Reading: A SaaS Founder’s Guide to Starting Marketing on a Budget15 mins
A SaaS Founder’s Guide to Starting Marketing on a Budget
No money? No problem.
© Annika Leppäaho
Are you tired of hearing about how you need to spend a #$&* ton of money on marketing? What about the one tool that will give you 1000s of leads in five days?! How about that account-based marketing (ABM) software that will get you those high-intent enterprise opportunities?!
It’s exhausting, especially when you are a founder on a limited marketing budget and don’t know where to begin.
Well, that’s what I’m here to help you with.
This article will walk you through what I have done on limited marketing budgets and how you can achieve the same success.
And I’m not going to speak abstractly like most articles. You’re getting real advice and examples from my own experience…the good and bad.
So strap in as I lay out the top three things you need and don’t need to invest in as an early-stage founder.
Expect to learn:
- Need #1: Nail your narrative
- Need #2: Build a demand capture website
- Need #3: Cultivate a content playground, not just a slide
- Skip #1: Analyst seat licenses and reprints
- Skip #2: Peer review websites
- Skip #3: Public relations
Before we get into the practical steps, you need to make preliminary predictions around how many leads marketing needs to source your sales pipeline.
Dave Kellogg has written an article called Why Every Startup Needs an Inverted Demand Generation Funnel that I’ve used to understand the right marketing spend required to hit sales targets for the year.
This inverted funnel is a great way to look back at your historical marketing costs, or predicted marketing performance, to see what inputs need to change to hit your ARR targets for the year.
For example, increasing our ASP, improving our SQL-to-close rate, or improving our MQL-to-SQL conversion contribute to the marketing budget required to be successful.
Once you have an idea of what marketing needs to produce, we’re ready to allocate some budget!
Need #1 Nail Your Narrative and Differentiated Messaging
You have to nail your message.
I can’t reiterate this enough. Your company’s sales narrative and message to the market is the nucleus of your company’s success.
Well, what good are your website graphics, booth t-shirts, sales conversations, email nurtures, and syndicated webinars if your customers don’t understand what you do and how it benefits them?
And yet, most founders don’t think past a snippy boiler statement for a company profile. Before implementing any tactics, you need to slow down and nail your message.
Where to spend budget
Look into hiring someone that can be a sounding board for your narrative and message. The worst thing you can do is internalize this exercise.
I’m not saying to spend $30K minimum on a full-stack agency to do the work. I’m talking about getting a consultant to help you get out of your echo chamber.
I’ve used a consultant a few times at multiple companies, and they’ve helped take messaging ideas I viewed as good and helped me reword them to be beyond excellent.
Consultants provide narrative workshops, message clarity sessions, and even content development to help accelerate your differentiated message to your buyer. And the best thing is this: the consultants aren’t biased and will give you raw feedback on how to develop a winning message.
How to measure success
You don’t want to sound like everyone else.
The best measure of your message resonating is to ask your prospective customers if what you’re telling them is unique or something they haven’t heard before.
The worst they could say is, “Yeah, this was terrible.” In which they won’t say that unless they are jerks.
Even if you are in the same category as your competitors, you want to communicate in a way that makes you stand out from them. Because if you don’t, they will always go with the least common denominator: price.
Sales will also tell you right away if the message is resonating or not with their customers. Since they are on the battlefield every day, they know firsthand if customers connect with the narrative or not. Further, you should conduct a win/loss analysis to understand where the message is winning and losing.
Budget Resources to help
- Product Marketing Alliance
- They have tons of templates from persona mapping to narrative design. I have been a member of theirs for three years now, and they never disappoint.
Need #2: Build a Demand Capture Website
Your website is the number one marketing asset at your fingertips. This is not because you can put pretty graphics on a web page.
90% of all your leads will come from inbound marketing that begins with website interaction.
Whether filling out a form, or a customer finding your direct phone number, everything begins with the website, especially if you have little to no outbound sales motions with SDRs, AEs, and partner channels.
Therefore, your website should be optimized to 1) get people there and 2) keep people there, so they ultimately express interest in your solutions.
Get people there
Here is where the power of search engine optimization (SEO) comes into play. You may be thinking, “Well, duh Ryan, you got to rank for keywords.”
Well, believe it or not, many founders don’t believe SEO is important and would rather try to get quick wins using pay-per-click (PPC) or display ads.
SEO has compounding ROI because it focuses on evergreen content that someone will look for.
When I joined Keyfactor, our average organic traffic was around 5,000 per month. After I had been there for one year, we averaged 30,000 per month. And now they are blasting to 50,000 per month.
Keep reading to see how we did this.
Keep people there
Design on a website can be way over-engineered to where it’s too busy, animated where the person becomes lost in the website.
If you look at many product-led companies (e.g., Atlassian, Datadog), their websites are clean, clear, and focused. Their messaging doesn’t get lost in the design, which is huge for capturing attention. They are both customer and information-focused.
You optimize your website for the customer, not the internal marketing team.
Limit animated graphics, limit cuteness, and be very clear about the value of your solutions and why change is needed.
At my last company, Keyfactor, we spent a lot of time on the home page during a redesign.
The home page had to be amazing, but only 30% of the visitors that came to the home page actually scrolled down.
What does this tell us?
It tells us that whatever you said on your home page headline (hint, hint, why narrative and messaging are crucial!) will impact if the visitor wants to abandon your page or move quickly to see what you offer.
You essentially have one shot at getting them to be interested since only 30% move past your first headline…that’s crazy.
If they didn’t scroll down, where do you think they went immediately? The navigation.
We found this out using a tool like CrazyEgg to see a heatmap of their movement. This means visitors immediately want to investigate if your company is the right fit for them.
Building an informative navigation that’s also not overbearing can be difficult. Just remember to make it clear. When you have a lot of product parody, you need to stand out on your message. If you don’t understand clearly why to go with one vendor over the other, you will default to price.
Building a “Why [Company Name]” page is so essential. Buyers have to know why they would go with you over someone else.
Where to spend budget
First, invest in a web agency you can trust. I’ve been using one specific web agency for the last three years at two different positions because I trust them.
They build great websites that allow me full access to a development, design, and digital team for the cost of one FTE. They provide clear direction on hours spent and remaining, so there are zero surprises when my bill arrives.
Plus, they always use WPBakery to build or duplicate new WordPress pages on the fly.
Second, invest in an SEO tool like SEMRush, ahrefs, or SpyFu.
Perform a gap analysis of the keywords your competition ranks for, and you don’t. Then organize them into top, middle, and bottom of funnel keywords.
This is crucial for your SEO success because you want to rank for middle and bottom of funnel keywords quickly. These show the highest buyer intent and the quickest way to capture demand.
Third, invest in a backlink firm to help build your off-page SEO. On-page is something you and a team of freelancers (more on this below) can accomplish. However, backlinking is tough and takes a lot of time. Find a reputable backlink firm to help build high authority links and you’ll start to see your ranking climb quickly.
How to measure success
There are many ways to measure the success of a demand capture website, but you don’t need all those metrics initially. I would focus on the below.
- Contacts Us/Request Demo form fills
- View this month over month and quarter over quarter to track your marketing sourced pipeline.
- Average time on page
- View this to see how engaging your content is for the visitors.
- Average sessions and session time
- View this to understand how long someone is on your entire site
- Organic Rankings
- Positions 1-5 and page one is all you should care about. If you are in any other position then you might as well be on page 2.
Budget Resources to help
- List of SEO Tools
Need #3: Cultivate a Content Playground, Not a Big Slide
Have you ever seen a kid only take the big slide on a playground?
Rarely. That’s because kids want to experience the entire playground like the monkey bars, swings, rock climbing, stair steps, etc. vs only going down one slide for an hour.
The slide is awesome, but it’s not the only thing that kids want to do when they go to the playground. This is the same thing with your prospective customer.
Before deciding, they want to consume all kinds of content (e.g., web pages, videos, guides, webinars, pricing).
Data even tells us that a majority of buyer research is completed before they even approach a salesperson.
Where to spend budget
Looks for ways to repurpose content into different mediums. For example, we wrote a blog around the Top Data Quality Metrics You Need to Know and then used the same content to generate a gated ebook for PPC.
If you eventually start a podcast or webinar series, simply pump in through a transcription service like Rev. After a few editing rounds, you now have an entire blog series.
Skip spending budget on an FTE content writer and create a bunch of good content writers to accomplish all content needs and organize them based on aptitude.
For example, the below freelancer sheet I use gives me a breakdown of their rate and what their writing skills are best used for.
How to measure success
Just like your SEO gap analysis, you need to do a content gap analysis.
Are you missing core web pages that differentiate your product from the competition? Do you have a “why [Company]” page so visitors know why you are different?
Below is an excel spreadsheet I put together that helps logically organize content. This always allows you to see where to place content and keep an inventory of every classification:
The success of SEO is easier to measure than content due to SEO being tracked by position and some content might not be purely built for SEO.
So here are a few ways:
- Sales Usage
- Just ask sales if they use the content for outreach or sales cycle acceleration.
- Form conversion on content landing pages
- If visitors are hitting your landing page but have a low conversion, then something is wrong. Find out your baseline conversion and see if you can improve with better messaging.
- Use last touch attribution.
- HubSpot and other CRMs do this out of the box so you can see if a content download eventually leads to a request demo/contact us MQL.
- Attribution only goes so far, so I would also add a “How did you hear about us” free text field. It’s eye-opening when customers say they heard about you from unknown channels (e.g., panel discussions, live events, LinkedIn Posts)
- Email open rates and click-through rates
- This highlights if your content is compelling on a first email headline all the way through to content consumption.
Budget Resources to help
- Backlinko Content Hub
- One place for all content creation needs.
- Neil Patel
- Expert SEO and content advice from one of the best.
- Wistia Channels
- I use Wistia channels to easily curate an awesome-looking landing page for all my videos.
- How to find writers
- Try a few freelancers out on the cheap before you move to get a more professional writer.
- LinkedIn Search
- Simply put in your [category + Freelance Writer] in search to get a bunch of high-quality freelancers to interview.
Skip #1: Analyst Seat Licenses and Reprints
Analyst relations (AR) get a bad rap, and I get why.
“It’s pay to play!”
“[X Company] is in the tank for our competitor!”
“Why didn’t we get mentioned in this report? We pay them $$$!”
However, I believe many of these complaints are due to resource allocation, not marketing spending. For AR to run correctly, you need someone dedicated to owning the relationships and setting KPIs for the year.
This doesn’t need to be a full-time role, but it does need ownership from either marketing or product. When I was leading product marketing at Tricentis and Keyfactor, I owned the relationships with the major analyst firms.
It wasn’t my full-time job, but it took more time than I wanted. So what can you do on a budget?
First, you can always request a briefing without a paid seat. This doesn’t mean that analysts will always take your request, but it doesn’t hurt to request one. Since they get hundreds of requests a month, you’ll need to stand out.
To maximize your acceptance of a briefing request, you want to make sure your request gives them value vs you getting value from them. I’ll usually read up on a few of their blogs, research notes, or LinkedIn posts to feel their areas of interest.
Then I’ll title the request and abstract that provided value to their fields of interest, like “A DataOps view of the Data Observability Landscape and 2022 Trends.”
Second, you can send analysts monthly or quarterly reports on the state of your business and your POV of the market. At the close of a briefing, I’ll usually ask if it’s OK to send them updates. Most analysts welcome this information because it helps them be better informed when writing their research notes.
And lastly, you can interact with them on social media. Analysts like to post thought leadership and encourage feedback from the community. This gives you a presence to any potential buyers that follow analysts to get their advice on vendor recommendations and industry trends.
In the rare circumstance that your category has some type of market guide, quadrant, wave, etc. you should weigh the pros and cons for shelling out rights to a reprint. These can be extremely helpful for procurement but less helpful if your company is not in these reports.
Skip #2: Peer Review Websites
Peer review sites like G2, TrustRadius, and PeerSpot help customers compare vendors based on peer/user reviews. You can claim your company profile and get reviews from your customers from these sites for free.
Obviously, these companies want you to purchase their paid versions for things like upgrading your profile content, buyer intent data, and outreach review programs to your customer base.
I say skip the paid version for now, and take the budget to offer gift cards for reviews.
Here’s how you do it:
- Create a list of customers you know are raving fans
- Connect with your customer over the phone or by email
- Ask them to do a quick 15-min review
- Tell them to notify you once their review is complete
- Send them a $50+ gift card
Here are some P\pretty simple steps to get many peer reviews within a short amount of time.
Below is the email template I use; feel free to steal it:
Giftcard for 15-Min Review
Hi [Customer name],
We’re reaching out to our most active customers to ask them for a quick 15 min review of how they use [product/company name] for a $50 gift card.
The review process is very simple and can be anonymous.
Just go here [Link to review site], leave us a review, and let me know so I can send you your gift card. We value any feedback and hope you leave us a good review :-).
Skip #3: Public Relations
Public relations (PR) used to be table stakes for all companies. Invest tons of money into firms that can get you placed in industry pubs where your buyer hangs out for those passive leads.
The problem now is that companies can produce just as good of content as PR firms.
Plus, they get the benefit of SEO if it’s done right. So why would you invest money in something you can already benefit from?
Now I don’t say this to bash PR. I like PR when it works to get my company’s brand name into areas where I can’t do it myself.
However, you walk into meetings with the firm without a proper content strategy to feed the PR, saying, “So…what are we going to pitch this week?”
This is the beginning of a vicious cycle that forced companies to over-focus on developing content specifically for PR instead of building their organic brand.
Wrapping it up
The reality is this: there is no silver bullet in B2B marketing. I tried to choose the top marketing needs that will have bottom-of-funnel impacts immediately on a limited budget.
This isn’t a “marketing code” that I wouldn’t change in the future.
However, as Captain Barbossa once said, “The code is more of what you call guidelines than actual rules.”