Is blogging worth it? Content marketing for startups

“Should I even bother writing blog posts?” is one of the most common questions founders ask me.

It’s a good question – some successful founders claim content marketing is essential for initial traction. Others think it’s a big waste of time.

In this post I’ll clear up some confusion and give you a practical content strategy for startups.

You’re not HubSpot – so don’t imitate them

Every successful SaaS company uses content marketing to generate sales leads. Hubspot, Wistia, and Buffer are among the best. Unfortunately, the “best practices” for content marketing are based on what works well for products that have achieved product/market fit. Growth is the primary objective and writing general, recurring business content generates marketing leads.

So what happens when an early stage startup tries to write blog posts like Buffer?

They usually try for a month and quit because it (1) takes too many resources and, (2) doesn’t attract the right customers, (3) takes too long to get results.

But writing no content is usually a bad idea too

Writing content is an effect way to share our vision with earlyvangelists, investors, and prospective employees. A startup with no content doesn’t benefit from the serendipity of discovery.

Additionally, getting SEO ranking, developing an active email list, and establishing a startup’s expertise can take 6 months or longer. Delaying a content strategy risks conceding early sales and mindshare to competitors.

So … writing to generate leads is a waste of time … but … writing nothing means missing an opportunity for early traction.

The solution: integrate content marketing into your customer development

I’ve used this technique effectively with my own products. Here are the principles:

Build your content collaboratively with customers

Don’t try to get impressions or subscribers. You’re too early and these metrics don’t matter anyway. Instead, use content as a means of developing deeper conversations with a small number of earlyvangelists.

Write about what you’re learning with early customers. Ask for their feedback. Offer to supplement HOWTO blog posts with training over Skype. Send your top 20 sales prospects a personalized, hand-typed email asking if a blog post is applicable to them.

Measure the success of your posts in the type of feedback you get, the quality of conversations it generates.

Use content to do customer development experiments

Your early customers are using your product to solve different problems. The champions may come from different industries or have different jobs. Where is your biggest opportunity? You have guesses, but unfortunately customer development interviews only teach you so much – at some point you have to give customers an experience to learn more.

You can run targeted customer development experiments with content. Write HOWTO posts that give customers the tools to begin solving problems themselves.

Write unique, targeted content to establish yourself as the thought leader

Forget viral.

Your initial “earlyvangelists” will also be passionate about the problem. Write to influence them.

Example – How I’m using this approach with MadKudu

MadKudu, one of my Angel investments, uses data mining & predictive analytics to help high-volume SaaS companies grow revenue. MadKudu solves a number of related problems:

  1. Marketing uses MadKudu to increase trial-to-paid conversions through more effective marketing automation.
  2. Customer Success uses MadKudu to identify and prevent at-risk customers from canceling.
  3. Sales Operations uses MadKudu to help inside sales teams identify and engage the most promising trial customers.

The challenge: where should we focus?

MadKudu’s situation is pretty typical – great early signals from different use cases.

What is the biggest opportunity? Who feels pain most acutely? Who is ready to buy now? Should we offer multiple products? Or tiers? Where should we focus our marketing and sales?

Selling to a CMO is very different from selling to a VP of Sales. The only sure guarantee of failure is trying to do everything.

I started with an email course

Previously I’ve explained how to hack customer development with a drip email course. Instead of using a course as a lead-generation engine I use it as an opportunity to get customers on the phone and help them overcome problems. I find this approach more effective than doing interviews.

I created a landing page for a new course: Accelerate your SaaS sales by 20% with predictive analytics.

course

 

When people sign up I offer to help them get started using predictive analytics over a Skype call or Hangout.

I use what we learn in these discussions to write the course.

I’m writing HOWTO blog posts to drive course signups

For example, I first wrote a step-by-step post on a topic the course will address: How SaaS CMOs use customer personas to generate better sales leads. The one CTA is “take our new course to learn more.”

Viral? Hardly. I don’t even know how many people read it. It doesn’t matter right now.

The post establishes us as thought leaders, helps us meet new customers and understand what they want to learn. One topic that resonated is the disconnect between how marketing and sales think about trial customers – “Marketing things data. Sales thinks people.”

 

marketing_v_sales

 

I run customer development experiments with content

We use content to test which problems are most concerning for customers. For instance I’m currently testing two related customer problems:

A “marketing” problem such as How can I send better emails?

or

A “sales” problem such as How can I make more effective sales calls?

I decided to write a blog post on each topic to get an initial indication of customer pain. I use the following approach:

  1. Identify a problem for the customer.
  2. Explain why the problem is important
  3. Help them solve the problem themselves, in this case using Microsoft Excel.
  4. Finish with 1 CTA – try MadKudu if you want us to solve this problem for you.

In other words I lead TO our product – not WITH our product.

Post #1 – Test the “sales” messaging

In How I teach SaaS marketers to accelerate deals I show SaaS marketers a simple approach for measuring and improving Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs).

 

sales

 

Post #2 – Test the “marketing” messaging

In Use predictive analytics to reduce churn by 20% in 2 days – with 3rd-grade math I show SaaS marketers how they can do basic predictive modeling using Excel and one equation.

 

churn

 

While not specifically about sending email, “churn” is a topic more closely associated with marketing automation and customer success than sales.

In the coming weeks we will talk to customers about the topics in these posts. Which one generates more questions? Discussion? Controversy? We’ll use these qualitative metrics as an early indication of larger interest.

So … is blogging worth it? Yes, if it helps you get to product/market fit faster

Your approach to content marketing should use the same Lean Startup approach you apply to everything else – measure your progress by validating learning about your market.

Does writing content help you learn faster? Get better conversations? Engage customers more effectively?

Hopefully you can identify ways that it can. Make learning your goal and blogging won’t be as painful.

You’ll have plenty of time in the future to generate leads. For now, just focus on learning and getting to product-market fit.

 

photo credit: Herman Yung

6 Comments

  1. Dennis Michael February 9, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    Thank you, this will really help our SaaS business. I never thought of writing content in this fashion.

  2. Matt Chrunyk February 9, 2016 at 12:05 pm #

    Hi Kevin, I recently read an article about your investment in a Canadian start-up called Sampler, and you mentioned you were looking in Canada for more opportunities. I wanted to direct your attention to a great start-up co. called Tinkerine. They are a 3D printing company with some fantastic ideas. Cheers!

  3. Good On You February 9, 2016 at 3:23 pm #

    Hi Keven. Any tips on applying this to the non-paying, consumer side of a two sided market? Thanks

    • kevindewalt February 9, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

      Principles should be the same. I’m assuming consumers would be interested in the content.

  4. dennismeng February 16, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    Wow, super interesting – using content as a customer development tool. Never thought of that. We just finished the 1st blog post for our company blog with no idea if it’s going to drive the traffic that we want it to. If it fails, I’ll have to try this approach. Thanks!

  5. akrasinski January 3, 2017 at 10:26 am #

    Another thing to note, you can monitor your blogging progress by analyzing your audience engagement metrics. Don’t know what you’re looking for? We just published a blog on what metrics you should monitor, we’d love if you checked it out! https://www.hostgator.com/blog/measure-audience-engagement-blog/

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