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  1. 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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  2. The SaaS Company’s Guide to Social Media Marketing

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

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

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

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

    Are you ready?

    The Benefits of Social Media

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

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

    traffic top channels

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

    customer service on twitter

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

    Salesforce LinkedIn Company Page

    (Image Source: LinkedIn)

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

    What It Is and Isn’t

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

    A Note on Personal Brands

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

    Unique Challenges for SaaS Companies

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

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

    customer support via twitter

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

    Choosing the Right Platforms

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

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

    Key Considerations

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

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

    Facebook Instagram User Engagement

    (Image Source: Pew Research)

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

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

    Facebook

    Facebook Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

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

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

    Twitter

    Twitter Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

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

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

    LinkedIn

    LinkedIn Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

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

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

    Pinterest

    Pinterest Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

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

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

    Instagram

    Instagram Usage

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

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

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

    YouTube

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

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

    Google+

    Google Plus User Demographics

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

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

    Bottom line: Pass.

    SnapChat

    Snapchat User Demographics

    (Image Source: Sprout Social)

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

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

    Others

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

    Providing Content

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

    Syndicated onsite content (and guest posts)

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

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

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

    Platform-specific content

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

    Platform Specific Content

    (Image Source: Facebook)

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

    Shared content

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

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

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

    Timing and frequency

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

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

    The “Social” Factor

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

    Here’s how to do it.

    Content responses and engagements

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

    content responses

    (Image Source: Twitter)

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

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

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

    Customer inquiries

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

    Conversation participation

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

    Relationship building

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

    Building an Audience

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

    Seeding an Audience

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

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

    Growth Phase

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

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

    hashtags

    (Image Source: BuzzFeed)

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

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

    Timescale

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

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

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

    Troubleshooting

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

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

    Final Considerations

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

    What can we help you with?

  3. The SaaS Company’s Guide to Off-site SEO

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    Offsite SEO Guide for The Saas Company

    You’re a SaaS company, and you’ve either decided to start an SEO campaign, or yours is in trouble and you need to whip it back into shape. You know all about the onsite portion of SEO — optimizing your site with the proper technical structure, ongoing content strategy, and meta data—but you’re struggling to find your place when it comes to offsite strategies.

    You’ve come to the right place.

    This guide is designed to walk you through the fundamentals of offsite SEO, in total, with specific respect to the unique challenges SaaS companies face. If you’re not in the SaaS industry, you can still use most of this guide—just know that different industries face different challenges, and yours may present obstacles I haven’t fully accounted for in this guide.

    This guide is also broken down into a few main sections, so feel free to skip to the ones you feel are most relevant to your needs:

    • Introduction, to clarify what offsite SEO is and why it’s important for SaaS companies
    • Unique challenges, to elaborate on the main obstacles and priorities a SaaS company should focus on
    • Guest posting and manual link building, to cover best practices for a manual link building approach
    • Link cultivation, to explain the mechanisms of earning links naturally through content
    • Ongoing considerations, to maximize the long-term returns of your campaign

    Without further ado, let’s explore what offsite SEO is and why it’s an essential component of any SaaS company’s marketing strategy.

    The Complex Relationship of Offsite SEO

    Offsite SEO is a culmination of all the ranking factors Google and other search engines consider that aren’t directly on your site. Because these aren’t on your site, they’re more difficult to control, but they also offer more credibility, as these factors serve as third-party indicators to your domain’s authoritative strength.

    Take a look at Moz’s breakdown of ranking factor clusters (which is an approximation, but still relevant):

    Ranking Factors in Google

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Link features alone account for a cumulative 40 percent of total rank potential, compared to only 15 percent for on-page keyword and content features. Along with social metrics, offsite SEO accounts for 47 percent of your total propensity to rank—meaning if you ignore offsite SEO, you’ll be sacrificing 47 percent of your search visibility potential (more on that later).

    Unfortunately, offsite SEO isn’t as basic as it used to be. Thanks to updates like Penguin, posting links pointing back to your domain all over the Internet isn’t going to boost your ranks—instead it’s going to get you penalized. Instead, you need to carefully balance your strategy, building relationships with other authorities, placing links only when relevant and valuable to users, attracting links naturally with your best content, and nurturing user relationships on social media.

    Offsite SEO is a complex web of habits and exchanges more akin to relationship management than construction.

    Why You Need It

    As I’ve already established, you can’t have an SEO campaign without an offsite component. It simply won’t work; even if your onsite strategy is perfect, you’re still only accounting for just over 50 percent of Google’s ranking considerations.

    You could argue, then, that you don’t need SEO at all. It’s possible to skate by without a bona fide SEO strategy (though I haven’t seen any shining examples of SaaS companies who have done this), but let’s take a look at why SEO is an almost-necessary investment.

    First, consider the ROI of sales and marketing for SaaS companies:

    Marketing Spending Levels

    (Image Source: KissMetrics)

    After hitting a critical threshold of 20 percent investment, there’s a major turn in the growth of monthly revenue. This is because SaaS companies are dependent on visibility to new customers in order to make new sales. Since most SaaS companies operate exclusively online, the only options for increased visibility are advertising and organic improvements, the former of which is ridiculously expensive at higher volumes, and the latter of which is most successfully executed with a content and SEO strategy. SEO also offers compounding returns, compared to advertising, which offers reasonable, yet linear growth patterns.

    Long story short? SEO is the best tool you have to sustain long-term revenue growth.

    But offsite SEO is about more than just increasing your visibility and traffic in search engines. If done correctly, you’ll increase referral traffic from whichever sources you build links on, your brand reputation will improve, and you’ll earn more customer loyalty as a result. As a SaaS company, customer loyalty is vital if you want to stay alive. Take a look at this customer churn graph:

    Churn by Growth of Companies

    (Image Source: Totango)

    The fastest-growing SaaS companies are the ones with the highest rates of customer retention, and offsite SEO can help you achieve them in addition to all its other benefits.

    Unique Challenges for SaaS Companies

    Hopefully, you now see why offsite SEO is so critical for SaaS companies. I’ll get to the “how” in a minute, but first, I want to address some key, unique challenges that SaaS companies face while pursuing the strategy.

    • Differentiation. The SaaS model has potential for huge revenue growth, but because this is common knowledge, the market’s been flooded with competitors in recent years. If you want to be featured as a thought leader, you need a solid way to differentiate yourself. If your niche is especially competitive, this can be hard to find; think about how to angle your brand to a specific demographic, or what information you can gather that no one else can.
    • User trust. You can gain ranks pretty easily with a consistent offsite content strategy, but users’ impressions of your brand are an independent concern; just because you successfully earned a link doesn’t mean you’ll generate additional user trust with its placement. Finding a way to build and improve this trust is essential if you want to attract more loyal customers; this generally requires an even greater focus on the quality and value of your content.
    • Building authority from scratch. All SaaS companies are relatively young, since it’s a relatively new concept. Building authority is easy when you have lots of history and data to support your brand:

    Salesforce CRM App

    (Image Source: SalesForce)

    If you’re starting from scratch, however, you’ll find it’s notoriously difficult to get your foot in the door anywhere. The most critical period for offsite SEO development is your first few months—you’ll see the lowest returns on your investment, but you have to keep going if you want to scale.

    Scaling to new sources. After your early momentum starts to subside, you’re going to find it difficult to keep scaling upward. SaaS companies have a huge potential for future returns, especially compared to SaaP companies:

    SaaS vs SaaP Revenue Growth

    (Image Source: Cloud Strategies)

    However, to sustain this exponential growth model, you also need to exponentially scale your offsite strategy. This is certainly possible, but it requires a steady increase in your time, effort, and quality.

    Keep these challenges in the back of your mind as you read the next few sections and start planning your strategic approach. Understanding and compensating for these weaknesses is critical if you want to be effective.

    Guest Posting and Link Building

    Guest posting and link building should constitute the bulk of your ongoing strategy, as it’s the most reliable way to build a reputation and guarantee high-profile links. In this strategy, you’ll be producing high-quality content that other sites host for their users. Many of these posts will contain links that point back to your domain, which in turn pass authority to your site to support your ranking efforts. These links may also be followed by interested users, generating referral traffic, and having your name associated with this content can also increase your brand visibility and authority.

    However, it must be done properly, or you risk ranking penalties, growth stagnation, and even consequences for your brand reputation.

    Ingredients for Success

    First, understand that not all links are the same. There are dozens of qualities that factor into what makes a good link “good,” the most important of which revolve around making sure your links are valuable for any users encountering them.

    To achieve this, you’ll need to pay attention to four critical ingredients: the strength of your sources, the quality of your content, the placement of your link, and the overall diversity of your offsite strategy. I’ll be taking a look at each of these, in turn.

    Identifying the right sources

    The domain-level and page-level authority of your link’s placement source factor in to how much authority it ends up passing to your site. For example, a high-authority site (like an international news publisher) will always pass more authority per link than a low-authority site (like a domain that just emerged and posts questionable-quality content).

    There are a handful of ways to determine the overall authoritativeness of a chosen source. The easiest is intuitive—think about whether this is a site you personally trust. The more objective method is to use an external tool to help you calculate a domain’s authoritative score. I’ve done this for YouTube in two examples below, using Moz and SEO Review Tools:

    YouTube SEO Review

    (Image Source: Moz)

    Domain Authority

    (Image Source: SEO Review Tools)

    You can see its authority is about as high as it gets, with a long age and millions of root links.

    The relevance of your source to your domain may also factor into the quality of your source, especially at lower levels of authority. For example, if your software is designed to help college students study better and you’re posting content on a niche site dedicated to helping the elderly pay their medical bills, you better have a good reason to post.

    Of course, finding the perfect site—one with an exceptionally high authority and relevance to your brand—is hard, and it’s even harder to get content featured on those sources, as most high-authority sources are highly discerning in what they allow to be published. Your strategy should carefully balance sites that are easy to have content posted on and sites that are more authoritative, gradually increasing the overall authority of your backlink profile—but I’ll get into more detail on this later.

    Drafting the right content

    You also need to make sure your content is up to snuff, for three major reasons:

    • Publishers will only accept good content.
    • The strength of your content will support your link’s authoritative strength.
    • Good content will leave users (and other publishers) with a better impression of your brand.

    So what constitutes “good” content here? Mostly the same factors that constitute good content on your site:

    • A valuable or practical function (preferably related to your software).
    • A unique topic that hasn’t been done before.
    • High levels of detail.
    • Multimedia integrations (i.e., images and video).
    • Original findings (data, research, opinions, etc.).
    • A strong, consistent tone.
    • Proper formatting, with scannability.

    These are some of the fundamentals, but there’s one more factor you have to consider when drafting content: the relevance to your source. Users of your target site will be accustomed to certain content features. This may mean a specific formatting, a specific topic, or a specific angle. You need to be prepared for this, and draft your content around those requirements. Otherwise, you’ll be rejected—either by the publisher or by the users themselves.

    Securing link placement

    Once your content is drafted, you can’t just stuff a link in and expect to reap the benefits. Remember, your link placement has to be valuable for the users, or else you’ll stand to lose more than you gain. Keep the following in mind:

    • Contextual relevance/utility. Your link should be a citation of facts originally posted on your site, using your site as an illustration of a point you made, or referring to your site as a source of more information. These functions (and a few others) make the link useful to readers.
    • Appropriate anchor text. Old-school methods required stuffing keywords into your anchor text, but Google now explicitly warns against such practices. Take this snippet as an example of what not to do:

    Optimized Anchor Texts

    (Image Source: Google)

    Instead, use your anchor text naturally, such as with a phrase like, “you can learn more about link building here,” or even simpler with “according to AudienceBloom…”

    • Innocuous positioning. Publishers know that posters often leverage their platforms to build links. Accordingly, they’re on the lookout for link builders—and they’ll weed out your links if they suspect them as being intended to manipulate your rank. Accordingly, you’ll need to disguise your link among other links to make sure it doesn’t stand out.
    • Timing and frequency. It’s rarely a good idea to include more than one backlink in a single post—doing so makes your effort riskier in exchange for a very small increase in potential value. You may also want to avoid including a link with every post—but I’ll touch on this in the next section.

    Diversifying your strategy

    It’s a bad idea to use the same tactics over and over again. If you do, you’ll see diminishing returns, and your reputation might start taking hits. The best way to keep your SaaS reputation intact and improve growth at the same time is to diversify your strategy in three key ways:

    • Sources. Posting more links on the same source offers diminishing returns; the better way to increase authority over time is to seek out new sources. Diversify your backlink profile as much as you can.
    • Destination pages. Links pass page-level authority as well as domain-level authority, so mix up what pages you link to (i.e., don’t always link to your home page). This will also make your links seem more natural over time.
    • Nofollow links. Google is wise to link schemes, and is always on the lookout for predictable patterns of link building. Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to omit links from your guest content occasionally—but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice referral traffic. Including nofollow links instead of regular links will mask these links from search engines but still give you referral traffic potential.

    Now that you know all the ingredients that make up a strong SaaS offsite SEO campaign, let’s take a look at the steps you’ll need to take to go from 0 to 60.

    Step One: Building Onsite Authority

    If you currently have no offsite strategy, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an initial source to take you on as a guest poster. You’ll first have to build up some authority on your own; that means making sure your website is chock full of great content, including a regularly updated onsite blog. You can complement this with some social media following building or some professional networking—the end goal is simply to make yourself seem like more of an expert.

    Step Two: Finding the Low-Hanging Fruit

    Once you have an onsite basis of authority you can cite as a kind of “resume,” you can start scouting for sources that present low-hanging fruit opportunities (I’m not a fan of this buzzword, but it fits here). You’re looking for any reasonable opportunity to get your content featured, so start with local publishers who might be interested in your business, such as neighborhood communities or local news publishers. You can also target specific niche sites, like blogs or forums, that only cater to businesses in your industry. This will help you develop an early momentum for your reputation—don’t worry if they’re not the best of the best.

    Step Three: Managing Ongoing Relationships

    Once you establish a network of different contacts and publication opportunities, work on cultivating those relationships. Submit content regularly, engage with your new audiences in blog comments and on social media, and work to solidify your foundation at this level before you attempt to move on. This means stepping up the quality of your work, writing more types of content that your readers want to see, and giving back to the community (possibly by offering guest spots on your own blog).

    Step Four: Seeking Bigger Targets

    Once you’ve managed this stage for a while, you can start scaling up your strategy. Start looking at higher-profile targets, especially ones with a national readership, and pitch content to them. At higher levels, don’t be surprised if some of your applications get rejected; competition is tough, and it takes time and patience to earn a spot in these circles. Stick with it, keep improving your content, and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone to build more links; not every publication opportunity necessitates you writing about your software. Once established as a major national thought leader, you should have no trouble developing even more opportunities to place links.

    Link Cultivation

    Of course, manual link placement through guest posting isn’t the only way to earn more links. Some have even criticized this strategy, saying it inherently violates Google’s terms of services, which state that any link intended to manipulate rank is a “bad” link. However, rank manipulation is only a secondary motivation when you’re using links to support your arguments or cite facts—as long as your content quality is in check, you shouldn’t have to worry about a penalty.

    On the other hand, there is a strategy that can earn you more links without any manual placement whatsoever. In this strategy, you’ll be producing content specifically intended to circulate (“go viral”) and naturally prompt people to build links pointing back to your domain. In effect, you’ll establish yourself as an authority people naturally want to cite.

    This is especially valuable for SaaS companies because it naturally encourages a word-of-mouth-based wave of attention. As you gain more social followers (and users of your software), these effects will become even more pronounced.

    To be effective, there are four goals you must achieve.

    Goal One: Produce Quality Content

    The first step is the simplest to understand, yet the most difficult to accomplish. You have to create content that people consistently want to link to—completely on their own. What type of content earns links?

    • Long-form content, generally more than 1,500 words.
    • Original content, such as original research or extended reports.
    • Emotionally compelling content, including content that offers a surprise, or content that stimulates fear, elation, laughter, or sympathy.
    • Utilitarian content, meaning anything that makes life easier for someone—people want to share useful material with one another.
    • Multimedia content, especially infographics and informative videos.

    It’s easy to digest these qualities, but hard to put them all together in a single, well-written package. There’s no perfect formula for viral content, but these guidelines should serve as a decent starting point for you.

    Also, don’t expect every polished piece you produce to be a major hit—sometimes, even the topics and body content that seems like it would perform the best falls flat once it hits audiences. I hate to say it, but there is a bit of luck involved here.

    Goal Two: Syndicate!

    The mistake most SaaS companies make at this point is assuming that your content will magically start attracting readers and visitors. Yes, once it rolls out to an initial audience, those audience members will theoretically share and link to it in further circles, but you have to syndicate your piece to those audiences first.

    How can you do this? Social media’s a good place to start. Leverage all your relevant platforms, especially Facebook if your platform is B2C and LinkedIn if your platform is B2B. Both platforms offer in-depth tools to help you target the right audience; for example, Facebook offers organic audience targeting features, and LinkedIn offers selective screening through the use of Groups.

    These are just a handful of the hundreds of SaaS-related Groups that exist on LinkedIn:

    SaaS Related LinkedIn Groups

    Of course, you may be targeting a different niche, such as Human Resources or Stock Investing. Cater to your demographics here, and don’t be afraid to push your content out multiple times!

    Goal Three: Engage With Influencers

    To give your content even more of an initial push, reach out to major influencers in your niche. What are “influencers?” They’re basically rockstars with huge social media followings, regular activity in the community, and a powerful reputation.

    The theory is this: if you can get just one influencer to share a piece of your content, it will instantly generate thousands of new views. Oftentimes, you can accomplish this with a simple request or exchange of value. If you engage with these influencers regularly and start building a rapport with them, it becomes even easier to participate in these exchanges.

    Finding a target isn’t that difficult, but think about your likelihood of success before you get too involved. For example, take a look at the CEO of SalesForce, Marc Benioff’s Twitter account:

    Twitter Profile

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    He has 204,000 followers (which is a lot), and almost 9,000 tweets which shows he’s active. He’s also seen retweeting others quite frequently. These factors make him a decent influencer to target, though you’ll notice his engagement factor isn’t as personal or frequent as some other big names in the SaaS industry.

    Salesforce Twitter

    (Image Source: Twitter)

    SalesForce, the corporate brand, has even more followers and a more active posting schedule—but the account doesn’t retweet very often, and its engagements are typically limited to customers talking about the brand.

    You’ll find advantages and disadvantages in every influencer you size up as a prospect. The key is to find ones who have the highest likelihood of fitting your needs and the lowest demand for investment of personal time. It’s easier said than done, but once you start landing influencers in your professional network, the power of your content will instantly amplify.

    Goal Four: Repetition

    Sometimes, it takes a while for a content to “take hold” with an audience and start earning hundreds of inbound links. Sometimes, an “ideal” piece of content will fall flat. Sometimes, a piece of content will explode in popularity after you’ve already written it off.

    The world of viral content and “link cultivation” is a volatile, sometimes unpredictable one. The best way to hedge your bets and guarantee a long-term return on your investment is to stay consistent in your strategy, and repeat it. Keep producing new content. Keep syndicating it in new places. Keep reaching out to new influencers. Keep refining your approach. Eventually, you’ll get what you’re looking for.

    Ongoing Considerations

    As you form your strategy and begin to develop it over the coming months, keep the following considerations in mind:

    • Your reputation always comes first. No matter how juicy an opportunity might seem, it’s only worth it if it makes your company look better to users. Customer retention—and therefore, brand reputation—is your greatest asset as a SaaS company.
    • Take the best of both worlds. Manual link building through guest posting and link cultivation through content syndication are complementary, effective strategies. Make use of both on an ongoing basis if you want to see the best return.
    • Make adjustments. Doing the same thing over and over again will make your strategy stall (and might drive you crazy at the same time). Don’t be afraid to make adjustments and try new things, especially as you learn more about what your readers like and want.
    • Scale with your audience. SaaS is an industry with massive growth potential, but if you want to see that growth, you have to grow your investment in your marketing strategies as well. Keep pushing the limits with better content, higher frequencies of publication, better publishers, and bigger influencers.
    • Admit when you need help. Offsite SEO is an intensive strategy that requires expertise, commitment, and tons of time and effort. It’s not for amateurs, and it’s not something you can half-invest in. Don’t be afraid to admit that you need help; there are many companies out there, including AudienceBloom, who specialize in client-focused link building, and chances are, they’ll be able to do it more effectively and less expensively than you can.

    Conclusion

    I feel as though SEO is hands-down the most effective strategy for SaaS companies to establish a reputation, attract more users, and increase customer retention. It’s cost-efficient, scalable, digital, and offers compounding returns over time. But for this strategy to be effective, you need a strong, consistent, offsite component that not only increases your rank, but builds your reputation.

    Throughout this guide, I’ve helped you understand the fundamental components of such a strategy, and how a SaaS company should specifically adjust these fundamentals for the greatest possible benefit. Now, it’s on you to start taking the steps to earn these results. Whether you take on the work yourself or work with a link building expert to ease the burden and increase results, your commitment to the strategy is critical if you want it to pay off.

    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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  4. 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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