SaaS Marketing is About Promises, Not Products


If you’re a software-as-a-service (SaaS) marketer and you think you’re marketing a product, think again.

What you’re really marketing are promises.  You’re promising to customers that you’ll deliver value over the life of the subscription. 

Though part of that value includes making available a certain set of functionality on day one - features to track a sales pipeline, manage inventory, handle HR, etc. - it goes way beyond that. 

You are also promising that you’ll deliver:
  • Hassle-free deployment
  • Reliable performance and instant access
  • Security for the customer’s data
  • Expert customer support
  • An ongoing stream of enhancements

Earning trust means more than showing features

That’s a lot of promises, and marketing them requires that you win the prospective customer’s trust.  They need to believe that you'll make good on them.  There's a lot more to it than just showing that the features work.

You need to show customers that you’re committed to a long term relationship… something that extends beyond a one-time transaction.

You need to show them other customers that you’ve kept satisfied over a long period. 

You need to show proof of reliability and security, and a track record of enhancements.   

In short,  you need to show them you’re a company they can trust.

There are several critical differences between marketing SaaS and traditional on-premises software:  different buyers, different messages, and different processes.  Marketing SaaS requires a different strategy, something fit for selling promises, not just a product. 


Customers Don't Really Care About SaaS

It wasn’t that long ago that just describing your application as a "software-as-a-service (SaaS),"  or saying that it ran “in the cloud” was enough to get attention.

Companies like salesforce.com and a few other pioneers could differentiate themselves largely by saying they weren’t traditional on-premises software.  'Why buy applications built on old technology when you can buy solutions built on new technology?'

Not anymore.

SaaS just isn't so new and different anymore.  In almost any market these days, people are well-aware of SaaS, and they have a decent choice of cloud-based solutions for HR, CRM, ERP and a whole range of other acronymed applications. 

"SaaS" doesn't make you different anymore

If your goal as a marketer is to differentiate yourself, simply highlighting the fact that your solution is "SaaS,""runs in the cloud" or is “web-based”  really doesn’t do much for you anymore. 

In your marketing messages, there’s no point in putting your “SaaS-ness” or “cloudiness (?)” front & center anymore.  

For customers, it’s just not the most important thing.

Instead, focus on what customers really care about.  Explain what SaaS really means for them:

  • They can deploy the solution quickly without adding lots of new hardware
  • They can access the application from any device connected to the internet
  • They can rely on regular updates
  • They can avoid a large up-front license fee
  • They can let experts worry about uptime and security.

SaaS buyers aren't techies

Highlighting benefits, not the technology itself, is an especially good idea for most prospective SaaS solution buyers.  Usually they're professionals in HR, sales, marketing, or finance.  They're not technologists. 

Of course they care about security, access, performance and other benefits that depend on the platform.  And sometimes a SaaS primer can help. (Call me if you need help with a primer.)  But most SaaS solutions are not a technical sell.

Talk so the customer will listen

Of course you’re proud of the solution you’ve built and how you’ve built it, and you'd love to tell everybody about your clever technology.

But if you want to get the attention of prospective customers, don’t talk about what you want to say.  Talk about what your customers want to hear.

Two essentials for SaaS marketing

If you're marketing a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution, where should you start?

It's obviously something SaaS companies about to bring their solution to market for the first time should be thinking about.

But established SaaS companies should be asking a similar question:  Do we have the basics in place?

Most companies should have two essential items in place as the foundation for their customer acquisition efforts:
  1. a value proposition & messages document
  2. a customer acquisition plan.
A compelling value proposition and messages document

Before you start promoting your solution, you need to have a clear message on what you’re
promoting and why anybody should care.  That's exactly what an effective value proposition and messages document can do.

It answers a few fundamental questions:
  • What is the solution?
  • Who should buy it?
  • What problem does it solve for them?
  • How costly is that problem?
  • Why should they buy it from you instead of someone else?
And it should answer these questions very succinctly.  A condensed version should be able to cover the basics in a few lines.

It's best to capture the value proposition and messages in a single document.  (Some people refer to it as their "messaging bible.)  That way you can “cut & paste” from it and be consistent.

A customer acquisition plan

The customer acquisition plan spells out who you intend to reach with your value proposition and how.  It specifies which tactics you’ll use to reach your audience at each point in the customer acquisition process. 

A plan is much more effective than random acts of marketing:  firing off an occasional press announcement, showing up at a trade show,  pushing out an email from time to time, etc.

A plan helps avoid gaps or bottlenecks in the process.  For example, you don’t end up generating lots of leads… with no means to follow up.  Or attracting lots of free trials… with no way to convert them to paying customers.

Putting a plan in place beforehand can save you lots of time and money.

Start sooner rather than later

Putting together a compelling value proposition and messages document and an effective customer acquisition plan takes a good amount of thought and time. 

If you’ve not yet made your solution widely available, you should try to put this material together well before you go live.  It will make the launch process much easier and more productive. 

But if your solution is already in the market and you’re actively promoting it, it’s still worthwhile to prepare a value proposition document and a customer acquisition plan.  You’ll fill in critical gaps and get a better return on the time and money you’re already investing in marketing and sales.

Of course feel free to contact me if you need help.




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.

SaaS, Flexibility & Office Furniture

I learned something recently about software-as-a-service (SaaS) from a table.

This isn't just any table. This is a bivi table made by Turnstone, a division of Steelcase that specializes in office furniture for small, innovative organizations.

This table starts as a work surface. With an add-on "back pocket," it becomes a workstation. Drag two of them together and it's a shared work area. Push four into a group and it's a conference table.

As the good folks from Turnstone explained, it's all about flexibility. Their research shows that small, innovative organizations are trying different things all the time, which means they're constantly re-arranging their working relationships. When the relationships are re-arranged, the furniture needs to be re-arranged as well. Fixed cubicles or walls just don't suit fluid organizations.

SaaS offers this same kind of flexibility, in at least two ways.

The SaaS model gives vendors the ability to respond flexibly to customer requirements. Combining agile development with SaaS delivery, these companies can more quickly deliver product enhancements to all their customers.

Companies using SaaS gain the benefits of flexibility as well. They're not locked into expensive hardware and software that become obsolete over time. And they can flexibly scale their usage of the SaaS resources to fit their needs. There's no need to buy what's required for peak capacity and let it sit idle the rest of the time.

I've talked before about the hazards of selling SaaS on the advantages of price alone. Marketers have many more benefits and advantages to talk about than that: rapid deployment, remote access, regular enhancements, etc. Flexibility should be on that list too.


Creative Commons License

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