Marketing ideas that rarely work

Lead gen, lead gen, lead gen.  For lots of SaaS marketers, these are their top 3 priorities. 

They’re under pressure to deliver leads to feed the sales pipeline… every week, every month, every quarter.

So, I understand the temptation to try find a shortcut to lead generation – a quick and easy way to deliver on the quota. 

Resist the temptation.

Any advice you get that points you toward some quick and easy way to deliver leads… ignore it.  (See "Why I'm not a fan of marketing hacks.")

Here’s a few of the ideas that are likely to tempt you.

The magic bullet:  Under this scheme, you search for the one perfect marketing tactic, guaranteed to open the floodgate to qualified leads.  It means building the one viral video, finding the can’t-miss email list, hosting the perfect webinar, or going to the one event guaranteed to put you in front of all of your hottest prospects. 

I’ve seen all of these tactics and even tried a few myself.  They do not work.

Or to be more specific, they do not work all by themselves. 

When you’re selling a B2B solution, you typically need to reach a prospect several times through a variety of channels.  (See “Sometimes prospects just aren’t ready to buy.”)  One touch, no matter how clever, won’t do it.

Set it and forget it:  You cannot put your lead gen efforts on auto-pilot.  Tactics that are working for you now probably won’t work forever. 

Sometimes competitors may interrupt you.  For example, they’ll outbid you on particular paid keywords.  Pay-per-click and SEO campaigns need regular attention and fine-tuning.

Other times, prospects stop responding to tactics the same way they used to.  Anybody remember “dimensional mailers” or “business reply cards?”

To quote Tower of Power, “What is hip today may tomorrow be passé.” 

Let the partner do it:  There are times that partnerships can be helpful.  Teaming up with a larger company could help expand your visibility and attract more opportunities. 

But partnerships do not work by themselves.  They require care and feeding.

Imagine you’re partnering with, for example. Though you’re connected to a well-known brand and have access to an impressive menu of sales and marketing resources, you can’t just slap the partner logo on your website and put out a press announcement. 

It’s work to get your company and your solution to stand out among the thousands of other partners in the AppExchange.  It requires effort to get the attention of the salesforce account execs or prospects within this universe.  None of this happens just because you’re a certified partner.

All sizzle, no steak:  This is how I describe a lead gen process that's all about tactics and nothing about a message or value proposition.  One program follows another to get in front of potential prospects, and most of the focus is on efficient execution. 

But without an effective message, you probably won’t have much impact.  Prospects need to know who the solution is for, what problem it solves, and why they should buy it from you.  If the marketing programs don’t deliver answers to those questions, expect them to fail.  (See “Spend first, think later:  Bad idea.”)

We’ve all seen email campaigns, highly-produced videos, or free trial offers that invite people to evaluate a solution, but they don’t give a compelling reason why.

Before you spend lots of time and money on marketing programs, develop a compelling and consistent value proposition.

I’ve been marketing technology solutions for a long time, so I get it.  There’s pressure to deliver leads.  Sometimes your compensation even depends on it.  But avoid jumping in on an easy fix.  It may sound tempting, but it rarely works.

Focus on the 3 most important tasks for your website

I look at a lot of websites and it seems to me that most of them look the same. 

The websites I spend most time with, those promoting B2B software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions, follow a similar layout. There’s a logo in the top left and a few navigation tabs on the top right of the page.  Below there are a few frames usually highlighting key features, often illustrated with icons.  The more effective sites will then present a call-to-action, like an offer for a free trial.

All have a prominent headline at the top, usually superimposed over a photo or an illustration.

Consistency is a good thing

I don’t think this makes websites boring.  Actually, I think the consistency is a good thing. 

For visitors, they already have a good idea of how to navigate the website.  They know, for example, that clicking on the logo will get them back to the home page.

And these standard layouts usually present well on smartphones and tablets.  Visitors can see what they want to see even on a smaller screen.

Focus on the 3 tasks that matter

The more standard website layout is a good thing for marketers, too.

They’re relieved of making tough choices about where to put the navigation bar, what to show in the top frame, what to put in the footer, and dozens of other decisions.

Instead they can think about the things that really matter:

  • Explaining what problem the product solves

  • Building credibility and trust

  • Collecting contact information from prospects.

These are the key tasks for a website marketing a B2B SaaS solution.

Explaining what problem your product solves:  

The headline – the information in the top frame – needs to clearly and concisely show the visitor that you can solve a problem for them.  And the visitor should grasp that in a few seconds.

Remember that most SaaS buyers are busy people juggling lots of priorities.  You can’t ask them to work too hard to figure out what you sell. (See “Why your prospects are ignoring you.”)

Another tip here:  The headline is about the visitor and their problem.  It’s not about you and your technology.

Building credibility and trust:  

The website should help convince the visitor, your prospective customer, that they can trust you. 

A SaaS solution is essentially a promise to deliver something of value over the life of the subscription.  The prospect needs to know that you can actually deliver.  (See “SaaS marketing is about promises, not products.”)

Earning credibility could be done by showing your success with other customers, maybe showing logos or “happy customer” quotes. 

You could show your deep understanding of the challenges facing customers, sharing your expertise or explaining that you’ve had first-hand experience in their market.  This is where papers or blogs can be helpful.    

Collecting contact information from prospects:   

The website needs to efficiently collect contact information from visitors that show an interest in your solution.  That’s information you can use to cultivate contacts into qualified opportunities. It’s what turns your website from just an online billboard into an effective customer acquisition program.

Asking for contact information is usually most effective when you offer something in return, such as a free trial, a helpful paper, or expert guidance of some sort.  Visitors aren’t likely to “sign up so we can stay in touch,” without more specific information.  Nobody needs more spam.

I really don’t know if marketers miss the choices and flexibility from the earlier days of website design.  But I do know that it doesn’t mean less work.

While we’re no longer thinking so much about layout, we should instead be thinking hard about the message and the call-to-action.  Those are the things that really matter.

Going viral is over-rated

I won’t lie to you.  If one of my videos went viral, I’d be excited.  It would definitely be cool to see the “views” tick up into the millions… or even the thousands. 

But here’s the thing.  I wouldn’t expect that avalanche of views to translate into an avalanche of customers.

And if you’re marketing a B2B software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution, neither should you. 

Marketing B2B SaaS solutions is a journey

Here’s the hard truth:  marketing a B2B SaaS solution isn’t easy or quick.  There’s a tortuous journey from a “view” to a “buy.”

After you’ve piqued their interest with a clever video, then you’ve got to walk the prospective customer through several more steps.  Perhaps you invite them to a webinar, offer a white paper, show them a live demo, or entice them into a free trial.

At some point, if all goes well, you’ll get an opportunity to prepare a proposal and eventually win a paying customer.

The point is this journey takes time.  Remember that the folks you’re marketing to usually aren’t spending every waking hour evaluating your solution.  They have other priorities that get in the way.  (See  “Sometimes Prospects Just Aren’t Ready to Buy.”

B2B SaaS solutions aren’t an impulse buy 

Of course, there are things you can do to convert more leads into qualified opportunities and paying customers and keep them from getting get stuck somewhere in the process.  And you can try to accelerate the process.  (Get in touch with me if you need help.) 

But there’s really no way to skip the whole journey, hopping directly from “view” to paying customer.  A B2B SaaS solution usually isn’t an impulse buy. 

Don’t expect a viral video to work to short-cut the process.   

There’s no magic marketing tactic 

And by the way, the same goes for any other marketing tactic.  No single email, webinar, trade show, or blog post will do the job either.  Not by itself.   

If you’re looking for the magic [fill in your favorite marketing tactic here], stop looking.  There’s no such thing.

Are you giving up on your prospects too soon?

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.



Tell your creation story

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 culture that created 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.





No one needs your solution unless they have a problem

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 about it.

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.

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, the way I’m trying to solve it now isn’t working, and it needs immediate attention.”

 Only then will we have earned the right to show our solution.

 Nobody needs a solution until they know they have a problem.


Remind customers why they're paying you

Sorry, I have some bad news. 

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.

Why free trials don’t always work

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.


Are you forgetting the “service” part of SaaS?

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.

They’re expecting help with implementation.  They need to get up & running with the solution.  (See “Your SaaS buyers could be afraid to buy.”)

They’re looking for help with training.  That might include training for administrators and for others in the organization that will be using the solution.

And they’re looking for support.  When they get stuck and run into a problem, they expect that someone from the vendor will help.

Beyond that, a SaaS vendor should actually be providing expert guidance on how customers can get the most from the solution.  They can share tips, best practices, benchmarks, and other help.

So, if this is what SaaS buyers are expecting, this is what SaaS marketing should be promoting.  Tout your expert guidance and your implementation, training, support services.

Follow the software-as-a-service label: Market your services, not just your features.

New customers can teach you a lot… if you just ask

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.  (Call 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.






Your SaaS prospects could be afraid to buy

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.

What happened?

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.




Are your partnerships useless?

Partnerships can be a good thing for software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies. 

They can deliver more value to customers, without requiring lots more work from your internal development team.

For marketers, a partner could provide credibility, broaden exposure, find leads, and even win deals.

That’s if they’re done well.

Too often though, partnerships don’t deliver as promised.  The only thing the company gets from it is a press announcement and a logo for the website.  No visibility, no leads, no customers.

This is especially true when it’s a smaller company partnering with a larger company.  Think partnerships with IBM,, or Oracle.

Sure, these large companies run well-managed partner programs that offer a full menu of joint marketing opportunities.  These programs have attracted thousands of partners. 

And that’s the problem for small companies.  Among the thousands of partners, it’s very tough to get attention. 

When you’re just one small vendor among thousands, their marketing folks can’t afford to spend much time with you.  And their sales folks may not pay much attention either.

Partnerships require work

I don’t mean to say that all partnerships are useless and not worth pursuing.  Done well, in fact, they can be very useful.

To work well, your smaller company needs to actively market itself to the larger partner.  A signed agreement won’t work all by itself. 

Marketing to the partner has a few key objectives:

  • Make it crystal clear to the partner who your product is for.  When they’re pursuing an opportunity, it should be easy for them to recognize when they should bring your solution into the discussion. 

  • The partner’s sales and marketing people should easily grasp what problem your product solves.  Don’t force them to struggle through all your technology, features and functions.  (See “Before you talk about the solution, point out the problem.”)

  • 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, their 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 start of 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. 




SaaS Marketing for Start-ups: Don’t just start doing stuff!

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.  (link)

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.

Slow down

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.

Your value proposition: Don’t set it and forget it

If you’re marketing your SaaS solution without a compelling and consistent value proposition and messages, you’re doing something wrong. 

Without a value proposition – a crystal clear explanation of who should buy your solution, what problem it solves for them, and why they should buy it from you – you’re missing an essential foundation for all your marketing efforts.

You may be cranking out papers, email campaigns, adword buys, videos, or whatever, but without a compelling value proposition, told consistently through all of these programs, it’s hard to have any real impact.  You may well be wasting your marketing budget.  (See “To deliver a consistent message, you need a script.”)

An effective value proposition and messages should have a fairly long shelf-life – a few years wouldn’t be unusual.

After all, it’s tough enough to get the attention of your target buyers.  Revamping your messages every few weeks, trying something different in every marketing deliverable, would make that job impossible.

Value propositions are not cast in stone

But don’t read that as the 11th commandment: “Though shall not change your value proposition…ever!” 

As the market changes over time, the value proposition and messages may need to be adjusted as well.

As markets mature, new buyers are likely to come into the market.  “Mainstream buyers” or “laggards” may displace the initial cadre of more adventurous buyers.  They may be less enamored of cool technology, and care more about support and training.  Issues like security and stability tend to come to the fore.  (See “Pivoting from early adopters to mainstream buyers.”)

As solutions become more widely adopted, or new competitors come into the market, it may be that buyers’ expectations change.  A feature that you once touted as new and novel, may no longer be so new or novel.

Over time, it may be that more people are involved in evaluating your solution.  Purchase decisions are no longer made by a progressive sales branch manager or a technical head in development, acting on their own.  Now they involve corporate IT and senior executives.

Keep your finger on the pulse

OK then, how do you know when changes to your value proposition are needed?

Stay in touch with your customers, that’s how.

And not just through training or the customer support team. 

Dedicate someone to talk regularly with customers, especially new customers.  Ask them why they’re buying, who’s involved in the decision, and why they chose your solution?


Don't worry.  No giant, multi-page survey is required here.  A few open-ended conversations over the phone, done every month or every quarter, will reveal a lot of information – enough to detect important shifts in the market.  (If you don’t want to allocate an internal person to this task, get in touch with me.  I’ve done them on behalf of several clients.)

You don’t want to be constantly fiddling with your value proposition, but you cannot simply set it and forget it forever.  You don't want to find yourself talking to the wrong people with the wrong message.







What’s behind those churn metrics?  Different causes demand different solutions.

Churn is bad for software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies.  Very bad.

But knowing there’s a churn problem is one thing; fixing it is something else.

To bring down churn, we need to understand what’s behind the numbers.  Why are customers leaving?  Different causes will point toward different fixes.

Poor product performance

Sometimes the solution simply doesn’t deliver as advertised.  Customers subscribe, believing it will perform some particular function… but it doesn’t.  Once they figure that out – it may take a few hours or a few months – they leave.

The solution for this problem:  go back to the drawing board with the solution.  Learn where the gap is between what customers want and what the solution delivers.  Improve it to better meet customers’ needs, or explain the solution’s features, benefits, and advantages more accurately.

Ineffective on-boarding

If most of the churn is in the first 90 days after a customer subscribes, the problem may be poor on-boarding.  Entering data, training users, and changing the way an organization does things isn’t easy.

To fix poor on-boarding usually requires putting more thought and more resources to implementation and training.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for SaaS providers to require that customers sign up for training and implementation help.  And often they charge for it.

(See this short video on “Turning SaaS buyers into satisfied users.”)

Inadequate support

SaaS companies cannot afford to ignore their customers.  Especially for more complex, enterprise applications - those that are critical to the customer’s operations - quick and expert support is essential. 

But effective support should go beyond a solid help desk.    SaaS vendors should be regularly providing their customers with expert advice on how to optimize use of the solution.  (See “Your existing customers are prospects too.”)

And they can occasionally remind customers of the solution’s value to their organization.  For example, “over the last 90 days, you’ve used the solution to conduct 450 performance reviews, manage 1200 new inbound leads, process 67 loan applications, or whatever it is the solution does.”

Wrong customers

Sometimes high churn happens when SaaS providers sell to the wrong customers.  Superb salesmanship, yes.  Good fit for the customer, no.  Expect that the customer will discover the mismatch after a few weeks or months. 

I’ve seen this happen when sales people convince a small customer that the product is a good fit for their needs, but it turns out to be overkill. 

I’ve also seen the opposite.  Salespeople tout capabilities required to win a large customer, but the solution’s actual features come up short.

Remedies for over-selling could involve clarifying the messages to more clearly describe what the solution does and who it is designed for. 

A revised compensation scheme can also work as a remedy for over-selling.  Salespeople are rewarded for winning customers that stay for a long time, and they’re penalized for bringing in customers that churn quickly.

Susceptible to poaching

In some cases, customers depart for competitors.  They are lured away with more features, more attractive pricing, or some other advantage. 

SaaS companies are especially susceptible when switching costs are low.  Customers can easily move to another solution without painful implementation and training costs.

One approach to counter poaching is to lower prices, though that’s a tough strategy to sustain. 

Adding more useful features, delivering a solution that’s easier to use, or providing outstanding customer support are likely to build a more sustained relationship.

No universal fix for churn

Any SaaS vendor with a churn problem needs to fix it.  The business model doesn’t work when too many paying customers leave too quickly.

In fact, the most successful SaaS companies actually achieve “negative churn,” meaning they actually derive more revenue from their existing customers.

But fixing a churn problem first means diagnosing the cause.  I haven’t provided an exhaustive list, but it should be plain that there are a variety of explanations behind the numbers.  And each particular cause points toward a different solution. 

Sorry, there’s no simple “one-size-fits-all” approach here. 






How to get found when prospects aren’t really looking

I’m a long-time fan of inbound marketing, even before it got that nifty label. 

Why not attract prospective customers that are actively looking for a solution.  That’s got to be easier than hunting for them one at a time, or indiscriminately broadcasting your message to the whole planet. 

The idea makes perfect sense, except when one key piece is missing:  prospects that are actively looking.

What if the people who should be searching for your solution just aren’t?

They’re not typing relevant keywords into Google, not asking their colleagues for recommendations, not downloading educational white papers, or doing anything else to actively search for a solution?

When inbound marketing isn’t enough

I’ve worked with a number of software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers that have faced this problem.  Inbound marketing would have been a cost-effective way to acquire customers, essential for SaaS success - except that “prospects actively looking” weren’t in the equation.

There are a few reasons why they might not be looking:

The prospect might not see that they have a problem.  Sure, as a SaaS provider, you can see a problem, but the prospect doesn’t.  They don’t see that the way they’re doing things now may be hurting their organization.

More likely though, the prospect does see a problem, but they don’t see it as an urgent problem.  They know their existing process has its downsides, but they figure they can live with it.  (See “Your toughest competitor… inertia.”)

Or even if they do recognize an urgent problem, they may not know that there’s a better SaaS solution at hand, especially if it’s in a niche market.

Most prospective customers are aware that proven SaaS solutions are available for HR, sales, or marketing automation.  But what if they need a better way to report safety issues on oil & gas rigs, schedule home health care workers, or manage a chiropractor’s office?  (Yes, I’ve worked with SaaS providers selling these kinds of solutions.)

In any of these instances, prospects are not actively looking for a solution.  Relying on inbound marketing to attract leads – that is, them finding you – won’t work very well.

Get in front of “non-active” prospects

If prospects are not actively looking and inbound marketing won’t work, SaaS marketers may need to revert to some of the more “traditional” marketing programs like broadcast advertising, outbound email or direct mail to carefully-sourced targets, or participation in events.

The goal of these programs isn’t to talk about the specifics of the solution; the prospects are not ready for that discussion yet.

Instead, the goal is to convince them that they do, in fact, have a problem, it’s a problem that they cannot ignore, and that there is a better solution readily available.

In other words, push them to become prospects actively looking for a solution.  Once there’s pool of active prospects, the inbound marketing tactics we know and love should move them forward from there.








SaaS Marketing isn’t all about talking; It’s more about listening

If you’ve ever sat through a marketing agency’s pitch or seen an episode of Mad Men, you’d think that marketing is all about talking – pushing out clever messages so that people will buy whatever it is that you’re selling.

Not exactly.

You’re right that there’s plenty of delivering messages through email, blog posts, paid adwords, Twitter, TV, radio, or print ads or whatever media reaches the buyer.

But there’s more to it than catchy taglines, ads, or social media campaigns.

For any of that talking to work, there needs to a lot of listening, too.

What should you be listening for?

When you’re marketing and selling, you’re obviously keenly alert to a few magic phrases, along the lines of “Yes, I’ll buy it!”

But there are a few other things to listen for as well:

  • Who’s making the buying decision?
  • What problem are they trying to solve?
  • How painful is that problem?
  • Why is their existing solution failing?

Asking these questions, you’ll hear a lot about who’s buying and why.

But you can also listen for how they’re buying:

  • Where are they looking for solutions?
  • What are the selection criteria?
  • What other solutions are they considering?

How should you be listening?

There are plenty of ways to listen to prospects and customers, from broad-based surveys to small, focus groups.  Vendors selling software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution have the particular advantage of gathering input from customers directly within the product.

I’ve found that monthly, one-on-one interviews with several new customers are one particularly effective way of listening.  The evaluation process is still fresh in their minds, and an open-ended conversation can reveal useful insights that might not surface in a survey. 

Companies can conduct these interviews themselves, though there are certain advantages of having an outside party handle them.  Customers don’t think you’re trying to sell them anything, and they might be more candid about what they liked or didn’t like when evaluating your solution.  (I’d be happy to talk with you more about my experience with these one-on-one interviews.)

Listening isn’t a one-and-done process

Don’t confine your listening to an annual event.  Relying on a periodic snapshot or using a single mechanism to learn what’s on the minds of prospects and customers means you’ll probably miss a lot.  Markets change: different buyers emerge, new competitors come to market, evaluation criteria change, and new channels to reach buyers become important. 

Whatever techniques you use, you should always be listening. 

What do you do with all this listening?

The insights you glean from this listening should factor into what you say and where you say it.  It should guide your messages and how you explain your value, and it should inform what channels and media you use to get in front of buyers.

In fact, a marketing plan that isn’t built on this kind of solid foundation – without a firm grasp on who’s buying, why, and how – is likely to fail.  Marketing without listening is a big mistake.   




Bad customers can kill your SaaS business

Everybody’s got a story about bad customers.  In case you can’t get your fill, a Google search on “customers from hell” fetched 33,100,000 results.

These customers can be infuriating, frustrating, and just plain rude.

But if you’re a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company, bad customers can be much worse than that.  They can be downright dangerous.

No way to recover your costs

For one thing, these bad customers are likely to cost you money, not make you money. 

They may be more difficult right from the start, so they’ll cost you a lot of extra sales time and resources to close them.  They’ll ask for yet another demo, another extension on the free trial, another presentation, another reference, another something or other that will tie up your team.

But soon after the extra effort to finally close the deal, many of these difficult customers will find they’re really not satisfied with the solution.  For whatever reason – functionality, support, price, etc. – they’ll drop their subscription.

And they’ll drop it way too soon for you to recover your higher acquisition costs.  If you paid $1000 to win them, and they only stuck around to pay $100 in subscription fees… well, that’s not a formula for SaaS success. 

Drag you away from a standard product

The other dangerous thing bad customers will do is to drag you away from a single, standard SaaS solution.

  • They’ll ask for additional features that may not be on your product development roadmap.
  • They’ll ask for special support terms.
  • They’ll ask for non-standard deployment efforts.

That’s not how SaaS works… or at least not how it works successfully.  You need to develop, market, sell, and support a relatively standard solution.

There’s no problem configuring the solution to fit a particular customer.  But “customization,” altering the core product and practices, is a bad word in the SaaS world.

Deviating from the standard means problems and extra costs for development, marketing, sales, deployment, training, and support.

Avoiding bad customers

 I wish could provide a surefire way to avoid bad customers entirely.  Sorry, no can do.

But I will offer a couple recommendations that should help.

Be clear in your message.  You should make it as plain as possible who your solution is for and what problem it solves.  Prospects should have a crystal-clear understanding of how you can help… or not. 

And the more consistently and plainly you can convey this, the less likely the “wrong” prospect will want to engage with you.      

Identify the outliers early on.  The earlier in the sales process you’re able to identify people that won’t be a good fit for your solution, the better.  However it is that you assess prospects – web forms, phone calls, in-person meetings, etc. – have your radar tuned to those that fall outside your target market. 

Of course, you’re most eager to find areas where you can help the prospect and eventually sell them something.  But it’s just as important to quickly recognize those you can’t help. 

Those that aren’t a good fit just aren’t worth pursuing.

3 ways to fail at lead generation

When the lead gen effort is failing and we’re trying to fix it, we marketing pros usually head right into the weeds.

  • Are there too many characters in the subject lines?
  • Should we add more long-tail keywords?
  • Is the call-to-action button the wrong shade of green?

It’s not that those details don’t matter at all.  At high volumes, they could matter a lot.

But for many software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers, focusing on those details is a distraction.  When lead generation is failing, it’s usually other reasons that are to blame.

It’s unclear who should buy the solution

Too often, it’s not at all clear who should be buying the solution.  The people who visit the website, receive an email, or find their way to our blog are left wondering, “Is this solution meant for me?” 

It should be crystal clear in all communications WHO should be using the product.  Don’t expect the reader to work hard to figure that out on their own. 

And the more specific the better.  Identifying the target user as “B2B companies” or “financial services firms” includes a broad audience. 

But if we narrow the description to something more specific – e.g. “life insurance carriers,” or “independent financial planning professionals with more than 100 clients” – prospective customers are much more likely to respond.  It's easy for them to see that the solution is designed just for them. (See "Let Your Prospective Customers Know 'This Solution is for You.'")

It’s unclear what problem we solve

Sometimes the audience has no idea what problem we solve for them.  We’re over-eager to talk about features, features, and more features, but it’s not at all clear why any of them matter to the prospective customer. 

In most organizations, the people evaluating the SaaS solution care about growing revenues, cutting costs, increasing productivity, reducing risk, or some other essential business goal.  We need to make a case that that is precisely what the solution can do for them.  Our marketing messages should clearly identify the problem and explain how our solution eliminates it.

Even better if we make the case that the solution solves an urgent problem, one that cannot be ignored or put off while they deal with more important priorities.  The audience we’re trying to reach are busy people; they only have time to focus on urgent problems.    

We’re not where the prospects are looking

While we may be fixated on optimizing our Facebook ads or tweaking our Twitter promotions, that may not matter at all to our target audience.  It just may be that they’re not looking for solutions on Facebook or Twitter. 

We can make the same mistake with events, mailing lists, or publications that don’t get us in front of real prospects.  The problem isn’t with the message, the copy, or the call-to-action.  The problem is that those channels aren’t where our prospects are looking. 

One way to know where prospects are looking for solutions like yours:  ask them.  New customers will usually tell you where they went looking and how they found you.  (See "Listen to your customers.")

It’s certainly appropriate to sweat the details of SEO, pay-per-click, PR, social media campaigns, or any other technique to build visibility and generate leads.  But before you get too deep into the weeds, don’t miss the big issues.

Have your prospects gone missing, or just hibernating?

Here’s a sorry fact:  most of your prospective customers won’t end up buying your software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution. 

Lots of folks who should buy it, won’t buy it.  They have problem you can solve.  But instead of fixing it, they’ll stick with the poor system they already have.

Others won’t buy your solution because they’ve never heard of you.  Or they’ve found another option that fits their needs, and they feel there’s no need to look any further.

There are even some prospects that do know you and they do see that your solution would help them… but they just won’t get around to buying. 

These people have visited your website, opened your emails, read your white papers, sat through a demo, even talked with your sales people about pricing.  They’ve been in your pipeline for 90 days, 180 days, maybe a full year, but they’ve still not converted into paying customers.

You might figure that these prospects have gone missing.  Despite all you’ve been through with them, no way, no how will they ever buy.

But you may be wrong about that.  Perhaps they’re not truly gone; they’re just hibernating.

Reviving the hibernating prospects

Which is to say that with a bit of effort, some of them can be revived. 

For some of these hibernating prospects, other priorities interrupted them.  While they may have been eagerly evaluating your solution six months ago, more important issues got in the way.  (See “Your prospect has a day job.”)

At some point, whatever it is that prompted them to look at your solution in the first place may make its way to the top of their to-do list once again.

Your job as marketers is to be sure that you and your solution are still in front of that prospect when that time comes.  When they get around to focusing again on the problem, and they start to think about a solution, you want to be top-of-mind. 

Even better, you can do your part to push your solution higher up on the priorities list.  Make it clear to the prospect that the problem they’re living with deserves urgent attention and there’s a cost to ignoring it or pushing it to the back-burner.

Every day they put off solving it is costly to their organization: wasted money, lost time, added risk, lost opportunities, and other bad outcomes.  (See “Your toughest competitor…inertia.”)

Be smart about the cost

Of course, you want to be careful about the costs of these efforts to revive hibernating prospects.  Using sales professionals to stay in touch can be expensive.

But offering them educational papers, inviting them to webinars, or showing them customer success stories can keep you on the prospect’s radar screen.  And the cost of keeping them on an email list is very low.

These communications should provide an easy way for the prospects to tell you they’re ready to re-engage.  And of course, you should also offer them an easy way to unsubscribe if they’re truly done with you.

Bottom line:  Don’t assume that prospects that you’ve not heard from in weeks, even months have gone completely cold.  They may just need a bit of attention and some heat to warm them up.