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Building a Marketing Foundation for B2B SaaS Startups

Marketing efforts should start early in your SaaS journey. Here are some hands-on tips on how to get the marketing wheel rolling for your business, even if you haven't had time to hire a marketing team yet.

Arif Khan
Building Digital Marketing Strategy for B2B SaaS Startups: A Guide

Recently I started consulting for Recurr, a growth agency exclusively for subscription businesses. A recurring theme that came in our discovery calls was — “that they hadn’t done any marketing so far”, or “they had just finished building their product”, or something else. You get the gist — the marketing function didn’t exist in these organizations.

Owing to these conversations I thought it would make sense to address some common questions and challenges that early-stage B2B start-ups face when 'getting to market'.

Some of the work enlisted in the article can be done without the need for an in-house marketing team if you are up for it. Moreover, it will make sure that when you eventually do hire a full-fledged team, you have a solid foundation for your future team.

Identify Personas and Their Core Buying Behaviors

Irrespective of whether you are a marketer or not, identifying your core users and buyers is a critical step. If you are an early-stage startup there can be nothing more useful than understanding your core users.

What do we mean by understanding your users? It means that you are aware of the motivations of the user, the obstacles they overcome, and the blockers to their successful conversion as a customer. This is an absolutely critical step irrespective of which marketing channel you are using.

This is even more true for a B2B startup since the personas can vary in terms of their motivations, blockers, and needs. Firms of varying sizes behave and operate differently, thus creating various personas. This means that the needs of a product manager of an enterprise company might be different from the needs of a product manager of a startup.

Thus it becomes essential that personas are carefully constructed and continuously updated to reflect any new insight you might gather from the market. These insights could be of a more granular nature like:

1. Where does this ideal customer hang out online?

2. What publications do these ideal customers generally refer to for industry news?

3. What communities do they actively engage in? or,

4. What terms do they search for while researching a problem? 

You can use a notepad, a google doc, or a free persona maker template to make your notes. The important thing is that whoever you are — a founder, a PM, the CTO, a junior marketing associate, or the designer — ask the following questions and note the answers -

1. Who is my ideal buyer/customer?

2. What work does my ideal customer do daily?

3. How does my product/service help my ideal customer in achieving their goals?

4. Does the product/service have any unintended benefits for the ideal customer?

5. What is the priority of the problem in the ideal customer’s mind?

6. Where do these ideal customers spend their time online?

Here’s a quick note by Andy Raskin on how to scribble with your team

These questions are a good starting point for you to start creating your personas. You can have multiple buyer personas depending on the scope of your product or service. The more important thing is to update your understanding of your ideal customers and personas on a frequent basis. 

It means that after every deal closure if you have learned about a previously unknown trait of your ideal customer, it is probably wise to make a note of it. The idea is that in the early days you have a paucity of knowledge and market intelligence (something for which you’ll pay thousands of dollars annually once you raise THE rounds) and even the slightest of clues shouldn’t be ignored.

Start Marketing Without an In-House Team

Once you have a good understanding of your personas, I believe you can start marketing your product without even hiring a team. Well, don’t get me wrong, you definitely have to hire a team but if you are unable to do so right now, marketing doesn’t have to wait.

I am assuming that you have already announced the birth of your startup across all channels. I will also assume that there is some sort of active or passive social media presence of your brand.

With these things done, you’d want to focus on the most important step for your business — revenue generation. For a startup, the challenge is twofold, you guys have to — increase revenue while minimizing churn. Thus sometimes you’ll find yourself taking up initiatives that won’t directly lead to sales. Think of it as preparing for the next boom in sales that is to come. True growth is rarely linear thus you might often find yourself in experiments that might not make sense.

This is why identifying and documenting the personas is so important. It will help you retain sanity in the midst of some really chaotic marketing. The persona notes can help you identify where to put your efforts first. Depending on your industry, you could be sending out emails, writing a lot of blogs, creating a whitepaper, or producing a workable template for your user persona.

You’ll obviously be doing direct sales and marketing across your peer network but these days can be used to establish some early wins. Companies that have figured out at least one indirect marketing channel before hiring a team are real winners.

So ask yourself this, “which one marketing activity will bring my ideal customer/persona closer to me in their journey?”. And then the following:

1. Should I publish a whitepaper and promote it via email and social media?

2. Since my persona searches for a lot of information, should I help them by educating them through blogs?

3. My product or service is a little complex for the buyer. Should I try making an explainer video and distributing it?

4. Maybe sponsoring one of the prospect’s favorite conferences will help me in getting some eyeballs rolling?

Choosing between content formats when faced with resource constraints and differing problems

Whatever you choose to do you can always use the help of content marketplaces like WhitePanda and Pepper and freelance websites like Upwork whenever you feel a shortage of hands. You can also try roping in an agency in case you feel that you are overwhelmed.

Related: Driving Customer Engagement With Explainer Videos: A SaaS Guide

Varying Flywheels In The Early Stages Of Startup Growth

The year 2019, saw the popularisation of the term “marketing flywheels”. In short, the ideal marketing channel is like a flywheel if you increase the angular velocity, the rotational energy increases, and vice versa. The idea of a flywheel in marketing is that once a channel is known and is fully functional it’ll take care of itself with minor modifications.

The reason why flywheels are becoming popular with marketers is that it is able to define the reality of contemporary marketing better than the modest funnel. The traditional marketing funnel implied loss of prospects at each stage, thus the focus of refinement was always on the most converting path. 

Instead, the flywheel is all-encompassing and inclusive, since prospects are retained at every stage. They are supplied with messages depending on where they are in the buyer’s journey and not whether they’ll buy or not. Thus flywheels have lifecycle marketing built-in by design.

The Exponential flywheel vs the Linear Funnel

In the case of an early-stage startup, just beginning its marketing activities it is unfair to expect an existing flywheel. Even more important is to understand that depending on the scale of market penetration, the flywheels will vary in their impact. For example on a smaller scale, word of mouth marketing can be your flywheel. Once you have crossed the chasm, the earlier goldmine might start producing diminishing returns.

It is important for leaders to make a correct estimate of whether their existing flywheel is losing momentum because of scale changes. This is true for even organic channels where your flywheel is dependent on the prevalence of branded search and non-branded rankings. Periodic health checks of your current lead generation channels will ensure you are never caught off guard by some dip or flattening in traffic/leads.

Related: Hyper-Personalization in Email Marketing Is the Only Way Forward

Designing an Inbound Marketing Pathway for Your Startup

Inbound has been the marketer’s apple of the eye in the previous decade. For SaaS startups today, it is an inevitable truth that an inbound engine has to be set up because of its seemingly infinite potential in any given market.

Inbound consists of all channels where the discovery of your product is intrinsically prospect-led. This makes sure that anyone who knows of your brand or the areas of service of your brand is able to discover your digital storefront. It also means that paid, social, referrals, and organic search are all considered inbound channels.

The important thing for you as an early-stage founder is that you are able to choose a channel that is self-sustaining just like a flywheel. For an early-stage startup, such an inbound channel is often “organic search”. We are not ignoring the importance of outreach but we will keep outbound marketing aside for some other article. (I have good reasons to do so!)

Preparing the path to organic discovery involves understanding an important aspect of search — the difference between branded and non-branded search. Branded search is when a prospect searches for your brand on a search engine. While the non-branded search is when a prospect searches for any terms which don’t represent your brand name.

This distinction is extremely important to understand since it influences both your marketing measurement and further developments. Say for example, if you were to start ranking for some search queries that aren’t relevant to your business or product. In such a case you have lost both time and effort but most importantly, you’ll most probably have to start from scratch to gain rankings for relevant queries.

For organic, you need to understand that since your brand exposure is limited in reach, there is an existing ceiling on the search volume for your brand. Now, I will give you the barometer of organic success for any brand — it is “branded search”. What I want to say is that the day when your organic searches are dominated by branded search at scale(say 90% traffic from branded search at a scale that reflects market demand levels of your service/product) will be the day you probably made it — at least organic traffic-wise.

Branded Traffic / Non-branded traffic for 4 Indian B2B startups mapped against the domain age

The path to such a stage with high branded traffic share is a difficult one though and requires a couple of forces working in synergy to produce the intended result. Since the growth in branded search volume will always be discrete and thus you can’t wait for the day when you are famous enough(that is it will happen in periodic jumps depending on your brand awareness efforts). In order to complement this slow growth, you need to build on the non-branded keyword universe for yourself.

The branded/non-branded share or ratio is something that keeps changing for startups over the lifetime of a company. In the early days, banking on non-branded is one of the best ways to generate awareness of your product among your future buyers. These prospects are also more likely to recommend your product because they know what you stand for and are probably long-time readers of your publication.

The intricacies of how to set up a process for non-branded traffic growth are beyond the scope of this article. So here’s a quick list of items to help you understand how to go on building an organic traffic base -

1. Conduct a competitive analysis of your competitor’s keyword pool

2. Conduct a benchmarking of your own keyword set

3. Identify opportunities based on difficulty and potential rewards

4. Categorize ranking opportunities into content topics or clusters

5. Develop a site map to accommodate the identified opportunities

6. Create a content calendar and start publishing blogs/guides/pdf/videos, etc.

7. Finally, keep measuring at least on a quarterly basis. Please, please don’t measure every 15 days.

Last Two Cents 

The steps that I have mentioned are not exhaustive but are to be considered as a guide to starting marketing for a B2B organization. These steps could be especially useful for founders with no marketing background or beginner marketing associates. I will soon share a guide on how to increase non-branded website traffic organically. Till then keep delighting your users and stay safe.

Read next: Upscaling your SaaS Business: 5 Gospels to Swear By

Note: This article was first published by the author on Recurr's Medium blog page

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