cloud platforms, free software tools are easier than ever to share and use.

The Benefits Of Engineering As Marketing

Primary Benefit: More Customers

In the long run, it’s obvious why you’d want to do a project like this. You can get more customers. You can make more money. Easy enough to justify.

Engineering As Marketing projects are different from traditional paid marketing campaigns in a very important way. If, for example, you pay $1,000 to sponsor a newsletter that appeals to your target audience, the investment stops working for you after the newsletter has gone out. You get a single bump in growth and then it's over.

But Engineering As Marketing projects are (the majority of the time) different. Once you've built and released your free tool, anyone can use it at effectively zero additional cost. Projects like this result in a one-time bump in growth AND a sustained increase in baseline growth rate.

Benefit 2: Providing Value Without Asking For Anything

But there are a lot of super valuable intangible benefits to Engineering As Marketing as well. For one, it’s a unique chance to wow your customers and the greater community. Maybe you’ve got a world class team building some of the most beautiful and sophisticated tools on the web, but most people never see them unless they’re paying customers. Here’s your chance to show the rest of the world what you’re made of.

In doing this, you’re doing one of the best things anyone can do in business and networking; provide value without asking for anything. Not only are you building your professional network and capturing more leads, you get a reputation as being the people who give value. And when people start talking about, writing about and linking to your project, you get a extra little bonus by way of an SEO boost.

Benefit 3: Developing Your Internal Talents

There are also internal benefits for you and your team. It’s a chance to break up the monotony of the usual responsibilities and take on a new project. Just like breaking up any routine, working on something new can send you back to the core product feeling refreshed with a clear head. It can reinvigorate you and your team.

And it’s a great chance to give your team members an opportunity for some leadership and autonomy. Research tells us that having autonomy and doing meaningful work is the the key to keeping people engaged at work. If there’s someone who’s ready for a leadership role or to take on their own project, here’s a great place for a trial. Give someone else the reins and see what they make of it. Odds are, they’ll approach the task with more enthusiasm and gusto than you would expect.

How To Pick A Project

The best Engineering As Marketing projects that I’ve seen are “utility belt tools” that related what your actual product does. They’re not so related that they should be a feature of your product, but they’re related enough that it could be used in conjunction with your product. These ideas should come about organically — if you’re sitting down to try to think of something to build, it’s probably too much of a stretch.

Users should be able to use your Engineering As Marketing project whether or not they are a customer of your service. It’s OK if being a customer further enhances the value of your project, but anyone should be able to get some value out of it. Remember, one of the goals is to create something that the whole community can use.

Another thing to consider is scope. The reality is that time spent on Engineering As Marketing projects is time not spent on working on your core product. As with any marketing initiative that requires some amount of development work, you have to consider how many development cycles you’re willing to throw at something that could potentially yield little value.

In an interview with Mares, Hubspot Co-Founder Dharmesh Shah tells the story about how he built the Marketing Grader tool in order to help him help his customers.

“One of the initial steps in the sales process was for me to get a sense for how good a given company’s website was at inbound marketing. My co-founder (Brian Halligan) would constantly send me websites he wanted me to take a look at so we could determine if they were a good fit.

After a few days of this, I got tired of going through the manual steps (look at Alexa, look at their page titles, check out their domain, etc.). So, I built an application to automate that process for me.

Once the app was built (it didn’t take more than a few days for the initial version), I thought it might be useful for other people, so I registered “” and made the app available publicly. We eventually started collecting email addresses in the app, and kept iterating on it.”

What We Made: Better Error Pages

There are a lot of things we could have build for this experiment. But to start, we tackled the obvious: error pages.

We built to help teams communicate around downtime. Downtime, and downtime communication, is in our DNA. While an error page isn’t necessarily “downtime,” it is a similar experience for the user: what they expected would happen didn’t happen.

What’s An Error Page

An error page is what shows up typically when a user attempts to follow a broken or dead link. Like status pages, a lot of companies do a terrific job building their own custom pages, a lot more ignore them altogether.

Check out this clever error page from Groove. You can see how the company makes an otherwise boring event (landing on a nonexistent page) and has fun with it.


And then there’s this error page from Dave Pell’s NextDraft. It’s a nice blend of a funny headline with some helpful content and links to other areas on the site.


Just like we learned with status pages: While a lot of companies have built killer custom tools, many others simply haven’t gotten around to it.

How It Works

Better Error Pages is a tool that lets anyone build free customizable 404, 500-level, and maintenance pages.

We tried to make it as intuitive and user-friendly as possible. You don’t need to be a developer or designer to put together a custom error page. There are, essentially, three steps.

  1. You fill in a few questions about your company: like URL and support email address.
  2. Access the tool and use the interface to build a custom error page.
  3. We send you a link to download the flat HTML files for your page.

Afterward, the page is yours. You can use it for a day or for eternity. Throw it in your recycling bin. Print out the files and throw darts at them. Seriously. It’s yours now.

How We Made it

We started working on Better Error Pages during an offsite in the spring. What we thought would be a pretty easy, self contained mini-project turned into a full-blown two month project. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s a unique challenge for the team. We got to step outside of our core product and work on something different for a while.

It’s also a great way to test out a new technology in a fairly controlled environment. For example, this was our first foray into using React.Js. Not that we’ve used it, it’s going to be a lot easier to implement React.Js more often if we want to.

The Impact

So the big question: did it work? There are two big things to keep in mind when talking about ROI from karma-based marketing. We hit on these earlier, but their worth noting again.

  • ROI is not a one-time bump. Done right you'll see benefits from this indefinitely.
  • Karma doesn't always pay quantifiable returns right away. Sometimes you need to be content with simply knowing you did something helpful.

That being said, we're still measuring and watching analytics from the Better Error Pages project. For the sake of this post, here's a little cocktail napkin math on how it's gone so far.

  1. As of writing this, more than 46,415 people have visited the Better Error Pages homepage.
  2. Of those visitors, we're counting 84 that have converted to paid accounts.
  3. We’ve written before about how we’ve managed to raise our Annual Revenue Per User to $116 a month.
  4. That puts the average monthly value of these 84 new accounts at $9,744, or $116,928 annually.

With engineering as marketing experiments, it can be tempting to worry that you’re wasting resources. You’ll second guess whether this is a good use of developer time. As you can see, for us it’s paying off. We could have paid a developer to work only on Better Error Pages for an entire year and it still would have made sense.

Product Hunt Bump

We owe a ton of credit for this visibility to the awesome community at Product Hunt. When we first launched Better Error Pages, we shared it on Product Hunt and it spent most of the day at the top of the page.

Sure, the traffic we got from this was great. But even more valuable was the immediate and encouraging feedback we got from the community, and the ability to chat with people about the product. We were able to learn first-hand what the user experience was like, and we got some great advice for future improvements that we otherwise might have missed.

Final Thoughts

There are, so far, not a lot of hard and fast rules when it comes to Engineering As Marketing experiments. Maybe other industries have got this down pat, but for web startups it’s a fairly new practice. Like many things in the tech startup space, we’re figuring a lot of it out as we go along.

That means a lot comes down to gut feel and your intuition as an entrepreneur. Are you treating your customers well? Are you treating the greater community well? Are you doing anything that seems scammy or dishonest? You’ve probably got a pretty good instinct for this kind of thing.

Exploring a new marketing channel can be scary. With something like Engineering As Marketing and karma based marketing, you're venturing into uncharted waters. But we think more companies will be trying experiments like this in 2016. If you're thinking of trying something similar, there's no better time than now. The Engineering As Marketing space could be the next big place to be. If so, it pays to show up early.