Strategy & Planning

BSMS 17: The biggest early-stage marketing mistakes to avoid (Part 1)


In today's part 1 of 2 episode, we tackle 3 major marketing mistakes and bad practices that can often get you into trouble as a young B2B SaaS company. Shutting down initiatives too soon, not knowing when and where to ramp up marketing efforts, and dreaming of brand awareness as a fix-all, are all avoidable issues that can be remedied with some planning and strategic marketing know-how. Experimenting is always encouraged while growing and scaling, but knowing how to read your progress results and where to focus your energies afterwards is essential. Patience here is a virtue.

Episode transcript


All right. After a brief few month hiatus, we are back. Thank you so much for hanging in there, and thank you for choosing to spend your time with us. As always, I'm Mike. I'm a former Associate CMO and Marketing Leader turned Product Lead here at Kalungi. And as always, I'm here with Stijn Hendrikse, one of Kalungi's founders and Executive CMO, here at Kalungi. Today we're going to be talking about the biggest marketing mistakes we see SaaS companies and marketing leaders make in the early days. It's going to be five topics split into two episodes. It's a little bit of a long one. 

So today we get to the first three, which are: number one, shutting down initiatives too quickly if they don't actually get results, not knowing where to focus, and trying to do too many things at once. Number two is doing things in the wrong order, which is not having the basics in place before you start to ramp up and diversify your channels. And then the third one is this kind of elusive dream of buying brand awareness as a fix-all. So it's this idea that if you build it and make noise, they will come, but you can't always buy your way to popularity. Let's get into it. 

Cool cool. So, topic today: biggest marketing and sales mistakes an early-stage SaaS company can make. I dropped in a few examples of things that I've noticed but I'm also really curious to get your perspective because you've seen a lot more, and I think you've also seen it from the sales side of things. And, you know, as a sales leader, a CRO, a CEO, I think you've probably seen the full gamut and also different stages that companies are in. 


Yeah. It's a very timely question Mike. I talked with someone yesterday who just accepted a new role as a VP of marketing for a small B2B SaaS startup here in Seattle. I think they're at like eight or nine million in ARR. The team is a couple of people and he's taking over from someone who they were not, I think, satisfied with, or at least who didn't get them to where they want to be right now. So we had a conversation on what are the challenges to be aware of. The things that can go wrong and often go wrong with young marketing teams and leaders who are under a lot of pressure to drive growth. 

Things in marketing take a little longer than maybe a CFO getting their balance sheet printed for a board meeting, or an engineer building a next version of a screen in the product, or a sales team member prepping for a sales call and doing the sales call. 

In marketing a lot of the good results come from repeating certain things, learning from them, making them better over time, being thoughtful about things like positioning and messaging and understanding what is the longer term goal, what audiences are you trying to really enroll in your marketing efforts, and then stick with some of that because you're not going to be seeing results right away. You will have to optimize over time.

I love to use the example of account-based marketing, and we have another podcast episode on this so we're not going to go into too much detail here, but when you decide to go do outbound or account-based marketing, it is by definition, not going to yield results early on, you will be learning a lot you'll test messaging, you'll test if your ideal customer profile is correct. 

So if you give up on that, if it doesn't yield immediate results, that's a really big waste, right? So that's one of those things that is an example of, yeah. Shutting down initiatives too quick if they're not immediately giving you results. SEM is another one, search engine marketing. I think it's by definition, when you start buying clicks that you will learn from that, you'll do AB tests et cetera, so you have to be a little bit patient and then make sure you have enough focus on it so that you're not… If you're doing it almost too lightweight you're not going to learn much because you just don't have to volume to learn those things and then that might be a reason to shut it down. Then again, it's a good waste of all the time and every dollar that you spend on that.


An interesting thing I heard lately was this idea of shifting the way that a company thinks about marketing from effort to equity. So focusing on less things and building more so that they grow taller. So instead of doing… Building 10 blocks of Legos, you build two towers that are very high. And those two towers over time by design will perform really well. And so I think, it's easy to want to build a lot of different things especially when you have nothing, when you're building the foundation. But I feel like it's so much more effective if you just focus on those two things and build the equity within them and then figure out between those which is performing better. Can we do some things tangentially to those instead of doing 10 things, half-hearted and then realizing it's not working and just shutting it all down? 


Yeah, no. I think it's a great point, Mike. Yeah, what most marketers get and their leadership team colleagues is that it's good to focus on a certain part of the market, right? Your ideal customer profile, nailing a niche. Those things are relatively easy to sort of align on, as a leadership team with your shareholders with your board. I think what's less popular is where a marketing leader says let's also focus on our tactics, right? Let's only do organic or paid search or event marketing or sponsorship or a channel program and it doesn't really matter which one of those you pick. I think most of those tactics can be made successful when you have nothing. Right? All of those things can become something but you have to do it really well and focus on it. And what often I think happens is that companies focus on, let's say a certain vertical or industry or a certain type of solution they're going to market. 

And then they still are not going to focus on the execution tactics, right? They do an organic and search engine marketing and account based marketing and they’re going to run a webinars series and do events, and maybe they add a subscription kind of sponsorship to a paid publication. And all those things will just dilute your ability to do any of those really well. Then most of those will not perform… Very easy to expect. That’s very predictable. And then you're basically got to pull the plug on some of those, and then you're basically back at square one. Yeah, no, it's a great one. I think, if you asked, I think that's what you asked, “What are things that can go wrong?” Early, sort of, marketing and sales mistakes with small B2B SaaS companies as they get going. This sort of start stop problem is a really big one. There's a couple of others, but this one’s a big one. 


What else is there?


Well, in addition to this being more about focus where we just talked about the other one was doing things in the right order, right? It's very easy, because marketing is such a big candy store of things you can work on, to do things in the wrong order, right? To start, for example, spending money on paid clicks through PPC or SEM without actually having good content to point your landing pages to, or have an ability to follow up fast. What most people know is that with inbound marketing, the speed of follow-up is going to be a very high correlation to your close rate, your conversion rate, right? If you get inbound leads, whether they click on a paid ad or they come in organic, it doesn't really matter, but they're searching for a solution and if you're not going to respond quickly after they fill in a form, then they're going to go with your competitor for that first conversation that first call, who does react maybe to the form they filled out within minutes or hours. 

So that's a good example of when you start doing something like SEM. You better make sure that your landing pages work well, that you can do AB testing, you have solid analytics, your sales team is able to follow up, et cetera. Another example, forgetting to check your trademarks, right? You come up with a great logo, a great company name, you have the domain name, except for maybe forget to check the trademarks, which can really haunt you later. Although it's a very small effort if you do it on time. 

Starting to do SEO before you actually know what questions your audience is asking, right? I always am very careful to get too much SEO expertise in my marketing team early on who's going to do keyword research and all kinds of advanced content planning and on page off page optimization before actually understanding what are the personas that you're really targeting and what do they care about? What are the problems they're trying to solve? What are the questions they're asking, right? And so again, the right order, right? Start writing things that are just good topics for the people you care about and then verify, right. See if they actually like what you're writing, that it's relevant for them, ask them. And then you can pour all the SEO sort of sauce over it to make it even better. Yeah, so that would be the second thing I think that often goes wrong Mike, that a marketing leader can pick from so many things they can do they also can do it in the wrong order. 


I’ll also add into that analytics. I think that's one of the biggest foundations. We had an example to your point on SEO, and maybe choosing the keywords that you focus on and build content around too early before actually knowing enough about what your ICP audience is actually searching for versus what you think they're searching for. We got in into their search data and we found they had a ton of traffic. They were ranking for a ton of keywords on the first page, first position, featured snippets, but they felt off. 


They were the wrong words right? They just happened to be there? 


They were the wrong words! And so it begged the question, “How many of the people who are landing on the site from these keywords are actually converting, becoming customers?” and the analytics weren't there to actually answer the question. So it's hard to make decisions unless you have the full funnel and you can actually see the picture of how many people are moving down your pipeline. And I feel like that's a huge one. That's one of the first things that should get set up, in my opinion. And if you're missing it, it's hard to make decisions later on. 


Yeah. It’s a great point. Another one that's one of my favorite sort of what can go wrong examples Mike is this illusion, or illusion may be the wrong word, but the dream that a lot of leaders have CEOs, founders, their board members of brand awareness. “Let's bring in a CMO or a VP of marketing and let's invest in marketing and get us some brand awareness, because if we could only make sure that everybody in the world knows about this really cool product we have, this really beautiful service we deliver, then selling it is going to be easy, right? It's all about brand awareness.” And what then often happens, if there's a lot of focus on that there's a temptation to take shortcuts where brand awareness and building sort of more of that becomes... we try to solve that by making noise, by trying to sort of make a lot of… Buy almost attention, right? Buy clicks, buy people's eyeballs and there's two problems with that. One is that might not get you the right brand awareness, not the right people, just a little bit in line with the SEO topic we just talked about. 

But more importantly, if you are building your first marketing function, it is really important to understand the small part of the market that you are successful in right, the niche that you may have already nailed, and understand why that is relevant for them, why they like your product, why they stay, why they pay and they stay and then build it out slowly and really understand why people in your target audience will make a decision to change. To consider your product or alternatives and answering that question “Why should someone change? Why should your target persona change?” is fundamental and unless you can answer that question, “what are their pain points? What are their fears and dreams?” et cetera. It's very hard to solve the big brand awareness challenge. 

So I think that would be the third on my list, right? The first would be shutting things down too quickly. Start stop problems. The second, doing things in the right order. The third would be getting too excited about driving brand awareness by just making noise and buying sponsorships and getting on the right committee or the right sort of website, with your content versus really understanding your audience and the key dynamics behind your personas, where you've had success already and how you can build on that. 


Yeah. On the brand awareness thing too, I think there's usually just an unrealistic expectation of what it takes to really have that presence in the market. If you think of companies that have kind of done that by brute force like, everybody knows who they are because they're everywhere, they spend so much in ads but they've done a lot of things right. To get to that point where you're just in front of everybody, it's very expensive and if you're not making the right decisions or targeting the right people, you can blow a lot of money very quickly. 


Yeah. It’s one of the reasons we like to do outbound in addition to inbound, I'm a huge inbound fan. I think that's the way to scale a company, right? You've got to be relevant for a large amount of people. They need to be able to find you and sort of come into your funnel because they have a genuine need and they're ready to consider you, that's fine. That's what you need to focus on first. But brand awareness is easier done by doing a little bit of outbound in addition to that, and make sure you're knocking on the right doors, the right people who fit your ideal customer profile. Again, with relevant content just as you need relevant content for inbound you need it for 

outbound too. But that is really a nice way to do brand awareness in a much more targeted way, right? Versus buying maybe broad sponsorships or ads. 


All right. And that's it for today's episode, really appreciate you tuning in, appreciate you spending your time with us. Today's a two-part episode so make sure to tune in to the next one where we'll continue the conversation about the biggest marketing mistakes we see in early stage SaaS companies. We've got two more really important ones about data integrity and making sure that if you do decide to hire a marketing leader in house, you select the right one that has a good mix of strategic and tactical skills for whatever your company stage is at, but Stijn gives us a couple of really good examples for the kind of things to look for in a marketing leader, depending on your stage so definitely check that out. 

And if you're new to the podcast, strongly recommend that you follow it in your app to get notified when we launch new ones. And then also check out the back catalog at your leisure. There's a lot of good stuff in some of the episodes that we've released so far. I strongly recommend episode two. It is by far our most downloaded episode, it’s the most popular. And it is the one we get asked questions about the most often. So check that out if you haven't already. Otherwise, until the next one. Thank you so much for spending your time with us. Really appreciate it and hopefully we will see you soon. 

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