Avoid random acts of marketing

After months or years of development, your software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution is finally ready.  Now you just need to find customers.

So you put up a website, attend a tradeshow, and produce a video.  Then you host a webinar and
post to a blog.  On top of that, you toss in a bit of search engine marketing and prepare a couple of press announcements.

You could call this an "all of the above" customer acquisition plan.

But it might just be random acts of marketing.

Poor connections, poor results

Though the individual elements may be executed well, this shotgun approach to customer acquisition usually doesn't produce much in the way of results.

You end up with an attractive website, a beautifully-produced video, and well-written blog.  Unfortunately, you don't end up with lots of paying customers.

That's because the individual elements are not connected and don't fit into a logical process.  They don't move a buyer step-by-step toward a purchase.

You might generate lots of visibility and web visitors, for example, but unless there are elements in place to capture contact information from the visitors, all that web traffic doesn't mean much.  Unique visitors, by themselves, do not generate revenue.

Or maybe the website is, in fact, capturing contact information.  But there's nothing in the marketing plan to cultivate those leads and convert them into qualified opportunities and buyers.  In that case, you've collected an impressive list of contacts, but no revenue.

Or maybe the tactics in place are effectively leading prospects far enough through the process that they actually purchase your solution.  But there's nothing in place to retain these paying customers.  So you end up with lots of customers that go away after a few months.  

Why does this happen?

These kinds of gaps in the process happen all the time and it's very understandable.


By the time they're ready to go to market, companies have spent lots of time and money building their SaaS solution.  They're proud of what they've built and eager to tell the world about it.  And they're in a hurry to start selling it.

So they just starting "doing marketing stuff."  There's lots of scrambling to put up a website, get out emails, crank out press announcements, post videos, and do whatever else seems like it might be a good idea.

Some of these might actually be good ideas.  And I'm all in favor of trying different tactics to see what works and what doesn't.  (See "There is no marketing magic bullet.")

But companies really need a plan in place before they start executing on all these tactics.  Otherwise all that activity is a waste of money.

That's money no company can really afford to waste, especially SaaS companies.  The website, email, webinar, video, tradeshow and whatever else seems like a good idea costs money now that they need to earn back over time.   That's how the SaaS business model works.  

Step back and put together a plan

When it comes to marketing, resist the urgency to "just do something... anything, and let's do it
ASAP!!"

There's a better way.

Start with a plan.  Specifically, put together a plan that meets three criteria:

  • Make sure the individual elements fit together.  For example, if an email campaign is intended to drive visitors to the website, make sure there's a way to capture contact information from those visitors.

  • Cover all steps in the customer acquisition and retention process.  Don't focus exclusively on programs that generate leads, but neglect tactics to convert leads into customers.  Don't work hard to acquire paying customers, but forget about programs to retain them.

  • Match up with your prospects' behavior.  If your customers look for your kind of solution at tradeshows, for example, go to tradeshows.  If they don't use Facebook to evaluate solutions, don't spend time with Facebook.  To know how customers buy, it's best to ask them.  (Call me if you need help.)
For most SaaS companies, it shouldn't take more than a few weeks to put together a workable plan.  It's time well spent.










Your message should be boring

Why in the world would I want a box of business cards with a different design on each one?

In radio ads, I’ve heard a company that sells business cards promoting that very feature: “Business cards with a different design on each one.”

I’m sure they use some very nifty software to make this happen.  But why?
  • Do people expect me to hand over more than one card when I introduce myself? 
  • Are they comparing the card that I gave to them with the ones I gave to others in the room?
  • Are people collecting my business cards to have a complete set? 
  • Do they swap them on some secondary market?
Probably not. 

If they’re like me, they enter the info into their contacts app, put the business card in the stack of other cards bound by an elastic band, and stick them in a desk drawer.

So why tout "a different design on every card?" Here’s the only explanation I can come up. 

The company thinks that a person gets bored looking at the same, same, same business card every time they hand it out.

Boredom can be a good thing

Maybe people do get bored. 

But here’s some news:  They should be getting bored.  They should be getting tired of showing the same thing every... single... time.

When it comes to your business card, boring is OK.  In fact, whenever you're talking to someone about what your business does, boring yourself is actually a good thing.

You should be saying the same thing over and over and over.

Note that I said “boring yourself,” not “boring the other person.”  Just because you've delivered the same message a thousand times doesn't mean you can't muster some passion.  This is your business after all.

Stick with the core messages

Once you’ve figured out the core value proposition and messages - who should be buying your solution, what problem does it solve, and why is it better than alternatives - you should tell that same story... every time, everywhere.

Why? 

Because the folks who you want to hear your message are hearing lots of other messages along with yours.  They’re positively bombarded with messages.

Repeating your message consistently is the only way that your value proposition can possible get through.  It's the only way people will remember it.

They should see it on your website, your blog posts, your presentations, your demos, your ad campaigns, and yes, even your business cards.

Staying on script improves impact, saves time & money

Believe me, I’ve been doing marketing for a long time and I understand the urge to step out, go off script, get a little crazy. 

And by the way, it’s perfectly OK to be creative.  There are ways to present the same fundamental message in different ways.

But if you wander from the basic message, you’re losing impact and squandering resources. 

If every time you want to prepare a video, a press announcement, a white paper, or any other kind of marketing material, you need to figure out the basics - who’s the audience, what’s the problem, how do we solve it, why should you buy from us - you’re going to waste a lot of time and money.

That’s bad for all companies and especially bad for software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies.  They have no time and no money to waste.  (See "SaaS customer acquisition:  Feed it or starve it?")

SaaS companies are much better off developing a compelling value proposition and message... and sticking to it.

Sure, the same message every time can get boring to you.    But you are not the person you’re talking to.

A Free Trial Isn't Really Free

Free, free, free. 

It sure is a powerful word.  Which probably explains why “free trial” is used so often by software-as-a-service (SaaS) marketers.

Lots of SaaS solutions, whether they’re for business or for personal use, let prospective customers use the solution for free.  And then after 15 days, 30 days, maybe 60 days, they ask them to actually pay for it.

(For now, I’ll focus on free trials.  I’ll leave the subject of “freemium” or “free forever” for another day.)

Here's one reason free trials are so common:  they work.  They can attract lots of users, and even lots of paying customers, if they’re done properly.

I’ll let you in on a secret about free trials, though.  They’re not really free.

Not free for solution providers

Free trials cost money for the SaaS providers.

There’s the cost of developing, hosting, and maintaining the solution. 

There’s the cost of supporting the solution if you offer help to the  trailers.

There’s the cost of attracting prospects to the free trial in the first place.  Search engine optimization, pay-per-click, email, PR, or whatever other tactics you’re using to drive people to find your free trial cost time and/or money.

And then there’s the cost of trying to convert the free trialers into paying customers.  Whatever you’re doing, it’s not free. 

If you’re not doing anything to convert trialers to paying customers, we should talk... soon.

Not free for the customers

Free trials aren’t really free for prospective customers either.

It takes time for them to find the solution and figure out if it’s something worth trying.

It takes time to register and then download the solution.

It takes time for trailers to learn to use the solution

And then it takes time for them to input some data and actually work with the solution enough to see
any value in it.

None of these activities are costing customers cash out-of-pocket.  But their time isn’t free.  

These prospective customers evaluating your solution are busy folks.  They've got a long list of things to take care of during the course of a day.  If they want to use the free trial, they’ll need to make time to do that.

By the way, if the folks using your free trial have all the time in the world, you might wonder whether they have the authority and budget to eventually make a purchase.

Think before you go free

If you offer a free trial, or you’re considering one, keep the costs in mind… both the costs to you and to the customer.  Ignoring them usually leads to failure... namely, high costs and low revenues.

Free trials, done well, can be effective.  But they’re not really free.

2011: More of the same... only worse

What's new for 2011?

Not much, really.

If you were looking for my "top ten" list of dramatically new trends for the new year, sorry to disappoint you.

What I expect is that we'll see many of the same things we've been seeing for awhile in software-as-a-service (SaaS) marketing... only more of it.

More confusion

Customers will confront more confusion about SaaS, PaaS, IaaS, cloud computing, private clouds, public clouds, hybrid clouds, etc. Much of that is a natural consequence of a still-emerging market, with every vendor, analyst, pundit, and guru trying to put their own spin on things.

For SaaS marketers that means you should continue to educate prospective customers. To put a twist on the old Sy Syms maxim, "an uneducated consumer isn't likely to be a customer at all." Help prospects to understand the basics of SaaS and you'll gain their confidence and accelerate the sales process.

More noise and distractions

It will be even more difficult to cut through the clutter this year and capture prospects' attention. Speaking from my own experience, there's ever more stuff coming at me through my email, phone, mobile device, web browser and TV screen. And at the same time, I think my attention span is getting shorter.

Marketers will need to get their messages across with laser-sharp clarity. If prospects can't figure out in less than a minute what problem you solve and why they should pay you money for it, they'll move on.

Over the course of the year, I'm planning on doing a "one-minute drill" on selected SaaS vendors' marketing messages to assess how well they articulate their benefits and advantages in under 60 seconds. Stay tuned.

More pressure on marketing costs

Companies learned a lot about cutting costs in the past couple of years, and many learned to do marketing on a shoestring. Be assured that our friends in the finance group noticed that marketing folks could do more with less. Or at least we could do something with less.

Bottom line, don't expect a huge marketing budget windfall in 2011.

If they haven't already, marketers will need to put processes in place to regularly measure the success of each program. The cardinal rule still applies: the cost of acquiring a customer can't exceed the lifetime revenues that the customer will generate.

And keep in mind that programs and tactics that worked well last year may not work so well this year.

More competition

One great thing about SaaS is that it's getting easier and less expensive for new companies to build an application. One terrible thing is that it's getting easier and less expensive for new companies to build an application.

I've seen a handful of clever developers build an application on top of Force.com in a matter of months. Easy access to outside platforms and infrastructure at "pay-as-you-go" costs makes it lots easier, cheaper and faster.

For existing SaaS solution providers, expect a continuing influx of start-up competitors who think their solution is a little bit better than yours.

Add to this that more large, on-premise application vendors won't ignore the SaaS challenge any longer, and those that have been dipping their toe in the water will likely take the full plunge soon. If they do it well, these deep-pocketed vendors can make a big splash.

For you existing SaaS vendors, prepare yourselves: sharpen your value messages, hone the customer acquisition process, and engage your existing customers.

More engagement with existing customers

With the growing use of social media, customers expect more interaction with their vendors. They want to know more about what features are available, how best to use them, and what's coming in the future. And they want an opportunity for a conversation, not a one-way outbound broadcast.

SaaS marketers should communicate regularly with customers through all appropriate channels. For SaaS businesses that rely on renewals (and that's most of you), existing customers are also prospective customers.

In addition to email, newsletters, events or whatever else has worked in the past, try out social media. Facebook and Twitter are becoming more widely used, even for business-to-business companies. Though you want to be careful not to be too casual, you may find that the more "human," less "corporate" tone of social media is refreshing.

Have a happy and prosperous new year.