I feel like I’ve been waiting quite some time to write this article, so thanks to the team at RollWorks for working so closely with me around account-based marketing. After speaking at RevCon 2022 discussing ABM - and then calling out how the application of ABM is about to change in SaaS to support the growth of PLG - I have a lot to share.
This is how I see the future of customer acquisition for PLG organisations; those that do and do not also sell to the enterprise customer. After finishing the article I realised that the depth of exploration requires me to split the article into laying the foundations and building the strategy. So this is a two-part series so as not to tire you out.
Firstly, to lay the foundations for a product-led growth marketing strategy you need to consider an extra channel to the marketing mix, the product itself. This doesn’t mean the product is a marketing channel (although by default, good product markets itself), but rather a conversion channel that needs strong, highly-targeted marketing results to get traffic to the open top of your product.
Typical channels that you can employ as standalone strategies are any from
- Content marketing
- Paid search
- Paid social
- Organic social
- Email marketing
- Programmatic marketing
Or you can roll them up into combined strategies like
- Inbound Marketing
- Account-based marketing
Now the reason I choose to break this down in this way is to show that there are individual channel strategies as outlined in my first list, or there are more comprehensive combined strategies that connect channels to greater effectiveness. Some seem to think an active channel will bring the best results, but I believe a mix of channels brings the strongest results (as do many of you too).
Whatever channels we dive into from here just know, this subject is huge and there is a lot to unpack, so let's dive in.
What is a product-led company?
A product-led company is a SaaS platform that has an ongoing freemium product backed up by premium pricing tiers that provide added value to your user. To focus our conversation here, there are two types of PLG companies I’m going to discuss:
- a PLG company without an enterprise offering
- a PLG company with an enterprise offering
I’m clarifying this so we can break down the go-to-market growth strategy clearly for each version. Both start off the same but as you move into the enterprise space there are new layers that apply in the application of ABM or account-based marketing (strategy).
My personal opinion is that there is a flow to launching a product that should be followed, although we rarely find that all founders follow the straight path:
Product Development → Positioning → Narrative → Messaging → Pricing → Sales Enablement → Onboarding Optimisation → Upsell/Cross-sell*
To ensure we roll this back to the beginning, the very first thing you need to do is nail your positioning, messaging and narrative, so let’s start there.
How to nail your positioning
Firstly, understand that positioning is: defining how you are the best at something that a market cares a lot about. Great positioning makes your strengths obvious. It provides context and a frame of reference that makes it easy for customers to understand why they should care about what you do.
Your positioning always comes first and it is very much an internal piece where you articulate, refine and pinpoint the unique benefits your product brings to the market.
April Dunford says “Positioning defines who your product is best suited for, what the alternative solutions are, and what value the product delivers for customers. These are inputs to a narrative - you literally can’t write a story until we know who the heroes and villains are.”
Secondly, note that positioning can often be for multiple use cases and buyers, so you can create separate positioning strategies if the need arises for each product and user. Who you’re targeting has to make sense for your product and you shouldn’t get stuck in vertical segmentation.
Discover the exact pain points your product solves per vertical, then take a look at whether you’re competing against different competitors in each vertical. If there are numerous competitors this will support the correct decision to adopt a horizontal approach to the different verticals you sell into.
What you never do is fill out a positioning statement form, which looks something like this:
Start by having your team answer the following questions:
- What do you think about your vision and strategy? How does this currently impact your work?
- What are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing [company] in the short term (3-6 months)?
- What are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing [company] in the long term (1-2 years)?
- What resources could you leverage more effectively? Please share examples of what works well today and what doesn’t work.
- How can you improve how the team works together? Please share examples of what works well today and what doesn’t work.
After you have completed those questions and documented the answers, it’s time to go and collect customer feedback. You need to collect two sets of data: customer experience feedback and marketing and sales feedback.
Customer experience feedback
When it comes to customer experience feedback you need to focus on three key areas:
- How and why your customers chose you and how they use your product
- How they perceive your brand and like to interact with you
- Their overall experience with your product, i.e. if it solves their pain points, if their reason for using it has changed and if they‘ve ever considered leaving
Look for trends in the answers that can help you pinpoint the broader and widely acknowledged reasoning.
Marketing and sales feedback
For marketing and sales, you need to track the situation in real-time; if you haven’t yet launched your product or are early stage and seeking product market fit, then you can pencil these metrics into your forward positioning and go-to-market strategy.
Track these KPIs:
- Net Promoter Score (NPS)
- Customer Satisfaction Score
- Social Media Monitoring
- Look for honest feedback whether it’s positive or negative
- Try and track your feeds in your CRM or a marketing automation tool you can query
- Win/Loss Interviews
By starting with the first steps and then using the feedback and win/loss interview data you can first adopt a position, and then understand how and if that positioning resonates with your audience.
Questions that you can ask during your review are:
- Has anything changed with our competitive landscape?
- Has our product changed and value offering along with it?
- Is there any evidence that our customers’ attitudes and expectations have changed?
- Have we taken on new employees that are taking our positioning in a new direction?
- Does that new direction help or hinder us going forward?
Once you’ve finished your initial positioning work, it’s time to put that into play and then build on that by defining the narrative. In many verticals, the competition is fierce and crowded and you’ll find it difficult to compete with established players, at least early on. So, if you can’t control the vertical, you need to control the narrative; this will help cement your position and tell a new story your prospects will learn to care about.
How do you build your narrative?
Many SaaS platforms make a decision to base their positioning on that of the leaders in the vertical; either that or they go off on a random tangent trying ever so hard to be the new cool kid on the block. Neither approach usually works and so you need to craft your position well and then try and set a strong narrative.
By combining strong positioning with a strong narrative you will start to gain traction and resonate with your audience.
Marcus Andrews of Pendo says “Product positioning adds context and structure around your solution so buyers understand it quickly and can digest its value. Narrative design builds a new universe in their mind.”
He goes on to say that narrative design:
- Creates or reframes a new category
- Builds new markets where you may not need salespeople to close the deals
- Draws the customer's attention to a big change in the world and a new category that your product can help them succeed in
- Positioning mainly focuses on the problem your customer has and how you can help them solve it
That gives you plenty to consider during this early stage of the go-to-market motion. So let’s look at the steps you take to build your narrative.
- Name a big relevant change in the world
- Show there will be winners and losers
- Offer a glimpse of an ideal world
- Introduce your service/features as magic gifts for removing obstacles
- Present evidence that your story is true
- Build a storytelling framework
If I were you at this point I’d roll back up to what April Dunford said and see how positioning ties into building your narrative. If this is all starting to ring true, here are some more considerations for nailing the narrative for your product-led organisation.
Your challenges here are that you have to make it personal and emotional whilst keeping it simple and authentic. A complicated blend of personalisation right there, but doesn’t personalisation sit at the heart of every good strategy?
Once you manage to build a compelling narrative coupled with strong positioning it’s time to tell your story and build out your messaging.
A popular framework for building out your story is Freytag's Pyramid, which helps guide the writer through a series of steps in order to bring the reader from placid to tense and to the ultimate resolution of the tale. Try using this approach to nail the story behind your narrative.
How to get your message across
As I mentioned in the previous section, to tell a compelling story you need to make it meaningful. But what exactly does that mean?
Focus on what people care about, not what you want to say. To tell a good story your content must remain interesting and relevant to the people you’re trying to reach.
Keep the story personal to the target audience
You also have to make it personal to the reader or intended audience. Your story can be entertaining, educational or inspirational, but your audience has to connect to it personally.
Don’t try to simply pique interest, aim to draw them into your story. Think about how your brand improves their life, why they should invest time in this story, and why they should pay attention to your story.
Make sure you capture and convey the right emotion in your story
By now you should be laying the foundations for your story, if not have a draft already crafted.
- But is it emotional enough?
- Does the story move you?
- Is it inspiring?
- Are you using fear or reward?
A middling storyline won’t deliver the results. You have to lean into your positioning and narrative, and tap into the reader's feelings and here’s how you make it emotional.
A strong brand story is all about stimulating emotion and empathy. It's not just what you do, but how you affect people. Sure, your software may automate repetitive daily tasks or business processes, but it’s ultimately making people’s lives easier and stress-free. That’s the emotional hook of the story.
If you can trigger that emotion in the first paragraph of a blog or the first few seconds of a video, you will have them hooked.
Keep the storyline simple and easy to follow
The art of a good story is to have highs and lows. Freytag’s Pyramid mentioned earlier in the article is one of many storytelling frameworks, but not the only one.
Don’t try and say too much. Tell a simple story and maximise emotional attachment.
You could tell a story about large-scale problems facing the industry you’re in, but showing how these issues affect a real buyer or adopter of your product gives the story a singular focus and makes it easier to connect to.
In short, focus on one person or one problem at a time so you don’t confuse or distract your reader.
Finally and this has a nice segway into authenticity: keep it real.
Maintain authenticity in your story for maximum effectiveness
When your brand story is open, honest and transparent, it lets your personality shine through.
However, as mentioned previously, you must be consistent in this message. When you’re consistent, people not only identify with you but they trust your content.
If your audience trusts your content you will always have a community of people championing your efforts and supporting your platform. This type of social proof goes a long way to helping buyers make a decision on your product.
This wraps up laying the foundations for a product-led growth marketing strategy. By executing well on the steps laid out, you will be well-positioned to springboard into growth.