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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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Jayson DeMers

Jayson DeMers is the Founder & CEO of AudienceBloom. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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