SaaS is a peculiar industry in many ways, relying much more on preserving lifetime value and much less on initial sales when compared to other industries. Its bizarre mix of consumer and B2B worldviews tends to make marketing for SaaS a unique experience, and marketing trends in this industry don’t entirely line up with those.
With those unique forces at play, let’s talk about how marketing trends look for SaaS in 2018.
1. Customer Lifecycle Integration Becomes Fundamental
Marketing automation and personalization are fundamentally reshaping the way we communicate with customers. Placing all of your leads into a single contact list and sending them communications without segmentation can still be viable, but you lose a great deal of value in comparison to what could be gained by sending more relevant, targeted communications to customers who are at just the right place in the customer journey.
But, even if your SaaS is still in the minimum viable product stage and your audience is too small for this kind of personalization, it’s important to approach your marketing with the customer lifecycle in mind. Not only will taking this approach make it easier for transition to more personalized and segmented strategies in the future, but will also help you in the here and now.
Map your customer lifecycle by identifying:
- Awareness: Where and why will your leads first find out about your brand, about products related to it, and about topics and problems that will eventually lead them in your direction? What kinds of awareness that aren’t directly related to your product be capitalized upon, to eventually guide them into an interest in your SaaS?
- Interest: What promises and opportunities will let the person transit from merely being aware that your product exists among the likes, to taking an interest in using it? What features of your product are going to separate this particular audience from the general audience, who is unlikely to ever show an interest in your product?
- Desire: What are the problems that your target audience is dealing with and how does your SaaS promise to solve them in a satisfying way? What is unique about your product that makes your solution the only real viable one for at least a segment of your target audience?
- Action: What barriers and bottlenecks exist to prevent members of your target audience from making a purchase? Besides obvious efforts, such as offering a free trial or a freemium version, what can you do to remove these barriers?
- Loyalty: How can you better onboard customers so that they continue using your SaaS? What new features, product uses, and benefits can you offer to keep customers using your product and speaking well of it to others?
Rather than treating the above as a funnel, as we commonly think of it, map out the journey more like a tree, with roots and branches.
There are many ways a customer may become aware of your brand, and many reasons they may become loyal customers. Consider the roots and branches as you map out your customer journey in order to better understand the most effective way to communicate with them, across multiple channels and at multiple stages in their journey.
2. Expect “Anti-Lean” Products
To say that the SaaS industry is saturated is to put it lightly. In the marketing technology industry alone, there are currently 5000 startups. This number was only 150 in 2011, and this trend is taking place in not only marketing but everywhere, from HR to sales to security and even to the consumer market.
The need for lean startups was evident when this revolution was first getting started, but by now, the idea of developing a lean product i.e. built entirely around the USP, with sights set squarely on what is needed to get a minimum viable product up and running is an entirely mainstream idea. It has become the accepted model of launching a SaaS startup, and that means it’s not always going to be the right approach.
With so many in the industry claiming that simplicity is their USP, you can expect an increase in competitors who will compete on the number of features they offer and the ways in which they can upstage all of the smaller tools by combining their functionality into a single powerful package.
This doesn’t mean that you should let feature bloat ruin the streamlined nature of your products, but you should be aware that unless your USP is so revolutionary that it shakes your industry, competing on the leanness of your product alone won’t be enough anymore, and that fundamentally changes the way you need to approach your messaging.
3. Feature Marketing, Not Product Marketing
Closely related to the rise in “anti-lean” products is a corresponding need to market features instead of products.
Even if your SaaS interface is streamlined in a way that prevents the introduction of new features from creating a bloated user experience, feature expansion can lead to a cluttered marketing approach with no clear messaging or USP.
An important part of the solution to this problem is to start marketing features individually, as opposed to only marketing the product as a whole.
Those with content marketing and SEO experience are especially likely to benefit here, since they have an understanding of the value that comes from tackling a very wide range of topics and bringing in diverse audiences, as a result. This is where the long tail really starts to shine.
More innovatively, features can make up not only the topic of marketing messages, but also the content. Take, for example, how QuickSprout has built a reputation for itself by including a free tool directly on their homepage:
Few things attract links, shares and attention similar to what free web applications and tools do. Isolating product features and making them available online as a way of earning attention is becoming an increasingly prevalent tactic, one that bloggers and traditional content marketers cannot compete with. Using features as marketing, as opposed to just the subject of your marketing messages, is a strategy that will make you a winner in 2018.
The long-standing problem of a lack of diversity in race, gender, and background in the tech industry is finally starting to change, and in 2018, this shift will continue to take place. Organizations like Athena Alliance are committed to getting women into board seats, and the tech industry’s overwhelmingly white workforce is starting to look old-fashioned.
While cultural inertia is a genuine obstacle, and we can’t expect companies to simply replace board members to fulfill quotas, companies that fall behind on diversity can expect to face criticism in the media and by an increasingly millennial public.
Media criticism is far from the only concern, however. Marketing is about understanding your audience, and audience empathy relies in large part on shared backgrounds. Non-diverse marketing teams will face difficulties attracting diverse audiences, and diverse teams are more likely to bring a wide range of backgrounds to the table, resulting in more creative strategic decisions.
5. Fundamental Sales Technology Shifts
If 2017 wasn’t, 2018 is the year of the chat bot.
Business versions of Alexa, Cortana, and Siri are making their way into consumer communications, and Gartner is predicting that most commercial interactions will involve a virtual agent by 2020. It goes without saying that SaaS companies are ahead of the curve with these kinds of technologies, and if you want to meet the public’s customer service demands, you will need to be on the cutting edge here.
For marketers, this means that attention will start to shift away from lead gen forms and toward chat bot conversations. A full 40 percent of sales activities have already been automated with AI, and high-performing sales teams are 3.4 times more likely to be using AI compared to low-performing sales teams.
With more leads getting accustomed to chat bots that naturally transfer the conversation over to sales personnel at the right moment, and most of them getting uncomfortable filling out lead gen forms, marketing efforts will need to shift attention to new strategies that place more emphasis on where the sales are really happening.
6. Video Marketing
The idea that video plays an important part in selling people on a SaaS isn’t exactly revolutionary. Even so, 2018 seems to be a year where this shifts from being a nice thing to have in your marketing strategy, to becoming the accepted standard.
Specifically, a very important change took place in 2017, and we will be feeling the effects of them in 2018. YouTube is no longer the second most popular search engine. If ComScore is correct, YouTube currently has a larger audience than Google itself:
This means not only that YouTube is a more promising place to be found than it has ever been in the past, but that people are more accustomed to video communications than ever before, and expect to be able to find them more than ever before. It also means that if you aren’t creating video content about your SaaS, other people almost certainly will be in the near future. The more you can take control of these discussions and steer them in positive directions, the better.
Being accustomed to video communication doesn’t just mean you should be on YouTube if you want people to find you. It also means that your landing pages and social media pages should be incorporating video content more frequently than in the past.
Identify the aspects of your SaaS that can be most quickly communicated through video, and take advantage of them, sooner rather than later.
7. Pricing Takes A More Central Role
We mentioned earlier that the focus on lean startups has become mainstream and that this makes it a more fragile approach. The focus on MVPs and USPs has also led to SaaS startups considering pricing less than they should have been, or at least less than they will need to as the market becomes even more competitive.
That might sound strange, but only 53 percent of SaaS companies actually have somebody dedicated to pricing, even as one component of their job.
However, marketing is fundamentally about, well, serving the market; and pricing is a huge part of that. If pricing isn’t considered before, during, and after the production of products and features, things go over budget, underfunded, underpriced, and features without viable markets are produced.
SaaS companies and their marketing departments will need to factor price more carefully into their decisions as we enter 2018.
8. Sales And Marketing Technology Consolidation
The number of marketing and sales automation tools, both to choose from and in use by most SaaS companies has grown absolutely insane.
It should go without saying that you need a CRM in place by now. However, integrating that CRM with your marketing automation efforts, email segmentation, chat bots, and lead scoring isn’t easy, but it’s a task your competitors will be investing heavily in this year.
- Identify what tools you are using and for what purpose. Assess what is working, what isn’t, why, and what you suspect can be made to work if it currently isn’t.
- Identify which tools will be used as your central hub, which will usually be your CRM.
- Take a good hard look at where your central hub is getting its information, whether that data is clean and properly validated, and vet your process for determining whether a lead is hot or not.
- Determine which tools you are or could be using to feed information into your central hub and make sure that they are doing so, consistently.
- Hire people dedicated to managing your data and putting it to use. Your sales team is vital, but they can only do so much if the data they are being fed isn’t being optimized in a way that connects them with the most promising leads.
An integrated tech stack will be vital for a cohesive SaaS marketing strategy, in 2018.
As the pendulum swings back away from the lean startup approach and while sales and marketing technologies integrate with new virtual assistant technologies and an increasing interest in video and visual media, 2018 will be an interesting year for marketers in the SaaS industry. Stay on your toes and keep your eyes on the horizon.
Pratik Dholakiya is the Founder of Preceptist, a content marketing agency for SaaS businesses.