Why I Often Tell SaaS Start-ups Not To Invest In Content Marketing

By Geoff Roberts

Between the customers that I work with at Outseta and the consulting work that I do at SaaS Growth Strategy, I'm talking to early stage SaaS companies about their go-to-market strategy all day, every day. And increasingly I find myself telling Founders that they should seriously consider NOT investing in content marketing.

You can almost hear the record scratch as the conversation comes to an abrupt halt. 

Who is this guy? Why is he telling me this? But everybody invests in content marketing! It's, it's, it's what SaaS start-ups do! Isn't it?

It's OK not to invest in content

My worldview goes something like this - content marketing is certainly what everybody in the SaaS industry has been doing. It's a bit of an oversimplification, but almost all of us saw the success that companies like Hubspot and Moz had over the past decade as a result of content marketing. They built enormous audiences and drove boatloads of high quality traffic to their websites that helped them dramatically scale revenue and continues to do so today. If it worked for them, it will work for us - right?

The problem is this - the SaaS industry is relatively small and very much an echo chamber. Once something has been deemed a winning strategy or a best practice, everyone hops on board. Most content marketing today still takes the form of blogging, and the web is absolutely overrun with blog content. Podcasting is hot at the moment, but it's only a matter of time until this form of content delivery is totally oversaturated as well. The world's listeners can only support so many podcasts, and a very small number of the best podcasts will ultimately reap the vast majority of the benefits.

I'd say 90% of the companies I see today "doing content marketing" are just spinning their wheels and see very little if any return on their content investments. The 5%-10% that are seeing a solid return on content marketing have the following attributes:

  1. They spend an enormous amount of time and energy creating really, really high quality content. There's certainly an opportunity cost to consider here.
  2. They have the internal skill set needed to create really, really high quality content. Do you?
  3. They've committed to content marketing as a long term investment that they won't see a return on for a long time. As a start-up can you comfortably commit to that?

If you can't enthusiastically (and realistically) say yes to these criteria, chances are you'll quickly find yourself as one of the companies realizing little return on your content investments. And so I find myself saying...

"You should really consider not investing in content marketing."

What does successful content look like anyway?

To illustrate my point, let's look at an example where content marketing worked well. One of the first articles we ever published on Outseta's blog was entitled Customer Success. Unit Economics. Then Growth. While the article does not represent my own original thinking - shout out to Mark Roberge for the framework - I put a good amount of effort into the article.

It's 1,650+ words. It's packed with links from other credible sources, supporting the primary concepts the article relays. We hired a RISD grad to create a custom illustration for the article, and we promoted it like hell. I'm not trumpeting this article as a poster child for content marketing done right, but my point it I put more effort into this article than the vast majority of blog articles I see out there on the web today.

I got some nice feedback on the article, a few likes and shares, a few companies told me they found it's content useful. But real ROI? Not much, until last week a full 18 months after the article was published. I logged into the backend of our website to look at our traffic numbers and saw this:

OutsetaTrafficSpike

Something had clearly spiked our traffic, in a significant way, around August 23. 

Turns out the CEO and Co-founder of another software company - one I had never heard of our spoken to - referenced our post as supporting evidence in a post titled 8 Mistakes We Made In Our Company's First 8 Years that was published on Hackernoon

Thanks to Brennan McEachran from SoapBoxHQ for linking to us in the post.

If you read the article, you'll likely skim right by the link to our post altogether (it's in the 2nd section about being sales driven, not product driven - the words "Should have listened" are linked.) But despite the link being easy to miss, we saw hundreds of additional unique visitors land on our website. The visitors were from a site very relevant to our product offering, so we saw a bunch of new account sign-ups. And we got a link from a credible site that should help us with SEO (although the link's anchor text isn't ideal). 

The point is, these modest benefits we're realized 18 months after the article was published and we did little to influence this happening... other than investing in creating high quality content and taking a long term approach to content marketing.

So before you immediately jump into content marketing, take a step back and really consider if it's the best way to be spending time at your start-up, where time is always the most precious resource. 

How to decide if content marketing makes sense for your Company

A few questions that may be helpful as you think through whether your company should jump all in on content marketing or not...

  1. Do you have someone internally with a real knack for creating content - whether it's written, a podcast, video content, etc?
  2. How much great content is there in your space? If your audience is digital marketers, for example, competition is so fierce you might be better off looking for other channels. If you sell a uniquely satisfying eggnog, well, maybe there's a real opportunity to create the best eggnog related content out on the web and realize significant business benefit by doing so.
  3. Do you have access to any sort of unique data sources that can give you data points to leverage in your content that other companies don't have access to?
  4. Where does your audience "hang out," and how can you best deliver content to them? Maybe it's a radio show, maybe it's a movie, maybe it's a book? 
  5. How else can you reach your audience with other marketing channels or tactics outside of content? Make an exhaustive list - it could be anything from Facebook advertising to field marketing.

Content marketing is great, to me it's fun, and it can drive significant business benefits. But doing it for the sake of doing it and expecting to see results fast will quickly land you in the 90% of companies that are just spinning their wheels.

More than anything building a start-up is about being transparent with yourself, so take an honest step back before you join the herd.