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Content Strategy

SaaS Content Strategy: How to Drive Actual Pipeline with Content

By July 25, 2022No Comments

Raise your hand if you want to build a SaaS content strategy like HubSpot. 

Don’t we all!

Unfortunately, copy and pasting someone else’s content strategy is unlikely to work for you. You have your own unique strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. 

That’s the double edged sword of strategy, in general: it cannot be generalized. 

Certainly, there are principles that you can apply. But a true, winning strategy must be individualized in order to win in the short and long term. 

What’s the goal of your SaaS content strategy?

“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”

The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know,” Alice answered.

“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”

Most marketers never really sit down and think about what they really want. 

At least, not at the level of granularity that I prefer. 

You say “more traffic.” For what? What kind of traffic? How much? 

You say “more signups.” How many signups? In what timeframe? Using what attribution model?

There are many debates in the content marketing world, and most of them boil down to people talking past each other because they have different implicit goals. 

Look at it like this: you can never tell if someone is “successful” unless you know what their target was. 

On the Tim Ferriss podcast, Derek Sivers had a wonderful quote when asked about who he thinks of when he thinks of successful:

“What if Richard Branson set out to live a quiet life, but like a compulsive gambler, he just can’t stop creating companies? Then that changes everything, and we can’t call him successful anymore.”

Bingo. 

HubSpot wants to maximize their organic reach. Lead generation is a function of a broad reach. Direct conversions from content are a secondary goal. Thought leadership is also a secondary goal. 

Intercom doesn’t care as much about overall reach; they want to change hearts and minds. 

Both are successful according to their own aims. 

So first, before I give you a bunch of tips on how to drive traffic, conversions, ROI…you have to think about what “ROI” means to you in the first place. What metrics actually matter to you?

I want to make the case that content should be measurable. Yes, it’s going to have a bunch of benefits that aren’t measurable. But who cares? That doesn’t negate the fact that your boss probably cares about defining ROI and justifying budget, and you probably need to show business value. 

For that, I like to map my content efforts on a first click basis to the following targets:

  • Conversion (pipeline) originated via content
  • Revenue organization via content 

Then, I work backwards and set my channel goals or leading indicators. If you’re distributing through SEO, these metrics might be:

  • Keyword rankings
  • Organic traffic
  • Backlinks and link velocity
  • Non-branded traffic

If you’ve got a thought leadership-based or brand awareness program, things get a little trickier, but generally you’re still going to want to attribute sales to content. Mapping back towards leading indicators, you might care about these metrics:

  • Overall traffic
  • Engagement with content (comments, retweets, social engagement)
  • Dark social traffic

However, at the end of the day, most B2B SaaS companies want to generate business and pipeline. All metrics upstream of that should be leading indicators of business value. 

I can’t tell you what to measure; all I can say is you should define your goals and KPIs, because how you define those will impact the path you take to accomplish them.

As Seneca put it, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” 

Unless, of course, you just want to enjoy a day of sailing. However, since you’re employed to drive results and not just play around on your hobbyist blog, I’d recommend having a destination in mind. 

What is SaaS Content and Why Is It Different Than Other Types of Content?

SaaS content marketing isn’t fundamentally different from other types of content marketing. Domain expertise is important, but there’s more variance among SaaS companies and their approaches to content than among SaaS and DTC, for example.

The biggest current difference is that, in SaaS, content marketing is quite mature. You’ll almost certainly have a ton of competitors who are already doing content, and some who are doing it quite well.

This competition makes things harder, but the fact that there is competition means that there’s also likely treasure to be uncovered from winning.

You see, content isn’t always the most effective way to sell a product (deodorant for example), but most people who are in the market for DAM software need to read a lot before they make a decision.

Sometimes the sales cycle is longer in B2B SaaS, but that’s not always true. It’s easy enough to sign up for a freemium SaaS product like Evernote in a single session, right? And some ecommerce purchases (Carvana) require weeks to months to work out. 

Additionally, B2B SaaS audiences will often have multiple stakeholders to please and personas with different pain points.

Again, this isn’t always the case. But if you’re considering an iPaaS tool, you’ll likely have to convince the decision maker as well as the end user. 

The other important thing to consider in SaaS content strategy is your price point. Janessa Lantz wrote about this on the Superpath blog.

Image Source

Your price point impacts your entire go to market strategy, which of course impacts your content strategy.

For example, at Omniscient, we have a high price point and a very narrow audience. Thus, high scale SEO-driven content is unlikely to pay off for us, economically. 

So we index on brand related content (podcasts and events to build trust) and also on highly targeted ABM style content. This lets us filter for our specific target audience.

A company like Dropbox with a freemium go to market motion can write tons of product-led content targeting high intent, bottom of the funnel SEO keywords

There are many other factors that impact your SaaS content strategy. I’ll cover 7 of those pillars below so you can think for yourself and build a strategy for your SaaS business that blows past the competition.

The 7 Pillars of SaaS Content Marketing Strategy

  1. Identify your audience
  2. Identify your distribution channels
  3. Build a growth model
  4. Map out a plan to dominate your distribution channel
  5. Promote like crazy
  6. Aim, fire, optimize
  7. Scale, scale, scale 

1. Identify your audience

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” – Sun Tzu 

Before embarking on a SaaS content strategy, I’d do two things:

  • Know your customer
  • Know yourself

And potentially a third item: know yourself in relation to the competition.

The first is a function of audience intelligence and customer intelligence. You don’t need to create “buyer personas.” You just need to know who you hope to reach. 

Sometimes that process entails creating multiple robust personas that align with your product user personas. Sometimes it’s just aligning to your ideal customer profile (ICP). And sometimes, your ideal content audience isn’t exactly the same as your ICP or potential customers – perhaps you hope to reach the influences your ICP follows, or the Linkerati. 

There’s no single “right” way to do this, only that you’ve thought about it and made a concrete decision.

Don’t overthink this step before you get started. You can run all the surveys and interviews in the world and still be wrong about what eventually resonates with your market. Best to do some lightweight research and then start writing and shipping. Learn and iterate as you go. 

Next, know yourself (in relation to competitors). 

What are your unique strengths and weaknesses? Got a low budget but a high profile founder? Huge budget but no star content marketers? 

Are you in a space devoid of other content marketing competition? 

All of these things matter to how you construct a strategy suited to win.

For example, if you have a low budget (weakness), but are well-funded (strength), and in a space without many competitors (opportunity), but low search volume (weakness), you can do one of two (broad things):

  • Establish dominance on all existing keywords and hope they rise in demand over time.
  • Build “movement first” content and educate the entire market, hoping you’ll become a leader.

A company like Persefoni, in the carbon accounting software space, would fit this bill.

If you’re in a competitive space (threat) with access to highly visible subject matter experts (strength) and have a huge marketing budget (strength) and an easy product-led conversion (strength), you can leverage your subject matter experts to produce product-led content that simply converts visitors to your product like direct-response marketing. 

A company like MasterClass would fit the bill here. 

The broader point here is that good strategy is contextual and fluid: there’s no one size fits all way to do it. 

Rather, a winning SaaS content strategy should nail three principles:

  • Content should drive ROI
  • Content should be a compounding channel
  • Your content strategy should be one you’re uniquely suited to win

Most people look at competitors and take their playbooks verbatim, but that violates the third principle. 

Starting with an understanding of your audience predicates how you uniquely can reach them. Understanding this allows you to pick the right distribution channel, which determines what type of content and scale you should choose. 

Further reading and resources:

2. Identify your distribution channels

Lots of debate in the content marketing univers about SEO vs thought leadership vs sales enablement vs community, etc. ad infinitum. 

Here’s the truth: pick the distribution channel that works for you.

That means your channel should a) be a place where your audience hangs out b) you have a high degree of confidence you can win and c) efforts in this channel will compound and have a high ceiling in terms of scale. 

You can also have more than one distribution channel, though I’d recommend indexing on 1-2 max as primary channels.

In most successful content marketing programs, the two best long term channels are SEO and email marketing. 

SEO is great because you’re harvesting existing demand. Keywords aren’t boring, dry topic dictation; they’re audience intelligence. They show you how popular topics are as well as how lucrative they are (if you look at CPC for the term). Keyword research shouldn’t be discounted. 

Email marketing is also great because you own the audience information and channel. Email gated assets are often used as a conversion method, but you can also further grow your audience with email if you use it correctly.

Both of these are long-term distribution channels.

If you can pull it off, community is one of the biggest moats you can build as a brand. Look at CXL and their Facebook group, or the Superpath Slack group. This requires a ton of work, but after a certain point, it becomes a self-fulfilling flywheel where your audience actually ends up creating content for you as well as being a place where you can distribute your original content.

YouTube is another long term channel. If you’re video and multimedia heavy, you can often create a wedge between you and your competition. YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world, and most brands haven’t been able to pull it off.  

Short term distribution channels are things like social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram) as well as advertising (usually on the same channels. These cause quick traffic spikes that you’ll ultimately want to convert into email subscribers or help you generate backlinks to bolster your SEO. 

One more idea on distribution channels: I like to have strong convictions on 1-2 of them, and also leave open a basket of experimentation for new channels. Things shift in digital marketing, so it helps to keep on your toes and try out new channels from time to time, especially if new channels complement your existing ones. 

Further reading and resources:

3. Build a growth model

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George E.P. Box

Many content marketers just start identifying keywords and writing without ever asking, “in the best case scenario, what is the likely outcome?”

In fact, if content marketers would build a simple growth model, most would realize quickly that even if everything goes right, they still won’t make a positive ROI contribution for their company.

Therefore, every engagement we start begins with a content growth model. 

A content growth model does three things:

  • It helps you define your inputs and actions
  • Based on these inputs, it predicts a feasible outcome
  • Based on this predicted outcome, it helps you tweak variables to produce better outcomes

It’s easier to build these based on organic traffic because SEO tools and keyword research give you estimated search volume, but you can build a model no matter what type of content you’re producing. There are many growth model templates available. You’ll just need to loosen up on the accuracy of your assumptions (and all models contain assumptions).

Further reading and resources:

4. Map out a plan to dominate your distribution channel

When it comes to content creation and content planning, the best strategies are built on a portfolio model. 

Instead of indexing entirely on high traffic SEO content, it helps to have separate “baskets” of content investments suited to different purposes. The goal here is simple: each piece of content has a purpose. 

We use the “barbell content strategy” framework to plan out our content. The content barbell consists of two buckets:

  • Product led content
  • Buzzworthy content

Both of these types can be further broken down into customer journey stages, like TOFU, MOFO, and BOFU. They can also be positioned for specific customer journey stages, like acquisition, activation, and retention.

This framework is built on portfolio theory, particularly on an investment strategy called the “Barbell Strategy.” This methodology was built to cap the downside of investing while allowing the investor to capture unpredictable spikes of high value. Essentially, you avoid the middle ground, where risks can be obfuscated, and instead, seek the two extremes: stable predictable bets, and volatile bets where you could get zero results or you could get extremely positive ones.

In content marketing, this portfolio will be distributed according to your stage in the market and goals. 

At the beginning of the journey, you’ll need to write riskier content that stands out. Buzzworthy content does that: stuff like infographics, hot takes, data-driven journalism, and interactive content.

As you scale, you can write pure SEO driven product led content with which you can easily predict returns.

A good content calendar is well-balanced but iterates over time and company growth stage and strengths. 

Cheat code: most SaaS companies underindex on content production for bottom of the funnel content. Write more of this and you’ll likely drive higher ROI than lofty, high traffic keywords or thought leadership. 

Side note: things like brand awareness are harder to track, but are almost always an emergent property of an otherwise effective content marketing strategy. My advice is to avoid measuring brand awareness directly as a result of your content marketing, and to, instead, measure things that your stakeholders care about.

Further reading and resources:

5. Promote like crazy

Content promotion is underrated and understood. 

Years ago, and probably still today, content promotion was a checklist you created. You’d write an article and then, afterwards, just run down the content promotion checklist:

  • Share on Twitter 
  • Email influencers
  • Post on inbound.org

But this method of content promotion doesn’t take into account the specific nature of each piece, which can be conducive to different sorts of channels and promotional efforts. In addition, the best way to promote content is to bake promotion assets into the piece itself.

For example, there are pieces that are purely for SEO and conversion. Take an article like “Best B2B Content Marketing Agencies.” Ain’t nobody gonna share that on Twitter. It’s not going to go viral.

Our best bet with that one? Drive backlinks through guest posting.

Other pieces are inherently great for social media – contrarian takes and essays in particular. Take, for example, my piece on why all content should be SEO-content:

Most content, however, is in the middle zone: not inherently viral or contrarian, but also not a pure SEO play. In this case, one should bake in assets to make it easier to share or link to. 

My favorite way to do this is the “editorial cabinet” technique where you simply work with experts in your field to pull quotes and insights and feature them in your work. This is win/win/win – the piece itself is stronger for having expert quotes, the expert gets exposure and a link, and then they help you distribute it upon publication.

Other assets you can bake into content include:

  • Original images
  • Original data and research
  • Trademarked frameworks
  • Pros and cons tables & curated formatting
  • Interactive media and experiences
  • Data-driven journalism
  • “[keyword] stats] pieces

Reverse engineer it and ask, “what would my audience naturally want to share?” or “what would journalists naturally want to link to?” and create that. Then spend more time than you think promoting the piece you just created.

Further reading and resources:

6. Aim, fire, optimize

At this point in the essay, we’ve covered the pillars of SaaS content marketing strategy (like persona creation and finding your unique strengths) as well as content creation and promotion.

After a few months, you’ve hopefully created a lot of content and gotten some early traction. Eventually it comes time to audit your efforts and optimize the content you’ve created.

Content optimization is most fruitful for large websites with tons of content, but it’s usually not too early to start thinking about it. Even on a basic level, using data to confirm or reject your hypothesis is good practice.

Is your content ranking? If not, why? It might be a simple timing thing. But you might be lacking from links or mismatching search intent. 

Is your content converting? If not, why? You might be attracting the wrong audience to start. You might be targeting them with the wrong CTAs. Or, you may simply need to redesign and rewrite the same CTAs to drive additional conversion rate increases.

All of this comes down to two things: data collection and diagnostics. 

If you’re not collecting the right data, it’s hard to figure out what to improve. At a basic level, you should have goals set up in Google Analytics for your business-level conversions (demo requests, users, purchases) as well as your lead goals (subscriptions, MQLs, offers). 

Mapping a step backwards, you should also track your organic traffic, rankings, and results from your blog posts. Most of this can be done with a combination of Google Analytics and Google Search Console and perhaps an organic search / search engine optimization tool like Ahrefs, Semrush, or Moz. 

Then comes process and diagnostics. Once per quarter, I like to do an audit of past data and see where I stand from two angles:

  • Is there content that is underperforming from a traffic standpoint?
  • Is there content that is underperforming from a conversion standpoint?

For the first one, I like to identify falling traffic in Google Analytics by looking at the past 3 or 6 months of data and comparing that with the previous period. Articles that have dropped precipitously in traffic get slotted for a potential update.

You can also use a rank tracker or even Clearscope to proactively identify pages that have fallen in rank or are now a mismatch for search intent, and update them before they lose traffic.

Otherwise, for articles that are high potential, go over to Ahrefs and filter for pages that rank in positions 6-20 and are above a certain traffic threshold (say 100 monthly search volume). These are all great candidates for content refreshes or additional link building. 

Looking for conversion rate optimization opportunities is a slightly different skill set, but the first thing I like to do is audit my current performance on a page level and see which pages are a) high traffic and b) lower than average conversion rate.

You can do this by going to Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages and using the comparison view:

The only problem with this is: not all pages are designed to convert in the same way. 

Some content is TOFU (think “what is content marketing”) and will not ever convert to a complex demo request. Some content is BOFU and will drive a much higher conversion rate even with little sculpting or manual work.

So there’s an art to this as well. 

However, this will give you a high level view at the highest *impact* pages (i.e. if you could increase the conversion rate by a few points, the ROI would be massive). 

Then, on a page-by-page basis, I conduct conversion research – both qualitative and quantitative. The main tools I use for this are Wynter for message testing, usertesting.com for user testing, HotJar for polls, heatmaps, and session replays, and good old Google Analytics for behavioral analysis. 

I’ll link to a few good resources on conversion research.

Specifically which CTAs and offers will convert depends a lot on your business, price point, the buyer’s journey, content types, integrated marketing campaigns, and much more. 

Sometimes that’s white papers, sometimes demo requests to get people into the sales funnel. Sometimes it’s just an email list signup. Really depends on the content marketing plan. 

Further reading and resources:

7. Scale, scale, scale 

Most content programs should be able to get the basics in place: a solid value proposition for your content program, a keen understanding of your audience and their pain points, and content that is high quality and differentiated. 

Fewer are good at content promotion and optimization, but I still consider these widely doable.

Where the top 1% programs are created is in scaling and content operations.

The question here is: can I increase the marginal utility of my content program?

In less nerdy terms, what you’re trying to do is add additional resources or efforts, and in doing so, increase the marginal ROI of each additional resource you add. 

Reframed again, 1 content hire can maybe do 2 articles a week, some basic link building and conversion rate optimization, and build a solid strategy. Additional writers can amp up the content creation process. 

Could you add another link building hire to increase the ROI even further? Can you integrate content marketing efforts with the rest of your marketing team to compound results?

How about automate processes away so your existing hires can spend more time on ROI-positive activities? Are there any initiatives you can cut out entirely because they’re underperforming?

This is the step where a great content strategist and operator converge to build a program, and step away from a piece-by-piece approach to content. 

Unfortunately, it’s at the point of scaling that the approach and advice for each program wildly diverge. What works scaling HubSpot’s program doesn’t work scaling Pipedrive’s program.

So I can’t give a playbook here, but I can say that mental models and financial principles matter here. Stuff like expected value, marginal utility, automation, hiring and firing, and process efficiency. 

Case studies can help here, but ultimately it’s the result of a strategist that pushes you to the next level (pay them well).

Further reading and resources:

Conclusion

SaaS content strategy is built on a fundamental understanding of your audience, competitors, and product. I didn’t even mention creating quality content, because that’s table stakes. 

Instead, ask big questions, like:

  • How can I create a continuously compounding channel?
  • How will my company, specifically, win with this approach?
  • How can we scale efficiently?

When you ask these questions, it becomes less important what the headline of each article is or what the word count is. Tools like Clearscope can help you with these micro-tactics, anyway. 

A strategist needs to ask larger and more complex questions, especially for a SaaS business, where you’re normally competing in Red Ocean SEO (lots of competitors who also know what they’re doing).

Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.