Saturday, March 4, 2017

Don't put your SaaS marketing plan on auto-pilot

Imagine that last year I had somehow managed to put together a perfect marketing plan: a perfect
message and a perfect mix of tactics delivered perfect results.

If that actually happened (not likely, but use your imagination), this would be my first thought as I put together this year’s marketing plan:  Let’s do the same thing again.

If it worked last year, it should work this year too.  Why do anything different?

That would probably be a mistake, and here’s why:  Things change.

New tactics

Like music or clothes, marketing tactics used to reach prospects come in and out of fashion.  What worked last year might not work this year.

I remember when clever dimensional mailers were in vogue.  For example, you’d send a single walkie-talkie to a prospect, and offer to send the second one if they called to schedule a demo.  I haven’t seen that kind of promotion for awhile.

More recently, marketers have come to rely on webinars, white papers, blogs, and other content to attract leads.  Even if the concept of content marketing still works, the particulars usually need to be tweaked over time.  The topics and formats that worked one year might not draw the same response the next year.

It’s often worth allocating a portion of the marketing budget just to try some new tactics.  It’s possible that something you’d never tried before - or never even heard of before - will somehow grab the attention of prospects.  A few years ago, who would have guessed podcasts would be so popular?

And, by the way, keep in mind that some marketing tactics that were once out of fashion can come back into fashion.  I’ve worked with companies that have had success recently with a well-done direct mail piece, sent via snail mail, to reach a well-defined audience.

New competitors

Marketing plans will often need to be adjusted when new competitors come into the market.  In particular, your messages may need to be tweaked to better highlight the advantages of your solution vs. the new competitor.

To respond to a new vendor competing on low price, for example, your website, collateral, and other marketing material might need to call out the advantages of your more complete feature set or your expert customer support team.

In general, I advise companies to stick with the same messages, telling the same story again and again and again.  It takes a long time for a message to sink in with your prospects, so repetition is a good thing.

But it’s also a good idea to periodically review the message - perhaps once per year - and tweak it.

New concerns and new expectations

Over time, the things prospects care about are likely to change, and the marketing messages will need to change as well.

In the earlier days of software-as-a-service (SaaS), for example, lots of prospective customers had concerns about SaaS and cloud computing, and they needed to become more familiar with the basics.  “SaaS primers” that included a glossary of terms like “ subscription pricing,” “multi-tenancy,” and “SSAE 16” were a necessary part of the marketing collateral library.

Most folks are now familiar with SaaS and this material isn’t often needed. (See "Customers Don't Really Care About SaaS.")

Customers’ expectations also change over time.  Things like mobile capabilities, for example, that earlier buyers may have never thought about, may now be at the top of their priority list, and your marketing plans need to present them more prominently.

New kinds of buyers

In some cases, marketing plans need to be adjusted to suit new kinds of buyers.  As markets mature and solutions become more widely adopted, a company may find it’s selling to more mainstream buyers.

Unlike early adopters, these buyers may have more concerns about support or ease-of-use.  They may also follow a longer evaluation and purchase process, which a revised marketing plan needs to fit. (See "Pivoting from early adopters to mainstream buyers.")



Look, if there are pieces of your existing marketing plan that are working well, keep doing them.  But don’t revert to the same plan year after year by default.  Always ask yourself, “Does this still fit?”

Chances are there have been changes - new tactics, new competitors, new concerns and expectation, and new kinds of buyers - that you’ll want to adjust for.  You can’t afford to put your marketing plan on auto-pilot.  

  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Pivoting from early adopters to mainstream buyers

If your software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution is relatively new to the market and you’ve already managed to bring on a group of early customers, congratulations. 

That’s usually solid proof that your product works, somebody’s getting value from it, and people will pay for it.  No small feat.  
But before you go overboard celebrating, I’ve got a bit of bad news:  It gets more difficult from here.

Sure, signing on that first group of paying customers probably was tough.  But signing on 10, 20, or 50 times that number... that's even tougher.

A new kind of buyer

Why does customer acquisition get more difficult?

Here's why:  you’re now selling to a different kind of buyer.  You’re not just selling to early adopters anymore.  You’re now marketing and selling to mainstream buyers.

Yes, these mainstream buyers may be in the same industry and they may need a solution to solve the same set of problems.

But they follow a different evaluation and purchase process.  And your marketing and sales plans need to adjust.

A longer sales cycle

When they evaluate new solutions, particularly those that are critical to their business, mainstream buyers tend to proceed more deliberately.  Unlike many early adopters, who are usually eager to try something new, these folks won’t jump right in. They move forward step-by-step.

Your marketing plan needs to follow this more deliberate process.  Plan to stay in touch with these prospects over an extended time, and implement programs to carefully nurture them along, one step at a time. 

Trying to rush things along is a bad idea.  For example, don’t expect prospects to jump from their first visit to your website and go directly to a one-on-one demo.  Not many will get your first email and immediately contact your sales rep.

They need more time to get more comfortable with you and your solution before they’re ready to talk with you directly.   

Need more proof

Mainstream buyers need to see more proof that your solution works as advertised.  They want to know that organizations similar to theirs have had success.  Unlike early adopters, they’re not interested in being the first of their colleagues to try something.

To satisfy their need to see proof, your marketing programs should include a healthy dose of customer success stories, references, and other ways to show that your solution really does deliver the benefits it promises.

Not interested in tech wizardry

Mainstream buyers usually aren’t wowed by cool technology.  They just want a solution that helps them run their business, and they don’t care a lot about what’s under the hood.  (See “Don’t talk techie to SaaS buyers.”)

They’re especially interested in how easy your solution is to learn and to use.  No matter how sophisticated the underlying technology or how long your list of features, these prospects know that if they can’t figure out how to use your solution - or train their employees to use it - it’s worthless to them.

Talking on and on about your platform, your proprietary algorithms, and your impressive feature list is more likely to distract, overwhelm, or confuse them than it is to impress them.

Rely more on support

Unlike the more adventurous early adopters, the next round of buyers tend to need more help to implement the solution.  Your ability to get them up & running quickly factors heavily in their evaluation.

Show them your on-boarding and training process and highlight your customer support capabilities.  Show them they’ll be working with a company that understands their business and won’t just leave them on their own to figure stuff out. 

Marketing pivot

Many of the companies I work with gotten themselves through the first stage of growth.   By word-of-mouth or direct contacts, they’ve managed to attract a cadre of early customers.

But to ramp up beyond that, they need a “marketing pivot.”  They need to adjust their initial messages and tactics to fit a different kind of buyer.

You may find yourself in a similar spot.  You need to reach beyond the early adopters to attract the broader pool of mainstream buyers.  That’s where you'll find the opportunity to accelerate growth and build a sustainable SaaS business.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Winning new SaaS customers may be easier than keeping them

I talk with a lot of new customers about how and why they bought a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution. Here are the kinds of things I hear:
  • “We didn’t spend a lot of time with the free trial.  We just subscribed.”
  • “With such a low monthly cost and no long-term commitment, we figured if we didn’t like the product, we’d just drop it.”
  • “We didn’t spend weeks looking at demos and trials; we just bought it.  Once we used the solution for a couple of months, we figured we’d know whether we wanted to keep paying for it.”
It’s not that these companies didn’t evaluate the SaaS solution seriously.  In fact, often they were considering it to manage a critical part of their business.

But they didn’t want to spend time looking at slick demos or inputting lots of data into a free trial - data that they’d lose when the trial expired.

Just do it


They took a different approach:  Just buy it and try it.

After all, subscription pricing is one of the great advantages of SaaS solutions over traditional on-premises software.  Monthly fees are much lower than up-front license costs, deployment expenses are lower, and often there’s no long-term commitment.

For customers, it’s just easier to evaluate and buy SaaS solutions.

That’s good news for SaaS solution vendors, too.

Solutions that are easier for customers to buy are also easier for vendors to sell.  Converting prospective customers from “opportunities” into “paying customers” is faster and simpler.

But there’s a catch

But it’s not all good news for vendors.

For most SaaS companies, they need a customer to stay for at least several months, even 2-3 years, to recover the cost of acquiring that customer.  If the customer leaves too early, the vendor will actually lose money, not make money.   (See “Acquiring Customers Ain’t Cheap.”)

For the SaaS sales and marketing team, this means even when they’ve brought in a new customer win, their work’s not done.

Now they need to convert those new customers into committed users.  Success requires more than converting prospects into paying customers.  It also means converting new customers into long-term customers.

Their responsibilities now include helping with on-boarding, training, expert guidance, or whatever else it takes to convert a new buyer into a committed user.

To fill that role, I’ve seen marketing teams add all kinds of “post-sales” activities to their programs:
  • Host webinars for existing customers to pass along advice on using the solution more effectively  
  • Publish customer success stories that share best practices
  • Support online forums where customers can share ideas with their peers
  • Communicate with customers on new features that they should be taking advantage of
  • Establish a “VP of Customer Success” role with responsibility for keeping existing customers happy.
(For more thoughts on effective on-boarding, see “Get SaaS customers off to a healthy start.”)

Another step in the customer acquisition process

I know this isn't the best news for sales and marketing folks - adding more work to the customer acquisition process.  As it it wasn’t tough enough already to build visibility, capture leads, convert them into qualified opportunities, and finally into paying customers.

Now you need another step: retaining new users.

Sorry, but that’s the cost of SaaS.  It may be easier to win new customers, but it’s tougher to keep them.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

5 ways your SaaS marketing plan could go wrong

No matter how hard you’ve been working on your marketing plan, it still might go wrong.

That’s usually not for lack of effort.  It’s just that software-as-a-service (SaaS) marketing is hard.  It’s different than marketing traditional on-premises software and it’s easy to make mistakes.

I review the marketing programs of lots of SaaS companies and I see the same kind of mistakes over and over. 
 
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are 5 errors that are especially common.

Ineffective message


Sometimes it’s not at all clear to the prospective customer what you sell, who should buy it, and why.

Most SaaS customers care about what your solution does, not how it works.  (See "Don't talk techie to SaaS buyers.")

Focus on your benefits and advantages, not just your features, and spell out the costs of “doing nothing.”  Explain that putting off fixing the problem comes at a significant cost.

If you can’t clearly and consistently explain your value to the prospect, all the time and money spent on attracting leads is wasted.

Distracted buyers

Most SaaS buyers are busy people.  Besides trying to carve out a few minutes to evaluate your solution, they’re handling HR, Finance, Marketing, Sales, or whatever other function they’re responsible for during their day job.   They’re often distracted by other, more pressing priorities.  (See "Your prospect has a day job.")

Getting over this challenge means an effective marketing plan needs to do at least two things:

Make it easy for the prospect to see the value in your solution very quickly.  When you do get a few moments of their attention, make the most of it.  Whether it’s a free trial, a demo or a video, don’t make them travel down a long and lonely road before they get to an “AHA! moment.”

And second, stay in front of the prospect for a long time.  Eventually many of them will regain their focus and they’ll resume their search for a solution…and you want to be on their radar screen when they do.

Promoting in the wrong places

Some marketing plans promote the solution in the wrong places.  The prospective customers are in one place… and the solution is somewhere else.

As intriguing and popular as Facebook, Pinterest, twitter, or Instagram are, they might not be the place where your prospective customers are looking for solutions.  (See "Looking for customers in all the wrong places.")

Many of the B2B SaaS vendors I work with find a much more valuable audience at “old school” venues, like local business groups or trade publications.  Maybe not as cool, but much more effective.


Gaps and bottlenecks

Most B2B SaaS purchases aren’t impulse buys.  The buyer usually travels along a multi-step evaluation and purchase process, and marketing needs to be right alongside them.  

Your marketing activity needs to cover the entire journey, from first getting attention and capturing a lead, to cultivating it into a qualified opportunity, closing, on-boarding, and retaining a paying customer.   

A plan with gaps means prospects get lost or stuck somewhere along the journey.  (See "Why drive-by marketing doesn't work.")

I’ve seen companies that do wonderful work attracting attention and generating traffic…but then have no efficient mechanism to convert “traffic” into leads.  Other companies sign up lots of new customers… but then lose them after a few months.

Gaps and bottlenecks in the process waste money and slow down the process of winning and keeping paying customers.

No attention to existing customers

When I marketed on-premises software, I only paid attention to existing customers on two occasions:  When I saw them at a user conference and when I needed a customer success story.  That’s it.

That won’t work for SaaS.  If your marketing plan stops at the point when a prospect becomes a paying customer, you’re going to have a problem.  (See "Your existing customers are prospects too.")

The SaaS business model generally requires that customers stay around for awhile, at least long enough to recover your customer acquisition costs.  Renewals are essential.  To put it another way, churn kills.

Which means that you need to keep marketing to existing customers.  They need to be reminded regularly of the value your solution brings to them.  That’s marketing’s job, and it should be part of your plan. 

Most SaaS buyers are too busy already, and they won’t spend lots of time trying to figure out that stuff by themselves. Most won’t wade through lots of technical jargon about your platform, your patented algorithms, or whatever other sophisticated technology you have under the hood.

Out of date with customer concerns

Buyers change over time and your marketing plan should change as well.  You can’t automatically use the same messages and tactics year after year.

Over the course of three years, one of my clients has seen their market rapidly mature.  Instead of the adventurous buyers they used to attract - people willing to fearlessly try new technology - they are seeing mostly “mainstream” buyers - people that need more hand-holding and reassurances that they’re doing the right thing.

The only way to detect a change like this is to stay in touch with your customers.  That way you can make the appropriate adjustments. 

You can’t put the marketing plan on auto-pilot.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Don’t talk techie to SaaS buyers

No matter how wonderful your proprietary algorithms, the priceless virtues of your state-of-the-art
platform, or the brilliance of whatever other sophisticated technologies you’ve got under the hood of your software-as-a service (SaaS) solution, here’s an unpleasant truth:  Lots of your customers don’t really care.
 
Most of your them only want to know what your solution does, not how it works.

In fact, sometimes all that techie talk just goes right over their heads.  They're experts in whatever field they're in, but they don’t necessarily have a technical background. 


Limited IT input

After all, one of the key attractions of SaaS is that it usually requires no technical background.  The buyer isn't responsible for on-premises hosting, deployment, on-going maintenance, or periodic upgrades, so the folks in IT with a technical background play only a limited role in evaluating solutions.

When IT does have a role in evaluating SaaS solutions, it’s usually in a secondary, review capacity, not in the lead.  They need to ensure that the solution adheres to certain standards for security, reliability, and performance, and that it can be integrated with other applications.

And if those issues are likely to come up at some point in the purchase process, you’ll certainly need some marketing material that addresses them.

But that kind of technical detail usually won’t have much impact on the people who take the lead in the evaluation and purchase process.  These folks typically have responsibility for a particular business function:
  • It’s a sales manager that needs to manage deals in the pipeline
  • It's a recruiter that needs to track applicants
  • It's an accounts payable manager that needs to process invoices, and so on.

Speak in the decision-makers' language

Don’t talk techie to your buyers.  Instead, you need to talk to them in the language of a sales manager, a recruiter, or an AP manager.  (See "Your customer has a day job.")

If they’re in a particular industry, you need to speak the language of their industry.  Hospital administrators talk about patients, real estate managers talk about properties, and commercial bankers talk about borrowers.

You need to show that you understand the unique needs of their particular industry.  They’re the ones buying and using your solution.

Talking techie to them is a waste of time.  In fact, it may get you routed to IT, a place you don’t want to be.  An executive selling SaaS solutions to healthcare companies told me recently that when their sales people get passed to IT, he knows the opportunity is heading toward a dead-end.

Focus on business goals

Instead of hearing about your super fantastic technology, the people buying your solution want to hear about how you can help them reach their business goals.  What can it do to:
  • Boost revenues
  • Cut costs
  • Satisfy customers
  • Retain employees
  • Or attain other business goals.  
Of course, your technology is behind all of that.  It’s what makes your solution go.

But the primary evaluators and decision-makers don’t always need to look under the hood.  Talk to them about what your solution does, not how it works.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Do your prospects know what you're selling?

Sometimes marketing pros focus on the wrong things.

When there’s a problem attracting prospective customers, marketers usually look first at their lead generation programs.  They ask questions like:

  • Is our email campaign targeting the right people? 
  • Is our website visible to search engines?  
  • Are we participating in the right events? 
  • Are our social media campaigns working?”

And sometimes they will, indeed, find that certain lead gen programs aren’t working.

Or they’ll find bottlenecks or gaps in the process and they’re losing prospects somewhere in the evaluation and purchase journey.

A message problem, not a program problem


But oftentimes the problem is more fundamental.  The problem is not with any particular program;  the problem is with the message.

The prospective customer simply doesn’t know what the vendor is selling.

They come to the website, read the email, or see them at an event... but they can’t figure out what problem the vendor's solution might solve for them.

They might find a long list of features and even an extended discussion on how the solution is built.  But they won’t get an easy answer to a couple of simple questions:

What is this solution, and what problem does it solve for my business?

How does this happen?

Most companies start out with good answers to these fundamental questions.  In fact, often the solution has been built with the precise intention to solve a particular problem.

One client of mine, for example, started life as a landlord, struggling to manage all the details of managing rental property.  They couldn’t find a cost-effective solution, so they decided to build their own.  Buildium has now been adopted by more than 12,000 other property managers.  And it’s clear what problem they solve for their customers.

But too often this original simple idea - “let’s build a solution to a solve a pressing problem” - gets lost.  Or at least it gets covered over by lots of technical details.


The messages about the product no longer focus on “what it does.”  Instead, they're all about “how it works.”  A prospective customer needs to work too hard to understand what the solution is and why they might need it. 

And anything that makes the prospect work too hard is usually a bad thing.  These folks don’t have a lot of time to spend trying to figure out whether a particular solution is something they can use.  They have day jobs.  (See "Your prospects have a day job.")

Fixing the problem

The good news is that this problem is fixable.  In fact, when clients call me to ask me to help them acquire customers, I first look at their messages:

Is it clear what they sell and why someone should buy it from them?

Sometimes a few tweaks can help, but sometimes a complete overhaul is in order.

There are a few different ways to develop a clearer, more effective message that better describes the solution:

  • Ask existing customers to explain why they bought the solution and why they find it useful.  

  • Listen to the most effective sales person present the solution to a prospect.  Often they’ve developed a simpler, more compelling message than the “official” version.

  • See how direct competitors present themselves.  While it’s important to distinguish a solution from competitors, it’s worth seeing which elements are working for them.

And once you’ve crafted a concise, clear and compelling value proposition and messages - something your prospective customers will quickly grasp - it’s important to write it down.

I often do this in the form of a “Value Proposition and Messages Guide.”  (See "To deliver a consistent message, you need a script.")  This is something that you can cut and paste from liberally as they prepare websites, email, white papers, or any other marketing material.

When marketing professionals are struggling to generate more leads, qualify more opportunities, and nudge people toward a purchase, sometimes the problem is in the programs. They’re not run well or they’re poorly targeted.

But often the problem isn’t with the programs; the problem is with the message.  Prospective customers simply can’t figure out what exactly you sell and why they ought to buy it. 
  


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Your prospects have a day job

Just because you may be spending all your time trying to market and sell your solution, doesn’t mean your prospective customer is spending all their time evaluating it.

These prospects have other things do to.  In most cases, the person looking at your software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution isn’t assigned full time to evaluate and buy new software for the business.

Instead, they're accountants working in Finance, recruiters working in HR, or sales managers trying to hit their quota.

Or if you sell into a particular vertical market, they might be property managers dealing with tenants, consultants working with clients, or dentists treating patients.

Evaluation is an on-again, off-again process

Rarely do they have days or weeks to pore over every feature and function.  And their research is often interrupted, so they can only focus intermittently.  One minute they’re carefully considering your solution, and the next minute there’s something more pressing that’s grabbed their attention.

Even when they sign up for a free trial, most prospects will only spend a couple of hours actually trying out the product.

It's not that they don't care.  They know the solution may be critical to their business and that making a bad choice will be painful.  The problem is that they simply don't have a lot of uninterrupted time to do a thorough evaluation and make a purchase.

With so little time, in fact, they often end up doing nothing.  When I talk to “lost prospects,” many of them aren’t really “lost” at all.  They’re just “on hold” and haven’t made any decision at all yet.

I’ve learned a few lessons on how marketers can reach busy prospects like these.

Stay in front of prospects over a long period

Because your prospects can only focus on your solution in a bit of time here and a bit of time there - and you’re not really sure when exactly when that bit of time will be - you need to stay in front of them over a long period.  When they’re ready to refocus on finding a solution, you want them to remember you.

By the way, when I talk about staying in front of your prospects, I’m not saying deluge them with spam.  Educational material on best practices or industry trends will usually make a better impression than a stream of promotions.  And of course, offer an easy way to opt out.  (See "Content:  More isn’t always better.")

Provide a clear path for them to take the next step  

In your communications, make it easy for the prospect to signal that they’re ready to take the next step.  Provide a form, put up a “Chat Now” box, or post a toll-free phone number.  Lead scoring and other techniques can help you know when prospects are ready, but sometimes they’ll just tell you themselves.

Do it cost-effectively

To make this “stay in front of them for a long time” approach work, you need to keep your costs under control.  SaaS companies need to pay close attention to the cost of acquiring customers.  Staying in contact via email, newsletters, and webinars might be more cost-effective than other means. 

Save the more expensive outbound calls for prospects who have already signaled that they’re ready to talk directly with someone.
 
Be ready when they’re ready

When prospects do signal that they’re ready to talk about a purchase, make sure you’re ready too. If you drop the ball here and ignore prospects that are eager for attention, that’s frustrating for them and lost sales opportunities for you.

Someone should be available to quickly answer their email, pick up the phone, or respond to the “Tell me more” form.  The window of opportunity is open for only a short while.  (See "SaaS buyers are quick to buy.") 

Selling solutions to busy people is a challenge, and for most SaaS solutions, you’re always selling to busy people.  I’ve found, in fact, that when a prospect does have lots of time on their hands, they’re usually not very a good prospect.