How to Build a Powerful Marketing Engine: Lessons from a Successful SaaS Startup

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Mark Donnigan

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June 7, 2024

In this article, we’ll explore the marketing strategies and tactics that helped propel a SaaS startup from the brink of failure to a $10 billion valuation. We’ll dive into the critical components of their marketing engine, including community building, influencer marketing, and growth marketing. 

This content is designed for startup founders, marketing leaders, and anyone looking to build a powerful marketing strategy for their business. By understanding the unique approaches taken by this successful startup, you’ll gain valuable insights and actionable tips to help you grow your own company.

Step 1: Cultivate a Thriving Community

One of the most potent assets a SaaS startup can cultivate is a thriving community of passionate users. A highly engaged community fosters brand loyalty and is a valuable source of feedback, content, and word-of-mouth marketing. Companies like Atlassian and Notion have built thriving communities that contribute significantly to their success.

Empowering Ambassadors 

Successful SaaS startups empower their most passionate users to become ambassadors, giving them the freedom to create content, host events, and spread the word about the product. 

Atlassian’s Community Leaders program, for example, recognizes and supports super-users who contribute to the company’s forums, write blog posts, and host local events. These ambassadors have early access to features, exclusive swag, and priority support. Crucially, Atlassian avoids a top-down approach that constrains ambassadors, encouraging them to share their experiences and be an integral part of the community.

Leveraging User-Generated Templates 

Recognizing that the “blank page” problem can be a significant hurdle for new users, savvy SaaS startups curate and compile the best user-generated templates into a one-stop-shop gallery. 

Notion, a popular productivity and collaboration tool, has done this exceptionally well; its community-driven template gallery allows users to easily find and customize templates for various use cases, from project management to personal knowledge bases. By enabling the community to lead on customer education and experience, Notion reduces friction for new users and fosters a sense of ownership and investment in the platform.

Just as brands like Duolingo have garnered millions of followers on TikTok by embracing user-generated content and a distinct brand voice, SaaS startups can foster a thriving community by empowering their most passionate users. People crave a sense of belonging, and online communities can fill that void—but only if there is a clear purpose and intentionality behind the interactions.

Common Pitfalls to Avoid
1. Expecting short-term success

Community building is a long-term investment, and companies should consider metrics rather than rushing to measure superficial indicators of success.

2. Overspending on tooling

While tools can facilitate community management, startups should limit how much time and resources they spend testing different tools and instead focus on building toward their core goals.

3. Hiring the wrong community lead

Look for someone with an authentic passion and interest in the product, a scrappy personality, and a natural inclination towards community building.

By cultivating a thriving community of passionate users, SaaS startups can tap into a powerful source of feedback, content, and evangelism, setting the stage for sustainable growth and success.

Step 2: Embrace Influencer Marketing

As the Influencer Marketing Benchmark Report 2024 predicts, the influencer marketing industry will grow to approximately $24 billion by the end of this year, making it a critical component of any successful marketing strategy. SaaS startups that have effectively leveraged influencer marketing, such as Ahrefs and Mailchimp, have reaped significant benefits in brand awareness, lead generation, and customer acquisition.

Treating Influencer Marketing as a Distinct Channel 

Successful startups recognize that influencer marketing requires a different approach than traditional content marketing. They allow influencers to portray their message through their authentic voice, which resonates better with their audiences. Companies like Ahrefs have embraced this strategy, collaborating with industry experts and thought leaders who can speak genuinely about the value of their SEO tools.

Experimenting with Different Social Media Platforms 

Savvy SaaS startups understand that influencer marketing can work on nearly every social media platform. They look for new, cheaper opportunities on emerging platforms where advertising is less saturated. For example, Mailchimp has leveraged influencers on TikTok to showcase the creative potential of their email marketing platform, tapping into a younger demographic.

Running an Influencer Marketing Campaign at Scale 

To run an influencer marketing campaign at scale, SaaS startups follow a structured approach:

        1. Identify your persona: Aim for relevance and high engagement rates, not just a huge following. Look for influencers whose audiences align with your target customers.
        2. Lay out a CRM: Use a CRM database to track each step of your influencer efforts and set up a trial period for influencers to explore your product.
        3. Be prepared to negotiate: Invest time in figuring out a deal that benefits both the influencer and the company, and ensure that you cover your bases with a bulletproof contract.
        4. Automate anything you can: Identify tasks that you can automate to save time and focus on nurturing relationships with influencers.
        5. Tie it back to the business: Use UTM links to track sign-ups, conversion rates, and demographic data, and create a dashboard to visualize each partnership’s performance.

SaaS influencer marketing has its distinct characteristics and considerations compared to other industries. The complex nature of SaaS products often requires influencers to create educational content, cater to B2B decision-makers, and demonstrate measurable results and ROI. Building long-term relationships with industry experts who deeply understand the software’s application is crucial for success.

Step 3: Operationalize for Sticky Customers

While community building and influencer marketing are essential for generating awareness and interest, operationalizing for sticky customers is critical to sustainable growth. SaaS companies like HubSpot and Atlassian have mastered this art, consistently delivering high customer retention and expansion.

Picking the Right Activation Metric

Successful SaaS startups focus on the portion of high-quality users who become paying customers rather than vanity metrics that can be easily gamed or changed. They put in writing who they’re focusing on and why, holding their teams accountable. For example, HubSpot closely tracks the percentage of free users who convert to paid customers within a specific time frame, as this metric directly correlates with revenue growth.

Optimizing for Quick Feedback Loops

To optimize for quick feedback loops, SaaS startups find the earliest indicator possible that a person is likely to become a customer. They look for behaviors that customers who convert to a paid subscription exhibit, such as inviting team members or connecting third-party apps. By focusing on metrics people hit within a week or even a day, they can rapidly iterate and improve their product and onboarding experience.

Segmenting Users Based on Their Role

Compelling SaaS startups understand that different user segments have varying goals and needs. They think deeply about the objectives individuals within specific work functions want to accomplish and position their product as the best tool to achieve them. Atlassian, for example, tailors its outreach and onboarding experiences based on user roles, ensuring each segment receives relevant and valuable content.

Knowing When to Shift Focus

As startups grow, it’s crucial to reevaluate priorities and reallocate resources periodically. Successful SaaS companies scan for areas where teams seem to be doing duplicative work and ask themselves: “If I wasn’t doing this, what could I do that might be even more impactful?” They jot down their team’s three primary objectives and eliminate anything that falls outside that scope, allowing them to stay focused and agile.

By operationalizing for sticky customers, startups can optimize acquisition and retention strategies, ensuring their marketing efforts translate into sustainable growth and revenue. Companies that excel in this area can consistently deliver high customer satisfaction, retention, and expansion.

Conclusion

Building a powerful marketing engine is essential for driving sustainable growth, and it requires a multifaceted approach that leverages your startup’s unique strengths. You can create a marketing strategy that differentiates your company and generates real impact by cultivating an engaged community, strategically leveraging influencers, and operationalizing for customer retention.

Identify the distinct advantages that set your startup apart – whether it’s a passionate user base, a product-led growth model, or something else entirely. Amplifying these differentiators is vital to crafting an effective marketing strategy tailored to your circumstances.

To successfully implement these ideas, follow these steps:

  • Empower your most passionate users to become ambassadors
  • Curate user-generated content to accelerate onboarding
  • Experiment with influencer marketing across platforms
  • Utilize CRM to track and optimize influencer campaigns
  • Focus on the right activation metrics for quick feedback
  • Segment users and personalize outreach based on their roles
  • Continuously re-evaluate priorities to eliminate redundancies

However, executing this comprehensive marketing strategy can be challenging for early-stage B2B startups with limited resources. This is where a Marketing Pod can provide a valuable solution by giving you cost-effective access to specialized expertise in content, design, and growth marketing strategy. As an experienced virtual CMO, I can seamlessly oversee and direct a cross-functional team to execute these initiatives. 

If you’re committed to implementing a powerful marketing engine to unlock your startup’s potential, schedule a consultation call. We’ll develop a tailored action plan leveraging community building, influencer marketing, and advanced user acquisition tactics.

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