3 Steps to Scale SaaS Lifecycle Marketing
by Chandler Craig
So you’ve got people using your SaaS product. Now what? How do you make sure they stay? How do you get free trial folks to start paying? How do you get power users to refer customers?
If you’re working to solve these problems, then you rock! You’ve completed one of the first “mini-games” (to quote Y Combinator’s Dalton Caldwell) of starting a tech company, which is getting literally anyone to use your software. Now it’s onto the next mini-game. Lifecycle marketing!
Lifecycle marketing is critical for any SaaS company and especially critical for early-stage and growth-stage startups starting to scale.
Step 1: Knowing Your Customers
Some of you are probably well-versed in the customer lifecycle already, but for those who aren’t, there are some core stages that you’ll need to analyze to know where your customers stand along their journey with your product and where you want them to go next.
Lead Generation (stage 0)
The lead generation (aka lead gen) stage isn’t primarily dealt with by customer lifecycle marketers because it comprises people who haven’t yet become customers. Nonetheless, we’re giving lead gen an honorable mention here since it represents the initial touchpoint for all interactions between a company and a potential customer. Brand, SEO, advertising, and sales people work in this realm to get high-intent buyers to discover new products.
Lead gen can be inbound—people find your product “organically”—or outbound—you actively search for and reach out to people to get them to use your product. A classic example of inbound lead gen would be a Google search ad that appears in the search results when people search for terms related to your product. A classic example of outbound lead gen would be a sales rep using tools like Apollo and ZoomInfo to search for and send cold emails to potential customers—with search filters being based on customer personas that are likely to benefit from your product.
Acquisition (stage 1)
Leads become paying customers. SaaS usually incorporates a free trial period where leads get to evaluate if the product is right for them before agreeing to go all the way and put down a credit card. The good news is that even if a potential customer ultimately decides they can't pay for your product after the trial period, you can use their sign-up contact info to check in with them at a future date and incentivize them to return! (important note: always allow people to opt out of receiving messages from your company)
Onboarding (stage 2)
New customers start using the product effectively. It sounds simple, but this stage can feel impossibly difficult for some companies, especially the more complex their products are. UX/UI designers can eliminate some of the difficulty users have self-onboarding, but many companies end up dedicating large portions of their marketing and customer support teams to helping new customers onboard.
Retention (stage 3)
Customers’ product usage holds steady or increases. This usually occurs because the company delivers great customer support and reduces the time it takes customers to find value from the product (aka reducing “time-to-value”). Lifecycle marketers can reduce time-to-value in a number of ways, including sharing relevant and clear documentation, working with product teams to create tooltips and in-app product guides, and working with content marketers to produce and publish helpful video tutorials.
Upsell/Cross-sell (stage 4)
Existing customers purchase premium features and services. If you already have customers who have shown good retention metrics, it’s more likely that they will buy more products and services from you. All you have to do is reach out and ask!
Advocacy (stage 5)
Satisfied customers promote the product. If you have customers who are power users, who use your product’s full feature set regularly, who have a higher subscription tier, and who positively engage with your social posts, then it’s very likely they’ll be willing to do some selling for you by referring others to your product or writing customer testimonials for your landing pages.
In a lifecycle marketing dream world, every customer occupies the advocacy stage. This will never be the case, but it’s something to strive for nonetheless. The more attainable and primary goal of lifecycle marketing is to meet each customer at their stage and nudge them toward the next stage.
So the obvious question becomes, how do I know what lifecycle stages my customers (or potential customers) occupy? This isn’t a topic that we’ll cover in depth in this post, but here are some helpful links to check out:
- Light read - Our blog post on event tracking
- Medium read - PostHog’s “Complete Guide to Event Tracking”
- Very in-depth read - The Amplitude Guide to Behavioral Data & Event Tracking
The tl;dr answer is that you’ll need to use a combination of product analytics and event tracking to store user-level information like button clicks and page views which you can then extract insights from, such as which feature a customer spends the most time with or at what point a user gets stuck in the onboarding process. Once you’ve built up a database of user events and analyzed what those events mean in the context of your product, it’s time to act on that knowledge.
Step 2: Acting on Customer Insights
Effective action requires well-timed, curated communication, or to say it another way, taking the path of least resistance.
The vast majority of new customers aren’t going to immediately become advocates the second they use your product, so you wouldn’t, for example, start sending out referral offers to customers who are still onboarding. On the other hand, if you have some customers who’ve just upgraded their plans to higher tiers and who you’ve noticed have had an uptick in usage metrics within their workspaces, it’s time to send them some communication nudging them to refer people to your product.
Let’s look at some ways to communicate with customers and potential customers at each of the lifecycle stages mentioned above to convert them to the next stage.
Lead generation → Acquisition
Here’s a product update email from PostHog highlighting new and improved product features. It reminds potential customers of the progress PostHog has made and gives them more reasons to consider adopting and paying for the platform.
They’ve also included some additional calls to action in the email footer to encourage readers to dive deeper into PostHog’s content. The more PostHog can engage leads, the higher the odds are that those leads will begin using their product.
Acquisition → Onboarding
Below is an onboarding email from Typeform that offers a variety of resources to help new customers begin using their form builder. Lifecycle marketers know it can be overwhelming for new customers to be dropped into an empty workspace without guidance, which can lead to inactive workspaces even for the most intuitive SaaS products.
As a side note, companies with paying customers who never use their products are a ticking time bomb. Revenue gives the illusion of growth and product-market fit, but the reality is that usage is just as important as revenue. Usage tells you which design elements are unintuitive, what features are most valuable, and where to double down on product development. It tells you if the things you’re making have real-world value or not.
Onboarding emails are a way to help new customers jump the first hurdle into usage territory. It’s not cheating to give customers a little push in the right direction, and it ensures that you don’t give up on a product or feature too early due to poor usage. Always try to get at least a modicum of initial usage via lifecycle marketing communication before giving up on anything!
Onboarding → Retention
This is an in-app progress bar in my Google Ads workspace. It’s alerting me to finish setting up conversion tracking for one of my ads. Conversion tracking is a core feature of Google Ads. Without it, I’m not getting the full value of the platform.
The less value I receive as a customer of a given product, the harder it’ll be for me to justify my spending, even if my perceived lack of value is partially my fault for not taking the time to set up the features at my disposal. This is where time-to-value becomes important. The more you can reduce the time it takes for your customers to gain value from your product, the less likely they are to churn (aka leave your product).
Unfortunately, customers don’t care if it’s their fault that they aren’t getting all the value you’re offering them. They just want an easy-to-use product that solves their problems. Some of that responsibility lies on the shoulders of product managers, designers, and engineers, but some of it is also up to lifecycle marketers and customer support staff. In-app progress bars, notifications, and messages are great lifecycle tools for communicating to customers about where they can mine more value from your product.
Retention → Upsell
Here Zoom is offering me a discount for upgrading to their pro tier. They presumably have data that tells them I’ve been a loyal customer for multiple years. I’ve most likely been funneled into a “high retention” customer segment that Zoom’s marketing team has configured inside their lifecycle email marketing tools, which is why I’m on the receiving end of their upsell efforts.
One thing they could add to these emails to improve them is an outline of feature differences between their basic and pro tiers. That way I don’t have to do extra work to figure out if upgrading is actually worth it, and Zoom would improve their odds of an upsell.
Upsell → Advocacy
Gusto knows that Dittofeed relies on them heavily, so they’re showing us an in-app referral link, incentivizing us to get other companies using their product as much as we do. There are many other ways to run advocacy campaigns outside of referral programs, including brand ambassador partnerships, user-generated content, and customer testimonials. However, referral programs with earnings incentives are the quickest and easiest path to get started with advocacy, assuming your company can afford the incentives.
Step 3: Scaling Communication With Customers
Now that we know some ways to nudge customers to the next lifecycle stage, the problem becomes doing so in a scalable way. It would be impossible for any lifecycle marketing team handling more than a handful of customers to efficiently track each customer’s stage and send out personal, well-timed communication guiding them further along their journey with the company’s product(s).
This is where a few software tools become particularly invaluable.
Customer Engagement Platforms
These products—sometimes called marketing automation—use data from customer interactions and behavior, to send personalized messages across multiple channels (email, SMS, WhatsApp, mobile push, etc.). They can send targeted messages based on user activity and trigger specific messages when customers reach new lifecycle stages (note: email marketing is particularly important for SaaS companies).
Open-source option - Dittofeed
Closed-source option - Iterable
Live Chat Widgets
These widgets give real-time assistance to customers and provide dashboards for growth teams to manage multiple message threads at once. They can be programmed to provide automated responses to common questions, guide customers through onboarding, or escalate issues to customer support reps. Recently, these tools have integrated AI chatbots to take more of the load off of CS reps.
Open-source option - Chatwoot
Closed-source option - Intercom
These small, interactive messages appear when users hover over or interact with features in your app. They help guide users through new and complex features without overwhelming them with information. They contribute significantly to the onboarding and retention stages by enhancing user experience and product understanding.
Open-source option - Shepherd
Closed-source option - Userpilot
These tools allow you to split your customers into various buckets based on criteria like behavior, demographics, product usage, etc. Effective segmentation leads to more targeted and relevant marketing campaigns. Segment builders aren’t standalone products, but rather are incorporated into larger products like customer engagement and analytics software.
Analytics software provides a comprehensive view of customer data and interactions. They enable you to track key metrics, understand user behavior, and make data-driven decisions. You’ll need to measure the success of your marketing efforts, and adjust strategies to improve engagement and conversion rates to be successful at lifecycle marketing.
Open-source option - PostHog
Closed-source option - Mixpanel
Using all of these tool categories in conjunction can ensure that your lifecycle marketing strategy is personalized, timely, relevant, and scalable, which is crucial for advancing customers through the various stages of the SaaS customer lifecycle. Leads are great, customers are better, but customer advocacy is the pinnacle of success. With a consistent lifecycle marketing strategy in place, you’ll have customers and advocates in no time!