Growing SaaS With Owned & Earned Media – A 12/Mo Marketing Case Study
In today’s highly digital world, the software as a service distribution model, complete with recurring monthly subscriptions, has proven to be one of the most desirable and profitable business models for venture capitalists, tech startups, and entrepreneurs alike.
While the massive success of Salesforce, Zendesk, and similar organizations isn’t typical, those companies have laid the groundwork (and very high expectations) for other growing software companies.
Today’s SaaS chief marketing officers and executives are tasked with quickly growing their business models to appease the thirsty appetites of venture capitals, founders, and more importantly, their end users.
Growing a software company with digital marketing is all about identifying and experimenting with new marketing programs, quickly determining campaign performance, and scaling these efforts through tactful and budget-friendly distribution—all while maintaining brand message and the high content standards that today’s audiences demand. Often easier said than done.
Joe Griffin and Jay Swanson, founders of the content marketing and online media platform ClearVoice, reached out to ThinkWarwick Communications as a content marketing partner to solve their SaaS growth challenges.
Read below to see how we worked together to transition from a primarily paid media strategy to an owned and earned media strategy and double ClearVoice’s monthly recurring revenue (MRR) along the way.
The ClearVoice Marketing Situation and Challenges – 12 Months Ago
12 months ago ClearVoice was in the middle of a major organizational shift with their marketing efforts.
They needed to transition their short term focused paid media approach to a long term owned and earned media strategy without sacrificing the growth of their platform.
Like several early stage software startups, ClearVoice concentrated on lead generation and brand growth by experimenting with a mix of paid advertising and content marketing efforts.
They leaned heavily on paid media because it proved the most profitable during their early growth stages.
While they achieved early success and revenue through their paid media strategy, they knew that they needed to adopt an owned and earned media strategy to create more consistent and cost effective long term growth.
Let’s discuss the paid, owned, and earned marketing challenges that ClearVoice (and several other venture fed SaaS organizations) faced 12 months ago.
Paid vs Owned vs Earned Media at Growing Tech Companies
With a paid media strategy, you invest in advertising on third party platforms and drive traffic back to your website, lead capture pages, or other owned media channels.
You earn results as long as you continue investing in advertising, but when you stop, your results stop also. Truly a pay to play model.
What I typically see with SaaS organizations is that a company ramps up their paid media budget and grows accordingly (when executed well).
As they begin to saturate their audience, their advertising costs increase, but they are hesitant to change their budget or invest in untested marketing campaigns for fear that their growth will stop, they will waste their resources, or their venture expectations will overshadow their experimentation phase.
Meanwhile it feels like their competitors are pushing the throttle and choking them out of the market, increasing their performance pressure.
At this point, they consider shifting their paid spend to grow their owned and earned media strategies, such as search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing, community building, and social media to help cut advertising costs.
It’s important for SaaS companies to grow their owned and earned media over time to support the rising costs of paid media channels. Otherwise, they’ll get squeezed out of the market because their ROAS (return on advertising spend) becomes too low and profit margins shrink.
This is usually the stage where a startup looks to hire a Director of Content Marketing or Content Strategist. This is another challenging obstacle to overcome because experienced SaaS marketers are difficult to find and they typically don’t fit a startups budget.
Essentially, it boils down to this according to Laudi and Suellentrop:
“If you can find marketers with lots of relevant SaaS experience, like those who’ve built a marketing team from the ground up, they’re taken, and expensive to lure. Not only that, but the SaaS space is still relatively small.
Because experienced SaaS marketers are rare, those that do exist are busy — often to the point of being unavailable. If you can find one of the rare independent folks to help guide you or your team during those early days, get in line.”
This is the point where ClearVoice and ThinkWarwick Communications created a strong bond.
Back to solving the paid, owned, and earned media conundrum, this time, with tight resources, venture and board expectations, and with limited access to experienced professionals.
The problem with owned and earned media strategies is that they typically don’t yield impressive results early on, particularly when compared with paid media strategies.
The lack of short term results, in spite of significant investment, often frustrates executives and venture capitalists —which in turn jeopardizes these types of marketing strategies before they have time to flourish.
In ClearVoice’s situation, the leadership team knew that owned and earned media strategies can take time to optimize and begin yielding significant return. They were open to solving this challenge with our organization and would dedicate the appropriate resources (within reason) to accomplish this.
Since ThinkWarwick Communications and ClearVoice openly discussed expectations, this allowed our teams the proper time to collaborate on creating and testing the most impactful owned and earned media strategy moving forward.
However, this mutual understanding of the efforts needed to drive results is not always commonplace in the SaaS world.
With any owned media strategy, you invest in building your brand assets on your owned properties like your website and social channels.
Consistently investing in these channels over time and engaging with the audiences on these channels can lead to increased earned media. This builds stronger long term brand value and can even lower marketing costs when executed efficiently.
This is what makes content marketing strategies and working with senior content strategists very desirable.
However, (and this is particularly true for startups, smaller, or lesser known organizations) owed media strategies can take considerable time (12 – 18mo) to begin returning revenue. You’re basically starting from scratch and need to research, execute, experiment, optimize, and evolve your marketing quickly to find success.
Furthermore, most organizations don’t know how to tie content marketing performance metrics back to the bottom line which only magnifies the stressors for startup marketers.
Many early stage organizations (and their investors) don’t have the luxury or the patience to see owned and earned media strategies through implementation.
Venture teams, the board of directors, and leaders at software startups want to see their marketing investment performing quickly or returned within 3 – 6mo. Often unrealistic, but this is a common scenario in the SaaS world.
While not usually the most efficient or sustainable methods, this is exactly why growth hackers and paid media advertising are the go-to strategies for early stage startups.
For example, below is generic example of what you can expect with paid media versus owned media.
The black line represents the traffic you get while paying for advertising and the blue line represents how paying for content marketing with an equal investment grows traffic over time.
Thank you Bill Skowronski for whipping this chart up.
It could also look something like this:
This isn’t intended to knock paid advertising or growth hacking, but if an organization relies on those methods too heavily or for too long, they (and their investors) may have an inflated but distorted view of their actual audience and business trajectory.
If they do not begin investing in more owned and earned media strategies, these organizations will have essentially built their business on a glass foundation that will come crashing down as soon as they slow or stop investing in paid advertising.
This can send VC and leaders into a panic, so we must carefully navigate these situations.
I’ve found that there is a delicate balance between paid, owned, and earned media strategies that startups must learn to optimize while their organization grows in maturity.
There is a crucial paid, owned, and earned media tipping point for SaaS companies and ClearVoice was on this cusp 12 months ago. Fortunately, ClearVoice and ThinkWarwick Communications anticipated these challenges and adjusted accordingly
To break through this transition, ThinkWarwick Communications was tasked to:
- Improve organic traffic to amplify owned media channels
- Increase both marketing qualified and sales qualified leads (MQL/SQL)
- Grow monthly recurring revenue (MRR)
- Increase ROAS efficiency / decrease paid media spend
- Grow ClearVoice brand awareness and drive earned media
ThinkWarwick Communications Marketing Strategy for ClearVoice
The short answer was that we needed to strategize, apply, and optimize a new content marketing strategy. This would concentrate on building owned media assets through highly engaging quality content and earned media assets through community and influencer marketing.
We realize that there isn’t a standardized content marketing strategy that applies to every software organization, so we build our marketing and communications strategy from the ground up around every client to ensure that we are focused on creating the most impact.
Our process with ClearVoice began with a thorough discovery stage to identify their marketing strengths and weaknesses, how they preferred to work and communicate, and where we saw opportunities for short and long term marketing wins.
We then defined a 3 month content marketing strategy that centered around creating and distributing helpful content to the ClearVoice target audience. This would grow to a 6 month plan and a 12 month plan down the road.
The content strategy included creating both on site and off site content and public relations efforts to improve search engine optimization, broaden organic marketing channels, and reach untapped audiences.
We also outlined a ClearVoice influencer and software ambassador program to drive user generated content (UGC) and increase demand for the ClearVoice blog and other branded campaigns.
ThinkWarwick Communications Marketing Execution
*Please note that many of the details are proprietary and confidential. Please contact us for additional information.
Over the course of 12 months, we worked concurrently with the ClearVoice team and marketing influencers to create and distribute content across publishers, social media, and community channels.
Some of the owned media blog content we created include:
- How to Scale Your Content Creation Using Freelance Writers
- The Four Keys to Master Evergreen Content
- The Hands-On Method to Competitive Content Analysis
We created community events, informative webinars with influencers, educational eBooks, Facebook Live Events, podcasts, and more—all to serve a grand content marketing plan and drive real results for the ClearVoice business interests.
These content marketing efforts were amplified because we continued contributing to both major and relevant third party sites and concentrated on building strong relationships throughout the marketing community using Slack groups, Linkedln groups, Quora, GH and Inbound communities, and Facebook communities.
We also experimented with creating pillar content, new audiences, and ramping up (and scaling back) content efforts to find the correct balance.
For example, one month we would publish 12 articles and another month we would publish 6 articles and a white paper and weigh the pros and cons of each. This helped us identify an optimal marketing output that aligned with budget and performance expectations.
12 Month Marketing Impact
Rather than sharing all of the attah boys and high fives—let’s dive into the real business value of ClearVoice’s investment in owned and earned media strategies that we executed together.
All percentages below relate to year over year growth from July 2016 to July 2017. (Thank you to Ethan DeYoung, VP Marketing for these numbers)
- Organic traffic increased 360%
- Social media engagements increased 83.6%
- Organic Monthly MQLs increased 100%
- MQLs converting to SQLs increased 200%
- SQLs to Customers increased 100%
- MRR increased 100%
- Paid media spend decreased 60%
- Customer churn decreased 50%
As a performance marketing and analytics driven organization, these results left us ecstatic.
However, since we are group of individuals that have led SaaS marketing teams and have worked through the day to day marketing challenges within these types of organizations, the most rewarding experience for us is the impact that we made with the individuals that work internally at ClearVoice everyday.
While we worked with co-founder’s Jay and Joe often, we also worked directly with ClearVoice’s editorial team, sales, engineering, lead generation marketers, graphic designers, copywriters, contractors… and more.
We became a valuable part of the ClearVoice family—an essentially differentiator for our agency and a necessary commitment to our clients to earn trust and results.
Our favorite feedback was via Meagan DeMenna, ClearVoice’s Community Manager.
Other agencies do not invest nearly as much as ThinkWarwick Communications does. With TWC, your issues are their issues – your goals are their goals. I always feel like I can connect with them and that they are never too busy for me. Everything that they do for us is a customized approach.
Feedback like this from our clients is exactly why we banded together to solve today’s digital marketing challenges.