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.


Your Message has Left the Building

Challenge: Ten years ago, companies controlled almost all of their messaging because there were so few additional or alternative channels from which the general public could gather information to form an opinion.  Social networks didn’t exist and media outlets controlled the majority of the print and online content (outside of comments, editorials, and letters to the editor sections).  With the popularity of social networks, readers today share their own product reviews, seek out opinions, post personal blogs, and comment on articles that draw numerous additional links, references and likes. As a result, customers are engaging peers first to learn about new solutions, read reviews, and evaluate products.

Forrester estimates between 66% and 90% of the customer journey is completed before ever even engaging with the vendor.  If customers get most of the way through the sales process without engaging the vendor, do vendors really control their message? It is the leading advocates on social networks who control much of the early stage buying experience.  So what’s a company to do?

Customers are continuously evaluating your product and sharing their thoughts on the web. They have more information earlier in the sales process. Consider Amazon.  It is a great ecommerce site that also makes it easy for shoppers to look at reviews in support of making a purchase, which is crucial in the customer buying process. In the enterprise space, there are IT communities dedicated to sharing reviews with colleagues, such as Spiceworks and IT Toolbox with millions of members. There are also LinkedIn groups and well-informed bloggers who focus solely on these topics. With the abundance of well-researched, end-user generated content, it is no surprise that the majority of the customer journey happens before customers engage with your website.

So what is a company to do to control the message its customers and prospects get? Employ active social listening to hear what is being said about products and services. Think of this as continuous customer engagement: Engaging with customers before, during and after they purchase your products. In many ways, this is back to the basics of developing products customer really want by carefully listening to their needs and desires.  (See my post on developing a customer persona.) As you review this straightforward and truthful, often in-your-face customer feedback, look for the common themes, words, and phrases.  The comments that keep rising to the top most often are those that customers value most from your product or service. This is gold and should be a core part of your outbound messaging.

Does your outbound messaging need to match this precisely?  Certainly not.  Your messaging should lead your customers from your current product offering to your planned product direction. However, by leveraging the same words and phrases your customer’s use in your outbound messaging creates a virtuous cycle in which what customers hear from you is what they they later experience with your product. This alignment propels and extends your activities. It also fortifies your brand by delivering on your promises.

Lesson: Messaging alignment between what your customers are saying about you and what you are saying about your own products creates a virtuous messaging cycle and builds brand trust and authenticity.

Know Thy Customer Persona

Challenge: Drive inbound leads with content focused on your target customer? Of course. But what does it mean to really know your target customer?

At the heart of every marketing organization is the knowledge of the target buyer.  But what does it mean to really understand your customer buyer persona?  Certainly this includes demographics like age, income, and education.  We can add in firmographics like industry, company size and location.  Is this what we need?  Well, it’s a good start but far from complete.

Building detailed customer persona’s for all of the buyers and influencers in your product’s purchase process is an essential starting point.  Your organization needs to spend time and effort here developing a detailed profile for each role.  This profile should include:

  • A ‘day in their life’
  • Their fears, frustrations and aspirations
  • The ‘customers’ they serve inside their organization
  • How they are evaluated by their boss
  • What they find funny
  • Their office and work environment
  • Their biggest challenges
  • What they do outside the office

One way to think about this is to understand the persona of your target buyer to a depth where you could purchase the perfect gift for them.  By understanding their daily challenges, work environment, current methods of operation and more, then you can correctly create content that they will find interesting and relevant. Your materials need to be helpful, funny, interesting, interesting, thought provoking, etc..  With a detailed persona, you can demonstrate you truly understand their needs through the materials you create.  Therefore you earn the right to be read and have an ongoing conversation with your buyer – online, via email, in print and more.

In my experience, I have been targeting the IT professional.  This person is:

  • Generally male
  • Technically astute
  • Generally less socially outgoing
  • Enjoys finding clever and simple solutions to complex problems
  • Completely out of time dealing with break-fix items
  • Frustrated by end users who can’t his systems correctly
  • Would rather experiment with a new technology than engage with people to answer his questions
  • Enjoys gaming and science fiction (Star Wars, Dr. Who, etc..)

How do you get this information?  Take every opportunity to get on the phone or get in front of customers to learn more about them.  Review materials created by other vendors targeting this market.  Participate in the social media channels where these customers search for information.  Survey your existing customer base.  Run contests to see what captures their interest.  Bring in focus groups of your customers to brief on your product direction and get feedback.

Now what?  Time to publish a detailed persona description internally and get your entire team up to speed on common definitions of your customer.  Create a poster with a picture and key details.  Build a short slide deck explaining key attributes of your persona’s with names and roles.  Educate all new employees on the persona’s you are targeting – so everyone is on the same page.  Test all new campaigns against the persona to ensure they are consistent.

Lesson: Know your destination before you leave.  Take the time to develop a detailed understanding of your customer persona’s and drive this through your organization to better focus and target your outbound programs.

Want to Improve Your Program Effectiveness by 10x?

Challenge: Companies promote their products and services via direct marketing, advertising, events and more – but still can’t achieve the impact they need. How about a 10x boost?

We are all bombarded with messages every day – online, offline and even when we are on the sidelines.  Therefore buyers have been desensitized to vendors claims – faster, better, cheaper and will even make you more attractive! First off – we make every attempt to ignore ads thrust at us: we skip ads with our DVR, we try to ignore banner ads on websites and we page quickly past print ads. When we want ‘real’ or ‘untainted’ advice, we look for online reviews by other users.  Amazon’s use of product reviews has completely transformed the buying process. We reach out to our social networks to find feedback from customers just like us. What is the value of a positive review? Huge. Just check out all the controversy about Yelp recommendations – because the reviews matter.

Depending on the study, analysts report that 70% or more of the purchase process is made before the buyer visits the vendor’s website. The dramatic rise of social media use by companies further explains this trend as they try to reach up further into the buying cycle. There are an increasing number of social groups for B2B as well.  Certainly LinkedIn has many groups targeted at various professions.  PracticeFusion and Spiceworks are focused social communities serving medical IT professionals. These are communities where professionals can get answers to their questions and read reviews of products.

In the end, any vendor claim is just that – a claim.  However a claim made by an actual user is trusted and valued.  Hence, in my math, vendor claims are worth one point and user claims are worth ten points.  While not scientific, I think we would all agree that real user feedback is the real deal.  So how do you facilitate and support these reviews, comments and posts?  You need customer advocates – customers who love your company and product so much that they are willing to spend time telling others.  The experience of using your product must be so compelling that they want to raise their own reputation by talking about it. The customer service and other support you provide around your product must surprise and exceed your customer expectations. Your customers need to think –  ‘Wow, that was great!’

So how do you give your customers this goose-bump moment? You need to open your company and your product up to your buyers by doing some or any of the following:

  • Give them free product or other recognition in return for product feedback
  • Be honest and humble when they give you candid feedback
  • Listen and respond to their input; more importantly update your product with their feedback
  • Show them you care – by giving them first access to your next product
  • When you stumble, acknowledge it and correct it
  • Make your product dramatically better than anything they have seen before

In sum, give them reasons to be so excited about your product or company that they want to share their experience. Help them reinforce their status as mavens in the community by giving them something new to share with the community.  Show your lead customers the respect they deserve.

Lesson: You post about your product – 1 point.  Your customer posts about your product – 10 points.  Find ways to create groups of advocates who will support and amplify your efforts.

Seeing is Believing: Customer Success Stories

Challenge: Getting prospective customers to understand exactly how your solution will help them or their company

Lesson: Stories provide ‘truth in advertising’ to the vendor claims and show potential customers the benefits they can likely expect.

Challenge: Getting prospective customers to understand exactly how your solution will help them or their company

Companies will purchase your solution for the benefit it provides to them. A live demonstration is great to show how the solution works. However, what benefits will this give to the customer? Nothing shows this better than customer success stories. Certainly companies have used case studies for years to show the impact of their solution.

Today, with increased emphasis on reduced spending and faster ROI, showing how your solution will provide these benefits gets you noticed. What is different is that now customers expect success stories in their industry and expect them in a variety of formats. They also want to ‘read’ these case studies in a format of their choice. Therefore the vendor needs to publish these as video testimonials, traditional PDF case studies, podcasts, presentations, webcasts and more.

Customers believe most vendor produced materials are biased. (After all, don’t you read marketing brochures and take everything in it “with a grain of salt”?) Having your case studies written by a reporter and published in trade magazines tends to be the least biased, most believable endorsement because it’s a customer’s story told by an independent source, rather than one written by the technology producer itself.  Journalists are known for their fierce independence and separation from the advertising/publishing side of the business. They report on news and facts. (Aren’t you more likely to be impressed by a positive article about a new type of computer application or big-screen TV than a marketing brochure or advertisement?)

Selecting the right vertical trade publications, horizontal trade publications and general media will help you get these success stories in front of your potential customers. These customer proof points provide a reality check for publications so their readers can learn about technology and how it is put to use in the real world. Editors clamor for case studies because very often, they get great product news but no customers willing to spend the time to tell them about actual deployments, experiences, and results.

Once you’ve successfully landed a few of these, your lead development and sales teams should use these case studies actively in their positioning with potential customers. Creating 30-second summaries by industry vertical for your team will help them give real-world examples of the benefits your solution provides. Your front-line reps need to have these stories at the ready throughout the sales process to legitimize the claims they make.

Finally, maintaining a database of customer references is critical as potential customers will want to speak to existing customers. Creating a process where your sales team has easy access to these customers and is updated for those that are currently referenceable will simplify the process (and eliminate those frequent ‘all sales’ emails looking for references.

Lesson: Stories provide ‘truth in advertising’ to the vendor claims and show potential customers the benefits they can likely expect.

Marketing Collateral – Less is More

Challenge: Companies in B-To-B space will not win or lose based on product documentation

Lesson: Keep your collateral to a minimum and make your entire marketing team more efficient.

Challenge: Companies in B-To-B space will not win or lose based on product documentation

Rarely will a company succeed because its product literature is outstanding. Certainly, every company needs collateral that is clear, concise and informative, and this literature needs to answer questions from prospects that help them evaluate the solution when a sales rep is not close at hand. The collateral needs to reinforce key branding and messaging to leverage top line value propositions.

That being said, I have frequently seen companies over-invest time and resources into their marketing collateral, taking down inordinate amounts of time from product management teams. Furthermore, if the collateral structure is complex, it can require more marcom headcount at the expense of product management or product marketing personnel. The cycle gets worse with ongoing updates, maintaining print inventories, distribution, etc.

 Start with the end in mind, when it comes to most things, including your approach to collateral. What does your prospect need in the form of print and online collateral to learn more about how your product will solve his or her issues? Developing fewer pieces to meet this requirement can eliminate future drag on your entire team to keep these up to date with product releases and printed versions.

Lesson: Keep your collateral to a minimum and make your entire marketing team more efficient.