SaaS companies have their work cut out for them. In theory, the SaaS model is one of the most profitable and scalable types of businesses in the modern world. Assuming you have a good idea and a reasonable profitability basis, there’s nothing stopping you from scaling up a business to the point where your incoming revenue is practically limitless.
However, most SaaS companies rely on large-scale user bases in order to achieve that level of profitability. When you get to the order of thousands of users, your app is stable enough and your reputation is strong enough that retention and acquisition become child’s play. But every business starts with zero customers, and something needs to close the gap.
That “something” is marketing, but not all marketing strategies are equally effective, or equally appropriate for a SaaS brand.
First, it’s important to understand what makes for an “effective” marketing strategy to begin with. There are many considerations for this, as the process for any given customer to make a purchase and remain a subscriber is fairly complex, and marketing strategies can operate at multiple levels.
(Image Source: Content Marketing Institute)
The chart above neglects the “retention” phase, after purchase, which is another important consideration for SaaS marketing strategies.
Your goal, ultimately, is to earn a customer-related benefit that monetarily outweighs the capital you’ve poured into the strategy. This can happen at multiple levels, including:
Some strategies target all of these goals, while others specialize on one or two. Marketing strategies also range in cost and in time investment. Ultimately, this guide will consider strategies that accomplish as many of these goals as possible, as consistently as possible, for the least amount of total investment (and therefore, highest ROI).
There are some special considerations for marketing in a SaaS business, however.
(Image Source: Zendesk)
(Image Source: Software Advice)
Your marketing needs to have some mechanism for strongly differentiating your brand.
With these considerations in mind, let’s explore some of the best all-around strategies a SaaS company can adopt.
I’ve listed content marketing as the first and most effective marketing strategy a SaaS company can adopt. It’s difficult to prove this with numbers, since every campaign is different, but for your investment, content marketing is the strategy that offers the best long-term return in the greatest number of different areas. It operates on every level of customer acquisition—from raising brand awareness to converting visitors and even retaining your existing customer base—and it’s relatively cheap, since it doesn’t require much overhead or specialized technology. Best of all, it’s scalable—meaning it’s effective at every stage of your growth—and it’s perfectly positioned for long-term gains. In fact, the return you see on content marketing should increase exponentially as you invest more and more effort into it.
Let’s take a look at some of the individual applications content marketing can offer. Keep in mind that some pieces of content will be able to fulfill multiple roles in this list.
Inbound-focused content is geared toward getting the greatest number of users to your site. This happens in many contexts, such as building awareness and visibility of your brand, sparking the interest of potential visitors, and clinching the deal by earning an inbound click.
Accordingly, there are some main considerations your inbound content should focus on:
(Image Source: SEO.co)
SEO.co is a proud user of inbound-focused content. In fact, you’re reading a piece of it right now! With unique content, focused on providing valuable information and making your readers’ lives easier, you’ll have no trouble attracting more people to your brand. From there, if your solution is valuable enough, the conversion and customer flow will be natural.
Content is also effective because of its potential to retain audience members who have already become customers. For this, you’ll have a similar but distinct set of priorities. Since you’ve already gotten these visitors to become active subscribers, you need to give them some kind of recurring value with content that features the following qualities:
As I mentioned, there can certainly be overlap between these different content functions. I’ve only listed them separately to illustrate the different applications and benefits of content marketing.
As a completely separate section of content, your help and support documents will be imperative to keeping your customers around for a longer period of time. If implemented properly as part of your content marketing strategy, it makes your campaign even more effective by simultaneously giving existing customers the resources they need to continue using your software and showing potential new customers your commitment to user experience and customer service.
(Image Source: SalesForce)
How you set up your help and support content section is up to you, but the goals are simple:
Every document you produce here is a permanent addition that bolsters both your acquisition and retention rates.
I’ll explore SEO a bit more in the next section, but I wanted to mention it in the context of your content marketing strategy, since it’s responsible for a significant chunk of content marketing’s value. If you optimize your onsite content pieces for SEO, with proper protocols for title tags, meta descriptions, headers, body content, etc., you’ll earn greater domain authority, you’ll rank higher for search terms related to your business, and you’ll earn more search traffic as a result.
With all these angles, the power of content marketing should be clear. Requiring a minimum investment, lasting forever, and offering a compounding return as you grow your content marketing strategy, content marketing meets all the goals and accounts for nearly all the challenges I mentioned in the introduction. In the long term, it offers the highest ROI of any marketing strategy for SaaS companies.
SEO makes the list for many of the same reasons that content marketing did, and that’s no coincidence; the two strategies are fundamentally related. Content marketing serves as fuel for a SaaS SEO campaign, so with only a handful of additional strategies, you can earn powerful results on both fronts. Like content marketing, SEO is relatively inexpensive to execute, straightforward in its concept, and it offers compounding returns over time.
The main idea here is to increase your domain authority so you achieve higher visibility in search engines. That higher visibility will lead to more search traffic, which will give your site more visitors. And since it mostly relies on digital constructs, these position changes are semi-permanent, and you’ll continue reaping the rewards indefinitely. Let’s take a look at the main points of the strategy.
Onsite optimization is all about making sure the main content and structure of your site meets certain thresholds and standards set by search engines. Doing this not only makes sure your site is seen and “indexed” by search engines, but also maximizes your chances of search engines “understanding” what your site is about, correlating it with appropriate keywords and topics.
I’ve written about onsite optimization extensively before, so I won’t dig into the details, but know that with a handful of basic changes and some ongoing upkeep work, you can position your site to rank higher for relevant search terms.
(Image Source: SEO.co)
Google likes to see sites with ongoing streams of content; it shows they care about their users. Not to mention it adds more pages of your site that Google can index, maximizing the spread of your potential search visibility, and it allows you to target specific keywords and keyword phrases that might be relevant to your audience. I already wrote about different goals your content has from a user experience perspective; here, your goals with content are earning prime search ranking opportunities, which could potentially send thousands of visitors per month your way.
The third, and arguably most powerful element of an SEO strategy is offsite content and link building. I’ve written about link building extensively as well, but I want to touch on the value of the strategy as it relates to SaaS companies. The idea here is to guest post content on high-authority external sites. These links serve as third-party indicators that your site is authoritative, and help your site rank higher in searches. And, on a secondary level, they can send direct referral traffic from these high-authority sources to your site. As most of these links are permanent, you’ll reap these benefits continuously for several months (at a minimum) for every new offsite post you publish.
Conciseness prohibits me from exploring the true value of SEO as a strategy, with all its complexities and variables you may encounter. But on a surface level, the takeaway for SaaS companies is this: with a relatively small investment, you can earn thousands of new visitors per month (and possibly build your reputation in the process, especially with high-authority external sources vouching for you).
Social media marketing is another marketing strategy especially valuable for SaaS companies. It’s completely free to establish an organic presence on the vast majority of social media platforms, and there’s no limits or boundaries for the type of communication you can facilitate in the strategy. You can use social media to gain more brand visibility, cement relationships with your existing clients, build your reputation, and even provide support to your current customer base. It’s scalable, focuses on both acquisition and retention, and provides accumulated benefits over time—making it ideal as a SaaS-focused strategy.
Even better, social media marketing exists in a complementary harmony with both SEO and content marketing. As you’ll see (and have seen), these three strategies complement and enhance each other. Separately, they’re incredibly valuable opportunities for acquisition and retention, and together, their effects multiply even further.
One of the most important factors driven by social media is brand awareness. When you post actively and work to establish your presence in outside areas, you’ll start gradually attracting new followers to your brand. People who have never seen it before will start to become familiar with it at a distance, and the followers you do acquire will learn more about what makes your brand unique.
(Image Source: Twitter)
It’s hard to get to 15,000 followers (or more) in a short timeframe, so instead try to focus on incremental goals. Set up an active, consistent posting schedule, then begin an outreach program. You’ll want to participate in conversations related to your area of expertise, work with influencers in your industry to achieve a higher level of visibility, and even engage with targeted individuals who might be a good fit for your brand. You can also use hashtags, contests, and viral content to earn more shares and become visible in alternative ways.
The ultimate goal of visibility is to inch people down the stages of the buying cycle. Awareness gets them closer to a visit, which gets them closer to a conversion. Feel free to engage in tactics that push for these stages—such as calls-to-action that request user signups—but be wary not to overload your campaign with advertising, or your users will begin to distrust you.
Social media is also valuable as a tool to boost the effectiveness of both your content marketing and SEO strategies. First, let’s take a look at how it makes content marketing more effective. Your primary goal here is to use social media as an amplification outlet for your work; people won’t naturally stumble across your blog, so whenever you publish a new post, make the announcement on social media. You can also syndicate previous works in the future, maximizing their visibility and possible return. If your work is good, you’ll facilitate more social shares, which will amplify the reach of your content even further.
The SEO benefits of social media marketing function along similar lines, capitalizing on this ability to make content more visible. Social shares of your content function as secondary signals to Google’s algorithm, but the real power here is the propensity for link building. The more high-authority links you have pointing to your domain, the higher your authority will grow, but it’s hard to earn those links naturally. Through social media syndication, you can maximize your chances of a piece of content on your site “going viral,” achieving thousands of shares and possibly millions of newsfeed impressions. In that pool of potential visitors, it’s inevitable that you’ll earn at least a few strong, natural links—as long as your content is link worthy.
Many SaaS brands also user social media as a customer service tool, providing a convenient and functional alternative mode of support (and a proactive way to announce service schedules, downtime, and other proactive measures). Some have even created a separate, dedicated account for this purpose.
The advantages of social media customer service are powerful:
Though veering slightly from the strict definition of “marketing,” customer service is a powerful angle to use in your social media strategy that lends strength to the overall approach.
SaaS communities are powerful for both customer retention and acquisition. When a user feels as though he “belongs” with your brand, he’ll never want to stop subscribing—giving him a sense of community facilitates the development of those feelings of belonging. An outside user looking in will see the comfort and advantages of the community (and at later stages, its sheer size), and may be persuaded to subscribe on that basis alone.
You’ll see this as a common tactic in many SaaS companies, some of whom have created onsite forums and engagement platforms to encourage intra-community discussion.
(Image Source: SalesForce)
Still, the best way to develop a thriving community is through social media. Make people feel like they belong to your brand by engaging them one-on-one; respond to their comments, ask them questions, and personally thank them for their contributions. They’ll remember you, and other users will see your interactions. Over time, you’ll recruit more and more followers, all of whom can converse with each other as much as they converse with you, and your community will start to take shape.
In the early stages, much like content marketing and SEO, you’ll be hard-pressed to turn a meaningful profit. However, if you remain consistent and focused in your strategy, there’s no reason why you can’t cultivate a community of thousands to engage with your brand. The enhancement benefits to your content and SEO strategies alone make social media worth the effort—but add in the customer service angle and the community building power, and you’ll calculate that even a few hours of work per day can be enough to earn you thousands of new visitors per month (and strengthened relationships with your existing subscriber base).
Paid advertising is a popular online marketing channel, so I wanted to address it and its possible advantages for SaaS companies. In paid advertising, you’ll select a medium (usually something like Google or Facebook, with prominent visibility and targeting options), they’ll post an ad, and you’ll pay a fixed price for every click you receive.
This is a cool strategy, and one that can earn you a decent ROI, but there are a handful of disadvantages for SaaS companies that make it less than ideal as a long-term marketing solution:
Most other SaaS companies are already doing this. Try to get involved, and you’ll have a hard time standing out in the crowd.
(Image Source: Google)
For these reasons, I don’t recommend paid advertising as a long-term marketing strategy in SaaS. However, it does have some powerful advantages at the start of a SaaS company’s growth, including giving you the ability to target a specific audience and ensuring a positive ROI early on in your campaign. It’s definitely worth considering as a short-term addition to your growth strategy.
There are a number of strategies I haven’t mentioned that can be valuable for SaaS companies, including email marketing and affiliate marketing, but the ones I outlined above are bigger and more important as overall constructs. Together, content marketing, SEO, and social media form a powerful, interrelated, complementary package of marketing tactics that provide the best long-term returns in both customer acquisition and customer retention. And while paid advertising often yields a positive ROI, it pales in comparison to inbound strategies when looking at the long term.