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Where Marketers Go to Grow

October 1, 2015 // 11:00 AM

7 Examples of SaaS Companies with Exceptional Marketing

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Who doesn’t love a good story? The characters. The page-turning twists of fate. The surprise endings. You might not expect to hear one from SaaS companies. (I mean, how exciting is software?) But in the marketing world, they’re like the Grimms' fairy tales.

The SaaS sector is relatively young and seriously competitive, which means companies have had to wring every last drop of creative juice from their patchwork just to get on the map. And usually, with only a fraction of the budget their larger competitors are working with.

We’re going to regale you with true tales of marketing triumph. Some involve small start-ups going from rags to riches with one great idea. Others are displays of true grit. But all of them are amazing examples of what can happen when you get creative with your inbound strategy. Without further ado, here are seven SaaS companies doing it right.

1) HipChat

HipChat is a private chat and instant messaging service that provides one-on-one and group chatting, as well as cloud-based file storage, video calling, searchable message histories and online image viewing. It began as an unknown start-up in California and wanted to run billboard advertising campaigns to generate awareness and traffic, but realized quickly that it couldn’t afford it. Billboards run between $30,000 and $50,000 per four-week campaign.

HipChat co-founder and CEO Pete Curley put on his business pants and thought about it from the billboard supplier’s point of view. He speculated that there must be occasions where a buyer backs out, or a campaign falls through at the last minute. And in those instances, he assumed the billboard company would prefer to sell the ad space to someone for a lesser amount than let it sit vacant and worthless.

On a whim, he reached out to his CBS Outdoor rep and asked to be notified if there were ever a case like this. Sure enough, a few weeks later, that rep called him with an opening, and HipChat landed prime-location advertising at 101 North in the San Francisco Bay area for four weeks. Its total bill: $6,999 — tens of thousands of dollars less than the true value of the space.

But that genius streak wasn’t over. Now that it had the space, it had only days to come up with an ad that would attract attention. HipChat (a faceless company at the time) decided to keep it simple and used a relatively popular Internet character, the Y-U-No guy from Rage Comics, to turn heads in its direction. By associating a character familiar to drivers with an unfamiliar product, interest was piqued …

hipchat

The result: This ad campaign is still paying off. Pictures of the billboard showed up on Twitter, Tumblr, FAIL Blog (in the “Wins” category), and the coveted TechCrunch. The company saw a 300 percent rise in online searches, an onslaught of new customers and a warp-speed transition from three guys with a good sense of humor to a small (and successful) business. Not long after, HipChat was acquired by a larger company.

The bottom line: The initial investment was expensive, but the huge success of the overall campaign and the subsequent influx of new customers helped offset the CAC. The exact number of customers accrued wasn’t disclosed, but at $2 per month per user, and an infinite number of impressions generated during that four-week time frame, Curley was impressed with the outcome. As for customer LTV — it, too, went up.

2) Trello

Trello is a free collaboration tool that organizes projects into boards to make them easier to monitor in one glance. Its marketing approach is inimitable because … it doesn’t have one.

You heard right. Instead of investing in advertising, Trello focused its entire budget on building a sound, user-friendly product that people and businesses truly need.

The result: High-volume word-of-mouth appraisal. Countless blogs mention the service, organizations rave about how much it’s helped them organize tasks quickly and easily, and how cost-effective it is. And those that haven’t switched to it are at the very least debating the move via online discussions. Though Trello’s baseline service is free, the company offers upgrade versions; a Gold package for individuals is $5 per month or $45 per year. For businesses, there are two paid service options.

The bottom line: With word-of-mouth as its main source of advertising, Trello’s CAC is incredibly low, and because the overall opinion of its product is high, so is its customer LTV. Trello provides productivity content on its social media pages and blogs, and has in the past let its members earn free, upgraded Trello access for a limited time by sharing Trello social media posts or getting new members to sign up. This result is more users without Trello spending any extra coin. Customers do all the marketing work. The company continues to focus its money and efforts into providing a superior product — and everybody wins. 

3) Intercom

Intercom is a communications platform that connects businesses with their customers in a simpler way. Its strategy is a little more … conventional than some of the other SaaS companies listed here. But the angle it uses is entirely unique.

Instead of targeting buyer personas, Intercom targets the jobs it is being hired to fulfill. Its philosophy: Knowing the job helps find the audience. Here’s how it does it:

First, Intercom works to understand what creates the need for a company to buy a certain product. It reflects on conversations with customers, former customers and prospects, and uses any feedback to identify trends and improve how it explains the product. This information feeds into the development of its five job packages: observe, acquire, engage, learn, support.

Next, Intercom creates a messaging guide for each job package it offers, which it now uses as the template for putting together landing pages for each. It includes questions like, “What problem are we solving?” and “Why would people hire Intercom for this job?” Each landing page is laden with SEO strategy and designed using visually appealing graphics to present the question/problem a prospect might have, like, “Is your customer support process broken?”

Then, it uses more graphics to move the page into a solution, with a headline such as, “Sort it out with Intercom,” and a description that presents the job and how Intercom can do it best.

Finally, Intercom created a short video (less than 2 minutes) for each job to effectively show how it gets it done. Each page includes a sticky navigation bar that stays at the top of the browser window as viewers scroll down the page, enabling quick access to key sections of the page (like pricing and a call-to-action).

To establish credibility with visitors and showcase the types of businesses it caters to, Intercom also displays the logos of reputable customers and features customer photos with a quote describing how Intercom has helped their business. Pricing, sign-up and trial information is front and center — making it a no-brainer to find. And Intercom uses programs like Google Analytics, Inspectlet and Optimizely to monitor and measure prospect interaction with its pages, and test customer engagement hypotheses.

The result: The depth of knowledge it gains throughout its targeting strategy provides it with the foresight to know what types of events to attend/sponsor/speak at in order to meet the type of people who would use its product (hence its philosophy).

The bottom line: With each job-focused landing page it built, Intercom saw a conversion rate of approximately 5 percent. Its top-of-funnel traffic has more than tripled and continues to grow on a weekly basis, and its conversion rate remains consistent. Because its strategy is so focused on solving specific customer problems, its customer LTV is high, and while it does put a great deal of time and energy into developing this strategy, the conversion rate helps offset its CAC.

4) HootSuite

HootSuite is a social media management system that helps businesses track and manage their social media channels. HootSuite tirelessly looks for new ways to entertain audiences and last year, a pop culture-inspired video campaign helped it break personal records.

As “Game of Thrones” fans, the HootSuite team decided to theme the video after the opening sequence of the hit series and release it just in time for the season premiere. Taking the idea a step further, they drew a parallel between what the show is about and what HootSuite does for businesses (helps manage the quiet battles fought between social networks). Fans totally got it — and loved it.

hootsuite_GOT

The result: Within hours of release, the video had thousands of likes and shares on social media networks, and found its way to some major media outlets. Since then, it’s been viewed more than 850,000 times and is regarded as the single most successful piece of content the company has created. Like Eat24, the video reached a whole new market — “Game of Thrones” fans. Sure, some fans may have already been HootSuite users, but this video made an impression on many fans who weren’t using the service.

The bottom line: The entire video was produced in-house and HootSuite mostly relied on owned media to promote the video. Plus, social sharing ended up carrying the bulk of the video’s promotion. Combined, these elements resulted in a relatively low CAC.

5) Buffer

Buffer is a social media scheduling app that allows users to create updates in a queue for dispersal throughout the day at peak time frames. Like Intercom, its marketing success sprung from conventional strategy paired with a unique approach.

One of its main advertising channels is blogging. At first, it only blogged about topics related to social media, but the strategy had limited reach. That’s when a presentation by Moz co-founder Rand Fishkin sparked a new strategy idea. Instead of creating content for potential audiences, Buffer decided to target the influencers who were already reaching it.

The new angle? Telling stories that incite people who already have a captive audience. This led to covering topics a wider audience could relate to — topics like psychology, creativity, multitasking, life hacks and more.

After changing its content game, Buffer posts experienced a substantial increase in social media shares. Actually, more than four times the amount, taking their counts from 250 to more than 1,000.

Kicking it up a notch, Buffer decided to start guest blogging to build new relationships and reach larger audiences. This connected the site with friends and followers of major social media influencers. The impact wasn’t immediate, but eventually, Buffer started hitting big numbers, like 100,000 new users in less than a year.

The result: Buffer went from a small company with no experience, no funding and no connections to a major player in the content marketing game. It has more than 1 million users and earns almost $4 million in annual revenue.

It eventually reached viral status with the blog post “30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself,” which received more than 500,000 Facebook likes, 400 comments and 20,000 Tweets. The company learned three things from the post:

  1. Even if a post is lengthy (this one was over 1,500 words) it will get read if the layout is easily skimmed.
  2. Using psychology to create headlines will generate more views. In this case, the title incited curiosity from potential readers, and made them wonder if the article applied to them.
  3. Don’t always rely on previously tested methods for creating content, and don’t be afraid to test unconventional ideas. You never know what might go viral.

The bottom line: Because much of Buffer’s writing was done by co-founder Leo Widrich, the company’s CAC is relatively low. Buffer did hire a full-time writer to head a second blog focusing on the culture of work life at Buffer (it provides a unique setting that values exercise, healthy eating and world travel). It received more than 900 applications for the job in just one month.

6) Contently

Contently is a content marketing (gone full-on media) company that connects freelancers with publishers (usually brands) who need content for their websites or marketing strategies. It’s known for drawing some serious brand dignitaries — like Pepsi, GE and American Express — into extended contracts. How did Contently do it? It re-invented the compensation model to pay out writers at a much higher rate than other media sources.

To turn a profit, Contently licenses its marketplace software to publishers instead of offering traditional revenue share with writers, where they take a cut of the prices set by the publishers.

It’s a win-win setup. Customers gain access to the entire Contently network of freelancers, and get to select whomever they like best. Writers are connected with work for hire, but without having to worry about managing the process (which Contently does for them). This frees them to focus on their craft and produce better work. And recently, Contently expanded its service to help writers market themselves online and file their freelance tax returns. 

The result: Contently attracted a lot of investors, who have helped the company raise millions. Its business model also sets new ethical standards for the treatment of writers. Moreover, its compensation model draws in some serious talent, which is why it’s managed to land big brands.

The bottom line: Contently sports a high customer retention rate, which contributes to a high customer LTV. It also has the support needed to expand, and plans to incorporate publishing and business results into its business model, making it the content marketplace to emulate.

7) Zendesk

Zendesk is a cloud-based customer service platform that provides ticketing self-service options and a slew of other customer support features. It also is the mastermind behind a truly bizarre marketing ploy that earned it major attention.

The Zendesk team regularly monitors search terms. In fall 2013, the team noticed a trend — people kept using the term “Zendesk alternative” in search for other platforms like Zendesk. The company’s genius marketing team decided to win some organic search traffic by embracing the search term in a very … involved way.

They created a comedic “Making the Band”-themed video, and invented a fake alternative music group, naturally dubbed Zendesk Alternative. The company bought the domain name, created social media pages for the band on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, listed the band name on Bandcamp and Reverberation, applied unique keyword rich anchor text, title tags and page content, uploaded their video and eagerly awaited reaction.

Zendesk

The result: Days after launch, the CEO of Helpscout (Zendesk’s biggest competitor at the time) made a congratulatory Tweet after Zendesk took its place as No. 1 in the ranks.

The bottom line: The faux site, zendeskalternative.com converted at a 95 percent higher rate than the main website, launching in October 2013 and closing five deals by April. In addition to winning over Google’s ranking, it also won the hearts of customers by poking fun at the competition with charm and class. The time, money and effort that went into the campaign likely increased its CAC, but the influx of recognition offset this spike, and customer LTV increased.

Some of the biggest marketing mistakes SaaS companies make are focusing too much on software and not enough on service and results; failing to delight current customers; unnecessarily driving up CACs; not maximizing customer LTV and following conventional marketing models without original thought.

These seven examples of exceptional marketing strategies side-step the pitfalls beautifully, and prove that you don’t need a huge budget or strong footing in the market to climb your way to the top. A sense of humor, creativity and bold, unorthodox thinking is enough to rival even the most successful competitors.

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