Three deadly SaaS marketing mistakes

I'm sure there are hundreds of ways to sink a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company with poor marketing, but I want to focus on three that can be particularly effective... and not in a good way.

1. Spending money to lose money

In this money-losing scenario, the SaaS company spends more on acquiring a customer than they can earn back in revenues from that customer.

Drew Houston of Dropbox shared an example of this deadly hazard, detailing his company's experience with an Adwords campaign. Despite the common wisdom that Adwords and search engine marketing yield surefire success, careful analysis found that the campaign cost on average between $233 and $388 to attract a customer. The product sold for $99.

His succinct analysis: "Fail."

For the mathematically-inclined, the problem can be expressed as

CAC > CLV

in which CAC is customer acquisition cost (i.e. sales & marketing costs) and CLV is customer lifetime value.

Either side of the equation could be at fault. I've seen (and even participated in) some high-priced customer acquisition campaigns: clever but expensive direct mail programs, luxurious events, and expensive give-aways.

On the CLV side, a low subscription price, poor renewals, or an inability to convert free trial users into paying customers might be to blame.

In either case, the outcome is the same: You're spending $1 to earn less than $1. As the expression goes, "you won't make it up in volume."

2. Racing against the clock

This is a variation of mistake #1, and equally deadly. A company's CAC exceeds annual revenues, which means it's burning cash in the short term. But they're betting they can reduce CAC, steeply ramp up revenues, and stop burning cash... before it all runs out.

I've seen this strategy work, as in the case of SuccessFactors, where the company's CAC exceeded revenues for a period of time. CAC/annual revenue reached 112% at one point, but over time has come down to a more sustainable 53%. They out-grew the cash burn.

This strategy requires deep pockets, patient (read "fearless") investors, and lots of attention. When CAC consistently exceeds annual revenues, companies introduce more risk into their business plan. They need to rapidly accelerate revenues, and gradually taper down sales and marketing expenses, while constantly monitoring their cash. They're racing against the clock.

3. Bailing with a teacup

While mistakes #1 and #2 involve over-spending on customer acquisition, "bailing with a teacup" involves under-spending. In this scenario for failure, companies set out a huge task for sales and marketing, but then short-change them of the resources they need to do the job. Spending too little can sink a company as easily as spending too much.

Much is expected of sales and marketing: build positive visibility, generate and cultivate leads, close business, retain and re-sign customers. There's heavy lifting to be done here, and it requires adequate funding. Though there's good reason to be cautious about spending, trying to do everything on the cheap may come up short. Figure out what really works, and commit to paying for it.

SaaS companies will typically spend much more on sales and marketing as a percentage of revenues than their licensed software brethren. Concur, for example, spends 31% of its annual subscription revenues on sales and marketing, and Salesforce.com spends 54%. For nearly all companies, customer acquisition costs will be the single largest expense on the income statement.

Companies should be prepared to make the required investment to fund marketing and sales appropriately. If they don't have the resources they need, or they're unwilling to make the commitment, it may not be worth spending anything at all. Bailing with a teacup won't keep the ship afloat.

When I talk to companies about SaaS marketing, I often use the "navigation" metaphor. (By the way, that explains the "compass" logo on my website.) I explain how to recognize dangers and discuss strategies to steer around hazards. The three I talked about here - "Spending money to lose money," "Raising against the clock," and "Bailing with a teacup" - are among the most treacherous. This SaaS marketing stuff is not for the faint of heart. Be careful out there.