Oversaturation. Software issues. Clunky UI. Uninspiring UX. High churn rates. Low ROI. And everything in between.
Whether you’re racing to market with a brand new offering, gaining a foothold and trying to scale, or firmly established and trying to improve performance, there’s no shortage of challenges SaaS businesses inevitably face.
So when it comes to SaaS marketing, those issues are often so compounded and intertwined that it’s difficult to identify them at their source.
Although not every SaaS has the same growing pains—let alone in the same way or at the same stage—many experience similar symptoms that stem from common causes. By identifying these SaaS marketing challenges and working back towards their origins, many different businesses will find similar ways to fly past them on their way to success.
To exemplify this point, we’ve reached out to several different types of SaaS businesses throughout the spectrum of development to get a first-hand perspective on what the biggest SaaS marketing challenges are—and how to overcome them.
Challenge 1: Learning How to Service the Market, Not Just Market the Service
This may seem like a pretty backwards idea since you’re on a marketing blog looking for SaaS marketing advice, but given our research and the experiences of those we’ve worked with and/or interviewed, this challenge is one of the most important concepts for a SaaS business to master. But first, let’s break it down into simpler terms to put it into context.
Why The Market Matters
According to G2, by mid last year, there were already 34,727 SaaS products spread across 745 vertical industries competing for space. Gartner predicts that growth to continue in 2019, topping a healthy 17.3% industry-wide by the end of the year. Surprisingly, even some of the least suspected niches to become overly-crowded already are. So what does this all mean? The market is oversaturated nearly everywhere and if the current trends continue, it’s only going to get worse.
Why Many Businesses Fail Because Of It
Regardless of how cluttered a niche gets, there are still hundreds if not thousands of SaaS businesses ready to forge ahead, confident that their offering not only suits a need but edges the competition as well.
Unfortunately, while plenty of those businesses might know a problem that needs to be solved, have the data to prove it, and may even have a reasonable solution, none of that guarantees they actually understand why the problem occurs in the first place.
Two decades ago, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen began to research what made business innovation and problem-solving successful. That research eventually turned into the “jobs-to-be-done” theory: the idea that people “hire” products and services to do a “job”—a job that may go beyond ideal customer profiles and a partial and obvious surface solution.
For instance, while a customer might work their way down the funnel to purchase your integrated accounting software, they may discover that one of your calculators saves them a ton of time and the rest is only marginally useful. Or that while the integration saves them time coordinating between software, the operations of some features end up taking more time than normal. Both of these instances could compromise how good of a fit your offering really is, and in turn, their longevity as a customer; neither of which would likely be exemplified by data alone.
“Our biggest challenge was finding problems that actually mattered to a large number of customers and hadn’t been solved.” - Amit R G, Richpanel.
How To Fly Past It
It’s hard to argue that data isn’t helpful for putting together ideal customer profiles or tracking the effectiveness of an email, blog post, website, or app. But it can’t be used for everything. So how does a SaaS business truly gain a customer-level understanding of their offering and a competitive advantage in an oversaturated market?
“User interviews and in-person meetings,” says Amit R G of Richpanel, an Ecommerce-based SaaS that offers comprehensive customer service support. “Our biggest discovery was that users couldn’t always articulate the problems, and the problems were often in areas we weren’t looking into. Watching users use our products and competitor products let us see first-hand how we could help.”
Fortunately, Richpanel was in the beta stage when they truly started aligning themselves with a customer-level experience, giving them time to alter their offering before hitting the open market based on what they discovered—which ended up being quite significant.
While Richpanel was originally designed to integrate data from numerous apps, in-person meetings revealed that customer service agents still had to bounce between many different tools to complete necessary actions, a process fraught with inefficiencies—something the Richpanel usage data never would have shown them otherwise.
“It was easy to get distracted mid-way through the task,” says R G. “We understood why agents could only resolve 20-30 queries a day. And when we tried answering a few customer queries ourselves, we were even slower.”
So what did they do? Integrated the necessary actions into their helpdesk, allowing agents to talk to customers and assist them all in one place.
Through in-person interviews, the team at Richpanel identified that having all the necessary tools, channels, and actions in one place would be a key feature and selling point of their offering—and highlight it accordingly (above).
That change in approach yielded significant results. Not only did working alongside their customers help define developmental priorities and increase adoption rates, but they realized that client-level alignment could even be applied to smaller elements of their approach.
“We learned that how you market the feature is equally important as the feature itself. For instance, we discovered that users were intimidated by the word ‘macros’. It made them feel like it was a feature for the more advanced user. But when we marketed the same thing as ‘sequences’, more people used it.”
“We learn more by talking to one keen customer than studying 200 users on Mixpanel or Google Analytics.” - Amit R G, Richpanel.
In short, there’s a reason it’s called software as a service, not as a product. Products get outdated, but building a business around the jobs your customers are trying to complete by using their direct input to tailor your offering will help assure you stay aligned with their needs—which is exactly why learning to service the market instead of market the service can make all the difference in your SaaS’s growth.
Challenge 2: Learning to Speak the Language of Your Ideal Customer to Help Them Down the Funnel
“Converting knowledge seekers to product users via search.” - GVS Chaitanya, Appknox
While plenty of SaaS businesses provide better, faster, more streamlined, or more feature-laden versions of previous solutions, there are plenty more that don’t have the luxury of piggybacking off the work of their predecessors. And while that has a significant influence on a product or service’s development, it also has a huge impact on its ability to be discovered and understood by those seeking it—directly or otherwise.
The Problem with Globalization, Keywords, and the Business-as-usual Approach
Although many SaaS markets are growing increasingly more global, between oversaturation, the all-too-common approach to keyword research, and a lack of prospect-tailored content that aims to increase understanding of the service, many SaaS businesses fail to live up to their own expectations when it comes to getting awareness-stage prospects into the funnel or flywheel.
Any SaaS business entering the market with a brand new or niche solution is bound to find out the hard way that getting discovered—let alone understood—often isn’t easy. After all, given how SEO works, someone searching for the best broom isn’t likely to find robot vacuums—they’re only searching for solutions they know exist. And if they’ve not used a robot vacuum, chances are they won’t fully get how one operates, and they won’t be inclined to listen or care without the right messaging.
Although this problem can be overcome, many SaaS businesses—which are almost entirely reliant on their online presence—make the fatal error of failing to understand how to reach their potential buyers. The most common issue they face is focusing their keyword research either on their solution, their competitors’, or both, and failing to give prospects an entry-level understanding of their offering with messaging that appeals to them.
And since SaaS businesses function as online-only platforms, failing to capitalize on the primary source of lead generation and discovery can have a significant, and often hugely detrimental impact on growth.
How To Fly Past It
Like learning to service the market, the key to gaining awareness and connection has everything to do with getting on the customer’s level. Instead of focusing on your solution, you should focus your efforts—and keywords—on realistic search terms your ideal customers would be using to find a solution to their problem, then present your offering with the right messaging and easily-digestible content once they’ve discovered it.
SEO, Keyword Ideation, and Research
Putting the earliest stages of speaking your customers’ language into context starts with their discovery process. Let’s revisit the broom versus robot vacuum analogy.
Let’s say your ideal customer is tech savvy enough to use the Internet, but hasn’t ever come across a robot vacuum. One day, they’re at home sweeping when they realize, “Wow. I hate sweeping. This is really inefficient, not very thorough, and I have to do it every few days just to keep my floors clean. What a pain!” So they hit their favorite search engine with a query.
Even though your robot vacuum may be the perfect solution, if you use keywords surrounding your product, such as “robot”, “vacuum” or even “electronic sweeper”, the chances of your potential customer finding your offering are slim to none. However, if you learn to think from their perspective, it’s easy to see why long-tail keywords such as “alternatives to brooms”, “most efficient sweeping methods”, or “easiest way to keep floors clean” are much more likely to be found.
Sometimes all it takes is a brain dump on surrounding topics to identify potential opportunities you can vet and support with some actual keyword research. But if you’re short on time, personnel, or resources, there are plenty of places online to obtain some good ideas, such as Answerthepublic.com, which takes shorter keywords and automatically extrapolates them into long-tail keywords that might be a good fit—and that’s not even mentioning paid services.
Once you’ve identified how to get discovered, it’s time to speak their language with the right messaging to help them fully understand your offering.
Outreach and Understanding
Appknox, a SaaS based mobile security solution, is a great example of a business reaching their customers in consecutive funnel stages.
When faced with the challenge of finding and aligning with their ideal customers, the Appknox team discovered that through online developer and security communities and social media such as LinkedIn, they were not only able to identify awareness-stage keywords, but also hone into their ideal customers’ language, giving them the ability to communicate on their customers’ level when conducting outreach—one of their largest issues early on.
“Building a first touchpoint relationship, like making an intro or a message to identify the right funnel for a persona [was a specific challenge],” says GVS Chaitanya of Appknox. “But people love it when you talk in their language, like sales-talk for sales people and growth talk for marketers. We discovered that cold emails can really work if you do it the right way, with the right messaging and story.
And the proof was in the digital pudding. Applying that knowledge to their cold outreach email campaigns returned as much as 65-71% open rates, allowing them to help prospects past discovery and into understanding.
Much like how Appknox built their outreach, their lexicon and story work hand-in-hand to create meaningful messaging that speaks to their audience across their website and social channels.
“In our case, we were able to show our real value by inviting people to sign up for a webinar on how to use open-source tools for mobile testing by showing a live security test,” says Chaitanya. “Appknox has now built TOFU prospects over a 90 day period, for which we plan to up-sell our security tool through a "Free Security Consultation", without spending additional money on any kind of acquisition”.
In the end, Appknox was able to not only guide their prospects through two stages of their journey, but to help those they’re seeking to serve in a meaningful way—all by simply learning to speak their customers’ language.
Challenge 3: Learning How to Most Effectively Reach Your Niche Customers
When it comes to SaaS businesses, there seems to be a prevailing assumption that the right keywords are all that are necessary to achieve discovery. And while we’ve detailed the importance of speaking your customers’ language, there’s one thing it doesn’t actually account for: not all ideal customers inherently exist online.
The Myths of Market Created by Assumption
While it seems a bit counterintuitive to start a SaaS or other app-based business when a majority of the ideal customers don’t often use the Internet, let alone apps or software services, the niche itself still certainly exists. In fact, there are plenty of markets that could vastly benefit from a digital transformation even if they don’t boast the same number of potential users as others—and many of the most successful businesses in this field were developed exactly for that reason.
For example, consider the groups and generations of people who aren’t so tech-savvy—by choice, lack of experience, lack of access, or anything in between—that could reap significant benefits from adopting a digital solution but simply haven’t been given a good enough reason to do so, whether it applies to their personal or professional life.
Even if they’re not all apparent, there are tons of previously non-savvy groups who have jumped onto the digital train. Skype has helped long-distance friends and family keep in touch. Brain-focused apps like Lumosity are attempting to help those with failing memories stay proactive with prevention. Medical apps are helping folks diagnose symptoms, keep track of medications, set alarms, and even automatically call emergency services if a fall is detected.
Barring Skype, very few had ready-made markets willing to adopt post-discovery. Many had to get creative in finding ways to reach their target audience instead of simply assuming their target audience would find them—especially without an intuitive way to do so!
Realistically Analyzing your Ideal Customers
All of the above examples are meant to showcase three main ideas. First, that not having a ready-made audience isn’t necessarily a barrier to reaching your ideal customers. Second, that you should be realistic about where your ideal customers actually exist and how you aim to reach them. And third, that just because some customers are harder to reach than others doesn’t mean they’re not important or worth marketing to.
In the case of Skype, it’s safe to assume that not all of their buyer personas frequented the same space their product resided in: smartphones, computers, and tablets. But instead of excluding those less tech-savvy, Skype was realistic in recognizing how many ideal customers were represented in this segment, then chose to tailor their efforts accordingly.
How To Fly Past It
Because of their careful analysis, Skype realized they could still reach this audience one of two main ways: by placing print ads, knowing the chances of discovery for older generations would be higher there, as well as focusing their online marketing towards the tech-savvy users likely to introduce their offering by word-of-mouth to others who weren’t.
While there are certainly other ways to reach more traditional offline audiences, word-of-mouth seems to be one of the most common and effective methods around, and Skype is just one example of how its power works equally well both online and off.
GreaseBook, an app designed to help those in oil and gas track and manage all aspects of production, faced a similar set of challenges.
“We traditionally market to an older demographic,” says GreaseBook founder and CEO Greg Archbald. “[Compared to] reaching potential clients in their teens, 20s, and 30s, oil and gas operators between 50 and 70 don’t hang out in the same places online and their buying patterns are very different. It’s a challenge all the way around because one, we’re very tech-forward, and two, we’re serving a market of laggards when it comes to adopting new technology, so it’s an interesting space.”
To connect with a tough-to-reach niche audience, Archbald used videos by real users to generate social proof that would speak to new customers directly from their website, reinforcing the word-of-mouth discovery with actual experience.
While it was a challenge to reach the first few clients, Archbald and his team quickly realized that without a reliable means to reach all of their prospects, they would have to use word-of-mouth as the main vehicle of discovery. So how did they ensure that vehicle would drive sales?
“Continue reinvesting in the product, continue to nourish clients, provide great customer service, and take feedback,” says Archbald. “It’s more an exercise in product development than it is marketing.”
And that’s exactly what they did. By using customer feedback, they were able to further refine their product to align with their clients’ needs. With customer service, they were able to keep their clients satisfied. And between the two, it became a no-brainer for their customers to spread the word, making GreaseBook the fastest growing app in the oil field.
At its core, GreaseBook exemplifies this challenge better than almost any other. Instead of trying to stick to proven marketing methods to reach their most niche customers, Archbald and his team took it one step further: making their product so well-aligned with their audience that no amount of marketing alone could have achieved the same results any better.
While each SaaS will undoubtedly encounter their own challenges both big and small—some that may overlap with what we’ve covered here and others that may not—those we’ve detailed above should have made it clear that aligning with your customers in every way possible is key to finding success, no matter what market your business falls in. By constantly listening to their needs, giving them value, and reaching them in a meaningful way, you’ll ensure your business provides your customers a true solution and provides itself a sustainable approach to overcoming future challenges and finding success.
Get in touch if you need a hand or have any questions regarding marketing your SaaS business. Or, start by downloading our free infographic below!