Side Projects: How to Turn Member Benefits Into Marketing Magic

What if, instead of putting benefits behind the paywall of membership, associations put some of them out on the open web and made them available for free? As one startup shows, creating small-but-useful apps and giving them away is an effective exposure strategy with an even bigger punch than content marketing.

Associations live and die by their member benefits. They’re the carrots that get dangled on sticks, attracting new members to join your organization.

And they take all sorts of forms. Just take a look at the array of topics we touch on in our weekly Best Benefit Ever feature.

But what if we flipped the model entirely? What if your organization created an app or a website that was helpful and useful and didn’t require anyone to join anything, a service that merely existed to be helpful?

That, friends, is what we call marketing in disguise.


(Matthew Wiebe/Unsplash)

Unsplash’s Big Splash

Perhaps the best example of this in action is a service called Unsplash, a site that offers free, beautiful, high-resolution photos that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to put on your website.

It’s a cool idea but, more than that, it solves a problem that’s frustrated internet users for decades. Simply put, good photos usually cost money, but photography is often an important driver of online traffic, meaning that more photos than ever are needed—and marketing budgets either get stretched due to the number of photos used, or the ones that actually show up online are of low-quality.

Unsplash’s solution to this problem was absurdly simple: It pledges to release 10 new high-resolution stock photos every single week, and the photos have no watermarks and a very open Creative Commons Zero copyright. In fact, the website expressly states that you don’t even need to credit the creators of these images.

The roots of the Unsplash concept can be found on Flickr, where Creative Commons-licensed images have helped some photographers, like the politics-focused shooter Gage Skidmore, to become well known simply by giving away their photos for free to media outlets and marketers alike.

(That said, this approach is controversial among professional photographers, who see exposure-driven techniques as hurting the trade. Just check the comments on this PetaPixel article on Skidmore.)


(Joanna Kosinska/Unsplash)

The brilliance of the free-product model is that it turned this same thought process into a marketing tool for another startup. That company, the Montreal-based Crew, essentially came up with the idea for Unsplash a little over a year ago after it had a professional photographer shoot photos for its website. It made the extras available on the web, called it Unsplash, and then shared the idea with the broader internet.

Unsplash became a massive hit for Crew, and it proved far more successful than any form of traditional marketing it had tried previously. And the effort was a good fit for the company, whose core business is connecting freelancers with design and development projects.

“It seemed like magic. How could this happen? More people cared about us in a few hours than in the entire last year,” Crew founder Mikael Cho wrote in a recent blog post. “We made Unsplash to give something valuable to people. We thought even if a few hundred people find it useful, that’d be a win. But we didn’t expect it could have this level of impact.”

Unsplash eventually became such a big hit for Crew that it’s now hiring full-time employees to work on side projects.



Not Benefits, “Side Projects”

The thing that’s great about Unsplash and similar products is that it extends the concept of content marketing into something more akin to a product than an article.

When you go to Unsplash, you don’t really think of it the same way as you would a blog that’s driven by content. Instead, you see it as a service that helps you solve a common problem, one often faced by the very same people who might benefit from Crew’s main offering.

In his blog post on Crew, Cho cites the thinking of Youtility author Jay Bauer, who suggests that a great way to break through is by creating “marketing that is truly, inherently useful”—to make something so awesome that people would consider paying for it, but giving it away for free.

For associations, this represents something of a challenge. Often, the products and services that would make the most sense to follow this model would traditionally be hidden away as member benefits.

But perhaps the mindset of this model is best exemplified by the fact that Cho describes Unsplash—as well as later products by the company, such as the screenshot-sharing app Moodboard—as “side projects.”


(Blake Richard Verdoorn/Unsplash)

A Natural Funneling Effect

Associations, simply put, could use a few more side projects, things that on their own don’t make a lot of cash but get both the name and the potential benefits out into public view. What if you could build something that could blow up Reddit or Product Hunt or Hacker News for a day—something that was on-message but built your association’s exposure beyond what a simple article or social media offering could do?

In a lot of ways, these sorts of apps have the effect of self-funneling the audience. If you build something that highlights your association’s dedication to health, for example, you might win over some fitness nuts who could benefit from joining your association. What if there’s a common problem within your industry that a simple tool could solve—say, a simple way to produce fool-proof invoices, just as an example? If you save people some time, they might be curious what other time-savers you have to offer.

The use cases here are obviously a little broader than a traditional member benefit, but that’s OK, because this approach is like fishing with a net. You won’t get tuna every time out, but if you’re in the right part of the ocean, the odds are good you might catch a few.

By creating things that appeal to the people you’re trying to reach, and then simply handing them out for free, there’s a lot of potential to hook people on what you have to offer.

And the result could beat content marketing alone by a country mile.

(Mia Domenico/Unsplash)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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