How to create a SaaS marketing strategy
Software-as-a-service (or SaaS) marketing strategies differ from other marketing strategies. Here is a step-by-step game plan, based on a presentation I did for a client, on how to create an effective and efficient marketing machine to sell SaaS, as well as other subscription services. These steps can be used as a SaaS go-to-market strategy, or to review the marketing strategy or to review existing SaaS marketing strategies.
SaaS Marketing Foundations
We start by looking at the foundation of a SaaS marketing strategy - what needs to be done before we can take a deeper dive into media and optimization. This is essential, as the understanding of target audiences and their behaviour is paramount to the planning and execution of any marketing campaign.
Assumptions about SaaS marketing strategies
SaaS marketing is a bit different from other, more traditional, marketing strategies, as SaaS typically is highly scalable as long as additional customers yield a positive ROI. SaaS marketing strategies should be able to expand as long as this increases net revenue. This calls for highly optimized marketing campaigns, building on a base that strengthens the brand, demonstrates thought leadership, and enables 3rd party endorsement.
For the SaaS marketing strategies in this article, I assume the following:
- SaaS marketing strategies should generate revenue w/ positive ROI in the short term (especially when marketing SaaS start-ups);
- Campaigns are flexible and scalable if proven that they generate net revenue;
- Marketing activities should contribute to strengthen and protect the brand;
- Both off- and online marketing is integrated with sales, product management, and after sales.
SaaS-specific SWOT analysis
Before looking at marketing, start with a detailed SWOT analysis. Looking into the organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Strengths will help to set marketing priorities and answer questions like:
- What do investors or other stakeholders expect as marketing results?
- Are brand recognition and perception where they want to be?
- Is there a short-time need for positive cash flow?
- Are our promises and deliverables aligned?
Insights from the SWOT analysis will help to set marketing priorities, baselines, and align the messaging with the right audiences.
Calculate Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)
Knowing how much revenue is created by a typical customer is one of the most important aspects of SaaS marketing strategies. This allows you to calculate a baseline and the ROI for every marketing strategy, tactic, and campaign. As long as a campaign yields a positive ROI, it generates net revenue. This enables the company to increase net revenue and market share over time.
Create buying personas
A buying persona is a summary of a fictitious typical customer and his/her behaviour, based on market research. It typically includes demographics, behaviour, needs, wants, fears and goals, as well as what they think about the SaaS product and how do they fit in the buyer’s journey and loyalty loop.
An organization (or even one service) can have multiple buying personas, especially in B2B SaaS when there typically are multiple stakeholders involved. For example, the buyer persona “Timmy Tool” might be open to purchase a subscription to an online tool, but he needs to persuade “Oliver Owner” who owns the company and has other goals, fears, and needs.
Map your buyer’s journey and loyalty loop
In 1898, E. St. Elmo Lewis developed a model which mapped a theoretical customer journey from attention to purchase, often referred to as the “customer journey” or “buyer’s journey“. This model, and others like it, are great tools to analyze and optimize the road towards a purchase.
However, for SaaS, the bulk of the revenue and profit come from sustained subscriptions. For example, increasing the length of a SaaS subscription by 10% will have more impact on net profit than a 10% improvement in CPA.
Ensure that your organization has mapped out all the steps of the buyer’s journey and the loyalty loop, so you can optimize your messaging accordingly and market your software as efficiently as possible. This will increase the effectiveness of all marketing campaigns and help to build and load your brand.
Performance Marketing Setup & Tracking
For most SaaS companies, scaling their customer base is key to survival. In order to achieve this, it is key that the marketing processes are highly automated, self-learning, and tied in with real business results. This part of this article on SaaS marketing strategy focuses on the steps and tactics needed to create a healthy, semi-autonomous marketing machine that uses data to drive real business results.
Persuasion architecture and micro-moments
Persuasion architecture is the art of addressing all the questions, fears, and needs that a potential customer has during the buying process when it is most effective to lead to the desired outcome. This is usually done by chunking the customer’s train of thought up in micro-moments. Every time the customer has a need for a new piece of information, this will be presented at the right time and in the right format.
Great examples of persuasion architecture are landing pages (a.k.a. squeeze pages) or traditional long sales letters. For example, a landing page usually uses the AIDA-formula (Attention, Interest, Desire, Attention) to spoon-feed appropriate information to the reader.
These landing pages address the reader’s needs, wants, fears, uncertainty and whatever might go through the reader’s mind - and address these in a logical order. That’s why organizations typically communicate the benefit of their services first before they tell more about themselves or show testimonials.
This is where your buyer’s journey map and your buying personas really shine. Use your buyer’s journey and personas in tandem to analyze the process that your buying personas follow in detail, and ensure that you address all their needs at the appropriate time, with the appropriate message and medium. You can do that using REAN-modelling - more on that later.
Organise marketing channels by function and KPI
Step 1: Introducing the REAN model
The REAN Model, as introduced in Steve Jackson’s excellent book “Cult of Analytics“, is a great way to map out all the different ways a potential customer can engage with a SaaS brand prior to and after becoming a customer.
“REAN” stands for Reach, Engage, Activate and Nurture. These are all phases of the buyer’s journey and the loyalty loop. The REAN model can be used to map all the micro-moments within these processes. This shows people’s thoughts and behaviour while they move through the acquisition process.
Why is this useful? For one, this ensures that all potential steps in the SaaS sign-up process are being tracked and addressed. Secondly, it makes it easier for marketers to harmonize the storytelling among the channels within each REAN phase. Lastly, the REAN model allows savvy marketers to map out the various SaaS marketing channels and optimize the associated KPIs. More on this below.
Step 2: REAN and media channels
Now all the steps in the buyer’s journey and loyalty loop clear, it is time to map out the marketing channels that are used during these phases in the REAN-process. This helps your organization to:
- Track which marketing channels are being used;
- Visualize the role of these channels in the buying process and the client lifecycle;
- See if you are missing any opportunities by identifying missing marketing channels.
Step 3: Add SMART KPIs
In the next phase, we will add SMART Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to the marketing activities. A KPI is used to measure the results of the marketing activities. A SMART KPI means that it is Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Time-bound. Such KPIs provide consistent and clear data and form the foundation of performance marketing.
Step 4: The marketing matrix
Now we have all the information in one place, it is time to tie it all together. This can be done using a marketing matrix. This matrix combines the:
- REAN phases;
- Organization’s marketing goals;
- Storytelling during each REAN phase;
- Marketing channels used to do this;
- KPIs that are used to measure results.
Here’s a great way to collectively map out your marketing channels in a marketing matrix during a SaaS marketing strategy workshop:
- Divide a whiteboard into 4 columns - one for each phase in the REAN-process;
- Each attendant takes a stack of sticky notes and a marker, so they can write down any channel they’re using and stick them in the applicable phase(s) in the REAN-process on the whiteboard. Take a picture for reference;
- Discuss the findings: are all marketing channels included? Are all REAN-phases covered by a reliable mix of channels?
- Now, ask participants to add additional channels that are currently lacking. Discuss these to identify potential opportunities;
- Finally, discuss and add SMART KPIs to each marketing channel, to ensure that all marketing activities are measured and geared towards the right deliverable.
Step 5: Add value attribution
Finally, allocate the value of each conversion to each KPI conversion. Conversions with a relatively low correlation to generating revenue get a low value (e.g. a download of a white paper), while the ones that correspond with a very strong buying signal get a high value (e.g. a sales call that lasts over 5 minutes).
By this point, all the work that went into mapping all marketing channels and tactics might seem a bit excessive, but trust me, it’s paramount to efficiently manage and improving marketing ROI over time. We’ll get into more details later when we look at managing, tracking, and optimizing results over time.
At the end of this article, I’ll provide a list of tools you can use to automate value attribution from various on- and off-line marketing channels, including phone calls.
SaaS Marketing Channel Deployment
This part of this article on SaaS marketing strategy focuses on the deployment of SaaS marketing channels. We’ll look into buying intent, how to create a core of high-performing lead generation media, and how to use a content strategy for SEO, to claim thought leadership and facilitate internal selling among potential clients.
Focus on low-hanging fruit
For a high-performance SaaS go-to-market strategy, it is usually important to focus on an audience that has already shown interest. These are the potential clients that are looking for the service or have already shown interest and are ready to buy. These are the people that are already Googling your service or have visited your app or website.These are the people already at the bottom of the conversion pyramid, who are ready for purchase. We’ll focus on this group in the lead generation core - the heart of your SaaS marketing strategy.
Create a SaaS lead-generation core
The lead generation core is a set of highly focused SaaS marketing activities that generate a steady stream of high-quality leads. A dependable backbone that continuously generates quality conversions allows you more leeway with other campaigns and gives you room to test new strategies and other media.
For a strong SaaS lead generation core, consider the following channels:
This is probably the most important part of your marketing mix. Giving potential clients a way to try out your service is paramount to getting them to sign up. This can ideally be done with a trial environment or (if unavailable) a free trial period, a sandbox environment with dummy data, a video or even a slideshow. The better they can try out your service without having to pull out their credit cards, the higher the sales rate from all your media channels will be.
Highly relevant search advertising (SEM/SEA)
AdWords and Bing campaigns focusing on highly relevant searches (e.a. people looking for your services) usually is a great way to generate quick results, with a fairly high ROI. The high amount of control also allows you to AB-test extensively and use these learnings in other campaigns. Start with an extensive keyword analysis, set up granular campaigns and use a large set of negative keywords before go-live for a quick start and to beat the competition.
SEO and content strategy
Great content gives you the opportunity to demonstrate thought leadership, demonstrate product value, and coax potential clients down the buying funnel. High-quality content also forms the backbone of SEO, which is the medium that typically generates the 2nd highest ROI (after advertorials).
Social and push media
Leverage organic social media, as well as push media (such as push notifications) to make the most of your content. Create once, post to many, and use this as a way to increase your free coverage and build SEO authority as well.
Retargeting (or remarketing) is a great way to improve brand recognition and brand favourability among engaged visitors who haven’t signed up yet. Use this to make people come back and increase results from all media. Also include negative remarketing, which is a great way to cut advertising cost by excluding existing clients from your target audiences.
Content marketing and thought leadership
Content marketing is an important SaaS marketing strategy. It helps to strengthen your brand by demonstrating thought leadership, but also in many other ways:
- Articles addressing common problems that are solved by your SaaS generate direct response;
- Problem-solving blog posts generate traffic AND help with service adoption and client retention;
- Expert interviews help to build credibility, topic authority and decrease perceived risk;
- Industry news demonstrates that your services are up-to-date and show you’re knowledgeable;
- Service comparisons help you to stand out from the competition and focus on niche audiences.
Content will not just be visible on your website or in your app, but it will also bring in new potential clients, as new content can easily be used to expand your visibility:
- SEO will make your content appear on Google and Bing;
- Push notifications are an easy way to earn followers, providing an instant reader base for new content;
- Newsletters are a flexible way to engage with subscribers, test new content, and launch new services;
- Press & PR is a great way to get the word out and obtain SEO authority;
- Advertorials generally provide the highest ROI and can be used to promote cornerstone content.
Effective content marketing is about mastering the art of storytelling. Facts tell, but stories sell.Brian Eisenberg
Facilitate internal selling
When there are multiple stakeholders involved in the decision-making process, the SaaS marketing strategy should include tools to facilitate internal selling. Here’s an example: An analyst comes across an ad for the business intelligence tool Tableau and would like to use Tableau to facilitate analysis and reporting. He now has to convince his manager that subscribing to Tableau makes sense. Tableau supports this engaged audience not only with a trial environment but also with business cases, use cases, how-to articles and a vibrant online community. In short, any B2B SaaS company should facilitate potential customers become ambassadors by helping them to:
- Sell the service within their own organization;
- Be better or more efficient at their job;
- Solve their problems;
- Facilitate change management and adoption.
Phase II: Channel expansion
With a powerful SaaS lead generation core in place, it’s time to expand the marketing mix with other channels. Here are some good starting points for other high-yield SaaS marketing strategies:
Programmatic / Display advertising
Show (and test) ads on highly relevant 3rd-party pages. Make sure that you chunk up the campaign in different topics and send traffic to a landing page that is optimized for that topic in particular. Blacklist irrelevant placements and isolate high performing placements to increase ROAS over time.
Both off- and online advertorials typically yield a very high ROI. Use advertorials to generate direct response and increase brand visibility and authority. helps to load brand. On the downside, advertorials typically have limited reach & scalability.
Affiliate marketing - where you pay a 3rd party based on results – has a low risk. ROI is usually not that high, but the risk is low and time investment is minimal. Just make sure you focus on the right KPI and keep an eye out for irregular behaviour (e.g. many sales from 1 IP-address, affiliates leeching on your brand, etc.).
Protect your brand
Before your brand recognition and demand grows, you need to make sure that your brand is well-protected. Make sure that you:
- Trademark your brand name, logo, and slogans;
- Claim any domain names related to your brand;
- Block brand assets to be used by affiliates (e.g. deny the use of your brand name);
- Claim local offices in Google My Business and Bing Places;
- Set up an AdWords and Bing SEA campaign for searches on your brand name.
A high level of optimization is key to high-yield SaaS marketing. This part of the article on SaaS marketing strategy takes a deep dive into how to improve and optimize marketing campaigns using advanced data modelling, using ROAS-based value attribution, benchmarking, and AB-testing.
Value attribution model
SaaS typically has a long acquisition time, with multiple touch points where potential clients engage with ads, content, the testing environment and the sign-up form. This applies even more with B2B SaaS when multiple stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process.
Different marketing activities have different roles in the marketing mix. Some help to draw in new visitors, others build your brand or push potential clients through the conversion funnel. To measure the impact of each marketing activity, you need a comprehensive value attribution model. This is where those KPIs and KPI values we discussed earlier come in. Focusing on just one KPI (e.g. CPA for sign-ups) will cause you to focus on media in the bottom part of the conversion channel, and might lead to starving those channels that are actually driving.
A data-driven value attribution model takes all those customer touch points and conversion values and attributes them to individual users and marketing channels. Your analytics software (such as Google Analytics) aggregates the data and shows you how each channel contributes to sales.
In the end, your value attribution model allows you to calculate the ROI and compare marketing activities, such as campaigns, media channels, value propositions or creatives. This ROI benchmark allows you to create an ROI benchmark and allocate your marketing resources to the activities that yield the highest return while cutting budget from channels that are underperforming. This will greatly improve the results of your marketing mix over time. More about benchmarking in the next section of this article.
Feed your algorithms
Many marketing channels depend on data for continuous optimization. If you use AdWords, Facebook, programmatic advertising, LinkedIn, Bing Ads, chances are that you let your campaigns optimize themselves by tracking clicks that lead to conversions.
Choosing the right KPIs is crucial to the success of a campaign. The KPI needs to be closely related to the business goal you would like to achieve. The better your KPI, the more efficient your campaign will be. Choosing a deep engagement KPI will get you more of those crucial conversions and help you obtain your business goals.
Here’s a practical case study, based on work I did for a client:
Imagine you run an AdWords campaign that generates telephone calls to the Sales Department. The campaign tracks calls made and uses these data points to optimize the algorithm. Results are decent, and everybody’s happy. But think about it: is there a better KPI that you can use? You come up with the hypothesis that longer sales calls are more valuable than short sales calls. You analyze the call data and learn that a successful sales call takes at least 6 minutes. You change the target KPI from “any call” to a “360 second call”, and give it a higher ROAS conversion value that reflected the higher success rate of the longer call.
Here’s what happened when I did the same for a large financial company:
- The cost per call increased (boo!)
- The amount of SUCCESSFUL calls increased even more (woohoo!)
- As a result, the net cost per successful sales call decreased
- The company received 13% more sales from the same budget
But that’s not the only thing that happened. We saw an uplift in calls during office hours, higher closing rates from the call centre, more engagement on the site and an increase in brand demand. All from changing one number.
So think about it: how can YOU improve you KPIs and feed the beast that is the algorithm?
Benchmark your campaigns for ROAS
if you have configured your tracking tools correctly, you will see the results generated by each activity, as well as the total conversion value. This enables you to calculate and compare the ROAS (Return On Advertising Spending) for each marketing activity.
Once you know how effective each marketing activity is you can determine whether you want to want to boost it, leave it for the moment, or stop it altogether. Basing your marketing strategies on data and real results will allow you to minimize the risk, improve the effectiveness of your marketing mix, and allow you to test new SaaS marketing strategies.
Another way to greatly improve the results of your SaaS marketing strategy is to continuously test your messaging. According to the testing professionals at Behave.org, managers or business owners FAIL to pick the winning version in 40% of the cases. Truth is, there are so many options in messaging and design that nobody knows what will be most effective. Continuous testing will improve results across all media channels and improve results over many years.
In online marketing, you can test pretty much anything, including:
- Ad text
- Ad creatives
- Landing/squeeze pages
- Value propositions
- Subscription forms
- Bid management algorithms
- Layout or content order
- Button design
- Colour schemes
- Email subject lines
In offline marketing, you can track and test campaign activity using:
- User groups
- Multiple telephone numbers
- Landing page URLs
- Coupon identifiers
- Discount codes
- Brand uplift
You know your audience and target audience best. Start by writing a test hypothesis: what do you think will have the biggest impact on your results, or what would you like to find out? Choose a KPI and implement the test. Run the test until you have enough information to make an informed decision and build upon what you have learned.
In SaaS, the bulk of the profit and revenue is made through customer retention. A 10% increase in retention rate would typically be more effective than a 10% in marketing efficiency. Below I suggest a few SaaS marketing strategies that help to increase client retention.
If you increase your SaaS customer retention by only 5%, you can increase your business’s profitability by 75%.
The onboarding process
In order to increase signup and adoption rates, as well as client retention, you should help new users to make the most of your SaaS. Facilitate your clients’ successes by:
- Helping them to set up your SaaS correctly;
Facilitate a proper setup of your SaaS platform and teach new users how to use your services efficiently;
- Solving their problems
Helping users solve their problems using case studies and tutorials;
- Make uses understand the value of your SaaS
The better users understand how important your solution is for them to do their work better, the longer they’ll keep using your services;
- Facilitate feedback
User feedback helps your organization to identify needs and wants, and address issues before they become problematic;
- Facilitate sharing
Demonstrating the successes achieved with your SaaS will help internal selling and the adoption rate throughout the organization;
- Tailor services to individual demand
Provide users with ways to make it their own, such as add their organization’s brand or add user’s names.
Provide options based on behaviour
Keep an eye on client behaviour. Are users coming back to use your service? Do they finish their work? Are they running into errors? What content are they using? Provide an appropriate response to avoid disappointment and to get people re-engaged if needed.
How to reactivate clients
Automated workflows are a great way to help prospects and existing clients to:
- Learn more about using the software (e.g. offering a cheat sheet to trial subscribers)
- Help to sell internally within their organization (e.g. a PDF with a use case that can be used to communicate the advantages to management)
- Achieve success using the software (e.g. by showing how much time was saved or leads were generated using the software)
- Stimulate re-engagement if needed (e.g. sending ex-clients an email with a discount code one month after they cancelled their subscription).
HubSpot and Infusionsoft are awesome tools to automate communication with people based on their behaviour. They enable you to create a workflow, populate these with visitors, subscribers, or clients, and offer them highly relevant content based on their actions.
A focus on re-engagement decreases customer churn rate and increase the net revenue, based on some smart user segmentation, automated workflows, and quality content. In most cases, only a few content pieces are needed, while the increased engagement improves the results of all marketing effort. As such, client reactivation is a key component of any SaaS marketing strategy.
Sources for further information and tools I recommend for SaaS marketing.
This article was written by:
Performance Marketing Consultant
Award-winning marketing geek. Analytics advocate. Passionate about performance.
With 20 years marketing consultancy experience, I help to increase marketing success through innovative, data-driven marketing strategies. Won an efficiency award for Best Digital Campaign, keynote speaker at the eMetrics Summit and the International Marketing Congress.