#SaaS: Performance versus Brand Marketing at Early Stage

Clement Vouillon
Jan 9, 2019 · 4 min read
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Most marketing tactics (content, social media, events, etc.) can be approached from the performance or the branding angle. For example, if you approach content marketing with performance in mind, you’ll focus heavily on tracking keyword rankings, traffic growth, conversion funnels (what content converts, how, where) and create content accordingly. But you can also approach content marketing from a branding perspective and focus more on “awareness”: the emphasis is not on lead and revenue generation, but more on how your brand is perceived.

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When you are pre-Product/Market Fit, better think brand than performance marketing.

Plenty of founders (still pre-PMF) I meet, believe they have a lead generation problem: they don’t attract enough users and think it’s the reason why their product usage or revenue doesn’t grow (when in fact the problem is, in general, not enough customer discovery). As a consequence, they start doing marketing with performance in mind and expect their blog posts, social media efforts or paid advertising to increase their revenue and user base in the short term.

In most cases it leads to poor results and frustration. In my opinion, founders should invest more time in brand marketing rather than performance marketing at this very early stage.

What does brand marketing concretely consist of (at early stage*)?

Ok, at that point you probably think “Clément stop with your bullshit, what does it mean concretely?”.

First, it’s about picking a topic / finding your “north star”.

The early stage SaaS successful at building their brand generally pick a topic around:

Sharing your experience doing X. Founders share their experience building their company, product, exploring a market or else. They write about their lessons learned, failures or openly speak about their metrics. People love it because it makes the company feels very “human”. An excellent example of this approach comes from Front. Matilde, Front’s CEO, did an awesome job sharing her journey while the company was not the success it is today.

Sharing your market vision. Another approach is to be vocal about your vision for the market you operate in. It works especially well when the founders have a strong vision which stands out from the status quo. A great example is Juro, an end-to-end contract management software. Instead of adopting a standard playbook and share a ton of free contract templates (what 99% of the companies in the contract software space do), they decided to adopt a unique approach and speak about the intersection of design and legal (their north star). They clearly stood out from the crowd and generated plenty of awareness in the legal / operation audience.

Company Culture. The third approach that I regularly see, consists of sharing the company culture publicly. Obviously it works better when the startup culture is strong and different. For instance, Sqreen, a security solution, is doing an excellent job at that.

As you can see, your north star should not necessarily be about “problem-solving” for your customers. When you are pre-PMF, you want to inspire/get the attention of the relevant audience and build trust, rather than helping them solve problems that you might not fully understand yet (and that your product doesn’t answer).

*By early stage I mean pre-PMF. Brand marketing is a different game once you scale.

“Ok, I have a topic, but what about the format?”

The format doesn’t really matter. I saw early-stage companies successful at building their brand by writing blog posts (content marketing), by being outstanding on social media (ex: many founders creating awareness with great tweetstorms), by participating to podcasts or even by speaking at events.

What can I expect from brand marketing?

“Ok, now I understand better what you mean, but if I don’t focus on bringing leads or grow revenue, what’s the point of it?”

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I saw the benefits of brand building at several levels:

Recruiting. Building a great brand very early on enables you to attract talents. I witnessed it on multiple occasions.

Nailing messaging / positioning. Very often it forces founders to work on messaging, and positioning, which is good because this aspect tends to be tackled too late.

Market education. In some cases, it’s a great way to conduct market education, especially when you bring an entirely new approach to an industry.

Early adopters. It won’t necessarily bring you a ton of leads, but it will bring you some early adopters, which is useful at that stage.

Customer awareness. By working early on branding, you can create a lot of awareness within a community. I witnessed several times how this awareness enabled to close deals once the product was ready (companies know your brand, and once your product becomes mature enough they will convert more easily).

Investor interest. It’s more a “nice” side effect than something really important, but being good at building your brand can raise the attention of investors.

What are the key success factors for early brand building?

The common denominator of all the success stories I saw: it’s started as an organic effort lead by passionate founders :-).

You cannot outsource these tasks and the best people to do it are the founders themselves. This is why it’s very important to be passionate about your market as it gives the motivation to share it with the public.

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