SaaS startup marketing can be difficult. I just finished a three-year experience of doing marketing in a venture-funded SaaS (software as a service) B2B startup in the hyper-competitive industry of social media so wanted to share my lessons.
As expected in an early-stage startup, I wore many hats working on a variety of projects including product management, internal/external communication, analytics and marketing.
Major problem startups face is marketing
In my opinion, the major problem for most startups is not the product development. It might be tough to do and you may need to build a team of developers and organize everything but at least you’re in full control of things. You set the goals, you set the timelines, you decide how ambitious you want to be.
The major problem most SaaS startups face is the marketing and the ability to carve out a niche and find (and retain) paying customers.
The marketing side of things you can never fully control. You may take all the recommended action but you cannot control the results that you get. And even with a stellar developer team and a stellar product, your startup may not survive without a great marketing and sales team to bring in the paying customers.
This is why my post will focus on the lessons learned from the SaaS marketing side of things. I’ll try to be inclusive so everyone from a solo developer who wants to start to an already backed team can find the lessons useful. Let’s get started.
Your content marketing should drive the business growth (not viral growth)
Content marketing is your best bet.
- Traditional PR and getting press mentions is not as efficient for online startups. Not everyone is Warby Parker.
- Paid advertising on Google and Facebook is fine if you can afford it and have time to experiment, but it’s not a long-term solution.
Paid advertising stops producing results as soon as you stop paying. It’s better used in order to achieve synergies with your content.
Content marketing, on the other hand, is easy to start with and if done well can keep producing value months or even years after the initial work has been done.
The goal of your content marketing is to drive the brand awareness and the business growth. This means not just publishing content and driving traffic, but also converting blog visitors into subscribers, leads and paying customers.
This is not necessarily the same as driving viral traffic. Fewer but more targeted visitors is much better than masses of irrelevant people who will visit and bounce back within a few seconds. Keep that in mind. It’s quality over quantity.
Start growing your audience ASAP (even before you have a product or an idea)
You are free to start promoting yourself and building your audience even before you have a finished product or even before you have a great idea that you want to build. That’s actually preferable to waiting to build your audience after you have a finished product.
There are so many times that I have seen developers spend a lot of time and effort building something, releasing it with no fanfare and only then trying to figure out how to promote it looking for help on Hacker News or Indie Hackers.
Publishing great content about things that you know (or even simply things you’re trying to learn about) will get you discovered and will help you build an audience. This means that you will have someone to shout to when you have a finished product you want everyone to know about.
This is how your first customers will find you. Building an audience can even help you figure out what product to create and get great feedback as you take your followers on your founder journey.
WordPress is great for landing pages, for presenting your minimum viable product and as a host of all your content efforts thanks to all the great integrations that extend it to be able to do anything you want.
Ask your visitors to sign up to your mailing list to follow your journey
You want a reliable way of reaching out to the audience that you are building. This way you can tell them when there’s something big such as you being ready to open the doors for customers.
Social media is definitely not a very reliable communication channel. Due to the different algorithms in place, you rarely get more than 10% of your total audience to see any message that you post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and others.
Email is different. It’s a very low tech and flexible medium. It’s very personal and gets higher open rates than social media. You completely own your mailing list too so you can choose between the different email providers or even self-host it. MailChimp is a great starting point for building your database and running your mailing list.
Start growing that mailing list straight away. And keep growing it even after you have a finished product.
Most people who discover you are not ready to buy yet. They need time and may need your product only in the future. Each new email address that you add to your mailing list is a new lead and a new prospect for you or for your sales team.
You have many different tools that allow you to insert various calls to action on your content asking people to sign up to hear from you. This is also something you can experiment a lot with trying to find the best copy, the best offer and the best location for your call to action.
I’m against those up front and invasive pop-up ads that take over the majority of the screen as soon as you enter a site.
On the other hand, I’m happy to experiment with messages that show up depending on how long a user has been on site, or how deep the visitor has scrolled down the page or even showing a popup message on exit intent and see what results they bring.
- There are many WordPress plugins that allow you to A/B test and experiment with email sign-up forms.
- MailMunch and OptinMonster are a couple of alternatives worth exploring for email sign-up CTA’s.
- Intercom and Drift are alternatives if you want a more user-friendly (but also more time demanding until the bots get great) live chat way of growing your list.
Don’t panic if people ignore you and if you don’t hear any feedback
This is something you need to get used to. It’s one of those things that’s very difficult to learn to understand and live with. You have put a lot of time and effort into something be it a product or a blog post.
You release it into the wild but get no feedback whatsoever. No email replies, no comments and responses. You might see a few likes here and there only. Or a comment from your mom.
It’s important to understand the nature of the web and social media. It’s full of lurkers. The Internet is a great place for people to join a community and passively observe.
There’s no obligation to respond or interact. 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% contribute a little, and 1% account for almost all the action.
You almost certainly have more people paying attention to you than what you see in your engagement numbers so do beware of that and keep pushing your project.
Find some alternative metrics to keep an eye on in order to follow your progress:
- Visitors to your site
- Time spent on site
- Pages viewed per visit
- Subscribers to your mailing list
- Open rates on your emails
- …and obviously revenue.
These can tell you a better story.
Your content strategy should be based on your target audience
It’s best that you take some time and think about your content strategy before you start producing the actual content. Think about your target audience, who they are, where they are spending their time online, what questions do they want to get answered and much more.
All these will not only help you get tons of ideas for content to create, but they will also help you create better targeted and more efficient content that will result in more benefits to your business.
Your content is your second best growth hack
As you’re just starting out nobody will know you. You will not have any brand recognition, you won’t have any followers. This means that you cannot expect anyone to search for you or to come to you directly. And it might be difficult to build that brand recognition quickly without a large budget.
This is where content marketing comes in. Content marketing can work for you and pull people towards you months or even years after the actual work has been produced. Great content that people love builds that recognition for you and can help you get discovered in social media and in search engine results.
Great content is your second best marketing asset and second best growth hack right after your actual product. Start by producing content yourself and eventually, you may even need to build a great content team:
- Use a site such as PeoplePerHour to discover freelance writers, designers and videographers to work with
- Use Slack for all the internal communication
- Notify.ly for getting alerts about links and social media mentions into Slack
- Statsbot for getting visitor data and alerts about the different trends directly into Slack
- Trello is great for the roadmap and the blog content calendar
- Grammarly and Hemingway Editor for polishing the blog content and Canva for the creation of imagery
- Zapier can help you connect and automate the tasks between many of the tools above.
On publishing content that gets shares and links
This is a tough one for everyone. It’s so difficult to get any attention online these days. There’s just so much content and everyone has so many options for what they want to spend their time on.
You really need to work hard on figuring out what can make you stand out in the crowded world. What makes you different from the other sites in your industry. This can take a long time and may need a lot of testing and experimentation.
Here are some idea on how you can start:
- Look at what’s actually working well right now in your industry. There’s no reason to try and reinvent the wheel. Use tools such as BuzzSumo to research relevant content that’s shared the most in social media, or to find the content that works best for the competing companies. This can give you an idea of what people want and will give you a list of topics to work on.
- Look at the data you have access to that others don’t. Use that to create some interesting content. We had access to many social media profiles and their data due to the nature of the business which made it possible for us to put all the data together, gather some broader trends and publish them in the different studies that were interesting for the wider industry.
- Talk about your day-to-day work as a developer or a founder. Share your journey with the audience. How are you going about building your product or running your team or your company? What actions are you taking to grow your business? What’s working? What’s not working? What are the plans for the future?
- Content doesn’t just mean blog posts. Free tools that are extensions of your main product can work wonders for gaining links and social media shares too. Consider if there’s a possibility for you to open up a part of your product for everyone to use for free or to even create a new mini tool. We had a lot of success with these getting covered in the media.
On publishing content that sells and is based on users from search engines
Despite all the buzz around social media platforms and marketing opportunities there, you will find that most of your target audience will discover you in search engines. People are using search to get educated, to find answers or to get more information.
You need to know the pain points of your audience. You need to get good at understanding and recognizing the ways that your target audience will search for use cases that your product solve and then build content for it.
It helps that you think like the audience you’re trying to reach, that you’ve had similar experience or been in similar position and that you can be in their shoes. But you can also get to the right topics by doing research. Look at what keyword phrases people are using in search engines using tools such as Answer The Public.
Speak to your customer support and see what are the most frequently asked questions they get or topics that users struggle with the most. Identify what type of questions your competitors do the best with and see how you can incorporate those too.
- Focus on the different stages of the buying process from awareness to purchase.
- Create content for each of the stages, educate your potential customers, enlighten the prospect on what makes you different from the competitors and sell your product to them.
- Create content featuring best practices, step-by-step instructions, case studies and comparisons to other tools.
And don’t forget to also target the newly acquired customers by helping them maximize the value they get from your product. When acquisition is so hard it’s important to limit the churn and retain your customers as long as possible.
You need to have a proactive marketing strategy
You cannot just publish content and expect people to find you. It doesn’t work like that. You need to have a marketing strategy ready for things to do after you publish a new piece of content in order to drive awareness and traffic to it.
“Blog and pray” does not work
You can publish the best content in the world but not many will find you. You will have to do some marketing in order to help get your content discovered.
One option here is to build your social media following but that may be pretty much impossible these days without a large budget or a unique concept and idea that will help you break through all the noise. The organic opportunities on established social platforms pretty much don’t exist.
The more realistic option is to join all the different niche communities around your interests, around the industry you have experience in, around the things that you are good at or that you plan to build a product about.
Explore these communities (niche websites, Reddit, Facebook groups, Slack groups, forums and so on), join the conversation, be available, share your knowledge and tell people about the content that you’re working on too.
Work to get listed on all the tools lists
These can be considered as low hanging fruit and are a great place to start in your outreach efforts. Reach out to all the sites that have published different tools or apps or resources pages relevant to your product.
Introduce them to your product, get them to try it (maybe with a free trial or even a free subscription) and eventually add it to their list too.
Use Google to find these different lists by searching for your broad topics and adding keywords such as “tools”, “apps”, “resources”, and “links”.
Syndicate your content to the established sites
Syndicating your content to larger, established sites with broader reader bases works in your favor in several ways. You get your message in front of a large audience that is interested in what you’re doing.
This will lead to an increase in the brand awareness and your authority. It might give you some clicks and visits to your site, some subscribers to your mailing list or some followers on your social media.
The biggest long-term benefit of getting mentioned on bigger site is that you’re building the authority and links to your domain name.
This will result in your content ranking higher for a wider range of long tail keywords which will introduce you to new people some of which will decide to join your mailing list too.
Reach out to journalists, bloggers and other relevant influencers
This one is another one that’s difficult to do and may result in you being ignored by the majority of people who you reach out to, but it’s a necessary thing to do and something that can bring you major results.
This is another tactic that will take some time and experimentation for you to find the actual message that resonates.
Journalists, bloggers and other influencers already have built their audiences and have access to platforms that can extend the reach of your messages too. If you can reach out to them with interesting messages and build relationships with them your message may be shared further. This is also where your great content can help you get attention.
- Journalists are looking for things to write about
- Influencers are looking for content to share
- Bloggers are looking for companies to work with
I’ve sent many outreach emails featuring interesting data that we uncovered in our studies with some of these emails resulting in our SaaS startup being mentioned on large industry sites such as Adweek and Social Media Examiner. And getting those links feels very good.
And this is it. Pretty much everything you need to know about how to create a great content marketing strategy for your SaaS startup, and make it a great lead generator for your business thanks to all the marketing activities that you put in place. Now it’s the time for the hard part. Doing the actual work and seeing tiny progress day after day. Good luck!