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Category Archive: Social Media Marketing

  1. What Does The Perfect Instagram Post Look Like?

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    There’s no question that social media marketing is one of the most popular and profitable strategies around today—why else would 84 percent of marketers be keeping or increasing their social media budgets moving forward?

    Among these platforms, the ones that tend to get the most attention are the giant pillars of our age: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Why? Partly because they carry some of the biggest user bases of any social media platform, and partly because they’ve been around long enough to reassure skeptical marketers that they’re going to be a good investment.

    But what about Instagram, a decidedly popular app growing quickly in terms of users and owned by Facebook, one of the major social pillars of the world. Many business owners and marketers are intimidated to get involved with the platform, partly because it’s relatively untested (compared to the big three), but I’ve found it’s mostly because the average Instagram post is more demanding than the average post on other platforms.

    When you look past the initial learning curve, Instagram posts aren’t as intimidating or intensive as they might seem on the surface. In fact, I can teach you all the ingredients of a “perfect” Instagram post in the body of one guide—or at least I’m going to try. Are you ready?

    Why you should care about Instagram

    Since it does get less attention than some of its contemporaries, you might first ask yourself why you’d bother with Instagram in the first place. Well, let’s look at the numbers: Instagram has over 400 million monthly active users, and that number is growing consistently, month over month. It’s become an incredibly popular platform in a relatively short amount of time, and its growth trajectory doesn’t indicate any signs of that momentum coming to a halt.

    Moreover, much of the Instagram population skews toward younger demographics, making it an even more powerful social force (especially if younger demographics are your target market):

    instagram statistics

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    If you’re targeting older generations, or rural users, Instagram probably isn’t the best platform for you, but then again, social media in general may prove an obstacle for these markets.

    I’m going to assume that Instagram is a good platform for your business or organization in general, because this is the case for the vast majority of businesses. With that in mind, we need to take a look at how your business can be successful.

    Perfect posts are a good way to start

    There are a lot of ingredients that go into a successful Instagram campaign, but at the center, there must be high-quality, effective posts. Drilling down to uncover what makes an individual Instagram post effective is a good first step to building a solid strategy. Here, we’re looking to accomplish a few goals:

    • Attractive. An ideal post is one that will attract new people to your brand, helping you build and retain a massive following, which you will then hold influence over.
    • Engaging. The more you engage with others, in some meaningful, connective way, the more influence your brand will hold and the more actions your users will take.
    • Valuable. Your posts should also carry some direct value for your brand, such as generating more traffic or sales, without disrupting the relationships you hold with your followers.

    Without further ado, let’s take a look at the factors you’ll need to consider when creating and posting your brand’s images and videos.

    The Basics

    Before we get too deep in the types of content and specific details you’ll need to consider for your strategy, we need to cover the basics. These are fundamental principles you’ll need to keep close to your campaign—some of them are rules of etiquette, some of them are best practices, but all of them are necessary if you want any of your posts to make an impact.

    Take lots of pictures, but choose only the best

    Instagram revolves around images. Yes, you’re able to post videos these days, too, but first and foremost, Instagram is an image-based platform. Accordingly, you need to pick the best and most impressive photos you can to fill your profiles. It helps if you have some kind of photography experience, or are at least familiar with the basic principles of what makes a good photo, but even if you don’t, you can make up for it with one basic approach. Take lots and lots of photos, experimenting with different angles and lighting, and only choose the best ones to fill your account. Even if only 1 in 20 of your photos is worth posting, if you take 20 photos, you’ll get that 1 important take (on average). The perfect Instagram post is the best of a group.

    As an example, thousands of people a day take photos of the Eiffel Tower, mostly from this angle. But how many do you think turn out like this:

    Eiffel Tower

    (Image Source: BGR)

    Edit and crop appropriately

    Once you take your photo, your job isn’t exactly done. Instagram offers some awesome editing and cropping tools, but you need to use those tools effectively if you want your image to have the right type of impact. Instagram has a great guide on how to use these tools in general (if you’re unfamiliar), but you’ll need to trust your artistic and creative instincts if you want to get the framing correct.

    This is a great example:

    cropping photo

    (Image Source: BGR)

    Imagine if the photo was zoomed out any further—you’d miss the person swinging as a bit detail. Zoom in any further and you lose your sense of scale. There’s a delicate balance here, and it’s important to know where it is.

    Add the right filter

    Instagram offers a number of filters you can use to modify the final appearance of your photos, each one with different effects. Some alter the coloration of your image and others alter the lighting. You’ll find that several of these filters will directly affect your engagement rates, so choosing the right one is vital:

    instagram photo filters

    (Image Source: TrackMaven)

    Unfortunately, there’s no convenient guide to let you know which one is the most appropriate for your specific image. You’ll have to experiment and trust your visual sensibilities to find the one that best enhances your source material.

    Of course, if you don’t feel like using filters at all, or if your photo will have more impact if it’s unedited, you can take advantage of this with the #nofilter hashtag.

    Make your message short

    Instagram allows you to include a message with your photo, which is an excellent opportunity to further engage your audience. However, it’s in your best interest to keep this message as concise as possible. Remember, this is an image board. A message can enhance or clarify the meaning behind your post, but don’t use this as a platform for verbal expression; there are several dozen other platforms available if that’s your main goal.

    For example, take this post from forever21, which simply says: “wakeup, run, repeat” with some emoticons, hashtags, and a call-to-action (these other ingredients are significant too, but I’ll dig into those in a bit).

    forever21 photo

    (Image Source: Curalate)

    The nature of this message should be directly related to your image, and relevant to your audience, hitting a few main points I’ll explain in my section on content.

    Incorporate hashtags

    Yes, hashtags. They’re a polarizing strategy because it’s easy to cross a line here, but the fact is, they’re the best way to get your content discovered by new audiences, hands-down. People search for and follow hashtags for their favorite topics, and if they search for yours, your post will get in front of them. Your existing followers will see your posts in their newsfeeds, but your ideal post should include hashtags to attract the people who don’t follow you.

    There are only two lines you need to be wary not to cross:

    • Relevance. Whatever hashtags you use, make sure you’re using them appropriately. If you try to exploit a hashtag that you don’t fully understand, you could wind up alienating your audience or seeming ignorant. If you’re in doubt, do your research. If you’re still in doubt, drop it.
    • Volume. Don’t stuff your post full of hashtags for the sake of stuffing it full of hashtags. This turns users off almost immediately. Instead, select only a handful that you feel are most appropriate for your post.

    instagram hashtags

    (Image Source: ShortStack)

    Tag people

    This is more common for individual users than it is for brands, but tagging specific people can be a good way to increase your visibility, so I’m counting it as part of the “perfect” Instagram post. For example, you could feature a contribution or a member of your audience specifically and call them out as a way to bond with them. It’ll also make it likely they’ll share it with their own audience:

    tag people on instagram

    (Image Source: WishPond)

    If that doesn’t work, you can select specific people in your audience you feel the post would be relevant for, or if you’re really strapped, you could simply call out the individual accounts of your employees and team members. The key is to include some form of engagement that makes your post more accessible.

    Miscellaneous quirks

    In addition to the best practices I listed above, there are a handful of other, less obvious quirks about Instagram that could help you craft the ideal post:

    • Blue images get more likes. According to a recent study, images with blue tones tend to get more likes than those with red or other color tones. If you can, try to post more images with a sense of “blue” about them, with the color dominating the majority of the image’s area.

    blue images

    (Image Source: DailyMail)

    • Images with lots of background space get more attention. Cropping in your photo too closely will lead to a drop in engagement. The idea here is to preserve a level of minimalism.
    • Images with low saturation and block colors are popular. Walden and Rise are two filters that can help you lower your saturation, so use them to desaturate your photo.

    rainbow picture

    (Image Source: DailyMail)

    • Forget the hyperlinks (or go simple). You can’t hyperlink on Instagram, so you’re going to have to get creative here. You can use a short or instantly recognizable link, or refer people to general names like “the [your brand] blog.”

    The Content

    With the basics out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the content elements you’ll have to keep in mind when crafting your ideal Instagram posts.

    Brand voice and significance

    First, your post needs to “fit” your brand. Your brand is your company’s identity, reduced to one concept, so it’s important to keep your brand present in every post you make. What do I mean by that?

    • It should be in your voice. When it comes to your messaging, your tone, subject matter, and direction should all fall into the “personality” you’ve ascribed to your brand. Formal or informal, direct or playful, your posts need to match your brand.
    • It should be in your niche. Though it’s possible to deviate on an occasional basis and earn significant engagement, for the most part, your posts should fall within your niche. Are you an auto manufacturer? Keep your posts related to the automotive industry.
    • It should show off what makes you unique. For example, do you have a signature product line? Show it off!

    unique branding

    (Image Source: Curalate)

    Audience considerations

    You’ll also need to consider what your audience would want to see—keep in mind that the demographics for Instagram skew younger, so if you’re targeting multiple demographics, aim for the younger ones here. Are your customers currently in college? Try to relate your posts to the college experience. Are your customers parents? Relate to the challenges of raising a young child. This should be a modifier to your posts, not a direct influence, so try to keep this in mind without getting carried away.

    Value

    All of your posts should be of some value to your users; otherwise, they won’t engage with them and your content approach will fall flat.

    • Practicality/utility. One straightforward angle to value is one of utility or practicality. Here, your images will give users ideas or instructions—they serve as tutorials or inspiration that people can use in their daily lives.
    • Entertainment. Your posts could also be pure entertainment in some way—they might be funny, or they might be aesthetically pleasing (if you have a strong enough eye for photography).
    • Thought. Thought-provoking posts can work too, but be careful here; these tend to be more text-oriented than visually-oriented on an image-based platform. Still, they can spark discussion, and discussion is good.
    • Emotion. You can also capitalize on some emotional reaction from your users, which should lead to more sharing and engagement.

    emotional message picture

    (Image Source: Curalate)

    • Compensation. Finally, you can add a monetary benefit to your post, such as offering a discount, promotion, or contest.

    Compulsion

    Instagram is a relatively fast-paced platform, even though its new content sorting algorithm is not strictly based on posting time. That means you need some sort of immediate appeal; the content of your post should be obviously and instantly available. That might mean a standout feature of your image, or a concise headline to grab attention—either way, you need to get your followers’ attentions fast.

    Calls to action

    This is more about the value of your post to you as an organization, rather than the value to your followers. The majority of your posts should include a call-to-action of sorts, prompting users to visit your site, share your content, participate in a discussion, or otherwise engage with your brand in some meaningful way that adds to your bottom line. Just be careful here; if you come across as too overly self-promotional, you may alienate your followers. The key to success is moderation. When you can, aim for calls-to-action without a direct cost attached to them, such as advertising your blog rather than a specific product you’re selling.

    call to action instagram

    (Image Source: ShortStack)

    The Follow-Up

    Okay, so you’ve got the “perfect” Instagram post at this point, and you’ve published it. If you want to nurture your post’s success, your work isn’t over. How you treat your post after it’s been submitted is just as likely to influence that post’s overall success as its content.

    Responders and discussions

    If someone comments on your post, respond to them! It doesn’t take much, and it does a number of things for your brand:

    • It cements follower loyalty. The follower who comments and gets acknowledge will think highly of your brand, and will be more likely to post again in the future.
    • It shows you care about your followers. This is a major boon for your brand reputation, and will encourage more people to engage with you.
    • It increases the visibility of your post. The more conversations and comments you attract, the more visible your post will become on the platform.
    • It encourages discussion. Discussions and debates help you foster a social community, which can only help your brand in the long run.

    The more followers you have engaging with your material, the better.

    Cross-pollination with other apps

    Instagram can be integrated with a number of other apps, so don’t take this functionality for granted. Make use of your different platforms, for all their advantages and disadvantages, both specific to your post and as general networking opportunities. Get your Instagram followers to connect with you on other platforms, and vice versa, and get your Instagram post as much visibility as possible by featuring it on other platforms and mediums.

    Revisiting a popular theme

    If one of your posts is particularly popular, use it as fuel for future posts. For example, you could use it as a jumping-off point for similar sequel-like posts in the near future, or you could simply re-post your image at a much later date to recall its initial publication.

    More Than Just a Post

    I mentioned this briefly before, but it bears repeating; a successful Instagram strategy demands more than just a string of “perfect” posts. The content will certainly help you, but just as having a bunch of delicious ingredients doesn’t mean you’ll make a delicious pizza, you’ll need to plan, organize, and balance your ingredients if you want to reap the full rewards of your Instagram strategy.

    • Timing and frequency. A perfect Instagram post will have different levels of impact based on how and when it’s distributed. Instagram is a platform with lots of highs and lows in terms of user engagement, and while the new time-independent newsfeed algorithm has helped balance this out slightly, there are still key times that are objectively better than others for posting.

    timing and frequency instagram post

    (Image Source: HuffingtonPost/Latergramme)

    On average, 2 am and 5 pm are the best times to post. In addition, you’ll have to make sure your account remains consistently active—that means you’re posting at least once a day, every day     (at least through the week) to keep your users engaged.

    • Diversity and consistency. While consistency is absolutely necessary if you want your brand to be developed on Instagram, you also need to have a degree of diversity. Imagine you have a formula for a perfect Instagram post: a shot of your product in a natural environment. You do this, once a day, every day, for months. You change your product and your environment, but the formula remains consistent—don’t you think your users will get bored? Even if it deviates from the “perfect” Instagram post, strive to shake up your strategy every once in a while with something new.
    • Outward engagement. Instagram is a social media platform, so don’t forget the importance of being social. Don’t just post content and hope for the best—go out of your way to engage with others’ content posts. Comment on images you think are noteworthy, and reach out to new individuals. This is the only way to build up your social community and show that you care about your users as much as they care about you.
    • Ties to value. I mentioned this briefly in my section on calls to action, but it’s important to tie your posts to some kind of value for your business. Yes, it’s nice to build up a huge following for your brand, and there are always hard-to-measure, intangible benefits like brand visibility and brand reputation to consider, but eventually, you’ll have to get your users on your site, looking at your products and services, if you want your Instagram account to yield a positive ROI.
    • Analysis and adjustment. You aren’t going to have a perfect Instagram strategy at first, even if all your posts meet all the criteria I’ve outlined in this guide and then some. User behavior is too unpredictable, brands are too unique, and trends change too quickly for any one strategy to be universally and predictably effective. Accordingly, you have to spend time measuring, scrutinizing, analyzing, and evaluating your efforts to find out what pieces of your strategy work and which ones don’t. From there, you have to update your strategy and refine it to better suit your needs.

    Instagram is the social platform with the highest propensity for growth, and it’s one of the most valuable new platforms to emerge from brands. If you know what makes an Instagram post successful (as you do now), you can build and maintain a strategy that will earn you tons of followers, and of course, more bottom-line revenue. Get started early, stay flexible, and keep building until you get to the level you want.

  2. How Much Does Social Media Marketing Cost?

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    Social media marketing has been popular for years, and according to our recent “What Works in Online Marketing” survey, it’s still on an upward trajectory. Marketing professionals everywhere are looking to increase their social media marketing budgets, while marketers and entrepreneurs who haven’t yet tapped the enormous potential of the strategy are scrambling to make up for lost time.

    Still, there are marketers out there apprehensive about getting involved with social media marketing, mostly concerned about its effectiveness and its long-term viability. These are legitimate concerns; on a superficial level, it’s easy to understand why one might view social media marketing as a fad, and the relative unpredictability of bottom-line results can be troublesome to the uninitiated.

    If you’re concerned about the potential return of social media marketing, I encourage you to first look at the costs. Social media is extremely affordable, especially considering the level of returns you can potentially earn, and being aware of its estimated costs can help you budget your strategy efficiently.

    (NOTE: this article explores the organic side of social media marketing. Paid social advertising is not taken into consideration here).

    How to Pay for Social Media Marketing

    First, let’s take a look at the potential cost bases for social media marketing. Claiming accounts and posting on social media is completely free for almost any platform, so what you’ll actually be paying for is the human effort it takes to manage a strategy.

    There are four main options to work with here, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

    • Full-time workers. First, you can hire a full-time worker (or a team) to manage your social accounts. Alternatively here, you can put the responsibilities on one of your existing team members. Either way, you’ll be paying a salary for the work.
    • Consultants, freelancers, and contractors. You can use a platform like Upwork to find a freelancer, or find one through networking, to find candidates to handle your work on a per-project or per-hour basis.

    upwork

    (Image Source: UpWork)

    • Agencies and firms. An increasingly popular option, you can work with a marketing agency on a monthly retainer to plan, execute, and manage your social strategies.
    • Hybridization. There’s also no limitations here, so you can mix and match these approaches to suit your business best.

    Cause and Effect

    It’s important to note that how much you invest and what you invest in has a direct bearing on the results you’re going to achieve. For example, if you’re only interested in setting up a basic network for social visibility, you can invest a pittance, but if you’re interested in building an audience of thousands, you’ll need to invest significantly more.

    This makes it difficult to project any one “standard” cost basis for social media marketing, but I shall do my best to present the general considerations you’ll need to bear in mind when creating your budget.

    The Elements of Social Media Marketing

    Now, let’s take a look at the individual elements of a social media marketing campaign, and approximately how much they could cost. For the most part, we’ll be looking at raw man-hours of work here, rather than a monetary value, because your mode of work will modify the final cost as a critical variable.

    Strategy and Planning

    Don’t overlook the strategy and planning portion of social media marketing. If you go in without a formalized plan, you’ll have no goals to reach for, no direction on what to do, and your team members will end up wasting time. You should spend many hours doing competitive research, researching your demographics, learning best practices for social media, and eventually coming up with a step-by-step game plan for success, formally documented to ensure accountability. This can take days or weeks of work, depending on the depth of your strategic aims, but the good news is it only needs to be done once (future modifications aside).

    Account Claiming and Setup Costs

    Next up, you have setup costs, which include the time cost of finding and claiming your individual social media profiles. If your business already has these, you can skip this step, but if not, you’ll have to go through the motions of establishing your social presence. For the most part, this is simple; take a look at how easy Twitter’s initial signup process is:

    twitter signup

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    Admittedly, there are a few steps beyond this, but they still aren’t complicated. The hard part is filling in all the details, like your hours of operation, business description, and some basic images for people to find you with. Still, even if you’re claiming an account on every major social media platform, it should only take you a day or so to wrap everything up.

    Posting

    The bulk of your strategy is going to revolve around creating posts. These can take a number of different forms, but the bottom line goal for each one is to provide some meaningful content to your audience:

    • Original posts. Original posts are written (or created) solely for your platform of choice. These can include news, factoids, tips, jokes, or anything else you can think of. Depending on the platform, your posting frequency, and a few other factors, this could eat up an hour per day per platform.
    • Content distribution. These manifest in the form of shared articles from your website or blog, and generally don’t take much time to post. In fact, most of them can be scheduled in advance.
    • Shared posts. Shared posts take some time to find and share, but not much. They’re a negligible time component (unless you’re building your strategy on shared posts).

    shared tweets

    (Image Source: SkilledUp)

    Ultimately, your posting strategy will probably take 1-3 hours per day, possibly more if you’re pursuing an aggressive strategy.

    Engagement

    Engagement is the other side of social media marketing, and I would argue, the more important of the two. Engagement is the truly “social” element of social media—here, you’ll be responding to inbound posts, answering questions, and otherwise interacting with your audience. Without these community engagements, your social media platforms will function more as a megaphone than a means of conversation, and your users will become disinterested.

    It’s hard to estimate exactly how much your engagement will take, since at least half of it is based on how many people you have reaching out to you. Some days, you may be flooded with inquiries, and others you may get none. In either case, you’ll have to check in to look for new notifications, and initiate some engagements of your own. Count on at least an hour a day here.

    Relationship to Other Strategies

    Also consider the fact that your social media strategy will be tied to other marketing strategies your brand utilizes. I’ve already mentioned how social media plays into your existing content marketing strategy, but your SEO strategy will also be indirectly affected; engaging with influencers can help you in both these areas. Email marketing, specific sales, and other promotional strategies may all require additional or special efforts from your social campaign, so count on some extra time expenditures for those.

    strategy relationships

    (Image Source: IAG.me)

    Automation and Assistance

    Once you get past the hurdle of building an initial social media following, you’ll start having to post more often, engage more frequently, and keep track of more complicated statistics. It’s almost impossible to do that all alone, so you’ll probably need some assistances with tracking software, post schedulers, and organizational tools to improve your efficiency. There are dozens of tools like this on the market, most of which require a paid subscription, and you’ll need at least a few of them to keep things moving. Overall, you’ll end up paying a few hundred dollars a month in these tools; it’s possible to scrape by without them, but they do add a lot of value to your campaign, especially at higher levels.

    social media automation

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    Measurement and Analysis

    Finally, you’ll need to spend time measuring and analyzing your performance. You can use some of the tools you subscribe to, but you’ll still end up pouring in a few hours a month to compile and draw conclusions from the data. The hardest part here is forming actionable takeaways, which you can feasibly use to update your original social media strategy and refine your approach for your future campaign execution.

    Overall Time

    It’s hard to ballpark a “general” amount of time needed for social media marketing, but as you can see, you’ll need to count on at least several hours per week—at larger scales, you can probably justify a full-time dedicated position.

    Key Variables: Niche and Scale

    Now, let’s take a look at the two key variables that will influence how much you need to spend to be successful in your campaign:

    • Niche. The type of audience you have, your competitors, your product, and your main goals will all influence how effective social media can be for you, and what tactics you’ll need to adopt.
    • Scale. Your scale depends on your specific goals; put simply, if you want to reach more people, you’ll have to invest more money.

    Take a look at these key considerations for niche and scale, and how they’ll influence your overall budget.

    Competition

    Look at how much your competitors seem to be investing in social media marketing, and how they seem to be investing it. This is going to tell you three things:

    • How easy it is to get results in your industry. If most of your competitors are actively engaged on social media with sizable followings, they’re obviously seeing some significant rate of return.
    • How hard you’ll need to fight for the market share. If your competitors are posting constantly, you’ll have to fight hard (i.e., invest more money) to make waves for yourself.
    • What opportunities you have to exploit. Are your competitors neglecting one specific platform? You can allocate your budget to exploit this opportunity.

    User Activity

    This is mostly going to be dependent on your demographics, but your type of business may also come into play here. Think carefully about how active your users are going to be on social media; if they’re highly active, you’ll need to invest far more time into posting and engaging with them. If they’re more passive, you can let off the gas. For example, younger generations tend to be more active on social media than older generations, but you’ll also need to consider where your business fits in; will people be coming to you with complaints and questions regularly? Or are you the type of brand people only need once every few years?

    Opportunities

    Some businesses are naturally going to have more posting opportunities on social media than others; this is inherent to your industry and the types of actions your company takes on a regular basis. This is best illustrated by example.

    Consider National Geographic, a brand that prides itself on photography. Instagram and National Geographic were a match made in heaven, because National Geographic can use the photos it’s already taking as the fodder for its campaign.

    national geographic

    (Image Source: National Geographic/Hubspot)

    This is a form of corporate multitasking; if the bulk of your posted content can come from actions your company is already doing, you’ll require substantially less investment of man-hours than a company trying to develop all its content from scratch, 100 percent of the time. The reverse of this is that to be successful in social media, you may have to go out of your way to find more opportunities to post.

    Platform Appropriation

    This is a complicated variable, because there are no right or wrong answers, and there’s an infinite combination of approaches you can take. Eventually, you’ll have to settle on one group of different social media platforms to support your brand. The types of platforms you choose will have a massive impact on how much time you’ll need to invest to keep your following growing.

    For example, Twitter is a platform that’s fast-paced and generally built on in-the-moment content consumption. You’ll have to check in to Twitter more frequently than something like LinkedIn, and you’ll probably have more engagements to worry about as well. Instagram, on the other hand, is a bit slower paced, but also demands the more complex task of finding images to post. Obviously, working on more platforms is going to mean more costs, and sometimes those extra costs aren’t met by an equal rise in rewards. Consider your platforms carefully to maximize your efficiency.

    Alternative Uses and Multiple Accounts

    Depending on the nature of your business, you may also consider using social media for multiple different purposes. The SaaS industry, in particular, has high enough demand and enough of a digitally active user base to qualify it for hosting multiple accounts. As an example, SalesForce uses many different social profiles to host its many different options, services, and functions, from support to careers and options for developers:

    salesforce support twitter accounts

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    All of these will take extra time and effort to manage, so bear that in mind when outlining your strategy.

    Comparing Different Cost Models

    Now that you know the different types of costs you’ll need to account for, let’s explore the pros and cons of each type of cost model you can use, as well as approximate costs for each option.

    Full-time workers

    Full-time workers, as a model, are the hardest to gauge from the outset. Do you need one full-time staff member? If so, and you end up requiring fewer than 40 hours of work per week, you may end up wasting time and money. Can you dump your social media responsibilities onto the plate of someone who’s already a full-time staff member? Feasibly, but at what point do you need to scale?

    In any case, the costs here can be prohibitive. If you’re hiring a professional (as you should), you’ll end up paying at least $40,000 a year in salary and benefits, which translates to between $3-4,000 a month. Feasibly, you can split the responsibilities here, but even if you’re only using 10 man-hours per week, that still translates to $1,000 a month. You’ll also have a hard time with the scaling process; eventually one worker will be overwhelmed, and you’ll have to hire a second. The learning curve here is steep, and the costs only get steeper as you add more team members.

    social media salary

    (Image Source: PayScale)

    Consultants, freelancers, and contractors

    Consultants and freelancers tend to be less expensive than full-time hires for a variety of reasons:

    • They’re specialists. Most freelancers specialize in a certain niche, which means they’ll execute your work with extreme efficiency. You’ll also never have to worry about a learning curve interfering with your bottom line—they’ll be able to jump right in to almost any project.
    • You get what you pay for. You’re only going to pay for the services that are rendered, with no more and no less. This helps you keep your costs under tighter control than with a full-time hire.
    • They must prove their value. Some, not all, but some full-timers eventually become complacent. Freelancers must continually prove their worth.
    • You can mix and match. Instead of hiring one person for 40 hours of work, you can hire 8 people for 5 hours of work each, catering to strengths and weaknesses with more precision.

    However, freelancers are also less reliable and somewhat harder to find, and you may experience growing pains as you try to manage all your workers at once. On an hourly basis, fresh freelancers may charge as little as $20 an hour, on up to hundreds of dollars an hour for experienced consultants.

    Agencies and firms

    For the most parts, agencies and marketing firms are an ideal investment. They carry a number of advantages over both full-time workers and freelancers:

    • Guaranteed results. Agencies have to prove their worth or get cut. They have tons of experience, and they know they need to prove their worth—every cent of it—if they want to be retained.
    • Multiple experts. With an agency, you’ll be tapping into an entire hive-mind of thinkers, never just one person.
    • Flexible plan options. You can invest as much or as little as you want, and there’s usually room for negotiation.

    The only downside is that agencies can be costly, depending on the scale of your campaign. Average costs range from $500 a month for starter packages to $10,000 a month or more for national brands. Chances are, you’ll only need a smaller package, but even a few hundred dollars a month can be intimidating if you’re just starting out.

    Hybridization

    Of course, the best all-around model is probably the hybrid model, because it allows you to pick and choose a plan that’s going to net you the best results within your budget. For example, you may hire a person full-time whose partial responsibility is picking and choosing freelancers to support the majority of your platforms. Or you might invest in an agency as part of a monthly retainer, while still using your staff members to help fill in the gaps.

    Bottom-Line Costs

    If you’ve read this far, you’ve undoubtedly developed a better idea of why it’s so hard to project accurate social media marketing costs in the first place. There are too many variables to possibly narrow down the costs to any one specific figure.

    Still, I’d like to try and break down the costs for a number of different campaigns and phases of development:

    • Startup costs. It doesn’t take much to start up a social campaign, especially since you can create your social profiles for free. You can probably do this yourself, but if you don’t, expect it to take 5-10 hours or $500-$1,000 depending on the platforms you choose.
    • Introductory-level campaigns. If you’re just starting out, or if you have a limited budget, it’s possible to run a campaign on a few hundred dollars a month (less than $500). This applies to most cost modes, though it’s especially hard for a full-time worker approach. Keep in mind you won’t see much growth with a model like this, as you’ll only have a few posts and engagements per week to work with.
    • Small- to mid-size campaigns. This is a decent budget option for most startups and small businesses. With an investment between $500 and $1,000 a month, you can get a reasonable number of posts and engagements on a handful of major platforms. With good content and consistent posting, you can see mild to moderate growth, and hopefully fund a next-level campaign.
    • Aggressive campaigns. This should be your target if you’re interested in growth and maximized returns on your investment. Investing between $1-5,000 a month (a huge range, I know) can get you an aggressive campaign style, with many engagements, many posts, and covering many different platforms. This is especially true if you maximize your investment using a hybrid model, tapping agencies, in-house workers, and contractors in a blend that works for you.
    • Large-scale campaigns. When your organization grows to a level that demands specific platforms for customer service, or constant customer interaction, you’ll need to spend far more than $5,000 a month, whether that’s with an agency or on a team of full-time workers. When you get to this point, you’ll be experienced enough to make your own decisions.

    Final Considerations and Takeaways

    Now that I’ve estimated the overall costs of a social media marketing campaign for small, average, and large businesses, I’d like to leave you with a handful of final takeaways:

    • Ebb and flow. It’s almost impossible to predict a steady flow for your social media campaign. Some weeks, you’ll have almost zero interest from your users. Others, you’ll be fighting them off in hordes. Whatever your strategy or budget is, it needs to be flexible enough to adapt these flukey, rarely predictable fluctuations.
    • Flexibility and adjustment. No matter how in-depth or well-researched or theoretically brilliant your initial set of strategies was, they aren’t going to be perfect, and they aren’t going to serve all your needs forever. When you start executing them, you’ll find key areas you neglected and tactics that don’t work as well as you thought they would. Your strategy and your budget are going to have to change and adapt accordingly.
    • Growth potential. Ideally, social media marketing is an avenue for growth. As you invest more time and energy into your campaign, you’ll gain new followers, a bigger reputation, and more opportunities for brand visibility. Eventually, if you want that momentum to continue, you’ll have to scale your investment as well. Therefore, if you’re successful, social media will cost you more over time (the flip side, of course, being that it will also earn you more over time).
    • Prices. Prices vary for everything, social media services included. Two contractors will probably try to sell you identical services for two very different prices. Do your research as much as possible, and know that everybody has different profit margins.

    Ultimately, your social media marketing campaign’s costs are going to depend on your niche, your competition, and most importantly, your goals. With the right strategy and enough commitment, an increase in expenditures is going to correlate with an increase in eventual return, so if you want to see the best possible results, don’t skimp. Do your research, get the best deal you can, and pick the options that are going to work best for your business.

  3. Why Community Is the Most Important Element in Social Media

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    In the world of social media marketing, there are a number of independent elements that can make your campaign successful. But when most marketers think about the social media world, they tend to think about it in one of two relationship dimensions.

    The first is a “top-down” engagement style in how your brand engages with its customers directly, such as how you syndicate blog posts or make announcements to the crowd. The second is a “bottom-up” engagement style in how your users engage with you, such as you how field comments, responses, complaints, or questions.

    On the surface, these two elements may seem to constitute everything, but there’s a third one, and it has even more connective potential than the first two. It’s the communal factor, or how your users engage with one another. Your brand takes a backseat, allowing for these connections to form (and occasionally getting involved), but the potential here is striking and underrated. Getting your users to engage with each other more, forming a community, can have a powerful effect on your brand.

    Community Increases Engagement

    First, understand that communities naturally encourage more engagement. If you have a group of users who feel like they can get along, and a mechanism for engagement, such as a forum or publicly posed question, you’ll have more followers making an effort to engage with one another. Every act of engagement brings your users closer to your brand, and serves as another brand-related post submitted to the social media world, which increases your visibility and attracts more users to your profiles. It may also encourage more inbound traffic, which is great news for your conversion rates.

    Community Fosters Belonging

    Building a community also helps people feel a sense of belonging, connected to your brand directly or indirectly. Take a look at how PlayStation has developed dozens of sub-communities for its gamers to engage with one another. No matter what type of gamer you are, you can find like-minded people to have a discussion with, which strengthens each user’s perception of how close they are to the PlayStation brand:

    playstation communities

    (Image Source: Momentology)

    You don’t have to go over-the-top with this, but you should have some kind of mechanism for encouraging more belonging. Help your followers see that they’re all a part of a group connected to your brand.

    Community Demonstrates Social Proof

    People need a reason to trust your brand. In today’s world of heavy advertising and corporate distrust, it’s not enough to claim you’re worth engaging with—you need users to prove to other users that you’re the real deal. The story of Reddit is a good example, as in the early stages of the community forum, its creators took to creating fake accounts and making fake posts to simulate an active environment and attract new people. Today, it’s so wildly popular that it attracts new users simply by virtue that it has so many users:

    social proof

    (Image Source: Reddit)

    If you can get your followers to function as a community, it will be a sign that your brand is trustworthy, and you’ll attract more followers and earn higher retention rates as a result.

    Community Self-Sustains

    Finally, understand that an active, engaged community will work to sustain itself, reducing the burden on your brand. Your users will want to submit their own forms of content, engage with each other, and find new ways to bring themselves closer to your brand. In a forum or board setting, this is easy to manage, but it can also be fostered on conventional social media channels. The more your users actively participate without supervision or prompt, the better.

    How to Develop a Richer Social Media Community

    Now that you know all the advantages of having a social media community, let’s learn how you can foster a better one from the get-go:

    Make your core brand experience a communal one.

    Start by giving your users the opportunity to engage in a community when they make a purchase with you, or enlist your services. This could include sharing an announcement that they’ve made a purchase, or encouraging more comments on your latest blog posts.

    Encourage more discussion among your followers.

    Get your followers to talk to one another by starting and engaging in more discussions. Do this on a personal level, and try to find topics that your users will really care about. This can also start offsite, if you find discussions already in progress.

    Strike up a controversy.

    A little controversy will get your users fired up and prompt them to start debating one another. On the surface, this might seem to cause ripples in a community, but when people get excited about anything, they tend to grow more committed to that environment.

    Capitalize on shareable emotions.

    Gear your content and ordinary posts toward “shareable” human emotions like surprise, fear, anger, or humor. This will encourage your users to engage with one another and share more of your items, both of which will help your community self-sustain and grow.

    Offer a forum or onsite means of communication.

    Social media can do a lot for your brand, but it’s also helpful to have another means of user engagement on your site. This could include a forum, a Q&A center, or any other place where users can connect.

    Community building is one of the most effective ways to build and nurture your brand’s social media presence. You’ll attract more followers, retain them more closely, generate more visibility, and earn a better reputation all at once. Best of all, if nurtured properly in the early stages, eventually your community could begin self-sustaining, reducing the content and engagement burden on your brand entirely.

  4. 7 Problems Facing Small Businesses in Modern Online Marketing

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    It’s almost impossible to survive as a small business in the modern world without some kind of online marketing strategy, even if that’s just a website and a basic social media presence. Assuming you could build up enough foot traffic and reputation in the physical world, you’ll still have to deal with competitors who offer everything you do, plus the online visibility component.

    But getting started with an online marketing strategy (and managing one long-term) isn’t exactly straightforward, nor is it easy, even for an experienced entrepreneur. The truth is, small businesses are facing some hard challenges in the online marketing world. Fortunately, there are always alternatives and workarounds:

    1. Budget.

    First off, marketing can be expensive. There are many cost-efficient ways to market your business, but even then, you’ll be spending hundreds of dollars a month at a minimum to start seeing results. For many small businesses, especially newer ones, this is a crippling additional expense. Plus, in the first few months of your execution, you may have to deal with a negative ROI or break even until you learn how to make the changes necessary to become profitable. Don’t write off marketing because it seems like an unnecessary expenditure; even though it demands additional investment up front, it will pay off if you’re willing to grow your strategy. This is an investment, not an expense.

    2. Strategic Basis.

    As a small business owner, you’ve decided to start online marketing. You have a budget of $2,000 per month, and you’re excited about the potential benefits you’ll see. But what exactly do you do with that money? Do you start with a website and start building arms of your strategy around it? Do you distribute that money evenly across many strategies, or invest exclusively in one to maximize its potential payoff? There’s no one answer to these strategic questions, especially at the beginning of your campaign, when you don’t have any historical data. Though it might be scary, the best thing to do is pick a direction and run with it—you’ll always have time to change later.

    3. Time Investment.

    The time investment is another concern of small business owners, on two levels. On the individual level, it takes several hours to plan, execute, and even understand a marketing campaign. Even if you’re working with an agency or another external partner, the time burden can be significant. On a broader level, most online marketing campaigns only pay off significantly in the long-term; for example, it’s usually several months before a content marketing strategy or SEO campaign starts to pay off. For small businesses in need of more immediate revenue, this is disconcerting.

    4. Trusting an Expert.

    There are thousands of self-proclaimed marketing experts available on the web. Some are individual consultants, some are freelancers, and some are agencies. Each of them claims to have the “secret” to marketing success, but each offers a different price level and very different range of services. As a small business owner without much dedicated expertise in this area, it can be challenging to sort out what constitutes a “good” marketing strategy from a “bad” one. Schemes are always a problem, to the point where Google has several support pages dedicated to helping users understand these schemes.

    Link Schemes

    (Image Source: Google)

    5. Competition.

    Online marketing is popular for a reason; it’s effective. If you’re entering the game for the first time, you’re going to face a wealth of competition, the most concerning being from well-established businesses who have longer histories and bigger budgets than you do.

    Finding a way to beat these competitors can be tough, especially when you’re just starting out.   You may need to be selective about the strategies you use, or find a specific niche to get a good angle. Otherwise, your already-tight budget is going to be stretched thin, and you’ll have a hard time breaking a profit.

    Competition Research

    6. Analysis.

    Small business owners are usually inexperienced when it comes to marketing analysis—they may look at a statistical report and not know what questions to ask, or how to make sense of the data. Because of this, it’s easy to misinterpret the data, or even to draw the wrong data in the first place. To make matters worse, you won’t have much historical data on your company at all, giving you no basis for comparison. The best thing you can do here is rely on multiple external sources and don’t be afraid to experiment.

    7. Adaptation.

    The marketing realm is changing all the time, with new trends and technologies to consider. The most successful marketers are the ones who see these changes and are able to adapt to them, even though it’s easier to stick to the same old strategies you’re used to. Since your attention will be on developing your small business, it’s hard to dedicate enough focus to adapting your marketing strategy to new circumstances, but it’s a major priority if you want to succeed.

    If you’re facing some—or all—of these online marketing challenges as a small business owner, you can at least take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone. Again, these problems won’t go away immediately, and there are no shortcuts to fix them, but they can be addressed, and reasonably, with the right ambition and direction. One by one, as you correct or compensate for these challenges, you’ll find your marketing potential growing in a concretely measurable and consistent way.

  5. How Twitter’s Content Algorithm Is Influencing Instagram

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    Social media is a relatively new area for development, and apps are constantly clamoring to offer better, more unique functions to their customers. When new apps break into the scene, they usually offer something truly novel, that no other mainstream app has offered before, but eventually, they settle into a rhythm of mutual influence, where they “normalize” (for lack of a better word) and start integrating functions present in other apps to make a more mainstream, approachable model.

    The bottom-line effect from this phenomenon is that when one social media platform comes out with a new feature, another is sure to come out with their own version before too long. That was the case with Twitter’s new content algorithm, as Instagram is now coming out with its own version of the update—and it could have a lasting effect on the social media world in general.

    Twitter’s New Content Algorithm

    Twitter announced its new timeline changes back in February on its official blog, and the change was committed shortly thereafter. By default, Twitter used to display posts purely in chronological order—users’ timelines were filled with their followed accounts’ most recent updates at the top, with older updates populating below in descending order. After the update, a new algorithm selectively curates posts to appear in an order based on perceived relevance, not dissimilar to how Facebook newsfeeds currently display content.

    User reactions were polarizing at first, with some proclaiming the update as a massive step forward and others insisting that it took away some of what made Twitter special in the first place. Users can opt out of the feature easily enough, however, by changing one simple option in their account settings.

    Twitter Settings

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    The Instagram Update

    Thanks to Instagram’s currently higher popularity, especially with younger users, it made an even bigger impact when it announced a content algorithm change in March. According to Instagram’s formal announcement, users only end up seeing about 30 percent of their newsfeeds under the old model (pure chronological listings), forcing the company to assert that users are often missing out on some of the posts that would matter the most to them.

    Instagram, like Twitter, doesn’t get into the weeds explaining what their new content algorithm is or how it works, other than the fact that it will “select” the most relevant, appropriate content for users on an individual basis, and order that content using a blend of different factors. No posts will be removed from the timeline, so users will still have access to the same material they would otherwise—just in a different order.

    As with Twitter’s announcement, reactions have been mixed. Many users, companies, and organizations have heralded the update as a positive change (and a long time coming), but other users are in an uproar. Some have even taken to starting a petition to force Instagram to keep its purely chronological update.

    Instagram Settings

    (Image Source: Change.org)

    Despite the noise, it’s highly unlikely that Instagram is going to change its mind.

    Fears Over Selected Content

    Part of the reason there’s significant controversy over Twitter’s and Instagram’s decisions is a perceived loss of control by users. Chronological order was completely unbiased, and unaffected by any ulterior motives. Now that some extra layer is influencing how content is ordered, users are afraid that they’ll be manipulated by the companies in charge, at least to a certain degree. Few would outspokenly argue that there’s some grand hidden conspiracy by social media companies to brainwash or toy with their user bases (after all, that’s where they make their money), user manipulation isn’t completely unheard of.

    Back in 2014, Facebook revealed that it intentionally altered the Facebook timelines of more than half a million users, selectively filling user timelines with either strongly positive or strongly negative pieces of content to see whether users would have a similarly strong positive or negative reaction. It’s doubtful that the naysayers of these updates are worried about being emotionally manipulated in the same way, but this is the type of fear that permeates both user bases. Users have grown accustomed to things like Facebook newsfeeds and Google search results being sorted by an outside authority’s perceived relevance, but when such a change comes to a pre-existing unbiased organization, the dissonance becomes clear.

    The Normalization of Social Apps

    Users and marketers should also be conscious of this effect of “normalization” in social apps. While each “rising star” social app begins in a niche role, with specific polarizing features, as they gain more users and approach mainstream integration, they tend to gravitate toward a standardized formula. These new content algorithms are just one example—also consider how SnapChat has made itself less private with retrievable snaps, how Pinterest has turned itself into a kind of eCommerce hybrid, and how LinkedIn gradually inches closer and closer to Facebook in terms of look and feel.

    The Future of Social Media Competition

    There are a few key takeaways to learn from this wave of content algorithm changes. As a marketer, you need to make yourself aware of the possible changes social media platforms hold for the future, and what’s important to the users who rely on them. Be prepared for increased functionality geared toward user relevance, including possible controls on the company/organization side of things. As these changes roll out, it’s important to shift your focus from timing to even higher relevance—and of course, always keep watch for new trends on the horizon.

  6. The Biggest Marketing Challenges for SaaS Providers

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    Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is one of the most potentially profitable niches around today, sought after due to its inherent scalability as well as its relative ease of approach. With a good idea, solid execution, and enough time, theoretically any SaaS product can keep you profitable for the long term.

    However, there’s a specific threshold for SaaS that needs to be achieved before you can start raking in the profits; you need enough paying customers to compensate for your initial costs, and a sustainability model that will keep you productive for years to come. Most of your job here boils down to effective marketing, but SaaS companies face unique challenges that companies in other niches don’t have to worry about (or at least not as much).

    Pros and Cons

    What’s ironic is that the handful of factors that make SaaS such a lucrative space for startups are the same factors that make these types of companies difficult to market. Take a look at the average SaaS company’s annual growth over the past decade:

    Annual Growth Saas Companies

    (Image Source: TechCrunch)

    Why is this growth rate so high?

    • SaaS companies have the capacity to skyrocket in growth, since they can acquire more customers while investing the same flat amount. The flip side to this is that your marketing strategy needs to scale to sustain this growth, and starting the momentum is incredibly difficult.
    • Short sales cycle. You don’t need a long series of interactions to make a sale, making transactions faster. But at the same time, it’s easy for customers to find reasons to leave.
    • Ease of entry. Since SaaS is still a relatively new field (with new technologies developing all the time), it’s not hard to enter the market. Of course, everyone realizes this, and accordingly, the market is flooded.
    • Dependence on long-term revenues. The lifetime value of a customer is what’s truly important here, but customer acquisition and customer retention are two very different strategies.

    The Challenges

    Throughout this guide, I’ll be introducing and explaining some of the biggest marketing challenges SaaS brands face. These are:

    • With so many SaaS brands in circulation, how can you get noticed?
    • How do you convince a new customer that your service is worth the price?
    • You’re selling a service, not a product, so how personal and approachable is your brand?
    • Retention is the key to profitability, so how do you keep your current customers happy?
    • How do you build a scalable marketing strategy from scratch?

    Feel free to explore each of them in turn, or skip to one you feel particularly challenged by in your own competitive environment.

    Differentiation

    Differentiation is about making yourself stand out from the oversaturated SaaS market. Consumers have dozens of options in virtually every available niche, from saving time to organizing online files. There’s a chance you’re emerging in a novel market, one that’s never been tested before, but even so, eventually you’ll face the rise of new competition, and you’ll have to defend yourself.

    This is the first marketing challenge because it’s usually the first hurdle you’ll face when launching a campaign: how do you get yourself noticed?

    Branding

    Your first job is to create a brand that stands out. Don’t rely on the same clichés and discourse that your competitors have, or you’ll blend in. Every SaaS brand likes to define itself as an “innovator” or as “committed to customer service.” Repeating these values is going to make you seem like a self-parody, so dig deep here—what really makes your brand stand out?

    There are a few different ways to do this, but first you need to decide on your brand standards. That means a lot more than just deciding what your logo looks like or what colors you’ll use throughout the app. What’s your brand’s personality like (and we’ll dig a bit deeper into this later)? What characteristics do you exhibit? What emotions do you wish to evoke? Get creative here, and bear your target demographics in mind.

    From there, it’s a matter of expressing these differentiated brand factors in your marketing and advertising materials. Take a look at how Workday does this in their storytelling ad, which shows the stories of people using Workday:

    By the end of this video, you get a clear sense of not only the Workday product, but the company’s values and ideals. It makes them stand out in a crowded market.

    One-Upping the Competition

    An alternative route to differentiation is a simpler one that requires less creativity. Instead of trying to create an identity that’s distinguished from your competitors, you’ll find some specific quality in your competitors and work to outdo it in your own work.

    For example, let’s say you offer a service very similar to your competitors, but you can offer it for $5 less per month. Or let’s say you can offer a similar service for the same price, but with a dedicated account representative for any business who signs up.

    These are powerful differentiating factors that might make the difference between someone choosing you or your competitor. Your job should be to emphasize these qualities as much as possible in your marketing strategy. For example, you might include comparison ads that compare your service to the next leading competitor, with the prices highlighted at the bottom. Or you might create a new tagline that emphasizes your commitment to service through dedicated account managers. This is your way to stand out, so use it whenever you get the chance, and if you have multiple differentiating factors that one-up your competitors, even better.

    Target Demographics

    Let’s assume that you have a strong brand, but you’re finding it difficult to distinguish yourself from your competitors. It happens. Fortunately, there’s more than one path to differentiation. This one may require a slight adjustment to your product in general, but it could open you up to much more lucrative opportunities.

    Think of your target demographics. Yes, you have a product similar to those of your competitors, but does that mean you have to share the same audience as those competitors? Absolutely not. If you do your research, you’ll find that there are probably at least a handful of niche demographics who might be interested in your product—if you position it correctly.

    Consider how note-taking app Clear markets itself to students (and young people in general). Evernote is a dominant SaaS player in the world of note-taking apps, but Clear has carved a path for itself by marketing to a different demographic altogether.

    Clear App

    (Image Source: Clear)

    I don’t have the space to get into the specifics of how to choose images, words, and subjects that resonate with your target audience of choice, but know that if you angle your brand and content properly, your messages will resound with your chosen target audience.

    Thought Leadership

    The final path to differentiation I’ll mention is “thought leadership,” which is kind of a broad subject. The idea here is to turn yourself into a leading authority in your space. Start publishing valuable content, making bold claims about the future of the industry and offering insights that no one else can offer. Get yourself published on all the leading publications in your industry, and start showcasing the personal brands that comprise your leadership.

    As you build your authority this way, you’ll gain a reputation for being a novel thinker, and customers will start recognizing your brand as one that truly stands out. The only downside to this approach is that it takes a while to build this momentum; you can’t just flip on a switch and expect to be taken seriously as a thought leader. But in the meantime, you’ll earn tons of new traffic and higher customer loyalty.

    Value

    Standing out will get you in front of more people, but that won’t necessarily make those people convert to paying customers. Though most consumer decisions are driven by a blend of both emotion and logic, most SaaS purchases end up on the logical side of the spectrum. There are several reasons for this. For example, since SaaS products aren’t tangible, they don’t give consumers the semi-“high” feeling of acquisition. Since they’re usually a subscription rate, they aren’t associated with an instant gratification feeling. And of course, most of them are B2B-oriented, so they require some kind of bottom line benefit to be purchasable.

    It’s hard to pin down an objective value to an intangible service like this, so your job as a marketer is to calculate and emphasize this value as much as possible.

    Measurable Factors

    Your best bet is with measurable factors. Anytime you can assign numbers to your abstract ideas, you’ll instantly forge a route to a logical decision. For example, if you’re selling software that purportedly increases productivity for $30 a month, imagine the difference between billing it as a way to “increase productivity” versus a way to “save 15 hours a month.” The latter gives potential customers something to grasp onto; some quick math lets them realize that they’re basically paying $2 per hour of “saved time,” at least according to your research.

    There’s no shortage of companies who leverage this tactic, including some of the biggest names in the industry:

    Salesforce Landing Page

    (Image Source: KissMetrics)

    Once you have the numbers, it’s easy to propagate them throughout your campaign, but how do you get those numbers in the first place? This is the key challenge. Once your company has grown large enough to start collecting this data accurately over wide scales, you won’t be as desperate for the information. On the other hand, when you really need it, you won’t have the customer base or resources to gather it accurately.

    Until you have real data about how people are using your app, you’ll have to resort to third-party metrics. For example, instead of citing the fact that the average user saves “15 hours a month,” you could cite a general statistic that the average American worker loses “60 hours a month” in overall productivity. These numbers won’t provide users a one-to-one valuation of your app, but will get them thinking about the concrete value associated with your app’s area of expertise.

    Immeasurable Factors

    Of course, there are also immeasurable factors associated with the value of your product, and you’d do well to emphasize these, too. For example, how can you quantify the value of a quality customer service experience? How can you quantify a customer’s sense of security when backing up their data to your cloud? The short answer is, you can’t, but you can still emphasize these immeasurable, intangible factors in your marketing campaign.

    One of the best ways to do this is through storytelling; instead of flashing a number in front of a prospective customer, guide them in a narrative that illustrates who your brand is and what your product does. Take a look at how Concur does this with customer testimonials:

    concur using immeasurable factors

    (Image Source: Concur)

    As a general rule, the subtler your approach is here, the better. There’s a big difference between saying outright, “we’re really good at making our customers happy,” and simply telling a story about a time your company went above and beyond to make sure a customer got the level of service they deserved. Let your prospective customers draw their own conclusions and assign their own values here.

    Approachability

    Many entrepreneurs are drawn to SaaS models because they don’t require much in the way of human resources. The app itself will do most of the work, so all you need is a development team, some marketing creatives, and a handful of customer service reps to step in when your resources and technical documents aren’t enough to help prospective customers through their issues. The process is driven almost exclusively by technology.

    There’s a critical problem with this in your marketing campaign; people far prefer personal, human experiences to cold, corporate, technological ones. If you want to be successful as a SaaS marketer, you need to find a way to humanize your brand and make yourself approachable to a wider portion of the population. As you might imagine, there are several ways to do this, but they all revolve around making people feel comfortable with your brand.

    Brand Voice

    The first path to approachability hearkens back to your branding, which I’ve already covered to some degree in the section on “differentiation.” But what’s most important here is the tone of voice you use to communicate with your customers—it can make the difference between a customer wanting to engage with you, and a prospect never giving you a second look.

    Obviously, you want to make sure your brand voice is different from those of competing companies (and SaaS brands in general). However, there are a few critical qualities that constitute an effective, approachable brand voice:

    • Show that you aren’t a robot. Inject a bit of your own personality into your brand’s messages, and give people the sense that there’s a real person here. It instantly makes your brand more familiar, and gives people the sense of a personal experience.
    • Humor and laughter are powerful human experiences, capable of creating strong bonds and tearing down pretensions at the same time. You’ll want to be careful with your use of humor (because it’s easy to cross a line), but don’t be afraid to make jokes and tongue-in-cheek references liberally.
    • Don’t inject your writing with buzzwords and corporate lingo, and try not to use too complex a vocabulary for your audience. It’s far better if you remain informal and casual, turning your brand voice into something much more conversational and approachable.
    • Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself a little bit. Brands that take themselves too seriously come off as alienating. Remember, you want people to relate to you.

    Take a look at how MailChimp skillfully handles a mispronunciation of their brand name with a humble, humorous response:

    mailchimp tweet

    (Image Source: BOSContent)

    Customer Service

    Your commitment to customer service is also going to help you seem more approachable. After reading this, you may be thinking, “customer service? I thought this was about marketing.” It is. But there are three ways to make your customer service strategy double as a marketing opportunity:

    • Use social media as a customer service outlet. Most SaaS companies have some kind of social media outlet for their customer service wing—usually a dedicated account indicated as “support.” Receive customer questions, complaints, and comments here, and you’ll get the opportunity to publicly address them, showing off your customer service skills.
    • Develop a help/FAQ section of your website. This should be a branch of your overall content strategy. Provide detailed tutorials, FAQ, and help guides for your customers—you might even include a customer forum for existing subscribers to exchange information. This will not only help your current customers, it will also look good to prospective subscribers doing background research on your brand.
    • Publicize case studies and testimonials of excellent customer service. If you have a good story to tell, tell it! The extra visibility will make you seem warmer and more welcoming as a brand.

    The bottom line for each of these approaches is giving your customers the best possible service, and making sure both your current and prospective customers are around to see it. This will increase people’s perceptions of your brand’s customer commitment, and will make them feel more comfortable approaching you in general.

    Feedback

    It’s imperative to listen to (and accept) feedback as a SaaS provider. Again, this isn’t a marketing strategy per say, but it can be leveraged as a marketing opportunity. For example, whenever you take a customer suggestion and implement it, post a press release about it and make it very obvious that you’re doing this to improve based on customer expectations.

    You can also publicize your openness toward feedback with a move like this one from Inbound:

    intercom inbound marketing

    (Image Source: Inbound)

    When people know you’re not only willing, but eager, to hear and respond to customer feedback, they’ll see you as a more down-to-earth, friendlier company.

    Retention

    The biggest reason for SaaS company failure isn’t an inability to differentiate, or a lack of approachability, and it’s usually not even an inability to attract new customers—it’s an inability to keep customers around. Customer churn, the departure of previously subscribing customers, is the single biggest reason why customers leave.

    drivers of churn

    (Image Source: BlueNose)

    As you can see, usage is the biggest factor for customer churn. This is partially dependent on the quality and effectiveness of your app, but it also depends on getting your customers to use the app regularly, keep your brand top-of-mind, and think more favorably of your app in general. Through marketing, you can keep your customers more interested and more engaged in your brand, retaining them as paying subscribers for the longest possible time.

    Encouraging Repeat Usage

    One of your primary goals is encouraging users to use your product regularly. Get them to use it every day for a period of a few weeks, and they’ll likely be hooked. The best way to achieve this regular usage is through some kind of loyalty program. For example, you might give customers some reward for logging in regularly, or you might offer a once-daily piece of information or value that naturally encourages people to check in often.

    You can also use email marketing to send people reminders, or social media to keep your app top-of-mind enough to encourage users to keep coming back. Regular tips, tricks, and “hacks” of your product can make long-time customers see your app in a new light, and think of your app as always evolving and offering something new.

    Content Marketing

    Your SaaS brand needs a content marketing strategy, plain and simple. It doubles as a customer acquisition strategy and a customer retention strategy; through SEO, social syndication, and offsite presence, you’ll get a decent stream of traffic, but what we’re really interested in here is keeping customers around.

    If you give users new information, helpful tips, new opinions, and ideas that help them in their own businesses, they’ll think more highly of your brand, and will be more likely to stick with you for the long haul. HubSpot has one of the best content marketing strategies out there, and you can bet it’s helped them preserve their ridiculous customer retention rate:

    Hubspot articles

    (Image Source: Hubspot)

    It also pays to have some kind of exclusive content, available only to your paying subscribers. This might include a webinar series, a free eBook (or several), or any other high-profile content that only your subscribers will receive. If you publicize it, this will do three things for your brand:

    • Encourage new subscribers to join. An exclusive content feed might be the factor that puts them over the edge.
    • Keep your brand top-of-mind. Sending out regular emails will remind them your brand still exists and is relevant.
    • Give your users a reason to stay. If a customer considers leaving you, the decision will be much harder if they’re also giving up that content.

    It’s all about giving your customers value and showing them their importance.

    Transparency and Proactivity

    Things aren’t always going to go well. Your software will have outages, it will break, and it will have flaws you don’t realize until customers are already experiencing them. If you try to sweep these problems under the rug, or ignore them entirely, your users are going to become resentful.

    It’s far better to be transparent and proactive in these situations, and many major SaaS brands have learned this lesson. Take Buffer, for instance, which has implemented a policy of transparency in many areas of its business:

    buffer

    (Image Source: Buffer)

    Transparency shows that you’re willing to admit you’re not perfect, and gives customers the sense that they know the “whole story” with your products. If they feel like they’re being kept in the dark, they’ll feel distrustful of you, or taken advantage of, and they’ll be more liable to leave.

    Similarly, proactivity helps you get ahead of the mistakes before they start negatively affecting you. Think of it this way: assume someone has hit your mailbox with their car. Which first impression would make you angrier—a man at your door owning up to the mistake, or your demolished mailbox with no driver in sight? Get in front of your mistakes and slip-ups whenever you can. Your customers will be grateful.

    Ongoing Improvements

    Technology changes quickly, and customers are demanding. They expect to have the best at any given time, and that means you have to adapt consistently and frequently if you want to keep up with their expectations. Any improvements—from new features and functions to simple design tweaks—will likely be lauded by your current user base. True, some of these features may be rejected, but you’ll still get credit for trying something new. Take a look at Facebook as an example—they post new updates all the time, some of which are angrily rejected and taken down, but users are still loyal because the app isn’t afraid to adapt with the times.

    Momentum

    Last but not least, there’s the problem of momentum. When you first build and launch your SaaS product, your biggest hurdle is going to be building a marketing pace that can scale as quickly as you need. Once you hit a certain threshold of visibility and reputation, it will be easier to keep your strategies running strong—you’ll have more user data, more experience, and a stronger foundation to work with. Hitting that threshold is the tricky part.

    Starting with nothing

    When you begin, you’ll have almost nothing to work with—no users, no reputation, no data. Since users, reputation, and data are the critical points you need to build a working marketing strategy, this poses a massive problem.

    There are three steps to addressing this:

    • Leverage data that already exists. You don’t have much data on your users, but chances are, someone else does—and they’ve probably published it! Exhaust your resources to research and learn more about your key demographics however you can.
    • Commit, and stay consistent. There’s always room for adjustment, but don’t bank on changing up your brand every few weeks. Once you decide on a strategy and approach, stick with it—you’ll need the consistency factor if you want to grow.
    • Look for visibility opportunities. Early on, you’ll need footholds on which you can stake your brand and spark some early growth momentum. The simplest of these is using your own connections to start building a social following, but you can also work with influencers, get published on high-profile sources, or pursue a sponsorship opportunity that will get you ample visibility early on in the process.

    Scaling the strategy

    No matter what type of SaaS company you have, you need to scale if you want to survive.

    Three Saas Sales Models

    (Image Source: Chaotic Flow)

    Unfortunately, scaling isn’t as simple as flipping a switch, and it isn’t going to happen on its own. Here are the main ways you can do it:

    • Seek wider audiences. Pursuing new publication channels and social media platforms will give you access to new verticals and new segments of your audience that were previously unreachable.
    • Engage with better publishers and influencers. As you build a better reputation, you’ll have access to more prominent publishers and influencers, who can help you broadcast your voice to even more prospective customers.
    • Increase the quality and quantity of your content. I’ve already addressed how content is a powerful tool for both customer acquisition and retention; by increasing both the quantity and quality of your work, it will help you see even better results.
    • Leverage the power of your current audience. Let your audience do the work for you! Implement referral programs, host competitions, and get your customers actively talking about your brand.

    With consistent effort and a motivation to grow, there should be nothing stopping you from achieving the levels of visibility and reputation that you want to achieve for your business.

    Conclusion

    The SaaS niche offers some major business development advantages, but these are accompanied by unique challenges that every SaaS marketer faces. If you can make your brand stand out, prove your value to prospective subscribers, personify your brand into a more approachable form, retain your customers for as long as possible, and overcome the initial momentum hurdles, you’ll be well on your way to a long-term sustainable customer base and a profitable model. The better you know your audience, the more likely you are to succeed in every area, so back your decisions with research, and remain committed to your ultimate goals.

  7. How SaaS Companies Can Use Content to Edge Out the Competition

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    You’re a SaaS company, and you’re interested in how content can help you get more sales, earn a higher customer retention rate, and possible improve your overall brand reputation in the process. You’ve heard about content marketing, but you might not know what it takes to build an actual strategy. More importantly, you aren’t sure what other, similar SaaS companies are doing, or what’s expected from you from a baseline content perspective.

    This is the guide for you. Throughout this in-depth, nearly-comprehensive article, I’ll explain the basic tenets and advanced strategies that you need to take your content marketing game to a dominant, competitive level. I’ll include examples, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each tactic I introduce, and generally guide you to create a content strategy that your competitors simply can’t touch. I’ll do this in four main sections:

    • An introduction, to follow, discussing the general advantages and goals of a SaaS-originated content strategy.
    • A guide on content marketing for non-branded topics and an audience specific to your niche.
    • A guide on help documents and troubleshooting for your current and prospective users.
    • A section on growth and ongoing development to keep your strategy thriving for the long term.

    With that covered, let’s take a look at two major considerations for your content strategy. I’ll dig a little deeper into the benefits and specific tactics to use in each respective section to follow, but to start, it’s important to grasp these principles.

    The Competitive Advantage

    First, there are tons of benefits to a content strategy, but most important (arguably) and the focus of the article are on the competitive advantage. Your close competitors are all itching to poach your users, whether that’s converting new prospects before you do or stealing them away with special offers. If you don’t already have a straight competitor, you will soon. SaaS is a fast-paced, high growth industry, and it’s only getting faster with time:

    Growth of Saas

    (Image Source: Tom Tunguz)

    Staying ahead of your competition means being more visible, being more trusted, being more valuable, and encouraging greater loyalty. If your content marketing strategy is, on the whole, better than your competitors’, you’ll have no trouble achieving all of these.

    A Long-Term Investment

    The second important consideration is that content marketing is a long-term strategy. As you’ll see when I describe the benefits of each pillar of SaaS content, the benefits of content compound over time, growing exponentially especially during the early months of implementation. By comparison, a paid advertising or traditional marketing campaign will net you a positive, yet consistent return:

    Content Marketing

    (Image Source: Stevenson Financial Marketing)

    Accordingly, it takes time to develop, but once you’ve established some early momentum, you’ll see a rising rate return for as long as you continue managing your campaign.

    Two Main Pillars

    With those considerations out of the way, I’d like to present you with the two main pillars you’ll use to establish your content strategy:

    • Ongoing content, or content marketing, will refer to blog posts, articles, whitepapers, eBooks, infographics, and other forms of content that you’ll be publishing onsite and offsite for your users. This will be targeted to both unfamiliar prospective users and current subscribers, and its main purpose will be to provide practical information.
    • FAQ and troubleshooting content will focus on addressing the needs of your current user base in a number of different forms. Its main purpose will be to improve customer understanding of your app and increase customer retention and loyalty.

    Let’s explore each of these in turn.

    Ongoing Content (Content Marketing)

    There are many types of content you can use as part of an ongoing content marketing campaign, so I won’t go to the trouble of listing them. There also aren’t many rules for where you host this content; an onsite blog is a good spot, but don’t neglect offsite opportunities. Remember, your goal here is to outcompete your fellow service offerers, so it’s all about offering something your competitors can’t or won’t. In this section, I’ll go over the principal benefits of ongoing content marketing, keys to success, angles to direct your strategy, and how to get started.

    The Benefits

    These are just some of the benefits you’ll receive—many of which are amplified if you’re able to produce and syndicate content better than the competition.

    • Visibility opportunities and brand awareness. Have you ever heard of Hubspot? Of course you have. Do you know why? Because they have an awesome ongoing content marketing strategy.

    Hubspot Content Marketing Strategy

    (Image Source: Hubspot)

    When you create and distribute great content that people want to read, they’ll naturally happen upon it (by browsing their favorite sites, searching with a relevant query, getting it from a friend, or finding it on social media). Soon, they’ll start noticing your name attached to the work, and your brand visibility will begin to grow.

    • Inbound traffic. Ongoing content is a channel to increase inbound traffic, and from multiple directions. Writing good content targeted toward search user interests, consistently, helps you rise in search ranks, which increases your organic traffic. Syndicating on social media will increase your social traffic. Plus, posting on external sites will boost your referral traffic. Best of all, these effects tend to amplify over time.
    • Brand reputation value. This is especially important in a competitive environment. When you write good content—better content than a user’s ever seen before—you’ll be perceived as the thought leader in the industry. Your reputation as an expert authority will increase, and you’ll earn better conversions and higher customer loyalty as a result.
    • Competitive differentiation. It’s hard to stand out in the SaaS world, especially if your model is similar to another company’s. Content gives you the opportunity to differentiate yourself. Take a look at Kroll’s unique content offerings, which include events and webinars to attend in addition to basic content—you can even submit your own.

    Kroll

    (Image Source: Kroll)

    • Conversions and new subscriptions. Content also gives you a platform to pitch the value of your product (though your primary focus should be on providing valuable information). If executed properly, content can earn you more conversions and subscriptions directly.

    Components of a Successful Strategy

    Clearly, an ongoing content strategy is a good thing. But you also know that simply having a “good” strategy isn’t enough. Your strategy needs to be better than that of your competition, so what components are going to help you get there?

    • Consistency. If you want an ongoing loyal readership, you have to be consistent. That means publishing similar types of material of a similarly high quality on a regular basis. The goal here is to set and then consistently meet your user expectations; consider implementing regular features, such as Zendesk has with its “tip of the week”:

    Zendesk Blog

    (Image Source: Zendesk)

    • Appropriate targeting. Don’t write for everybody or you’ll end up writing for nobody. It’s tempting to write to a “general” audience for the extra volume, but it’s far better to have a smaller audience who’s hungry for your content than a large one who’s lukewarm. Know which demographics matter, and write to them.
    • Originality. This should go without saying, but your content must be original! Don’t just find a SaaS competitor with a service similar to yours and copy everything they’re doing on their blog. Find a unique angle and go with it. Make yourself stand out.
    • Detail. The level of detail you provide is crucial to proving you’re worth your salt—and when I say detail, I don’t mean length. I mean nuggets of specific information your users wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else, such as case studies, examples, statistics, and hard facts. Dig deep here.
    • Practicality. The content that gets shared the most tends to be useful in some way. For example, it might help people be more efficient, or give them a new idea to try in their chosen careers. Again, write to a specific target audience here.
    • Diversity. Don’t write variations of the same topic over and over, and while it’s a good idea to retain some consistently, it’s a bad idea to use the same formulas and formats too often. Diversify your strategy by adding in new mediums, such as infographics or video, and experimenting with new topics regularly.
    • Syndication and visibility. Even if your content is amazing, people won’t be able to find it on their own. Work to syndicate your content and make it visible to people outside your current readership on social media and other online outlets.
    • Propagation. It’s also a good idea to set up separate pillars of your content strategy, such as by building relationships with different publishers. This will also help you earn more high-quality inbound links, with a more diverse backlink profile.
    • Escalation. All these components in place may seem like enough—and yes, if you follow these, you’ll likely start getting the edge on your competition within months or even weeks. However, you can’t let your strategy remain stagnant. Your competitors will be breathing down your neck, and that means you’ll have to escalate your efforts, iteratively, to see better results over time.

    Key Angles

    The general rules I outlined above apply to everyone, but they don’t give you much direction when it comes to topic selection or angles to choose for your content. Unfortunately, I can’t give you much specific advice here unless I knew exactly what type of service your company offers and who your target audience is.

    You have to choose topics that your audience wants to read and present them in a way that makes it easy for them to do so. You’ll want a blend of short-form and long-form content, since each have inherent advantages, and as a general rule the following content types are exceptionally popular when it comes to social shares and link earning potential:

    • Lists. You’ve seen listicles everywhere, and for good reason; they’re digestible and appealing.
    • How-tos. Help people do what they need to have done.
    • Futurism. Make bold predictions about the future of your industry (or technology).
    • Resources and cheat sheets. Give your users long, downloadable guides to use in their professional environments.
    • Infographics. Infographics have massive share potential thanks to their attention-grabbing nature.
    • Videos. Videos are only getting more popular—consider video webinars here too.
    • Quizzes. This may be hard for SaaS companies to adopt, but try to find an application for your specific software.
    • Opinion pieces. State-of-the-industry pieces and bold, controversial stances can be powerful.

    Don’t take this list as the be-all, end-all; instead, use it as inspiration in combination with your audience knowledge and topic selection to come up with all-star post ideas.

    Getting Started

    If you want to beat your competition, you have to know what they’re doing in the first place, so get researching! Everything starts with strategy, and you won’t be able to form one until you know where you currently stand. Once you’ve gathered the data on your competitors’ ongoing content strategies, you can use this entire section to hunt for weaknesses. What are they doing that they shouldn’t be doing? What aren’t they doing that they should? This information should provide the foundation for your strategy, and once you start following it, readers will naturally be more attracted to your brand’s work over any other competitor.

    FAQ and Troubleshooting

    Of course, content for SaaS companies isn’t and shouldn’t be limited to only traditional content marketing. Generally, content marketing is designed to attract new customers—but how can you use content to make sure they stick around? Customer retention is crucial if you want your SaaS to keep growing, and one of the best ways to up your rates is by providing a free, comprehensive body of content to answer common user questions, troubleshoot problems, and generally keep your users informed of your software’s latest updates.

    The Benefits

    FAQ and troubleshooting content takes a lot of work, but the benefits are well worth it. Here are just a few of them:

    • Improved customer retention. I mentioned this in the introduction, but customer retention is a need you can’t ignore in a competitive setting. Losing a customer is bad enough, but think about the effects of a customer transitioning to one of your competitors—you’ll lose traction, they’ll gain traction, and the word-of-mouth ripple effect could cause even more users to go. You have to fight to keep your users, so make sure your help and resources are better than anyone else’s.
    • Bad experience recovery. Occasionally, your software is going to leave users feeling frustrated or confused. When that happens, they’re vulnerable, and you need to be there. A fully fleshed-out content strategy can be a major comfort to a distressed user. Check out the comprehensive help that Moz offers as an example:

    Moz Articles

    (Image Source: Moz)

    • Prospect reassurance. Your FAQ section, if publicly available, can also serve as a way to reassure possible prospects that your company is the right choice. Seeing a full resource library will demonstrate your commitment to customer service, and could help you close an otherwise iffy deal.
    • Reduced customer service costs. Think about it this way—if your content library was so comprehensive that it answered every possible customer question, you wouldn’t need a customer service team at all! Though not a competitive advantage, there are cost efficiency benefits to adopting this type of content strategy.
    • Greater customer ownership. Depending on what elements you offer, you could encourage a greater sense of ownership and participation among your users. For example, a community forum could bring your users together, establishing greater brand loyalty and even brand evangelism.
    • Circular feedback. Finally, with improved customer participation and small additions like “was this article helpful?” style micro-surveys, you’ll glean new insights from your customer base, which can lead you to even better improvements of your brand and software. Think of it as a glorified customer survey that requires no additional investment.

    Components of a Successful Strategy

    Just like with ongoing content, there are certain components you’ll need to include if your strategy’s going to be successful. These tenets apply no matter what type of content you’re pursuing—an FAQ page, an encyclopedic-style library, a customer forum, or some other type.

    • Specificity. Your content shouldn’t speak in general terms. When your customers arrive, they’re either dealing with a specific problem or they have a specific question—your content needs to address this specifically. Otherwise, your guidance will be unhelpful, and your customers may seek a more knowledgeable competitor as an alternative.
    • Thoroughness. Your customers are probably smart. Very smart. But assume they have no idea what they’re doing. Be as comprehensive as possible in your offerings, with a dedicated article or section to cover every possible complaint or point of confusion a customer could have. Take a look at how many options Unbounce has for its users:

    Unbounce Knowledge Bank

    (Image Source: Unbounce)

    • Multi-platform nature. The more platforms you include in your model, the better. Earlier in this section I alluded to FAQ pages, customer forums, and resource libraries as distinct constructions—but why not feature all of them? Why not also include an offsite presence, such as through social media? The more channels you offer, the more ways customers have to get in touch with you, and the more satisfied the majority of your user base will be. Take a look at all the ways Pega has to get support:

    Pega Support Portal

    (Image Source: Pega)

    • Timeliness. This is especially important when you address a new update, a new change, or something that went wrong in your app. You have to be proactive in your offerings, so that when users start looking for something, it’s already there waiting for them. Your help documents aren’t something you can procrastinate on—get them up and running as soon as possible, and be proactive when it comes to addressing new features.
    • Visual and/or audio elements. Not everyone learns the same way, so it’s imperative that you don’t rely on any one format or medium to comprise the bulk of your resources. Written articles are great because they’re relatively easy to produce and they can be indexed completely in search engines, but video and audio elements are also helpful—even the inclusion of screenshots can take your documents to the next level of quality.
    • Customer engagement. No matter what forms of help you choose to offer, there should be some way for customers to engage. In a forum, this means hosting an open community that can ask and answer its own questions. In a tutorial series, this might include micro-surveys to gather feedback. Even a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down can make customers feel more engaged and give you more feedback with which to improve your approach.
    • Ongoing improvement. Speaking of improvements, you should always be making them. Your help and resources section will never be complete, and it will never be “good enough.” To stay ahead of the competition, you need to constantly work to add new content, update old content, and refine your tactics to provide the best material possible for your audience.

    Key Angles

    Like with ongoing content, there are a few angles you should strive for—though this list is less focused on specific formats and mediums, and more focused on the purpose of the content you provide:

    • Problem resolution. First and foremost, your content should be able to—theoretically—solve any customer problem on its own. If your content is unhelpful for any reason, you need to have contingencies in place, such as a chat feature or a customer service line.
    • Curiosity exploration. Next, remember that prospective users will be crawling your help guide to get a feel for what your software is like. Accordingly, much of your content should “show off” the best features of your product, and make it look as simple and appealing as possible to an outside user.
    • Transparency. The more open you are about problems, issues, and discrepancies in your app, the less room there is for customer criticism. No platform is perfect, and you need to be willing to admit that. Proactively give users the tools they need to compensate for these weaknesses. Take, for instance, SalesForce’s social media presence, which has an entire wing dedicated to customer service:

    Salesforce Support Tweets

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    • Customer commitment. Show that you truly are committed to your customers by listening to them. If you have forums, get involved yourself. If you see lots of the same question or complaint, prioritize it as an item for the next round of publication. This will show prospective customers how valuable you are (and will increase loyalty in your existing user pool).
    • Secondary value. Your resource library can have secondary values in addition to its ability to solve user problems. Take, for example, Wistia’s customer forum, which has evolved into a platform for shared experiences and mutual help in areas beyond the software platform:

    Wistia Support Articles

    (Image Source: Wistia)

    Getting Started

    The goal here is to be as specific and comprehensive as possible, but you don’t have to do everything all at once. Don’t put that level of pressure on yourself. Instead, start with the basics; a simple how-to guide or tutorial can work well as an introductory measure. Walk through your software as a new user, and document the process. Think up a handful of common questions a user might have, and address them on a simple FAQ page.

    From there, you can expand outward. Start digging into more specific problems a user might run into, and gather data about what your customers might like to see. Your resource library here will be a continuous work in progress, so the sooner you get started, the sooner you can reap the benefits.

    Growth and Ongoing Considerations

    In both a traditional content marketing strategy and a help/troubleshooting strategy, it’s important that you prioritize your long-term growth and ROI. That means making improvements, doing more work, and giving your customers more of what they actually want. Your competitors will continue to be aggressive long after you initially adopt your strategy, so keep them at bay with these ongoing tactics:

    • Keep what works. If you find a particular type of article or feature is popular, try to learn what qualities made it that way, and replicate them in future additions. Rely on objective data here, rather than your own assumptions.
    • Throw away what doesn’t. Sometimes, a content idea seems great in theory, but when it’s published and live, it just doesn’t generate any meaningful momentum. Don’t force the jigsaw puzzle piece into place; instead, recognize that it isn’t working, and move onto something else.
    • Listen to user feedback. If you know what questions to ask and how to get your users to participate, they’ll tell you everything they want and everything they need. All you have to do is listen, and give it to them.
    • Be better. There are always ways to improve the quality of your content—more detail, more images, more coherent organization, etc. The minute you stop improving, your competitors will start catching up, so always strive to be better.
    • Do more. Expand horizontally by offering new regular features, new systems, and new areas of development. You don’t have to keep everything (and you shouldn’t keep applications that aren’t working), but you should always be building new wings of your portfolio.
    • One-up your competitors. Your competitors are sneaky, wily, and unpredictable. If they’ve managed to compete with you this long, it’s because they’re smart and they aren’t afraid to tackle challenges. They’re going to keep coming out with new, innovative content strategies, so keep an eye on them—and work to find ways to one-up them with your own.

    Conclusion

    Content is more than just a marketing tool, and it’s more than just an ingredient in your overall brand strategy. If wielded properly, content is the ultimate weapon you have to edge out the competition. With a better ongoing content strategy, you’ll be more visible, more authoritative, and more helpful than any of your competitor, and as a result, you’ll wind up with a far higher customer acquisition rate. Similarly, if your troubleshooting and “help” content strategy is better than your competitors, your customer retention will prevent your users from ever switching sides.

    SaaS is a crowded, competitive field with lots of turnover, lots of risks, and enormous potential rates of return. You may have a great product, but there are likely dozens of competitors with similarly great products. You owe it to yourself to find alternative routes to differentiation and, of course, improvement to set yourself apart from the crowd. Content is the perfect place to start.

  8. How Facebook Is Diversifying the Online Customer Engagement Experience

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    In the world of online marketing, there are few things more valuable or more important than customer engagements. “Engagements” is a somewhat general term that applies to any meaningful action taken by a customer to, with, or otherwise relating to your brand. This could be in the form of a “like” or share on a social media platform, a comment on a blog, or even a conversion (in the best scenario).

    These engagements vary wildly in terms of the amount of effort required by users to partake in the action and in terms of how much value they bring company; some simultaneously serve as opportunities for relationship development and indicators that can move your market research or analytics forward. Facebook, recognizing user engagements as a critical factor for its own success (and the success of individuals and companies that use it), has recently taken to diversifying its customer engagement experience.

    Let’s examine some of the ways it’s done this.

    Ad Preferences

    Facebook is still around because it makes a ton of money on advertising—but it doesn’t shove ads down users’ throats, either. It actually offers an ever-increasing range of ad preferences users can set to increase the relevance of the ads they see (and filter out bad ones). For example, users can click to find out “why” they’ve been shown a certain ad, and if they are offended or perplexed by an ad, they may opt to remove it and opt-out of similar ads in the future.

    Facebook Ad Preferences

    There’s a limited power to this, since Facebook still needs to make money somehow, but there’s a critical point here: Facebook is trying to make users a more interactive part of the traditional marketing/advertising experience. Rather than being passive participants, they are now becoming more active in their own advertising environments. This could potentially serve to fight back against the ad-focused backlash and resulting lack of user trust that’s negatively affected the ad industry for years.

    Organic Audience Targeting

    Next, there’s the organic audience targeting feature that Facebook rolled out just a few weeks back. It’s deceptively simple, and integrated into the UI that you’re already used to, so don’t be surprised if you’ve missed it.

    Facebook Audience Optimization

    Whenever a company or audience drafts a post of any kind, it can now access the “Audience Optimization” feature to selectively distribute that content to only certain segments of the population. There are two main ways to do this.

    In the “Audience Restrictions” mode, you’ll be able to filter out audience members who naturally wouldn’t like your content. For example, you can set a specific age range, target a specific gender, or exclude certain locations from the group of people who will eventually see your post.

    In the “Preferred Audience” mode, you’ll be able to set certain interests that your target demographics might be into, giving you a way to align your content with audience members that have shown a clear affinity for a similar subject or product.

    With audience targeting, brands are given more options to ensure their content gets in front of the right people. Doing so increases not only the total possibility for engagements, but also the quality of engagements. To the average user, there won’t be any noticeable differences—but soon, they’ll start noticing better and more appropriate forms of content entering their newsfeeds.

    Emoji Reactions

    Emoji’s are nothing new; they’ve been slowly taking over the world of online communication for the past several years, and now Facebook has found a way to use them to diversify the customer engagement experience.

    Rather than just having the traditional, straightforward “like” option, users can now choose between six total possible reactions to posts. There’s one each for “love,” “wow,” “haha,” “angry,” and “hate.”

    Facebook Emoji Reactions

    On the surface, this may not seem like much of a change; after all, users are still hitting a button to passively engage with something. But with five new dimensions of response, the social user engagement game may be turned on its head.

    For starters, users can now respond to a wider variety of posts. If they don’t genuinely like something, but feel strongly toward it, they have a more specific way to let their feelings be known. Also, users who might otherwise refrain from posting a long comment might find solace in the idea that they can express themselves with a single emoji. The combination of these effects means you’ll see more users responding to your posts—if you know how to take advantage of the new system.

    The benefits don’t stop there, either. You’ll also gain more insight into your customers’ sentiments. Rather than wading through tons of qualitative, subjective comments, you have some level of quantitative data you can use to measure the relative influence of a piece.

    The Future of User Engagement

    We live in an exciting era for user engagement. Social media platforms, where user engagements were once limited to one-dimensional, passive gestures, are becoming profoundly more diverse, and Facebook is leading the pack. In my estimation, Facebook has a ton of new features and functions to add, and their user experience improvements will never quite be complete, and in addition, many other platforms will soon follow suit. The next few years will be interesting ones. But in any case, users have more tools than they’ve ever had before for engaging with brands, and as a result, both marketers and individuals are having better online exchanges.

  9. The SaaS Company’s Guide to Social Media Marketing

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    You’re in charge of marketing for a SaaS company, and like any modern company, you’re considering social media as a channel of choice. This is the guide that’s going to make sure you do it right.

    Now, I’m not here to tell you that social media marketing is going to be the be-all, end-all marketing strategy for your brand, or that it’ll offer you a billion-fold increase in ROI. Frankly, anyone who tells you social media is an instant win is either lying or has had enormous luck in their past social ventures.

    But, if implemented correctly, social media can be a viable channel for improving customer relationships, attracting new clientele, and building your brand image overall. It’s well worth the investment for most companies, but this is especially true for SaaS companies thanks to your digital presence and scalable model.

    Throughout this guide, I’ll be going over the basics and the advanced considerations for social media marketing for a SaaS brand. I’ll walk you through an overview of social media marketing, the unique challenges that SaaS brands face, how to provide the right content, and finally, how to build an audience.

    Are you ready?

    The Benefits of Social Media

    If you aren’t convinced that social media marketing is worth the investment of time or money, you’re not alone. Many business owners have outright dismissed the idea as being a fad, or as having no tangible value, but consider the key benefits a strong social presence could hold for a SaaS brand:

    • Brand visibility. Posting actively on social media makes your brand more visible, which puts you in front of more potential customers. Simply having a fleshed-out page for social users to find when they search for you can do wonders for your first impressions, and as you grow your audience, you’ll get more and more opportunities to tap new resources for potential software subscribers.
    • Brand loyalty. If you want your users to stay loyal to your brand, you need to keep yourself top-of-mind and stay in contact with them. Staying active on social media gives you a route for both of these aspects.
    • Inbound traffic. If you’re like most SaaS companies, you rely on your website (or a specific landing page) to secure new customers. Publishing content and spreading links on social media helps you increase the inbound traffic you need to sustain your growth figures. For some companies, organic social traffic is the most effective channel for attracting new visitors (and you can track this in Google Analytics).

    traffic top channels

    • Conversion rates. Building up your consumer’s expectations and showing off your commitment to other users can also help you increase conversion rates. Imagine the difference between a user who clicked on a short, 40 character advertisement to find your landing page versus a customer who saw your engagement with their friend on Twitter—which comes in with a better understanding of your brand?
    • Customer service opportunities. Many popular SaaS companies set up separate accounts just for customer service. This is beneficial in a number of ways—it reduces the need for expensive call centers or support roles, it adds more potential modes of communication for users, and it gets in front of possible issues by making your community proactively aware of them.

    customer service on twitter

    • Customer insights. Learning how your customers interact, what else they follow, and what type of feedback they provide can help you make a better product and improve your brand. It’s almost like free market research.
    • HR and partnerships. You can also build your company by using social media to attract new talent or form partnerships. This is especially helpful for SaaSs due to their technical complexity.

    Salesforce LinkedIn Company Page

    (Image Source: LinkedIn)

    • Content and SEO enhancements. Social media is also an important enhancer for both content marketing and SEO strategies. Given a sizable audience, you can greatly increase the visibility for each of your published pieces, and potentially earn more inbound links in the process.

    What It Is and Isn’t

    I also want to take the opportunity to dispel some misconceptions about what social media marketing actually is. It isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme; it takes time and effort to see results, like with any other strategy. There isn’t a guaranteed formula; there are best practices, but ultimately each company requires a unique approach. It isn’t an advertising platform; if you advertise too heavily, you’ll turn people away rather than attracting them. Instead, it’s a mutually open communication platform where you can build a better relationship with your user base.

    A Note on Personal Brands

    For the majority of this guide, to keep things simple, I’ll be assuming your social media marketing campaign will be based around a corporate brand. Using personal brands (i.e. individual accounts) to further market your company is highly effective, and is worth consideration. Most of the techniques I list here apply to both, but keep in mind there is a distinction between a “corporate” and “personal” brand on social media—each with their own advantages.

    Unique Challenges for SaaS Companies

    With the basics out of the way, let’s address some of the unique challenges that SaaS companies face on social media (and how you can compensate for them).

    • Standing out. Your first obstacle is standing out. SaaS has become a popular model in the past decade or so, thanks in part to its massive scalability and some highly successful role models. Your users have a number of choices when it comes to doing tasks more efficiently, storing media online, or whatever other service you offer. You can’t just mimic one of your competitors’ brands and hope to be successful; you need to add something uniquely valuable to the mix. Building a unique brand is the first step to this process.
    • Addressing service concerns. No matter how good your technology is, there will be users who experience problems, and you can bet those users will turn to social media to express their dissatisfaction with your company.

    customer support via twitter

    • Incidents like this can be major blows to your brand’s integrity—if you don’t address them the correct way. When you see feedback like this, it’s important to address it immediately and work to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. Remember, these types of complaints will happen on social media regardless of whether you’re present there or not, so just having a presence in the first place can begin to mitigate these effects.
    • Building from nothing. Most SaaS platforms are built from scratch, and yours is likely no exception. With little more than a brand name and a beta product, it’s hard to build up a massive following, but don’t worry—it is possible. I’ll address this in my section on building an audience.
    • Follower retention. One of the biggest challenges for SaaS companies is user retention. User retention is imperative if you want to continue scaling your model—and the same is true for social media. Chances are, if a user leaves your service platform, they’ll leave your social media page (and sometimes, vice versa). Accordingly, it’s more important for you to focus on keeping the users you have than it is to keep attracting new ones. Keep this in mind for my later discussions on content and reciprocity.

    Choosing the Right Platforms

    When you get started, you’ll be tempted by two possibilities; either invest everything into a single social media platform, or get involved on every platform you run across. Neither of these is a good idea. You have to be choosy about which platforms you adopt, as not all of them are equal. Just because it “seems” like a good platform doesn’t mean it’s right for your brand, and it’s not worth getting involved on a platform that demands many man-hours per week but doesn’t return much value.

    Your first job, therefore, is to choose the right platforms for your social media strategy.

    Key Considerations

    There are three considerations that should dictate your decisions of which platforms to include.

    • Demographics. As you’ll see, each social platform is home to a different range of demographics. It pays to get involved on the platforms with the highest probability of offering you new customers, and the ones with the highest potential for growth.
    • Functionality. Different platforms offer different functions, both for brands and for individual users. This can help you target your audience properly, share the right kinds of content, or engage your users better in the long run. Not all social features demand active, regular engagement.

    Facebook Instagram User Engagement

    (Image Source: Pew Research)

    • Finally, consider how much time you’ll need to invest in a platform to make it worth it. For example, do you have to create all new content for it and post it in-the-moment, or can you automate your posts and set the platform on auto-pilot?

    With those requirements in mind, let’s take a look at how a SaaS company might utilize some of the most popular social media platforms available.

    Facebook

    Facebook Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    Facebook dominates the market for a reason. It’s simple, it’s easy, it offers lots of functionality, and it doesn’t pigeonhole itself in any one niche. Facebook has more than a billion users, which gives you a crazy big audience to tap into, and because most demographics are pretty evenly represented, no SaaS company should have a problem building a sizable following. You can post regular content, images, videos, and in any format or length you like—plus interacting with others is easy and approachable. The learning curve here is low, and the longevity is high.

    Bottom line: Facebook is almost a necessity for your brand.

    Twitter

    Twitter Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    Twitter doesn’t have much in the way of unique functionality, but it does have more than 300 million users. You’re limited in the number of characters you can post here, and its newsfeed moves much faster than that of Facebook; this could be advantageous or disadvantageous. If your brand relies on snappy snippets of messaging and quick-solution responses, this is a good thing. If you require more in-depth interactions to convey the power of your brand, this is restrictive. Its demographics are relatively even, but do skew younger—so keep that in mind if your brand targets a specific age range. The mechanics of Twitter have a bit of a learning curve, but it’s nothing you can’t figure out in a few days.

    Bottom line: Twitter isn’t as valuable as Facebook for most SaaS companies, but has a few advantages depending on your brand.

    LinkedIn

    LinkedIn Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    LinkedIn is a unique animal. In terms of learning curve and functionality, it’s almost identical to Facebook, but it has a much lower user base and a much more specific user base—experienced professionals. If your software only caters to professionals, this could be incredibly advantageous to you. If it doesn’t, LinkedIn will be a crapshoot. There’s one other weakness you have to consider here, and that’s the fact that corporate pages can’t get involved in Groups; instead, you’ll have to rely on personal brands to supplement your corporate brand presence. On the other hand, LinkedIn is perfect if you’re trying to attract new hires.

    Bottom line: If you’re after professionals, LinkedIn is perfect. Otherwise, don’t bother.

    Pinterest

    Pinterest Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    Pinterest is another specialty platform that many believed would be short-lived. Instead, it has a thriving audience, and now offers a sales integration for interested companies. Pinterest is based solely on submitting and sharing images, and its demographics skew heavily toward women (though age distribution is relatively even). It takes time to learn the ins and outs of Pinterest, and you’re unlikely to see a high ROI unless you have really interesting images to show. As a SaaS company, this seems unlikely.

    Bottom line: Unless you have lots of interesting images to show off and a vested interest in female users, Pinterest probably isn’t worth your time and effort.

    Instagram

    Instagram Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    Instagram is worth noting for its growth patterns over the past few years alone. Since being acquired by Facebook, its functionality has diversified and become more accessible to new users, and its user growth rate has continually risen. Demographics here skew heavily toward younger users, but engagement rates are high. If you don’t have many pictures to take related to your brand, you’ll experience trouble maintaining an active post schedule, but if you do—Instagram is a hot platform to have.

    Bottom line: If you want younger users and have any reason to take pictures regularly, adopt Instagram.

    YouTube

    YouTube is arguably less “social” than the other platforms I’ve listed here, but with more than a billion users and consistent growth rates, it would be wrong not to mention it. Video content is becoming more popular (and of course, more important), so don’t be intimidated by the fact that it takes some time to pick up. Creating and uploading videos is pretty straightforward—the biggest challenge you’ll have is managing user interactions. For SaaS companies, this is a key spot to publish your tutorials and case studies.

    Bottom line: Be prepared for a learning curve, but otherwise, get active on YouTube.

    Google+

    Google Plus User Demographics

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    Google+ was once a must-have platform, heralded as the future of social media and a necessary component of SEO. Today, it’s being actively dismantled by Google into components it can use for other features. Is it fair to say Google+ is a dead platform? Maybe not. It’s a decent syndication channel, but its functionality and future growth are limited. Unless you have a specific reason to adopt it, Google+ isn’t necessary.

    Bottom line: Pass.

    SnapChat

    Snapchat User Demographics

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    SnapChat, like Instagram, has seen a massive growth rate in the past several years, thanks in part to its unique offer of privacy and temporary communication. It’s a hard platform to use for a marketing campaign, but its demographics may make it worth it; the vast majority of users are under the age of 25 and female.

    Bottom line: It’s a peripheral platform, so only invest in it if its demographics fit your SaaS targets.

    Others

    There are other social media platforms than these, and there will likely be several dozen new contenders emerging over the next few years alone. It’s impossible to comprehensively cover all of them, so use the factors I listed at the beginning of this section to make up your mind for each of them.

    Providing Content

    Now that you know what platforms you want to go after, it’s time to strategize about what type of content you offer. Your content plays a pivotal role in attracting new followers and retaining the ones you have; provide a steady stream of valuable, unique content, and your followers will stick with you indefinitely.

    Syndicated onsite content (and guest posts)

    Social media serves as a syndication platform for content you’ve written elsewhere (like on your company blog or as guest posts on external publishers). Essentially, the goal here is to get more eyes on the content you spent so much time developing—this increases the value of each piece of content you syndicate, increases its likelihood of earning links, and gives your users in-depth content as a show of value.

    There aren’t many rules for what type of content you should syndicate; the better the content, the better results you’ll see, but since this guide isn’t about content quality, I won’t stray too far into the details of what makes good content “good.” For SaaS companies, popular content types include studies, tutorials, and industry-specific news.

    Remember, you can syndicate your pieces multiple times to rejuvenate interest and capture portions of your audience you might have missed the first time around.

    Platform-specific content

    In addition to syndicated content, you should also post content that’s specific to your chosen platform. On Instagram, that means taking lots of pictures. On Twitter, that means writing short 160-character “tips and tricks” or humorous asides. On Facebook, that might mean an infographic or an announcement:

    Platform Specific Content

    (Image Source: Facebook)

    Learn what types of content are most popular on your demographic of choice, and utilize those in your marketing strategy. Over time, you’ll learn from experience which ones have the highest engagement rates, so focus your efforts on what brings you the best value.

    Shared content

    For most platforms, it’s also a good idea to share other people’s content, rather than only supplying your own. This accomplishes several things:

    • It shows you’re involved in the community.
    • It relieves the burden of creating new content all alone.
    • It builds relationships with other content creators (more on this later).

    Since it only takes a few minutes to find something interesting and one click to share it to your own users, I highly encourage you to use this strategy often.

    Timing and frequency

    Some social media experts will tell you that the secret to success is in timing. However, timing has a two-pronged effect. Yes, Facebook posts around noon tend to attract more attention, but because of this, most brands rush to post at noon and end up clogging users’ newsfeeds. It’s better to space your strategy out evenly, and rely on your own performance metrics to dictate when is best to post.

    When it comes to frequency, each platform is different. Once a day is more than enough to be considered active on LinkedIn, but on Twitter, even three times a day may be considered slow or inactive. Learn the ropes of each platform, and syndicate accordingly.

    The “Social” Factor

    If there’s one mistake that holds brands back more than any other, it’s the “social” element of social media. Your brand spends so much time posting and scheduling content that your profile becomes a monologue. If you want to be effective, you have to engage with users—sometimes directly—in a mutual exchange. This is especially important for SaaS companies; if a customer feels that he/she isn’t being listened to, he/she is going to leave.

    Here’s how to do it.

    Content responses and engagements

    Your first job is a simple one, so there’s no reason to neglect it. Simply respond to every customer who reaches out to your brand. Like this:

    content responses

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    It really is that simple. A “thank you” or “you’re welcome” or “glad you liked it” can make all the difference. Sometimes even a like is all it takes to communicate a level of acknowledgment. The benefits here are threefold:

    • It makes the individual you’re responding to feel personally touched by your brand (increasing brand loyalty).
    • It shows other users that your brand listens to its customers (increasing brand authority/reputation).
    • It gives your brand a good reason to post (increasing brand visibility).

    Long story short? Respond to users any chance you can get.

    Customer inquiries

    Sometimes, customers will reach out to you with specific, detailed questions rather than quick comments or feedback. For example, a Twitter user might come to you asking a technical question about your software’s performance. The biggest mistake you can make here is ignoring the inquiry entirely, but there’s one that’s almost as big: directing the user to another platform, like a customer service hotline or an email address. Instead, do your best to answer the question directly. Like in the above section, this affects your reputation in the eyes of the individual as well as other users.

    Conversation participation

    Don’t just wait for users to engage with you; go out and engage with them! Look for conversation threads on popular groups, forums, and pages related to your industry, and jump into the discussion. This shows that you’re active in the community, and serves as good exposure for your brand to users who haven’t met you yet. Plus, you might learn something by seeing what others are talking about.

    Relationship building

    Building relationships with other influencers (who already have followings of their own) is one of the best ways to increase your reputation (and the size of your audience). Engaging with these influencers, by sharing their content, participating in their conversations, or even reaching out directly, can plant the seed of a relationship. Nurture that seed with more engagements and mutual exchanges, and soon, these influencers will be willing to share your content, mention your brand, or otherwise grant you greater visibility and tap into new audiences.

    Building an Audience

    Posting content and engaging socially are the two most important elements to retaining an audience, and each holds some value in building an audience as well. But what if you want to step up your audience building efforts, maximizing the quality and quantity of your followers? It’s generally a good idea, as a bigger audience means every post you make has a bigger total effect, but as anyone experienced social marketer will tell you, you can’t build a large audience by simply waiting for it to come.

    Seeding an Audience

    Audiences tend to self-perpetuate once they hit a certain threshold; if you’re posting good content regularly with 10,000 followers, those followers will likely share your work and help your audience grow even further. However, if you only have 10 followers, that self-perpetuation can’t take hold. Accordingly, in the early stages of your development, you’ll need to “seed” an initial audience.

    You can do this by asking your friends, family members, employees, and acquaintances to follow your brand, but be careful—remember that quality is more important to an audience than quantity. This is merely to help you build momentum. From there, once you’re posting regularly, you can reach out to individuals and follow them; a percentage of those individuals will follow you back, and in time, you’ll build a foundation that can lead you to a fuller growth phase.

    Growth Phase

    After you’ve built a foundation, you can enter a phase of high growth. In addition to posting good content and engaging with other users, there are several key principles you’ll have to adhere to:

    • Without a consistent brand voice or posting schedule, your users won’t have a foundation to grow accustomed to. Consistency makes you memorable, and demonstrates your professionalism.
    • People don’t trust corporations; they trust other people. You have to show off your personality if you want to forge a social connection, so speak casually, add humor, and don’t be afraid to express an opinion.
    • Everything you post should be valuable; valuable posts get shared and spark interest. Non-valuable posts get ignored.
    • Cross-Pollination. Social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum; integrate it with as many other marketing channels as you can. For example, use it in fluid harmony with your SEO and content marketing campaigns, and include your social icons on every webpage you build and email you send out.
    • Hashtags. Hashtags are a powerful way to get your content seen by new people. However, there are two important rules to follow; one, never use a hashtag unless you’ve done your research and you’re positive you’re using it correctly, and never stuff your posts full of hashtags for their own sake.

    hashtags

    (Image Source: BuzzFeed)

    • Give your users more reasons to engage with your brand, such as by offering discounts, promotions, contests, and giveaways. It’s like bribing your users to invest more in your brand (but more respectable).
    • No strategy starts out effective; it takes tinkering, tweaking, and sometimes drastic overhauls to find out what really works. Don’t be afraid to evolve.

    Incorporate these principles reliably into your campaign, and I can guarantee you’ll see growth in both the size and engagement of your audience.

    Timescale

    Okay, so I’ve practically guaranteed you a level of social media growth, but how fast can you hope to achieve it?

    Social audience building tends to function on a logarithmic scale. Earning 100 followers is hard when you have 0 to start with, but ridiculously easy if you already have 10,000 followers. Additionally, in my experience there seems to be a threshold of exponential growth for most SaaS companies; you’ll hit a limit, maybe 5,000, maybe 100,000, where it seems to become more difficult to gain more traction. Let’s call this the “sophomore plateau.”

    The foundation could take days or months to build. Depending on how much effort you’re putting in, once you’ve built a foundation, it should only take a few weeks to double your number of users. Assuming you scale your efforts accordingly, it should take that same amount of time to double them again, and again, and again, until you hit your sophomore plateau. At this point, your growth rates should level out.

    Troubleshooting

    I’ve laid this plan out very nice and neat, but as you can imagine, things won’t always go this way. Chances are, you’ll hit premature plateaus or lose users, and you’ll have no idea why. It’s important to recognize these stopgaps and work proactively to fix them. Generally, a problem can be traced back to a failure to follow one of the best practices that I’ve previously outlined; use these as checklists to evaluate your performance, and bring in a third party if you want a more neutral set of eyes to review your work.

    If you haven’t missed anything, don’t panic. You know something’s wrong, and you don’t know what, so there’s only one approach to take; change something, see if it fixes the problem, and if it doesn’t, change something else. Repeat ad infinitum until you start to see better growth rates.

    Final Considerations

    Social media marketing isn’t straightforward or easy, but it is highly valuable if you know how to invest in it. As your SaaS company begins to accumulate more followers, you’ll gain a better understanding of what makes your users tick, and will be able to incorporate that data into your future efforts. This recursive style of improvement is critical for maintaining a long-term growth pattern, so never remain stagnant with one strategy for too long. Your customers are always growing, and if you want to maintain your connection, you have to grow with them.

  10. The Ultimate System for Creating Viral Content

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    The term “viral content” has become viral in its own right. With the majority of business owners and marketers today engaging in some kind of content marketing (or at least recognizing it as a powerful marketing agent), the idea of spiking past the realm of “normal” results with viral content is tantalizing.

    Despite frequent claims of having the “secret” to creating viral content, few marketing authorities have ventured into the science behind virally shared content, and none have come up with a verifiable, systematic process to create new viral content; the former is elusive, and the latter is impossible.

    Instead of proposing a “guaranteed formula for success” or the “secret to making content viral,” I’m going to lay out some irrefutable truths about viral content, debunk some serious misconceptions, and hopefully give you a model that can lead you to the creation of better—if not viral—content for your campaign.

    Defining “Viral” Content

    First, it’s helpful to define exactly what viral content is—or at least what I mean by it. The phrase has become a buzzword, often abused and manipulated to fit into different contexts. The term, of course, comes from the word “viral,” as in, spreading like a virus. Much like a single person carrying a disease can get an entire office sick, and that office can infect an entire neighborhood, a single piece of effective, “viral” content can be shared socially to exponentially increasing audience sizes.

    There aren’t any strict definitions on what constitutes “viral”—a video with 15 million views, an article with 1 million shares, and an infographic with 100 links pointing to it could all be considered viral in their own contexts. For our purposes, the term “viral” will apply to any piece of content that is circulated, socially or otherwise, many times more than an average, similar piece.

    The Goals

    For most brands, getting more visibility is a good thing. But let’s explore the myriad benefits even a single piece of viral content can offer:

    • Brand visibility. Having more people share your piece of content means more people will see your brand, some of which will be getting an impression of you for the first time.
    • Brand authority. Having a widely cited piece makes you seem like more of an authority; circulate enough viral pieces and you’ll become known as a leading authority in your industry.
    • Social followers. If even a tenth of the people who encounter your content follow you on social media in the hopes of seeing more, a single piece of viral content can net you hundreds to thousands of permanent new social followers. This effect is amplified due to the fact that most viral content is shared on social media in the first place.
    • Increased readership. Those interested in your piece will likely return to your blog (and thus, your website) in the future to find more information. Higher regular readership means more opportunities for conversion.
    • Inbound links. Generally, when content is syndicated and appreciated en masse, it earns tons of inbound links, which in turn pass authority to your site and make it easier for you to rank for your target keywords. Take a look at this viral infographic on the daily routines of famous people as an example, which earned 71 independent links (and growing):

    inbound links

    (Image Source: Podio)

    podio open site explorer

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Keep in mind that “viral” content achieves these goals to a degree much higher than ordinary “good” content. If you charted out all the links and shares that all the content in the world received, it wouldn’t follow a normalized pattern, or a typical bell curve. Instead, what you see is a massive spike of shares and links for a very small minority of pieces:

    total shares all networks

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Assuming it takes the same amount of effort to produce a “viral” piece of content and the next-best tier of content quality, you can expect the viral piece to perform more than 5 times better! One small step in quality leads to an enormous leap in results.

    Realistic Expectations

    Just because there are ways to increase your likelihood of going viral doesn’t mean it’s a sure path. There is always a degree of unpredictability, and you need to be prepared for that. You may have a piece that, scientifically, meets all the criteria to go viral fall flat, and conversely, a seeming flop could skyrocket to success—just take Flappy Bird as an example.

    flappy bird

    (Image Source: Wikipedia)

    Moral of the story: users are weird. Take my following advice with a grain of salt, and strive for overall improvements rather than celebrity-level popularity in your landmark pieces.

    General Principles of Viral Content

    We know what viral content is, and what it can’t be. We know that “something” makes a piece popular or appealing enough for massive numbers of users to share it with other users, but what is that “something?” There’s no single or simple definition, so instead I’m going to explore a number of different qualities that, in combination with each other, can spark a piece of content to explode in popularity.

    Valence

    According to a study of 7,000 New York Times articles, valence is a significant factor in determining whether a piece will “go viral.” Specifically, positive content has a higher degree of virality than negative content. If you read headlines regularly, this may come as a surprise to you—after all, the media is frequently criticized for being too negative, and most of your friends will agree that reading the news is “depressing.” However, positively positioned pieces always outperform negative ones in terms of shareability. Keep this in mind when debating between angles like “why you’ll always be a failure” or “why you always have a shot at success.”

    Emotionality

    There are two dimensions of emotionality: initial stimulation, and contagiousness. In the former, the reader has an individual, independent “gut reaction” to your piece. In the latter, the reader sees a potential for other users to have this gut reaction.

    Initial stimulation is important because it draws a reader in, and makes them connect to the piece. Contagiousness is important because readers have a natural tendency to try and strike up emotions in other readers, particularly friends and family members. Both require a strong emotional foundation in order to trigger a viral event.

    What emotions are most effective?

    emotions

    (Image Source: Harvard Business Review)

    Anticipation, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, fear, trust, and joy all have hotspots in the outermost and innermost edges of this emotional chart, with anticipation, trust, and surprise (more on surprise later) having especially strong tendencies to encourage shares. People naturally want others to feel these emotions when they feel them internally—so pieces charged with these emotions naturally get more shares.

    Practicality

    Instigating an emotion with a positive twist isn’t enough, however. To become viral, there must be some level of practicality to a piece. It doesn’t have to be a tutorial, or some life-changing piece of information, but it does have to add value to a person’s life one way or another.

    “Life hacks,” a viral idea in their own right, have become incredibly popular, even leading to the development of sites like Lifehacker and Lifehack.org. These sites revolve around dispensing practical, actionable information, and as a result, their pieces have achieved massive, lasting popularity and social syndication.

    Take this, one of Lifehacker’s most popular all-time pieces, with 5 million views:

    Lifehacker viral content piece

    (Image Source: Lifehacker)

    People see a title like this and can usually think of at least one time or occasion this information would have been extremely useful; they pass it on to others half to be a Good Samaritan and half to demonstrate their resourcefulness. Without digging too deep into the psychology here, know that practicality is always a good thing.

    Defying Expectations

    Going back to the “surprise” element I touched on in the emotional section, it’s important to know that defying user expectations is a major factor in determining the virality of a piece. If a piece conforms to expectations, no matter how useful or entertaining it is, it’s not worth sharing, in the same way that your morning commute isn’t worth remembering unless something unusual happens along the way.

    Take the story of the red paper clip as an example. You may remember this story from back in 2005; an active Craigslist participant started with a red paper clip, trading various items for items of slightly higher value, until he eventually traded for an entire house. This house:

    house traded on craigslist

    (Image Source: Wikipedia)

    If the piece were about a similar failed attempt, or about how someone traded a paperclip for a binder clip, or anything “usual,” it never would have circulated. Instead, it took users by surprise—even to the brink of disbelief.

    Attention

    It’s a sad fact of the content world that it’s possible to get lots of shares without anyone actually reading your material. People form fast first impressions when they see your headline, so if you want to go viral, you need a headline, image, or other first impression that hooks readers immediately.

    One good way to do this is to stir up controversy; state an opinion on a matter that is strongly debated. If you want to hedge your bets and avoid aggressively polarizing topics, you can stick to “soft” forms of controversy:

    controversial images

    (Image Source: HelpScout)

    The above example is highly debatable, yet doesn’t have high stakes or consequences. As you can see, it earned 12,372 shares.

    Weight

    This probably goes without saying, but the rule of weightiness applies to every other qualification on this list; you have to exhibit qualities to a strong degree if you want to reap their rewards. For example, don’t be scary, be terrifying. Don’t be just somewhat debatable. Don’t be kind of surprising. With viral content, it’s definitely a case of “go big or go home.”

    Variability

    The original term wasn’t invented to describe dumb trends on the Internet, but viral content truly is a good example of a meme. Memes are a cultural substitute for genes in an evolutionary environment, and like genes, they draw their power from selective pressures and variability. A small variation on an existing social more could be enough to make something go viral—like a parody video:

    151 million views for this. Seriously.

    That variability can also apply to your content’s ability to be changed by users. For example, take the rampant popularity of the “Ice Bucket Challenge” just a few years back:

    Countless celebrities, companies, and individuals participated in this challenge, and many of them racked up millions of views and shares.

    The key takeaway here is that variability is powerful; it gives users a bit of what they’re used to, and something surprising at the same time. If implemented properly, it also encourages a degree of audience participation, which is always a good thing for a brand.

    Quality

    I hesitate to use the word “quality” here because it’s so vague, but it’s important to recognize. Let’s say you’ve conducted some surprising, exciting, positive research and you’re presenting it in a piece of long-form content. Theoretically, your material has all the right ingredients, but your body copy is riddled with awkward phrasing and spelling errors. Do you think you’ll still attract the same amount of attention? Let’s say you have an awesome idea for a video, but the final production is grainy and the sound quality is horrible. Will it still succeed?

    Your content needs to be detailed, concise, well-researched, polished, and proofread to the point of perfection. Otherwise, even great ideas will fall flat.

    The Self-Perpetuation of Popularity.

    One more note before I move onto the next section; popularity is a self-perpetuating mechanism. That is to say, once it reaches a certain threshold, content will start earning shares simply because it already has a lot of shares. As an anecdotal example, have you ever watched a YouTube video simply because you heard it had millions of views? Of course you have. We all have. We trust the general consensus—more than we should sometimes—but this is important to recognize in the pursuit of viral content.

    To go viral, then, you don’t need to produce content worthy of 10 million shares on its own. Even getting 1 million could instantly propel you to 10. Similarly, getting 100,000 could help you get to 1 million, and so on down the line. I’ll touch on this a bit more later, in my “Igniting the Fire” section, but know that sometimes, just a few more shares is all you need to start a chain reaction, and accordingly, just a few small improvements to your content can help it cross into that new territory.

    Finding the Right Format

    I’ve covered the “ingredients” for a viral piece of content somewhat exhaustively, but how can you package those ingredients?

    There are dozens of different mediums, formats, and niches of content, all of which could theoretically support a piece of content with high virality. Take a look at this chart of some of the top-performing content types, according to a recent study by Moz and BuzzSumo covering 1 million pieces of content:

    content types

    (Image Source: Moz)

    List posts, quizzes, why posts, how-to posts, infographics, and videos are all popular formats, but how do you know which one to choose? How do you know if you’re using it correctly?

    Know Your Audience

    First things first: you need to know your audience inside and out. Yes, hopefully your content will become so popular even general audience members will catch wind of it, but you need a committed initial circle of supporters, and that means you have to write to a specific demographic. Market research can help you here, but it’s better if you rely on data you’ve gathered yourself; take a look at how previous content topics have performed in the past, and how users react to different changes in your overall content campaign. This should help guide you in the right direction in terms of content angles, brand voice, and multimedia integrations that your audience prefers.

    With that said, I want to explore four main brackets of content that you should consider for your “viral” target.

    Long-Form Content

    Long-form content is content longer than 1,000 words. Generally speaking, the longer a piece of content is, the more shares and links it’s going to receive:

    long form content

     

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that longer content is always better; you still have to adhere to all the standards I outlined above, and keep your content concise enough that every word still matters. Still, this is a convincing argument that long-form content is the best “type” of content to pursue. It requires more of an upfront investment of time and money, but it’s well worth it to get an adjusted average of nearly 6,000 shares and 11 referring domain links.

    The key to long-form content is making it meaningful. Don’t write 10,000 words to cover 1,000 words of information, or your piece will fall flat. Accordingly, your choice of topic will play a major role in determining how your piece ultimately performs.

    Short-Form Content

    This isn’t to say that short-form content is inherently less valuable. If a viral piece of short-form content only earns a tenth of the potential shares that a long-form piece receives, it may still be worth it if it only took a tenth of the effort.

    Short-form viral content, then, is a balancing act between effort and reward. This isn’t to say that you should downplay your efforts, or rush through short-form content, but there are certain formats (list posts, quizzes, etc.) that are naturally less intensive to create than others (original research, extended essays, etc.).

    The key to short-form content is to keep it fast and concise. Give people the ability to scan through your content and get the gist of it in mere seconds without sacrificing your emotional appeal or the strength of your work.

    Images

    When it comes to producing a “viral” image—simpler is often better. Take a look at one of the most popular infographics of the past year:

    coca-cola infographics

    (Image Source: Creative Bloq)

    How many graphic elements do you notice here? It’s a can of Coca-Cola on a solid background, yet it generated an impressive number of shares because it contained ample interesting information. In fact, it’s almost closer to a short-form content piece than it is an image.

    Don’t think that you need to stuff your images full of information, either; artistic images, without any written information whatsoever, can also go viral. Remember this from the 2014 Oscars?

    2014 Oscars Selfie

    (Image Source: TIME)

    Snapping an image like this is like capturing lightning in a bottle; it’s incredibly difficult to predict or execute, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be successful on your first try. Infographics, on the other hand, can be constructed the way a written post can. It’s in your best interest to experiment with both, though the latter is much more controllable.

    Successful images need to form an immediate first impression, and since there are some viral elements they can’t carry as well as written work (such as practicality), you need to make up for it by strengthening its other elements.

    Keep in mind that images don’t have to be an exclusive medium unto themselves—incorporating images into your written content is a solid strategy for increasing shares as well.

    Videos

    Video is a complex medium deserving of its own full-fledged guide, so I’ll strive to cover only the basics here.

    Like written content, video comes in both short-form and long-form varieties. Long-form is more intensive and more useful, while short-form is faster and more reactive. Use both these types to your advantage when creating video, and always keep your quality as high as possible.

    Though you can get traction by making a video on pretty much anything, the best viral videos show off the capabilities of the medium, using audio and visual elements to tell a story. If you’re simply reading off a page (like in an interview) or if you have animation with no music or audio cues, you may end up with a good video—but it’s unlikely to be a viral one.

    All of the elements for virality I listed above apply to videos, but one of the most important is defying user expectations; YouTube has a billion users watching hundreds of millions of hours’ worth of content every day. They’ve pretty much seen everything, so if you want to motivate them to share your video, you have to do the impossible—show them what they haven’t seen.

    Again, as with images, you don’t have to use video as a standalone piece; you can use it as an enhancement to a written piece instead.

    Igniting the Fire

    As I mentioned before, there’s a critical threshold for viral content; you need to achieve a certain number of shares before you can start reaping the compounding benefits of logarithmic cascades of shares; think of it as a snowball needing to achieve a certain mass and shape before it’s capable of rolling down a hill and accumulating more mass on its own.

    Accordingly, drafting a good piece of content isn’t the end of your journey. Producing viral content is like gathering wood for a fire; you may have the potential to burn bright, long into the night, but unless you provide the initial spark, you won’t achieve anything. Give your content momentum by pushing it out to your social media audience, syndicating it through social bookmarking sites, engaging users in dialogue, responding to commenters, encouraging your employees to share the piece on their own accounts, and promoting the piece through influencer relationships or even a paid advertising boost. These small steps can, cumulatively, give your piece the initial momentum it needs to start generating visibility on its own—as long as it’s good enough.

    Conclusion

    By this point, I’ve taught you everything there is to know about producing and marketing viral content. I wish there was an actionable “secret” that could guarantee results, but if there was, everybody would be using it, and the very phenomenon of virality would ebb away. Instead, take viral content for what it is: a practical, yet somewhat unpredictable phenomenon that you can increase your probability of achieving but never firmly reach.

    Thankfully, most of the best practices for viral content—positivity, practicality, emotional appeal, etc.—will make your content inherently better in the first place, so striving for viral content will nearly guarantee you better results on some level. As you spend more time and effort investing in your viral content strategy, you’ll learn new insights about your audience, new techniques to apply to your approach, and old tactics that just aren’t working for you anymore.

    As long as you don’t get too caught up in the sensationalism of virality, learning from and pursuing viral content will make you a better marketer. And after all, that’s what most of us are after in the first place.

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-The AudienceBloom Team