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Marketing Your New SaaS: A Stage-by-Stage Guide

Marketing Your New SaaS: A Stage-by-Stage Guide

03.03.2015.

Whether you’re an established software company launching a new application, or a start-up with an exciting product in the works, you know that marketing your SaaS will play a major role in its success. What you may not realize is that if you wait until you have a firm launch date to start your marketing engine, you’re placing your application at a distinct disadvantage. In a world where ‘first to market’ matters, ‘early to marketing’ matters too.

QuestionsBut how do you begin marketing something that doesn’t even exist yet? And if you’re an established company–perhaps one that has a legacy desktop application you may eventually replace with the cloud version–how do you reassure customers that the new application is good for them… without cannibalizing your old product?

You may feel reassured to know that your concerns are normal, and your challenges common to many SaaS developers. In our work with SaaS clients, we’ve identified the most common concerns and challenges at each stage of development, as well as the best practice solutions and marketing activities that correspond with each.

Check out our write-up below, and then let us know in the comments what you think. Some of the points apply specifically to companies with a legacy application that they’re updating to the cloud, while others apply to any SaaS developer. Do these stages and concerns match up with your experience? What you would add to each stage?

Stage 0: Early Development

We define “Stage Zero” as the period during which your product is in early development, before active marketing begins. Note that we said, “active marketing”–while you may not be directly marketing your product by name at this point, there is a great deal you can do now that will pay off big time later.

Characteristics of Stage 0

  • Product is in early to mid development
  • May or may not have set a launch date

Common Challenges of Stage 0:

  1. Concern about how the current install base will react to a new product offering.
  2. Launch dates may keep shifting.
  3. May be losing current install base customers to competitors with newer products.
  4. Unsure whether to begin marketing the new product.
  5. May be so “in the weeds” with development that marketing is the last thing on your mind.

 Stage 0 Solutions:

  1. Understand that customers expect their software companies to innovate, and will see a new cloud offering as a positive sign that you’re staying fresh. Presumably, you intend to continue to support the desktop application at least until some future planned obsolescence date, so you can readily reassure your install base that they will be taken care of. Most likely, they will be less worried about it than you might think.
  2. In our experience, very few software products ever launch on time. If delays are excessive or unreasonable, consider hiring a dedicated software product manager with experience in bringing products successfully to market. This individual will help prioritize according to business objectives, and negotiate development efforts to get things back on track.
  3. Start discussing cloud technology and other emerging trends in your blog and emails, to energize and refresh your customer’s confidence in your innovative and forward-thinking approach.
  4. See #3 above, and our how-to below.
  5. Consider outsourcing this piece to a trusted partner. Because much of the marketing at this stage is non-product-specific, a good research-oriented, buyer-focused content marketing partner can do a great deal without distracting your team from core responsibilities.

Marketing in Stage 0

Messaging: Focus on general industry trends that are relevant to your product, such as how cloud, mobile, and SaaS applications can help companies in your target market meet the unique challenges they currently face.

Best Types of Content:

  • Blogging: Focus on emerging software and technology trends to establish your brand as a thought leader in your market.
  • Newsletters: Maintain and build trust with your install base, and begin turning their thoughts toward the idea of cloud technology.

Stage 1: Private Beta

Stage 1 is where the fun begins in earnest. You have a product that is oh-so-close to ready, if you can just… get… these… few… things… done! It may be a little buggy, and the features may be limited, but the essential functionality is there, and you’re ready to have a few people test it out in a real-world use case.

Characteristics of Stage 1

  • Product is well into development, and ready for a small private beta (test group)
  • A semi-firm launch date has been set

Common Challenges of Stage 1

  1. Concern about where to find good private betas and how they will react to being your “guinea pigs.” You may also be wondering whether and how much to charge private beta customers.
  2. Launch dates may keep getting pushed back.
  3. Migration of current clients to competitors in the cloud may continue.
  4. Not sure how and when to market, and whether to sell new prospects into the cloud product or to install them on the legacy product until the cloud product is ready.
  5. Marketing is still a relatively low-priority item, as budget and time resources are all going to development.

Stage 1 Solutions

  1. Pricing strategy is beyond the scope of this article (we’ll address it in a later entry–in the meantime, check out this useful resource), but it may help simply to know that this is a common concern. A few best-practice tips: Keep it simple and treat your private betas with great care and respect, and they will become your brand ambassadors, a priceless asset. To find them, use the marketing strategies below. The market is full of people who enjoy being pioneers with software, and who will gladly help you test your product. You just have to find them, position the offer right, and reward them for their assistance.
  2. See the same concern’s solution under Stage 0, and know that to some extent, the official launch date will always be a moving target.  Software development is simply too complex to put hard parameters on. Nevertheless, a good product manager will keep you well informed, and provide regular, clear progress updates.
  3. Communicate with your install base. Let them know what’s coming so they can see that you have their interests in mind and are not going to simply let your product mold on a shelf. See our marketing advice below for how to position and execute this.
  4. Market now. See below. As for whether to install new customers in your desktop product or suggest that they wait for the cloud version, there are two main factors to consider: The hassle of migrating them to the cloud when the time comes, and the value of having them invested in your product. If the hassle of migration is high, it may not be worth it to your team to onboard a small new customer when you know you’re just going to move them to the cloud in a few months. On the other hand, there is value in getting those regular checks, and danger in letting the prospect sit and possibly seek another solution while they wait on you. Carefully consider the risks and benefits of both sides, and then move forward knowing you’ve chosen a strategy that makes sense for your product.
  5. Outsourcing is still a great strategy. Your marketing team will need at least a little of your time for this, but it needn’t be excessive. Provide the marketing team with access to the product, so they can poke around, and ensure they have an up-to-date list of primary features to work from. If you’ve got persona documents (you DO have persona documents, right??), make sure the marketing team has those too.

Marketing in Stage 1

Messaging: Let everyone know that something is coming! Now is the time to let your followers and users know that you have a new product in the works and that it’s going to be amazing. Focus on the expected benefits–what the customer has to gain from your new product. Include only a high-level view of the primary features you expect to have available in the first release. Be careful not to get too granular, or you may later have to eat your words. Stay benefits-focused and you’ll be in good shape.

Best Types of Content:

  • Blogging: Stay focused on relevant trends and developments in your industry. You can now include, where relevant, references to how your new product will address those trends.
  • Email: Reach out to your install base to announce the availability of a private beta, and an estimated full launch date (keep it general–for instance, “Spring 2015” or “Summer 2016”–so you won’t be called out if you don’t hit your date). Provide an overview of the new product’s benefits. Begin talking about features in more detail than previously. Invite qualified customers to apply for an invitation to the private beta.
  • Email: Announce to your prospects that you’re offering a private beta opportunity for your new product, and invite them to join. Let them know that you’re offering a special deal to companies who qualify. Provide an overview of the benefits, and a few of the primary features. Encourage them to contact your team to find out which product (desktop or SaaS) is the right fit for them.
  • Create a matrix of primary features and benefits, comparing the desktop and cloud application. Maintain and update it as your beta launch progresses. You’ll later use this as premium content and to help your prospects and your install base determine which product is the best fit.
  • Include an announcement in your newsletter, if applicable.

Stage 2: Public Beta

You’re so close to the finish line, you can taste it. Don’t let the excitement tempt you into rushing through this critical stage, though. One of the worst things that can happen is for a heavily marketed product to launch before it’s ready. The loss of customer goodwill can be difficult if not impossible to recover from. Stay with it, and walk through your public beta, and you’ll have much greater success.

Characteristics of Stage 2

  • Minimum viable product is ready, primary features are stable.
  • Launch date is in site.
  • Open for public beta.

Common Stage 2 Challenges

  1. Concern about where to find more betas, and how to screen them. You may also be wondering whether and how much to charge them.
  2. Launch dates may continue to be pushed back.
  3. Migration of current clients to competitors in the cloud may continue, though it should be tapering off if you’re communicating effectively.
  4. Not sure how and when to market, and whether to sell new prospects into the cloud product or to install them on the legacy product until the cloud product is ready.
  5. Not sure how best to price the SaaS product.

Stage 2 Solutions

  1. Market to your install base, email list, and via social media and other outlets. If you have relevant connections on LinkedIn, this is a good time to contact them individually to invite them to participate.
  2. If launch date push-back is still a major problem without clear visibility into the reasons, strongly consider hiring a quality product manager. Note that some delay is normal–there are always unexpected complications–but a good product manager will provide explanations that make sense, with realistic amended dates.
  3. Market to your existing install base aggressively with the features and benefits of your new product. Get as many of them as are qualified into your public beta. Your goal is to get them engaged and invested, two factors that are known to greatly increase retention.
  4. Market heavily to install base and warm contacts. Promote the public beta in public venues that make sense. Though it’s not time for a full-blown Inbound marketing program yet, that time is coming!
  5. Consult these excellent SaaS pricing strategy resources. Bottom line, keep it simple–a three-tier approach with a free trial is a tried-and-true strategy that works exceptionally well for most organizations.

Marketing in Stage 2

Messaging: “We’re proud and excited about the beta launch of our new cloud-based product.” Focus on the benefits customers can expect from the product and how it will improve their lives. Include a list of primary features available in the initial launch, and how they’ll serve the needs of your customers.

Best Types of Content:

  • Send announcements to your install base, your prospect list, and the public at large. Time to invest in spreading the word: Your baby is born!
  • Webinars and video tutorials can be critical pieces of marketing at this stage.
  • Feature walk-throughs, in blog and video format, will help prospects see the functionality your product offers.
  • Offer a webinar for existing users to help them decide whether the new product is the right fit for their team.
  • Finalize and design your product/feature matrix for the desktop and cloud applications, and use it as a premium download.
  • Continue blogging about industry trends, showing how your product addresses current challenges in your industry, and provides solutions.
  • Promote your posts on social media and paid advertising. Consider a content syndication service like Outbrain to gain greater distribution.

Stage 3: Go-Live

Congratulations! Your baby has been born. You’re proud and happy, and rightfully so. Time to make the announcement to the world.

Characteristics of Stage 3

  • Minimum viable product is fully stable and ready for launch. May have more features in the works, but the current version has been tested and is ready for real-time use in the field.
  • Launch date is set.

Common Stage 3 Challenges

  • Concern about stability of product under real-time conditions and a heavier client load.
  • Not sure whether to continue marketing the desktop application or to focus exclusively on cloud application.
  • May be concerned about revenue model when high-paying desktop users switch to the lower-cost cloud application.
  • Hungry for more customers.

Stage 3 Solutions

  • Invest in good infrastructure. Consult with third party advisors, and consider investing in capacity planning software and expertise to prevent under- or over-provisioning.
  • Market both. This is where your benefit/feature matrix comes in.
  • Focus on getting your pricing strategy right. Other than the value and solidity of your application, few factors will play a more important role in your success. If your pricing strategy is sound, then some migration is actually healthy–those who move to the new product are customers who were probably eyeing alternatives anyway, and it’s better to have them on your less expensive application than on a competitor’s.
  • Time for that Inbound marketing program! Unless you have an experienced digital marketing and content team in-house, find a partner with experience in SaaS Inbound marketing to ensure your product has the marketing support to succeed.

Marketing in Stage 3

Messaging: Continue maintaining your thought leadership in cloud solutions for the industry. Position your company as the leading expert on solving the problems your product solves. Focus on what’s at stake for buyers in your industry, and demonstrate how your product addresses their needs. Features, benefits, and general industry information are the cornerstones of your messaging now.

Best Types of Content:

  • Email: Make sure your install base is kept up to date on developments. Some may choose to migrate over as additional features are added, so keep it in front of them. Remember that anyone you “lose” from the desktop application to the cloud application was probably “lost” already anyway, and it’s better to have them on your product.
  • Email: Market aggressively to your prospect base.
  • Blogging: Use thought leadership pieces to lure prospects in via social media channels and other outlets.
  • Ebooks and white papers: Place premium content as bait to collect contact information and grow your prospects list, so you can nurture them with email.
  • Case studies: Collect your customer success stories religiously. According to this recent study, case studies are one of the top content types for marketing success. They combine social proof with storytelling with data-driven facts and demonstrated results to provide a can’t-beat value in marketing and sales content.
  • Webinars: According to the same study, this is another leading content type for lead generation and conversions. Present webinars on how to get the most out of your cloud product, how to use it to save money, and other topics that are relevant to your buyers.
  • Video tutorials, feature walk-throughs, and other content types from Stage 2 continue to be indispensable.
  • Promote your content on social media, paid outlets, Outbrain, and anywhere your target market spends time researching and making purchasing decisions.

Stage 4: Product Maturity

Just because your product is mature and successful doesn’t mean you can let up on marketing and development. As you know, technology marches forward at a dizzying pace and you will always be adding new features and functionalities.

Continue to keep your improvements in the forefront of buyer’s minds by investing in all the content formats listed for stage 3, plus a full Inbound marketing engine to keep the leads and conversions flowing.

Want to learn more?

Keep your eye on this blog for coming articles on SaaS pricing, Inbound for SaaS, Website structure and content for SaaS conversions, and much more. Subscribe at top right, and we’ll send you a notification every time we publish a new post. Don’t worry, we won’t share your email address or spam you with irrelevant content, and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.

We hope to hear from you!

Author:

Heather Head is an author, as well as the founder of Scopcity. When she is not writing, running the business, or chasing down bad guys on Twitter, she enjoys hiking, snuggling with her husband and three boys, and avoiding the kitchen.

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