The SaaS game has changed in recent years, and it’s getting harder than ever to build a successful SaaS business in 2018. Here are the strategies and tactics successful SaaS businesses are using to fight back against “The SaaS Squeeze”.
SaaS (or Software as a Service) is a business model that’s actually been around for a while now.
Most people think that SaaS is something that started way back in the heyday of the “Golden Era of SaaS” (roughly 2003-2008), when companies like Workday, HubSpot, Zendesk, Kissmetrics, New Relic, Box, Shopify, Dropbox, Github, Docusign, and many, many other technology household names were founded.
But actually, SaaS has been around for a lot longer - it’s just that it went by a different name. Back in the 90s, we had ASPs - or Application Service Providers. And all told, ASPs operated under literally the same business model as modern-day SaaS companies.
But if you’ve never heard of an “ASP” before, there’s a good reason for that: The people building them were too ahead of their time, and there was practically no mainstream adoption - with one notable exception: Salesforce (the grand-daddy of all modern SaaS companies).
So why is any of this relevant? After all, I thought we were supposed to be talking about SaaS signups and onboarding, right?
And I’ll tell you.
The reason it’s relevant is because of the SaaS market adoption curve that we’ve been riding ever since the very first SaaS companies sought to create the market for subscription-based software services.
This market adoption curve is, and has been, tied to broadband internet adoption and usage:
The reason that Salesforce worked in the broadband dark ages of 1999 when many other ASPs floundered into obscurity is largely because they targeted organizations that had dedicated broadband for their business users to use. Had they targeted the SMB market of 1999 (many of which didn’t even have dial-up internet), it probably would have wound up being a very different story.
Because without an always-on high-speed internet connection, there were just simply too many downsides to using a web-based service for many business tasks. Especially when there were a plethora of desktop and LAN-based products available at the time for those tasks that worked perfectly well.
Other ASPs didn’t seem to catch onto this subtle nuance as well as Salesforce did. They firmly believed that the internet was going to be huge and that everybody would be on it in no time flat - they just needed to “get out there” and the rest would be history. And truth be told, they weren’t wrong. The internet did become huge, and pretty much everyone is on it. It’s just that they got a tiny bit ahead of themselves and wound up building software for a market that wouldn’t materialize for another five to ten years. (Oops.)
Fast forward to the Golden Era of SaaS (2003-2008), and you can clearly see that broadband adoption was on a steady tear upwards. Broadband adoption was so fast and so great during this period that the demand side of the market for online software buyers exploded.
Now that people had fast, always-on internet connections, they were using the web in ways that they never could have dreamed they could have over a dial-up connection.
And this is the point of relevance.
Once all of those people were online all day, and were used to using websites to help them achieve different goals and tasks, the market was now primed and ready for SaaS to explode. Throw in the fact that people were now getting used to just “Googling” for solutions to their problems, and we have an epic shift on our hands.
For the first time in history, businesses could find software to meet their needs on their own through tools like search engines. Before this, companies were at the mercy of word of mouth referrals, the “wisdom” of consultants acting as resellers, and the marketing and sales arms of large, established vendors selling “generic” software that didn’t fit their needs.
But this all started to change.
If a florist was looking for software to help them manage their flower shop, they could now simply go to Google and type in “best software for managing a flower shop”. They’d instantly see a plethora of companies offering cheap software that did the very thing they were looking for that they could buy and start using on the same day - without having to buy any servers or hire any IT nerds to help them get it up and running.
Now, early on, there was clearly more demand than supply in this new wild west of a marketplace. Meaning, there were far more people looking for solutions to unique problems than there were vendors offering those solutions.
Savvy founders and marketers caught on to this and started to use keyword research combined with competitor research to find easily serviceable gaps in the market. Using these techniques, they could see how much traffic keywords like “flower shop management software” were getting, and then they could see how many websites were actually servicing those keyword searches (and how well they were servicing those queries, as well).
And this approach worked out masterfully for most of those who employed it.
That is, of course, until everyone else caught on.
You see, up until the point of “SaaS saturation”, this was a very valid (and profitable!) strategy.
Customers would be willing to put up with “half-balked” products that mostly fit the bill, because they were looking for a solution to their problems. And they were willing to try to use any solution that worked - even if only half the time. Because there just weren’t any other options out there for them.
Now, let’s fast forward ten years (and to the point I’m trying to get at).
Ten years ago, things like “florist management software” were legitimate niches. Not any longer.
Today, a lot of people have read “The Long Tail”.
People know how to find these “long tail” SEO keywords.
And people have moved in on those once fairy tale niches full of untold lifestyle business riches - often in overwhelming numbers.
Today, in 2018, supply is quickly catching up with demand (if not to the point of saturation in some “niches”), and things are much more competitive than they used to be.
And it’s not just because there are now more options available to the average consumer (which there are). It’s also because a majority of the options that are available to them are world class - and customers have come to expect this.
Today, if people do a search for “florist management software”, they expect to find an instant solution to their immediate problem. They expect that solution to have a killer UX. They expect that solution to integrate with their payment gateway. They expect that solution to be as good - if not better - than the other apps that they’re already using in their business (like FreshBooks).
And if it isn’t or it doesn’t?
Back to the old Google search results page and onto the next one until they find one that is.
As if all of that weren’t bad enough, SaaS as a business model has gone from “cool concept” to the most desired business type to own and invest in.
Recent years have seen a massive influx of investor interest and dollars in recurring revenue and subscription-based software businesses, creating the equivalent of a gold rush to snag up and dominate whatever niches remain for SaaS opportunities.
And that, my friends, is The SaaS Squeeze: Higher expectations, higher competition, and far less tolerance for any kind of experience that is less than extraordinary, the result of which is causing lower conversion numbers, lower retention numbers, and higher churn across the board for new SaaS entrepreneurs the world over (and making this whole SaaS business thing way harder than anyone is willing to tell you it really is in all reality).
Fret not my fine friends!
After all, that’s the whole point of this article - to show you how successful SaaS businesses are confronting The SaaS Squeeze head-on and coming out on top.
Perhaps the most important thing you should know and the biggest takeaway you should get is that you can’t use the 2008 SaaS playbook in 2018 - or even the 2015 one for that matter.
Because today, the overall SaaS market is substantially different.
The low-hanging fruit has all been picked, and if you’re serious about getting into (or staying in) this game, you’ve got to play by a different, more aggressive, set of rules.
The first thing you need to understand is that there is a very big difference between demand generation and demand fulfillment, and if you’re not intentionally aligning your customer acquisition strategy to fit your “demand strategy”, you’re going to lose your SaaS. (Bad pun, I know, I know.)
Without a viable customer acquisition channel in place, none of the rest of this article will do you any good. And without being fully aware of how different channels are used to either generate or fulfill demand (and making sure your channel building efforts match up with the right one!), you’ll never get a channel off the ground.
Repeat after me: No channel, no customers.
Okay, so let’s back it up a bit.
What exactly are demand generation and demand fulfillment, and why do they matter?
Simply put, demand generation is when you try to make people aware of and interested in your product category (and your products in that category) and try to get them to decide to buy from you. It requires that you get their attention, get them interested, educate them, and then effectively try to “change” their buying habits.
Why “change” their buying habits as opposed to just “get them to buy”?
Because in reality, you have to either convince them to switch from another product category (or product) they are currently paying for, or you have to get them to start buying products in your product category that they are not currently purchasing.
Essentially, these are people who need to be convinced to do something different from what they’re doing today. They aren’t “ready to buy” - they weren’t looking for what you have to offer. In fact, you probably interrupted them through an ad, and now you’re trying desperately to get them to decide to buy whatever you’re selling, even though they were not thinking about dropping money on anything just a minute before.
As an example, let’s say that I think that SaaS companies could benefit from using the type of session recording software that Tamboo offers in order to help them see what people do when they’re going through their signup and onboarding processes. After all, that sounds pretty useful, right?
And sorry if I pulled a trick on you just then, but that’s actually an example of demand generation.
You weren’t here reading this article looking for session recording software, but I found a way to get your attention and maybe get you interested in what it could do for you. The next step I’d need to take after you clicked on that link would be to educate you on why you should be using it, and to show you how it’s going to help you in all sorts of awesome ways. Once you’re in agreement with me that this is something you should be using, the next step would be to convince you to sign up for a trial so you can take it for a spin yourself. Or, barring that, convince you to give me your email address in exchange for something you’d find valuable so I could potentially “nurture you” into a paying customer over time.
And that’s how demand generation works.
The other side of the coin is demand fulfillment. Demand fulfillment is when you try to get in front of people who are actively looking to buy a product that you sell. Your goal (after getting in front of them) is to convince them that you are the best choice for them when it comes to the kind of product you’re selling.
This is very different from demand generation.
With demand fulfillment, people are primed and ready to drop some dollars. They’ve already convinced themselves that they need this thing that you’re selling. Now the only question is who do they buy it from?
And in demand fulfillment, that becomes your main focus.
Compare that to demand generation, where you’re trying to convince people that they need this type of thing that you sell. Demand fulfillment doesn’t need to go too deep into any of that. Instead, it needs to go into “here’s why you should buy this thing from me instead of from anyone else”. “Here’s why we’re the best widget on the market.” “Here’s stuff you get from us that you can’t get from anyone else.” And so on.
They key here is that those statements and claims are meaningless to someone who has just been made aware of the existence of this type of product - they’re only meaningful to people who know what they’re looking for and are trying to find the best option for themselves.
As an example, let’s say that you’re aware of what session recordings are, and that after reading enough articles about how people are using them to improve their businesses, you’ve decided you want to buy a session recording tool for your website. At this point, you’re probably going to start researching which vendors are available in the market through the Googles, and you’re going to start comparing the different vendors based on criteria that are important to you. If price is a consideration, that will be something you compare by. If recording limits are something you care about, you’ll note the differences across vendors. If you need advanced search capabilities, that’s something you’ll be on the look out for.
Do you see how this is very different from the demand generation example? In the demand generation example, our goal was to get you interested in the product category (session recordings) itself, and to get you to take this one session recording product for a spin or to share your email with us. Because this is probably your first run-in with session recordings, you haven’t really developed an opinion as to what’s important to you in a tool - you just want to see if you can get the promised outcome.
But with demand fulfillment, people have already done their homework and made a decision about what’s important to them. You have to now convince them that you’re the right choice for them based on the buying criteria they’ve established in their heads. The purpose of a trial in demand fulfillment is to demonstrate and reinforce to your customer that they made (and are making) the best choice for themselves based on the criteria they value most.
So what does this have to do with SaaS trials and signups and even customer acquisition channels for that matter?
Well… pretty much everything.
If you’re reading this article, chances are that you’re suffering from one of two SaaS maladies:
If you’re in the first camp, of course you’re going to need to build up some traffic.
But not just any traffic.
Because that’s how you wind up in the second camp!
You see, most people who think “I need to build traffic” will start looking for “quick fix” traffic solutions. They’ll take out ads. They’ll post to Hacker News, Indie Hackers, Reddit, and so on.
And then, once they start seeing traffic, they’ll notice that their conversion rates are abysmal.
So they’ll try to “fix” the problem by screwing around endlessly with their site design, their copy, their landing pages, their CTAs, etc. And of course, none of those “tweaks” really wind up doing much.
Because they’ve violated the first cardinal rule of digital marketing: You can’t have just any kind of traffic - you need to have highly targeted traffic.
And one of the ways that you make sure you have highly targeted traffic is by understanding the purpose of the traffic you’re bringing to your site, who’s actually behind that traffic, and why they’re coming to your site.
Let me break this down by giving an example that’s near and dear to my heart.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote a pretty popular series of articles on Medium entitled The Epic Guide to Bootstrapping a SaaS Startup from Scratch - By Yourself.
The thing wound up going viral, and to date has been read by about 250,000 people. Because of that, it’s still regularly shared by people, still ranks well in Google, and still kicks off a fair amount of traffic to Tamboo’s website.
By all measures, that’s a pretty resounding success.
Or is it?
The fact of the matter is that traffic coming specifically from The Epic Guide converts worse than pretty much any other acquisition channel I have, even though I get more traffic from it than I do from many other channels.
And when I say it “converts worse” - I’m not just talking about relative conversion rates (you know, comparing percentages) - I’m also talking about absolute conversion rates (meaning, actual signup numbers).
What that means is that I get higher conversion rates and higher signup numbers from other channels that send me way less traffic by comparison.
The Medium traffic - vast as it may be - is not targeted traffic. The other traffic sources - microscopic as they might be in comparison - are highly targeted.
What do I mean by targeted traffic here?
Targeted traffic is traffic coming from people who have been pre-qualified to have a serious interest in what you have to offer, and who demonstrate that they are willing to buy from you.
In my case, the people reading the Medium articles are really just interested in learning about how to bootstrap a SaaS. When they click on the link to Tamboo, they’re curious about what it is that I’ve built. Now sure, we could argue that that could be used to do demand generation (and it could). But in my case, there’s a fundamental misalignment between the types of people who read the articles and the types of people who actually use (and pay for) Tamboo. And because of that - it is highly untargeted traffic.
By comparison, if you take my Quora traffic, the people reading my Quora answers about session recordings, heat maps, funnels, and conversion optimization are very interested in those topics (and the answers I’m writing). As a result, they are much more primed to try out Tamboo, because they have the problems that Tamboo helps them with, and because they want the benefits that Tamboo can give them. And so that traffic is very highly targeted traffic.
Let’s dive in a little deeper here.
Targeted traffic actually has a few characteristics, and you need to get all of them right in order for it to truly work.
The first component of truly targeted traffic is placement. What this means is that you’re putting your links to your site in places where your target audience is likely to find them and in a way that they’re likely to be excited about what it is that you want to show them.
In other words, you know who your target audience is, you know why they visit this website you’re doing placement on, and you know what they’re interested in reading about when they’re on that website.
There are three key things you need to know about placement:
The first is that you need to find sites that large enough numbers of people in your target audience visit regularly enough for it to be worth your time. Time-based or “flash” sites (sites where things “roll off” quickly) like Twitter, Hacker News, Product Hunt, etc., can be good for a nice little “bump” - but that bump is going to be short-lived, and isn’t going to get you much in the long-term. I would strongly encourage you to look for more “evergreen” types of sites - sites that have pages that rank well in Google that continue to get traffic month over month because they discuss relevant things and topics that people want to continue to read about. Think Medium, Quora, Product Hunt Answers, forums, blogs, podcasts, articles, etc. - but don’t limit yourself to just those! These are all the obvious places. To do this right, you’re going to have to “niche down” and do things like finding Medium publications, blogs, and forums that are hyper-focused on your niche - and that your niche loves. If you want a little cheat code here, go find who the influencers are in your niche and go find the sites that they post on, link to, or get mentioned on. Those are the places where you’ll most likely start to find your “niche placement” opportunities.
The second is that you have to know what kinds of things people who are visiting these sites are interested in and what kinds of things they’d be interested in reading. Are people coming to this site to learn specifically about products like the one that you’re selling, or are they coming to this site to learn about how to solve a problem in their business - or are they coming to this site to simply be entertained? Do they like funny cat pictures or find them utterly stupid and tasteless? What does the “collective culture” of the site seem to place value on? What do they seem to look down on? What’s “hot”? What are common goals or aspirations that they seem to share? You need to tap into that psyche in order to truly resonate with them. Otherwise, you’ll look, sound, and feel like an outsider. And whatever your message is - it will fall flat.
The third thing you need to know is whether or not this site is best suited for demand generation strategies and tactics or for demand fulfillment strategies and tactics. This ties in to the second point I just made above. You need to know if people are coming to this site to find or research products like the one you sell (demand fulfillment), if they’re coming to this site to learn about some kind of direct or related outcome they want that products you sell can offer (part demand fulfillment, part demand generation), or if they’re coming to this site to be entertained (full on demand generation).
And that brings us to the next component of targeted traffic - off-site messaging.
Off-site messaging is the content that people encounter and engage with that you’ve put out there to try to get them to visit your website.
And this can include any number of things.
It could be your post’s “headline”, including the description text that people read before they click through to your site. It can be your tweets. It can be your comments in a forum. It can be the images and text you use in your ads. It can be your product listing on a review site. In Google SERPs, it could be your title tag and your meta description (amongst other things). Basically anything and everything that people read while they’re still on the site you’re promoting to before they even think about clicking a link to your site.
It’s not enough to have awesome on-site content - your off-site content and messaging has to be lit - or no one’s going to click on the link that actually takes them to your site to read your awesome content.
And the way that you do that is by tailoring your off-site messaging to match the mood, culture, attitude, goals, aspirations, and intent of the people who visit the site you’re promoting on.
Using what you know about the types of people who are coming to the site, and what their reason for coming to the site is - combined with your assessment of whether or not you should be using a demand generation or a demand fulfillment strategy - you craft your message to make it scream to them “Wow!!! This is for me!”
Need an example?
Think about where you found this article and how what you read there made you want to click through and read this. Why were you on that site? What were you looking for? How did my off-site messaging resonate with you?
Keep an eye out down the road as you click on links. What site were you on? Why were you there? What about that link made you want to click on it? What actions did you take?
(Believe it or not - I’ve just given you a very potent superpower you can leverage to learn your way to becoming a traffic-driving superstar.)
The third component of targeted traffic is to make sure that your on-site content aligns, complements, and extends the off-site messaging and placement people passed through before coming to your website.
If you send otherwise perfectly “targeted” traffic to a generic landing page - one that is itself not tailored and targeted for the traffic you’re sending to it - you’re screwed.
You need the overall experience of your visitor’s journey to be seamless and the best that you can possibly deliver.
Everything needs to be aligned:
They need to be blown away.
They can’t be trying to figure out how this webpage fits in with what they were expecting to find.
It needs to be exactly what you promised - and then some.
And it can’t in any way be “confusing”.
If your visitors clicked on a link to learn more about how they could use heatmaps to improve their on-page conversions, you cannot send them to a generic webpage on your site that buries any conversation of heatmaps until the bottom of the page.
The webpage you send them to better be the best damned webpage about how they can use heat maps to improve their on-page conversions they’ve ever read in their life.
You cannot just repurpose your content (or your homepage) as the “default” destination for all of your traffic.
You need to have very tailored pages for each of the traffic sources you’re sending traffic to. If you’re driving traffic from a specific Quora answer you’ve written to your site, you should probably have a landing page that speaks directly to the needs and wants of the people coming from that specific Quora question and answer!
Yes, this means building lots of landing pages, for lots of different purposes, with lots of different content.
At least to start.
At some point, you’ll start to see patterns.
And if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to start repurposing some of that very targeted content for very specific scenarios on very specific sites (are you catching the theme here yet?)
Let’s go back to our fun friends demand generation and demand fulfillment for a bit.
The content that you write must be aligned to the demand strategy at play that the traffic you’re bringing in aligns to.
In other words, if you’re driving traffic from highly targeted, competitive keywords on Google (placement) that express buyer intent - such as “best heat map tool for saas businesses” (messaging) - you cannot have your content riddled with demand generation talk.
Similarly, if you’re driving traffic based on demand generation placement and messaging, such as talking on a podcast about how your product solves some pain, you cannot have your content riddled with demand fulfillment jargon.
And this is a mistake that so many people make.
They talk in superlatives about how they’re the “best heat map tool” when they should be talking about how they help businesses find the best way to make more sales. Or, they talk about how they help businesses find the best way to make more sales when they should be talking about how they’re the “best heat map tool”.
(And no, I didn’t flub that up. Go back and read what I wrote and you’ll see the point I’m trying to get at.)
(Okay, you need a hint? People who care about the “best heat map tool” want to hear about why you’re the best. They don’t care about the other stuff. People who care about making more sales want to hear about how you’re going to help them do that. They don’t care that you’re the best heat map tool. Think about it.)
Now, this next point bleeds over a bit into the next topic of conversation, as it’s really not technically about targeted traffic, per se.
But in order for you to truly know if you have achieved targeted traffic nirvana, you need to be able to measure the actions people take.
You need to know if the people who are coming to this landing page from this traffic source through this messaging are “primed” to eat up what you’re serving.
You can’t really say that you have targeted traffic if you can’t prove that the traffic you’re bringing is actually willing to do something useful on your website.
Remember, targeted traffic is based on:
They all have to align.
Perhaps the best way to make these all align is to follow this simple approach:
As an example, I’m sure you’ve seen how certain companies keep submitting new “products” to Product Hunt. This is no mistake. They found a placement that works, and they keep coming up with new things that that audience will go nuts for. Often, these are free tools or guides (we’ll get into that later), which serve as demand generation funnels for acquiring new customers.
Now, truth be told, this has always been “best practice” digital marketing.
But ten years ago, there just weren’t enough SaaS apps that met specific customer needs, and you could most certainly get away with “bad” (or at the very least, lazy) digital marketing. Customers were kind of used to having to look around for a while and having to put up with vague or confusing websites - because those were the only options available. If you wanted to find a solution to your problem, you’d have to dig around a bit. So there was a lot of “wiggle room” that early SaaS companies had in terms of how well they executed their marketing. There was enough of an imbalance in the supply and demand of specialty SaaS software that they could get away with just being “out there”.
Fast forward to today, and because of the ever-growing competition in the SaaS space, everyone’s marketing game is at an all-time high. You can’t just “get by” with a sub-par marketing site any longer (unless your competition’s website is utter 1990s web garbage). This next-level marketing has shaped the perceptions and expectations of customers. Customers now expect to be able to find what they’re looking for and for websites to clearly and plainly articulate what it is they’re selling and why it’s the right fit for them. Not only that, but customers now expect professionally designed experiences.
So while some of you may be like “Well, that’s just good marketing” - you’re not wrong. But nowadays, it’s essential that you be doing it, whereas ten years ago, you could have gotten away with a lot less.
Another point to keep in mind is that everyone comparison shops nowadays. So if you’re selling a product that others sell, count on that fact that your potential customers are going to be checking out your competition and comparing you against them. Keep in mind that your customers are used to looking at online customer reviews and prices before they choose to buy something. With more and more purchases occurring online - and with more and more “supply” available - buying habits have changed and consumers have been taught to look for the best price or the best quality before they fork over their credit card and hit “buy”.
So it’s not just enough to have really good marketing.
You also have to have better marketing than your competition.
So as you’re going through, putting these things together - don’t forget that your customers will visit your competitor’s websites, and if you want them to choose you over them, you’re going to have to prove why they should by comparison.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of making sure we’re working to build targeted traffic, it’s time to move on to what to do once you have that in place.
Because as you’ll see, getting targeted traffic is just the start of what you have to do (even though it’s the most critical thing you need to get right up front).
So that was a lot of background and context and setting up to get us to the part where you’d probably have thought I would have started this article - with getting sign ups.
But if you’ve been playing along at home, you’ll see why those things are so absolutely critical when it comes to this next step: Because without targeted traffic, this is all a moot point and no one will convert.
Once you’ve started to tune your traffic to make it more targeted, the next thing you need to grok is that today, people rarely sign up or make a purchase on their first visit to a site.
The one exception to this rule is that people do seem to be willing to sign up for a free trial without a credit card. Now, to you, that might seem like a big win. But it’s really not. To the customer, this is a “no risk” opportunity to “poke around” in your app - there is no buying intent. They’re just tire kickers: They’ll happily abandon that trial on the same day they created it. In order to convert that trial into something meaningful, you’ll have to expend a lot of effort nurturing that trial to convert.
And this is something that successful SaaS companies get.
They know that they’re going to have to work their asses off to convert those free trial users and that a good percent of them just aren’t going to convert at all.
(Now just imagine how much harder this whole thing would be with untargeted traffic…)
So why do they do it?
Because they get that they need to have a way to “capture” people who come to their site.
They know that people aren’t going to buy a $99/month software subscription on their first visit. They know that it’s just plain nuts to expect otherwise, unless they’re world class at whatever demand generation or demand fulfillment levers they’re pulling (and truth be told, the majority of us just aren’t that good.)
So they look for every opportunity to “connect and capture” with visitors coming to their site - so that they can try to “nurture them” on the backend.
A free trial without a credit card upfront is just one way to do this. “Free tiers” are another. Some companies even offer “free tools” that are related to their core offering.
The whole point of the “free” models is simple: Companies know that they can get more people to sign up for something free than they can get people to pay for something up front. They also know that not everyone is ready to pay right now. Rather than “lose” that traffic that came in, they’ll gladly give them something free in order to get those visitors into their “funnel”. From that point forward, they’ll work to nurture those leads into paying customers, sometimes patiently waiting for weeks, months, or even years until those leads are actually in a position to turn into paying customers.
Now, don’t fool yourself: These “free” approaches are tough to pull off. They require a lot of time and backend nurturing, and the conversion rates are relatively low.
But they do this because they know that having that list of potential customers is more valuable than not having it. In their mind, it’s better to offer them something of value so that they have a way of “capturing” their visitors that they can use to try to upsell them later on.
Because otherwise, there’s no guarantee that those visitors will ever come back, and there may not be another opportunity to try to convert them into customers.
Speaking of lists, classical approaches like asking people to sign up to a mailing list of some fashion - whether that be a “tips and tricks” list, an “announcements” list, an “alerts” list, a “special offers” list, or an actual newsletter - still work very well today.
When you stop thinking that people are going to just come to your site and buy something - when you realize that that “traffic” is here today and gone tomorrow - that’s when you start to realize that you need to have some way to retain those visitors. And email lists are one of the best ways to stay in contact with people who are interested in what you have to offer but who might not be ready to buy just yet.
Now, newsletters and mailing lists aren’t exactly bleeding edge techniques - after all, they’ve been around for quite some time.
But what has been changing has been the ingenuity with which SaaS companies use the “spirit” of the newsletter signup to capture lead emails.
The basic premise of the newsletter is to say “Hey! We’re actively collecting and sharing information that’s really interesting and useful if you’re into X! And best of all - we’re giving it away for free! Just tell us how we can send it to you!”
Recent years have seen the sophistication of these types of “free information” offers expand into PDF books, guides, webinars, email mini-courses, video courses, etc. Think Drift and Intercom putting out books on marketing. Think of that SEO webinar you signed up for. Think of that email mini-course you signed up for on email marketing automation.
Tools like MailChimp, Drip, and Seva (formerly ConvertKit) are pretty popular when it comes to capturing emails, in large part because there has been more demand for email marketing automation that helps convert people based on their behavior and interactions with your emails and visits to your website.
Another (relatively) recent technique is to use retargeting to reach people through social media and ads after they’ve visited your website. This approach has gotten more popular in recent years as more companies have realized the value in trying to retain and convert existing visitors (rather than just trying to constantly acquire new ones).
So for example, if you use Facebook’s retargeting, you can retarget people on Facebook. If you use Google’s retargeting, you can retarget people through Google’s Display Network. And so on.
Retargeting is a great way to capture and retain visitors to your website who haven’t or aren’t willing to give you their email address in exchange for something of value. Using retargeting, you can put special offers in front of people after they’ve left your site, much like you would through your email list. You can create ads that offer people a free e-book or that offer them a limited time discount if they sign up. This is a great way to nurture people who might need more information before they’re ready to sign up or who might be on the fence about trying your product out.
Now, the point of this discussion is not to say that you need to have a newsletter while using retargeting and offering free tools (or any combination of the above).
The point is to understand that you need to have something to capture and retain your visitors. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll never see them again.
Because there are so many more options available to customers today, there’s a good chance that if you miss the opportunity to stay connected with people who were at one point interested in your offering, that they could have difficulty reconnecting with you when they’re ready to buy. Have you ever found a cool product or website that did something you were interested in, only to forget what it was and not be able to find it again? The same happens with your customers. And when that happens, they’re much more likely to take the closest available substitute the next time they’re looking for that “thing that did that thing” they were interested in using.
Now if you remember our earlier conversation about demand generation and demand fulfillment, you should know that these “capture and nurture” techniques work best when you’re dealing with traffic coming from demand generation efforts.
And that makes sense when you think about it.
After all, if people were interested in buying right now, they’d probably sign up for a trial. The fact that these visitors don’t sign up for a trial right away typically means that they’re either coming from a demand generation channel or they’re on the fence about choosing you over other available options.
Because of this, you’ll want to make sure that whatever information you’re offering compliments, extends, and feeds and nurtures your previous demand generation efforts.
Much like making sure your landing pages align with your traffic sources and off-site messaging, you’ll want to make sure that the offer you’re putting forward to try to retain visitors aligns as well.
It doesn’t make sense to have an offer about how to improve Facebook ad conversions on a landing page about Google AdWords that you’re sending targeted traffic for AdWords people to. Your offer has to be about AdWords.
Like I mentioned before - you have to know your goal and work your way backwards, designing each step of your front-end funnel. If your goal is to get people to sign up for a guide about improving Facebook ad conversions, then your whole funnel should support that.
So we’ve briefly touched on the fact that you should be trying to capture and retain visitors to your website so that you can stay in contact with them and work to nurture them into paying customers over time, and how this works really well when you’re dealing with demand generation channels and messaging.
Doing this alone will give a big boost to your SaaS trial and signup rates over time.
But if you want to really up your game - and have a much more immediate effect on your signup rates - you should start using website chat both on your marketing website and in your application.
Now, I know that you’re probably like every other technical person out there who absolutely hates that little chat popup you’ve probably been seeing on more and more websites.
But here’s the thing - just because you do doesn’t mean your customers will.
In fact, with other SaaS entrepreneurs I’ve compared notes with, they’ve pretty much unanimously agreed that website chat - both on their marketing sites and in their applications - has helped boost trial signups and trial to paid conversions. (Case and point: I recently signed up for a $99/month SaaS app I was on the fence about because I was able to chat with someone about it.)
And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
Someone sees one of your off-site messaging placements and clicks on the link to your site. This indicates that they’re interested in what you’re talking about and what you might have to offer. While on your site, they poke around and try to answer the most important question they have: “Is this for me?”
Sometimes they have a specific use case they’re looking to see if you explicitly support. Other times they might be confused about whether or not a certain feature is supported.
Basically, they’re trying to figure out “is this for me” - but something isn’t “clicking” for them and their unique situation.
Without website chat, people have three options:
With website chat, you have an opportunity to help answer questions your visitors have. Not only will you have an opportunity to help “close” a customer who might be on the fence, but you’ll start to see if there are patterns of questions that your website visitors have about your offering. This information is huge as it can help you understand what gaps you might have on your marketing site that you should be fixing. After all, for every one customer that takes the time to ask you a question through website chat, there’s probably nine others who don’t. So if you start to see a lot of people having a specific question about your pricing, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are more people who have those same questions or confusions about your pricing who just wind up bouncing rather than asking. By finding those things and fixing them, you can dramatically increase your trial signup rates.
And not just that! When it comes to customers going through onboarding or customers evaluating their trial, website chat can be the difference between a customer giving up or turning into a paying customer. Pre-onboarded customers are especially fickle - all it takes is just one little thing that doesn’t work quite right to scare them off and sending them running. Similarly, trial customers don’t have much invested, and will readily cancel a trial if they find something to be overly frustrating or confusing.
By having website chat available during your onboarding process and available for customers currently in trial, you’ll be able to help customers navigate getting up and running with your app.
Keep in mind that your app is “new” to them - they don’t know how it works or what to expect. They’re going to be bumping around in the dark trying to figure out how to do things. By just being “right there” if they need you, you’re creating a mental anchor that “instant help is right there” should they need it. People are much more likely to use that avenue before they get to the point of complete frustration - which is often the point that people need to reach before they’re willing to send you an email about a problem.
Another thing that smart SaaS companies are doing when it comes to people who sign up for trials is to educate them through a series of drip emails that teach them how to do key tasks in the application.
Chances are you know what specific things customers need to do in your SaaS app in order to achieve real value through it. By simply educating them about these things and encouraging them to get them set up (or to experience them), you can see better conversion to paid numbers. This is also a tactic that SaaS companies are using to help retain customers through the 60-90 day high churn window most SaaS businesses experience.
One last thing that I’ve seen more SaaS businesses doing is offering to hop on a Skype or phone call with potential customers and those who just signed up for a trial. To let prospective customers know about this option, it can be as simple as adding some text to your contact page letting people know that you’re willing to hop on a call with them when they reach out. And for those customers you have in trial, it can be as easy as including a little blurb at the end of your welcome email asking them if they want to hop on a call to discuss anything. I’ve even seen some people take this to the next level by including a link that lets customers schedule calls with them using a scheduling app to avoid the inherent back-and-forth in the process.
Pulling all of this off in perfect orchestration can be challenging, especially if you’ve just been winging it to date and haven’t really had a solid customer acquisition strategy and funnel in place.
All of your “legacy traffic” can actually be distracting. It’s easy to look at your analytics data and find yourself going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.
And while there’s a time and a place to go chasing rabbits down analytics holes, this isn’t one of them.
The way to get out of this time-wasting “ad-hoc analytics” trap is to intentionally model your customer acquisition funnels and to measure and monitor them on a regular basis (say, once a week or so).
By intentionally modeling your funnels, and by looking at which channels are working the best for you, you’ll be able to see which of your efforts are paying off, and where you should probably spend more of your efforts. If the handful of Reddit posts you did generate a small amount of traffic but look to convert really well, you may want to invest more into Reddit as a channel. By contrast, if you’re getting a lot of traffic from Reddit but none of it’s converting well, you should probably move on to more fertile ground. After all, it doesn’t really matter how much traffic you get - it matters how many signups you get.
Contrast this approach by just jumping through your analytics and looking at who sends you the most traffic: You can’t really do much with that.
Once you’ve identified which channels seem to be working best for you, you can now start looking at which landing pages are converting the best. You’ll want to take note and reverse engineer what factors you believe are causing those pages to convert as well as they do. Keep in mind that it’s not just the landing page that you’re looking at - it’s also the traffic source and off-site messaging coming to the landing page that matter. Using what you learn, try to replicate that same success with new placements and landing pages. And of course, don’t hesitate to update or revamp other landing pages that aren’t performing as well. Very often, you can turn a loser into a winner by giving it some of the qualities that your winners seem to exhibit. And if you can’t seem to make something work through tiny tweaks and updates, don’t be afraid to rip it out and start over from scratch. Sometimes a full-on “do-over” is needed to really “fix” something.
After that, you can start looking at other places in your funnel where you’re losing potential signups and start to tighten those up. If you notice that you seem to have a lot of people dropping off once they view your pricing page or your registration page, finding out why people aren’t moving forward from those pages can be game-changing for your SaaS.
To do that, you can use tools like heat maps and session recording tools to see exactly what people are doing on those pages and what’s stopping them. You’ll start to see patterns that tell you why they’re not moving forward - and which actually give you the answers for how to fix it. Things like “Oh, they’re clicking on that navigation link when they’re on the pricing page instead of clicking on the buy button. Maybe we should just rip out that navigation link?” Or things like “Huh. They seem to be really interested in this plan because they keep hovering their mouse over it, but they’re not clicking on the buy button. Maybe we need to experiment with the copy or add some more detail to it?”
Well, I think that’s it for this one (that was quite a rundown, wasn’t it?).
I’d love to hear what you think and would love it if you’d share your own experiences with winning SaaS signups in 2018! My plan is to keep this article updated with all the latest and greatest, practical, real-world advice about getting SaaS trials, signups, and conversions - so don’t hesitate to share your own knowledge or insights.
Just give me a shout out on Twitter at @gettamboo and I’ll chat it up with you!
Until next time!