Accelerating the SaaS Purchase Process

Inbound marketing can be very cost-effective, but it can also be slow.

Inbound marketing relies on prospective customers making contact with vendors.  That's the other way around from traditional marketing, where vendors try to make contact with potential customers.

What that means is that by the time the vendor engages with a prospective customer, that prospect is already fairly far along in the evaluation process.  They're already familiar with the vendor and the solution.  In other words, they've qualified themselves.

That’s perfect for software-as-a service (SaaS) vendors.  They can focus their sales and marketing activity on well-qualified prospects.  

That fits well with the SaaS business model which demands that companies spend their sales and marketing resources wisely.  (See"SaaS companies can't afford to sell")

Finding customers in the short term

But it’s not so perfect for SaaS vendors in a hurry.

While inbound marketing makes sense - and the process usually works over time - it can be a long journey.  The prospective customers move at their own pace, not the vendor's pace. 

If you're a SaaS vendor that needs to close business in the short term, you need to add in some other tactics.  Inbound marketing may not have the instant impact you need.

Friends & family

There’s a reason most vendors’ early sales are to friends & family.  These folks already have some connection to the vendor.  They might be a previous employer, an investor, or former colleagues, for example. 

Vendors looking to quickly sign on some early customers should focus their efforts on these friends & family. 

These folks are already familiar with the vendor, which means they’ve already passed through the early stage of the evaluation and purchase process.  They're more likely to buy the solution in the short term.

The early adopters

In most markets, there is usually a cadre of early adopters, folks that are actively looking for innovative solutions. To gain a competitive advantage and bolster their credentials as market leaders, they are more willing to try technology solutions before they become mainstream. 

If you're looking to close business in the short term, seek out these early adopters.

Where do you find them?  Look at the press announcements for vendors selling solutions that are complementary to yours.  See who’s speaking at relevant conferences.  Find out who's publishing a blog that describes their experience using new technologies.   

Leverage the early adopters

One of the reasons early adopters want to be out front is that they like being known as innovators.  They want others to take their advice and follow their lead. 

So once you've secured one of these folks as a customer, enlist their help to find others.  They tend to have a wide sphere of influence.  They post, they speak, they network.  And they’re often willing to help.

Don’t abandon inbound marketing

Do keep one thing in mind:  While you’re focused on closing a few deals in the short term, don’t forget about inbound marketing.  That's what you'll need to attract the prospects that will fill your sales pipeline over the medium and long-term. 

These are the customers that will get you “across the chasm” and help you establish a sustainable revenue stream. 

Yes, it may take them some time for these prospects to get to know you, assess their needs, and evaluate how well your solution fits their requirements and budget.  (See "Winning SaaS customers requires patience.")

But when they do eventually get there, they’ll be well-qualified and ready to seriously evaluate your solution.  You just can’t rush the process.

How SaaS Marketing has Changed

Over the 10 years since salesforce.com went public, a few things have changed in the way we market software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.

For one, companies are getting more comfortable with the idea of running critical business functions in the cloud.

Not too long ago, people marketing SaaS solutions spent a lot of time trying to convince prospective customers that putting key applications and data on the cloud was OK.

We put together plenty of documents - white papers, fact sheets, policy and procedures documents, and more - explaining that SaaS solutions were reliable and sensitive information stored there would be safe.

Fewer concerns about "the cloud"

I don’t hear many of these concerns anymore. 

Companies have grown more comfortable with the idea. 

Maybe the hosting companies have earned more trust, building a solid record of security and high-availability over the years. 

Or maybe the benefits of cloud-based solutions now simply overwhelm the possible downsides.

Of course when companies evaluate SaaS solutions, the IT professionals still care about security, performance, and integration issues.  They need to do their due diligence and ask the tough questions.  And solution providers need to have solid answers.  (For more on addressing these concerns, see "SaaS Security:  Don't Ignore It.")

Smarter buyers

As the SaaS market has matured, buyers have become more knowledgeable.  In some markets, they are now on the second or third generation of solutions.  These companies are often replacing existing systems, not adopting automation for the first time.


With this experience, buyers have a much better idea of what features and functions they really need, and what they’re willing to pay for.

To package and promote their solution effectively, SaaS marketers need a much better understanding of these more sophisticated buyers. There's no point in highlighting features and benefits that prospective customers don't really care about and aren't willing to pay for.

“SaaS” by itself isn’t a selling point

In many markets such as HR or CRM software being “SaaS” doesn’t, by itself, distinguish one solution from others anymore.  The benefits - faster deployment, no local servers, access from anywhere, regular enhancements, lower cost, etc. - are now simply “check box” items for prospective customers.  They expect them from all the solutions they’re considering.

Of course, vendors should include the benefits of SaaS in their marketing messages, but it may not make sense to put them at the top of the list. 

(A brief commercial interruption:  Contact me if you need help understanding your prospects and preparing your marketing messages.)

Some things stay the same

Though there have been some changes, some of the challenges of marketing SaaS solutions have stayed the same.

When a company’s evaluating a SaaS solution, there’s still a broad mix of folks involved in the process.  Along with IT and procurement, there’s the business owner, the department head, and the end user.  In fact, it’s often the department head - the executive responsible for Sales, Marketing, or HR, for example - that initiates the process. 

We folks marketing SaaS solutions need to reach each of these audiences and address their particular concerns.  The head of HR or the head of sales needs to hear different messages than the IT executive.


SaaS marketing is still expensive

Another constant is the high cost of acquiring customers.

In its most recent financial statement, salesforce.com reported it spent 53 percent of annual revenues on sales and marketing.  By far its largest single expense, sales and marketing costs have kept it from net profitability.  And this is for a SaaS company that is already well-known and well-established.

Yes, there are ways that SaaS companies can keep their customer acquisition costs under control - inbound marketing tactics, low-touch sales models, etc. - but sales and marketing is still going to be a substantial expense.  (See "Customer Acquisition Spending: Lessons from Workday")


It takes a lot of work and money to build visibility and credibility, generate leads, nurture leads into qualified opportunities, convert them into paying customers, and then retain and up-sell those customers.

That's an effort and an expense that hasn't changed for SaaS companies.

How not to waste $30,000 on marketing

An entrepreneur who's just been accepted into a start-up accelerator that provides cash for young companies asks:

"How would you spend a $30,000 budget for marketing an SMB software-as-a-service (SaaS) application?" 

He's selling into "a huge but highly competitive market."  Based on feedback from about 10 active users, he explains, "I feel confident my application is ready to go to market."

Now it's just a matter of where to spend the $30,000.

Don't spend a dime yet

My advice:  Put the checkbook away.

Sure, the company could try several marketing tactics that might be helpful and reasonably cost-effective:  search engine optimization (SEO), Google adwords, PR, and others.

But in a highly competitive market, $30,000 won't go far.  The company could easily spend that amount on adwords in a single month, and good SEO or PR professionals need to get paid.

Before it spends any money on specific lead generation activities, the company should first figure out why anyone would buy its product.  And in a highly competitive market, why would they buy it from them?

If the company is facing well-established and well-funded competitors, it'll need to articulate a significant advantage over these other solutions.  A few extra features aren't nearly enough.

A new solution can't just be better; it needs to be a lot better.   

Don't promote before you know what you're promoting 

There's a lesson in here for all SaaS companies:

Don't spend money on search engine marketing, PR, or any other channel, until you have a
compelling message to promote.

Once the solution is built is not the time to start marketing.  Companies should think through these messages and their value proposition much earlier in the process.

If you're interested in building a viable business, developing a compelling value proposition is just as important as developing a sound technology solution.  Marketing and messaging are not after-thoughts. 

If you don't know who should buy your solution, what problem it solves, and why it's better than anything else out in the market, no amount of money - not $30,000, not $300,000, not $3 million - will help much.

Spend first, think later: Bad idea

When it comes to putting together a marketing plan, there are lots of reasons to spend first and think later. 

The "spending" I'm talking about is spending on marketing programs like PR, events or collateral. 

And the "thinking" is about developing a compelling value proposition and messages. 

One reason why marketers spend first and think later… it's more fun.

Spending money on a clever promotional video, a tradeshow party, or a new ad campaign...  that can be fun.

But thinking about a value proposition… that's not fun.  That's hard work. 

Eat your broccoli first

Spending before thinking is more fun... but it's backwards

You need the value proposition in place before you can do any of the fun stuff. 

It's like you need to eat your broccoli before you eat dessert.

You need to know who you're selling to, what problem they're trying to solve, and why they would buy a solution from you instead of somebody else.


And you need to express that value proposition clearly, concisely, and consistently. 

You need to do the hard work to answer these fundamental questions before you start spending on marketing programs.  (Or you can hire someone like me to help.)

Because until you have a well-articulated value proposition in place, it's difficult to get much value from the other stuff.

You can spend lots of money on programs to deliver your messages:  PR, search engine marketing, videos, a website, tradeshows, etc.

But it won't buy you much unless you have a compelling message to deliver.

For software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies in particular, that's money wasted… money that you can't afford to waste.  (See "SaaS customer acquisition:  Feed it or starve it?"

Eat your broccoli first, then you can have the pineapple pie!





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This work by Peter Cohen, SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Images obtained via iCLIPART.com.

Making free trials work: 3 tips

Lots of software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies offer free trials.  But in even the best cases, only about a modest portion of the free trialers actually convert into paying customers.

In fact, many times the free trialers don't even try the free stuff.

People download the trial, but then they get distracted.

Or they don't have the time to use it.

Or they don't have the data they need to get started.

Or they decide it's a hassle.

Or they lose interest.

Or whatever.

Totango calls these folks "accidental trialers:"  prospective customers who sign up for a free trial and then do nothing.

After a few weeks, the trial expires - a complete flop for both the prospective customer and the SaaS provider:

The prospect gains little experience with the product and misses the opportunity to see how it might be helpful.

The provider has little opportunity to convert the free trialer into a paying customer.   They've invested in finding and cultivating a prospect, but they can't close the deal.

How can SaaS providers avoid this?  How can they get prospects to actually try the free trial?

Tip 1:  Don't make the trialer work too hard

Just because your solution is free doesn't mean your prospective customer's time is free.  If you ask them to do lots of work - track down data, configure forms, set-up work flows - they're likely to bail out.

Instead provide completed templates, default settings and benchmark data already filled in.  The trialer, of course, can make changes, but they're not starting from a blank page.

Tip 2:  Don't overwhelm the trialer

You're proud of your solution - every bell and whistle of it.  And your paying customers may grow to love every bell and whistle too - eventually.  But your free trialers probably aren't yet ready to see every single feature and function, and they may be overwhelmed by a walk-through of the entire product.

At this stage, it's better to focus the prospect on accomplishing a few simple, common tasks.  Show them how easy the solution is to use and how quickly they can achieve worthwhile results.  Get them as soon as possible to an "Aha!" moment.

Tip 3:  Offer help

Even with the simplest, most intuitive solutions, the prospect might need some guidance.  These folks aren't dense; they're just busy.

Give them a guided tour through the trial, a step-by-step guidebook, a recorded tutorial, or one-on-one coaching.

Yes, helping free trialers can be expensive.  But remember, you've already spent time and money to get prospects this far in the purchase process.

Spending more to push them one final step - and convert them from trialers to buyers - might be a worthwhile investment.



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This work by Peter Cohen, SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Images obtained via iCLIPART.com.


  
  
 


SaaS profits: who cares

There's a story about accounting that wouldn't really pass as funny - even by accountants' standards- but it is instructive.

A CEO was interviewing two candidates for an accounting position. He provided each with the company's most recent financial data and asked each of them: "What would you report for our company's profit?"

The first candidate pored over the numbers, pencil and calculator at hand, carefully constructing an accurate income statement. After that protracted exercise, he dutifully walked the CEO through his arithmetic, subtracting expenses from revenues. The remainder, he proclaimed, would be the company's reported profit.

The second candidate kept his pencil and calculator in his briefcase and, in fact, never even glanced at the numbers. He looked at the CEO and said, "The company's profit is whatever you want it to be."

So much for the unassailable truth of whatever is reported as "profit." Calculating it and interpreting it can be much more elusive than the cold, hard numbers would suggest.

"Profit" isn't especially meaningful, in particular for SaaS companies

Interpreting "profit" is even more elusive when assessing software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies. The problem is timing. Profit is calculated by subtracting costs incurred during a given period from revenues generated during that same period.

For most SaaS companies, though, they incur expenses in the current period, but the revenues are realized over many periods in the future. Costs now yield revenues... but not until later. (See "SaaS market consolidation: Blame Wimpy.")

The largest of those costs tend to be for customer acquisition. Sales and marketing expenses in a given period can often exceed 50% of revenues during the same period. Adding in support, operations, development, general & administrative costs, and other expenses, there's not a lot left for profit. In fact, a reported loss is far more common.

If not "profit," what really matters?

So if profit isn't a useful measure of success for SaaS companies, what is?

Metrics like "cost of customer acquisition/customer lifetime revenues"(CAC/CLV) can give a much better picture of a SaaS company's performance. For every dollar that the company invests in sales and marketing, how many dollars in revenue are earned? And how long does it take to earn them? (See Joel York's "SaaS Metrics Guide for SaaS Financial Performance" or David Skok's "SaaS Metrics" for additional metrics appropriate for evaluating SaaS companies.)

To amend the story about the CEO and the accountants, the best answer to the question "What would you report for our company's profit" wouldn't be "revenues less costs," or even "whatever you want it to be."

For a SaaS company, the best answer might be, "Who cares?"


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This work by Peter Cohen, SaaS Marketing Strategy Advisors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.