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.

SaaS Security: Don't Ignore It

Remember all those concerns about the security of software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions?  When SaaS was still a new idea, at some point in the sales process you'd get the same questions:  Who's got my data?  Who can see it?  Is it safe?

As SaaS has matured, maybe you thought those concerns were dead and gone.

You'd be wrong.

SaaS security is still an issue

Yes, SaaS solutions have been widely adopted by enterprises, and in many cases they're preferred over on-premises applications.

But for enterprise buyers, security is an issue that just won't go away.  CEOs and CIOs are still asking questions about how sensitive information is protected.  And with news of the recent data breaches at Target and Snapchat, they have good reason to keep asking.

I don't know how the information was stolen from Target or Snapchat.  Maybe it had nothing to do with how most SaaS solutions protect data.  It doesn't really matter.

What does matter is that some prospective customers think there are security issues with SaaS solutions.

So at some point in the purchase and evaluation process, these folks are likely to ask those nasty security questions.  They'll want to know exactly how their data will be protected and why they should trust you to do the protecting.

Be prepared to address security head on


As a SaaS provider, you should be prepared.  And the "you" I'm talking about here isn't just the operations people.  The marketing people have a role here, too.

Concerns about security can derail a purchase and they need to be addressed.

To satisfy CEOs, a short document that spells out the basics of the security procedures can be effective.

For IT professionals, though, a longer document is usually necessary.  They expect something with serious heft and full of details on server security, network security, application security, penetration testing, back-up procedures, and every other security issue. 

However you do it, if you're selling to enterprises, you should be prepared to address the security of your SaaS solution.   This issue isn't going away anytime soon.


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.

Naming SaaS solutions and escaping the 1990s

One afternoon in the Spring of 1993 in a conference room in San Jose, California I learned that product versions for software are meaningless.

Well, not exactly meaningless, but mathematically illogical, as in 1 + 1 = 4.

The product manager for Lotus 1-2-3 and I were briefing an influential Dataquest analyst on the forthcoming enhancements to the Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows spreadsheet. It was a major overhaul of the less-than-successful version 1.0 and 1.1 releases of the product.

Favorably impressed with nifty new features like instant charting and "Scenario Manager," the analyst suggested we abandon plans to label the new product "release 1.5" or even "2.0."

If we really wanted to make an impact, to heck with arithmetic. Skip a few steps entirely and call it "Lotus 1-2-3 Release 4."

And the tagline that adorned the tee-shirt read: "It's Not Just a New Version. It's a New Vision."

Version numbers are irrelevant for SaaS solutions

Which brings me to the naming conventions for software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.

When it comes to sticking version numbers on SaaS solutions, don't bother with labels like 1.1, 2.0, or anything-dot-anything.

Also drop any notions about using "Winter" release or a "Spring" release. These seasonal monikers work for beer; not for SaaS solutions. (I also suspect they're confusing to customers in the southern hemisphere.)

In the old world of desktop applications and on-premise software, we made a big deal about new versions. It helped us sell more software. Our version 4.0 must be better than the competitor's version 3.0. And it must be way better than our old version, 1.1.

It worked really well for awhile and companies made a lot of money on this upgrade cycle. Every couple years we convinced people to rip out the old stuff and buy some new stuff.

An old naming convention doesn't fit a new model

But the logic of the upgrade cycle, and the version labels that went along with it, don't fit with SaaS solutions.

In the SaaS model, solutions are upgraded regularly and the upgrades are delivered as part of the subscription. The user doesn't have an installed version that's outdated, because the user doesn't have an installed version at all.

And if the prospective customer is asking "Which version release will I be buying," you need to do a better job of educating them on the basics of SaaS.

The only people who should know or care about version numbers are in your customer support group. In order to diagnose problems, they may need to know precisely which version the customer has access to at any particular time.

But that doesn't require a big, bold label a la "Lotus 1-2-3 Release 4," "Oracle 8i" or "Windows 95." Version numbers on SaaS solutions are sooooo 1990s.





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

SaaS advantages in a volatile market

For the last few years, NASCAR, Indy car, and Formula One drivers have been wearing a special head restraint, known as a HANS (Head and neck support) device. It's designed to prevent severe injuries from violent whiplash when the race car suddenly decelerates, as in a crash.

For business folks who have been whiplashed over the past few days by the sudden jolts in the stock market, this device might look attractive for more than just race car drivers.

But along with head and neck restraints to deal with volatility, businesses should be looking at software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions as well. SaaS offers several valuable advantages in this uncertain market, and marketers should be touting them.

No long term lock-in

Many SaaS subscriptions run year-to-year or even month-to-month. Companies don't need to lock-in a long term commitment. They can assess their need for the solution periodically and easily make adjustments.

Greater flexibility

SaaS subscriptions often give companies the flexibility to add or subtract users as needed. There's no new hardware or software to bring up or take down. When expanding the business, companies can add users. When scaling back, they can subtract users.

Faster deployment

Most SaaS solutions can be deployed fairly quickly. Though it may take some time to input data, configure the solution and learn how to use it, the SaaS application itself is already up and running. The months required to install and customize on-premise applications is cut to days or weeks.

Coping with uncertainty

The bottom line: your prospective customers are trying to manage in an usually volatile environment. Show them how a SaaS solution can help.


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