Visualising the shape of content strategy in SaaS businesses
The company I run is in an insanely competitive market.
We sell a survey tool.
When you think of survey tools, depending on what job function you’re in, you’re going to come up with a whole bunch of different names.
But a survey tool isn’t alone in being a busy market. To a greater or lesser extent, almost every SaaS is competing for eyeballs and wallets in these marketplaces.
Chances are at some point, a B2B SaaS will consider content marketing as a channel and that’s when they’ll do one of two things:
- Just start creating stuff – potentially with a bit of keyword research
- Or they’ll think about their strategy and try to find their place
When it comes to SaaS, the thing that I find endlessly fascinating is trying to understand the strategic choices their people have made to try to acquire new customers.
Recently, I’ve been developing a framework that can be used to help discover competitive opportunities for new entrants into any market or segment.
I’m going to outline my ‘alpha’ of this framework below but if you’re working in SaaS growth or content, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
I’m @iammarcthomas on Twitter or you can subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll get my address.
Strategy is complex but not complicated
But here’s the real kicker about this: most people are really bad at thinking strategically, and worse, it’s not really their fault.
Strategy is difficult thing to sit and think about because it requires you to try to forget 90% of what you’ve ever heard about strategy and if I hear a single SaaS bro talk about The Art of War again I’m going to send them a very negative instant karma.
Strategy gets a bad name.
A lot of people associate it with inaction.
It's easy to see why.
If you've ever worked in a company, no doubt you've been to briefings on strategy that lasted all morning or read dense documents that are gathering dust on a company server somewhere.
But strategy when it's effectively created and followed, is really anything but that.
Here's an extract of Richard Rumelt's fantastic book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters on the topic (shout out to Animalz for putting me onto this one):
The kernel of a strategy contains three elements:
A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.
A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. This is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.
A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy.
In many SaaS companies, particularly early stage, you find that people are thinking about the coherent action but have neglected to consider the diagnosis of the market and the guiding policy for dealing with the challenge.
A framework for developing content strategy in SaaS
For the past little while, I’ve been trying to frame my own thoughts about how to make content strategy more systematic.
I couldn’t find a system that I thought worked well for companies in any segment or market.
And so I created my own.
My goal was to be able to look at a marketplace and discover where the opportunity for a new entrant might be in terms of using content to acquire new customers.
I’d like to share that today together with a worked example where the goal is to find a strategy that could work for a new entrant into the automation SaaS market competing with Zapier and Integromat.
What factors affect the shape of content strategy for SaaS companies?
To really understand any opportunity, you need to be able to have two things.
Firstly, you need to understand the challenges that any competitive landscape will present. For SaaS, broadly these are the things that matter:
- A company’s business model – How do you make money? Do you have a free trial to work around? Is it freemium? Charge by usage? Consultancy plus SaaS? Paid only? Annual or monthly?
- Maturity of product category – Are you creating a class? Or are you entering a well populated one?
- Industry complexity – What does the industry you are selling into look like? Is it simple, complex?
- Product complexity – Is the product easy to understand?
- Pricing model – Is the purchase a significant financial commitment for the customer?
- Complexity of end user organisation – How complex is the organisational requirement for the end user of this product? Who else is involved?
- Frequency of end usage – How frequently will this product need to bring a user back?
- Duration of set up for end usage – Is it one time or do new ‘set ups’ need to occur regularly
- Customer lifecycle – What the customer lifecycle looks like and the challenges faced at each stage of that
- Competitor strategy – What is your competitor profile? How are they marketing? This will have a huge impact on your own product.
Anyone who is in B2B SaaS should be able to provide a quick overview of their own company for each of those questions.
However, alongside that, there’s a series of ‘metrics’ (in the classic sense) for SaaS content marketing strategy and those metrics are:
Depth measures the detail required for content to meet the market need
Some indicators of depth would be:
- Complexity of language
- Length of content
- Topical depth
Volume measures the amount of information required to convert leads to customers
Volume is akin to conversion path length in Google Analytics as an idea. It mostly indicates the number of times a person is assumed to have to touch content produced by a SaaS before they become a customer.
Depending on the depth you want to go to in analysing a strategy, you can also take this further and segment out customers.
For example, the volume needed for a customer to become a free tier user in a freemium model is different to that needed for them to become a daily active user.
Frequency indicates the rate at which new or existing content must be produced/packaged in order to convert leads to customers
There are many different ways that we can make assumptions about the frequency necessary for a brand to do well at content marketing and to do this we can refer back to the factors affecting the strategy.
For example, how complex is the product to use? Higher complexity products will require a greater "Volume" of information in order to convert or activate. How regularly must a lead be engaged with content in order to convert into a customer? When a lead has become a customer, how frequently must they be fed new use cases or reminded how to use the product?
Value indicates the actual value from content marketing
Actual value from content marketing is tough to reverse engineer. It means different things to every company and changes over time – hopefully increasing in value.
A basic indicator to get to a score for value would be to look at Ahrefs or similar and check out the estimated traffic value.
Why? Because companies who rank for high value or a lot of keywords, generally invest a lot into content marketing. If you have an example of a company that this isn’t true for, I’m all ears.
There are of course other options for assessing this. You could also look at the breakdown of acquisition traffic estimated by a tool like SimilarWeb to validate your assumptions.
Conversion value indicates the strategic value of lead > customer conversions from content marketing
Closely related to value but focused on the value of individual conversions as opposed to value which is more similar to the value of content to the business as a whole
A particularly good indicator of conversion value would be the pricing model that a SaaS uses.
Cross referencing this to the depth of the content can give us an even more accurate understanding of the value here.
Greater depth targeted at high priced products or tiers demonstrate a higher conversion value.
Worked example: Zapier vs Integromat vs NewProduct
To demonstrate what this looks like, I’ve run a case study on Zapier, Integromat and an imaginary NewProduct in the automation market.
First thing, I’ll show you my working for both Integromat and Zapier. Then I’ll walk you through how I’d use that to talk to the growth people at NewProduct and then I’ll address a couple of objections and talk about how I see this framework becoming more valuable.
To help visualise this stuff, I use a radar chart on a scale of 1-10, where the labels are the five metrics I just identified.
And so here’s the shape of Zapier’s content strategy:
Main customer group is non-technical businesses and individuals
Content put out by Zapier is relatively superficial and quickly digestible (can be done on a short Uber ride) for a general non-technical audience.
In fact, the articles are not long and focus primarily on acquisition of new SaaS tools that integrate with Zapier which is their entire value proposition. Connect what you have, connect what you don’t have!
The funnel at Zapier must be crazy because top of funnel (TOFU) content must frequently convert users to low-value or free signups as opposed to other SaaSes where the TOFU content will garner mailing list signups or similar.
Middle of funnel (MOFU) and bottom of funnel (BOFU) are aimed at increasing conversion value
Zapier when integrated into a business is hugely sticky. But to get someone to integrate it deeply requires an above average volume of content.
Initially, Zapier will be implemented by an individual (most likely) but later scale out to teams and then into an organisation as a whole – so they need a lot of content to support the viral acquisition model.
Zapier emails me every day. I’m probably quite like the majority of Zapier’s customer base in that I need frequent reminders and inspiration to integrate and automate stuff.
A new TOFU article in my inbox each day ensure that it’s always front of my mind.
I would place a pretty good bet on content being the primary acquisition channel for Zapier. Looks as though it has been consistently like that that since the beginning of the business.
Here’s their Ahrefs overview to demonstrate:
Initial conversions at Zapier are likely to be relatively low value – they’re on a freemium model. But because of the stickiness and ‘fun-ness’ of Zapier’s product, it’s easy to fly up the pricing tiers to a high value.
On the other hand, the payback on that for the majority of people (because it’s a non-technical audience) is probably quite long which is, I assume, why Zapier sent me a ‘your year in automation’ summary email at the end of last year.
Now let’s do the same for Integromat.
Integromat is focused on acquiring technical customers who want to integrate things in a way that’s less ‘out of the box’ and more ‘I don’t have time to build a custom automation.’ It’s a different market segment to Zapier’s ‘how do I automate my SME?’
That’s why their content is more in depth than Zapier’s in terms of technical information. It reads like developer docs aimed at getting you to build integration deep in your business.
Because the audience is technical and of a mind to integrate stuff anyway, they don’t need to create large amounts of content.
On the other hand, similar to Zapier, fleshing out site structure with long tail integration pages helps them to acquire organic search traffic (this accounts for the majority of organic traffic to their site).
The frequency of posting has increased on the Integromat blog since the start of coronavirus – which is understandable (2x a week as opposed to 1x a week previously).
Contrast this with Zapier who published a blog post every 1.5 days in June 2020.
Of course, that has a knock on impact on search rankings and, as a consequence, traffic to the site.
Zapier was doing roughly 1.1M visits per day in June 2020 vs Integromat’s roughly 27K.
Content marketing brings roughly 45% of Integromat’s traffic. Almost all of this traffic appears to be from app pages – i.e. pages like this one on how Integromat can help you hook up your Discord messages to other stuff.
Side note: I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if Integromat couldn’t make that page higher converting by flipping it on its head. The use cases (and corresponding recipes) are below general content about Integromat itself. I would place a bet that most people either a) don’t care what Integromat is and just want to solve their problem and/or b) already know what it is and just want to be inspired on how to use it.
Direct is slightly lower – but brand searches are still providing the around 20% of all traffic to Integromat’s site.
This is probably indicative of the different market profile of Integromat.
It’s really for technical individuals who are building no-code tools or automating things like analytics – they don’t usually need the content to support them through that process
Conversion value from content will be pretty low because the freemium model isn’t well structured – the volume of usage necessary to move through tiers is too generous without the content to support increased usage and adoption by end users.
I would love to see some data around how the funnel is performing.
Analyzing the opportunity
Now for the good bit: let’s take all of this stuff and use it to analyze the competitive opportunity for a new entrant into the automation market, to use content to gain your dollars and all of your lovely, lovely automation.
To do this, we use the same system to create a shape for a new competitor — in a market not dissimilar to Zapier and Integromat (B2B, basic technical skills) — to win new customers using content as a channel.
The depth that Zapier goes into on its blogs is an appropriate place to pitch NewProduct’s content efforts but longer, more in depth would be helpful in meeting the opportunity.
A good example of a company to get inspired by is 2019-20 Wistia.
Wistia’s in depth posts that are more specific to the task at hand rather than general ‘productivity’ hacks that Zapier runs on their site. Compare this beautiful post on setting up a DIY Office Studio to this way broader post on working from home (which, weirdly, only features one Zap template?)
In fact, producing content similar to Intercom’s in depth guides – rather than one-off blogposts – or like Wistia’s Brand Affinity Playbook is where the real opportunity lies here – no-one is doing this right now in the automation market.
And because it’s for a general audience who might be the early adopters within their teams but aren’t necessarily technically gifted, this kind of easy to follow but juicy content will hit a note that no other automation content team seems to be hitting.
This would also fit super well with the No- or Lo-code movements who are consumers of information and are currently getting the really problem oriented but slightly more in depth automation content from site’s like Ben Tossell’s Makerpad
Given what we just said about producing more in depth content, one opportunity is to produce lower than average volumes of content but align this schedule to conversion value.
What do I mean by that?
There’s no need to produce high volumes of content when you’re training people to ‘think automation’
One of the wild things that happens to people who read the Wistia Brand Affinity Playbook is that they suddenly see every content idea as a potential Netflix-for-B2B style opportunity.
That works specifically because the depth is perfect and the transition from ‘publish blogs’ to ‘create franchises’ seems just so straightforward (spoiler: it’s not!).
NewProduct could create a similar feeling for users, training them to see automation opportunities everywhere rather than having a much more superficial message and then having to prompt them every day to automate something.
This aligns the conversion value to the volume and depth very neatly.
If you’ve got a hammer everything looks like a nail. If you’re got NewProduct, all you see is automation and you continue to pay for and use its features once you’re hooked.
By focusing on meaningful depth, you decrease the rate that you need to produce new content at.
New guides or longer pieces of content will require more attention from the content team in your organisation.
Aim for publishing high quality thoughtful content every month rather than every week.
The content will take a long time to build to its peak value, but once there, it’ll create huge value for the business.
Because you’ll be focused on in depth tower content and guides, the backlinks you’ll acquire will snowball once momentum gets going.
Of course, link building at scale takes effort. See this very great case study on Canva by Ross Simmonds.
But the great thing about having a strategy that is low frequency and high depth is that you can create a work schedule for the team which factors in the quality time it takes to build links.
In this way, content marketing and SEO can form the major channel for acquisition (obviously referral being secondary) and quickly move you away from brand searches being the primary search traffic.
But how does this all generate such a high conversion value?
One possibility for this is to create content which encourages organisations to rapidly adopt automation within their businesses.
Neither Zapier nor Integromat are currently doing this and it’s really where the freemium model can come into its own.
An example piece of content would be a course on productising knowledge within the company. Because productised knowledge from SMEs can generate big upticks in revenue, the investment of time and attention that goes into implementing the strategy is high.
This moves the automation task away from ‘something marketing do to save time’ into a ‘land and expand’ approach where you acquire a broad user base across departments very quickly after the initial conversion.
Alternatively, or potentially complementary to this, is offering paid only plans (removing free tier) which could increase the conversion value dramatically.
A ‘whole business’ acquisition model would definitely support this as a business model – individuals like freemium, businesses like fixed agreements.
Is this a usable model?
Look. This is a framework and it’s designed to be flexible.
I showed a few people this and here are the two main themes of feedback:
- This is a great system for communicating strategy to senior leadership teams
- There’s a lot of subjectivity here – is that OK?
I’ll probably go into both of those in future posts because they’re both really valid points but I want to say two quick things and then ask for two quick things.
Firstly, this is designed for SaaS B2B companies – if you’re in D2C of B2C, the parameters are different and so the shape will be very different. But in SaaS B2B (particularly early stage) getting any kind of clarity on the strategy can actually be quite different so having a top-line visualization of the strategy is a useful tool for getting up to speed quickly for new hires as well as management.
Secondly, this is currently highly subjective and actually it’s quite difficult to find data points that can be compared and contrasted between companies because B2B markets are deeply complex and customer acquisition is chaotic in early stage companies.
That being said, I think it’s worth saying that I’m actively thinking about how to bring a little more objectivity into this.
And now, on that point, the ask: I’d love to hear your feedback and where you think this works, where it doesn’t and where you see it being used. So drop me a message on Twitter @iammarcthomas.
Then there’s the other ask: if you’ve found this useful, let me know by subscribing to receive future updates. It’s free to do so and I’d really love to be able to send you more case studies like this. (There's a form below)
Thanks for reading. Looking forward to speaking to you all, you positive hümans.
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