Inbound marketing for SaaS is a relatively novel concept.
HubSpot’s co-founders Dharmesh Shah and Brian Halligan coined the term in 2005. No surprise that HubSpot is based on “inbound,” a belief that people don’t want to be talked at or interrupted by sales reps. Instead, they want to be helped.
B2B SaaS inbound marketing has now become a successful growth strategy for SaaS companies enabling them to build relationships with prospects and customers.
Instead of the traditional outbound marketing funnel, inbound marketing focuses on the flywheel.
The flywheel firmly places the focus on the customer. By serving your customers well and enabling them to become your brand evangelists, you create a self-sustaining marketing strategy.
In this article, we’ll explore how four well-known companies have leveraged B2B SaaS inbound marketing strategies to rapidly scale up:
Ahrefs grew to $50 million ARR with only 50 employees, of which 10 were marketers and NONE were salespeople. It has demonstrated over 65% growth year-over-year.
As of 2020, the Ahrefs blog gets 695,000 monthly visitors and the company gets 3,200 new leads each week.
Which SaaS inbound marketing techniques helped Ahrefs hold its ground against biggies like SEMrush, Moz, and Majestic?
Ahrefs follows these steps to create SEO content:
That’s why it ranks first in Google search as shown in the screenshot below.
Ahrefs takes a different approach to identifying topics worth writing about.
Soulo says, “We don’t care about TOFU/MOFU/BOFU. All we care about is business potential. To assess the business potential of each keyword and topic, we’ve developed something we call the Business Potential Score. And we only try to target topics where our product is an almost irreplaceable solution to the problem.”
So the Ahrefs blog focuses on product-related blog posts and videos that educate readers about how to do SEO with Ahrefs.
Ahrefs has a simple approach to soliciting email addresses: it places an email sign-up box to one side of its articles.
Once people sign up, Ahrefs sends a welcome email to encourage them to explore the website.
Ahrefs offers a host of free SEO tools for people to engage with. Interestingly, each tool targets a keyword with search traffic potential.
“My theory is that people don’t sign up for your tool and then learn how to use it. My theory is that people first learn how to use your tools, and they sign up because they know how to use your tool.”
– Tim Soulo, CMO of Ahrefs
Ahrefs Academy teaches people about SEO, blogging, and digital marketing through videos and courses. It also offers a certification course for Ahrefs users that is currently in beta.
When prospects who take these courses consider buying an SEO tool, Ahrefs will be top of mind for them.
Ahrefs users can seek prompt help through live chat if they face issues or cannot find their way around the platform. This feeds into the “delight” stage of the B2B SaaS inbound marketing flywheel by reducing frustration.
Ahrefs Insider is an exclusive Facebook group for Ahrefs users where members get early previews of new features, participate in high-quality conversations about digital marketing, and even provide inputs for the development of Ahrefs.
This 16.9K-strong group helps Ahrefs build strong relationships with its customers and have a finger on the pulse of its users.
Zendesk rose from being a bootstrapped startup to the leader in customer service software within 13 years—much of it through SaaS inbound marketing strategies.
Currently, they have reached $1030 million in ARR and have racked up more than 150,000 paid users.
Some of the SaaS inbound marketing tactics that fueled Zendesk’s growth are:
Zendesk’s Help Center has a pillar page on “Billing FAQ and resources,” which constitutes many sub-topics like “Managing payments,” “Managing invoices,” and “Resolving issues when your credit card fails.”
Topic clusters are detailed pieces of content that explain the sub-topics of a pillar page, which is a piece of long-form content that broadly discusses a particular topic.
The topic clusters are thematically connected and have hyperlinks that connect them to the pillar page. Thus, they serve a common audience.
Google ranks topic clusters higher than other pages because they satisfy search intent. Hence, Zendesk ranks higher than its competitors for keywords like help desk, customer service, and sales crm that are relevant to its product.
Zendesk’s pillar pages are 3000-4000 words long and have these benefits:
Depending on your industry, the tools show you the prevalent metrics like customer satisfaction rate, request volume, help center articles, first reply time, and so on.
It’s likely that you’re not performing as well as your competitors on certain parameters so Zendesk goes on to provide three solutions:
Thus, the company positions its product as a solution to improve customer experience.
Zendesk features around 244 customer stories about how its customers were able to meet their goals using their product. Familiar names like MailChimp, Udemy, OnePlus, and Siemens demonstrate that Zendesk’s product is worth trying out.
The best way to convince potential customers to sign up is to show them how their industry peers have obtained results by using your product.
Zendesk gathers data for its customer stories through the Luminaries programme, which is an exclusive group for Zendesk customers where they can network, get early access to products, and be invited to exclusive events. Once a customer shares their story, Zendesk doubles down on it to dig out more data.
Zendesk incentivizes customers to leave reviews on third-party sites like G2, Capterra, and Tech Radar in exchange for credits, coupons, freebies, or gift cards.
On G2, it has ~3,730 4-star and 5-star reviews and ranks as the top help desk software. Since these reviews are unbiased and cannot be manipulated, people trust them more than review articles.
Zendesk lends its content—case studies, reports, and whitepapers—to other publications to help them get leads in exchange for brand awareness.
In the screenshot above, Zendesk has partnered with Corinium Intelligence to offer the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2019. You have to fill in a form with details about your name, work email, contact number, and industry before you can access it.
With topic clusters, Zendesk can rank for generic search terms like sales and customer experience. But it cannot rank for branded keywords like Intercom, Shopify, or Salesforce.
The Zendesk Marketplace enables the company to not only rank for branded keywords but also get plugins developed (for free). Companies want to integrate with Zendesk and get access to its large customer base, and Zendesk encourages this by providing access to tools and documentation via the Zendesk Developer Platform.
For each plugin, Zendesk creates a separate web page and optimizes it for branded keywords. Effectively, Zendesk is able to rank for branded keywords of other companies. Of course, this tactic works better for smaller companies than larger ones.
If you search for “help desk software,” you’ll find a paid ad for Zendesk that leads to this landing page:
The landing page copy changes with search intent. For instance, this copy focuses on positioning Zendesk as the top help desk software.
Similarly, when someone types in keywords that begin with “Zendesk,” the ad copy switches to branding and positioning statements. People using such search strings are already aware of the product and are looking for the official Zendesk website.
Matching search intent with ad copy works well to convert more visitors.
Buffer started off as a tweet scheduling app and transformed into an indispensable tool for social media marketers and digital marketers when it expanded to allow users to schedule messages.
Since launching in 2011, Buffer reached 100,000 users within 10 months. Today, the platform has more than 4 million users. Much of this success can be attributed to its SaaS inbound marketing strategy.
Let’s see what tactics they employed to grow a bootstrapped startup:
Buffer owes its early growth to guest posting twice a day on high-visibility websites. Instead of targeting their audience, they targeted people who could influence their potential customers.
Buffer also focused on websites that could help them get user sign-ups. This helped the company get its first 100,000 users and build relationships with sites like SocialMouths, Treehouse, and Social Media Examiner.
Initially, Buffer used services like MyBlogGuest and BloggerLinkUp to find guest posting opportunities. Once they built some traction, they began to connect with the contributing editor of bigger websites directly via email.
Here’s an actual pitch they wrote:
As a guy just starting out with a few basic web design lessons, I found onextrapixel extremely helpful, so just a quick thank you on that note.
I wanted to ask if you are interested in a guest post that I have drafted, which I titled “10 Tools To Make The Most of Twitter”. It covers a few of the latest Twitter Tools, which help me a lot to stay productive.
I hope you can let me know if you think the post could be interesting for you.
Co-founder Leo Widrich says, “For guest posting, I would suggest to always fill it with personal experiences, yet not too much self-promotion. If you describe a tool, describe how it helped you specifically, if you explain techniques, give specific examples.”
He even wrote a guest post on how he used guest posting for his startup!
Instead of creating new and original articles on topics that have already been extensively covered by competitors, Buffer chose to provide value by compiling research data.
For instance, this article on color psychology is one of Buffer’s most successful posts yet it has no original information. It is a deep dive into all of the information, including infographics, that’s already available.
Obviously, people still consider curated content, especially data and research, useful.
Buffer has the advantage of having a social-media-savvy audience and a social media publishing product, which it can leverage for its own content promotions.
Here’s what they do:
Buffer draws out the most mileage from its content by repurposing it for different channels. From a single blog post, they create:
Just like guest posting, Buffer attempts to reach wider audiences by optimizing for different channels.
Buffer’s podcast, The Science of Social Media, has garnered 25,000 listeners and 1.5 million downloads. It puts out an episode each week talking about social media tips, experiments, and best practices.
True to its strategy of borrowing other audiences, Carolyn Kopprasch, Buffer’s “Chief Happiness Officer,” appears on a podcast called Support Ops where she discusses social media insights with experts from companies like Basecamp and Automattic.
Buffer’s freemium offering has also worked well to pull in more users. For free, people can schedule social media content on up to 3 channels—no limits on how many posts you can publish.
It removes friction in the sign-up process and gets more people to try the platform. Once they are familiar with it, they may choose to pay for extra features like analytics and engagement tools and more social media channels.
“As hard as it was to convince people to start using it, once they started they almost never stopped.”
– Steward Butterfield, Slack CEO and Founder
Slack’s growth is the stuff of dreams: it went from $0 to $7.1 billion in less than 5 years!
Launched in 2014, Slack has an impressive list of achievements:
All this without even having an outbound sales team until it became a $1.1 billion company!
Which outbound marketing tactics worked for Slack?
It’s one of Butterfield’s favorite marketing tactics—and with good reason. 8,000 people signed up for Slack on the first day of launch. This number nearly doubled in the next two weeks.
Word of mouth made it possible: Butterfield persuaded his connections to try Slack and provide feedback. The product launch landing page showcased testimonials from well-known companies as social proof.
Slack created a hook to capture people’s attention, calling itself an “email killer.” Some of the headlines that publications ran before the product launch:
There’s only so much literal word of mouth can do. So Slack displayed a Wall of Love on Twitter to leverage positive associations with its product and gain more reach through tweets and retweets.
Third-party review sites like G2 are another channel Slack uses to gain some goodwill and trust since they publish impartial and honest reviews.
Slack used a product-first approach to get more signups faster. Instead of building a database of leads that need to be qualified by sales reps one by one, the company offers a “free forever” version of its product.
Any individual and team can simply try out Slack in exchange for their work email ID. Payment is a barrier to entry so no credit card details are requested. You pay only when you want more than 10 integrations and additional storage.
Slack has 2,400 third-party apps in its directory, so users can get work done smoothly no matter what tech stack they have. The SaaS company benefits from third-party integrations in two ways:
Even though referrals form only 3.34% of Slack’s total traffic, the website receives 108,600,000 visitors each month. It all adds up!
GitHub gets ~200,000 monthly clicks for Slack, whereas Trello drives ~150,000 monthly clicks.
Butterfield feels paid advertising is easy to turn on and off. When an ad isn’t pulling in the kind of revenue the company expects, it is stopped.
Slack receives 400,00 website views per month from paid advertising. It is bidding on 2,100 PPC keywords, which leads visitors to either the home page or the product page, which also doubles as a landing page.
Slack’s ad headlines have variations of these three core keywords: communication, messaging, and collaboration. Since Slack is not limited to a specific department or discipline, it enjoys a wide target audience.
Thus, its PPC strategy includes targeting short-tail keywords that have universal appeal no matter who is searching.
Instead of building SEO might through content marketing, Slack focuses on its App Directory landing pages. Some of Slack’s top organic keywords are:
People entering these keywords aren’t looking for Slack yet they come across its website. That’s because Slack has integrations with each of these products.
Slack piggybacks on the popularity of its integrations to gain access to a wider audience. It creates separate web pages for each of its integrations with a three-step structure:
The more integrations Slack has, the “stickier” the product becomes until it is an essential work platform.
Slack’s blog brings the website an additional 70,000 visitors each month. The company publishes four categories of posts:
The blog keeps users up-to-date on new features or updates and raises Slack’s visibility on search. It’s also a brand-building exercise with readers, whether they be users or not.
Slack’s “fair billing” pricing model endears it to its customers even more. It charges only for active users, and if someone stops using the product for 14 days, Slack will return your money through prorated credit.
27% of marketers will leverage inbound marketing for the first time in 2022 whereas 11% of marketers will make it their biggest investment next year. This shows that inbound marketing for SaaS has become a best practice for growing brands.
The pandemic-propelled digital transformation has brought home the importance of meeting customers and audiences where they are.