In the early days, software industry used to be an easy business; build something that solves customer problems, and the customers would follow.
Many marketers now find themselves in more mature, competitive markets, with numerous (and larger) competitors to contend with. As a result, their marketing campaigns are competing with others who have been running and optimizing campaigns and landing page experiences for years, and in search especially, cost-per-click can be upwards of $25-$50, driving cost/lead well above $500.
In these cases, certain approaches make sense and others are to be avoided or limited. We'll detail those here, channel by channel. The key strategy for competitive situations is to run many campaigns across many channels, see what's working, carve away campaigns that are inefficient lead sources, and expand on the campaigns that are succeeding.
Figure 1 - Digital Marketing Channels available to SaaS Startups
Organic Search (SEO)
Organic search can be one of the most effective methods for a SaaS company to reach prospects. Think of it this way; you can pay $40/click for 10 clicks….that's 400 dollars…or you could hand that 400 dollars to a writer and have them write a really good article that attracts 5 clicks this month….5 clicks next month…and 5 clicks every month for the next 36 month. When paid search CPCs (and therefore budgets) are high, investing in a strong SEO Content Strategy becomes even more attractive.
SEO is a very long topic to cover, but the keys to it include:
- Comprehensive and systematic keyword research and prioritization
- Optimization of existing pages for some of those keywords
- A content plan for the company going forward to generate content
- A robust PR strategy. This is your best way to get links.
Things to avoid in SEO are:
- Link-gaining schemes; you have to be very very careful with these, you can actually do your website a lot of damage in Google's eyes if you adopt practices Google does not agree with.
- Placing too much content on other people's sites for links. This can be done from time to time, but remember, you should be using your best content to build your own site up, so you can rank organically. Yes, links will help you, and the occasional guest blog post etc can be helpful…but do it in moderation.
- Partners who are not transparent in how they obtain their results.
Some effective approaches for content development include:
a.) writing very comprehensive 6-8 page White Papers as thought leadership/lead gen pieces, then use those as outlines for presentations at trade shows….
b.) break your White Papers up into pieces and repurpose as blog entries
c.) Run webinars based on the White Papers/Presentations
d.) Transcribe the webinar, or conference speeches
e.) Interview experts within the company on various topics and transcribe their thoughts.
This is all great raw material for meaningful thought leadership content that can rank well.
Remarketing - Google Display Network, LinkedIn, Facebook
Remarketing is essentially following people around the web who have visited your website and showing them ads. It's one of the highest ROI methods of advertising, and always makes sense to do on the GDN, LinkedIn, and Facebook. If you have significant site traffic already, it should be the first type of campaign you initiate. At a minimum, even if you don't spend money on it yet, you should set up tagging and your audiences in all the platforms so the platforms can start accumulating cookies - you can then show ads to those people some months down the road (up to 180 days later for Facebook and 540 days for Google).
Generally in paid search, bidding on your own brand term always makes sense. You can bid on earlier funnel terms, and can now use more sophisticated targeting strategies such as search remarketing (show to people typing anything related to this broad term, but only show to those that have visited our website). While paid search campaigns should be thoroughly built out, people tend to have high expectations for search, and with high cost-per-click, other methods become attractive.
It is true that Bing Ads always makes sense, and often because competitors may be inherently lazy, they may have not bothered to port their campaigns to Bing, and you can sometimes see lower cost/conversions on Bing. We have worked with several B-to-B companies where Bing is actually driving more leads than Google because of this dynamic!
The keys to success with paid search are researching the entire keyword space up front, constructing comprehensive campaigns that are aligned with keyword intent using a funnel approach, and managing negatives tightly throughout the process to reduce "wasted spend" (incidentally, SEMCopilot, my own SaaS platform to help manage AdWords, focuses on eliminating wasted spend) Check it out at http://www.semcopilot.com/
Google Display Network
This is traditional banner ad advertising that everyone is familiar with - you can use Google Ads to target partners of Google. Essentially this amounts to the Google AdSense program for publishers that lets you host ads on your website, plus "remnant" inventory from Google's Doubleclick platform that is unsold ad inventory.
What most are probably not familiar with is that Google has been evolving targeting methods over time, and there are several that are more powerful than the traditional "placement" targeting or "content" targeting approaches.
Custom Affinity Audiences allows you to load a list of keywords or URLs, and Google will show ads to people interested in those things. How they do it no one can explain really, only the engineers understand - it's big data stuff. However, often it can perform really well. We like in particular loading competitor URLs or using competitor domain names.
Custom Intent Audiences is a newer type, with more limited results, which is essentially like remarketing to people that have typed particular searches on Google itself. As you can imagine this is pretty powerful. We like testing top keywords that have worked for search campaigns, but also competitor domains because many people navigate using Google search rather than their actual browser bar.
For most B-to-B situations of low or medium competitiveness, the Google Display Network campaigns tend to deliver leads at around 2-3x the overall search cost/lead. But in a situation where search cost/lead is high, the display network can match or even outperform search (if managed carefully).
Many B-to-B marketers may think Facebook is not for them, but it works great in most B-to-B situations. We particularly like the built in lead forms you can set up with Facebook, where fields autopopulate with people's information and you don't even need a landing page. Facebook targeting is a whole other discussion but you can for instance load a customer or prospect list (emails or phones in this case), market to those people that Facebook recognizes, or target a "similar" audience. Facebook's similar audience feature usually outperforms Google's because Facebook is actually driving it with detailed credit card information...many highly useful data points are used for their lookalike profiling. Facebook also has lots of other ways to target, topics and demographics and so forth.
LinkedIn has an inherent disadvantage in that impression inventory is fairly limited and as a result, cost-per-click has been driven up on that platform, particularly for InMail campaigns. However, a $12.00-$14.00 per click for an InMail campaign...which looks expensive for most Google advertisers...starts looking fantastic to SaaS companies paying $35-$40 per click over on Google.
So for most B-to-B companies, setting up InMail, Sponsored Search, and Sponsored Post ads and running them on an evergreen basis is a no-brainer. As on Facebook, we like the built in lead form capability - it reduces friction and gets more leads.
The key with LinkedIn is to test multiple types of targeting (say 12-14 different approaches) and then three or four will do well. You can target in many ways (company size, titles, industry, etc) but standout performers in our opinion are the "Skills" targeting and "Groups" targeting.
So, it's important for any BtoB software company to set up a robust LinkedIn ads program...but the marketer will usually run up against a wall in terms of being limited in the lead volume they can generate. Most software marketers would kill for more LinkedIn inventory!
Account based marketing can involve a number of elements, but essentially it involves surrounding a target prospect (or all employees) at particular companies in various ways. Many will start using LinkedIn to identify individuals that are desirable, then perhaps advertise to them by simply targeting their company or people with titles at their company on LinkedIn...or zip code targeting on the Google Display Network...or by using email marketing, and so forth. This is really integrated marketing in the classic sense and needs to be coordinated with the CRM and marketing automation system and also inside sales. It's not as simple as simply finding names, you have to essentially stand up a whole system inside your company for making a marketing machine function in concert with your inside sales team. This is probably the least understood marketing channel around, the newest, and the most evolving. We increasingly see SaaS companies adopting this approach though, particularly in competitive markets.
Webinars are a great method of educating potential customers from a thought leadership position, they should always be about an industry topic or trend, and not about your product itself. Think of webinars as being like a white paper - you want to thought lead, not sell. The selling will happen automatically. While these can be a challenge to set up, software companies really should be doing more of these.
Any competitive software market is very easy to identify - it's one where the lead-gen companies have walked in and taken over the search results. G2 Crowd, SofwareAdvice, Capterra, GetApp, etc advertise on the competitive search terms, use calls-to-action like a vendor guide, then sell the lead to multiple vendors. Yes, these leads are generally over-called and can be tough. But they can lead to sales, and buying some leads from these sources gives you an additional lead source and more importantly a benchmark for what cost per lead the market is currently bearing for your industry. We recommend most software companies budget at least some portion, say 10-20% of their budget towards buying leads.
Competitive markets can cause software companies to pine for the old days...and you know what, sometimes simply Trade Shows, partnering with Trade Associations, Traditional PR, and even Print Advertising may get you cheaper leads than Google will, depending on your level of competition.
For trade shows, try skipping software oriented ones in your market and instead, go to industry vertical trade shows…be one of 2-3 software companies attending rather than 80…you can be the big fish in the small pond, and it's easier to be perceived as a thought leader in a roomful of non-peers.
Does anyone in your market do print advertising? No? Well, maybe it's a great way to stand out! Napoleon said above all things, be noticed; if you can reach potential customers through channels that others are ignoring, you have a better chance of getting through the noise prospects experience daily.
SaaS software is a great business model; in competitive markets, the key is to be running many campaigns across many platforms, see what's working, and ruthlessly carve away what is not. Lots of little sources of leads can add up to a steady stream, there is no single marketing channel that is going to be a silver bullet; it's challenging but not impossible, you simply have to put a robust multichannel program in place and then really make sure your account-based marketing, marketing automation, and sales processes are finely tuned to take maximum advantage of the precious leads you're generating.
It is interesting to note too though, that as a competitive software market matures, the winners are almost never the ones with the highest customer lifetime value, simply because most markets are efficient and over time competitors features and pricing tend to converge. So customer lifetime value tends not to differ widely in mature markets.
The winners tend instead to be the companies with the lowest overhead.
Think about it; if you have 8 programmers and are amortizing their cost over 1,000 customers, but you're competing with a company that is amortizing 8 programmers over 10,000 customers, who has more money available to bid keywords up and win? Right, the company with the lower costs. This is why we often see a "roll-up" strategies dominating in software markets…the company that gets really good at screening, acquiring, and integrating other companies manage to achieve the ultimate economies of scale can consolidate the marketplace and dominate the digital landscape.
SEMCopilot is an innovative and rapidly evolving software platform dedicated to making PPC account managers successful, and much of it is focused on solving problems personally encountered (particularly my own mistakes I've learned from) managing many dozens of AdWords accounts over the years.