Getting To A Strategy: 5 Tactical Things Any SaaS Marketer Can Do

Originally posted on Medium. 

And it’s none of these:

  • Hire people
  • Hire agencies
  • Spin up ads
  • Buy swag
  • Book a conference

And if you’re going to spend money, I recommend spending it on content creation & promotion.

About a year ago, after my 2 year run with Mailgun, I joined Assembla as their marketing leader. My entire year at Assembla was spent on getting to a strategy and so as I close my chapter with Assembla, I’d like to take the time to share my experience.

Assembla is a 10 year old SaaS business acquired by Scaleworks in early 2016. Scaleworks is a venture equity provider that acquires, invests in, advises and operates B2B Saas companies. You can read more about the vision and beliefs behind Scaleworks here.

What I really like about the Scaleworks model and the reason I decided to join this mission was that these B2B SaaS companies had a proven product, a healthy customer base and were generating revenue. The challenge was this: How do you take what currently exists and turn it into something that can scale?
And to scale, you need a strategy. So looking back, these were some of the fundamental things I did to help the Assembla team get to a strategy.

1. Understand the metrics of the business

If you’re an avid runner and want to qualify for the Boston Marathon, just trying to physically run faster won’t get you there. You have to understand how your body works and what it needs to get more fuel. This is the fun, science part.
My first month at Assembla was spent studying our entire business metrics sheet which we based off of a model similar to this:

I spent most of time understanding top of funnel metrics in Google Analytics; understanding things like:

  • Where is traffic coming from?
  • What are the top landing pages?
  • Which keywords do we rank high for?
  • What are people doing on our website?
  • How many visits does a user have before they convert?

After studying these numbers, I was able to understand what our brand was known for.

Was it valuable traffic though?

This is super important to understand. When I first started at Mailgun, one of the top performing keyword phrases we ranked for was “free email server” and so even though it brought in traffic and trial conversions, it didn’t necessarily bring any revenue generating trials.

At Assembla, we faced a similar problem. We ranked #1 for “free svn.” The next step was to understand what these users were doing that converted off of these keywords.

To connect the dots, we built a custom dimension in Google Analytics that pulled in Assembla’s unique IDs directly into Google Analytics. See this article on how to set up a custom dimension.

From here, I was able to tie back where users were coming from and run that report against our revenue report.

Even though you can’t see which keywords a user converted on in Google Analytics, you can see which page they landed on. I then used a tool like Moz to see which keywords each landing page ranked for. So for example, for users that landed on directly, I knew exactly which keywords they likely converted from.

Understanding your funnel metrics is foundational before you hire a team, hire an agency, spin up paid marketing programs. It’s impossible to show value of your programs if you can’t measure them against your revenue reports.

2. Close the gaps with lowest conversion rates

When you look at your funnel, look at conversion rates for each step in the funnel. Before you jump to driving demand, understand where your funnel is leaking and close those gaps. For example, a simple SaaS funnel looks like:

Web traffic > Trials
Trials > Activations
Activations > Paid Subscriptions

At Assembla, we had a major gap between trials and activations. So instead of trying to drive more visitors to our website or try to get trial users to choose a paid plan, I wanted to implement an onboarding program drive more app usage out of our trial users. The natural progression from here is to drive paid plans out of active trial users.

When implementing an onboarding program, you want to make sure you trigger emails or in app messages based on what users came to do in the app and on the behaviors they’re taking in the app (or lack of). For example, when a user signs up for Assembla, they can create a project or add a repo.

If they didn’t do either of these in a certain time frame, we would trigger an email on how to do that. We captured this data by making API calls from our database and dropping values into Intercom. After we implemented onboarding, we increased the paid conversion rate from 1.5% to 2.5%.

Similarly, I implemented an onboarding program at Mailgun that reduced the time it took a user to start paying us from 7 months to 1 month. You can read about it here.

3. Generate some content and test messages

Even though you’re nowhere near a strategy, it doesn’t hurt to start testing messages in the market based on the data you’ve collected. (I also recommend doing this in parallel to talking to customers which I get into after this section)
Choose one direction to go with and build content around it. I’ve written about the importance of content in the past and my stance on it hasn’t changed. For Assembla, we went all in on project management for software development teams and one niche audience we focused in on was game developers. Some articles we published around this were:

Distribute content in the channels you’re already generating valuable traffic from. Go to your referral URLs and see which links are bringing the most traffic and conversions. If they’re influencer blogs, reach out and ask to do another blog post. If they’re larger networks like Stackoverflow, see what type of advertising opportunities are available.

I also recommend googling some keyword phrases you think you’re target audience is using and see which URLs come up on the first page. This is a good way to find some content opportunities.

So what did we learn?

Assembla essentially has two products built into their platform, project management and a version control tool. In the beginning stages of my testing, we went all in on project management. It was great that we did because well, we failed and we knew exactly why we failed. What I found was that project management was a competitive category, everyone was in that category. It was expensive to compete.

In addition, we found that our happy, active customers didn’t choose us for project management, they chose us for version control, particularly Perforce and Subversion. And we only found this out by surveying and talking to our customers.

This was a better place to be not only from a competitive standpoint but also from the perspective of why users actually loved Assembla.

4. Understand who you your customers are (by talking to them)

This might sound a bit like a no brainer but I’ll be honest with you, as someone responsible for growth, there’s a bit of pressure to start generating more traffic and leads and so it can be tempting to completely skip this part.

Talking to customers and people just like your customers is crucial to your success. Pull a report of your highest MRR customers and study them. You can use tools like Clearbit or Hubspot Insights to pull data about your customer such as the job title of your users, which industry they’re in, annual revenue, etc so you can start building buyer persona profiles.

The next step is the interview. Our leadership team each took responsibility to talk to customers and we tried to work within the same interview framework so we could compare notes.

The interview is not about your product. The interview is to understand the person by asking questions around what they do, what challenges they’re facing, what is valuable to them, how they measure success, etc.

Don’t make the interview about your product! This is not a product feedback session.

Interviews can take a long time to schedule so in parallel, you can run an automated survey that triggers when a new customer signs up for a paid subscription asking why they chose you and as well as asking non converted trials why they didn’t choose you. You can use this data to supplement your interview data.

Talking to customers is your source of truth. When you come to a strategy and people want to challenge you on it, you can always come back to what your paying customers told you and no opinion can argue with that!

5. Develop the story (and put it into a pitch deck)

One of the scariest yet most liberating thing a business can do is decide on a strategy. Scary because once you’ve decided who you want to be, it requires a lot of discipline to stay on course. Liberating because you now know what you can say no to.

After analyzing all the data we had collected over the year in conjunction with doing some market research, we came to a strategy that we all felt confident to stand behind.

The next step was to develop our story. Often times businesses will develop a story before doing all the leg work around building a strategy. Without the strategy, it’s impossible to develop a story everyone believes in.

We attempted to build a pitch deck before we had a strategy and it was a complete failure. Fast forward 6 months, we used the same framework to build the pitch deck we previously failed at yet our story finally made sense.
We worked with Andrew Raskin to build our pitch deck after reading his article here.

Once you have your strategy down and your story developed, it becomes the foundation to your business that all teams should align to. From sales to customer success, all teams should focus on tactics that only builds off of that foundation.

What a fun, challenging (and at times intense) year I had at Assembla. Wishing the Assembla team the best of luck as they go out and execute on their strategy, the leader in Enterprise Cloud Version Control #ECVC. Rock on!

Now on to Qualaroo, a real-time insights platform and service that helps businesses discover why prospects and customers make decisions. Check us out here:

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