My first Software as a Service (SaaS) company launched in the late 1990s before it was even called SaaS. It was an uphill battle as we tried to educate heads of HR and IT why they should pay us annually, forever, to host their online job boards on our servers. They thought we were crazy. In fact, we burned through $35 million of venture capital in about a year and pulled our S-1 filing in the wake of the notorious dot-com bust of 2000.
Unlike most other startups of that age, we would survive the tech sector reckoning and the company would eventually IPO and get acquired by IBM. This success wasn’t due to “product-led growth” or virality, it was the outcome of good old-fashioned B2B lead generation (now sometimes called Demand Generation).
As SaaS matured, the playbook for acquiring clients became well known and copied. Marketers all spoke the same language which sounded foreign to others. You might overhear, “We need more ToFu content and outbound SDRs if we’re going to get the MQLs and SQLs necessary to hit our MRR. Fill the pipe!”
But are the B2B demand generation tactics that minted unicorn companies in the past decade still effective? As prospects are being bombarded with cold calls, free webinars, cold emails and even the same email tactics (the breakup email!) are today’s chief marketing officers (CMOs) and demand gen managers seeing decreasing returns?
To find out what is working now, I reached out to several B2B SaaS marketers whose companies are achieving extraordinary success:
- Dan Ahmadi, Sr. Director Demand Generation, Branch
- Lindsay Cournoyer, VP Marketing, Axonify
- Cindy Goodrich, CMO, BetterUp
- Kyle Lacey, CMO, Lessonly
- Nima Asrar Haghighi, VP of Marketing, Airtable
At Branch, the MQL is Dead
Branch offers a platform for mobile measurement and deep linking, which enables companies to create better user journeys. Branch’s Sr. Director of Demand Generation, Dan Ahmadi, has seen a lot of changes in his ten years focused on demand generation. He shared the vision he had years ago that continues to be met with a mixed reaction:
I spoke at a conference about four years ago and had a slide that said, “Hey Marketers, the MQL is dead.” Half the room—the marketers—gasped. But the sales side started clapping and one person stood up and yelled, “Yes!”
He explained that five years ago it was hard to get names and email addresses. So everything was about pushing content that was “gated” (i.e., requires the prospect to fill out a form to get access). Once a company had the email, they could push out endless emails either automated or from junior salespeople. But with tools like Zoominfo, today it’s easy to get email addresses of anyone you want. Ahmadi says, yes companies should still track MQLs, but as an activity and troubleshooting metric, the true KPI should be lower in the sales funnel.
Now, Ahmadi says, demand generation is all about understanding your ideal customer profile (ICP), establishing a list of target accounts, and focusing all your marketing efforts on those accounts. He shared a real-life example where a recent webinar they produced attracted over 800 participants, but after closer analysis, they realized only four participants matched their target profile.
So what is working today? While attendance at mass webinars has been declining, Ahmadi says they’re getting great results with smaller, high-quality virtual events that include 20 to 30 participants at a time. They often send physical gifts to participants who actually show up (e.g., cookie packs), and combine a business discussion with something fun like wine tasting.
They’ve also launched a podcast called, How I Grew It, which is a highly produced show interviewing various founders. Because of the hyper-focused content, Ahmadi doesn’t assume they are finding many new contacts through the show, but rather they distribute the content to their target audience.
Ahmadi’s best piece of advice for other B2B marketers is, “Focus on your perfect customer.”
Axonify Shrank Sales Cycle By Two-Thirds With Industry Focus
Axonify offers a training and communication platform designed to support front-line workers. Lindsay Cournoyer, VP Marketing at Axonify explained that when she first joined the company they were using the old marketing playbook and it was all about driving MQLs. When she looked closer, however, she quickly realized that very few of those MQLs every actually converted into sales. Since then she tracks more closely “sales accepted leads” and conversion rates.
Echoing the experience and advice of Ahmadi, Cournoyer explained that Axonify spent time to create a niche ICP. Who is the best buyer? Who uses it the most? Which deals close the fastest? And the answer was retail and grocery stores. Once this shift in strategy was in place, Axonify shrank the funnel dropout rate from 70% to 17%, and reduced deal close time from 18 months to 6 months. Today, eight out of ten of their biggest customers are retailers or grocers.
Cournoyer says they still do top of funnel (ToFu) tactics including SEO and SEM, but nobody is calling contacts who have merely downloaded digital content. Shifting to a pure account based management (ABM) strategy, Axonify has reduced their SDR/BDR headcount by two-thirds.
What’s working? Instead of focusing on webinars, Axonify has moved to digital branded events including their industry-specific virtual conferences known as AxoniCon Live. She’s also a big advocate for customer marketing given how important word of mouth and referrals have become in the buying process.
Lessonly Wins With Virtual Events, 3D Mail, and More
Indianapolis-based Lessonly positions itself as a powerfully simple learning platform for customer-facing teams. Chief Marketing Officer, Kyle Lacey, agrees that as little as three years ago it was all about driving MQLs, with a large inside marketing team. When it comes to exchanging content for an email address Lacy says, “The only thing that should be gated is a demo request.” And they score requests carefully and all demo requests trigger a preview video that helps to weed out unqualified leads before they get to a sales rep.
Lacy says classic marketing techniques including sending physical mail still works well. They’ve sent everything from board games to company swag. In fact, their mascot, Ollie the Llama, has proven to be so popular, and customers are so engaged, that Lessonly even set up it’s own Ollie Llama & Co store on Shopify.
And the shift to work-from-home with the pandemic hasn’t slowed down their community building efforts. Lacy says they’ve been very creative hosting small events for approximately 30 people, with a mix of customers and prospects who are in the funnel. They routinely see 90% attendance rates with activities that have included wine tasting, cheese tasting, cooking classes.
Lacy’s advice to small B2B startups is, “Number one is focus, you cannot boil the ocean if you’re trying to find product market fit. You need to find 50 targets and go after them. Number two is that if you are early on, you do not need to create a category.” And his final piece of advice for marketers is that you have to constantly find ways to “surprise and delight” people.
BetterUp Is All About Building Relationships
BetterUp offers mobile-based coaching, counseling, and mentorship. Chief Marketing Officer, Cindy Goodrich, has seen demand generation change over many years, including during her six years at HubSpot. She shared that “old school” marketing focused on conference sponsorships, expo booths, buying email lists, all with the goal of driving MQLs. Goodrich says marketers now have to shift their mindset.
It’s not about a transaction. It really is a relationship and how you are creating value along the way. Old school is extracting value in the form of an email, now it’s about creating value. Are you bringing in the right people who are going to get the most value from what you have to offer.
Goodrich clarifies that they still track MQLs, but that’s not the focus. They know the sales cycle is two or more quarters so the focus is lower in the sales funnel, what Goodrich calls “Stage 2” pipeline.
When asked about what comes next, Goodrich didn’t focus on tools or technology. She explained that there is a real opportunity to get better at storytelling. Connecting in more powerful ways with your audience. And her advice for smaller startups with limited resources? “Get real clarity around the metrics that matter,” she suggested. “You have to have a growth and learning mindset…go into it with an experimental mindset.”
Airtable Marketers Focus on Orchestration
Airtable offers a spreadsheet-database hybrid for building collaborative apps. Nima Asrar Haghighi, Airtable VP of Marketing, explains that you can’t talk about tools or tactics without also talking about context. If your goal is to capture demand from a large broad audience, then SEO is probably critical to your success. However, if you have a niche market and an emerging category you’ll be better off with a targeted account-based management program. Ideally, of course, you have a mix of tactics for top, middle and bottom of the funnel.
His advice to other marketers is to focus less on trying to optimize every single tactic, and spend more time on orchestration. Marketers he explained, “Need to bring it all together and make sure all the stakeholders are working together.”
My days overseeing crowded cube-farms of SDRs stacking up MQLs are clearly long-gone. While context and mix must always be taken into account, my key takeaways include:
- Become hyper-focused on marketing to your ICP
- Ungate all content except for webinars and demo requests
- Build relationships over time with unique experiences and high-value expertise
- Be ok with dramatically fewer demos, as long as it comes along with dramatically higher conversion rates
Kevin Kruse is the Founder + CEO of LEADx, a platform that scales and sustains leadership habits throughout an organization. Kevin is also a New York Times bestselling author of Great Leaders Have No Rules, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, and Employee Engagement 2.0.