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Marketing A SAAS Product During A Crisis

What you can do to continue growing, instead of putting a hold on marketing

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April 18, 2020

Before we begin I want to let you know that this isn’t a COVID specific post. I mean, yes, it’s timely (that’s why I’m writing this) but the principles I cover in this post can be applied to any moment of crisis your SAAS startup faces, whether it’s a global pandemic or just a temporary weakness in your sector.

A client of mine recently mentioned that their board of directors had advised them to cut all sales and marketing spend. They went so far as to suggest laying off the entire marketing and sales teams.

Their rationale was that it’s a tough time to sell software, as buyers were cutting down on spending, so it’s better to focus on supporting existing customers and not waste money on marketing.

Like Jason, I’m seeing it across the board from past, present, and prospective clients. One company, an email marketing solution, even mentioned they were afraid to spend more on advertising, despite the fact that their competitors were seeing spikes in signups.

That reminded me of this famous quote –

Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.

Warren Buffet

How does that apply to your SAAS, and how can you grow when things look grim? Well first, let’s figure out what kind of product you sell – obvious or non-obvious.

Obvious Or Non-Obvious

Simply put, given a certain environment, an obvious product is something that everyone predicts will succeed in that environment, usually a product that solves a first-order consequence of the crisis. A non-obvious product is one that can succeed in that environment but it’s not immediately apparent how, because it solves a second or third-order problem.

An example of an obvious product, during the current global pandemic, is Zoom, the video conferencing software. The first-order problem is that companies are working from home and employees need a way to communicate. Zoom solves that problem.

Another example is Slack. Again, as more people work from home, Slack is a must-have to enable instant communication. Stewart Butterfield recently wrote an interesting Twitter thread on how the crisis has impacted their business.

https://twitter.com/stewart/status/1243000487365861376

A second-order consequence of the quarantine is that many businesses have had to shut down or lay off staff. This, in turn, leads to an uptick in unemployment claims. Thus, a product that helps governments process unemployment claims faster, becomes a non-obvious product. More on this later.

Note that the obviousness or non-obviousness of a product is dependant on the current environment. The pandemic has lead to people working from home, which is why Zoom and Slack are obvious products.

However, if we turn the clock back to the previous crisis, the depression of 2008, Zoom and Slack would not be obvious products, though they might have been non-obvious.

If your company doesn’t make an obvious product, chances are that you make a non-obvious product. You just need to look carefully.

How To Market If You’re An Obvious Product

If you’re Zoom in 2020, you can do no wrong. While the rest of the market tanked, Zoom’s rise doesn’t seem to be stopping, despite issues about its security.

But for every Zoom, there are other products in the same space that haven’t done quite as well. The product itself has a lot to do with it, but that doesn’t fully explain it. There are alternatives to Zoom with similar bells and whistles, like backgrounds, great UI, built-in virality and so on.

Before the COVID outbreak and the lockdowns, Zoom wasn’t a household name. However, they did have a large customer base in tech companies. Most tech companies, if they didn’t already use Zoom, knew about it.

The moment the lockdowns started happening, tech companies were the fastest to shift to working from home. And because Zoom already had a dominant mind share position, they defaulted to using it.

That initial spike, when compounded with its virality, social media, and PR, then snowballed into mind share in the broader market – non-tech companies and consumers.

So as an obvious product, your job is to make sure you’re top of mind for your market. Awareness is the name of the game here. Once customers know about you and trust you, the sale is easy. They obviously need you.

If you don’t already have a sub-category cornered like Zoom, you can still build up that awareness pretty quickly. Here are some strategies – 

PR

I have never been a fan of big, expensive PR campaigns, and I rarely recommend it to the startups I advise. But these are unprecedented times and for large-scale awareness campaigns, it’s hard to beat a good PR strategy. Again, look at Zoom. 

The key here is to create a campaign that addresses the issues caused by the current crisis. The Uber Eats zero-dollar delivery fee campaign, Google Stadia extended free trial, Disney virtual rides, are all examples of this.

Even if your company is not that big, you can still do something news-worthy to get media attention. A great example is ConvertKit’s Creator Fund. They put together a $50,000 fund to support content creators (their target audience) during this crisis. Many other influencers and small PR sites promoted it.

Advertising

With traditional companies pulling back on advertising, the costs have dropped dramatically. Again, I usually wouldn’t suggest putting ad dollars behind broad awareness campaigns, but as an obvious product, it makes sense.

Promote content to lookalike audiences on Facebook and Instagram. Create display ads on Google Display Network, and video ads on YouTube.

On Google Search, target all your buyer intent keywords, brand keywords, and competitor keywords.

I’ll be writing an entire post on how to run profitable ad campaigns for your SAAS, but for now, you can get my templates to help you structure your campaigns.

Partnerships

The Convertkit campaign wasn’t just good PR. It also harnessed the power of partnerships. They roped in other software products to contribute to the fund, helping the fund grow and generate even more PR. Of course, the partners benefited from the PR as well, so it was a win for everyone.

One of my favorite ways of marketing via partnerships is using webinars and virtual summits. The virtual summit has become popular with every IRL event getting canceled, and it allows you to tap into your partners’ audiences for outsized exposure and awareness.

How To Market If You’re A Non-Obvious Product

As a non-obvious company, the first thing you notice is the demand dropping off. And your first instinct, like the client I mentioned in the introduction, is to cut sales and marketing.

What’s really happening is that your target market has changed. But there is an audience out there who needs your product now more than ever. You just need to figure out who that is, and it’s usually by following the orders of consequence.

Earlier, I mentioned a second-order consequence of the current crisis was businesses shutting down, including restaurants. For CFO2, a company that provides analytics tools for multi-unit restaurants, this could be fatal. Most of their potential customers, well-known sit-in restaurants, are closed and demand plummeted.

However, there are still many restaurants delivering food online, and they need analytics now more than ever to cut costs. So CFO2 may have lost its original client base, but there’s a new audience they can target.

Figure Out Your New Targets

Before you can start marketing, you need to figure out who you’re marketing to, and it may not be the same audience you’d go for during normal times.

One way to find this out is by following the orders of consequence. If you know that there’s going to be more businesses working from, or that local businesses will shut down, or that unemployment will rise, what are the problems that follow and how does your product solve those problems?

Let’s look at Eventbrite. With no one running offline events, 90% of Eventbrite’s revenues vanished, forcing them to lay off half their staff. However, the second-order consequence of events getting shut down was that organizers moved them online. Had Eventbrite switched to target the virtual events market, they could have avoided this.

On the other hand, HeySummit, a virtual conference software, is seeing a big uptick in usage. They quickly targeted the conference organizers that Eventbrite should have and are now reaping the benefits.

Adapt Your Messaging

Now that you know who to target, you’ll need to adapt your messaging to appeal to them. More specifically, talk about the problems you solve that they’re experiencing because of this crisis.

Let’s take a look at SeamlessDocs, a software that helps governments convert PDF forms into digital forms. Having understood that they need to target government agencies on the frontlines of the COVID crisis, they whipped up a new feature in their software that allows government agencies to create custom Coronavirus portals.

The messaging here is very specific to the problems government agencies face right now – handling a larger than average volume of queries from citizens. With the Portal feature, Governments can create a help section of sorts on their websites for citizens to find the resources they need.

Start Marketing

With the new targeting and messaging, we can finally get back to the marketing strategy. Most crises are short-lived (relatively speaking), so I’m partial to short-term strategies here. 

Just as with Obvious products, advertising and partnerships are two powerful channels. Remember that with ads you may need to create entirely new campaigns, with new targeting rules for audience and keywords, and new messaging.

Another strategy is creating small products or tools as marketing channels, much like the Coronavirus Portal by SeamlessDocs. The idea here is to build a tool that helps customers with a problem they’re facing now, but can be offered for free and doesn’t give them the kitchen sink. The ones who can’t afford it can use the free tool, while those who can will upgrade to the full version of your product.

COVID Consulting

I’m providing free 30-minute sessions during this period to SAAS companies. In this session, I’ll help you understand if you’re a non-obvious product and what strategies you can execute to keep growing.

PS – You can learn more about me here and check out my references.

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