Main illustration: Tim Gilligan
In the very early days of any SaaS business, you will employ numerous marketing tactics to acquire your first customers: blog posts, paid advertising, landing pages, hero videos, webinars, everything but the kitchen sink. If you’re lucky, the signups will start pouring in. Time to put your feet up and wait for the dollars to roll in, right?
Not so fast. Most of those new signups will look at your product once and, for a multitude of reasons, never come back. You just embarked on a big marketing campaign and spent all that time and money getting them in the door, only for them to see no value in your product and walk right back out again.
If you don’t show your
new signups how to succeed, don’t be surprised when they simply walk away.
And for the ones who decide to stick around a little longer? You’re on borrowed time with these folks too. Just like the old adage “If you build it, they will come” isn’t true for the large majority of startups (spoiler: they won’t), neither is “If they sign up, they will use it”. Many of your new signups are just kicking the tires, and if you don’t show them how to succeed, don’t be surprised when they simply walk away.
Bootstrapping “Product Education”
When I first joined Intercom, my role didn’t really have a name. I wore many hats. I wrote our docs, hosted our webinars, created our help videos and managed our outbound messaging to customers. The goal was simple: to create and distribute content for our new customers to help them get the best out of our product. As the function grew, I hired a team of product people. They’re writers, video editors and educators. We called the team Product Education. Simply put, we market our product to our current customers. We measure our impact by changes in behavior with our product. Did we activate new signups, expand their usage, and retain them over time?
You might not think of this as a traditional marketing activity, but ignore it at your peril. There’s no point investing in a shiny marble floor for your hotel lobby only to have guests find a broken elevator and no stairs to get to their room.
I’d like to share some of the tactics I used back in those early days of Intercom, back when the Product Education “team” was just me, and back when we were fighting for every single new signup to become active and loyal to our product (Note: nothing has changed there, we still fight that fight each day). None of these tactics require a large established team or huge budgets. They just require a genuine commitment to treating existing customers as well as you treat prospective ones.
Minimum viable documentation
Don’t make polished product videos until you’ve written your core concepts down.
No matter what product you’re taking to market, chances are you’ll need some amount of documentation to support it. That is, you’ll want a written description of what your product is, how it works, how to get the most from it, and how to get help when things go wrong with it.
Before you do anything else, write this down. Don’t go making polished product videos or inviting hundreds of people to a webinar until you’ve written your core concepts down. Writing, rewriting and refining these will bring clarity and focus to your ideas, tone, beliefs, and advice. When we’re creating other materials like webinars and help videos, we refer back to our docs time and time again to check how we defined things in the first place. It really is our “knowledge base“.
Look beyond FAQs
When you’re working at an early stage startup with dozens of competing priorities, there’s a temptation to publish the quickest, easiest types of documentation (usually a series of hastily put together FAQs) just to try keep your head above water. The problem with only having FAQs is that you’re optimizing for when things go wrong with your product.
Sure, you should answer common questions and be honest and upfront about your product’s shortcomings. But FAQs alone aren’t going to inspire any new usage with your product. Your most effective content, the content that turns trialing customers into paying ones, and paying customers into long-term and loyal ones, should be not only usable and comprehensible, but enjoyable and motivational too.
Give customers the white glove treatment with live demos
“A demo allows the customer to see and feel how things will be better if they buy (and worse if they don’t).” – Geoffrey James
Back when I started at Intercom, we made a point of inviting every single person who gave us their email address to a weekly live product demo(usually attended by anywhere from one to 50 potential new customers). Even if that meant getting up at 6 a.m. in Dublin to demo to three people in the Southern Hemisphere, we never missed a Wednesday demo. The benefits were clear – customers who attended were less likely to churn later.
In the early days, when your signups are in the hundreds or low thousands, it’s worth showing each and every new customer, with a live demo, how your product can improve their lives. Unlike other mediums, live demos are extremely personal, and let prospective customers talk to the people behind the product in real time and learn exactly why they should stick around.
This might like seem like a highly unscalable activity but you can automate lots of it. Just set up a recurring automatic message to all your new signups (using a tool like Intercom, naturally ?) with a link to your registration page. Be sure to have two or three sessions scheduled at any given time using tools like GoToWebinar, Zoom or On24. These tools are purpose built for hosting regular webinars.
Now all you have to do is put together a script that demonstrates the value your product brings, not just the features and functionalities. The worst thing you can do is list off feature after feature, and make your customers sit through a long parade of things they don’t care about.
In the early days, it’s
worth showing each and every new customer how your product can improve their lives.
It’s frustrating just how many early stage companies simply don’t show their product off to prospective or new customers in their marketing materials. Maybe they feel like they don’t have much to show yet. Or maybe they think a two-minute animated cartoon will somehow do a better job at telling visitors what it is they’re actually buying. Regardless, if you don’t set the correct expectations for your customers about what you’re offering, and how to get started, there’s every chance they will be left scratching their heads about what it is you do.
Onboarding screencasts are the perfect way to show off your product, and set your new users up for success. The benefits will be clear as soon as you start – you’ll see a reduction in customer queries, new customers will better understand your product and your product launches will pack a bigger punch.
Creating screencasts (a video recording of on-screen actions accompanied by a narration) is often labeled as too hard or too time-consuming. It’s not. It’s something you can do. Don’t fear “video”. Trust me, if you’re working at a startup, screencasting will be far from the most complicated or time-consuming thing that you’ll do! Hop right in and start playing with tools like Screenflow or Camtasia. You’ll get quicker the more you do it, and your next one will always be better than the last. You’ll surprise yourself at how fast you can achieve results.
Some customers will sign up and stick around for a little while, but take little or no action. These folks are going to need extra encouragement to get up and running. For your product to survive, you need to activate them, and get them to take the actions most likely to help them see value in what they’ve bought.
For example, for a dating app the activation steps might be to:
- Answer all profile questions.
- Upload their photo.
For a project management app it might be to:
- Create a project.
- Share it with their team.
Remember, your new signups are more important than any would-be customer.
Once you’re confident you know what actions people need to take to get value from your product, invite the customers who haven’t taken these steps to a webinar. Your goal is to show them why to do it, and then how to do it. Just like with live demo invitations, you can automate lots of the process by combining a couple of tools. All you need to do is simply show up each week and spend an hour activating your inactive customers.
Are you sexy after the sale?
Remember, your new signups are more important than any would-be customer. They’re the people who believed your promises, took a risk on your product, and gave you their money. Now is not the time to give them half baked learning materials like poorly crafted documentation or, worse, nothing at all. All of your content is marketing – both before and after the sale – and everything you create should be crafted with the intention of selling, educating, helping and retaining. As Kathy Sierra put it, ask yourself: “Are you sexy after the sale?”