It was a frigid cold day in Des Moines on January 28, 2019.
Like most January days, I was just hoping to hold on a few more weeks until the early signs of Spring would start to thaw things out and give me that yearly boost of energy.
But, it turned out that I was going to get a different kind of jolt.
“Dropbox Acquires HelloSign for $230mm,” the headline read in my push notifications.
I stared at it for a long time.
A combination of shock and elation took hold as I bounded out of bed.
HelloSign and Optimist had been working together for nearly two years at this point. But I had no idea that the acquisition was in play. The whole deal has been basically kept under wraps. Most of the team only found out about it right before it was finalized.
It was a momentous achievement for their team.
When we first started working with HelloSign, they had just raised their Series A and were on a path to rapidly expand their eSignature solution, roll out HelloWorks, and move upmarket with HelloSign integrations and API.
There was a lot to do and a lot of content and strategy to figure out.
We had our work cut out for us.
Luckily, our team and the HelloSign team are both full of outrageously smart people. We dug in and put together a strategy.
Over the previous 17 months (and to this day), we worked closely with the HelloSign team to drive 1,308% growth in targeted organic traffic. This growth correlated almost perfectly with the growth of their business and the acquisition that took place in January.
Through this process and in working with many other SaaS companies over the years, we have developed and refined some key strategies and tactics that we use to drive growth for all of our clients and other SaaS businesses in particular.
From that, we’ve distilled those strategies into a core framework that defines how we achieve specific results and reach key goals.
This article is about that framework.
Content Marketing for SaaS: Driving User Signups
Nearly all SaaS companies have pretty straightforward goals for their content marketing:
- Drive product sign-ups and trials
- Everything else. (Traffic, brand awareness, leads, emails, etc)
HelloSign is no different.
Although they have a number of market focuses and products that were in play, the ultimate business objective of our work together was–unsurprisingly–to grow users.
So, that’s what we set out to do.
The question, of course, is how you use content as a lever for both capturing the right audience, convincing them of the value of the product, and ultimately converting them into customers.
In most instances, these goals feel at odds with one another. The content that is most valuable to you as a business (most product-focused) is often less valuable to a reader who is trying to learn about a topic or solve a problem broadly.
As with most content marketing frameworks, we find that the key is to unpack the specific moving parts and build a strategy that addresses each specific goal as part of a broader strategy.
In other words, break it down and solve for each piece independently. Then pull everything together into a cohesive framework.
The SaaS Content Funnel Paradox
Most SaaS product signups (trials, leads, etc) come from the middle of the funnel.
In other words, a prospect has researched their problem, discovered a general solution, and they begin researching products that offer it. In most cases, few prospects read content that’s at the top of the funnel and immediately hop into a product–it’s rare.
This means that in order for a SaaS content marketing strategy to be successful, you need to put a lot of emphasis on driving solution-aware traffic to content and pages that are in the middle of the funnel.
But there’s a challenge.
The pages on your site that are most relevant to a middle-of-the-funnel searcher are your core product pages–features, integrations, solutions, etc.
These are notoriously difficult pages to rank (especially in a crowded market like esignatures) because there are very few ways for them to naturally accrue links or promote such product-focused content directly to a prospect.
This creates a paradox.
The pages that you care most about ranking and generating traffic to are also, often, the most difficult to rank and drive traffic to.
So, how do you overcome this obstacle, resolve the paradox, and restore order to the universe? (Okay, maybe just that first part.)
The solution is to create a framework that leverages top of the funnel content as a means to generate not just traffic, but also links (domain and topical authority) that helps these important pages rank over time.
This has become the basis for our work with most SaaS clients.
The Optimist SaaS Content Marketing Framework
Before we get into the specifics of how we executed this strategy, I want to reveal the framework that we use to shape our thinking and our approach.
This framework builds on our trifecta strategy that we originally developed from my work scaling College Raptor from 0 to 100,000 organic searches/mo.
But, given the specific nuances of the SaaS business model and the extended B2B buyer’s journey, it’s not a simple cut-and-paste process.
The framework that we developed integrates key insights about how buyers interact with SaaS businesses and which strategies are most effective for driving actual conversions.
For our work with HelloSign, we applied a framework similar to this. Ultimately, we’ve found that most SaaS businesses have similar goals and thus, the overall approach to content marketing is a variation of this general framework.
It’s not one-size-fits-all, but it’s about as close as you can get when you’re talking about true strategy.
Let’s step through all of the types of content that were part of HelloSign’s massive growth.
Pre-Funnel Content: Targeting the Right Buyers
Before we dive into the actual funnel and the buyer’s journey, I want to begin with what we call pre-funnel or persona-qualified content.
Although it’s often at least one step removed from a buying cycle, pre-funnel content can serve an important supporting role in a SaaS content marketing strategy. The idea here is to create content that attracts your target buyer broadly, even if they aren’t problem-aware.
Case in point: HelloSign speaks a lot to sales leaders in their content. We created a lot of content that was aimed at generally helping this persona do their job better, even if that didn’t involve using HelloSign’s products to do it.
This allows us to accomplish a number of things:
- Expand search/social footprint
- Build brand awareness and familiarity with our target personas
- Drive retargeting and email marketing
But, keep in mind that this content, while valuable if used strategically, can also be a distraction from the key objective. It rarely leads to a product conversion.
Don’t let it become the center of your approach unless you have already built out every other part of the funnel in full.
Top of the Funnel Content: Helping Prospects Solve Problems
The top of the funnel is often misunderstood in the world of content marketing generally and SaaS, especially.
Our take is simple: The top of the funnel starts when a buyer begins to actively learn about or seek a solution to problem that could lead to a purchase.
In the world of HelloSign, we see this as the pain point that the user is looking to solve that could ultimately lead to a product conversion.
If the buyer is a VP of Sales or Sales Operations Director, then they may begin their journey by looking to accelerate their sales cycle–cut down the days between contract and close.
One solution to this problem is to implement esignatures.
So, from a content perspective, we target this initial need as an opportunity to capture the buyer at the point where they are looking for solutions to a problem. In my post about SaaS SEO, I talked about our process of using a JTBD framework to identify and map these specific pain points to key product use cases and features.
Within the top of the funnel content, we break down our content strategy into 3 key types of content that each serve a specific purpose. I’ve outlined this approach before, but it allows us to get very specific and tactical while staying strategic in our content planning and creation.
1. Social-viral content (Thought leadership)
For HelloSign, what we pursue as social-viral content is strong thought leadership content that’s likely to generate a lot of shares and buzz around a particular topic.
What we have found is that the more of a strong stance we are willing to take topics related to work, culture, and operations, the more reaction we generate among our target readers. Of course, this approach can be polarizing as well.
The key to our approach here is to be thoughtful about where we plant a flag.
Knowing that readers who align with specific thinking are most likely to become users and customers, we can draw a line in the sand to help attract like-minded buyers who feel strongly about the nature of work and productivity.
Keep in mind that the search (SEO) opportunity for this content may not be enormous.
The role of this content is to reach prospects through channels other than search; social and community channels. We want to generate a buzz and demand based on the content and drive problem awareness. That means that this topics often have a short shelf life.
They’re perennial rather than evergreen. We can circle back to them every few months or every year and use them to drive traffic through key channels.
2. Evergreen content
The meat and potatoes of our SaaS content marketing framework–the workhorse–is evergreen content.
This topical, keyword-focused content ranks for the most relevant keywords our persona is searching at the point where they begin a buying journey. The beautiful thing about evergreen content is that it’s–well–evergreen.
It may not generate a giant spike in short-term traffic or go viral and spark a massive debate, but it brings in consistent, predictable, scalable, and targeted traffic every single week (almost) like clockwork.
Best of all, if you’re doing things right, that traffic grows slowly over time. And combined with the creation of new evergreen content, you’re able to generate a compounding effect that accelerates growth over time.
Building a strong library of evergreen content is the bedrock of a high-growth content marketing strategy.
But it can’t work alone. You also need links.
3. Linkbuilding content
Let me preface by saying that linkbuilding for HelloSign was a relatively light process. Because they already had an established brand and had generated a lot of PR, their site already had a pretty strong domain and topical authority when we began working together.
Nevertheless, building links is an essential part of the framework.
Growing links to your site is critical to help your content (and pages) rank for the terms that are most important to your business. Many studies have shown not just the correlation between links and rankings, but that without building links to your site and your content, you are doomed from a rankings perspective.
Now, if we look back at our framework, we can start to see how we use these different types of content to drive growth by working together.
But, we’ve just begun. Next up, we’ll get into more product-focused content and pages in the middle of the funnel. Remember, this is critical for growing targeted, high-intent traffic from prospective buyers.
Middle of the Funnel Content: Driving Traffic to Product Pages
Content and pages that land in the middle of the funnel indicates that a prospect is now solution-aware and they are actively looking for information about a certain product category or key product features.
This is what makes these pages so valuable for a SaaS business.
Compared to top-of-the-funnel traffic, these prospects understand the problem they are looking to solve, they have higher product/purchase intent, and most importantly they’re closer to making a purchase decision.
So how do we create content that captures this demand?
1. Product Marketing Pages
The bread and butter of the middle of the funnel are product pages like:
In HelloSign’s case, this content existed on the marketing site.
They had a healthy catalog of specific product pages, including all of the features, use cases, and persona-driven content that are well-suited to rank for middle of the funnel keywords and capture solution-aware traffic that enters right into the funnel.
But, like most SaaS companies, they faced the paradox that I mentioned above.
There’s a lot of search traffic for solution-aware buyers who are looking for specific products that meet their needs. But getting these pages to rank and driving qualified traffic to them can sometimes be a challenge.
Our goal with content marketing was primarily to drive awareness at the top of the funnel and help grow the site’s authority to drive SEO for the product marketing content. That’s the power of the framework.
By doing this, we were able to create more value from the existing pages on the entire HelloSign website. Each link or social signal that we generated helped give a small boost to every middle-of-the-funnel page on the product marketing site.
This is clutch.
But, again, not every buyer will enter the funnel through search.
So, we also created some middle-of-the-funnel content that could be used through other channels like social, email, and retargeting to drive prospects from the top of the funnel further into the buying process.
2. Case Studies and Product Content
In the traditional sense, we used content to drive awareness and traffic for middle-of-the-funnel prospects by using case studies, product content, and tactical implementation guides.
Case studies, in particular, are big drivers in both demonstrating the versatility and broad range of use cases for the HelloSign platform as well as the massive positive outcomes that their customers have demonstrated by using the products.
Fortunately, we had a great partner at HelloSign who collaborated with the product team to create great case studies.
We also used keyword-optimized content on the blog to focus on specific implementations of the product for key segments and buyer personas.
Depending on the nature of the content created here, it may also be difficult to rank in search. But, segmenting the top of the funnel traffic, you can drive prospects to this content using retargeting and email to put it in front of the most-qualified buyers who are problem- and solution-aware.
At this stage, we have built a strong funnel of content that helps the SaaS buyer go from their initial problem or pain points to identifying a solution. With this content, we’re also hoping to insert HelloSign, specifically, into their consideration set.
But, there’s one more step left–that’s the actual buying decision.
The bottom of the funnel is where the buyer scrutinizes products the most closely and determines which one is right for them.
Bottom of the Funnel Content: Converting Prospects Into Customers
Welcome to the bottom of the funnel.
At this stage, the buyer is well on their way to using or purchasing a HelloSign product.
They have identified and articulated a specific “job” that they need to be done (pain point), discovered product solutions, features, and integrations that will work for their use case, and are now aware of specific products that meet those requirements.
But now they have to decide which specific product or service they’ll actually buy.
Depending on the size of the market, they could be deciding between two options or 20. The key to winning at the bottom of the funnel is creating relevant content and pages that honestly position your product as the best fit for your best-fit customers.
HelloSign’s product marketing team handled much of this content, comparing their software to competitors or alternative solutions.
This is critical to completing the journey for some buyers who are interested and aware in the HelloSign products but may be considering other options as well.
Keep in mind that some of the audience at this stage has followed along with this entire content journey. Maybe they first discovered your company by reading a blog post that was at the top of the funnel (or even pre-funnel!)
But others have not.
Maybe they were already close to making a buying decision and decided to evaluate a few other solutions. Perhaps their procurement process requires that they perform due diligence on 3 possible vendors before choosing the best one.
Whatever the case may be, this is a chance for you to reach the buyer when they are closest to making a final purchase decision.
And, hopefully, convert them into a customer.
With this final piece in place, we can now see the framework in all its glory.
From the top to the bottom of the funnel, we worked with HelloSign to build a strategic framework that helped them drive growth and take their business to the next level.
Our team definitely can’t take credit for HelloSign’s overall success and ultimate acquisition by Dropbox. But, working together with their team, we were able to put together a content marketing strategy that served an important role in driving the traffic and leads that they needed to fuel their growth.
It’s been a fun ride and we’re excited to see what we do together next.
Applying this SaaS Content Marketing Framework
One of my favorite things to tell people is that content marketing is like chess–not checkers.
To win at content marketing, you need more than just a single move in your arsenal. You need more than good content. You need more than luck.
You need strategy.
And part of that strategy is driven by how the specific content that you create will work together–with other content, with other marketing strategies, and with your overall market/industry–to achieve the desired outcome.
This is what we call a framework.
This framework isn’t a full playbook, but it’s close.
It’s the skeleton of a strategy that you can fill in with the specifics of your company, your goals, and your market. Then you have something you can execute in order to achieve your goals.
The cool thing about frameworks–and why I love writing and talking about them–is that they give us a shared understanding of what we are trying to achieve, what moving pieces are involved in the strategy, and how we will execute them in a way that becomes more than the sum of the parts.
It’s like a visual guide to chess openings and scenarios.
If you’re a SaaS founder or marketer, feel free to apply this framework.
Let me know how it works for you.
Or, drop a note in the comments and tell me about the frameworks you’ve used to drive growth for your SaaS business.