Learn the basics behind the marketing strategies SaaS founders use to find initial distribution.
The two most important immediate tasks for a SaaS founder and their team is figuring out product-market fit and distribution. If both product-market fit and distribution can’t be solved, there is a low chance that the resulting SaaS company is going to be a win.
Bootstrapped and indie SaaS founders tend to be great at building products—and, by extension, finding product-market fit—but we’ve found that many founders in the early days struggle with establishing reliable distribution channels. Great marketing requires both a wide set of tools and an understanding of human behavior to determine where and how these channels should be leveraged.
In other words, it’s pretty rare that one person has the skillset to build a house and sell it.
For those that need a little help getting started on the marketing front, this article will give you an overview of the basic digital marketing strategies and help you think through which channels could be the most effective for your business. All great marketing starts with assumptions. Proving or disproving those assumptions requires ongoing testing. All of the below strategies are assumptions and need to be tested. So move fast!
SEO stands for search engine optimization. It’s the practice of optimizing your website and content so it ranks highly on Google and other search engines, resulting in quality and consistent web traffic. When SEO is done well in the right situations, it can be an absolute marketing superpower.
Learning everything about SEO is next to impossible. It’s a massive rabbit hole of learning. Not to mention that Google’s (and other search engines) algorithms are constantly shifting. No one knows exactly how they work. However, even understanding the basics can give you a huge leg up on the competition.
SEO works best for SaaS companies whose customers rely on search engines to find solutions to their problems. It’s important to understand whether your SaaS solution falls into this category or not.
The best question to ask yourself is “are my potential customers aware of the problem my product solves for them and are they actively searching for help?” The key term here is actively searching. It’s entirely possible that a potential customer has a problem that your SaaS application solves but they aren’t actively searching for a remedy. It’s important to strategize before getting started and figure out what keywords need to be targeted.
The first thing every SaaS founder should do is to go to Google and impersonate potential customers. Simply Google a bunch of terms related to the SaaS business you’re in. This is one of the best ways to get an idea of how to approach SEO and to know what keywords your target audience is searching.
Second, head over to Google’s Keyword Planner, which is available for free within Google AdWords. This tool can be used to identify keywords that are related to a SaaS application's primary use. You can uncover search volume and forecasts for those terms.
Search volume helps ensure that people are actually searching for your future keywords and determine to what extent. Keep in mind that volume is a bit of a double edge sword as the higher the volume, the more competition. Forecast will help you determine whether the popularity of your future keywords are on the rise or decline.
Whether or not you think that SEO could be a viable growth strategy for your SaaS, it’s still a good idea to get these basic foundational steps out of the way.
First, you need to ensure that your website is structured properly. To do this, you’ll need to link your site into Google Search Console and Google Analytics. Both act as your homebase for SEO tracking.
Google Search Console ensures that your website is indexed and returning results within Google search engine result pages (SERPs). Google Analytics will allow you to track performance and understand how users interact with your site.
Below are a few basic steps to get started:
Second, you’ll need to grasp how website metadata and metatags determine where pages will be placed and how they’ll be displayed within SERPs. Metadata and tags are used by Google and other search engines to understand the content of your site pages.
Metadata and tags are set within each webpage’s to determine SERP results. The title and description are the most visible, and, accordingly, the most important metadata when it comes to Google and other SERPs. As you can see, Google pulls the page title and description to provide the results:
These tags live in the section within the HTML of your webpages. If you use a content management system, there are likely plugins or settings options for determining metadata and tags (check out Yoast if you use Wordpress). If you’re building your own site, check out this overview from Search Engine Watch.
It’s also essential to set Open Graph Meta Tags as well as Twitter Tags. These tags determine how your page previews will display on social media. Similar to your page title and description, OG & Twitter Tags are set within the section of your webpage’s HTML. Ahref’s has one of the best comprehensive overviews of Open Graph Meta Tags.
Once your site is configured properly for SEO, it’s time to promote and start building domain authority with Google. Common first steps here are building backlinks, writing blog content, producing video content, social media marketing, and guest blogging.
Most people associate content marketing with blogging but in 2020, it encompasses many different types of content including video, podcasts, forum posts, and more. Content marketing is the engine that powers Inbound Marketing and the idea behind it marketing is simple: create free, valuable content, seed it in communities receptive to your message, and get readers into an inbound marketing funnel.
Then it’s all up to the conversion gods (or your product funnel 😀).
Similar to SEO, content marketing works best when your target audience is actively searching for information related to the problem that your SaaS product solves. However, it differs from SEO in that you may be writing about topics that are ancillary to the specific problem that your SaaS solves. This is a way to get in front of customers and make your pitch, and the roads to your product are many.
For example, if you build an app that helps podcasters publish podcast episodes, you don’t have to only produce content about audio production and podcast hosts. Effective content marketing could cover a wide range of topics that podcasters care about and seek out. Microphones, trends in the podcast industry, how to become a better interviewer, social media strategies, etc. Creating a nexus of content around the problem your product solves is essential.
Content marketing also works best when the medium and distribution channel you choose is compatible with your target audience. For example, if you are creating a video editing application, creating video content on YouTube, Vimeo, or perhaps even a live streaming platform is essential.
Creating a great content marketing strategy begins with great research. You need to understand not only who your target audience is but also what they care about. Most importantly, you need to know what terms they’re searching for. There are a few good ways to do this:
Great SaaS entrepreneurs never stop thinking about their business and their customers. As a result, you probably will have content marketing ideas hit you throughout the day or at random times. It’s very important to come up with a process to track content marketing ideas. Tools like Trello, Asana, RoamResearch, etc., are great for this. Here is a look at our content marketing strategy tracking (we use Notion):
Using a Kanban board like this is a great way to keep up with your product marketing strategy. We track ideas in the far left column, move them to ‘Approved’ once we feel they should be prioritized, and then write an outline with keyword emphasis for the post before getting started.
It’s also important to determine which distribution channels to focus on for your content marketing. Between articles, audio platforms, and video, there are countless places to post content. If you are focusing on SEO, posting content into your website is the best start. However, guest blogging and posting within topical communities (like Quora and Reddit) is a great way to hack into other networks and gain quicker attention.
It’s important to note that some content ideas that will be better suited for different distribution channels. Be sure to prioritize them accordingly. Take some time to understand each community’s dynamics, norms, and expectations.
Some products are naturally suited to dedicated social media platforms. It’s easy to burn time and resources in places like Instagram and Facebook, though, so it’s important to take the time to learn if your audience is present within these communities, if they’re receptive, and if you have a unique angle for reaching them.
Let’s use an easy example. If you’re building an app for fitness instructors, Instagram would be the best place to start. If you are building a B2B CRM plugin, LinkedIn would be a better choice.
The old adage “the best marketers are the best testers” applies here as you want to ensure you’re testing channels before doubling down on them.
Over the past few years, social media has trended from being a place where you should promote yourself or your company to a place where you should be engaging with others and providing value. Simply posting links to your blog on social media won’t cut it in 2020.
When getting started with social media, it’s important to understand the difference between posting, engaging, and contributing content. Ideally, you would be doing a mix of all three.
Posting content is creating new tweets, videos, and images showing off what you are doing and thinking about at the moment.
Engagement is commenting or replying to someone else’s post.
Contributing content is posting links to content outside of the social media platform.
These platforms are opportunities to build your community and to identify your first one hundred true fans and signal boosters. But be warned: it takes dedication, focus, and a reliable cadence of engagement to build your audience here.
If your audience is on Twitter, we recommend the Everyone Can Build A Twitter Audience course by Daniel Vassallo.
Paid advertising is any form of advertising where you pay to have ads displayed to potential customers. SaaS founders should focus on two forms of paid advertising: search and social.
Paid search advertising is when you pay a search engine to display ads within relevant searches. The cost of paid search advertising is usually dependent on how many impressions your ad gets, or by a performance model such as pay-per-click. Competition and keyword popularity dramatically change how expensive your “clicks” are going to be.
Paid social advertising is when you pay social media platforms to display ads to users. This usually comes down into the usual lineup of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Search engines make money by allowing advertisers to display ads in relevant searches and reach potential customers. Because Google is the largest search engine (by far), Google AdWords is naturally the best place to start.
Paid search advertising works best when potential customers are searching for keywords that are relevant to your business. After identifying these keywords, you want to find a way to jump to the top of the SERP.
This works best when there is low competition for the keywords that you’re targeting. This helps keep your cost per click low.
The best way to research keywords is with Google Keyword Planner. This allows you to browse keywords and determine what the estimated costs would be. Below is a screenshot from the keyword planner for “social media tools”, a sample search if we were marketing a social media scheduling tool:
Your target CPC threshold is going to be tied to your product’s price point and lifetime customer value (LTV). After all, you most likely don’t want to be paying for ads unless they are going to be profitable.
In some cases, SaaS companies might take a loss on the return on ad spend (ROAS) because the subscription, over time, will be profitable. This ultimately comes down to a combination of churn, lifetime customer value (LTV), and conversion rates for the ads. Deciding your threshold for ROAS amounts will be based on a mixture of those values.
Paid social advertising works best if you are targeted B2C or “prosumer” (the gray area between B2B & B2C) customers. It also works well when your price point is relatively reasonable, when your buyers are early adopter types, and when target customers can be identified by demographic or engagement data.
Contrary to paid search advertising—where customers are actively searching for a solution to their problem—paid social advertising is ideal when your target customers may not know they have a problem. The beauty of social media advertising is that you can get in front and pitch customers when they aren’t searching or looking for something specific.
We always advocate for founders to focus on organic marketing channels when searching for distribution channels. However, it is always good to test paid marketing early to see what works. If you find a paid channel that is profitable, it can be worth the time, money, and effort to double down and get that flywheel spinning early.
The best way to get started with paid search marketing is to set up a Google AdWords account and create a few test campaigns. Allocating a budget of a few hundred dollars is usually enough of a budget to get accurate results from a test. Adwords makes the process of setting up a campaign a breeze, but Niel Patel also offers a great starter guide.
The best way to get started with paid social advertising is to choose a platform and run a test campaign. Choosing the right platform is the key step here. Facebook and Instagram are great if you are trying to reach consumers. Instagram is great for reaching influencers, lifestyle bloggers, or a younger demographic. Twitter provides some great tracking tools and lets you even target followers of specific accounts.
We gave you plenty of ideas on how to get started with different marketing channels. Chances are, one of them will work better than the rest early on. It's important to give each the effort that it needs to possibly succeed, but ditch the ones that aren't working. Remember, great marketers are great testers. Come up with assumptions quickly and test them even faster!
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