Investing Strategically for Marketing Performance in 2021

In 2021 as we return to a new normal, how do we strategically invest to maximize pipeline creation and close?

Challenge: In 2021 as we return to a new normal, how do we strategically invest to maximize pipeline creation and close?

With vaccine shots going into arms around the world, we can see a return to ‘normal’ in the coming months and years ahead. But what will this new normal look like and how do we prepare best for it? Many trends were accelerated with the pandemic: work-from-home and online shopping to name a few. But I believe the buyer’s journey has also changed fundamentally which, in turn, requires us to change how we prioritize our investments. 

For many years, we have talked about the customer journey – and even recognized that 70% of this journey happens before a prospect ever engages with our brand. So we responded by creating early, mid and late stage content to make relevant offers building awareness and engagement. 

However, in the years before the pandemic, consumer application technologies have increased expectations of the buying process. With a few clicks on your phone, you can get a ride (Uber/Lyft), get food delivered (Postmates/Grubhub), transfer money (Venmo/Paypal), buy groceries (instacart/Amazon Fresh), and more. The most precious thing our prospects have is their time — and they have less of this than ever as their job responsibilities have expanded. And the pandemic has only accelerated both their expectations with these services and the demands on their time (going from Zoom meeting to meeting). 

This is the new normal environment that will be slowly returning over the coming year. So how do we meet these new demands from our prospects?  I believe there are four key areas for investment in 2021: Deep and Relevant Content, Smart Sales Outreach, Multiple Product Demo Options, Improved Product Experience.  

Deep and Relevant Content:

As B2B marketers, we know that we need early, mid and late stage content: infographics, explainer videos, blogs, case studies, whitepapers, eBooks, analyst reports, ROI calculators, and more. All too often, this content is written by marketing people who don’t live the experience of the prospect – whether they be a security engineer, data analyst, software engineer, CFO, supply chain director, etc.  

What our prospects really need is useful content that teaches them something and not a 10 page graphical eBook that barely scratches the surface of the topic at hand. Imagine content that actually educates them about the challenges they face with relevant information. This could take the form of code snippet samples, security breach mitigation recommendations, tips and tricks for handling month-end close, excel pivot recommendations to cleanse data, etc…  

We expect the prospect to ‘tune-in’ to our channel of communication — but why would they do so unless there is something in it for them? I realize that this advice might mean making their life easier with their current solution — but it builds awareness and trust of our brand. Isn’t that what we wanted after all? Certainly it’s OK to insert content that shows the benefit of our solution, but if we only insert promotional content — we should only expect engagement at the very end of the buyer’s journey when they are really considering alternatives. Therefore we need to invest in deeply relevant content that builds engagement earlier with our prospects.

The challenge here is to create more deeply meaningful content which likely requires our internal subject matter experts to write or create content. Therein lies the challenge. We can’t have people who are removed from our prospect experience to write insightful and enlightening content. They can assist our subject matter experts (likely who are not writers) but the source material must come from a subject matter expert. Getting these SME’s to create this deeply relevant content should be part of your 2021 plan.

Smart Sales Outreach:

Who likes getting an unsolicited call? Anyone? These calls are an interruption of your day — and we must remember this as we make our outbound call plans. To make matters worse, often B2B BDRs are calling on sophisticated prospects with little more than scripts, qualifying questions and a request to set up an appointment. No wonder we get a bad reputation here. 

Imagine if the callers were more deeply educated on the buyer persona, the challenges and the solutions faced by their prospects. If they can ask smart questions, provide relevant information and actually help the prospect in some way, the call becomes actually more interesting.  As a demand marketer receiving unsolicited calls, when a BDR called me with an understanding of the challenges I face, asked smart questions, listened and offered relevant solutions, then I would gladly set an appointment. But they only had 30 seconds to earn my trust and two minutes to prove they could help me. If they just wanted to set an appointment – b’ bye. 

This takes ongoing training to raise the level of our BDRs or AE’s to make smart calls. This is a significant investment in training by internal subject matter experts and the creation of supporting materials for the BDRs. We can hire BDRs for critical communication skills and process, but we need to enrich them with the detailed knowledge that will be useful to our prospects. [As a side note, some organizations actually hire target personas to become BDRs or AE’s – preferring to then train them on sales and communication skills.] So investing in your BDR skills to truly understand the challenges and issues faced by your prospects should be a key investment area for 2021.

Multiple Product Demo Options:

Full disclosure – I am a fan of product led growth. If we claim our product is better than the prospect’s status quo — let’s show them directly. Now some products lend themselves more easily to a freemium experience than others. For larger, integrated solutions requiring significant deployment services, it may be impossible to provide freemium or similar experience. However, there are many different options to consider because customers expect the ability to explore on their own – especially if they are not ready to speak to a sales person. 

I advocate creating a number of different experiences to drive early engagement with your product:

  • Recorded product demonstrations 
  • Turning ‘features’ of a solution platform into freemium products of their own
  • Screenshot demo as step-by-step, guided tour
  • Short-lived, virtual instance of your fully deployed product for exploration
  • Customer webinar recording of their deployment and benefits
  • Weekly live demo webinar one-to-many

Most products have different use cases which then would require different versions of these product experiences above. Well, that is the hard work that needs to be done in 2021. Identify these use cases and the best options to display this to your prospects and get to work on creating this extremely helpful content. No doubt it will take time from systems engineers and product marketing, but the resulting assets can be used repeatedly at various stages of the customer journey.

I encourage you to be creative in thinking about how you can create various types of product experiences. Prospects today want the ability to explore on their own and ‘see’ your product in action. The real challenge is for us to consider how we create these compelling experiences as part of the revised journey.  These experiences need to create a ‘goose-bump moment’ — that moment where the prospect clearly sees how your product fixes their challenges. If you can deliver this — you will drive further consideration and likely some direct engagement with sales. Invest in 2021 in creating new and compelling product experiences appropriate for various stages of your customer journey.

Improved Product Experience:

The product engagements defined above assume that the prospect’s product experience is compelling. Sometimes we need to look critically at our own solution, compare it to alternatives and be honest with our assessment. I recommend you go through the complete onboarding and usage process to really understand what your prospects will see as they become customers or as they trial your product.  You do not want to accelerate prospect engagement with your product if this demonstrates that your solution is non-intuitive, clunky, hard to use, etc…

So, spending time to identify and improve the product experience is worthy of marketing effort. If these experiences are not compelling, I would rather take marketing headcount and/or funds to accelerate remediating these issues. It may be time to slow down demand generation to fund key improvements before stepping on the accelerator. So my recommendation for 2021 here is to have an honest assessment of the product relative to both the prospects current solutions and to your competitors.

So There you have it — four strategic recommendations for guiding 2021 investments that will take advantage of the new normal. Give your prospects more of what they want as part of their buying journey. These tips should help your content, communications and engagement have greater impact — all while helping you scale.

Lesson: With prospect demands to get relevant information when and how they want it, in 2021 you can provide: Deep and Relevant Content, Smart Sales Outreach, Multiple Product Demo Options, and Improved Product Experience.  

Churn Avoidance and Customer Programs

Challenge: The Hard Dollar ROI for Customer Programs

Certainly in the early stages of growth for SaaS companies, acquiring new customers is the primary focus. However, a hidden value remains with your existing customers. ‘Land and Expand’ growth models fuel growth rates of the most successful B2B SaaS companies. But there is a hidden gem lurking within your customer base – churn avoidance. 

As we know, long term success is based on a negative net churn rate — which shows that the amount of revenue from existing customers grew, even with some customer revenue that churned. Here is a simple example.  Lets say a company has a negative net churn rate of 115%. At face value, this could mean that some customers expanded their revenues by 30% but another 15% of customer revenue was lost due to churn — leaving the total negative net churn rate of 115%.  While a very simple analysis, this shows the ‘tax’ that churn places on growth – namely 15%. Improving net retention improves company valuation in two ways – both in growth rate and net retention which are often multiplied to calculate company valuation. 

So it’s clear that if a company avoided churn, the growth rate would be higher. But how much can or should a company invest in churn avoidance? Well, here is some simple math.  If a growing company has 100 customers with a $40K ARR, they might experience a total customer churn of 10% of accounts annually (10 accounts churn completely for $400K in total ARR churn).  If 25% of this churn was avoidable through interventions, this would save $100K ARR annually.  If we think of investments with a 1 year payback or CAC, then we would be willing to spend another $100K on annual programs to avoid this unnecessary churn. Voila – budget for the programs! And these programs might help promote customer expand plays — so you could see a return even greater than just churn avoidance.

OK – so it’s clear that companies should invest in resources to avoid unnecessary churn. But where to place these investments? According to Carl Gold, Chief Data Scientist with Zuora, programs addressing customer churn fall into four categories:

  • Customer Marketing
  • Product Enhancement
  • Customer Success
  • Pricing & Packaging

More specifically, from my experience there are a number of more specific programs you might consider in each of these areas (there are likely many more):

  • Customer Data Analytics — Identify and measure key predictors of customer success and churn
  • Customer Conference — Great way to provide training and share success stories
  • Customer Workshops — Training for existing and new users
  • Product Features — Accelerate development of key features to prevent churn
  • Customer Success People & Tools – More resources for front line CSRs
  • Customer Community – Create a place for customers to answer questions and share success
  • Product Value Packaging – enrich value for customers most like to churn

Every company will have a unique product and market situation to guide their customer program investment decisions. This analysis is merely to draw awareness to the ROI of these programs, as I believe they are under-invested in the majority of companies. Strategically selecting customer program investments can improve your growth rates by both reducing churn and increasing expansion rates. 

Many of these programs require tight integration between marketing, sales, product and customer success. Creating cross-functional teams to identify, select and run these programs is likely the hardest part of the process. But for those companies who embed these programs from the start, they can increase growth rates and company valuation.

Lesson: Identifying and remediating avoidable churn can pay significant dividends in terms of company growth rates but requires careful cross-functional planning.

B2B SaaS Marketing in a Time of COVID

Challenge: With our new ‘COVID normal,’ how do we deliver against our increasing pipeline requirements?

[First, let me say that my heart goes out to all those impacted by the COVID pandemic. It impacts everyone in different ways – and to some whose lives have been tragically disrupted.]

OK – the pandemic has been with us for seven plus months. We have executed our initial fire-drill response programs to show our customers and prospects that ‘we are in this with you.’ We have adjusted our team operations to work remotely and be sensitive to the varying needs of our team members. We now have back to back Zoom calls that suck up all the time ‘gained’ from no commute. And we have even figured out how to manage our hair with little or no external help. Yes – we are now operating at our ‘new normal.’

But more importantly, we changed our marketing go-to-market. Let’s summarize these top level changes:

  • Shifted from in-person events to online events
  • Re-allocated funds to digital marketing
  • Optimized our landing pages for conversion
  • Improved our nurture programs

OK – now what? Quarterly revenue targets are increasing for sales and therefore so are our targets for marketing sourced pipeline. Unfortunately, reaching buyers on the phone is more difficult than ever because no one is in the office, which also makes mailing packages and ABM programs more difficult. So where do we turn next? How do we convert more MQL into Opportunities?

Before making recommendations, let’s first recognize that our prospects are facing the same issues we’re facing, namely:

  • A tsunami of Zoom calls
  • Stress about COVID
  • Stress with increased family responsibilities 
  • Feeling isolated

My recommendation – let’s make their life easier. I know this might be radical, but what if we:

  • Provide truly helpful content that helps them do their jobs
  • Educate them about things they don’t know that will actually help them
  • Make it easy for them to learn about how our products and services work
  • Simplify the process to successfully trial our product

Now more than ever our prospects need us to make their lives easier and we can do so by making the process of engaging with us simpler and more satisfying. Let’s give them what they crave most: a bit of time back in their day with informative and easy to consume content. And most importantly, a great experience to trial our product and see for themselves how their life improves with our company’s product.

Lesson: Focusing on our customer’s needs is more important now than ever in every step of the buyer’s journey.