First off, yes, this is going to be a pretty dry post. I would much prefer to write about travel or music, but I've been meaning to write this post for a while, so I decided to just get it out of the way. I get approached pretty frequently by friends who have ideas for business or projects they want to pursue, but don't have a clear idea of how to research, test, and market their idea. I'm always happy to help someone who is pursuing a passion, but I figured I'd make life easier for everyone by writing down some of the tools I commonly share.
Everything mentioned below is free or offers a free plan. Other tools, like Photoshop, which I consider crucial are not included but are still hugely important. If you have specific questions, feel free to email me or ask in the comments.
What: Keyword research tool
Why: Great tool for generating long tail keywords. Takes simple keywords and appends common phrases to replicate how people actually search the web. Similar to UberSuggest and Keyword Shitter (that’s some ballsy branding), but focused on generating more natural search terms. You can download the list of generated keywords and plug them into your keyword planner tool of choice to check for volume. This can be especially powerful for identifying common questions around a topic and formulating a thoughtful, timely response via content marketing.
What: User Curated Internet Community
Why: Reddit is laced with inappropriate comments, notorious for questionable humor, and populated by mostly men (74% of users), but is still an incredible source for user research and content ideas. All topics, links, and comments are voted on by users, which means that the most popular ideas float to the top; not paid content, not content with the most backlinks, not Google algorithm’s favorite result. It is the wild west of the internet. Democracy for better or worse. When I’m researching new content ideas or performing user research, I’ll often go to Reddit because I can see actual human discussions, emotions, and language surrounding certain topics. Be careful if you decide to promote anything on Reddit. It can go over well or fail miserably. I was able to fill our pilot trip to Colombia with unpaid promotion on Reddit, but I’ve also been chewed out a time or two for crossing the self-promotion line. For now, I’d suggest sticking to it as a customer research tool.
What: Help a Reporter Out (HARO) is a platform for journalists to connect with sources. Journalists submit queries and sources can respond via email.
Why: It’s an easy and free way to get features and valuable backlinks. It helped us land a mention in the print version of the August 2nd Los Angeles times for MotoGuides and generated traffic to MadebyAdventure through this cheesy self-help roundup. If you can keep track of another daily newsletter in your inbox and respond in a timely, concise fashion, then you can win a nice feature here and there.
What: A more advanced way to search using Google
Why: This one isn’t a tool per se, but without a doubt, this is the most important skill on this list. If as an entrepreneur, you don’t feel consistently challenged and borderline overwhelmed, then you’re doing something wrong (or extremely right). Starting a business opens the door to a flood of questions. Find answers quickly or fail. Google’s algorithms will usually surface good answers, but rarely the answer you really need. Learning how to search Google effectively has been hugely important to accelerating my learning curve. It’s an essential internet literacy skill. Here is a handy guide to help you learn. At the very least learn how to use quotations for exact phrases and how to do a site search, this will get you a long way.
What: Personalized search engine for repeat searches
Why: I rarely see this mentioned on marketing blogs or coursework and I don’t understand why. Custom Google Search Engines allow you to create a custom search bar using parameters defined by a user. It’s a great tool for repetitive searches and finding content within a defined niche. As an example, I built and frequently use a search engine which searches the top 50 Travel Blogs, ranked by estimated traffic. Much of what makes our MadebyAdventure itineraries so compelling comes from tips and stories I unearth using this search engine. I also use my Tour Operator Search Engine, which pulls from a list of 20 adventure tour operator sites, for quick competitive research. I have another 9 custom search engines I use frequently for various searches and needs. You can take your search game to the next level if you employ advanced search operators, mentioned above.
What: Web Monitoring and Alerts
Why: As an introvert, the tendency to focus on listening comes naturally to me. Talkwalker Alerts is my ride or die social listening tool (did I really just say that). Talkwalker will monitor the web for mentions of phrases you define and email you alerts when that phrase is used. It’s most commonly used to track brand mentions, but if you’re creative you can take it next level. I have 21 Talkwalker Alerts. I get alerts when the phrase “Looking for travel ideas” is used on Reddit, so I can jump in quickly and provide advice. I’m currently seeking a full-time job, so I have an alert set for “Denver startup raises series A”, which lets me know who is flush with cash and about to be hiring. Use Google advanced search operators to create even more targeted alerts. Noticing a trend here?
What: User generated thesaurus
Why: Power Thesaurus is the best. I use it for copywriting, brand naming, and social media. Because it’s user generated, it has a wider, more colloquial set of synonyms than a traditional thesaurus. If I had an official sponsor, it would 100% be Power Thesaurus. I don't know what that says about my vocabulary, but I don't really care. Any tool to help you write and communicate more effectively is a must have. If you read this, Power Thesaurus team, send me a sticker or water bottle. I'll rep you 👊
What: Grammar and spell checker
Why: If Power Thesaurus is your friend with impressive vocab, Grammarly is the friend who proofreads your papers. I’m a bit sloppy when I write emails and website copy. The Grammarly Chrome plugin highlights and catches mistakes as I write them. I find this especially useful in Gmail, where it catches errors that Google’s native spell checker misses. It also works in Squarespace, which is a plus for content marketers.
What: Public domain stock photos that actually look good
Why: Photos are so important to a brand. So important. It can be hard or expensive for a startup to find good stock photos. Unsplash is the savior. User generated stock photos under the CC Public Domain license, which means you can use them however you want without attribution. I’ve spent hours curating photos which reflect the MadebyAdventure brand. I’ve curated several personal collections, including People on Adventures, People Smiling, and even a collection of photos with a lot of negative space or texture. Unsplash is a great place to find images for blogs and social media. Strategically sourcing media helps set the tone for a compelling brand. Pixabay is also solid, but you have to sift through some crap.
What: Online portfolio for creatives
Why: Designing is hard. It’s okay to cheat and look for inspiration from others. I’ll often hop on Dribbble or Behance when I’m tasked with doing anything creative. Looking at the work of more talented people, helps me step up my personal design game. I spend most of my time looking at photoshop work, but also look through the web design category for UX inspiration. You can also download awesome icons and fonts, like the one used below.
What: Backlink research tool
Why: There are a million other plugins or services that can accomplish this task, but I like the simplicity of Rank Signals. I use it for one thing--backlink research. For the less technical peeps who might read this, backlinks are incoming links to a website. They act as votes of confidence and link content across the web. Google crawlers follow the web of backlinks on the internet and formulate millions of data points into search results and rankings. Backlinks are the holy grail of SEO, but you can use them for less technical reasons. I love to look through a website’s backlinks as a quick way of doing competitive research. I can see who is talking about a company and what they are saying. It’s a quick and dirty way to visualize the ecosystem and network surrounding a company. There are more thorough ways to do this, like Screaming Frog and Moz Open Site Explorer, but I like this plugin for quick research.
What: Web scripting and automation tool
Why: Imacros works best on Firefox, although it can be used on Chrome. It is a fairly easy web automation tool. With a little creative scripting, you can automate and scale tasks that would be impossible to complete manually. At one time in the not too distant past, when I viewed myself as a “growth hacker”, I may have used it to create Instagram commenting bots or send thousands of “personalized” messages on forums, but I don’t do that anymore (thankfully). Like any tool, it can be used for good or bad. Try to use it for good, okay?
What: User-friendly form builder
Why: Being able to collect information from past, current, and future customers is BIG. Without sounding too salesy, Typeform is, in my opinion, the coolest way to collect feedback and data. Cool, form, and feedback don’t usually go in the same sentence, but I stand by my statement. Typeform is a great tool for launching quick products and testing ideas because it eliminates the need to hardcode forms on your website. I once created an 87 person travel chat, using a Strikingly landing page with an embedded Typeform to collect user info. I promoted it on Reddit and hosted the chat on Slack. I’m a fan of any tool that helps get ideas out the door quickly, so you can collect feedback and iterate. In this particular case, the chat failed to hit critical mass and the chat died down after about a week. Still a fun project regardless.
What: Chrome plugin which shows technology behind a website
Why: You’re gonna look like a badass when you walk into a meeting with a future client or partner and know exactly how their site works. “So your backend is built on rails, you’re landing page and blog is hosted on Wordpress, and you’re tracking user data with Google Analytics, FB pixel, and Crazy Egg? Did I miss anything?” It’s fun and useful to understand how the web works. Wappalyzer pulls back the curtain and exposes the guts of a website, which can be beneficial.
15. Chrome Dev Tools
What: WebDeveloper tools
Why: Chrome inspector, one of the features in the dev tools dashboard, allows you to view and edit web pages as they are rendered in your browser. Nothing you do using inspector is permanent, meaning you can play around with the design of a website without repercussions. It’s a great way to start playing around with CSS and HTML and learning the basics of front end web design. I think it’s most useful as a copywriting tool. You can edit copy on the page, allowing you to visualize how it will work. Sometimes things sound great until you visualize them on your actual website.
16. Notes App
What: Apple’s Native Note Application
Why: I take handwritten notes in a cliche, leatherbound notebook, but they end up looking like shit. I use Apple notes because I can easily segment my notes and search later. It’s the easiest way for me to set up to-do lists and document things I want to access later. I have notes for business ideas, favorite quotes, design screenshots, and notes from a meeting. I’ve kept track of every noteworthy tool and article I’ve come across since starting this entrepreneurial journey nearly 2 years ago. Here is a link to the full list of resources if by some miracle you’ve read this far in the post and have a maniacal interest in learning more about marketing and startup tech.
Fontface Ninja Plugin, Check My Links Plugin, Meta SEO Inspector, Buzzsumo, Boardreader, Alltops, Zapier, Mail Chimp, Buffer, Product Hunt, Sem Rush, Ahrefs, Scraping Hub, Imgur, Bitly, Privvy
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about marketing for your own project or want to talk strategy.