Inbound Marketing: A SaaS Startup Journey


This post is part of our series covering the SaaS industry. You can find all our SaaS related stories on the P9 Capital Medium Channel. Many thanks to @chrija and @ncsh for their inputs and feedback.


For many SaaS startups inbound marketing has become one of the first customer acquisition strategies which they adopt at the beginning of their adventure. The main reasons being that it’s easy / inexpensive to set up (from choosing a blogging platform to distributing content on social media) and that we all have experience with inbound marketing at some level (almost all SaaS founders read other SaaS companies’ blog and consume content through platforms like Hacker News / Twitter / LinkedIn).

But getting real results with inbound can take time and many trials and errors.

On the following diagram I’ve tried to sum up a “typical” Inbound Marketing journey that an early stage SaaS might experience. It’s the result of my experience with different SaaS startups, so I don’t pretend it’s universal nor that it covers every aspect of it. Please feel free to send your comments on Twitter (@clemnt).

The diagram is structured the following way:

  • The “journey” is divided into 6 different stages which you will find at the bottom (beginning, disappointment, growth, stagnation, strategy reboot, growth)
  • Above each stage you’ll find the description of 5 different components of an inbound marketing program: content team (who’s in charge), content type, content narrative (what you write about), content distribution and traffic evolution
  • The diagram is only a “representation”. For instance the length of each stage can vary greatly and the “content traffic” component is only an illustration of a potential traffic progression, it’s not meant to be accurate.

You can download the large version here

Beginning / preparation

When you first start with inbound marketing, chances are high that you’ll begin with very limited resources (people & money). This is why in most cases inbound marketing equals “a company blog” at that stage, with the founders as the content writers, eventually helped by an intern.

There are two huge challenges at that point:

The first is to build the narrative around your blog, coherent with your product, your brand and your customers (= your marketing “North Star” on the graph). It might sounds obvious for a SaaS company (you’ll speak about the problems your product solves, right?) but it’s actually tricky as you shouldn’t fall into the “tool only” narrative (you’re not selling a tool but a solution).

Very often we tend to be too “self centered”: speaking about OUR product, OUR vision and how WE’re going to change how people will do X or Y. We’ll learn later that being “customer centric”, even for inbound marketing, is actually a more effective approach.

The second challenge comes from the underestimation of the “distribution” component. Many people think that if they write great content, distribution will follow automatically (Twitter virality, #1 on Hacker News…). The truth is that each content distribution channel has its specificities and you need to experiment / learn a lot before you can really leverage them.

Hence the second stage: disappointment.

Disappointment

You’ve put a lot of effort into writing several long form articles with nice pictures, but your traffic is not taking off. And it seems that people are not amazed by your content and not directly upvoting / RT’ing you when you post your article on Hacker News or Twitter. But you’re not dumb, so you decide to really think about distribution and to stop focusing on production only. Here comes the first growth phase.

First growth phase

You’ve done your job of reading lots of materials from founders who have shared their secrets on how to perform on channel X and Y or guides from Hubspot or KISSmetrics. You’ve also experimented yourself quite a lot with your first articles, so you now start to really understand how distribution works.

Now it’s time to write some great pieces of content and to adapt them a bit to each channel / audience you’re targeting. And since people don’t seem to make the effort to directly upvote / share what you’ve written, a little Slack circle with some other startup friends, where you help each other, will be useful.

And the magic happens! You finally manage to generate several thousands views and hundreds of Facebook or Twitter sharings. Congratulations!

Stagnation

But soon reality hits you:

  • you’re driving more traffic but conversion sucks (few signups and it doesn’t seem to improve)
  • it’s actually really hard and time consuming to create “hits”, so you start to get exhausted (yes, it’s very stressful to be “hit driven”).
  • what used to work (e.g your sharing circle) is now totally ineffective because websites like HN detect sharing circles and penalize content promoted this way. And because your friends are tired of sharing your content all the time.
  • your inspiration is drying up

What you finally realize is that being “hit” driven is actually a very hard to maintain strategy and that every time you’re sharing something you’re dependent upon external distribution channels. You have no traffic “safety net” and every time it’s fly or die.

Again, you’re quite intelligent so you decide to stop this madness before you burn out and you decide to reboot your strategy.

Strategy reboot

At that point it’s also very important to say that you’ve probably acquired much more knowledge about your customers, their needs, your industry etc. (because you didn’t spend your whole time writing articles, you’ve also built a product, interviewed customers, tried to sell it…). And, I will never insist on that enough, the knowledge you build from running your startup / selling your product must permeate your marketing effort.

So now that you’re not progressing anymore with your content distribution it’s time for a strategy reboot, taking everything that you’ve learned into consideration:

  • You start to build your own distribution channels: you finally decide to be serious about growing your own distribution channels (a value added newsletter, collecting emails on your blog or with dedicated landing pages). Same thing for SEO as you’ve noticed that by being more SEO focused your content drives traffic long after it has been published (long sellers vs hits). You are building your traffic “safety net”.
  • You decide to be more customer centric: you write more content about specific topics that are value added for your audience. It will probably appeal to a narrower audience but your conversion will improve. You also decide to settle on one narrative (= your marketing north star) and target smaller but more qualified distribution channels (industry specific newsletters, LinkedIn groups, forums…).
  • You diversify your content: since you have already written some content it’s now time to recycle it with different formats (slideshare presentations, white papers, guides, drip email campaigns…).
  • You hire your first marketing person: it’s also around that time that you will make a first marketing hire. This person will probably be a ‘generalist’ who’ll help you on all these tasks and much more.

Growth

If you are well organised and if your narrative really clicks with your audience then it’s time to grow again. This time for real. Until the next plateau :-)

Additional comments

  • Time and learnings are key. You cannot just look at this journey and decide to directly jump to the second “growth” stage. It’s because you have struggled and made a lot of mistakes along the way that you finally find the good strategy. It is time consuming to find the right narrative that will not only resonate with your audience but also be coherent with your company culture and your product. Same thing with understanding your audience and where these folks are online.
  • Inbound marketing requires resources. It’s foolish to think that you can start directly by launching a blog, writing white papers, creating an academy and a drill email campaign from day one. You have to make choices according to your available resources. This is why it’s perfectly fine to start with a blog only and to develop your own distribution channel later on. The mistake is to start doing it too late, when you actually need it. So roadmap your actions with this in mind. Always have a clear picture of where you want to be in a couple of months and allocate resources accordingly.
  • Inbound gets easier with time. With time you establish a brand and, believe me, branding is also very important when it comes to content distribution. The same article won’t be shared the same way if it comes from a well established brand (KISSmetrics, moz, Buffer) compared to a two month old blog. Also with time you’ll accumulate content and it will be easier to reuse it for whitepapers, drip campaigns etc… + real relationships with influencers (from your industry)
  • You can get stucked at every stage of the journey. Don’t assume that this progression is easy and natural. It’s totally possible to be stuck in an infinite loop at every stage of the journey if you don’t find the right keys to move on.

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