Venture Marketing – Side Projects As Marketing Channel

How brands could earn the attention of users by building meaningful and useful side projects.

by Thomas Schinabeck | October 2017
US Americans watch roughly two hundred billion hours of TV every year. In 2015 that was in average 33 hours per week per person. Wait, what? In average? Yes. Astonishing. Even if we assume that people use part of this time for educational purposes, this is a lot of time spent for passively consuming content.
Hard to tell how much of this time was time well spent. I guess it’s fair to say, a huge amount of that time neither really benefited the individual nor greater society. Clay Shirky did in his book “Cognitive Surplus” a little thought experiment. Imagine treating the free time of these people as an aggregate, what could have been possible? Shirky calculates that this would represent about two thousand Wikipedia projects worth of free time. Annually.

Cognitive Surplus

Sure, there is a big difference between writing a decent paragraph on Wikipedia and watching a TV series, but as Clay Shirky puts it:

“The stupidest creative act, is still a creative act. (…) The real gap is between making nothing and making something.”

We are able to build meaningful things with little interactions, if they are channeled for a purpose. Even if it’s just flagging inappropriate comments or reposting a picture. The “reCaptcha” project by Luis von Ahn is an obvious example. While filling out their captcha verification, that users have to do anyways, they help to transcribe texts
The web enables us to treat free time as asset for communally created projects. Instead of individual minutes spent one person at a time, little actions compound and create something useful.
Might it be an opportunity for brands and their marketing efforts to make use of our cognitive surplus? Brands investing marketing budgets into earning our attention via building something useful? Instead of just by telling an interesting story, by inspiring people to engage with something meaningful?

Marketing in the Attention Economy

If we simplify a bit, marketing is a lot about fighting for attention. There are two main ways to get attention:
Buying attention via advertising or earning the attention via inbound- (content-) marketing.
We live in a world of attention scarcity. Even though every generation before us pretended that as well, it’s fair to say that information overload is at a peak. To fight it, we develop tools, who help us to filter for our needs, interests and context. Be it search algorithms, social media platforms, recommendation engines, you name it. If your content is not relevant and meaningful, it is nearly impossible to get the attention of potential customers. Content marketing was a successful strategy in the last years, but the field gets crowded. It becomes difficult to stand out.
So, what’s next? What could be the “next level”?
Is there a chance to create something that is more engaging than passive content consumption?
What if a brand would offer something that is more like a tool or a platform? Might there be way of earning the attention by building something useful? Something relevant that people want to participate in? Something users build a relationship with, cause they become a part of it?
Building something useful and relevant, isn’t that what building products is all about? Sure. Though classic commercial products have to find some way to make profits.
There are though a lot of ideas and innovations out there, that have a very hard time to find a business model. Projects that get the attention of users, that are valuable, but that can’t find a direct way to make profits. There are plenty of potential reasons. The classic advertisement model wouldn’t work. People are not willing or not used to pay for it. Investors are not interested cause the market is too small. There are existing free substitution products. If the project would be commercial users wouldn’t participate in it. And there are many more.
Crowdfunding campaigns are a powerful catalysator for making many of these projects happen. Could marketing budgets become another source for building innovative stuff?

What brands are doing right now

Most marketing people are still in the mindset of buying attention. I am not sure if this is the game we should play. Attention is super scarce. Users will have an increasing amount of efficient tools to filter their informations. If you try to buy attention this will end up often in bad experiences for the user and will become very expensive.
In a social media age, it’s not about paying media channels to spread the news. It’s about building something meaningful people talk about in the first place. Saying it in the words of Gary Vaynerchuck: „Word of mouth is on steroids“. That’s the reason why content marketing is a powerful tool. That’s why “earning the attention” is a successful strategy.

Next level?

Building side-projects that people care about is much harder than it looks like. Some entrepreneurial risks included. Though running a successful advertising campaign is also more than just buying media. Thousands of creative advertising agencies are battleing this challenge.
A lot of these side-projects and experiments will fail. What if a company treats this new marketing channel like a portfolio strategy of a venture capital firm? Marketing executives are here in similar shoes than investors and founders.
How about calling this new channel “Venture Marketing”?

Building useful side projects is not a new marketing concept

„In 1900 the tire manufacturers André Michelin and his brother Édouard published the first edition of a guide for French motorists. At the time there were fewer than 3,000 cars in France, and the Michelin guide was intended to boost the demand for cars, and thus for car tires. For the first edition of the Michelin Guide the brothers had nearly 35,000 copies printed. It was given away free of charge, and contained useful information for motorists, including maps, instructions for repairing and changing tires, and lists of car mechanics, hotels and petrol stations.“
– Wikipedia

Hundred years later the Micheline Guide is still the most prestigious restaurant guide. They couldn’t make use of our cognitive surplus back then. Nevertheless they were successful building something meaningful for their target group. Even though it was not part of their core product.

Who is currently doing this?

Let’s take a look on current examples. Brands that are building platforms for marketing purposes. First, a mainstream example: Nike+.
Nike developed an online platform for tracking and sharing your running activities. It became a community for millions of runners. They share on a daily basis their running sessions and meet up at community events worldwide.
An example for a much smaller brand and niche target group: Hacker News by Y Combinator. Hacker News is a social news website and community similar to Reddit. Users can submit and upvote links in context of tech and entrepreneurship. For people in tech it is one of the “daily must visit” websites. Y Combinator is an investment company and accelerator program for tech startups. A big part of the most talented people in tech have on a daily basis a touch point with Y Combinator via Hacker News. This is marketing value money can’t buy.
Some people might think a brand needs tech background for venture marketing. I don’t think so. You could argue Nike is already a good example for that. Another one is an initiative by Patagonia. The brand stands for smarter consumption and for building things that last. So people at Patagonia also thought about the last step in a customer journey. The moment people don’t need product anymore. The most sustainable solution, even before recycling, is reselling. Patagonia launched a platform where customers can resell their Patagonia products. At first they did it in cooperation with eBay, currently they host it on their own site. Another place that grows the community of Patagonia collectors.


The Master of Venture Marketing 

There is a brand that is doing a venture marketing strategy for years on big scale: RedBull. The brand is famous for it’s decision to mostly avoid classic marketing channels like TV or Print. On the first sight it might look like as if RedBull mainly does sponsorships and event marketing. If you look closer you will see they do often much more than that. In many of their projects RedBull is very involved in concept as well as execution. No matter if it it is their Formula 1 team, crazy projects like jumping from space to earth, or their engagement into soccer teams. All these projects have longterm timeframes, and Redbull control over their direction. People from the brand, often even the founder, are closely involved in the full process.
These are not your standard sponsorship deals. Most of the projects involve high risk. You can’t call these content or event marketing either. It is much closer to building startups. These projects are basically Venture Marketing projects. And of course, they deliver excellent content as well. Documented and distributed by an in-house media company – RedBull Media House.

The Potential of Venture Marketing

Venture marketing projects obviously have to perform on company relevant attention metrics. Their benchmark are the numbers that media agencies are promising. That said, they might bring many more benefits.
One of the biggest is control over data. It’s one thing to have access to users via Facebook and Twitter, it’s something else to have behaviour data like Nike about their Nike+ users.
Another huge advantage of Venture Marketing is it’s potential long term value. If a project becomes successful there is often the potential to scale it. In some cases even to make it longterm sustainable. Most content marketing projects or sponsorships have a limited lifetime. It’s one thing to have a three years sponsorship contract with a soccer club, it’s something else to create a soccer club from scratch, and have full control. RB Leipzig, a German soccer club, was founded by RedBull in 2009. Eight years later it is one of the top clubs in Germany and qualified for the European Champions League. No question, this is an example of huge scale and budget, but similar could work for small budgets and niche markets.


As mentioned above, there are risks involved in Venture Marketing. You can compare it to the game that early stage VCs play. If you want to succeed, besides having luck, you have to go with a classic portfolio strategy. That means investing in 10+ potentially scalable projects to have a good chance to make at least one succeed. The successful one has to give you back your investments in all the failed experiments.
When people hear about building some kind of platform for marketing purposes, they worry about complexity and too much effort. They question if it makes sense to build a product that is not close to the core business. Even if it is a fit to to brand values, it’s often in a field the company has no experiences in. They are not interested in starting a new company.
Most people forget that usually creative marketing is not part of their core competencies either. If you produce amazing innovative shoes or solar power systems, producing TV ads or events is not part of your core competencies. You hire people or agencies to help you out. Why not hire people who help you out doing some venture marketing?
Yes, there are risks, but you have to manage risks in any other marketing activity, too. There are risks if you do sport sponsoring, there are risks if you do event marketing et cetera. If there are people involved, you will find risks.
It’s not easy, but in the digital field it’s easier and cheaper to give it a try than ever before. Many startup ideas and online platforms are created by teams of two or three people. Infrastructures and tools becoming cheaper and easier to implement every year. Many of the barriers to start online platforms and communities are already removed. Chris Dixon calls it „Software eats Software Development“. If college students could do amazing stuff, what about engineers and marketing experts in your company? What if they get the resources and permission to play?
One downside of venture marketing compared to most classic marketing channels is time. It takes time to build, it takes time to grow. Often brands don’t have, or think they don’t have this time.

How to start?

You can start venture marketing projects in three ways. You can use your own existing team resources and treat it like a side-project or a concept, think 20% Google time. You can start a project on a blank slate with an external team and treat it more like a venture capital investment. Or you could try to partner or acquire an exisiting project, and treat it like a sponsorship investment.
Whatever you choose, if it should become a project that makes use of the cognitive surplus it has to be in the first place useful and meaningful to people. The purpose of the project needs to stand for it’s own. Only in the second place there has to be a connection to your existing brand. There is a natural bias that decision makers care a lot about closeness to brand and product and less about the value of the project for the community. Therefore the bad reputation of corporate community projects is still a thing. If you want to build a platform, you will only succeed if people care about it. You have to earn their trust and attention. The brand is just the enabler. Don’t be corporate. What ever that means. We all know when we see it. Your intentions have to be authentic.
You need a team with experience in entrepreneurship, startup investment and of course marketing. Is it doable to hire the right people or partners? Your company maybe has no expertise in TV advertising production either. Brands are working with ad agencies for decades. Why not with entrepreneurs, accelerators and VCs?

Summing Up

It’s a very simple idea: Build side projects that give you as return of your investment attention for your core products.
Venture marketing as the next level marketing strategy. The follow up to content marketing, that is more engaging, helps brands to stand out and makes use of our cognitive surplus. It’s about earning the attention of users not just by producing relevant content but via building meaningful and useful tools.
Venture marketing is not so far away from what companies already doing. It’s somewhere between new business development, marketing/sponsorships and venture capital investment. Most brands have very little experience in the later, but something you might be able to hire.
Technology and the web allows us to make use of our cognitive surplus more than ever before. It’s easier than ever to start and create new platforms. There are many startups out there who already build amazing stuff and have some traction, but they struggle on the financing side. Marketing budgets might be a resource to help great product ideas to succeed. There is plenty of cognitive surplus, there are a lot of marketing dollars wasted. What if there would be a venture marketing agency you could give a call?



Author: Thomas Schinabeck

Digital product designer based in Munich, who loves to help building products and growing brands. Otherwise trying to spend as much time as possible in the mountains. - @digitalwaveride