Peter Cohen | Practical Advice on SaaS Marketing Blog
I’m Peter Cohen, principal of SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors, and the author of the "Practical Advice on SaaS Marketing" blog. Before I started my own firm and this blog, I'd spent many years in marketing positions with Lotus, IBM, and other companies. I started SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors and this blog to share that experience with my clients. I focus on providing..
One of my clients told me a story that they’d just closed a large new deal with a prospect that’s been in their pipeline for a long time – as in 2 years’ long time.
And that’s not some crazy outlier. They’re working other opportunities that have been in there for well over a year.
This is not how it’s supposed to go
In the ideal world, prospects step through a simple, straight-line process:
- enter the pipeline as a lead
- convert from a lead to a qualified opportunity
- convert the opportunity into a “closed won” or “closed lost”
- renew existing customers, critical for success of software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies.
And one of Marketing’s job is to speed up this process.
Of course, when I plot the real-life process with my clients – not the ideal-world process – I don’t come up with anything quite so simple. Most prospects follow a more convoluted path and they start-and-start along the way.
The pipeline isn’t a straight line. It’s full of loops.
A prospect searches on one of your paid adwords, comes to your website, signs up for a free trial, and spends time on your pricing page. Or maybe they go even further and request a call with Sales. (Of course, you’re conscientiously tracking this with your marketing automation system, assigning points to the prospect’s lead score all along the way.)
So, you escalate the lead and pass it over to the Sales team.
But then it all comes to a halt. Six emails, three voice mail messages, and one LinkedIn request later, the sales person still hasn’t connected with the prospect. The lead gets looped back to Marketing for further cultivation, and they may stay there for months before they show any renewed interest.
And that’s a simple version. You’ve probably seen prospects that have gone through this loop from Marketing to Sales and back to Marketing two or three times before there’s a final disposition.
Why is it so complicated?
Sometimes prospects don’t follow the straight and simple path just because they’re not really qualified. No matter how carefully you design a marketing campaign, you’ll inevitably pull some bad leads into the pipeline. It happens.
But lots of times your marketing campaign reaches precisely the right prospect, someone eminently qualified to buy your product… and they still go through this start-stop and Marketing-to-Sales-back to Marketing loop.
This is especially common when you’re marketing a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution. Remember that the prospect has a lot of other responsibilities besides evaluating your solution. (See “Your prospect has a day job.”) They may have been able to dedicate a chunk of time to an initial exploration, but then got distracted by other priorities. They can’t carve out the time to work with your free trial, answer your emails, or get back to your voice mails.
Keep prospects on the radar screen
Don’t give up on these prospects. Over time, some number of them will re-engage. The reason they initially looked for you will bubble back up on their list of high-priorities. You can even try to turn up the urgency for them. (See “Why your prospects are ignoring you.”)
Find a cost-effective way to stay in front of them. I’ve seen newsletters, tips, or other helpful advice that goes out on regularly work well. You should provide an easy way for the prospect to indicate that they are ready to re-engage, though it’s best to avoid a constant harangue of “please, please, please return my phone calls.”
Some prospects will move faster than others. But when they are ready to move ahead, you want to be there.
SaaS companies need to tell their creation story. Not because they’re storytellers, but because It can help them acquire customers.
Yes, I know this notion of a creation story might sound like something from ancient mythology. But there are plenty of examples of compelling creation stories from recent tech history:
Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard inventing the audio oscillator in a Palo Alto garage.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen writing MS-DOS for the IBM PC.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak building their first personal computer for the Homebrew Computing Club.
For a few years, I worked at IDC where everyone knew the story of Pat McGovern’s founding his company in a small gray house in Newton, MA.
What’s in the story?
There’s usually nothing too complicated about the creation story. It explains two essential things about the company and the solution: Who built it and why?
The most effective creation stories talk about the background of the founder(s), how they came to know about the market they’re selling into, what problem they saw and set out to solve, and why they thought they could build something better than other solutions.
These stories might also spell out core principles that guide how they treat customers, employees, and other stakeholders. Google, for example, included “Don’t be evil” among its principles until it later dropped that line.
The more ambitious stories articulate a “mission.” Microsoft talked about a goal to put “a computer on every desk in every home,” though that too has morphed over time.
Here’s what creation stories are NOT about: the products and how they work. Instead they’re about the people and the thinking behind those products.
Why does this matter to SaaS companies?
I know, marketers have plenty of work on their plates already without adding “tell the creation story” to the list.
Of course, companies can get along without telling their creation story. They can confine themselves to cranking out the standard array of white papers, brochures, and other marketing material.
But creation stories can help attract new customers. And that’s especially true for companies selling software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.
For one, the people buying solutions are often the same people that will be using the solution. It’s the HR professional using the HR solution, the marketing manager using the marketing automation solution, or the sales manager using the CRM solution.
These prospective customers want to know if the people that have built the solution really understand their challenges. Do they actually know what their world is like?
Second, the prospects need to trust the company. Remember with a SaaS solution, they’re buying a promise, not a product. The customer needs to know that the SaaS provider will deliver the functionality and support as promised. A creation story can help build that trust. (See “SaaS Marketing is about promises, not products.”)
If you’re a SaaS marketer, I understand the urge to talk all about your solution’s features, benefits, and advantages. But besides talking about what your product can do, you should also talk about who built it and why.
Let me give this to you straight: Nobody really cares about your SaaS solution.
They don’t care how it’s built. They don’t want to see a demo. And they don’t want to talk to you
At least not yet.
No one has any interest in your solution… until they see that they have a problem and they suspect you may be able to solve it.
An obvious, but too common mistake
I know this sounds harsh and painfully obvious. But then why do so many websites sound like this?
Our world-class (fill in the blank) SaaS solution offers this brilliant function, that brilliant function, and this other brilliant function. It’s way better than somebody else’s solution. Click here for a free trial/to request a demo/ to talk with a salesperson.
I’m sure that some fraction of visitors that see this description on a website will actually click through. But it requires that these folks do a lot of work. They need to figure out for themselves why any of these features matter to them. They need to make the connection between their problem and this solution.
And that’s not all they need to do. They’ll also need to assess whether it’s an urgent problem. Is it something that they can live with, or does it really need their immediate attention? (See “Your toughest competitor… inertia.”)
When all we talk about is features, features, and features, we’re asking the visitor to do a lot of work on their own. And by the way, we’re asking them to do all this work in maybe a minute or less. That’s how much time they’re likely to give with us when they first come to our website.
Why do we force people to work so hard?
I’ll guess at why this happens. It’s often because we fall in love with our technology.
We get so wrapped up in the elegant solution we’ve developed, that we forget the problem we built it to solve in the first place. Or at least we forget that we need to explain the problem to the prospective customer.
We’re too eager to spew out everything we can say about the solution… even before the person knows what we’re trying to solve. (See “Demo? Not so fast.”)
Earning the right to show more
Instead of talking about features, features, and more features, a website would probably generate a lot more engagement – clicks, downloads, trials, whatever – if we marketing folks made it easier for visitors to see the problem we solve. We should make it easy to see the connection between their problem and our solution. We shouldn’t rely on the visitor to do that work.
Before we go into all kinds of detail about our solution, we want the visitor nodding their head and thinking: “Yes, I see I have this problem in my organization, I realize that the way I’m trying to solve it now isn’t working, and I know that it needs immediate attention and I can't ignore it.”
Only then will we have earned the right to show our solution.
Nobody needs a solution until they know they have a problem.
If you thought that once you’ve won a deal and brought a new customer on-board your software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution, and you’re all done...sorry.
You’re not done yet.
Winning a new customer is just the start; now you need to keep that customer.
Depending on what it costs you to acquire a customer (CAC), it may take several months – maybe even years – for subscription revenues to recover that cost (LTV/CAC). If a customer quits before you’ve reached that point, you lose money. That’s how the SaaS model works. (See “Nothing simple about SaaS benchmark metrics.”)
A new job for marketers
This requirement to hold on to customers gives marketers a new job, one they didn’t have before SaaS: marketing to existing customers.
True confession: When I worked for companies marketing traditional licensed software, I only thought about existing customers on two occasions: when I needed a customer reference or when I saw them at the annual user conference.
But for SaaS companies, things are different. It’s essential to remind existing customers why they’re paying for your solution. Show them how much they’re using it to hire new employees, deliver training courses, handle expense reports, send out email newsletters, or whatever it is you do for your customers.
I get a regular reminder from Carbonite about how many files they’ve backed up. That is definitely not something I would pay attention to otherwise.
Help customers get more value
Even better if you take an extra step and help your customers get more value from the solution. Show them how to do what they’re doing better. Share tips & tricks, expert advice, and best practices. Let them know about enhancements you’ve made to the solution and show them how to use them.
Watch for low activity
If your solution is used primarily by one person in the organization, for example an HR professional, a project manager, or an accounts payable manager, be on the lookout for a sharp drop in activity. If nobody’s logging in, there’s a problem. It’s worthwhile finding out if perhaps there’s a new person in the role that might need training.
Stay in touch
One last bit of advice. Stay in contact regularly with your customers. Nothing quite says “I really don’t care about you” than reaching out to them for the first time two days before the subscription expires.
There's a reason lots of SaaS companies offer free trials. Done well, they work. They can attract paying customers to software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.
But it doesn’t happen automatically.
There’s nothing about a free trial that magically converts a free trialer into a paying customer. Getting prospects through that journey isn’t easy… meaning there are lot of ways that free trials can go wrong.
Your prospects are busy
One of the biggest obstacles to converting free trialers into paying customers is that your prospects are busy people. While they’re juggling lots of priorities, carving out time to work with a trial solution is a challenge. (See “Your prospect has a day job.”)
Even if you don’t charge to use the solution, working with the free trial will still cost the prospect precious time. And if there are multiple trialers within the organization, even more time is needed. (See “A free trial isn’t really free.”)
Make free trials easier
A few tactics could help.
Focus on key tasks: When a prospective customer signs up for a free trial, guide them to complete 2 or 3 key tasks. This should be enough to give them an idea of what the solution does and how to use it. For most customers, that’s sufficient. They don’t need, or have time, to go through every single feature in the product.
Quickly show value: Guide free trialers quickly to features that will “wow” them. Don’t force them to jump through hoops before they can see how the solution can be helpful to them.
Don’t require too much set-up work: Give the prospective customer a head-start. For example, include sample data if possible so there’s no need to enter lots of data just to get started. Starting them off with a blank page can be very intimidating.
Show it’s easy to use: In talking with many free trialers, I’ve learned that most of them just want to see if the solution is easy to learn and use. They don’t need to see all the features. They just want to know that it’s something they’ll be comfortable and productive using.
Free trials are not required
Besides a free trial, keep in mind that there are other ways to let prospects see your solution. Sometimes it’s better to offer something different or alongside the free trial.
An effective demo can show key features of the solution. And for prospects that aren’t yet ready for a direct interaction with the vendor, a short video of highlights can be enough to give an overview and entice them to see more. (See “Most demos are useless.”)
A no-obligation/no commitment subscription lets the customer pays for the solution, but they can cancel at any time. If they’re not using it, they stop paying.
A money-back guarantee goes even further. If the customer is unhappy after a month or some other designated time period, you send them their money back.
Both of these approaches give the customer the peace of mind to know they won’t be stuck with something they don’t use.
I’m not opposed to free trials. I’ve seen them work very well at attracting prospects and paying customers, but only when they’re done well. Otherwise, you’ll find you’re wasting your time and losing business.
Ok, let me remind us all of the blatantly obvious: “SaaS” stands for “software-as-service.” Yup, “service” is right there in the name.
But looking at the way most SaaS solutions are marketed, too often it’s all about the “software”, and
not much about the “service.”
On website, in videos, during customer presentations, and in every other piece of marketing communication, it’s all about the software. “Look at this feature, look at that feature, look at another feature.”
All this hyping of features reminds me of how we used to market traditional licensed application packages. That made sense when we were essentially selling a disc full of software.
The buyer expects service with their software
But that’s not what SaaS is, and it’s not what the SaaS buyer expects.
They’re paying a regular subscription fee for access to the software features… and a whole lot more.
If you’re marketing and selling a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution, feel free to ring a bell or do
whatever it is you do when you win a new deal.
But don’t stop there.
Those new customers are worth more than just subscription revenue. They can tell you a lot to help your marketing.
Think about it. They’ve just emerged from the evaluation and purchase process, they’ve seen your marketing efforts up close.
They’re in a good spot to share some useful insights, such as:
What did they use before they bought your new solution?
Why did they change? What was wrong with the old system?
Where did they find out about your solution?
What other solutions did they look at and why did they choose yours?
That’s vital information that can help you market and win even more new customers.
How do you get this information?
But you do need to ask them. How?
You could conduct a customer survey via a questionnaire. There are lots of methodologies and software or consultants to help here.
Or you could ask your Sales people. After all, they’ve been intimately involved in the process with the prospect.
Beware though that Sales may carry a bias. When asked why a customer bought, you may hear a salesperson explain “it was because of the wonderful relationship established by the salesperson.”
Another approach is to simply talk to small sample of new customers. Even short conversations with a handful of customers can be useful.
These can be especially revealing if they’re conducted as conversations, not surveys. Tee up a few questions (like the ones suggested earlier) and follow wherever the customer takes you.
Though the handful of interviews from an individual month represent only a small sample size, over the course of a year these should yield valid information. You’ll gather insights that can help craft effective marketing messages and structure marketing programs that really reach prospects.
Worried about bothering new customers? In my experience, most customers are happy to talk for a few minutes and share their thoughts. In fact, they’re often delighted to know that their new vendor actually cares what they think.
I’ve seen these interviews done well by people within the company, though it’s best to have Marketing people call, not Sales. Using an outside person can also be effective. (Contact me if you need help.)
When you win a new customer, go ahead and celebrate. But don’t miss out on the useful information you can gather from them.
If you’re selling or marketing a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution, you’ve probably seen
something like this before:
You’re talking with a prospective customer that’s struggling with a broken, outdated system, something they’ve been using for a long time to handle some vital task. The prospect knows it’s a poor system and they know it’s hurting their organization.
And you’ve shown them your wonderful SaaS solution, they can see how it would be a huge improvement, and… they still don’t buy.
You’d once listed these prospects as “highly qualified” or “ready to buy,” but then they go dormant. No response to calls, no answers to emails… just radio silence.
Fear that something will go wrong getting from the old to the new
It could just be fear. Your once-hot prospect got cold feet.
Up until the moment of truth - a decision to OK the purchase - everything had gone exactly as scripted.
Your prospect recognized the flaws in their existing system and they clearly saw the benefits and advantages of your superior alternative.
But then things hit a roadblock. The prospect is worried about getting from here to there.
Moving from their existing system to your new system is fraught with peril. Lots can go wrong with the transition.
Inputting data can be difficult and time-consuming.
Data can get lost in the transition.
Users can get confused.
Administrators can get confused.
Standard reports might not get prepared.
Normal workflows might be interrupted.
There may be a gap when neither system is available.
None of this would be good news for your customer.
Remember that they, like most SaaS buyers, is someone with a full-time job with other responsibilities and a reputation to protect. (See “Your prospect has a day job.”)
The HR manager doesn’t want to hear from employees that they can’t request vacation days or complete a performance review.
The Finance manager doesn’t want to hear complaints that expense reports can’t be submitted or vendors can’t get paid.
The Sales exec doesn’t want to hear that account reps can’t see their pipeline or track progress on their opportunities.
The warehouse manager doesn’t want to find out that it’s impossible to accurately track inventory.
These folks don’t have the time, the patience, or the thick skin to deal with the complaints and push-back if the move to a new system goes wrong.
Getting prospects past the fear
No matter how poor their existing system, and no matter how wonderful the promise of your new system, if the customer can’t see themselves getting from the old to the new flawlessly, they might not take the risk. They’ll stick with what they’ve got and what they know, warts and all.
Getting them over that fear doesn’t mean showing them yet more features and functions in your system. It doesn’t mean pointing out again the costs of their existing system or showing them the extraordinary ROI on your system. And it has nothing to do with offering a lower price.
Instead, it’s about showing prospective customers that your experts will guide them through a proven, well-structured implementation. They need to be convinced them that they can rely on you to help them navigate the transition to your new system.
Until prospects trust that you can help them get from where they are now to where they want to be – without things breaking along the way – they’ll hold off on making a decision. They won’t buy.
Distinguish your product from alternatives. It should be obvious why they should pitch yours and not someone else’s.
Be available as an expert to support the sale. The partner should be able to rely on you to provide specialized expertise, understand the prospect’s business, and speak their language.
Make it easy to sell your product. The partner wants to know that your solution can help them sell more of their own product. Don’t get in the way of that goal.
Think about it. If one of the partner’s sales executives is working with a prospect, they’re number one goal is to win the account. If they need to reach into the portfolio of thousands of partners’ solutions to help them win, you want to be sure they reach for your solution, not somebody else’s.
They should have full confidence that by bringing you into the opportunity, they’ll have a much better chance of winning the business.
Don’t rely on “paper partnerships”
I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade here. Partnerships do have the potential to be helpful to smaller companies.
But recognize that a signed partnership agreement doesn’t work all by itself. The signatures and the press announcement are really just the startof the process.
To be effective, companies need to actively market themselves to the partner. Along with other prospects, the partners are another important target audience that needs care and attention.
I get it. You’ve finally built a working product and now you’re ready to get it out into the market.
You want to crank out a press release, put up a website, offer a free trial, execute an email
campaign, buy adwords, or do whatever else you can think of or afford.
Don’t do it. Or at least don’t do it yet.
If you rush headlong into programs and deliverables, you’ll end up spending a lot of time and maybe a lot of money… but not necessarily winning a lot of paying customers.
And finding and keeping paying customers -either directly or indirectly – is what marketing is usually all about.
But getting that done requires two essentials: a story and a plan. To be effective, you need both in place before you launch into any programs or create any deliverables.
You need a story
Your audience needs to know:
1. who your solution is for
2. what problem it solves, and
3. why they should buy it from you.
You need to be able to concisely and consistently convey this in every communication you have with prospective customers.
Without a compelling story (or “value proposition” if you want to get formal about it), everything you say about your solution on the website, in sales presentations, in emails, in papers and videos, or wherever else you’re pushing out your message will have little impact.
You need a roadmap
You need to have a roadmap to lead prospects through the entire evaluation and purchase process.
For many B2B solutions, the process will involve multiple steps and multiple decision-makers. And it will probably be interrupted along the way and may not always go into a straight-line.
You’ll need a roadmap that provides deliverables and programs at each step of the process from attracting initial visibility and leads through to winning paying customers. And don’t forget the “keeping customers” part of the process. It’s vital to SaaS success. (See "Your Existing Customers are Prospects Too.")
Without a well-structured plan, you’ll probably end up with gaps and bottlenecks where prospects get stuck and you end up generating lots of visibility, but not collecting many qualified leads, or you collect lots of leads but don’t convert them into paying customers.
I know you’re eager to get out there and do stuff.
But before you launch headlong with a bunch of marketing tactics, first put two essentials in place: a story and a roadmap.