The 19 Growth Channels That Every SaaS Marketer Needs to Know

September 27, 2017

(Coming Soon)

Georgiana Laudi & Claire Suellentrop

Forget The Funnel

We hear questions like this over and over again:

Which growth tactic should I try next?
How do I pick the right one?
Where should I spend my precious [and oftentimes limited] marketing time & dollars?

TL;DR — deciding where to focus in marketing & growth is hard. So in this workshop, we’re sharing the 19(!) growth channels every SaaS marketer should know about, as well as a way to prioritize which ones make sense for your company at its current stage of growth. Keep in mind: we don’t recommend testing every single channel at once, since that would be the opposite of focus. Rather, you’ll want to select the few that are likely to matter most to your target audience and company right now (our prioritization framework will help you with this).

The framework we describe in this workshop comes from Traction(which we think you should read). Rather than a deep-dive into any single growth channel, consider this workshop a high-level overview to help you decide which channels will most likely make sense for your situation.This is just one of the many useful workshops in our SaaS Marketing Workshop series. Here are the highlights:

When To Experiment With New Growth Channels

Before we talk about the growth channels, it’s important that you have a few foundational pieces in place first. We recommend that you have:

  • A functioning, usable product.
  • Some way to get people into that product. This might be a signup funnel, or that might be in addition to an onboarding program or campaign. But there has to be some way to get people into that product.
  • A web presence. Your web presence can be a multi-page website with a features page, testimonials, pricing, etc. — or it can be as slim as a single landing page describing your product, and providing a way to purchase / access that product.

Once these are in place, then you’re ready to start looking at growth channels for your business for improved efficacy.

Defining Tactics With Real Companies

Traction lists the 19 growth channels as follows:

  1. Targeting blogs
  2. Publicity (traditional PR)
  3. Unconventional PR
  4. SEM
  5. Social/display ads
  6. Offline ads
  7. SEO
  8. Content marketing
  9. Email marketing
  10. Viral marketing
  11. Engineering as marketing
  12. Business development/strategic partnerships
  13. Sales
  14. Affiliate programs
  15. Existing platforms
  16. Attending trade shows
  17. Offline events
  18. Speaking engagements
  19. Community building

As SaaS — and technology in general — continues to evolve, this list of channels may change or grow. But let’s consider this a good place to get started.SaaS companies have leveraged every single one of these channels (even non-digital ones where it made sense, like billboards and radio ads) to grow, picking and choosing based on where their target audience naturally spends time, and what makes sense for their product & pricing.

One example includes Leo Widrich, co-founder & former COO of Buffer, targeting dozens and dozens of blogs to spread awareness of his product during Buffer’s earliest days.Leo made a lot of strategic decisions in terms of which blogs he chose to guest post on, as well as the topics he chose to write about of course. The topic wasn't always exactly on social media marketing (though it often was) — , but it was always about Buffer in the end, whether from a product perspective or a thought leadership and company values perspective.

Another example (not SaaS in this case, but fun all the same) is BlendTec’s use of channel #3, unconventional PR. Their YouTube series Will It Blend? has nearly 1M subscribers, and puts an admittedly pretty boring product — a blender — in hilarious, memorable situations.As a result, each video racks up thousands of videos and is regularly shared around the internet. Can you think of any other blender brands whose content you’d willingly share with friends? Neither can we.

More SaaS-specific examples include as Dropbox’s famous refer a friend program (channel #10, viral marketing) and Hubspot’s website grader (channel #11, engineering as marketing). Listen to the full workshop to hear all the examples.

Choosing Growth Channels For Your Situation: A Framework.

The concept of the 19 growth channels really shines when used as a brainstorming tool. Without taking the time to truly consider every channel — to seek out interesting, creative, and sometimes even wacky examples of how other companies have used them — it’s easy to get stuck in a rut as a SaaS marketer. When that happens, you end up leveraging only the channels you’re most familiar with, or that only the people you personally know use. As a result, you miss out on opportunities to unlock growth in new, creative ways your competition might never have thought of.

When brainstorming new ways to expand or improve your company’s growth strategy, we recommend coming up with at least 1 idea within each channel — even the ones you think would never work for you. When you’re forced to consider each and every option and look for real-world examples, you might be surprised by the new ideas you come up with.

Once you’ve come up with your 19 growth ideas, it’s time to choose where to focus. We recommend focusing on no more than 2-3 new ideas at a time — or 1-2, if you’re extremely resource-strapped.

To choose which growth ideas to pursue, score each idea (use a simple rubric, e.g. 1-5) based on the following:

  1. How long will it take to launch this idea? (speedier launch = higher score)
  2. How resource-heavy is this idea, in terms of money and your/your team’s bandwidth? (fewer resources required = higher score)
  3. What’s the PITA (pain in the ass) level of this idea? (less of a PITA = higher score)
  4. If launched, how big of an impact would this idea have on your company’s growth? (bigger impact = higher score)

From there, choose your top 1-3 highest-scoring ideas. You’re now ready to get moving!We highly recommend listening to the full workshop to hear more in-depth explanations of this scoring criteria, along with examples.

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Georgiana Laudi & Claire Suellentrop

When it comes to growing multi-million dollar SaaS businesses, we’ve seen what works. Both separately and together, we've built best-in-class brands from the ground up and played key roles in revenue growth. While our background stories may differ — Gia’s a Canadian who’s been marketing since 2000; Claire’s an American whose marketing career began in 2012 — we’re united in wanting to support those growing SaaS companies, and to provide resources they need to step up as strategic leaders. You can learn more about us here.

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Claire: Today, we're gonna be talking about the 19, it's a lot of growth channels, the 19 growth channels every SaaS marketer needs to know. And we're not gonna be going into a deep dive of every single one of these channels. It's gonna be a quick overview of what they are, and then we're gonna talk about really how to prioritize them. Because what we hear about here as early stage marketers is focusing on just a couple of things at a time and being super productive that way, versus trying to do everything at once.

Claire: With that said, let's see, I think we can go ahead and jump in. And Gia, I will let you do it.

Gia: Cool, thanks, Claire. Hi, everyone. I see a lot of hi's.

Claire: Hey, everyone.

Gia: So what we're gonna talk about, like Claire was saying, is, those 19 growth channels, not a deep dive into each of them. But basically why I think this process is really valuable and important at the stage of marketing at a SaaS startup is really evaluating those opportunities and narrowing them down to the most viable and promising options that you have, given your likely limited resources. The most limited of which is typically time. That's a really important process, obviously.Gia: But in addition to that, when somebody brings ideas to you, when your boss brings you ideas or stakeholders or investors send you an email, like, why aren't we doing XYZ, or here's this idea, you've got something to do with it, right?

Claire: Right.

Gia: Sometimes you'll get overwhelmed with the amount of opportunities, so this process will also help with that overwhelm of like, there's so many things we could be doing. Also, the reverse situation, which you may have experienced, is also when you get totally stuck, when you're like I am out of ideas, I feel like I've tried everything. And so that is also a big advantage of this process, as well.

Gia: And also the justifying the decisions that you've made once you've made them. You may need to answer to why you're doing something versus not doing something else. Actually, most of the time you'll be justifying why you're not doing something else, and so this will help with that, as well, and it's a continual process, which is the best part of it.

Gia: We're covering a framework that is covered in quite a popular book in the startup space called Traction. I have never read the book.

Claire: [crosstalk 00:02:35].

Gia: [crosstalk 00:02:36] really has, but, basically, the important part is, we're not gonna into a ton of the detail in the book. Obviously, we all recommend that you should actually read this book, but just what you get out of this today should be useful enough that you can move forward and use the best parts of that.

Gia: What we'll cover are the 19 channels but also the process for not only evaluating them once, but for continually revisiting them, and making sure that you're leveraging every opportunity. That's something that I actually failed at early in the day. I would put some pretty major blinders and I'd get such tunnel vision in terms of the stuff that I would be focused on that I didn't nearly often enough come up for air but also come up to look around and make sure that there wasn't something else I should be doing. Making sure that you're leveraging all the opportunities available to you. That's a really important part of this. Let's just set out right now that before we're gonna start ... Oh, sorry, right. This is the area of that waterfall that we're focused on here, is really sort of building out the MVP marketing strategy over and over and over again.

Gia: The assumption that we're making when you at the stage where you're evaluating these 19 growth channels, is that you have a product, you have some way to get people into that product. That might be a signup funnel, that might be in addition to an onboarding program or campaign, but there is some way to get people into that product. And you also have a web presence, and that might be as simple as a landing page or it could be a full blown website, where somebody is given the opportunity to evaluate whether or not your product is a fit for them. These three things need to be in place before you start worrying about sending traffic there.

Gia: Now, do they need to be perfect? Never. They will never be perfect.

Claire: [crosstalk 00:04:47].

Gia: You'll never, never, never. You will be reevaluating these on a sometimes quarterly basis, but there has to be something there. You're not gonna throw people, I mean, it's impossible to throw people directly into the product anyway. There has to be a mechanism. We're going to assume that these three things are in place, and though they will be continually improved upon, of course, what this process will also help with is, obviously, getting more traffic in there so that you can make those decisions about what needs improving. You can start testing, not only the channels but you can start testing your strategy at these levels, as well.

Gia: The 19 growth channels, that most marketers understand these pretty well, they're a popular place to hang out, all these places for marketers. These are the 19 growth channels as laid out in the book Traction. I'm not in love with the naming, necessarily, of these things, but the general idea is there. Most people understand the vast majority of these. Let's just touch on a couple. Targeting blogs, I probably would have called this guest posting, if it were up to me, or leveraging other publishers for thought leadership, let's say. A really great example of that would be Leo at Buffer. Leo spent like year one, year two I think, at Buffer, doing almost exclusively this with his time. They're a great poster child for this channel and this tactic.

Claire: [crosstalk 00:06:29].

Gia: [crosstalk 00:06:30]. He made a lot of strategic decisions in terms of where he was published. The topic wasn't always exactly on social media marketing necessarily, but it was always about Buffer in the end and it was always about fighting the good fight and productivity and that kind of thing. A lot of thought leadership and guest posting, obviously.

Gia: Unconventional PR, that's like fun stuff. That's like stunts or gorilla marketing. Claire's favorite example of unconventional PR is the Blendtec videos that they did a while back. You can dive into that if you'd like to. I know you love talking [inaudible 00:07:20].

Claire: For those who are trying to figure out, okay, what's unconventional PR versus regular PR? If we think of regular PR, regular PR I imagine as getting write-ups in popular publications in your niche. For SaaS that could be things like The Next Web, that could be a whole host of different sites. Unconventional PR is more like, so Blendtec, if you're not familiar with this whole thing, Blendtec is a brand of blender. Blenders, by nature, are not that sexy of a product. They're a kitchen utility, and so what kind of PR can you get on that? I guess you can get some product reviews, but it's not really an exciting topic.

Claire: They started the YouTube series called Will It Blend, in which they feature this guy in a lab coat with a Blendtec blender, and every time they did one of these videos, he would throw in some insane time into a blender, and it would actually work. Some of the ones i remember best are him blending a rake, a whole rake, garden rake, with a Blendtec blender. Another one he blends an iPad. They were these crazy videos and they're hilarious to watch, and they were viewed and shared widely. When you think of things like that, like big crazy stunts, not even big, I mean, YouTube videos can be [crosstalk 00:08:46]-

Gia: [crosstalk 00:08:46] example is good, too, like this ... Yeah.

Claire: Yeah, yeah.

Gia: It's this ...

Claire: Anyway, so that's unconventional PR versus traditional PR.

Gia: Then offline ads, which everybody knows quite well, but even in the SaaS space, offline ads are used to ... MailChimp does billboards on the side of highways and stuff.

Claire: And I'm based in Atlanta where MailChimp is and they are all over Atlanta.

Gia: Right, I can only imagine, yeah.

Claire: Of course.

Gia: And here there's a translation software that, you don't always think of SaaS products making it onto billboards, but anyways, good example of offline marketing. Viral marketing, sothe things like powered by. Dropbox's get free storage when you refer a friend. Unbound's in their free landing pages there will be a power button announce bar at the bottom. It's marketing but it's built into the product, so that can be really, really powerful.

Gia: Engineering as marketing, that's a cool one, as well. Can be a little bit harder for a solo marketer to pull off in isolation but you can do some really cool things. Free calculators, free tools, things like that. HubSpot has a website grader a couple of years back, very popular. WordStream did a PPC grader. They're a standalone type tool, they have value in and of itself. They are very powerful for LeadGen, but also for building awareness, as well. They're these highly shareable, self sustaining product that is highly shareable and they can be very, very popular.

Gia: There's the engineering and then there's the strategic partnerships, and/or Biz Dev. Strategic partnerships is probably my favorite, stuff that I focused on, on strategic partnerships a lot, actually, especially during my time at Unbound. But that might be things like, you might have a relationship with an integration partner, but it could also be simple things like co-marketing. Basically, you would pick a partner that shares the same audience as you, and obviously we're not talking direct competitor here but very complimentary sort of software potentially. Maybe even not software in some cases if they have a good audience. And you would maybe promote their eBook to your list and they would do the same.

Gia: That's why I say it's my favorite, because it's maybe one of the most powerful ways to get exposure to new audiences that you wouldn't have necessarily gained access to otherwise. And I feel like it's a beautiful shortcut to a very qualified audience, I love it. And then, existing platforms, which everybody is familiar with. Platforms like the App Store or Google Play Store or Product Hunt, Hacker News, those existing platforms that you get to leverage, again, getting that exposure to audiences that you might not otherwise.

Gia: When you look at this list and there's plenty more on here, obviously, but you might think of a couple in terms of how you spend your time marketing for the company that you're at. There's some natural ones, like SEO. Yes, of course we do SEO, and you could think about strategies around that. Or content marketing, or yes, of course we're doing email marketing. But if you actually forced yourself to look at each and every one of these, you might actually surprise yourself into the ideas that might come up. If for nothing else, as a brainstorming exercise, these are really useful, but Claire can now pick up on basically evaluating each of these for your marketing.

Claire: Right. Of course, as you just said, Gia, it's easy enough for us to sit here as marketers and look at this list and think to ourselves for our product, “Oh, growth channel number seven and number 15 and number whatever are gonna work for us. But, offline ads are not gonna work for us, or going to conferences is not gonna work for us.” It's really easy to make those assumptions because we're in a hurry and we just kind of rely on our own firsthand knowledge of our product and our audience to jump to conclusions.

Claire: But, if you really force yourself to do some research into how other companies who are in a similar space as you have used each of these, or how companies that aren't in a similar space but who have a similar audience have you, have used each of these channels, it helps you break down those biases that you have and get more creative with some of the channels that don't feel like as good of a fit. It's a really good creative and idea generating exercise to come up with at least one idea for every single one of these channels, whether or not you think each channel is perfect for your business right now. What we're gonna talk about really is not just what these channels are, but how do you use them and then how do you pare down all of this stuff? How do you pare down these 19 different ways of exposing people to your product and figure out the two or three that are best for you to focus on?

Claire: Let's say that you've done the homework, or done the work to come up with an interesting idea, an interesting marketing project, we'll say, for every one of these different 19 channels. You're gonna have a lot of ideas. At the minimum, you're gonna have 19. When I go through this process, I like to use a Trello board, or a long time ago I created a Trello board where I could have sat on ideas, it's like my ideas parking lot. And here's a screenshot of that board, and I sorted it based on each of these channels. I would go find interesting ways to use these channels, and then I would categorize them in Trello. If you would like a copy of this board, we will be sharing the link to it in tomorrow's email, in which we show the replay and everything. You'll be able to access this board and make a copy for yourself if you want it.

Claire: Then I've got this board full of ideas, again, a minimum of 19. And whereas you would get super in the weeds and focus on your channels, Gia, I have the opposite problem. I have a terrible case of shiny object syndrome, where I'm like, "Oh, we should be doing this, and also this and also this and also this," and I'm just gonna magically get it all done somehow, which is never realistic. What's much wiser is to actually force yourself to focus on testing only two or three ideas at a time. It's much better for sustaining your workload or sustaining your energy to complete your work, I guess I should say. And it also helps you execute much better on the projects you're working on, so you're not half-assing five different things, you're just putting all of your energy and time and attention into two or three.

Claire: Let's think about this idea of forcing focus. It's very unlikely that every single idea and every single channel are going to give you the same level of results. Gia and I came up with a bit of a scoring system to help you figure out, when you're evaluating all the different ideas you've come up with, which ones you want to focus on. You want to score the marketing projects that you could take on by four different things. The first thing is, how much time will this project take to launch? If you want to see how guest posting works for you, you're gonna have to consider, well first, I'll have to find a bunch of relevant blogs to post on. And then I'll have to form relationships with the owners of those blogs. I'll have to make sure my content ideas are a good fit for them. Then I'll have to draft the content. Then we'll eventually publish those posts. Then I'll have to wait for engagement on those posts.

Claire: Guest posting, for example, is a pretty long term project, so that's one that would take a long time to complete. Versus something like advertising, which you can pretty much turn on and wait for a couple of days, maybe a couple of weeks max, and declare whether or not it's working for you. Now, there's all kinds of conversation about optimizing ads as well, that I realize we could discuss but I'll keep it focused.

Claire: The first thing you want to score every one of your ideas by is, how long will this idea take for us to complete? The second thing is, how much money is this gonna require? Is this something that we can do cheaply or at least within our budget? Or is this something that might be really effective but it's gonna take us a ton of money to invest the time and develop the resources we need?

Claire: The third is my favorite because the acronym is hilarious. Gia coined this one the PITA Score, P-I-T-A, which is short for Pain In the Ass Score. So, the Pain In the Ass Score, as you were describing is, how difficult will it be to actually complete this? And I know you mentioned for you at Unbound, you had said, "If a project would require an engineer's time," so for example, building a micro site that had some cool calculator or tool in it, "that'd get a pretty high Pain In the Ass Score," or negative score, I guess you could say. Would take away from the viability of that project.

Claire: How much time will it take? How much money? How much of a pain in the ass will it be to pull off? And then finally, very important, what kind of results can you expect from this project? If you want to test something like, organic ... not organic, but if you want to test something like non-paid advertising social media, if you want to try, I don't know, developing relationships on social media, if you're really early stage and that's still a viable thing for you. Or if you want to test something like that, you at least need to be able to make an educated guess on whether or not that will get you the number of leads you're looking for or the number of signups you're looking for. Again, those four were, for every idea you want to score based on, how much time will it take? How much money will this thing take? How much of a pain in the ass is it to pull off? And what kind of results can we expect from doing it?

Claire: Counting up and scoring each of your ideas will allow you to then prioritize them and decide what you want to focus on. In the book Traction, they use this idea of a bullseye, where you want to put the top two to three highest scoring ideas in this focus section. And you want to run those ideas against each other. If it's you and another marketer, or if it's just you, you want these to be very, very lightweight little projects that you can use just to test the waters on a marketing channel.

Claire: The toughest thing for a lot of people, myself included, is deciding what two or three ideas are the most viable, and what five or six do I need to put on the back burner for now and put in this promising section, this second ring? As you are testing a couple of your top marketing channels against each other, or your top marketing ideas, you're gonna start to notice of those two or three, which one maybe isn't performing as well as the others? Or which one is costing a lot money and it's not super viable longterm? And you're gonna want to pause on that and you can then pull from your list of promising ideas and you can start planning for your next experiment.

Claire: So you've got two or three in your focus group, you got five or six in your promising group, and then everything else that feels like it won't be a great use of your time right now can go in this third circle, this long shot circle. That's stuff that you just don't need to worry about for now. Maybe you get an email from an advisor or your boss, or someone who's like, "Hey, I saw this cool experiment and I think we should try it," or, "Hey, why aren't we going to conferences more?" Whatever you're hearing, you can show them how you've scored your ideas and you can say, "Hey, I appreciate your input. These are the things that we're focusing on right now, and you can see that everything else, including the suggestions you've shared, are being categorized and logged, and they're living in our back burner of ideas. So we are considering those things for the future."

Claire: What this does is really allows you to make the case for the decisions you've made. You've got a numeric reason for why you're testing this channel or that channel. And so you're able to stand behind your decisions as opposed to constantly feeling like, "Oh, well if my boss wants us to be going to more conferences, I guess we better go to more conferences." It kind of gives you, I don't know if leverage is the right word here, but it allows you to be an equal player in deciding what kind of work your marketing department is going to spend its time on.

Claire: And then it also creates a scalable, very organized holding tank for all of those other ideas. Gia and I were talking about this yesterday when we were planning this workshop. It's really interesting, holding on to all of those ideas over time. And then at the end of the year or whatever, the end of a couple of years, going back and looking at all the different ideas that you had or that you and your team had and being like, "Wow, we came up with a lot of cool stuff." You maybe won't have executed on everything, but it's really good to have those for reference, to remember what you did and didn't work on. Maybe seeing those old ideas will strike something new, strike something. Maybe seeing some of those old ideas that weren't a good fit early on will, in a year's time, be a great use of your money and of your team's time, and be worth focusing on again. You've done this ideation work, and then that work isn't lost. You can hold on to it and use it again in the future.

Claire: This final slide is a screenshot of a spreadsheet that I use. At this point, I graduated from Trello board to spreadsheet because I like to keep all of my scores and lots of metrics. Someone mentions they can't see it, and I realize that's probably the case just because there's ... It's so zoomed out because there's so many rows and columns in there. But basically [crosstalk 00:23:42]-

Gia: It illustrates that it's a beast of a document. That's sort of the point, yeah.

Claire: Yeah. Where all of these ideas live and where I can identify for myself and for my team what are we testing right now and why? What's the score connected to it? What have we already abandoned and why? What was the score connected to that? What tests are going well that we want to double down on? This is a really helpful way to keep all that on track, and it's also a helpful way to show stakeholders at your company exactly why you're making the decisions you're making.

Claire: Let me take a quick look at my notes. Have I missed anything so far? I think we've discussed ... Oh, that's right. I was like, isn't there another slide? And yes, it's our takeaway slide. We know that before you focus on growth or before you focus on bringing traffic to your website and your product, you need that product and you need to have a website in place. Even if it's not a full website, even if it's just a landing page, that's okay. There's no point in spending your time and your money trying to bring traffic in when people who arrive have nowhere to go. It's just a waste of everything.

Claire: There are 19 different channels you can use, I guess you'd say, to bring people to whatever your web property is. You probably won't have equal success across every channel, and at different stages of your business, the best channels for you are going to be different. It's really important to focus on the two to three channels at a time that you feel are the biggest win for you right now. And if you integrate this into your ongoing evaluation process, then you're developing a repeatable system for trying new things without it feeling like you're just flailing. Without it feeling like you're just throwing spaghetti at the wall. This is a more systematized way to experiment with your marketing. And again, it empowers you to stand by your decisions, and be an equal in the eyes of your CEO or stakeholders and say this is why we're choosing to make the decisions we've made.

Claire: So with that, I think-

Georgiana Laudi & Claire Suellentrop

When it comes to growing multi-million dollar SaaS businesses, we’ve seen what works. Both separately and together, we've built best-in-class brands from the ground up and played key roles in revenue growth. While our background stories may differ — Gia’s a Canadian who’s been marketing since 2000; Claire’s an American whose marketing career began in 2012 — we’re united in wanting to support those growing SaaS companies, and to provide resources they need to step up as strategic leaders. You can learn more about us here.

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September 27, 2017

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