The marketing world is a constantly evolving beast, particularly in the realm of digital marketing, the landscape changes so quickly that you can quickly be left behind if you aren't on top of your game. Physical promotion and promotional materials will always have value due to their tangible nature, being able to touch and see something in real life make it far more difficult to ignore than whatever that thing you saw on the internet the other day was.
To stand out in the digital marketing world you need to create something extremely memorable or something that provides value for users, a great way of doing this that has become popular recently is the side project. This is the creation of a tool or service, not necessarily related to the core business, that is offered to the public for free in order to create traffic in some form or another. The best examples of these projects do not even feel like marketing, in fact, many of them really are not, they are simply a handy service with the odd link to the company that produced them.
Some great recent examples of hugely successful side projects are Unsplash by Crew and Pablo by Buffer. Unsplash is a service that provides high quality, royalty-free, creative commons images that require no attribution at all, essentially it's a platform for great images that can be used for anything. Pablo is a slick tool that allows users to produce social media friendly images quickly and easily.
Crew is a web design company and Buffer is a social media management service. The clever thing about these projects is that each company identified a problem or annoyance within their industries, knowing that others suffered the same problem and just created a tool that solved those issues and gave them to the public to use too.
There are a couple of less quantifiable reasons to pursue the side project, the first being reputation. If your company is seen to be giving something for nothing, essentially doing favours, this can be immensely valuable. Promoting a positive image of the company in the mind of the public can take years and blow entire marketing budgets if you can create that with the use of a simple free tool at minimal expense to the core business it is definitely worth doing.
Brand awareness is another huge benefit of a successful side project, even if the project is only subtlety marked with the core business or linked to. People love free stuff and people love telling their friends about free stuff too. Word of mouth is useful but the value really comes when people start sharing it on social media, people really don't like to share things when they feel they are being sold to. When they have found this new, great, free service that everyone is going to love, that is when the sharing happens. Social media users love to feel as if they have discovered something and to be the first to show their friends and these side projects really play into that psychology.
Larger companies have been doing side projects for a while now, it is by no means a new discovery, the difference now is that more and more people are able to produce these tools and services because web development, design, and coding are now vital to so many businesses, they now have the resources that before only the big companies possessed.
Don't be afraid to divert resources and time away from the core business just because it might not necessarily translate directly into sales or leads, providing value for your customers in other ways can be equally as effective.