Hey there, fellow marketer.
I’m Mert, I manage growth and marketing here at UserGuiding.
It is a recently established startup, but we’ve gone through a lot. Growing a business from scratch isn’t an easy task, but it’s not impossible either.
If you got the news of our 1.1m$ seed investment, you probably know that we are currently doing great, but it wasn’t always like this.
I and the team had to try various growth strategies spread across countless platforms, and I’ve experienced a bunch.
And today, I will share my SaaS marketing experience with you.
I aim to turn this article into a journal of UserGuiding’s growth, so I’ll be constantly updating this article with new strategies and updates.
I like to think of this as a little book, so I’ll continue in Chapters.
Chapter 1 includes our take on SaaS Marketing and a bit of introduction to the concept.
Chapter 2 will be more about the strategies you can adopt in a growing company to effectively land on the market and beyond.
And finally, Chapter 3 is the part where I’ll share the biggest mistakes a SaaS marketer could make based on my experience.
So throughout the article, you’ll know what you’re getting into, what you should do, and what you shouldn’t do.
Chapter 1 – Our Take: SaaS Marketing in the 2020s
Oh yeah, 2020, 2021, and now 2022, all will go down as some of the most interesting years since… ever…for both cotton facemask makers and definitely the SaaS industry.
Have there ever been such tumultuous and disruptive times before?
Why sure there has! Plenty of them actually.
And like every period of its kind, new exciting opportunities are spawning and beginning to bloom as the dust settles all around you.
SaaS products are hitting the market like Cracker Jack boxes to cope with copious change, and customers are cycling through them like crazy trying to catch up.
How about we cover some prudent ground and kick this off right…with the basics as we see them from our side of the proverbial fence.
Note: If you’re already well-versed on SaaS Marketing 101-style chatter, feel free to leap ahead to either Chapter 2 which is about the preparatory phase, or Chapter 3 which goes right into the meat and bones of the strat.
What is SaaS Marketing?
SaaS marketing is a type of marketing where the emphasis revolves around selling subscription-based products which customers connect to and use via cloud-based apps over the good ol’ internet (or their own network), with consistently ongoing updates and added features, and highly-variant sales cycles and payment structures to boot.
Yes, marketing is marketing is marketing… but the SaaS animal is a different beast of burden altogether from the perspective of consumers, business owners, and investors.
Let’s pivot to that.
How SaaS Marketing Differs from Conventional Digital Marketing
Important parts of life have context, everything else is imagination or a dream.
Thus SaaS marketing differs from digital marketing orthodoxy in at least these five contextual ways.
- A SaaS business model focuses on recurring revenue: MRR & ARR.
- Instead of ‘One & Done’ customers, long-term retention is critical.
- SaaS companies are concerned with churn – customers bailing.
- SaaS products (services) are unlike most other consumer products.
- SaaS customer journeys are usually far from simple, short, and sweet.
We can’t forget how competitive it is in the SaaS space either.
These forces cause SaaS owners like you to invest their marketing dollars in ways your average ecommerce or brick & mortar SMB owner wouldn’t typically consider.
You just have a different set of pressures on your plate.
As a SaaS owner, you and your team have to stay far more connected to customers. And frankly, you’re marketing to a much smaller number than the number of people who need clothes.
Your SaaS-to-customer relationship is likely to be the polar opposite of walk-in mall-style clothing retail, especially these days – hence, why you have to behave differently than clothing brands to survive.
In short, SaaS marketing has its own distinct nuances and variations within the framework of conventional marketing channels because of the nature of the services themselves.
The 3 Top Priority-Steps to Victory for SaaS Owners
Still sticking with the basics here, the three absolute no-holds-barred, undisputed, uncontested MOST IMPORTANT components to triumph as a SaaS owner are:
- A great service.
- Rock-solid support.
- Fabulous user onboarding (this is where UserGuiding fits into the picture).
Nailing those suckers down is 80% of the hike to the summits of SaaS success.
Up there you’ll have enough peace and quiet to contemplate how many other types of products and services and business models can get by just fine without one or more of those.
For the majority of SaaS owners, the feat is essentially impossible.
Chapter 2 – Finding Your Market Fit in 5 Steps
We don’t want this to sort of turn into just another generalized SaaS Marketing article, because it’s not.
So instead of telling you to do what a zillion others have or are barking online already, here’s where we hammered down.
Step #1: Lock Down Initial Branding
Are you one of the gigantic percentage of SaaS owners or SaaS creators who doesn’t (or barely) concerns themselves with branding while service is being designed, built, tested, and optimized?
We sure were.
Yep, in the beginning that was the case for us as well, but then we got a nice swift kick in the pants.
Branding should be a paramount issue for your SaaS.
To answer that at a distance, let’s use this juicy quote from a July, 2020 article, “How to Build a Brand for Your SaaS Product”.
You might want to (re)make branding a top priority because…
“…of the psychological realities underlying human-brand relationships. How do you personally define what a brand is? You can describe a brand’s features, but what is it really in a Platonian or Socratic sense? While you could collect hundreds of different takes from people of all walks of life if you wanted, the simplest way to think about it in our humble opinion would be…Your brand is the way people FEEL every time they interact with it.”
Once you let this concept sink in and search your own feelings in connection with the brands you weave into your life, it becomes perfectly clear.
If you haven’t had this ah-ha moment yet, now’s the time.
Yes, it might feel funny, but start there, while keeping in mind the three most important elements of SaaS success we touched on earlier as they do most of the feeling-creation work:
A good service,
with outstanding support,
and sleek user onboarding.
Whether you’ve already gone through all the usual motions of setting up a digital brand for your service or not (logo, business card, website, web copy, etc.), evaluate the FEELING your brand produces in the people who use it.
If you don’t know what that feeling is, and if it isn’t being cradled and projected from every corner of your SaaS’s presence for users, then you aren’t done locking down your brand.
Without a clear feeling, no clear connection can be formed.
#2: TALK To (Actually Get To Know) Your Users
When starting out, we were a tiny nitty-gritty team, so we had to do all this the old-fashioned way which ended up becoming a miracle move unto itself.
We had to use some elbow grease for each of our users, then go through the work of breaking the ice, chatting with them through various means, and providing enough value upfront where none of our info extraction methods felt like pulling teeth.
Because if it feels like that, you’re not getting anywhere or any really good information other than, “This sucks!”
We focused on two avenues, but the point here is to UNDERSTAND THY USERS.
Avenue One – Intercom
- We’ve been leveraging Intercom, a customer-orientated, messenger-based ‘Conversational Relationship Platform’ since Day 1. What are you using?
- Even after they released a Product Tour feature that became a competitor for our service, we stayed. They’ve been that helpful.
- We used this information in many different highly-valuable ways that led to our success on all fronts.
Avenue Two – Segmenting Then Addressing by Behavior
- From the get-go, we set up a system to track user experience. If it goes swimmingly, we prompt for a genuine and forthcoming review (for our eyes, not general online reviews).
- If any kind of help is needed, we prompt for support, will schedule support meetings, and connect with them to directly solve problems and get feedback that way.
- If their experience is horrible for some reason, or obviously FEELS that way, we prompt for constructive criticism and feedback, bring in the CEO to personally address the issue, and get it resolved.
Outside that, being a small team, we’re happy to advertise consistently throughout our messaging that users can contact us – website chat, email, phone, public Slack channel, LinkedIn, etc.
Really communicate with your users and implement that high-quality information!
#3: Translate Their Language Into Your Web Copy
Digging deeper, how much of your overall SaaS is based on actual user messaging?
To get back to branding, you might consider using customer messaging as the basis for core website and landing page copy.
We’re not copywriters. We’re not writers. We’re not gifted content creators.
If the answer is no and you can’t afford a professional word magician yet, then do what they do and LISTEN to how your users explain your SaaS and its features using their own language – spoken and written.
This is invaluable. Indispensable!
Capture the good you do, and how it’s described and interpreted by the top 20% of your user base.
Imagine you get the opportunity to chat with fellow entrepreneurs who are also users of your software on a regular basis… and how transformative that would be.
It sure was for us.
An example is when we sat down with the CEO of Ghostwriter.AI.
They’re a customer of ours who saw the great results in the bullet points below using our SaaS and provided us with a positive user story that also became a customer story and promotional video.
- Improved their finalization of initial user onboarding steps by 80%.
- Saw a 63% savings with less tech support for old inefficient user onboarding systems.
- Guide completion rates rose from really low to between 53% and 84%.
Are you leveraging your users in this way to increase overall SaaS value?
To go a step further, here’s something else you can do with this kind of messaging – put together effective Google Display ads like the one we created to go along with the success story:
In 2019, one of our customers reached out to ask us whether our service could be applied to, as she put it,
“Basically any web product?”
The team all looked at each other with a slightly awkward feeling in the air because it was so simple of a question…and realized that yes indeed, that was true…we’d just never managed to put it exactly like that.
We immediately went about creating the ad in the screenshot below, and so far it’s become one of our highest-CTR ads among our Google Search ads:
A final example, and this is one we’ve been using on the front page of our website for our SaaS.
See how it’s put in their own quickly-written verbiage? See how much more real that makes it FEEL within the context it’s presented? That’s because it IS real.
Makes a huge difference between content or copy that’s conjured, or strictly whiteboarded, or thought up by a bunch of engineers or individuals who aren’t organic users.
#4: Create Exceptional Foundational-Pillar Content
So we’ve gone over your core website copy — ideally, we’d like you to approach it based on user messaging, not fanciful copywriting trickery or hard sales.
Now let’s talk about the foundational pillar content used to project your SaaS into the fray.
Note: By this we’re referring to a set of content assets that basically act as the foundation for your brand, addressing the most pertinent and relevant information from your user’s perspective.
Instead of trying to break down our entire framework of content, let’s look at our cornerstone content then we’ll chat about them in brief.
As of right now, early 2022, our three highest-performing blog-based content marketing assets
that drive the most new sign ups are these:
What can we tell you about them?
- They were created not on a whim & prayer, but based on direct user communication (see subsection #2 of this chapter – ‘Talk To Your Users’). It wasn’t a stretch for us to see that our ideal users, SaaS startups, and enterprise companies, focus on Product Adoption.
- They’re professionally optimized according to our current understanding of Google SEO best practices, with a focus on human value.
- They’re not published with picture-perfect-grammarian-approved levels of polish, or absurd amounts of custom graphic art. They were originally born of questions, like when we were asked about complementary onboarding solutions and created the ‘20 User Onboarding Tools’ content that shot straight to first-page results on Google.
- They’re not end-results but works in progress so they remain relevant. Important topics like NPS aren’t typically stagnant or static, so we continually update our content to keep it fresh.
Transitioning to email marketing, the same holds true:
What might happen if you based 80+% of that channel messaging on what your users tell you about the EMAIL-side experience of your SaaS and how useful it is?
As an example of what we’re doing in that light, here’s an email we send to free trial users on their 2nd day with UserGuiding that’s easy to consume, not condescending in any way, and very approachable (good feels!).
Final example, we promise.
We trigger personalized chat messages based on the select high-value traffic sources of new signups. So, for people signing up to UserGuiding who came from something like HubSpot’s hyper-relevant cornerstone content article “10 Best Practices to Streamline User Onboarding” we show them the following message:
Not too fancy, but it helps to establish a connection; the beginnings of brand awareness and feeling.
#5: Temporary Competition ‘Mimicking’ Into Freedom
Thankfully we were a bit late to our particular niche’s party.
100% of our core competitors had been created well before we arrived.
Here’s the breakdown:
This makes it easy to stop, smell the flowers, and see what they’re doing!
To get this to start happening, we began with SEO.
We had to get our foundations right if we were serious!
We had some imitating to do, because we weren’t prepared or capable of recreating any wheels. Some quick examples include:
- SEO Tools: We could name drop the most popular like AHrefs & SEMrush, but these tools are a no-brainer. Which are you using for basic SEO? We chose to learn the most widely-used and learn them fast! They’ve been a part of our system ever since.
- Agency Help: Are you against bringing a third-party agency into the picture? We weren’t. While there were new skill sets and tools we were willing to learn respective to each of our roles (like research-based SEO tools), no one, especially our developers, was going to learn things like blog design and management. We brought in a WordPress Agency local to our area.
- The Blog: Simple formula here: answer a couple questions and get to work! What is your competition doing in the content marketing department? Furthermore, what kind of content are your users going to need and actively be looking for relative to your service? A proper blog is a mixture of fixed pillar/evergreen content, constantly updated content, and newly-published content.
More On Our Approach to SaaS Blogging
When it comes to our blog, and without doubt our blog is a MASSIVE part of our system, we begin all content ideation with this question:
“Will this content benefit our ideal users?”
For us, our ideal users are startup founders, and the answer has to be yes. Not maybe. Not ‘a little’ but a huge, resounding, overwhelming YES!
- We began to study competitors to see how they served & optimized content.
- Not light research, the real stuff – conducted by humans fueled by stiff coffee and a drive to succeed, and empowered by tools like SimilarWeb.
- What we found was a focus on organic Google traffic (inbound) and Quora.
Once we knew where to get our feet wet, we needed some tricks of the trade. Nothing outlandish though, but simple and manageable. For example, this search query on Quora made it possible for us to see everything our competitors had answered on the platform which became like a giant to-do list.
“site:quora.com (“appcues” OR “walkme” OR “userlane” OR “whatfix”)”
Little things like this have huge impacts!
Over time we’ve been weighing in, adding value to these conversations, creating new questions, and so forth. It’s worked quite well, while allowing us to build our brand in the niche.
Another easy step was creating relatively generic ‘Us vs. Them’ articles like these:
Chapter 3 – 5 BIGGEST Mistakes to Avoid in SaaS Marketing
Before wrapping this content up, we wanted to provide you with five easy-to-digest lessons we learned along the way, the hard way, without going too deeply into the nitty-gritty. While the list could have been so much longer, these are the highlights to avoid.
#1 – Leaping to Data-Conclusions
Never forget this fact – there’s no such thing as good or bad data, there’s just data.
Recently we let this truth slip from our minds and it cost us.
- We’d managed to get relatively cheaper sign ups from mobile devices vs. desktop (87%) using unique and eye-catching visuals designed specifically for mobile.
- We saw high CTR on these ads and corresponding responsive landing pages.
“Wait, you achieved a higher CTR and brought in more sign-ups for 87% cheaper than what you pay for desktop sign ups? What’s the problem?”
After prematurely getting excited about the data and making a huge omnichannel push for a month, we discovered almost NONE of the users in this funnel were downloading our Chrome extensions which is one of the most important activation steps in our entire process.
#2 – Dedicating Too Much To Certain Problems
Imagine you’ve got a nice big pile of logs ready to be cut into proper firewood. Some of the logs are from older wood and it splits like melted butter under a hot knife. Other logs are a bit tougher, but after a few more whacks you can get it split in two then the rest is easier.
Other logs, however, are wet, full of knots, and almost impossible to quickly chop into nice firewood.
If you come across one of those early on when you just get starting chopping wood, are you going to dump MASSIVE amounts of your energy into it and risk not getting anymore cut for the day?
Or, do you set it aside and tackle it later after you’ve gotten a lot done?
- We spent too much time trying to solve the attribution problem of web analytics early on.
- We found ourselves drowning in ad platforms and all their fine print.
- In our efforts to be creative with this issue, we ended up stifled by attribution (Rand Fishkin published a great article on the subject entitled, “Too Much Creative Marketing is Stifled by Attribution” if you’re interested).
Since then we’ve shifted to following monthly trends, focusing on total numbers of organic & social (viral) traffic and how many people are actually signing up. We’re not growing our content marketing efforts for advertising, but for business and to help more people benefit from our SaaS.
#3 – The Failed Meeting Experiment
Simply put, we wasted a LOT of time, human energy, headaches, and budget with this creative meeting experiment.
The idea was to set up meetings where we could sell our SaaS to enterprises on the local level. We chose Istanbul as a trial location and it went horribly.
In the end, the meetings were largely fruitless and ineffective, and that was before the COVID pandemic struck europe.
Not saying they can’t work, only that there were ample opportunities to throw in the towel and cut our losses but we were blinded-sided by blind optimism.
#4 – Trying to Use Other Founder’s Lucky Numbers
Throughout this article we’ve tried to tread carefully, always being mindful that what works for us (our winning numbers) isn’t going to work the same way for anyone else.
In the beginning though, especially when you’ve never founded a SaaS company before, it’s incredibly easy to bend like a reed before every stiff startup or Silicon Valley-style breeze.
- There are so many successful people in the world to listen to, but you’ve got to be ready to do the hard work and carve your own path through the thicket.
- Chasing this method or that method, or what this SaaS did or that one did, will usually just waste your time while the window of opportunity is closing around you.
- Listen to everyone, pick what works best in your situation, and let go of everything else.
Once we had enough solid ground to stand on our own two feet, what we were left with was mainly basics and a unique system we’d patched together using tools and pieces everyone uses.
#5 – Playing Catch Up in the Branding Department
The first step in Chapter 2 we discussed was Branding, Branding, Branding…because we quasi-failed in the beginning and did this sloppily.
Let’s be clear though, we experienced some great success despite that fact.
but now we’re really feeling how this wasn’t a smart move.
You pay these dues either way. Better to pay then in the beginning, when it’s appropriate.
- In the beginning we were honestly hustling! It felt better to be grinding away day after day on active platforms rather than building our brand (or sort of chicken before the egg experience).
- Only now are we really beginning to find, focus on, and build our unique voice within the greater industry.
- This means we’re going to have to go back, rework most if not all of our content (socials, articles, product messaging, user messaging, Quora content moving forward, etc.) to be inline with this positioning.
An example here would be going back through and updating our ‘UserGuiding vs X Competitor’ articles and removing any biased language.
Because part of our brand has always been honesty. Problem is, we didn’t bother to include that sincere level of transparency along the way, in our frenzy and hunger to succeed.
So… if you are just starting, looking for ways to grow your SaaS company, I suggest you focus on a few channels, be the thought leader of your niche, and build both a personal & company branding.
As for this article, make sure to come back and check every few months to see the updates I’ve made, or subscribe to our blog newsletter below and I’ll let you know!