6 Lessons learned from working with fast-growing SaaS startups

Lucas Mondora

I’m obsessed with helping software companies build scalable growth engines. Founder of precisepath.co | Let's talk about Conversion Optimization at www.precisepath.co/consulting

Growing a SaaS business can feel like you're stomping around a minefield littered with failed ideas, confusing results, and frustration.

You're constantly inventing new ways to tackle the same problems -- product/market fit, expensive user acquisition and churn reduction...

...all while combining new technologies, user experience design, and customer success around a new, complex business model: Software as a Service.

I've been doing digital marketing (mostly CRO) for a while now -- going on 5 years since I started my first business -- and over the last few, I’ve focused my attention to work on some pretty big SaaS names in their respective industries.

There’s been many lessons, so I’d thought I’d share the top few which consistently show up in my work:

Lesson #1 - Reduce the path to conversion

For SaaS, I’ve found the cheapest CPA’s comes from the following funnel:

Traffic source -> Free Trial Sales Page.



Which kinda goes against every marketing gurus’ Secret Funnel Formula -- typically involving lots of steps like lead magnets and quizzes.

The truth is, those steps aren’t necessary for most low-ticket SaaS offers.

Many people will happily sign up for a demo or a trial on their first touch -- as long as it doesn’t require much commitment (like paying for your product, at least initially).

When you bypass the lead-magnet/content step, you’ll likely make a small sacrifice on your final sales page conversion rates, but in return, you’ll save yourself A LOT of money by not paying for those extra ad clicks, email copy, and content/opt-in pages.

Lesson #2 - Know your customers "why?"

People don’t buy products because of what they are.

They buy because it what it helps them do.

That's your customers "why".

It’s easy to fall into the trap of selling features rather than outcomes.

After all, it doesn't take much time to write something like “Email Marketing Made Easy” when you’re selling an email marketing software.

Selling features can significantly hurt your business, because people need a reason to buy.

And that reason isn't what your product is. It's the outcome your customer is trying to achieve -- meaning that you may need to re-frame your marketing messages to be about helping your customer.

So, if you’re selling email marketing software, you might actually be selling a method of getting the right message in front of the right people:

This is where the Jobs To Be Done framework comes into play.

Your customers are trying to accomplish something -- that’s the “Job” that needs to be done.

There are 3 types of jobs your product achieves:

  1. Functional Job: the tangible outcome of using your product.
  2. Social Job: how your customers want to be perceived by using your product.
  3. Emotional Job: how customers want to feel after getting the job done.

For Activecampaign, the functional job might be getting in front of their customer with relevant emails:

But for your product, that job is likely different, so you’ll need to speak to your customers’ to uncover what really makes them tick.

Lesson #3 - Onboarding should not rely on emails

Email Onboarding is powerful -- but at the end of the day, it can only act as a motivational trigger to drive someone into your app and take the next step towards success.

It’s not going to [effectively] show them how to use it.

Which is why we should aim to make your product easier to learn, which is where in-product onboarding comes into play.

In-product onboarding helps users reach success by showing them how to use the product and guiding them to take the next step in their journey.

Common in-product onboarding patterns are:

  • Message prompts
  • Checklists
  • Help Desks
  • Inline hints
  • Welcome screens
  • Blank slates
  • Playthoughs
  • Guided Tours

If you’re interested in seeing how some of the biggest companies tackle in-product onboarding, Really Good UX from Appcues provides a wide range of examples you can learn from.

Lesson #4 - Choose The Right UI Patterns

This applies both in-app and on your website.

The wrong design patterns will confuse people, distract them from the goal, and make it difficult to comprehend the information you’re trying to communicate.

Just like this one:

Why this is bad: It’s confusing and cluttered. The cards and chunking patterns on the welcome screen makes it difficult to discern what information is the most important. Each element is equally weighted in the visual hierarchy, and the cards pattern makes the onboarding checklist feel like separate, unrelated elements instead of a continuous, easy-to-follow task list.

Whereas, on the other hand, if you carefully select the right design patterns, you can adequately engage users and direct them to the action you want them to take. For instance:

Why this is good: Slack uses the inline hints design pattern--disguised as a helpful message--to guide users towards product success without being disruptive or distracting

As a rule of thumb, the best UI patterns are:

  1. Contextual: Is this the right pattern for the context? (Here’s a simple worksheet I put together with common onboarding design patterns and when to use them).
  2. Simple: Is the pattern distracting me from the page/screens goal?
  3. Persuasive: Does the pattern invoke emotions/guide my eyes to the relevant information/communicates value?

Lesson #5 - Use pre-sell content to convert warm traffic

In lesson #1, I spoke about removing content and lead-magnets from the acquisition funnel.

But that only applies for cold traffic.

If a user doesn’t convert after visiting your sales page, then you may need to remarket them with a fresh new angle.

That’s where pre-sell content comes into play.

Pre-sell content is an information-driven piece (like a blog post) that sets up your prospect to purchase in a non-salesy way by connecting your product with a different problem or unfulfilled desire of your audience.

A pre-sell page is a great way to move people further along the buyer's journey by educating them on their problem/desire, and then provide a way to solve/fullfill it.

Here’s where it fits into the SaaS Acquisition Funnel:

Similar to an advertorial or long-form sales letter, they offer lots of value initially, and then transition into talking about the company, it’s a core value, benefits and a bit of social proof.

Lesson #6 - Follow the teachings of Don Norman

Our decisions are ruled by emotions. Whether that’s purchasing a product, going on vacation, or drinking one-beer-too-many on a Friday afternoon...

So it stands that if we can design an emotionally driven website or product, we’ll be able to draw more users in, make them feel something (hopefully positive), and get more users converting.

There’s a TONNE of research in how to use emotions in website design, but as a foundation, I like to follow the Don Normans 3 Levels Of Emotional Design philosophy.

Here’s how Andreas Komninos from Interaction Design explains it:

“In the human mind there are numerous areas responsible for what we refer to as emotion; collectively, these regions comprise the emotional system. Don Norman proposes the emotional system consists of three different, yet interconnected levels, each of which influences our experience of the world in a particular way. The three levels are visceral, behavioral, and reflective.”


Visceral Design

Visceral Design concerns itself with first impressions. It focuses on the qualities of the object and how they make the user feel. These reactions are immediate and powerful as it takes only a second to determine if the ‘look and feel’ of the design appeals to you.

A great example of visceral design being utilized is Intercom:

Why this is good: Intercom does a fantastic job of combining bright, exciting colors with abstract illustrations of humans and day-to-day objects. This fun combination invokes wonder, nostalgia, excitement, and friendliness.

Behavioral Design

Behavioral design is all about how you use it. In this case, it’s how easy the design/UI is to use and navigate. You want users to be able to navigate your website, scroll down and absorb information well, and easily learn your product.

The Behavioral Level is the most important level that SaaS Marketers should be aware of as it encompasses how it is, instead of how we perceive it might be.


Why this is good: Activecampaigns’ email template builder is incredibly simple and easy to use without prior experience. It’s easy enough to make even the most computer illiterate person feel like a champion while designing their emails.

Reflective Design

The reflective level of emotional design is how we interpret the design. It combines the first 2 levels -- emotional and behavioral -- with the story that’s being told in the image.

It’s important that your designs tell a story, whether it’s how the product is used, how it works, or how your life will be after you see success with the product.

Many SaaS companies fail at this level because they only show screenshots of the application, which tend to not communicate anything of value aside from “we have a nice looking UI”.

Why this is good: Webflow’s UI is structured in a way that’s easy to understand and read, whilst the graphics reinforce the core message in the copy by displaying an ecommerce store being built in their platform.

Conclusion

SaaS growth is more than just having a good product -- you need to hone in on the segment of users that’ll benefit from your product the most, then tailor your design, user experience and messaging for them.

If you’re serious about growing your SaaS business but haven’t been seeing the results you want, then feel free to get in touch with me. As an Optimization Specialist, SaaS & Tech businesses hire me to uncover and overcome the roadblocks holding them back from serious growth.


Subscribe to the path blog

Take charge of your growth efforts with the latest articles on online marketing, conversion optimization, and more!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Home
Heap | Mobile and Web Analytics
Articles
Consulting Overview