This is primarily my beliefs around how to create distribution for a SaaS product, packed with links to what I regard as the go-to resource for each topic.
This is not a "get rich fast" or "how to get success in 10 easy steps" kinda post. These things takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort. But if you (like me) believe that you can work for your self, on what you want, when you want - you have amazing possibilities by shipping your own product and driving distribution, and you'll learn a ton that will benefit you forever.
Software markets itself (cliché)
If you form a story worth following as you build your product, people want in and wants to listen to what you have to say.
It's not selling or marketing. It's part of your product. You have an opinion and a vision that people believe in, and you're not scared of writing off prospects by taking sides.
Trying to please everyone is a huge mistake, and making yourself and your opinions heard is a great way to show that you care and what you stand for.
Letting users recruit new users
For software that builds on the network effect, before you can ask the question above, you must be able to answer yes to the following:
"Does the connection this enables create demonstrable value?"
Without getting more value from inviting my peers, friends or colleagues into your app, I'm not interested in building my social graph yet again.
That said, I'm a huge believer in forming connections across roles and people to solve problems together. Let me explain that.
If you use an app to do accounting, you'll probably hit a brick wall at some stage and you need help. By allowing you to invite your accountant, you can both use the same app in the same context, together to solve your problem.
Your accountant's skill set will provide you with something the app itself didn't provide, but instead of forcing you to take the conversation elsewhere (e-mail, phone), the app facilitated a connection that exposed the product to your accountant - and the vendor of the app now has the chance to activate a new user, in this case someone who can end up evangelising the product since the accountant probably has more clients than just you.
A product is not just a set of features, a solution for people to use. People are looking for an approach to do their job, and they tell themselves a story about the job they need to do and the current way they're doing it.
Your product needs to tell a story around a narrative that connects to the customers who needs to get the job done. If you gain deep knowledge about what they do, what their view of the world is and what problems they have, you can form your product story around them to make them feel like your really know them and connect with your product in a way that are more loyal and trustworthy than what any advertising channel can deliver.
Recall from above, that the most effective kind of marketing is consumed voluntarily? This is it. Tell a story with your product, and keep telling it on your website, help pages, your blog, on the phone, on social media and everywhere else that your go and if you share something of value, people will connect and start following you and eagerly wait for you to show up and lead them.
Telling your story with new features
Every time you release a new feature, or greatly change and improve existing features is a chance to tell your story again in another setting, with new context and improve the story, slightly tweak it to the context of this feature.
On their blog, DigitalOcean does a great job of telling their story in text with a great piece of artwork to introduce it. Check out their introduction of team accounts – a simple feature that most companies would probably just silently release - is described in the context of happiness:
At DigitalOcean, we pride ourselves in providing the simplest infrastructure experience. With Team Accounts, we wanted to create a feature that allows teams to seamlessly work together.
They also reveal that it solves way more that just security and convenience, in that it saves their customers from having to go to their boss or the finance department to add another user:
After speaking with many users we discovered two simple truths: 1) It’s a very awkward conversation to ask your “finance” person for the company credit card and 2) No one enjoys doing expense reports, especially when you have to front the money out of your own pocket.
I could do a whole series of blog posts about understanding the context and psychology of customers using your product - perhaps I'll do that some day - it is just insanely important to think about what you put people through when they use your product. And not only when they use it, but what they need to go through to actually sign up and become a paying customer. Whatever you can do to improve that process is a win-win situation.
On boarding is of course a nice way to introduce new customers and trial users to the core capabilities and benefits of your product. But it's very important not to forget your story.
You need to repeat your product story when on boarding people. Keep them informed why they believed in your story to sign up, keep repeating the promise of your product. Transition that promise into a story about how you're going to deliver on it, using the features of your product.
Ideally, you need to expose new users to the core benefit of your product as fast as possible. They need to get value immediately. This is often referred to as the magic moment, or the aha moment.
You've probably also heard the term Common Conversion Activities, which describes the common activities performed by users who end up as paying customers.
I'm not saying you can fit all that into the on boarding flow, you probably shouldn't, but you do need to explain what the core benefit is and how to achieve it.
A suggestion from Intercom's book on Customer Engagement:
“An often overlooked strategy is (1) asking users what they are trying to achieve with your product (2) tailoring your messaging for the different types of user goals.”
In other words, during on boarding, sign up or a tailored message you can find out what they're trying to achieve and then tailor future messages based on their answer.
This is far from a guide book on how to do SaaS marketing. I wrote it mostly for my own sake, and perhaps others can benefit from seeing the tip of the iceberg of the ideas and get encouraged to dig deeper and seek out more information.