Recently I answered a very interesting question on Quora, which inspired me to write this blog post. I have talked in the past about actionable growth hacking tactics and the 2 phases of growth hacking, but not about some core, proven growth hacking strategies, specifically for B2B SaaS.
Most people focus mainly on acquisition when they talk about growth and this makes sense in a way. You can mainly grow by going offense (acquisition), instead of defense (retention/expansion).
However, this should not come at the expense of your current customers. It is easier and cheaper to keep and expand with an existing customer than getting a new one. Please remember this throughout the article.
In this post I am going to go all in and give you an extensive break down of truly proven B2B growth hacking strategies. I wanted to include some advanced strategies as well, but the post went 5K+ words, so I might publish the advanced ones in the future.
I call those strategies “core” because it’s the foundation that can get a B2B SaaS to $1-2M in ARR (Annual Recurring Revenue), given a healthy Customer LifeTime Value (LTV).
You might have heard some of them, but I will add twists in their descriptions and insights from truly executing them on different SaaS startups, so make sure to read the description below the titles.
Why should you listen to me?
I am the growth marketer at a tech/software company with both B2B SaaS and enterprise products, going head to head with public companies and I know our best acquisition platforms, better than their employees.
Also, I have consulted other B2B SaaS startups and companies, including some non-SaaS companies. This helps me have a wider perspective.
I have also exchanged notes with other bright people and I have seen what works and under which circumstances.
In this extensive post I am giving a lot of those learnings away. So, read it through the end and bookmark it (or save it to Pocket).
Note: If you need personalized help for your B2B SaaS, in the name of creating goodwill with my readers, I will give you 1 personalized tip for free, either for your SaaS or career as a growth marketer. Email subscribers will have priority. No matter if you are a founder or a junior marketer, in a big or small startup. Just contact me.
With this out of the way, let’s dive in!
Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing
Disclaimer: Most founders refer to inbound marketing as: “people land on our website through various, non-paying channels, find our content and our product interesting and sign up”. Technically, this is not the essence of inbound marketing, but that’s the definition we will use in this sub-section.
Content marketing works in virtually every industry, even with mediocre effort, no doubt about that. The 2 fundamental questions that need answering are “How much content?” and “What form?”.
For the 1st question, you have to see how your industry reacts. If you put out more content over the course of 3-6 months and you see no statistically significant changes in your key metrics, you might have hit a ceiling. Until then, keep putting out more.
For the 2nd question things are easier. Of course there are all kinds of forms (blogs, videos, etc), but everyone should start with… *case studies*.
Yes, before blogging, whitepapers and anything else, case studies are the best content you *must* have.
Why? It’s pretty simple. You already have visitors on your site. Help more of them convert by showing how actual customers use your product and how they are benefitting. Case studies are the proof that your product works and they can help tremendously both in closing leads and customer success.
A/B test with having your case studies public and asking for an email to download each case study and have a sales person follow up those who downloaded it. Boom!
After case studies, the best format for content marketing in 99% of B2B startups is blog posts on your WordPress blog under the same domain (domain.com/blog).
I know there are tons of formats, but this is the second best after case studies, because:
- It helps drive traffic through SEO
- People in B2B businesses consume a lot of content (usually in written format)
- You can amplify (promote and get traffic) every blog post through social media and have people coming back to your blog (site) again and again for more useful info.
Then, once you have them on your blog, you can capture their email by offering a whitepaper, an ebook or something else of value and nurture them through email marketing.
You can go very sophisticated in email marketing and marketing automation, by sending specific emails to your subscribers based on their behavior and what they opted in for, or you can start very simple, by having a basic autoresponder.
This basic autoresponder will be sending 5 emails; the 3 first will contain valuable content and the 4th and 5th emails will be 50% valuable content and 50% promotion of your business.
Rinse and repeat from there. It’s email marketing 101.
For example, your 5th email can include a summary of your best case study and then a call to action to sign up.
You can go as simple or as sophisticated as you want in your email strategy. It’s a strategic decision based on your resources, goals and the stage you are at.
Personally, at my personal blog here on WeeklyGrowth, if you opt in, you will receive an automatic email that asks you if you want to receive my best articles.
If you click yes, I will send you the best past articles of mine; 1 article every 6 days. Pretty simple and straightforward. I use ActiveCampaign (affiliate link) to do this and I am very happy with them so far.
P.S. Everyone talks about quality content, but how one defines quality?
From my experience quality (which drives results) means that the mix of your content’s quality and promotion/reach is better than your competition’s. If your industry has bad or no content, simply producing mediocre content and having some reach/audience, can easily put you in the #1. It’s a zero-sum competitive game.
Google Adwords has become a tough nut to crack for small startups. The reason is the high and ever increasing CPC… Even long tail keywords have a lot of competition nowadays. However, its buyer intent is unparalleled.
This could be a blog post of its own, so I will try to keep it as short and concise as possible…
There are 2 types of startups:
1) The “competitive” type, where potential users know your type of software and they are searching for it.
2) The “innovating” type, where potential users have a problem, but don’t know that your software can solve it or they don’t know they have a problem that can be solved.
In the competitive type, the CPC for core keywords is very high. However, you can bid on those and other, closely related keywords to get some early, highly targeted traffic, even if not at a profit.
At a later stage you will want to be in these core keywords at a profit. If for example you are selling an “A/B testing tool” you will want to appear in this keyword, profitably, because the buy intent is very high.
If the industry is very competitive, the way to drive costs down and conversions up, is this:
One keyword, per ad group. One custom landing page for each keyword. Filter, optimize and repeat.
It’s insanely tedious to create this, but it pays off.
You can also bid on the brand name of competitors. I find it dubious, so in general I try to avoid it. From what I have seen though, it may convert in some cases, but with a higher than usual CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost).
In the innovating type, it’s pretty hard for Google Adwords to work, since almost nobody is searching for this kind of software and there are no direct competitors. In essence, you have to educate the market.
So, the only way that I know to make this work, is targeting relative keywords to the problem you are solving. Then explain in the ad what it is that you are doing (i.e. We help you solve XYZ problem with our software) and drive them to a landing page where it educates them on your solution.
I am not a big fan of Adwords, but it is almost necessary to make them work for any established business for various reasons.
Directories, industry verticals and associations can bring some pretty good opportunities for growth (you can opt in my email list for 20+ directories for B2B SaaS).
Some directories are better than others and each ones has different uses. However, it’s good to be on as many as possible and invest strategically at one directory. Then once you tap it out, expand to the second, the third and so on.
People on those directories are actively looking for a SaaS solution, so in general the quality is good.
Now, industry verticals can be lists of solutions in your industry. For example, lists with the top CRMs for marketing agencies. You want to be there if you are a CRM for marketing agencies.
The last one is associations. You find your industry’s associations that are relevant to your SaaS, evaluate them and try to get at least a free listing/membership (and in some cases paid as well) with the most important ones. They won’t bring tons of traffic/leads, but in general the quality is very good.
Usually they bring other opportunities as well, such as journalists looking to interview you, or up and coming professionals looking to offer their services for free or with good discounts.
Email Marketing (original inbound marketing)
Email marketing is very important, because it’s a communication channel you own. You don’t depend on an other platform like Google which might change its algorithm at any time.
At SaaS it’s especially important and slightly different than other businesses. Here is why:
Every SaaS startup should have at least 2 mailing lists, 1 with their users (with at least 2 segmentations – free & paid) and 1 with their blog readers/subscribers.
Now, of course there will be some overlapping between those 2, but both are needed.
You need different email marketing strategies for each group.
- For the first group’s “free users” segment, you need an email strategy to get them to sign up for a paid plan. This might include sending them personalized tips, proactively and personally reaching out to them, webinars on how to get the most out of your product and more.
- For the first group’s “paid user” segment, you need an email strategy to help them get the most out of your product, notify them of product updates, ask them about features they want and more.
- For the second group (blog subscribers), you will need an email strategy to nurture those readers in order to become users of your product, notify them of your best blog posts and perhaps get them to leave a comment on your blog or share an article.
Different groups have different goals and needs, and thus need different email strategies…
In SaaS we have a conundrum. On the one hand we have to be strategic at our email communication with existing users, so we don’t annoy them, resulting in having them unsubscribe. On the other hand, some of them might want to receive a weekly or a monthly digest with your best blog spots. So, why not give them this option?
Educating your users and growing with them is part of customer success after all.
So, here is the workaround to both keep your users’ emails intact and email your content to those who are interested:
Step 1: Create a list in your email marketing platform called “Users & blog subscribers” (or something like that).
Step 2: Set up an automation to have the following included in your welcome email to new users:
“If you want to receive a monthly or weekly email with our best blog posts, click here”
And have a link to send them to a landing page to choose how often they want to receive your top blog posts.
Don’t forget to send a similar email to your current users asking them if they want to opt in.
Note: If you are using marketing automation tools, the landing page can be omitted and have them opt in directly from clicking the appropriate option in the email body.
Step 3: Send them the top blog posts as often as they chose to. You don’t have to worry, because if they decide they no longer want to receive those emails, they will opt out from that list, but they will remain in the list with your users for product updates and the like!
Note: You might want to double-check the landing page and options when someone clicks “unsubscribe”, so that they don’t unsubscribe from all lists.
Step 4: Send the blog posts digest from a different email (from email@example.com) than the marketing/product update emails (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There are a couple reasons for this last step, but I need to tie it up here , say a few things about inbound marketing and move on to the next section. So, just trust me and set up different email accounts for each list/segment. Oh, and never send emails as email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On to inbound marketing…
Original inbound marketing is when you create content and map it to the customer journey, from awareness to conversion and retention.
Top of the funnel (TOFU), Middle of the funnel (MOFU), Bottom of the funnel (BOFU) are the basics of inbound marketing. I think Hubspot was the first to coin them.
This strategy needs a significant investment from a resources perspective. My suggestion is that one should explore this strategy after being fairly established and looking for scale. As a rule of thumb, I would draw the line at B2B startups having a minimum of +$1 million ARR.
The above is just an intro, check the first article I read on inbound marketing by Justin Brooke, that helped me a lot. Now on to customer success!
I believe few startups outside of San Francisco truly understand and appreciate customer success and how it’s a cornerstone of growth.
As a definition of customer success, I find useful and accurate the following:
Your product helps the customer become more successful, in an as seamless as possible experience, through every interaction with your product, employees and startup in general.
Let me illustrate this point by giving you 2 examples of customer success that I liked:
Example 1: Unbounce
I have used Unbounce to build landing pages for various projects, both with free and paid accounts. I think they proactively do customer success only on paid accounts (not 100% sure about that).
Anyway, what I really liked is that they proactively looked at our account on what we were doing, gave us personalized suggestions (not some copy-paste random text) and made sure we could reach out to them any time.
In addition to this, they had terrific customer support, fast and gave us access to beta features that we could really use.
Overall my experience with them has been great and customer success has been detrimental to that. Of course, we created some killer landing pages thanks to them!
Now, when someone asks me about landing pages, I send them all to Unbounce. Can they track this? Not really.
But, it’s the truth. People participate in communities and talk about products they like and don’t like. Customer success can influence that word of mouth marketing, among others.
Example 2: Active Campaign
Sometime ago, I gave active campaign a try (affiliate link). Although I believe they haven’t invested explicitly in customer success, here is how they crafted an experience so delightful, that I had to convert.
I will keep this very short:
A) They had live chat. For free users. And they were quick to respond.
When you are looking for a quick fix, I can’t possibly explain how important this is.
A user is trying your product and might never return again if you don’t help them right there and then.
B) When the free trial ended I wasn’t done exploring the product. So, their email said: “You want to extend your free trial? Just click here“.
This went on for a few more emails, until I had to make a call to buy or leave. So I bought.
They let me take my time and this was appreciated.
C) Their first welcome email invited me to attend a webinar with a walk through of the product.
Great, now I can relax and watch someone show me the product and how to get the most out of its features for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
These are 3 things that they did as part of their user experience / customer success strategy that set them apart. Combine this with competitive pricing and automation and it makes a killer combo.
The truth is that I have more to say, but it already got pretty long, so I will end it here. That’s why I have decided to write a book on B2B SaaS marketing and this post is an excerpt from my upcoming book.
If you’d like to know when it will be out, just subscribe to my biweekly newsletter.
I am pretty sure you got more than 1 idea to implement in your startup and I suggest you bookmark this guide for future reference.
Have questions or suggestions?
Please leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!