A few months ago, I asked this group what topics we should cover. I made a big list and have been working through them ever since. One question that came up was this:
Content distribution channels: How to find the ones worth sticking to vs the ones worth ignoring, and is it worth it to create individual strategies and metrics per each platform?
Good question! I’ll use today’s post to answer that one.
You may not be surprised to hear me say that the type of business greatly influences the distribution channels that can actually (1) deliver value and (2) provide enough scale for business growth. Leaning into that even more, the right question to ask is, “How do we get visibility, traffic, and business from the most fruitful channels?”
I’ll talk about each of these four business types, explain why I’ve ordered the distribution channels that way, and talk about what type of content might work for each channel. I’m only going to cover what I think are the top three distribution channels and I won’t include paid (though there’s a good case to be made that paid distribution could work for many businesses.)
A self-serve SaaS company should rely pretty heavily on product-led growth. These products are consumer-grade—tools like Todoist, Notion, Asana, MailChimp, etc. aren’t hot because of their integrations and security features. It’s all about ease-of-use and ease-of-deployment.
This means that a self-serve SaaS company can (and really, must) market directly to the end-user. There’s plenty of room for business case content, feature breakdowns, integrations pages, etc., but when it comes right down to it, you need to reach a lot of people. Self-serve products are generally pretty inexpensive to get started, usually somewhere between $5-$30/month per user. You’re going to need a lot of these people to make the business successful.
SEO offers the broadest possible distribution, which is why most self-serve SaaS companies should focus most of their traffic generation efforts on search. This doesn’t mean SEO is the only way to grow, it just means that SEO is the best way to distribute content.
There are a few ways this can take shape:
SEO is the key to unlocking growth, but there are other ways to distribute traffic. Self-serve companies with a great product should lean heavily into social media. Create content about the product, ways to use it, customer stories, screenshare videos, etc. and keep a steady stream of social content going. You might also do some thought leadership content explaining the company mission—this type of thing does well on social too.
Lastly, email can help in a few ways. Yes, you should send a regular newsletter, but you should also bake content directly into your lifecycle email. Look at your campaigns for onboarding, retention, new feature adoption, weekly reports, etc. and see if there are ways to include helpful content in them. If you can find ways to drive deeper product engagement with content, you can put your content to its best possible use, even if it doesn’t drive tons of traffic.
A sales-assisted SaaS company will still drive users towards a free trial or freemium version, but has a sales team to (1) guide users through that process and/or (2) do outbound. The most obvious difference between self-serve and sales-assisted products is that the sales-assisted ones cost more.
Zendesk is a good example. Anyone can signup for a trial or demo, and sales will be in touch (a lot). (I tried and failed to figure out how much Zendesk actually costs. I do think it’s fair to say it costs quite a bit more than self-serve tools like Todoist, Asana, etc.).
SEO still rules here for a few reasons:
For Zendesk, driving traffic and aiming to convert ~1% of visitors is a formula that can actually work. They aren’t creating a category or starting a movement. They are simply trying to build the best products in a crowded market.
Email is the second order of business for companies like this. Zendesk isn’t really trying to build a newsletter—there is a form in the footer—but they do have a lot of gated content. This makes sense since they have a sales team to work those leads. To be honest, I’ve never really considered ebook/guide downloads a form of content distribution, but it is. And actually, it’s a kind of beautiful. The readers opts in to receive this content and you have the opportunity to nurture that person with more content on related topics. If they weren’t so invested in gated content, I’d recommend that they ramp up their efforts to build a huge newsletter list.
A sales-assisted SaaS product has nearly the same chance to succeed on social media as a self-serve product. One key to making this work is studying the kinds of people that follow the brand, analyzing the types of content they tend to share and reverse-engineering it so you can create similar types of content. This stuff must be created specifically for social. As my former colleague Ryan Law wrote, the secret to content promotion is one post, one channel.
Greenhouse, the hiring software company that was recently valued at $820 million, is a good example of a sales-heavy SaaS company. We know this because the only CTA on the site is for a demo and the pricing page doesn’t have any prices.
Ahrefs estimates that Greenhouse gets 66,000 organic visits/month. Compare that to Asana, which gets an estimated 2.5 million organic visits/month. I’m going to generalize here but there are some things we can learn from this. Namely, that you don’t need 2.5 million monthly organic visitors to grow an $820-million-dollar company.
Applicant tracking software is really expensive. A survey found that small to medium-size customers pay Greenhouse between $3,000/year and $25,000/year. That same article estimated that enterprise companies pay $100,000 or more. Asana, on the other hand, has a free forever tier, an $11/month tier and a $25/month tier. These are completely different businesses.
When it comes to content marketing, Greenhouse just doesn't need that much traffic to succeed. They need lots of qualified leads, a good chunk of which I’m sure come from biz dev, outbound sales and PPC. SEO just doesn’t help Greenhouse that much. So what is they rank for “What is an applicant tracking system?” or “10 examples of great career pages”? A company thinking of paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per year is going to be influenced by that kind of thing. And they almost certainly won’t be searching for it.
Instead, Greenhouse should be creating lots of bottom of funnel content—customer stories, product updates, gated guides, integration content, use-case content, webinars, etc.—and using email to distribute it. I wrote a lot about bottom of funnel content at Animalz. If you work for a business like this Greenhouse, I highly recommend reading this post.
Here’s the advice I’d offer to Greenhouse regarding email: Go hard on gated content. Create ebooks, templates, checklists, email courses, whitepapers, etc. See what works and do lots of it. Nurture the list with bite-sized content that includes customer stories, product tutorials and social proof. Study the list, break the list into segments and nurture, nurture, nurture. This likely won’t look like 1,200 word blog posts, but there’s still a ton you can do with content when you have a strong list.
I ranked SEO second because content for branded keywords is an important part of bottom of the funnel content. When companies make buying decisions this big, you know they do a lot of research. Greenhouse should own all searches related to common ATS features and “Greenhouse vs. [Competitor].” The content team should also team up with the product team to get customers to write reviews. They need to be ranking well on G2 and Capterra. If there are other review sites in your niche, create an affiliate partnership with those publishers. You wouldn’t normally consider that part of content marketing, but the question is “How do we get visibility in search?” not “How do we distribute content we already have?”
Lastly, I think there is some value in social media to distribute content. If your company has a decent social media presence, you should at the very least use it to promote content. That said, i’d recommend a more sophisticated approach that includes some thought leadership (maybe in the form of tweetstorms), lots of social listening and tagging customers, employees, partners, etc.
If you’ve followed my writing for a while, you may be sick of hearing me talk about how agencies don’t need SEO (at least for the first few years). Similar to sales-heavy SaaS companies, agencies and consultants just don’t need much volume to grow. A handful of customers likely means a lot of revenue.
Agencies and other service providers rely heavily on (1) reputation and (2) word-of-mouth. Social media can amplify the effect of these two powerful (but sometimes slow) growth mechanisms. To save you some time and to spare my fingers from typing this all over again, I’ll refer to you to this post: Forget About Traffic and Start Using Content to Drive Leads and Sales
Most of Animalz early traffic came from Twitter. A few of us had good followings on Twitter. That was all we had, so we leaned into it. It actually worked really well. It helped us drive a few leads, earn a reputation as thought leaders and get new ideas to write about. The first six or so months of content was all written for Twitter.
As we fleshed out the “bottom of the funnel thought leadership” concept (explained in detail in the post linked above), we started building an email list. That turned into a really reliable source of traffic over time. It worked much the same as social. It helped us build a reputation and we started to see leads come from that list.
I’ve often said that SaaS companies should treat their blogs like libraries, not publications. The opposite is true for consultants and agencies. Since SEO is unlikely to drive lots of business your way, you have to win on ideas. And you share those ideas on social media and email. This means that you actually can build an audience, and that the content you publish should be smart/analytical/thoughtful/thought-provoking/etc. as opposed to being engineered to game an algorithm.
SEO comes later. With a strong foundation of thought leadership content, you can start ranking for relevant keywords. (This concept is called movement-first.) At a certain scale, agencies need more traffic to keep growing. I no longer work at Animalz, but I can see that they are starting to do some SEO content. It has the same look, feel and quality of the thought leadership stuff, but it’s intended to be distributed somewhere else.
More next week. Cheers! Jimmy