Inbound marketing is a great way to grow an SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) company. It's how I originally grew my file storage service, File Den, to 3 million registered total users and thousands of paying customers way back in 2006.
There's a whole host of great examples of SaaS start-ups that have flourished with inbound marketing out there ranging from HubSpot, to BufferApp.
But how do the best SaaS companies use inbound marketing to grow -- today?
A lot's changed since I began marketing File Den in 2006, and in this post I outline the steps you need to take to maximise success.
Before You Start
Before we get started, you need to be aware that without the HubSpot software, a lot of what is covered in this post will be challenging. If you don't already have HubSpot, it's super easy to get started for free, here.
Got that sorted? Awesome. Now, onto what you came here for:
Step 1) Increase Website Traffic
Develop Buyer Personas & Start Blogging
The first step in growing an SaaS with inbound marketing is attracting the right traffic to your website. To start out with, you need to develop your buyer personas. That means interviewing existing customers to find out as much as you can about the people who buy your software, from their demographics to their problems and challenges.
Once you have a firm understanding of the problems and challenges your customers face, it's time to plan out blog posts that address these problems. What can you blog about that would be an invaluable resource for your buyer personas?
These problems and challenges are what your target personas are typing into Google every day, and looking for answers to. By creating the content and optimising it for search engines, your content will show up as the answer. We usually recommend blogging 2-3 times a week, (1 time a week at a minimum) to drive enough search traffic to make a real difference over time.
Promote Socially & Network
As you publish your blog content -- it's not enough to just sit around and wait for search engines to index it. You need to promote it, too. This means:
- Sharing your content across the major social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. The networks you choose to be active on will depend on your buyer personas (you did ask them which social networks they use, right?).
- Working with other experts in your industry to co-author content creation. You could run shared webinars, blog posts, or even promote each other's content to your contact lists via email.
- Syndicating your content on appropriate industry websites. This means having your content re-published to other websites your target personas visit.
Supplement With Paid Ads
It's wise if you do not already drive much website traffic to kickstart your marketing efforts with paid ads. The paid ads that work best for your particular SaaS will again depend on your buyer personas, but some ideas you can try include:
- Pay per click ads in search engines like Google -- I've written a guide on maximising the effectiveness of your PPC ads previously: How to Generate More B2B Leads With Your PPC Advertising.
- Social media ads, for example on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. The efficacy of these is variable, and there are lots of ways to use them. Sharing your content on social media, then sponsoring your content can be a great way to pick up additional followers, and kickstart engagement from your industry. I discuss this in more depth in my previous article on social seeding.
Just be careful not to over-invest in your paid advertising. Paid advertising like PPC can be extremely addictive: you know that if you invest another £X per month into it, you'll generate A visits, B leads and C new customers. It feels safe, but it scales badly. You have to invest more and more to grow, and your cost of customer acquisition (CAC) stays constant.
The focus of your marketing effort needs to be on developing your owned and earned media. Always be on the look-out for the 5 signs that your marketing strategy is too dependent on paid ads, and remember that traffic, of course, isn't the end goal when it comes to marketing. This is where we move onto the next way inbound marketing can help your SaaS company to grow: generating more information qualified leads.
Step 2) Generate Information Qualified Leads
As you start to drive traffic to your website and business blog, you need to think carefully about how to convert those anonymous visitors into known leads. An information qualified lead is any person who has filled in a form on your website, but hasn't yet been qualified as a good potential customer, or as interested in your software itself.
The best way to generate more information qualified leads is to focus on producing premium content that your buyer personas will be willing to download in exchange for their contact information on landing pages. For example, if you ran a SaaS company that produced software that helped sales teams, you could produce an eGuide: "How to Build an Effective Sales Team".
Anyone who downloads one of your free eGuides would be information qualified: they've indicated that they're interested in building an effective sales team, and that's (generally speaking) the same type of person who may want to buy your software. This does not mean that the lead is ready to buy your software, or that they've even yet identified a problem that your software could solve for them.
Remember that you need to promote the eGuide throughout your website, and also at the bottom of your blog posts, using call-to-actions. To see an example of a call-to-action, take a look at the one at the end of this blog post. If you've never visited our website before, you should see an image promoting one of our free eGuides: "Marketing Benchmarks From 7,000+ Businesses". If you've previously engaged with our content, you may see a different promotion.
Once you've developed a strategy for generating information qualified leads, it's time to move on to the next step: nurturing your information qualified leads until they're marketing qualified.
Step 3) Nurture Until Marketing Qualified
The next step in the inbound marketing methodology for SaaS companies is nurturing your leads until they're marketing qualified. A marketing qualified lead generally needs to meet two sets of criteria:
- They have indicated they are specifically interested in your software. This may be by downloading a case study, or looking at your pricing page multiple times, for example.
- They have provided information that allows you to identify them as a potential fit. For example, they may have the right job title, work in the right industry and be part of a company with a specific number of employees.
Until a lead is marketing qualified, you should focus on providing them with more helpful content via email. The purposes of this content is to provide additional education, and lead them towards premium content that if requested would indicate they were marketing qualified.
Going back to the sales example in the previous step, if someone downloaded your eGuide: "How to Build an Effective Sales Team", you might then later send an email out a link to a case study explaining how one of your customers used your software to improve the effectiveness on their sales team. If the lead then downloaded that content, and also fit your ideal lead characteristics, they would then be labelled as marketing qualified.
The key thing to remember when progressing information qualified leads is that you need to stay top of mind, whilst avoiding annoying them. Send them helpful, targeted emails that will educate them, and give them the option to learn more about your software, without forcing them into it. Leads that are just information qualified won't be interested in learning about the in's and out's of your pricing, or want to set-up a demo yet.
Step 4) Convert With a Free Trial/Demo
Once a lead has been confirmed as marketing qualified, the focus needs to be on giving them as much information as they need to be confident that your software is a good solution to their problems. This means emailing them case studies, and recommending content that identifies and overcomes the most common key sales objections your target personas have to requesting a demo or free trial.
Your content can also focus on what a lead can expect to gain from a trial or demo.
Your free trial/demo offer should be promoted consistently throughout your website at this point -- at the bottom of blog posts, in sidebars, and in emails sent out. It's the one action you want your lead to complete to indicate that they are sales qualified, and ready to be engaged by the sales team.
Whether you run a free trial or a demo depends on the complexity of your software. If you are selling enterprise software, then a demo is likely to be more useful than a trial. Likewise, if your software is something that a user could quite easily get clear value from within a 14-30 day trial, then the trial may be a better option -- a lot needs to be considered when making this decision.
Once you have converted your marketing qualified lead into a sales qualified lead, and the lead has begun their trial or scheduled their demo, it's time for step 5: closing the lead as a paying customer.
Step 5) Close As a Paying Customer
In the end, the entire point of your marketing activity is to generate new paying customers. This is the stage in the process where your sales team will need to get involved. Even if you are selling relatively low priced software, the human touch is often essential at this stage in the buying process.
If you offer a free trial, your leads will be trying the software out, and will likely need assistance to get the most from it. They'll also probably come up with their own specific objections as they try out the product. I highly recommend setting up Intercom at this point, so that you can send out automated emails to your leads based on how they are interacting with your software, and also trigger alerts to your sales or customer service team when customers do or don't perform key actions.
If you're not using a trial, but a free demo instead, then Intercom isn't really necessary to close -- but may be a helpful integration in terms of analysing how new customers are using your software after they buy. You'll soon find that customers that go on to upgrade or become your highest paying customers perform very specific actions, and also that accounts get into specific patterns of activity before taking the decision to cancel. Intercom can help you to identify any leads or customers getting into these patterns early on, so that you can quickly help them. Help can range from solving a problem with an automated email, or triggering the sales/customer service team intervene to offer individual assistance.
So there we have it, the 5 key steps to acquiring a SaaS customer with inbound marketing. Of course, this isn't where the fun stops -- and growing your SaaS company sustainably also requires keeping churn rates low. This means delighting all your customers with an exceptional product, and matching customer service.