I am building Writings, a small app to help me write, organize and share my content. I was a bit lost to find what is the best marketing approach to promote it and I subconsciously ignored it.
The point that finally pushed me, was a tweet I saw, something like: If you don't tell yourself about your product, nobody will know about it. I started looking for an actionable guide on how to do it by talking to people.
Marketing, especially for indie builders, is a vague topic. Who knows what works and what you should do? But, what I learned, is that there is a list of known methods from which you should choose, and choosing the right stack of them would eventually mean successful marketing of your product.
The main point of marketing is to increase the visibility of your product. That should be your main goal. It's like when a parent is waving to a child from the audience while they perform.
What an indie builder needs is the bare minimum effort in order to get enough measurable data from which future actions can be taken. With this post, I want to share my insight on that experience so far.
The not-building myth
Contrary to public opinion, you should have the minimum useful product that you want to sell to the users. If you are building a Twitter scheduler, you need to have the scheduling working, with the least visible bugs. You cannot say 'coming soon' on the key features of your product. If you hesitate about whether you should be doing more marketing than building, the question to ask is: do you have enough features to market?
Marketing is close to sales, and selling a product whose key features are broken does not make much sense. If you need more time to build and enable the set of features that mark your product remarkable, do it before you start marketing it. Otherwise, you might do more harm than good.
So how did I start? With talking.
The power of your audience
You can see in my pinned tweet, that my main goal with almost everything I do online is to build relationships. I talk with them in DMs, we exchange feedback, I help them, and I ask them for help. We do what every other human does under normal circumstances.
I started by talking to my Twitter audience in DM about my product. As a matter of fact, I started asking questions even those that are neither my followers nor I follow. If I noticed someone is in the niche, I'd go for it. Rarely who answers, but 100% of them read the message. With that, I increased the visibility of my product.
If you already have some audience (and I don't mean in k's), and you are present on whatever social network (not just Twitter, it can be Facebook, Reddit, TikTok, etc), use the opportunity to ask for an opinion. Your audience will most probably say Ah nice product or _Wow, such a clean design —_which is not what you're after (you need rather harsh feedback), but the audience is the first group of people you should be talking to. The village talking about it is more important than the TV saying it. If you get your online friends familiar with your product, they will start talking about it even without you being there (which is a huge win).
A note here: There is a significant difference in how a person with 40k followers addresses their audience and how a person with 800 followers does it. The first would address the masses by publicly tweeting or asking for help, while the latter would personally talk with the most active members of their audience. The effects might be larger in the first case, but except that, they in no better position than you with your 800 followers. You both cannot personally talk with more than 100 people from your audience anyway. That effort is the same regardless of the follower count. That is why it's important to build a healthy follower base. And healthy means, you know it and you have established a personal relationship with them.
For me, the follower count is not that important. I don't work on increasing it. That enables me to talk with my followers directly in DMs or ping them privately elsewhere. With some of them, I am on Twitter or Telegram chat groups, I have their phone numbers and I have had meetings with them where we talked about anything but product building. Meaning: I know them. They are not some abstract profiles out there that are following me because the algorithm recommended me to them.
Your follower base is your promotional fundament. Not your user base. Most of them will not be your users once you launch. Make use of your audience to establish the promotion of your product. Talking to them is equally meaningful regardless of the number of your followers. What counts is the relationship you have with them. Will they upvote the Product Hunt post if you ask them to?
You need one loyal follower and believer in your efforts. If you find it, you can learn so much about what you do.
Besides talking directly with my audience, I started popping up in discussions where a certain topic around writing was discussed. So I'd say, Try this, I've heard it's good.. making an obvious statement that I am promoting my thing. Follow-up on discussions is a great engagement mechanism and the same applies when we promote something.
Use Google to search to find discussions relevant to you (for example "CompetitionProduct alternative"). You can also do this with Twitter's advanced search. People are looking for something the whole time. Expose yourself to the people with your product and the people will start logging in.
Then try to get some feedback from them (regardless if they'll like it or use it or not).
My new friend - SEO
I created the landing page for my product last year. It evolved from one version to another, but some of the basic setups remained. And how broken this setup was, I got to know by paying close attention to the SEO of the page.
I was missing key tags, I was forbidding crawlers to crawl it, I didn't have sitemaps, robots, whatnot. All of that is because I created the landing page from scratch using a templating library I got for free a few years ago (based on Bootstrap btw). The library itself is amazing, but if I am about to start building a new landing page now (which I should), I'd do it with anything no-code. The reason is that the no-code solutions (and here I also mean WordPress), come with great SEO features by default. I don't have to care about tags, keywords, robots, sitemaps…
To confirm my hypothesis I asked 5 successful indie builders what they use to build their landing page. 4 of them said Carrd or Webflow.
It was a surprise. The way I thought about the process of creating a landing page was that if it's done "manually", there will be a bigger control over the behavior, indexability, etc. Grrrr Wrong! The more advanced you are in your building process, the less noise you want to maintain. If you are just starting with the building process, I would highly recommend you to go with something ready and optimize it as it goes.
A lot of these no-code solutions are either free or very, very cheap (see Carrd for example).
The main point here is: SEO has a lot to do with how the world sees and finds your product.
What I Did
The first thing I did was I subscribed to Roberto's YouTube channel and was following his bits of advice step by step, just like any other student does. I was, or am, a noob. Those videos really helped me.
Then I asked Tom Zaragoza how to start SEO, and he sent me a huge message explaining the basics of SEO. To this day this is something I get back to and re-read. Amazing person, amazing advice.
The next thing is that I registered my website to Google Search Console. It's a Google service that gives you a detailed overview of the performance of your website, the potential for growth, and how Google (as a Search Engine) sees your website. The results started building up and once I got something, I was terrified.
I was at the ~80th position with a keyword that's so generic that nobody would ever find my website. And that's where those SEO videos helped me.
I started doing keyword (and long-tail keyword) research. At that point, I created Writings' Blog, a place where these keywords would be utilized and do what they are supposed to do. The most important thing at this point is to make sure Google sees your website. Regardless of the quality of your articles, or the used keywords, if Google does not see your website for technical reasons (e.g. wrongly set up meta keywords or forbidden crawling through robots.txt), nothing will be visible (that's why you should use something that does this for you).
Soon after I exploited all knowledge I gained from all the reading, videos, and materials I could find. I started getting curious about other tools that can improve SEO. Naturally, I went after Ahrefs. I talked with a guru in the field and I was advised not to subscribe to it as at my stage, Ahrefs would just be a cost without a real reason.
I cheated a bit, so instead of subscribing to Ahrefs, I subscribed to KatLinks.
The tool itself is amazing and exactly what I needed. I found so many problems with my website and I addressed them as advised. Some of the key features I liked a lot is the competition keywords analysis, a tool that you can use to analyze the visibility of your competition's website. This was mind-blowing for me, as for a good part of my product (the app itself, not the landing page) I was doing the SEO wrong.
Besides this insight, I also found like 50 users that use competitors' tools and I reached out to engage in discussions with them.
After you vocalize your product on your social networks, next step is to make it visible to Google. SEO should be part of your marketing strategy from day 0 (and I got to learn this on day 300). If Google doesn't see your website, it doesn't exist.
Writing, like a lot
A landing page without a blog is a red flag for not doing enough SEO.
The blog on your landing page should contain articles about the topics that you find during the keywords discovery phase. For example, one of my long-tail relevant keywords is “How to write an easy application letter”. I wrote an article about it on Writings Blog and am still waiting for the effects of it.
Be prepared that if you want to increase the odds of people finding your product via Google, you have to publish a lot of content. A lot. And not just any content, but content that is carefully written, with a human sense to it, and helpful for the user. Addressing users' problems in that content would be the key factor to establishing trust in what you do and what the user needs. Not the selling of your product. Selling comes secondary. First is trust. Writing good content means care, and when there's care, there's trust too.
That is why writing as a skill should be constantly improved and always on the table if you want to build a successful product. Otherwise, you either need someone to outsource writing content or a co-founder that can do this.
My personal 2c about this: do not outsource it to a service that costs $5 and the delivery is in the next hour. Well, maybe there is a such service that offers good quality content, but I honestly doubt it. I've been there, I've ordered these articles and all I can say is that the content is so desensitized that there is 0 human emotion in it.
I share the same feelings for the AI copywriting tools in this case. Don't just generate and publish your content with the first AI bot you'll find (and boy there are a lot!). Even if you use an AI copywriting tool, do it to draft your articles but then edit them like a maniac. Make it appealing and attached to an emotion.
Content is about creating emotion. Marketing is about hacking that emotion.
Talking with your competition's users
I managed to find them via KatLinks. When I identified them, I asked them a few questions and tried not to make it overwhelming for them. I asked the questions in my message and few of them took the time to answer back. It was really insightful for me. They say things that I as a technical founder never thought about.
What I tried to do in this phase was not make it like I wanna sell them something right away. The reality is that my feature set at the moment is much poorer than the one they already use. But I tried to understand what these users' needs are and how I can apply the same psychology to my product. By doing so, I also mentioned Writings and that led to a few of them logging in to the app. Later, just by analyzing the events of their activity, I could see at which point they gave up.
If you don't measure it, it doesn't exist, right?
The central point of everything I did was the analysis of the events that I am logging on both the landing page and the app itself. I tried to create an overlapping point from where I could track users' behavior. Knowing how the tools you use to track events and visits is a key factor in making decisions on the next steps. You cannot be guessing without having a clear dashboard and seeing the data there.
I am part of the wagon that says use whatever works for you. It could be a privacy-oriented product or simply Google Analytics. As long as you can read the data, use it. If you can pay for it, do it.
Without events, without any analytics, your marketing efforts are doomed. Don't cheap out on this part. Do whatever it takes to have a clear understanding of users' visits, events, and intentions.
Should I do Ads?
I am not sure. Some say yes, some say no until you're ready. I am still not 100% convinced that Ads are not the way to do it, even this early.
One person said that ads can be used to validate an idea firmly if you have a budget to spend. And that works by creating a campaign that promotes features that still are not there. Marked as “coming soon” (still with the basic value of the product built), with a free trial as an option. If people start subscribing, then you can build the features after it. It's a bit bizarre I admit.
But the majority agrees, you should wait until Ads make sense. And that is when you have a solid product with visible value proposition built. Some even said ads make sense only after finding the right market fit.
The tools I used
The first thing I tried to make use of is Polywork's Opportunities. I published that I needed beta testers for my app and added a nice description to it. I forgot to log in for a week and when I did, I saw that about 20 users have signed up for the opportunity. w00t! I reached out and sent them a Google Form to collect some feedback.
Polywork Opportunities is a great tool to expose your product to the masses. I would highly recommend it as it's not only about those 20 users that sign up, but also the 100s that visit your page. One thing that you have to know is that most of the users that apply for your opportunity are after something. Either a job, a freelance engagement, or a feedback-for-feedback. Just expect to give as much as you ask for. In my case, I worked with only 2 of those that applied as the rest were looking for content creation jobs that I could not provide.
As mentioned above, nothing beats a service for which you pay that gives you value back. I would highly recommend KatLinks as a solid alternative to other products out there. I repeat, SEO has a lot to do with marketing.
Google Search Console
This is a must for every new builder (or anyone that's promoting a website for any reason). There are also a few nice articles out there in terms of how GSC works, but logging in and adding your website there directly should be clear enough to start with.
None of the insights I got would've been visible if I couldn't see the visitors, new users, events, and funnels through a tool like Splitbee. I got hooked to it from the very same start because it has a free plan but the moment I started working on marketing more seriously, I subscribed to it. Other tools in the same category should do fine, I would just like to mention that what is important at this phase is to know the tool. Google Analytics, Plausible or Splitbee, as long as you can see the data and understand it, it's ok.
Should I even mention it? But while doing my marketing efforts I started seeing Twitter as a marketing platform more than as a social network. Not to be confused with the personal relationships call-out from earlier, but the potential of this social network is huge on many levels. Let's make use of it while it lasts.
This was the first time for me to experiment with a separate service/tool to do something around reaching out. I used a tool called Howitzer which is a Reddit marketing tool that automates the sending of messages to users. The free plan has 20 free messages and I used it immediately. None worked out but I learned that I need to work on my official cold message reach-out techniques 😅 The tool itself is solid!
I got to know about this from another builder, @DmytroKrasun. It's a service that is listening for events/submissions of some keyword from a few famous social websites (Reddit, Hacker News, and Lobste.rs), and sends you an email the moment it finds something. E.g. I am listening for the “writing app” keyword. When someone mentions something containing that keyword on Reddit, I receive an email as a heads-up on the discussion. Then I see what's about and react accordingly. What you will learn is amazing. People talk about particular problems, products, or solutions. It gives nice clues on some direction you need to take.
The sites I used
One of the points of improving your SEO is the improvement of the number of backlinks that lead to your website. Linking your website somewhere else is considered a backlink (it takes the user back to your website). The more backlinks, the better the SEO ranking. To do so, I started mentioning my website on sites like IndieHackers, Reddit, etc., and I explored the possibilities of free or paid services that promote your product, like BetaList, BetaPage, Owwly, etc.
Here is an impression breakdown for every one of them:
“Writings” was selected to be featured on BetaList in June. It said “waiting time: at about a month”. It still hasn't happened, but I think that works better. When it does, the product will be in even better shape.
I submitted Writings here, and you know the drill, it said: “wait time over a month”. As the promo package is a bit pricier than I expected, I've come to the terms of waiting for a bit to see the effects.
This is the only service of such nature where I paid for Writings to be featured. It's really an affordable price and the effects were really surprising. I got at about 100 visits on day 2, out of which 5 converted to users (not active users though, more like curious what's it about). Money spent wisely!
MicroStartups & Launched.io
They are both free to submit an app, and Writings got listed the next day (or so). Even though the reach out is rather smaller compared to Owwly, I still get some traffic from these sites. I would definitely not underestimate them, as when doing marketing, anything that works without effort regardless how small on daily basis, should be welcomed.
Not to make this long, even though I can, I will not. Reddit is an amazing service to promote your product. For some, it's the only thing you need. Posting your product to the SaaS/SideProject/Startup subreddits makes wonders in terms of traffic. You just have to find a clean way to do it. Then you can ask your friends from your audience to upvote it so that it gets visibility and traction. One week later, I still get traffic from the 3-4 posts I did on these subreddits.
Before saying which Subreddits, I would like to say the following: there is a difference whether you submit a link to your website on builders/startups specific subreddits or in the subreddits meant for the niche in particular. When I submitted links to Writings on the writing subreddits, they either got removed or I didn't get any traffic from there. There will be another post where I describe the user-definition road I took, but here I will mention that in the beginning, you want to submit your website to the subreddits meant for indie hackers and SaaS builders. This will increase the visibility and you will still get more users than posting it to the ones that are niche specific.
I posted on:
- r/SaaS (the weekly promotion post)
The best that worked from them all was r/SideProject.
A final thought on Reddit as a channel: start using Reddit now! Regardless of what subreddit that is. You never know what will work. Being part of the subreddits for your niche will give you clues for the problems you should be solving, but being part of the subreddits for builders will give you chances to promote your product.
Was, is and will be a default channel for anyone building anything indie. What I plan in the future is to level up my presence here, as even a simple mention or link to your website on a popular IH article, makes spikes of visits. It's an amazing channel.
It's been overall a week in my efforts to do some marketing about Writings and after being part of almost all of what's described above, these are the results.
The landing page visits
Normally, I am getting about 30-50 daily visits. Most of them come from my Twitter profile.
After I started working on marketing, I went up to 50-70 daily visits (with peaks on days when I started some of the campaigns of about 100 visits).
Most importantly, now the visitors are coming from a diversified sources. Twitter is not the only source.
The point is very clear: marketing brings results. And the best about it is that the effects are long-term. You put a link somewhere, and suddenly it can become visible to a lot of users. You never know.
The conversion itself has a lot to do with the quality of the landing page and the value proposition that's being given to the users. What I learned in the past weeks is that there is still a lot of work to be done in this regard. I even consider a small pivot.
But the point is that if, before my marketing efforts I had a conversion from a visitor to a signed-up user of ~8% (4-5 out of 50 visitors would log in to the app), after the marketing week that number increased to 15% and then it dropped again to ~8%. What's more important here is the after-effect of that conversion. Now I get 3 times more users per week based on the seeds that have been planted. And that is much more important than the conversions during spikes.
Btw, here I am not talking about active users (not even mentioning retention), but if this effort has given me this traffic and movement, I am getting clues on what will happen after some major event.
If I were to build a new product today, I'd definitely start with a Carrd landing page together with a blog and email collection form. It's a joke that we start product building by buying a domain, but that from this perspective looks like a really unnecessary step. People are not after your domain, they are after your solution.
Another thing I'd reconsider is talking to the competition or its users much sooner. One gets great clues on the type of user and can speed up some of the knowledge I gained above a lot.
From a technical point of view, I'd jump straight away to building 5 core features that I can immediately start selling. That would enable me to start a campaign (in whatever form) through which I can validate if the idea catches up or not much sooner.
Marketing is not something you do once and can sleep on. As a matter of fact, what activity in product building is like that? Rinse and repeat every once in a while would be amazing for any small effort to build something. Do I like marketing and everything described above? Not really. I'd rather geek around Next.js, Flutter or Vercel, but if you want to build something top to bottom, without being called a full-stack fantasy dreamer, you have to eventually do marketing.
Feel free to reach out if you need help with anything described above.