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Tag Archive: Branding

  1. Every Resource You Need to Build a Kick-Ass Brand Online

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    SEO 101: A Guide for the Technically Challenged

    Search engine optimization (SEO), to the outsider, is a frustrating, complicated mess. Google doesn’t publish how its algorithm works (though it does give us helpful hints), and there are hundreds of independent, technical variables that can determine how your site ranks.

    If you don’t have experience with programming or website building, technical factors like meta titles, site structure, and XML sitemaps can seem intimidating and difficult to approach. And while it’s true that experience pays off—a novice won’t get the same results as someone with years of experience—the reality is that SEO is more learnable than you probably give it credit for.

    I’ve put together this guide to help the technically challenged folks out there—the ones new to SEO, or those unfamiliar with coding and website structure—to illustrate the basics of SEO, and simplify some of the more complicated techniques and considerations you’ll need to get results.

    Table of Contents

    + The Big Picture
    + The Technical Stuff
    + The Non-Technical Stuff
    + Conclusion

    The Big Picture

    First, I want to cover the “big picture” of SEO, because the “technical,” intimidating stuff is only a fraction of what’s actually involved in your search rankings. The goal of SEO is to increase your search visibility, which in turn will increase your site traffic.

    Google ranks sites based on a combination of two broad categories: relevance and authority. Relevance is how closely the content of a page is going to meet a user’s needs and expectations; for example, if the user asks a question, Google wants to find a webpage that answers it. Authority is a measure of how trustworthy or authoritative the source of the content is.

    Your tactics will usually involve building your authority, increasing your relevance for targeted queries, or both, across three main areas of optimization:

    • On-site optimization. On-site optimization is the process of making your site more visible, more authoritative, and easier for Google’s web crawlers to parse and understand. Many of these tweaks and strategies involve technical changes to your site, including adjustments to your backend code and other structural site changes.
    • Ongoing content marketing. Content marketing is the best way to build your authority and relevance on-site over time; you’ll have the chance to choose topics and optimize for keyword phrases your target audience will use, and simultaneously create content that proves your authoritativeness on the subject.
    • Off-site optimization (link building). Off-site optimization is a collection of tactics designed to promote your on-site content and improve your authority by building links to your site. The quantity and quality of links pointing to your site has a direct influence on how much authority your site is perceived to have.

    The Technical Stuff

    Don’t worry. I’m going to make this as painless as possible. In this section, I’m going to cover most of the “technical” SEO elements that you’ll need to consider for your campaign. These are changes you’ll need to make to your site, factors you’ll need to consider or monitor, and potential technical issues that could come up during your campaign. I’m going to cover these as simply and as thoroughly as possible—so you can understand them and use them, no matter how much technical experience you have.

    Search Indexing

    When you go to a library for information, librarians can probably help you by finding a book. But no matter how relevant a book may be to your interests, it won’t matter if the book isn’t currently on the shelves. Libraries must acquire books as they’re released, updating old copies and adding new copies, to keep the most recent information on the shelves.

    Search indexing works similarly. To provide results, Google needs to maintain shelves of “books,” in this case, a running archive of websites and pages that are available on the web. Google uses automated bots, sometimes known as “crawlers” or “spiders” to continually search the web for new page entries, which it then logs in its central system.

    How is this relevant for you? If you want to be listed in search engines, and be listed accurately, you need to make sure your site is indexed correctly.

    There are three main approaches you can take for search indexing:

    • Passive. The first approach is the easiest, and probably the best for SEO newcomers. Google wants to keep the books on its shelves updated, so it makes an effort to crawl sites completely on its own. In the passive approach, you’ll simply wait for Google to index your site, and trust its best judgment when it comes to canonicalizing your URL structures. For this method, you don’t have to do anything; you simply pass the reins to Google and let it take care of the indexing work. The only potential disadvantage here, other than forfeiting some degree of control, is that it sometimes takes more time for Google to update its index—up to a few weeks for new sites and new material.
    • Active. The active approach allows you to update the URL structures and hierarchies on your site using an on-site site map. Known as an HTML sitemap, this is easy to create (so long as you’re familiar with the process of creating new pages on your site). Create a page called “Sitemap” and list all the pages on your site you want Google to index, separated into categories and subcategories as appropriate, to provide hints to bots as to how your links interact with one another. You should also include descriptions to identify what each link is used for (briefly). This doesn’t guarantee indexation, but can help clarify confusion and speed up the indexing process. The major disadvantage here is that you’ll need to adjust it every time you make changes to your site, unless you use an automatic sitemap solution which updates itself any time you publish new pages. There are WordPress plugins which offer this functionality.

    Search Indexing

    • Direct. In the direct route, you’ll create an XML sitemap—which is different from an HTML sitemap. It’s essentially a txt file that contains a list of your site’s URLs, with descriptions that inform search engines how to consider and index your links, in relation to one another. Once done, you’ll upload it directly to Google. This is a fair bit more complex than an HTML sitemap, but is manageable if you take the time to read Google’s instructions properly. This isn’t necessary, but could be useful in speeding up the initial indexing process and clarifying canonical confusion (which I’ll talk about more in a future section).

    You’ll also need to consider creating a robots.txt file for your site, which is essentially an instruction manual that tells Google’s web crawlers what to look at on your site. You can create this file using Notepad, or any program on your computer that allows you to create txt files—even if you have no coding experience.

    On the first line, you’ll specify an agent by typing: “User-Agent: ____”, filling in the blank with a bot name (like “Googlebot”) or using an * symbol to specify all bots. Then, on each successive line, you can type “Allow:” or “Disallow:” followed by specific URLs to instruct bots which pages should or should not be indexed. There are various reasons why you wouldn’t want a bot to index a page on your site, which I’ll get into later. However, you may want bots to index all pages of your site by default. If this is the case, you do not need a robots.txt file.

    For example:

    robots.txt file

    If and when your robots.txt file is ready, you can upload it to your site’s root directory like any other file.

    Site Speed

    Speed has been a somewhat controversial topic in SEO, as its importance has been somewhat overblown. The loading time of your web pages won’t make or break your rankings; reducing your load time by a second won’t magically boost a low-authority site to the top rank.

    However, site speed is still an important consideration—both for your domain authority and for the user experience of your site. Google rewards sites that provide content faster, as it is conducive to a better overall user experience, but it only penalizes about one percent of sites for having insufficient speed. When it comes to user experience, every one second in improved site speed is shown to be correlated with a two percent increase in conversions.

    In short, whether you’re after higher rankings or more conversions, it’s a good idea to improve your site speed.

    Google page speed analysis

    You can check your speed using a site like Google’s own Page Speed Insights, and start improving your site with the following strategies:

    • Use a good caching plugin. Your first job is to make sure there’s a good caching plugin on your site. You only need one, and unless you have technical experience and unique needs, it’s best to leave your plugin unaltered (i.e., leave the default settings as they are). The caching plugin allows users to store certain pieces of information about your site on their respective browsers. This won’t do much for first-time visitors, but repeat visitors will be able to load your site much more quickly.
    • Limit the number of plugins you use. Your caching plugin is a must, and you’ll need a handful of other plugins (including an SEO plugin), but try to limit the number of plugins you have on your site. Every additional plugin will represent an increase in the amount of time it takes users to load your site.
    • Compress what you can. You can use an automated compression program like GZip to reduce the size of the files on your site, so they load faster. It’s not an intensive process, but can shave a few milliseconds off your page loading times.
    • Limit your redirects. Redirects are sometimes essential for correcting site indexing errors and other issues—and I’ll talk about redirects in more detail later on—but only use them if you know what you’re doing. Every new redirect you create is another piece of information that can bog down the speed of your site.
    • Consider your server choice. Your choice in server can also have a bearing on your loading speed. Most modern servers are adequate—especially big-name servers, like those provided by WordPress or GoDaddy. However, choosing an inferior, low-cost server could have a negative impact on your average loading speed. A dedicated server may be worth the investment if site speed is a big priority for you. In any case, once you’ve made a decision, your server won’t need much ongoing technical maintenance (unless you’re using one in-house). At AudienceBloom, we use and recommend WPEngine.
    • Optimize your images. Images are some of the biggest content files you’ll have on your site, so you’ll need to make sure they’re optimized to provide the fastest possible site speed. You can optimize images by making sure they’re the proper format (JPG, GIF, PNG, etc.), and by reducing their size as much as possible before uploading them. This isn’t a technically demanding process; in fact, there are many free image resizing tools available online, including Pic Resize.
    • Clear unnecessary site data. Do you have a bunch of old content drafts for your blog that haven’t been published? Get rid of them. Every piece of information on your site that doesn’t have a relevant purpose should be cleared.
    • Consider a content delivery network (CDN). A content delivery network is an automatic service you can sign up for that allows you to serve, or distribute, your site content from multiple different locations simultaneously, rather than from one central server. It’s an additional investment, but doesn’t require any technical knowledge, and could help you achieve a faster loading time if you’re struggling to hit your goals with other tactics.

    Mobile Optimization

    Mobile optimization is a broad category that includes both technical and non-technical elements. Mobile searches now outnumber desktop searches, so Google has taken extensive efforts in recent years to reward sites that optimize for mobile devices and penalize sites that don’t.

    Put simply, if your site is “friendly” to mobile devices, capable of loading and presenting content in a way that works well for mobile users, you’re going to see an increase in authority and rankings. Incidentally, you’ll also become more appealing to your target demographics, possibly increasing customer loyalty and/or conversions.

    So what is it that makes sites “optimized” for mobile devices? There are a few main criteria:

    • Content visibility. First, you’ll need to make sure that all your site’s content is visible to a user—without the need to scroll or zoom. On a non-optimized website, written text will often bleed to the right, forcing users to scroll to read the rest of it. On a mobile optimized site, that text would be constrained by the edges of the screen.
    • Content readability. Your content should also be readable. Oftentimes, that means choosing a bigger, cleaner font. Mobile devices have smaller screens, so you don’t want your visitors to squint or zoom to have to read it.
    • Finger-friendly interactions. Instead of using a mouse with a fairly precise pointer to engage with your site, users are going to be using their fingers to tap buttons and fill out forms. Accordingly, your buttons, tabs, and menus should grow to be more prominent and “tappable.”
    • Image and video visibility. There are some types of content that simply don’t load on mobile devices (such as Flash). Obviously, you’ll want your visitors to see all your cool images and videos, so mobile optimization demands that those features are visible on mobile devices.
    • Loading speed. Remember what I talked about in the site speed section? It matters even more for mobile devices. Generally, mobile devices load sites much slower than desktop devices, so a fraction of a second delay on a desktop device could cost you multiple seconds on a mobile device. Fortunately, mobile speed improvements are mostly the same as desktop speed improvements.

    If all this sounds complex to you, don’t worry. There are some simple ways to test your site to see if it’s counted as “mobile friendly,” and simple fixes you can make if it’s not. The easiest way to make your site mobile friendly is to make your site responsive; this means that your site will detect what device is attempting to view it, and automatically adjust based on those parameters.

    This way, you can keep managing only one site, and have it work for both mobile and desktop devices simultaneously. You can also create a separate mobile version of your site, but this isn’t recommended; especially now that Google is beginning to switch to mobile-first indexing.

    How can you make your site responsive? The easiest way is to use a website builder and choose a responsive template. Most mainstream website builders these days have responsive templates by default, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t offer what you need.

    If you’re building a site from scratch, you’ll need to work with your designers and developers to ensure they’re using responsive criteria.

    As long as your site is responsive, you should be in good shape. If you’re in doubt, you can use Google’s mobile-friendly tool to evaluate your domain and see if there are any mistakes interfering with your mobile optimization. All you have to do is enter your domain, and Google will tell you if any of your pages are not up to snuff, pinpointing problem areas so you can correct them if necessary.

    Google mobile friendly tool

    Sitemaps

    I’ve mentioned the importance of sitemaps in multiple areas of this guide so far. Now I’m going to get into the technical details of what sitemaps are, why they’re important for your site, and how to create them.

    There are actually two different types of sitemaps you can build and use for your site: HTML and XML. I’ll start with HTML sitemaps, since they’re a little easier to create and understand. As I mentioned before, HTML sitemaps exist as a page on your site, visible to both human visitors and search engine crawlers.

    Here, you’ll list a hierarchy of all the pages on your site, starting with the “main” pages, and splitting down into categories and subcategories. Ideally, you’ll include the name of the page along with the accurate link to it, and every page on your site will link to your HTML sitemap in the footer.

    Google won’t be using an HTML sitemap to index your pages, so it’s not explicitly necessary to have one. However, it does give Google search crawlers a readily available guidebook of how your pages relate to one another. It can also be useful for your visitors, giving them an overall vision of your site.

    XML sitemaps are far more important. Rather than existing as a page on your site, XML sitemaps are code-based files that you can “feed” to Google directly in Google Search Console. They look a little like this:

    xml sitemap

    As you can imagine, they’re a nightmare to produce manually, but there are lots of free and paid tools you can use to generate one.

    Before I explain XML sitemap generation, you need to know what they’re used for. Again, these aren’t going to determine whether or not Google indexes your site; Google is going to crawl your site anyway. Instead, Uploading your XML sitemap to Google will instruct Google which pages you find most valuable on your site, and how those pages relate to one another.

    For example, you could exclude technical pages of your site that contain fewer than 200 words, so the overall perceived quality of your site isn’t dragged down by your worst content.

    Google explains that XML sitemaps are especially useful for the following types of sites:

    • Large sites, with thousands of pages.
    • Sites with archived, poorly linked content, which makes it difficult for Google to understand how all your pages link to one another.
    • New sites, which have few external links pointing to them.
    • Sites using specific types of rich media, such as special annotations or visual media.

    Note that excluding a page from your XML sitemap doesn’t mean that page won’t be indexed; the only way to fully block indexation altogether is to use your robots.txt file (as I described earlier).

    Does this all sound too complex? Don’t worry; the actual process you use to create a sitemap is fairly simple. Most CMSs have built-in features that allow you to automatically generate both HTML and XML sitemaps; for example, Yoast’s SEO plugin gives you the ability to create dynamic sitemaps, which automatically update as you make changes to your site.

    For example, you could exclude pages of your site that fall short of a given word-count threshold, and if you add content, they’ll automatically begin to reappear.

    It’s helpful to know how sitemaps work and why they’re important, but for your own sanity, it’s best to leave their generation in the hands of automated apps.

    Meta Data and Alt Text

    What I’m going to refer to as “meta data” is a blanket category that includes page titles, meta descriptions, and alt text. These are sections of text that describe your pages (or specific pieces of content within those pages). They exist in the code of your site, and are visible to Google search crawlers, but aren’t always visible to visitors (at least not in a straightforward way).

    Google’s crawlers review this information and use it to categorize certain features of your site, including pages (as a whole) and piece of content within that page). This makes it helpful for optimizing your site for specific keywords and phrases.

    It’s also used to produce the entries in search engine results pages (SERPs) that users will come across. Accordingly, it’s important to optimize your meta data to ensure that prospective visitors are encouraged to click through to your site. The title of your page will appear first, followed by your page URL in green, followed by your meta description, as shown in the example below:

    Meta Data

    Your goals in optimizing the meta information of your site then, is to first ensure that Google is getting an accurate description of your content, and second to entice users to click through to your site.

    • Titles. Titles are the first and most important description of your site’s individual pages. They should include at least one keyword relevant to that page (and your site), your brand name at the end, and should make some logical sense to your visitors. They should also contain less than 60 characters, as this is the maximum displayed by SERPs. For blog articles, titles usually correspond with the title of that blog post.
    • Descriptions. Descriptions are secondary ways of describing your pages, and generally have more wiggle room to include secondary keywords, long-tail phrases, and more conversational phrasing. The limit here is 160 characters.
    • Alt text. Alt text is specific to images, and is important for both search engines and visitors. When uploading an image, you’ll need to make sure your image file name reflects what the image actually contains—this will function as the image’s title in search engines. You may also include a caption to correspond with that image. Beyond that, you’ll need some descriptive text, which helps Google “understand” what’s happening in your image; this is the alt text, and it’s usually editable directly within your CMS. The alt text will also appear, instead of the image, in any case where a user attempts to load the image but is unable.

    Thankfully, optimizing your meta data is fairly simple. Most CMS platforms will, for each page of your site, offer blank, clearly labeled boxes that let you edit the corresponding meta data for that page. Remember, it’s a good idea to include at least one keyword in each of your titles and descriptions, but you’ll want to avoid keyword stuffing, and focus on writing meta data that makes sense to your users.

    Technical Errors

    The last component of technical SEO I want to cover is the possibility for technical errors; these are common things that can (and probably will) go wrong with your site, causing a hiccup in your rankings and interfering with your plans.

    If you notice your site isn’t ranking the way it should, or if something has dramatically changed without your notice (and no immediately clear underlying cause), your first troubleshooting step should be checking for the following technical errors:

    • Crawl errors. Crawl errors happen when Google attempts to crawl your site but is somehow unsuccessful. There are a variety of potential culprits here, but thankfully, Google makes it easy to figure out what’s happening. Within Google Search Console, you can run a “crawl error” report that plainly states what’s going on with your site and why. There are a handful of potential crawl errors that could happen here; for example, there could be a DNS error that doesn’t prevent bots from accessing your site, but could cause latency problems. In this case, you’ll need to repair any problems with your DNS server and make sure Google can access your site as intended. You may also have a server problem, which is probably the most complex problem you’ll face in technical SEO, since there could be so many root causes (and so many potential fixes). The potential solutions here extend beyond the scope of this guide, but usually involve diagnosing issues with your hosting provider. Fortunately, they should be few and far between. Robots.txt errors will also appear in this report.
    • 404 errors. In Google Search Console, you’ll also be able to scan for 404 errors. 404 errors won’t seriously negatively affect your search rankings, but may be an indication of a bigger problem, and could irritate your visitors. The biggest root cause of 404 errors is page deletion, but may also be a symptom of a hosting problem. You can correct 404 errors easily by restoring a page that was deleted, diagnosing any problems with your hosting provider, or creating a 301 redirect. 301 redirects take incoming traffic to a page and forward it to a different, more relevant page. Even if you aren’t an experienced programmer, you should be able to follow the basic step-by-step instructions necessary to set a redirect up.
    • Broken links. Broken or “dead” links come in several varieties. They might be internal or external, and they might be due to a typographical error in the site link, or due to a 404 error for the intended page. In any case, they no longer take users to a functional page. If these links exist on your own site, you can remove them or fix them by replacing them with a new destination URL. If they exist on an external site (ie, an external site links to a page on your site which returns a 404 error), you can set up a 301 redirect to a better, functional page, or reach out to the webmaster to ask that the link be updated. You can use Google’s internal links report to check for broken links on your own site, or a backlink search engine like Open Site Explorer to check for broken links on external sites.
    • Duplicate content. Duplicate content is an often misunderstood technical error. This isn’t necessarily an instance of intentionally duplicated or plagiarized content; instead, it’s usually due to a single page of content being indexed with multiple URLs, such as being indexed as both a https:// and https://www Google Search Console has a duplicate content report that can help you track down these instances. They won’t necessarily hurt your search rankings, but it’s better to clean these up to avoid misunderstandings by users or search bots. The way to do this is with a canonical tag, which is simple to implement. All you have to do is choose a primary or “canonical” page (flip a coin if you can’t decide), and add a canonical link from the non-canonical version to the canonical one. A canonical tag looks like this:

    <link rel=”canonical” href=”https://audiencebloom.com/examplepage/”>

    If you have an SEO plugin, you may be able to enter the canonical link manually, like you did with titles and meta descriptions. Alternatively, you could use 301 redirects to clarify duplicate content discrepancies, but it’s arguably easier to set up canonical tags.

    There are some other technical issues you may encounter, such as images not loading properly, but many of them are preventable if you follow best practices, and are easily resolvable with a quick Google search. Even if you don’t understand exactly what’s happening or why, following step-by-step instructions written by experts is a fast way for even amateurs to solve complex SEO problems.

    The Non-Technical Stuff

    In this section, I want to cover some of the “non-technical” tactics you’ll need to have a successful SEO campaign. None of these strategies requires much technical expertise, but it’s important to understand that the technical factors I listed above aren’t the only thing you’ll need to grow your rankings over time.

    Keep in mind that each of these categories is rich in depth, and requires months to years to fully master, and these entries are mere introductions to their respective topics.

    High-Quality Content

    Without high-quality content, your SEO campaign will fail. You need at least 300 words of highly descriptive, concisely written content on every page of your site, and you’ll want to update your on-site blog at least two or three times a week with dense, informative, practical content—preferably of 700 words or more. This content will give search engines more pages and more content to crawl and index.

    Collectively, they’ll add to the domain authority and individual page authorities of your site pages, and they’ll provide more opportunities for your site visitors to interact with your brand and your site. Here are some resources to help you create and publish high-quality content:

    Keyword Optimization

    All that on-site content also gives you the opportunity to optimize for specific target keywords. Initially, you’ll select a number of “head” keywords (usually limited in length, and highly competitive) and “long-tail” keywords (longer in length, usually representing a conversational phrase, and less competitive) to optimize for.

    When performing your keyword research, you’ll choose terms with high potential traffic and low competition, then you’ll include those terms throughout your site, especially favoring your page titles and descriptions. You’ll want to be careful not to over-optimize here, as including too many keywords on a given page (or your site in general) could trigger a content quality-related penalty from Google.

    Link Building

    Authority is partially calculated based on the quality and appearance of your site, but the bigger factor is the quantity and quality of links you have pointing to your site. Link building is a strategy that enables you to create more of these links, and therefore generate more authority for your brand.

    Old-school link building tactics are now considered spammy, so modern link builders use a combination of guest posting on external authority publishers and naturally attracting links by writing high-quality content and distributing it to attract shares and inbound links. In any case, you’ll need to invest in your link building tactics if you want your campaign to grow. For help, see SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide.

    Analysis and Reporting

    Finally, none of your tactics are going to be worthwhile unless you can measure and interpret the results they’re generating. At least monthly, you’ll want to run an analysis of your work, measuring things like inbound traffic, ranking for your target keywords, and of course, checking for any technical errors that have arisen.

    By interpreting these results and comparing them to the amount of money you’ve invested in your campaign, you’ll get a clear picture of your return on investment—your ROI—and can then make adjustments to improve your profitability. For help, see The Ultimate Guide to Measuring and Analyzing ROI On Your Content Marketing Campaign.

    Conclusion

    Hopefully, after reading this guide, all those technical SEO details should seem a lot less technical. If you’ve followed the guide step-by-step, you should have been able to tackle tasks like building robots.txt files and improving your site’s speed even if you don’t have experience in creating or managing websites.

    Even though this guide covers some of the most important fundamentals of SEO, and can help you through the basics of technical SEO, it’s important to realize that SEO is a deep and complex strategy with far more considerations than a guide like this can comprehensively cover. A good next step would be to check out 101 Ways to Improve Your Website’s SEO.

    If you’re interested in further help in your SEO campaign, be sure to contact us for more guidance and expertise!

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  2. How to Characterize a Software Product Through Branding

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    As a SaaS company, the heart of your business is your core software product, but unfortunately, until you grow to a much bigger size and reputation, your product isn’t going to sell itself. You can describe the logical benefits of your product, compare your price to your competitors, and demonstrate expert salesmanship when pitching it to new potential clients, but if it’s missing that “extra ingredient” to compel new users, even the best product on the market can fall flat.

    What is this extra ingredient? Branding. With it, an ordinary product can become extraordinary, and an extraordinary product can become unstoppable. But why is this branding element so important, and how can you characterize an inanimate, intangible product with it successfully?

    Why Is Branding Important for SaaS Companies?

    Branding is important for all companies for the following reasons:

    Recognition and customer acquisition.

    Branding allows your product (and company) to be recognized at a distance, much in the way that McDonald’s arches and the Nike swoosh have become simple symbols of much bigger, more complicated organizations. Over time, reiteration of these symbols and general atmospheres can lead to higher brand awareness, a better brand reputation, and therefore, a higher customer acquisition rate.

    Trust and loyalty.

    Consistent branding can also help you establish trust and loyalty in your existing population. When a user has a consistently positive experience, associated with some aspect of identity (such as a visual, or a tone of voice), he/she starts to associate the identity with the positive experience. It makes the decision to switch to a competitor that much harder, and encourages them to stay with your brand, specifically, for as long as possible.

    Foundation for advertising.

    Branding also gives you a solid direction on how to develop your advertising campaigns. It may give you a tone of voice, limits in terms of humor and sensationalism, visual cues, or a running theme you can exploit many times over. Not only does this make your advertising more effective; it also makes the conceptual process easier.

    Internal factors.

    Branding isn’t only for your customers. Creating a strong brand for your product, and your organization in general, can help you create a strong internal company culture as well. For example, let’s say you characterize your product as fun, energetic, and down-to-earth; in the right environment, you can nurture these characteristics in your employees, resulting in a more unified, productive, satisfied workforce. Google’s company culture is a perfect example.

    google company culture

    (Image Source: Google)

    But it’s even more important to SaaS companies because:

    Competition is fierce.

    Everyone realizes what a profitable and scalable model SaaS is, and as a result, the market’s been flooded with software products hoping for a piece of the action. Odds are, you have several competitors with few distinguishing factors between you. Branding can be your key distinguishing factor, edging out the competition immediately.

    Face-to-face interaction is nonexistent.

    Because most SaaS platforms are hosted online without a physical office, there’s almost no chance of face-to-face or personal interaction during the sales cycle. At the same time, personal connections are important to make strong sales and keep good customers. The solution? Use branding as a personal surrogate, demonstrating brand qualities the way you would a real personality.

    Short sales cycles.

    Your users are going to make a decision within a minute or two (for the most part). That’s not a lot of time to give your users a tour of your product or exhaustively list all the objective benefits of it. Instead, you have to give your potential customers a quick gut-level feeling that this is a good idea—and branding can help you do it.

    Retention is the gold standard.

    Finally, you have to know that SaaS companies aren’t won or lost in customer acquisition—it’s retention that separates the winners and losers. Branding can help you breed the familiarity, “personal” relationships, and commitment that keeps your customers subscribing to your service through thick and thin.

    The Trouble With Characterizing a Software Product

    Unfortunately, branding a product isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. You need something compelling, or else your brand won’t attract any new customers (or retain old ones), you need something that fits with your mission and vision as a company (or else it will be unstable), and you need something sustainable in the long-term (or else it won’t pay off). On top of those requirements, you’re working with something intangible and flexible, rather than a physical product.

    Throughout this guide, I’ll walk you through the main strategies you can use to develop a workable framework for your software brand, and implement it across your product, your site, your support network, your social media profiles, and of course, your advertising campaigns.

    Establishing Your Brand Standards

    Before your start applying your brand to the different areas of your SaaS business, you need to know what your brand standards are in the first place. I’ve written an extensively detailed guide, How to Build a Brand from Scratch, on the matter, so I’ll stay out of the weeds here, but I do want to highlight some of the most important components of a brand, and where those components are going to apply in your main strategies.

    Main Goals

    There are many goals for a brand to accomplish, but SaaS companies specifically need to zoom in on four of them:

    Differentiation.

    As noted above, one of the biggest challenges for SaaS companies in the current era is competition, so branding must serve as a differentiating factor. What is that factor? That’s up to you and your target audience. For example, compared to your competitors, could you be more professional in tone to appeal to more business people? Could you be more casual in tone to appeal to a younger audience? Do you want to be edgier? More traditional? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but when it’s all said and done, your brand should stand out from anything else on the market.

    Connection.

    Your brand needs to have a personal appeal to your target demographics. For this goal, it’s helpful to think of your brand as a kind of avatar for your company, representing it in a personal way so that your customers can form a personal attachment. Accordingly, your brand needs to embody characteristics that are approachable, familiar, or otherwise engaging to your target market (and you may need to do some research for this). As an example, take MailChimp’s literal “chimp” mascot, who makes everything seem friendlier, funnier, and more approachable.

    mailchimp

    (Image Source: MailChimp)

    (Side note: you don’t need a mascot to accomplish this)

    Immersion.

    The immersion factor is one unique to SaaS companies, since some brands have the luxury of limited customer interactions. Your customers, however, will be using your product for extended periods of time, and engaging with your brand in many different mediums, from your app itself, to your content, your website, your help pages, and even your social media accounts. If you want to be successful, you need to nurture an entire environment where people feel connected to your brand—not just one-time representations or one-sided interactions.

    Reinforcement.

    You need to use your brand to reinforce positive experiences with your product, and continually remind users why they signed up for your service in the first place. A good brand will have the potential to summarize all the visions and values of your company, and repeat itself throughout many channels, mediums and applications. The more places you are, the more you’ll be seen, and the more easily recognized you’ll be.

    Main Applications

    Now that you know what you need to accomplish, you need to know the main paths through which you can accomplish them. Creating a brand isn’t easy, but it helps if you can reduce your identity standards down to four main “groups” of characteristics.

    Logo and colors.

    Up first are the logo and colors of your brand, which are usually the first elements that people notice. There’s a reason for this; humans have strong visual senses, so we naturally lock onto and remember visual patterns. You’ll need to select a color scheme that fits your company’s tone, mood, and target audience (as well as your competitive landscape), and your logo should attempt to concisely represent who your company is and what it has to offer.

    Image and character.

    This set of characteristics is a bit more abstract, as it defines the “concept” of your brand more so than any tangible assets. For this, it’s often best to visualize your brand as a character, and imagine what that character might be like (as well as how it might be different from your competitors). Apple took this step literally in its now-landmark advertising campaign pitting Macs against PCs with actors representing each brand. You don’t have to go this far, but you do need to be able to describe the “type” of person your brand would be.

    image and character

    (Image Source: Business Insider)

    Voice.

    As another outlet for your brand’s communication, consider the tone and shape of your voice. I alluded to this a bit earlier, but you’ll need to consider a number of questions regarding how you write; how advanced is your vocabulary going to be? How casual can you be with your words, in terms of colloquialisms, abbreviations, and profanity? Will your sentences be short and concise or long and descriptive? These choices help shape your brand identity, and make a big impact on users whether they realize it or not.

    User experience.

    Finally, there are user experience factors, and this set of identity standards is unique to SaaS companies. Your users are going to be engaging with your software regularly, so how they interact with your software may help them form a stronger brand impression. For example, how does your app respond to their inputs? What feelings do your users get when they log in? We’ll explore some specific applications and examples of this later on.

    Be sure to formally document your strategy for each of these key areas, as this will serve as your identity guidelines moving forward. Keep this document handy as we move through the next few sections.

    The following sections will each touch on one area of application for your new brand standards, exploring how best to integrate the concept of your brand in a way your consumers will identify and relate to.

    The Product

    First, we need to take a look at the product itself, the reason you’re in business. You may already have a set framework or concept for your app, but the final layer of design and development should be heavily influenced by the type of brand you want to create.

    Overall design

    The type of basic design you offer can make a radical difference in how a user receives your app. Here, you need to think beyond what’s the most aesthetically pleasing (though that helps too) and think about what’s going to cement your brand’s identity in the minds of your users.

    These are just a handful of questions to get you started:

    • Do you want to look futuristic, or do you want a throwback look?
    • Do you want something fun and idiosyncratic, or something serious and precise?
    • Do you want something colorful and creative, or something more analytical and defined?
    • What colors should be prominent in your app, and what level of contrast do you want to achieve?

    There are no right or wrong answers to these choices; again, this all depends on who your target audience is and how you want to differentiate yourself. Whatever you choose, your choice should be apparent throughout the application, aiding the “immersive” experience that a successful brand-consumer relationship demands.

    Take Workday’s app as an example; it uses bright, palette colors throughout its app and precise, formal design choices to demonstrate an aura of professionalism while still being friendly and approachable.

    workday

    (Image Source: Workday)

    Functionality

    Of course, the design fun doesn’t stop at these basic design questions. You’ll also want to consider what types of functionality you want to include, and how those functions might signal different brand qualities to your users.

    For example, imagine you have a row of tabs on the main part of your app, and whenever you hover over one, it pops up, growing bigger and changing colors dynamically. Now imagine a wheel of options in the center of the page, and whenever you hover over one option, the others fade away. These produce two very distinct “feels,” the former being more fun and out-of-the-way, and the latter being more pragmatic and efficient.

    The type of functionality you present can be at a high level, such as deciding what features to offer your users or how to incorporate those features in a basic design, or at a more specific level, such as coming up with Easter eggs and quirks that your users can find by exploring your app.

    A “claim to fame”?

    If your software has a “claim to fame,” or some kind of functional distinction that separates it from other brands in your niche, you need to play this up throughout your product wherever you can. For example, let’s say your uniqueness rests on your app’s ability to perform functions faster than any other app on the market. In this case, you may want to include subtle reminders of this “speed” factor, such as tongue-in-cheek references on loading pages, or timers for specific functions.

    You don’t need to have one of these, but it can be helpful in securing your users’ loyalty. Brainstorm about the different advantages your company could offer, and settle on at least one that you can play up. This will also help you when you create advertising and social campaigns for your brand.

    Site and Support

    If you’re like most SaaS companies, you’ll have a website and a support/help center for your users in addition to wherever your software is hosted (website, mobile app, etc.). This is another great opportunity for you to show off what makes your brand special, appeal to curious new users, and of course, retain the users you’ve already collected.

    Layout and design

    Your first look should be at the layout and design of your website. For the most part, you can follow the same rules you followed in the design portion of your software development. Think about the way your colors and logo can integrate into your design, and question what types of functionality you want to offer your users. Obviously, you want your site to be intuitive and functional, but how are your choices affecting users’ perceptions of your brand identity?

    Copy and content

    Copy and content are both forms of writing for your audience, but the former is about quick-hitting headlines and opportunities for conversion, while the latter is about presenting information.

    In the former case, your web copy can do an awesome job of presenting exactly what kind of character your brand is. Carefully consider your tone, as every word here is going to count, and inject your headlines with bits of humor, or pride, or exclusivity, depending on your brand and goals. Zendesk has an excellent example with this headline, where they reveal their approachable vocabulary and throw in a vanilla punchline to get a quick laugh while avoiding rocking the boat:

    copy and content

    (Image Source: Zendesk)

    Your content marketing strategy is another powerful opportunity to demonstrate your brand, and it can manifest in a few different areas. First, you’ll want an ongoing content strategy to fuel your SEO campaign and attract new readers; this will likely reside in your blog. Second, you’ll want a comprehensive help and support section, full of interactive and searchable documents to help users when they (inevitably) encounter trouble with your software. In both cases, you’ll need to keep your content concise, and strictly adherent to the tone you’ve established for your brand. When users encounter this content, they’ll either be seeing your brand for the first time, or they’ll be in need of help—either way, they’re especially vulnerable, and your angle could make or break their impression of your brand.

    Examples and Easter eggs

    Throughout your help section especially, you’ll have the opportunity to include Easter eggs and subtle tidbits that your observant users will pick up on. They can be inside jokes, subtle references, or unique pockets of functionality that aren’t otherwise visible.

    For example, take MailChimp’s sample template referencing “adorable kittens” as an amusing alternative to something like lorem ipsum text. It falls in line with the amusing and friendly nature of the brand:

    mailchimp template design

    (Image Source: MailChimp)

    Personal exchanges

    Finally, whether it’s in a live chat, on a forum, or in some other method of exchange, you’ll probably be communicating with customers directly to resolve issues. When you do this, make sure your customer service representatives are using a voice and approach that falls in line with your brand standards. This will add a layer of comfort and familiarity to the experience, and if consistent enough, will lead to higher feelings of brand trust and loyalty. From there, your customer retention rates will skyrocket.

    Social Media and Advertising

    I’ve lumped the two of these applications together because, while independent, they are related. Both involve communicating directly with an audience outside the scope of your software product itself (or your website, in most cases). Ultimately, your brand standards should govern your approach to each.

    Personality and content

    Social media gives you the chance to truly show off your personality, and you better take advantage of it. Social media is where your users are going to turn when they want to contact you directly, the “you” in this case being your brand. Remember my example earlier, where I alluded to the fact that your brand should be a stand-in for a real person? The concept applies here too. Whenever you make a post, or respond to a user, or do anything on social media, you need to do so in a “voice” that matches your brand standards. This is going to be tough, especially since you’ll probably have multiple people working on one account, and you’ll often be posting as a reactionary measure, rather than a premeditated one. However, with solid and consistent brand standards, you can keep this atmosphere consistent and enhance the approachability and familiarity of your brand.

    Multiple social arms

    It’s also a good idea, if your audience is large enough, to segment your social media presence into different designated arms, such as one for customer support and one for regular updates. SalesForce takes this to another level, with no fewer than six separate Twitter accounts to follow, depending on your goals.

    salesforce twitter accounts

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    This will help you maintain consistency and delegate responsibilities for different engagements while keeping your overall brand consistent. You’ll also need to apply your brand standards to multiple social profiles at once, simultaneously following best practices for each app.

    Community building

    The more your brand is mentioned, the more popular and visible it’s going to become; when you develop a powerful enough community, you can ease off the gas and let your community start doing the promotional work for you. At higher levels of development, some SaaS companies start earning more customers simply because they have so many existing customers talking about them and working with them on a regular basis.

    You can encourage the development of a community in your own social spheres (and on your site) by creating a forum, engaging with your customers regularly, rewarding customers for engaging with others, and encouraging more brand engagements with contests, questions, and requests for user-submitted content.

    Brand as a foundation

    There are tons of advertising options beyond content marketing and social media; PPC advertising, banner ads, and even traditional forms of advertising like TV and radio are just a handful of examples. Your brand needs to serve as a foundation for all of these if you want to maximize your potential; if you’re consistent, this will greatly increase user familiarity with your brand, and keep your company top-of-mind with those already engaging with it. Before you develop the concept for a new ad campaign, ask yourself, does this fit in with my company’s image? Is the tone right? Are the company’s colors and logos visible? Does this accurately represent the type of experience a user might have with the app? You need to answer “yes” to all these questions before proceeding.

    Parting Thoughts

    Consistency.

    I’ve covered a lot of information in this guide, and most of it has focused on creating your brand standards and where you can apply those standards to fully characterize your brand. This will help you conceptualize a brand, and it gives you a good visual map for how your brand needs to develop, but there are a handful of further considerations I want to leave you with as you begin your SaaS brand journey.

    Branding is one of the most powerful and important marketing strategies you’ll use, in part because it affects all your other strategies, but it’s only going to be effective if you’re consistent with it. You can’t apply your brand to just your product, or just your social media campaign, and hope to reap the full benefits of the integration, nor can you change your brand standards a few months into the game. You can tweak your brand, gradually over time, but you have to give users that consistent look, feel, and comfort, or you’ll never be able to build the recognition or retention you need.

    Invisible values.

    It’s hard to directly measure the results of your branding efforts; you can’t calculate a brand ROI the way you can with just a social media marketing or just an SEO strategy. Branding’s most impressive values are actually somewhat invisible, unless you try to measure them with qualitative user surveys; for example, how can you measure the average person’s “awareness” of your brand? How can you measure a person’s disposition toward staying with your brand (especially when compared to a hypothetical scenario in which you have a different brand entirely)? You’ll have to rely on indirect indicators here.

    Company culture.

    I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating. If you want to reap the full value of a comprehensive SaaS brand, you can’t think of it as only existing for your customers. Your brand’s character and style should permeate your entire organization, giving your employees a standard to aspire to and giving them a foundation for how to interact with customers and vendors. It’s going to leave you with a more powerful, more cohesive organization—even if you don’t notice it right away.

    When characterized with a carefully considered and thoroughly described brand, your software will do a better job of standing out, pleasing your customers, and ultimately making you more money. Don’t take this strategy lightly.

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  3. 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.

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  4. How to Build a Brand From Scratch

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    You know what a brand is, so I’m not going to bore you with a standard definition. You might already have a brand, but are unhappy with it, you might be starting a company without a brand, or you might have a brand but simply know nothing about it.

    In any of these scenarios, your brand requires attention. It’s one of the most important elements of your business since it permeates not only your corporate identity, but also every sales and marketing campaign you ever launch. If you’ve got a brand already, you can work on it by trying to understand its function (and maybe upgrade it to a more modern aesthetic), but otherwise, you have one, admittedly daunting option: building a brand from scratch.

    This guide will walk you through this complex, yet stimulating process, helping you to find the perfect set of brand characteristics for your organization—and challenging you along the way.

    Why is a brand important?

    Before I dig into the details, let’s establish why it is a brand is important in the first place.

    Take a look at these options.

    importance of branding

    (Image Source: The Benjamin)

    Which one do you think tastes best? Second best? Unless you’re deliberately manipulating your answer, the stronger brands with the higher prices look as though they taste better. Yet, according to blind taste tests, there’s no inherent advantage one brand has over the other (for the record, Pepsi won consistently during the Pepsi challenge—but biases in the type of test used have been called into question).

    The point is, a noteworthy brand will immediately seem like a better product, service, or business than one that is unknown, or objectively weaker. Strong, consistent brands have immediately better appeal, tend to encourage more customer loyalty, and end up performing better than their counterparts. If you can develop your brand enough, it will come to speak for itself in terms of quality—the way powerhouse brands like Coca-Cola, Apple, and Amazon have today.

    So how can you build a “strong” brand on your own? That’s the purpose of this guide.

    Simple tips to establish the right mentality

    First, you need to set yourself in the right frame of mind. Building a brand isn’t a simple, easy, one-step process like choosing a gas station to refuel at. It requires an investment of time, effort, and in many cases, money. If you start with the right mentality, you’ll be prepared for all the challenges to come your way:

    • Don’t skimp. This is one of the biggest investments you’ll make for your company. You wouldn’t buy a house that was falling apart just because it was cheap, nor would you spend $100 for a car that probably wouldn’t get you anywhere. Branding is not the place for frugality, either financially or in terms of effort. Be prepared to give it your all.
    • Think it through. If you jump and run with the first idea that pops into your mind, you’ve done yourself a disservice. First drafts are always terrible, so take your time, sort through multiple ideas, and only walk away with what sticks.
    • Be ready for your brand to be everywhere. Brands aren’t just something you slap on the front door and push into the corner of your website; by necessity, they are present everywhere. They’re in your ads, in your social profiles, and even in your company’s office. Your brand will define you.
    • Get everyone on the same page. Because your brand is present everywhere, it’s important that every member of your team understands and accepts the rules of your brand. Any break in consistency could compromise its overall effectiveness.
    • Don’t separate yourself too much. As a founder or company owner, try not to make your brand too much of a separate entity—throw your own thoughts, values, opinions, and personality into the mix. It will make your brand seem more personal, which as you’ll see, is always a good thing.
    • Don’t be afraid to get help. Branding is a serious, intensive endeavor, and not all entrepreneurs or marketers are capable of doing it alone. If you find your own experience and capabilities are limited, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

    Now that you’re mentally prepared for the challenge, it’s time to start building a brand.

    Ingredients of a Successful Brand

    A brand is more than just a logo; it’s an entire character in its own right. It’s an attempt to personify everything your company is and hopes to be, which as you can imagine, is a monumental challenge. There are three main outlets for your brand to exhibit itself.

    Logo and colors

    When most people think of a brand, they think of its logo and colors—two defining signatures that, when present, can color the impression of an entire ad or sponsorship. Think about the subtle power of the Nike swoosh on a headband, or the ubiquitous and familiar FedEx logo on trucks and packages. It’s more than just a name or an iconography—it’s a symbol of an idea.

    Ideally, your logo and colors will stick with you through the ages. Even as your brand requires updating, your customers will still be able to recognize the core. Take Shell, for instance, which has updated its logo many times without ever alienating the original concept:

    Shell Logo Branding

    (Image Source: Logo My Way)

    It’s hard to communicate a personality through a shape and color scheme, but that’s what the other elements are for. The logo, colors, and even the tagline merely serve as quick identifiers for people to pick up on.

    Image and character

    Your logo and colors are all about making a fast impression, whereas your image and character require some investment—they need to be built over time. There are many potential applications and signatures here; for example, your company’s mission and vision statements can speak volumes about who your company is and what it does. Your choice of social media platforms, advertising, and the type of building you occupy can also tell consumers (and employees) what type of company you are.

    These are intangible, hard-to-define qualities, which makes them a challenge to pin down. But take a look at this Doritos ad:

    Doritos Ad

    (Image Source: Deseret News)

    The lunacy in this ad, independent from the logo’s presence and the tone of voice (which I’ll touch on next), is something you wouldn’t find in an ad for Wells Fargo or Rolex. It’s a brand of a different character altogether.

    Voice

    Finally, there’s the voice you use—and that voice isn’t limited to written messages. Your brand’s voice should flow in every piece of content you produce, from your blog posts, infographics, and videos, to internal memos, to social media channels. Take Taco Bell’s casual, down-to-earth, surrealist voice as an example:

    Taco Bell Tweet

    Can you imagine if Taco Bell wrote something like, “Tacos are an inexpensive way to satisfy your hunger. Ours are prepared fresh. Learn more: (link)”? It doesn’t seem to fit.

    Setting the Foundation

    Now that you have an idea about what your brand should cumulatively entail, it’s time to start building the foundation for your work. We’re not going to build your brand all at once; this is just the infrastructural work that we’ll need for modifications down the line.

    Research the competition

    Your competitors are going to be a rich source of information for you as you develop your own brand. You’ll learn what to do, what not to do, and how to distinguish yourself from the crowd—and with these tenets, you can start constructing the pillars of your brand.

    • Find the industry standards. Certain industries have cross-company brand standards that don’t generally apply to others. For example, most educational brands have an air of professionalism and conservatism, while most kids’ breakfast cereal brands are cartoonish and playful. Figure out what all your competitors have in common, from a general perspective, and consider adopting similar qualities for your brand (we’ll work on differentiation later). All in all, brands within an industry aren’t that far apart from one another:

    Car Brands

    (Image Source: Strategy Business)

    • See what does and doesn’t work. Even if you’re not a branding expert, you should be able to find out some things that do and don’t work for other brands in your industry. Do people react negatively or positively to certain elements?
    • Learn what you do and don’t like. Once your brand is built, you’ll be stuck with it for a long time. Don’t waste effort building something you don’t like from the outset. What would you, personally, like to see in a brand? Make a list, and don’t be afraid to let these qualities influence your decisions down the road.
    • Analyze the degree of difficulty. The level of competition will help you decide what route to take when it comes to brand development. For example, if you’re in a relatively new industry with few challengers, you can build almost anything you want. If you’re in an industry with a handful of massive corporations at the top, you’ll need to be risky by defying old standards and making yourself stand out.

    Find your unique value

    Speaking of standing out, your brand must if it wants to survive. There must be at least one factor, preferably more, that no other brand in your industry possesses to make yours seem unique in the crowd. To find this quality, you must look at what your brand offers; what unique value can you give your customers? Is it your excellent customer service? Is it your friendly atmosphere? Is it your underdog status? Is it your novel approach?

    Try to pin down as many qualities as possible, and integrate those into your preliminary brand identity. For example, if one of your key differentiators is your game-changing app, emphasize your break from the mainstream with an edgier brand personality. If you’re trying to emphasize value, make your brand more logical and calculating.

    Identify your target demographics

    It’s not enough to identify your competitors and how you stand out in the crowd. After all, there’s only one thing that matters when it comes to the effectiveness of a brand: how your customers accept it. Accordingly, before you go any further in your brand development, you need to ask yourself some serious questions about your target demographics.

    • Who is buying your products? Hopefully, if you’re building a business, you already know the answer to this question. Think about them in terms of their critical identifiers—the qualities that your buyers have, but your non-buyers do not have. For example, are they educated? Are they a specific age or gender? Do they live in one specific geographic location? Make a list of these traits, and keep them in mind when you ask the following questions.
    • What do they need? What does your target demographic need to feel comfortable? A young man, for example, might feel pressured to have the approval of similar young men before making a decision—demanding a “cool” or approachable brand. An older professional, on the other hand, would value and trust a company with a strong history and a sense of tradition.
    • What do they like? This may seem like just a softer variant of the preceding question, but there’s much less at stake here. What would be appealing to this person? For example, a farmer in Iowa would probably appreciate a simpler personality than an urban yuppie, who might crave something sleek, modern, and elegant.
    • What makes them loyal? This may be the most important question of all. What factors will influence a person to stay loyal to your brand once they’ve become a customer? For VISA, as an example, it’s the consistent reassurance that their credit cards are accepted everywhere:

    Visa Credit Card Ad

    (Image Source: Adweek)

    Characterization and Refinement

    Okay. At this point you have a tenuous grasp on what your brand is, at least at the center of its identity. If it helps you, make a list of all the qualities you wish your brand to have and keep them as a point of reference for this section. Here, I’ll introduce you to a number of different strategies and exercises you can use to take those qualities and flesh them out into something more comprehensive and substantial.

    Your brand as a character

    When you look at your list of key brand qualities, it may look a little bit jumbled. You may see lots of words on the page, but no clear identity shining through. This exercise will help you create a more approachable identity for your brand, one that transcends the words you’ve written on the page, and may help you find new qualities to introduce or manage.

    Instead of thinking of your brand in the colorless term of a “corporate identity,” instead, think of your brand as a human being—a fictional character. What would this person be like in real life? How would they talk? What would they look like? How would they dress, walk, and act in different situations? Can you see this person making a good impression with your target demographics? Why or why not? Make adjustments accordingly, and sculpt your character as you would for a character in film or literature.

    Some brands have actually attempted to do this literally. Remember Apple’s “Mac vs. PC” ads?

    Mac vs PC Ad

    (Image Source: Business Insider)

    They’ve done the work of characterizing Apple as the hip, young, easygoing man while contrasting it against his stuffy, mediocre counterpart. It says a lot about the brand as a whole, and you can almost see these characters’ identities emanating in their different brand environments.

    The grab bag

    You’ve currently listed a number of qualities you want your brand to have, but how many adjectives have you used? Come up with a giant list of adjectives—and you may need help for this—that may or may not describe your brand. Randomize them, and start evaluating them one by one. Ask yourself: does this describe your brand? Why or why not? This will lead you to new and different perspectives on what your brand truly is. You may even find some new words that describe qualities you’d like your brand to have that you hadn’t thought of before.

    What your brand isn’t

    Sometimes, it’s even easier to define what your brand is by defining exactly what your brand isn’t. Take the time to generate a list of qualities that are the antithesis of your brand, and play them out in hypothetical scenarios. These scenarios will serve as a counterpoint to whatever strategies and qualities you do come up with. For example, if you want to be a brand that’s youthful, playful, and down-to-earth, come up with some ad taglines that are the opposite of your intention, such as ones that speak to an older generation, or put on airs. Then, come up with an appropriate version of the message that fits in line with your target brand characteristics. Seeing them side-by-side will help you illuminate and pinpoint the key areas of differentiation.

    Applying your brand to different areas

    When you put your brand in place, you’re going to be featuring it everywhere, so try experimenting with your brand in different areas. What kind of advertising would your brand produce? What kind of voice would it have for a blog post or an ongoing content marketing campaign? How can you structure your customer service emails differently, or change the way your sales team approaches new deals? Run isolated test scenarios as a kind of sandbox for your working brand platform. If you run into an ambiguity, or don’t know how your brand can change or influence something, it means you’ve overlooked a key element of your brand and you may need to return to a former planning stage.

    Experimentation and revision

    You aren’t going to get it perfect the first time. Or the second time. You can’t think of everything during the brainstorming and initial outline phase. The only way to uncover every possibility is to put your brand in place, and make adjustments as you come to encounter new challenges and situations. Don’t be afraid to make mild adjustments to your brand along the way, as long as you aren’t compromising the main pillars that you’ve already established.

    Putting It Into Practice

    It’s up to you how you want to finalize your brand. Most companies opt for some kind of “brand manual” or guidebook that explains everything there is to know about your brand, including color requirements, taglines, characteristics, and specific applications. If you’re working with an external marketing firm, they’ll almost certainly supply you with such a tangible handbook. The key is to come up with something tangible and accessible among your entire staff that recaps everything you’ve established thus far in a formal and concrete way.

    Make an announcement—or don’t

    If you’re releasing a new brand for your company, it may be beneficial to make a formal announcement on social media and through press releases. The extra attention will give you an initial boost in visibility, and will help to “finalize” the change, especially if you have current clients. This can be as grandiose or as innocuous as you wish it to be, and you certainly don’t have to make a formal announcement (especially if you’re a new company that has never released a brand to begin with). Judge the advantages and disadvantages for yourself.

    Practice, practice, practice

    Much like any other marketing strategy, you probably aren’t going to be good at it without some kind of experience. The first few times you go to write up a press release, or respond to a customer via email, you may find yourself struggling to frame it in a way that’s consistent with your brand. Don’t worry—this happens to even the most seasoned brand experts, and it’s a natural part of the process. As you get to know your brand better, just like you would a person, you’ll more easily access and understand the characteristics you need to harness—and of course, how to actually harness them.

    If you’re concerned about how you’re implementing the brand, spend some time practicing your brand standards on your own. Write out a handful of simple sentences such as “I want to eat ice cream” or “my dog is running fast and I can’t keep up,” then try to rewrite those sentences with a flair and intonation that matches the brand you’ve imagined.

    Use a cheat sheet

    You may already have a handbook or formal set of guidelines, but consider going a step further and creating simpler “cheat sheets” for you and your staff. These cheat sheets should consist of a single page, and include some of the most important highlights about how to use your brand. These may include examples, illustrations, or questions to ask before sending a message like, “does the message convey a sense of friendliness?” or “is there a way to make your message more formal?” This will help your staff keep things straight until they’ve all had the chance to develop an intuitive grasp of your brand.

    Internal branding

    Don’t forget there’s also an internal element to your branding efforts. The qualities you’ve created for your brand shouldn’t just permeate all the outbound messages and ads you’re sending; they should dictate the type of environment you’ve created for your partners, workers, and clients. For example, if you want to be an energetic, hip brand, your office should be energetic and hip. If you want to be classy and worthy of respect, your office should be sleek, and your dress code should be stringent.

    Look at any major brand, and you’ll be able to see elements of their brand personality in their corporate headquarters. Just take a look at Google as an example:

    Internal Branding at Google

    (Image Source: TIME)

    Afterword

    Congratulations! You’ve officially created a brand, entirely from scratch, and you’ve put it into complete practice in your organization. Now for the hard part: keeping it consistent! Consistency is one of the most vital parts of your branding strategy—even the best brand will fall apart if you aren’t consistent in applying it.

    However, don’t ever feel like your brand is totally locked in. Over the years, you may find yourself offering different services, targeting different demographics, or maybe even falling behind in terms of technology and competition. In these cases, it’s more than permissible—it’s necessary—to update your brand. The key is to keep your brand consistent enough to avoid alienating any of your previous followers, while making enough changes to present a new identity. It’s not easy, and it’s not that simple, so I may cover it in a future post. Until then, stick with the brand you have, and embrace it for what it is—a singular encapsulation of your organization.

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  5. 5 Ways to Build Links for a Brand New Startup

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    So you’ve started a service or app, your product is ready, and you need new users. Now what?

    One of the best ways of getting new users is good old SEO; drive users to your site organically through Google.

    If done properly you can get tons of new users to your website with a small marketing budget. The basic equation to SEO is simple: find useful keywords to target + ensure your website is optimized + build links.

    In this article I won’t be going over the first two parts of the equation, here are some SEO tutorials to get you going.

    The section of SEO that new comers find daunting is link building. It can be tough to build high quality, white hat links to a new website. Also building links to a startup can be very different than to an ecommerce website.

    Lucky for you, I’m here to help!

    I’m going to walk you through five link building strategies that will get your startup ranking in no time. To demonstrate clear examples let’s pretend we have a SAAS company that sells an appointment booking calendar app… named Calendar Pro.

    1. Run a PR Campaign

    Good old PR is still one of the best ways to build links to a website. You can get links from massive publications with a little bit of work. Coverage on these publications can also drive lots of new users to your website regardless of links.

    The most important part of any public relations campaigns is that you have something to talk about. When reaching out to reporters make sure you tell them why your company is different and why what you’re doing is special. What does your app do different? What service are you providing that nobody else is?

    Another important aspect is picking the right reporter and getting their personal email. In most cases, pitching to a general support email will go unnoticed. Make sure they’ve covered a similar topic before and what you’re saying interests them. For example, Samantha Kelly at Mashable has written an article about the Google Calendar app.

    author on mashable

    She’s a perfect person to pitch to! Now you need her personal email. Go to Find Any Email, toss in her First Name, Last Name and Email and get it.

    start your search

    Once you have her email shoot her an email saying:

    • You saw that she covered a similar article
    • You have a new startup that she may be interested in
    • Demonstrate why it’s different from the others

    That’s it!

    Now that you know the basic process who do you pitch to? There should be two levels to your public relations campaign for link building:

    Local

    Find relevant local publications that may be interested in covering your story. Local newspapers and blogs love covering things going on in their home town. For example, if Calendar Pro was based in Toronto I might send emails to the Globe and Mail, BlogTO, and CBC.

    Category Specific

    No matter what your startup does, there are most likely a number of blogs which write about it. In my mind, Calendar Pro falls in to two main categories: SAAS and business organization. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of website which cover these topics. Think Tech.co, Entrepreneur, and Forbes.

    BONUS: You can also use HARO (Help a Reporter Out) to get some sweet links for little work. See Quick Sprout’s guide for a thorough walkthrough.

    2. Sign up for Startup Lister

    Startup Lister is a service which submits your startup to over 70+ directories for a single price of $89. I know, I know people worry about building links from directories but these are high quality listings that will benefit your website.

    startup lister

    Personally, aside from links, I’ve seen these listings drive a number of sign ups to new startups.

    I believe this is a no brainer for startups that will give your website a little kick in the butt and get you going. The websites they send to include: Venture Beat, G2Crowd, The Verge and Forbes Technology.

    They also have higher priced packages where they will do the PR outreach for you to relevant industry blogs. While this isn’t a complete replacement for doing PR yourself… If you’re funded and have some cash to spare it may be well worth it.

    **I am not affiliated with Startup Lister at all. Just a happy customer.

    3. Competitive Link Building

    The premise of competitive link building is pretty simple: get a list of your competitors, find their backlinks and try and replicate them. Calendar Pro would have a number of competitors, but for this example we’ll use Calendly.

    To find a website’s links you’ll have to get a subscription to either Ahrefs or Majestic. These programs will give you a list of any website’s backlinks. Ahrefs has a free trial you can use, but I’ll be using Majestic here as they work very similarly.

    majestic

    Enter your competitor’s domain and press “backlinks”.

    Then find relevant resource pages or articles where you can ask for a link.

    relevant pages

    For example, this article from Business2Community is about tools that help with B2B sales management. You can email the author and ask that you be included.

    Or this list of scheduling apps on Zapier: https://zapier.com/blog/best-meeting-scheduler-apps/ is another perfect opportunity.

    You can replicate this across all of your competitors to get a massive list of link opportunities.

    4. Reclaim Brand Mentions

    This link building tactic is more passive than the rest, but important nonetheless. It helps you pick up mentions of your startup across the web that may not have linked to the website. Those are golden opportunities for links!

    There are a few platforms which let you track your mentions with the biggest ones being Mention and Google Alerts.

    The premise is simple… They’ll send you a notification if your startup is mentioned (ex. Calendar Pro). If there’s no link, simply email the website or author and ask them to add your link. If you tell them you’re starting out and it’ll greatly benefit your business, chances are they’ll add it.

    And there’s more! You can also add in your competitors to track them online as well. Similar to the competitive link building method, you can chime in and possibly get your link added as well.

    5. Create a Free Tool

    For this tactic you can either create a new tool from scratch or offer a freemium version of your software. If you’re a startup company, chances are you have developers who can create a small tool with ease.

    A free tool is considered a “linkable asset” and gives you a good reason to reach out to blogs.

    For Calendar Pro, an example would be to develop a free program where people can input their phone numbers to get text alerts before a meeting. A simple page with meeting time, number of alerts and phone number.

    When the tool is developed you can do another small PR campaign and reach out to relevant sources who would be interested. You can also search for “Free calendar tools” on Google to find website who may be interested in linking to the tool.

    People are more likely to link to a free product than paid. Also, the tool will get shared organically if it’s useful!

    Conclusion

    Organic traffic is essentially free and can be generated with a very small marketing budget, which is perfect for new companies. Even a beginner to SEO can follow these techniques. Start your PR campaign, delve in to your competitors backlinks, or build a free tool and see your search rankings soar for your startup.

    Want more information on link building? Head over to our comprehensive guide on link building here: SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

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  6. What People Look for in SaaS: Data and Exercises to Help You Perfect Your SaaS Brand

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    SaaS (Software as a Service) providers are a unique business niche; no matter what function your product serves, or what your target audience is, certain characteristics of your infrastructure are a given:

    • Your core product is a piece of software that either makes a task easier or provides new information.
    • You make money through a monthly/yearly subscription.
    • Your software is centrally hosted, accessible via the cloud.
    • Your software features multitenancy, and you have a high potential to scale.

    Beyond that, SaaS providers cover tons of different areas—accounting, marketing, customer management, project coordination, and antivirus programs are just a handful of examples. Still, most SaaS face similar challenges when it comes to branding and identity (which I’ll cover a bit later in my “Key Challenges” section). Overcoming these obstacles is necessary if you want to successfully market your SaaS business, as branding is at the core of any marketing campaign. Think about it—how could you possibly communicate to your customers effectively, if you don’t know what makes your company unique?

    This feature is designed to guide you through the most important components of SaaS brand identity, identify the key challenges you face over your development, lend you exercises with which to hone your brand, and introduce some key areas for practical application. Regardless of whether you’re building a brand from scratch or redefining yours in an effort to reconnect with your customers, I hope this guide will serve you well.

    Core Components of Brand Identity

    First, I want to explore each of the “core components” of brand identity, and how SaaS providers can maximize the value of their approach in each area. In each section, I’ll introduce the nature of the component, provide some examples of SaaS companies who have succeeded in those areas, and note key considerations you’ll have to bear in mind when determining that key area for your business.

    Keep in mind that one of the most important factors for brand success is differentiation; you shouldn’t copy the brand strategy of any existing SaaS company, nor should you rigorously adhere to my “rules for success.” Instead, use these as inspiration and rough guidelines, respectively, to fuel your own creative process.

    Mission

    First up is your company’s mission. This is often characterized as a “mission statement,” but it’s not imperative that you be that formal or concise. In fact, you can have a lengthy, multifaceted mission—as long as it’s relevant to your audience.

    What is a mission, exactly? It’s what your company intends to accomplish in the SaaS world. Don’t think of it as what you see yourself being in a few years—that’s going to come later as the “vision” component of your brand—this of it as the present. Who are you, right now? What are you striving for?

    The simple answer to this is “we help our customers _____,” and this isn’t a wrong or bad approach, but it’s one that almost every SaaS company latches onto. If you want to be successful, you have to differentiate yourself. People gravitate toward SaaS companies that offer something unique.

    Take a look at how Concur demonstrates its mission—it isn’t in a formalized “mission statement” on an About page—it makes itself evident in a company description:

    concur

    (Image Source: Concur)

    What key traits do you take away here? Saving money is important, as is improving productivity, but Concur also pushes their high level of flexibility. Their mission is one of adaptation and all-around service. Imagine the difference: what if this page only talked about how Concur saves you money? Chances are you’d be far less compelled to learn more about the company or the product.

    SaaS companies are all about making customers’ lives easier, so your mission statement should reflect that—just not in an ambiguous way. This is your chance to prove what you’re all about.

    Vision

    Many people confuse a company’s mission and vision—and on the surface, they sound the same. However, a mission refers to a company’s current disposition and structure, where a vision refers to a company’s view of the future. This is an opportunity not only to show users how you operate and what your goals are, but also what they can expect from you in the future.

    Because SaaS companies offer subscription rates, usually over the course of the long-term, people want to find a provider they can stick with for many years. Because SaaS relies on technology, people want a provider that’s willing to adapt and innovate over those years. Accordingly, your vision statement needs to include some degree of accelerated growth, innovation, or futurism.

    Take a look at what SalesForce does here:

    salesforce

    (Image Source: SalesForce)

    This is kind of a retroactive vision statement, but it’s a great example of conciseness: “reinventing CRM in the cloud.” Imagine the difference: what if, instead of revolutionizing their niche, SalesForce’s vision was something vanilla like “making CRM easier well into the future.” It’s certainly not as exciting, is it?

    Again, don’t just carbon-copy this by making your brand’s vision “reinventing ____” or “improving ____.” Dig deep and find out where you really want to be in five years, and communicate that in the most concise way you can.

    Values

    Your company values tell customers what your company really cares about, and they can range from customer service values to real-world social responsibility values.

    What do people want to see in a SaaS provider? Anything in line with the service’s function that doesn’t boil down to raw profitability. For example, if your values only center on making money and keeping your product in good working order, people won’t exactly line up to start subscribing. Instead, find a selection of values, perspectives, and opinions that characterize your brand, and put them to good use in practical applications.

    Take a look at the following examples from AthenaHealth:

    athena-health

    athena-health-website

    (Image Source: AthenaHealth)

    AthenaHealth’s home page makes their values clear: improving the healthcare industry. The cycling banner with the tagline “let doctors be doctors” is a clue that the service wants to give doctors a better chance to utilize their all-important skillsets. The company backs that up on another page, demonstrating their participation in the AthenaGives project, where they volunteer and make charitable donations to improve healthcare support in local communities. Imagine the difference: you could easily imagine a company like AthenaHealth positioning themselves to save doctors money, or make healthcare more profitable, but think of the bad impression that might leave users with.

    You don’t have to donate to charity to exhibit strong values, but you do have to show that your company truly cares about people, one way or another. You’re asking people to engage with a digital brand for digital goods, so a humanization element is vital if you want to build trust.

    Unique Value Proposition

    There are hundreds of SaaS companies out there, many of which overlap in terms of service provision. What makes yours special? What makes yours worth the money? The combination of your answers should lead you to your “unique value proposition.”

    In the SaaS sphere, this is incredibly important. People don’t need SaaS technology like they need food or water, and they can easily shop around to find and analyze your competitors. If you want people to gravitate toward your brand, you need to strongly display the factors that make you worth the money and unlike anyone else on the market.

    This can be tough, but take a look at ServiceNow as an example:

    service-now

    (Image Source: ServiceNow)

    This page continues to scroll. Rather than trying to give you a bulleted list of advantages, ServiceNow offers a blend of customer reviews, testimonials, statistics, and case studies to demonstrate why its platform is uniquely valuable. Here, this boils down to a high ROI and service with a personal touch—somewhat general value propositions, but very effectively demonstrated. Imagine the difference: what if, instead of this page, ServiceNow simply had a list of software features with a price tag at the end?

    Specificity is your best friend here. Don’t just say “we offer a high ROI,” give a percentage figure. Don’t say “we have great customer service,” display a quote from a real customer who could agree with this statement.

    Personality

    SaaS is, by nature, an alienating, digital business. For the most part, you buy it, use it, learn it, and get help with it exclusively online without any help from an individual. People crave a human, personal experience, so the only way to bridge this gap is to inject your brand with more personality.

    What that personality is depends on your angle, your niche, and of course, your key demographics; a young startup entrepreneur won’t respond to the same personality traits that a middle-aged business owner might.

    Of course, how you position yourself is entirely up to you. You might go for a more experienced, professional, classy voice, or a more casual, energetic, humorous voice. Whatever you choose, keep it consistent across all your pages and channels.

    Slack provides a great example of a company with a light, humorous, casual tone:

    slack-blog

    (Image Source: Slack)

    We’ll also touch on Slack’s strategy as it relates to social media a little later on. Imagine the difference: if Slack adopted a more corporate, formal tone, how would you imagine that to affect its customer relationships?

    Pick a personality that suits your mission and key demographics, and don’t be afraid to throw elements of your own personality into the mix. To be effective, it needs to be sincere.

    Visuals

    Finally, we get to visuals, which most people think of first when they think of a “brand.” Your visual elements should include far more than just your logo and your company’s color scheme, though those are also important elements to decide. For example, bright, vibrant colors could showcase a fun, energetic brand, while blacks, whites, and precision fonts could showcase a sleek, all-business brand; there’s a lot of wiggle room here.

    There’s one major consideration to bear in mind for the SaaS industry, however; your product will live or die by its user experience, and customers know this. The visual layout of your software itself needs to be seamless, user friendly, and in line with the rest of your brand. Furthermore, your layout should be shown off every chance you get.

    Take a look at how WorkDay shows off its software on the homepage:

    workday

    (Image Source: workday)

    Imagine the difference: what if WorkDay didn’t display any visual features of its software except on the Demo page. You’d feel a little lost, right? Also imagine what the brand experience would be like if it were less colorful, on a black background, with a more formalized font—not necessarily bad, but certainly different. Carefully consider how your visuals communicate your brand’s nature.

    Key Challenges

    Now that I’ve addressed all the individual elements that should make up a SaaS brand, I want to move on to some of the biggest challenges SaaS brands face during development. You can either address these head-on, one by one, or simply keep them in mind as you develop your brand across different areas, but either way, you can’t afford to neglect them.

    • Subscription services are long-term investments. Your customers need to know that they can trust you. How can you demonstrate and build this trust within your brand standards? For example, should you let your customers do the talking for you in a distant, yet logical appeal? Should you mention your past, current, and future goals in your vision? Should you aim for a super-friendly, casual voice to make your business more approachable? There’s no one right answer, but trust is imperative.
    • It bears repeating; don’t just copy another SaaS company’s brand. If your company looks like another that already exists, customers are going to go with the one they heard of first. You have to differentiate yourself in a meaningful way. Does that mean creating compelling new visuals? Offering a bolder mission statement? Doing more to serve the community? The angle is up to you.
    • Return on Investment (ROI). Most SaaS companies are B2B, meaning your customers will be making most of their decisions based on a financial bottom line. How is your service going to save them money (or time)? You need to demonstrate this clearly in your messaging.
    • You won’t be there in person to negotiate a deal or answer questions your potential customers have. You can offer a price point and an assurance that your software can do “X, Y, and Z,” but what proof does your brand have? What promises are you making, and how are you backing those promises? Customer reviews, testimonials, guarantees, and ongoing customer relationships are all enormous tools to improve your brand potential.
    • The sales cycle for SaaS companies is incredibly short, especially when compared to other B2B ventures. Customers often make a decision based on first impressions, or at most after a few days of research. Your brand can’t just be good; it has to be good, and communicable in the span of mere moments. How can you reduce everything your brand is to a single image? A single message? A single webpage?
    • Finally, you have to be consistent across all your platforms, which is tricky for a SaaS company. Your engineers, marketers, social managers, and customer support team all need to be in line with the same voice. In fact, your brand should be a reflection of your internal company culture—but that’s a topic for another day.

    Exercises for SaaS Brand Development

    With those considerations and challenges in mind, you should have a rough idea of what you want your brand (or new brand) to be. This outline is far from perfect, and you might have a good idea of the “feel” of your brand in your head, but great difficulty putting it into words. This is the challenge of branding; it isn’t numerical or tangible, so it’s notoriously tough to pin down. However, these exercises can help you quantify, polish, and elaborate on your brand.

    The Different Hats Method

    One of the best ways to find out which traits fit your brand is to find out which traits don’t fit your brand. Start out by making a change in one key area and listing the differences it would have for your user experience. For example, let’s say you want your brand to have a casual, informal voice. What if you started using corporate jargon and longer, more formally structured sentences? How might your customers react? Let’s say one element of your UVP is the provision immediate customer service. What if you replaced this with a robust, interactive self-help portal in your app?

    This test has a few different benefits:

    • You’ll gain a stronger understanding of your chosen qualities’ effects, and you can tweak them accordingly.
    • You’ll force yourself to verbalize and distinguish your core brand qualities, which you can then publish when your work is complete.
    • You might discover an angle that resonates even stronger with your target audience (at least conceptually).

    The Personality Test

    Instead of describing your brand objectively, imagine your brand as a person. This is a test that helps you “get to know” your brand better, and will help you find and use a suitable voice for it. What type of person is this? What is their age and sex? Where do they live? What do they do for fun? What are their passions? How do they talk to you? How do they dress? Don’t be afraid to ask the silly questions; all of them can help you better understand your brand.

    The Essence Experiment

    The essence experiment is an exercise in minimalism. It will help you cut out the white noise of your branding strategy and zero in on the priorities that matter. First, describe the “essence” of your brand in a single word. No cheating; make a list of different one-word responses that could characterize your brand if you have to, but ultimately, you need to settle on one. This is your “master” word, the essence of your company, and it should permeate every application of your brand. Then, do this for each aspect of your company—for example, summarize your mission in one word (e.g., “efficiency,” “adaptability,” “unburdening.”) Summarize your UVP in one word (e.g., “care,” “universality,” “speed.”), and so on.

    Key Applications

    Once your brand is established, there’s no shortage of potential applications for you to harness it.

    Web Design

    Your home page is going to make your users’ first impressions, so show everything there is to know about your brand in the smallest possible space. Try to use as few words as possible to concisely describe your idea, and use your design scheme to give users a “feel” that matches your brand personality. You can expand on individual elements of your brand on your internal pages.

    Advertising

    The core of your ads should be your brand image, voice, and personality. Without this, users won’t be able to connect your message to your company, and they certainly won’t be able to remember you. Again, minimalism and conciseness are your friends; use the results of your “essence” experiment above to help you come up with targeted messages that demonstrate your brand accurately, and don’t forget to tailor your message to your audience.

    Content Marketing

    Content is your opportunity to “put your money where your mouth is,” so to speak. Let’s say your mission is to help users improve their social media campaigns; what are you doing to help them beyond the services your product offers? Sprout Social offers a resource library for such a purpose, complete in their signature brand voice:

    sprout-social

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

    There’s no right or wrong way to use content, but it must be in line with your brand values, and demonstrate your authority in your niche. Even if you use different authors, all your work must remain consistent in your brand voice; otherwise, your users will have an inconsistent experience and be less likely to return.

    Social Media Marketing

    For SaaS companies, social media serves many purposes; it’s a sales tool, a mechanism for social proof, and can even be used as a customer service platform. However, if you want to be effective, you need to use a consistent brand voice throughout your posts, and adhere to your selected brand values. Take a look at how Slack manages to maintain it’s casual, almost-snarky brand voice on its Twitter account:

    slack

    Help and Tutorials

    Your help and tutorials sections are what will keep your users around and using your software—especially if they end up having issues. But it also speaks volumes about your commitment to customer satisfaction from a newcomer’s perspective. Think of this as an additional wing of your content strategy, and prove both your expertise and your prioritization of customer experience. It goes a long way to establish trust, especially early on.

    Going Forward

    When it comes to a brand, consistency is one of your best tools for success; keep your branding consistent across all your platforms, and you should have no problem building a loyal audience. However, don’t mistake consistency for immovability—your brand is a living, breathing creation, and should evolve as you learn more information about your customers and grow your company in new directions. Keep the core elements, the essence, of your brand close to your original vision, but don’t be afraid to gradually branch out with new approaches and new applications.

    Want more information on content marketing? Head over to our comprehensive guide on content marketing here: The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy.

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