Most B2B articles have a pattern.
Introduce the topic, educate the reader, hint at a solution, and conclude. This might seem like a solid content writing strategy, but it misses a crucial element: no mention of the product or how it helps the reader solve their problem.
Think about it.
How will content drive demand if you treat your SaaS product as an afterthought? I.e mentioning it only in passing or, worse, not at all in said content.
This culture has to stop.
It’s possible to create content that is both educational and product-focused. It shouldn’t be an either-or situation.
Alex Birkett, Ex Senior Growth Marketing Manager at Hubspot, said it best:
Interestingly, a study by Altimeter revealed that product-focused content brought in the highest ROI for companies by 29%. This finding proves it makes sense to weave your product into your educational content to accelerate demand gen goals.
But beware not to fall into the trap of Product-Stuffing.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s when you insert your product into content in a way that is salesy and turns the reader off.
Avoiding this trap is necessary and is a huge part of why most B2B content teams don’t insert their product into their content. However, there’s a balance between the two extremes. And this balance, as you’d soon see, is Product-Led Storytelling or PLS:
Weaving SaaS Products Into Content the Right Way
In the early days when Tim Soulo joined Ahrefs as CMO and embarked on a revamp of the company, he noticed people weren’t adequately educated on the product. To resolve this, he leveraged patterns of what we call Product-Led Storytelling (PLS) to show (not just tell) target audiences how to use Ahrefs.
He wove the product and its practical application into their content. It proved effective, as you can see in this email he received:
As shown above, prospects don’t have issues when you weave your product into content pieces. But there’s a way to do it right. And that’s where Product Storytelling comes in.
This approach involves crafting B2B SaaS content or copy with relatable user stories while weaving your product into them to show how it solves the reader’s problems. It is a great way to educate and sell without coming off as salesy.
In a Product-Led Story, there is a great deal of teaching, but the product is also mentioned when and where relevant. It is not forced into the content or awkwardly inserted. This is important to note. Only weave your product in when it makes sense.
In his piece on ‘How to approach content marketing,’ Startup Investor, Julian Shapiro, corroborated this point:
Now, Product-Led Storytelling shouldn’t be confused with Product-Led Content writing. There are some similarities, but there are also differences.
Find out below.
Differences Between a Product-Led Story and a Product-Led Content?
According to Dr. Fio Dosetto, Editorial Lead at Wildbit, a Product-Led Content (PLC) is:
Like Product-Led Content Writing, Product-Led Storytelling involves weaving your product into the story.
But that’s where the similarity ends.
As written on Zapier’s blog,
“In product-led stories, the product is at the center of the story—the focus is on how a given product (or service) can solve a problem. This is often demonstrated through customer stories, case studies, and other social proof. “See? Our product helps people.”
Product Storytelling goes beyond weaving your product into your content. It also involves tying in stories of how customers (like your reader) overcame specific challenges with your product. This means that the strategic injection of reviews and contextual CTAs is what distinguishes PLS from PLC:
How To Create a Product-Led Story That Generates Demand
It’s time to get into the nitty-gritty.
As explained, you need to create a good story that shows the complete user journey from the problem to the solution (with your product). Essentially, you’re turning each content into a sales page of sorts.
But first, how are you sure this approach works?
Well, as the coiners of the PLS concept, we adapt this method to all our pieces and clients’ pieces, and great results like attracting SaaS founders to work with us:
And generating demand for our clients:
Now, how do you craft a compelling story to generate demand without repelling the reader due to obvious sales tactics?
You follow the five steps detailed below:
1. Determine The Protagonist And Hero of Your Story
Your hero is the person you’re writing for, who has a problem and the means to buy your product. In other words, your hero is your target audience.
2. Find a Suitable Topic
Once you’ve determined your target audience, source for a topic with a high business value that addresses the problems your hero has.
Business value/potential in this context means topics closely tied to your product. The rationale behind choosing such topics is that it is easy to insert your product and present it as the solution to the reader. Otherwise, you’d end up product-stuffing or weaving your product in awkwardly.
Tim Soulo, Ahrefs CMO, expounded on the business potential of their content pieces:
Typically the business potential of a topic is scored from 1-to 3, with 3 being the highest and 1 the lowest:
To craft a great Product Story, you should aim for a topic with a business value of 3 or 2.
Our content studio follows this principle. For every content idea, the writer states the business value and the reason behind the assigned value. The ideas with high business values get approved more than the others:
Does this mean all the content you create in-house must have a high business value?
You can adapt the 80-20 rule. This means that 80% of your content is product-focused with a high business value. Then the remaining 20% of the content can be non-product focused, like brand-building pieces, company announcements, updates, reports, opinion pieces, etc.
Alex Birkett’s ‘Barbell Approach’ (adopted from Nassim Taleb) is similar. According to him:
Now, after settling on a topic with high potential, what next?
3. Prepare the Solution to the Problem
This is where you do the content research and gather all the information needed to take the reader from Point A (the problem) to Point Z (the end goal: solution).
4. Write. Write. Write.
In between Points A and Z are B – Y. Now, Point B-Y is where the actual Product Storytelling occurs.
First, you need to establish an emotional connection with the reader by calling them and their pain points out in the introduction, then encouraging them to continue with the piece.
Immediately after the introduction, subtly mention your product as a part of the solution offered in the piece. This will give context to your CTA. Contextual CTAs are very important as, without context, they look out of place. Viola Eva, Founder of FlowSEO, holds a similar opinion in an article she wrote for Search Engine Journal:
Tom Sandford, Co-Founder of Windbox, also said:
As you further detail the information the reader seeks, show (with screenshots) how your product works in tandem to solve the problem outlined in the article. Remember to use recent statistics and expert quotes for social proof.
Then show reviews of customers who have solved the same problem with your product alongside another contextual CTA. All these should be done in the piece’s body before the conclusion.
So the first thing we did was to call out our target audience and empathize with them on their pain points:
Then we provided a contextual CTA immediately after the introduction:
We included screenshots of how HoneyCart works:
Now, because this particular piece was a case study-styled piece, we included statements and reviews from happy customers:
Note: Even if your story isn’t a case study, you should still include reviews.
Here’s how we did it for Blackthorn, another client.
In the introduction:
In the middle of the content:
And in the conclusion:
If you’d like to learn more about each step of a Product-Led Story, here’s the 9-step saas content formula we use. On to the last step.
5. Your conclusion
Conclude your Product-Led Story by either reaffirming the points you made in the body/introduction of the content or revealing some new information. You can still relate your product in the conclusion and include a final contextual CTA.
We did this for Honeycart’s piece illustrated above:
Note: Your CTAs can be worded the same throughout or with slight variations. However, the destination of the CTAs should be constant throughout the piece.
Generally, in a Product Story, you should have 2-3 CTAs. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader. And in the spirit of CTAs, here’s one for you:
Content Examples That Need Improvement
You should have a clear picture of what an effective product story looks like. However, if it is still fuzzy, let’s analyze 2 B2B SaaS brands’ blogs and see where their content could be better if aligned with PLS.
An email marketing tool, Benchmark prides itself as ‘a simple email marketing tool for anyone who needs to send personalized emails at scale.’
Sounds great, right?
But their blog is not as great. Let’s look at the reasons why. First off, I noticed they segmented their blog into different content categories (smart move btw!):
Unfortunately, some of these categories, and by extension, some of the content under said categories, had low business potential.
For instance, the category ‘content marketing’:
At my last count, they had 22 content pieces in this category. But because the category does not leave much room for the product to be inserted (email marketing is not directly linked to content marketing), it’ll be hard to get in any mention of the product without sounding promotional.
Therefore, any content created in this category cannot be Product-Led, which is a crying shame.
Now, the lack of a product weave-in in the ‘content marketing category’ can be excused because it has a low business value, ergo, little room for the product.
But what about their content with high business value?
Surely, they can insert their product, right?
Benchmark Email, however, drops the ball in this regard. One of their recent pieces titled ‘What Is Email Personalization and Why Is it So Powerful?’ is a clear 3 on the business value scale. It is directly on the service they offer.
Yet, there is not one mention of their product throughout the piece. No hint that they offer the service mentioned. Not even one CTA!
As a stranger reading the piece, I would never have guessed that benchmark is an email marketing personalization tool. This is bad content marketing practice.
And it is not an isolated incident.
A lot of their content is the same way. A classic case of wasted opportunity.
Finally, they have enough reviews to integrate into their pieces with their large customer base. Again, they don’t do this.
Zylo is a SaaS management tool, and they do well at it. But, on the blog front, they could do more to make their content product-led.
For instance, product screenshots in their pieces:
As with many B2B brands, there’s hardly any mention of their product up until the conclusion of the content with a non-contextual CTA:
Also, their content strategy violates the 80-20 rule. They have quite a number of company announcements and updates (non-product-focused content with low business value) compared to the product-focused content with high business value:
One final thing they could do to make their content a demand-generating one would be to integrate the reviews on the ‘Customer Stories’ segment into their content when it fits. Doing this would be better than publishing these reviews in a section of their site where most prospects won’t ever find them or care to visit.
Drive Demand With Product-Led Storytelling
TL;DR: Content marketing, when done correctly, is supposed to generate demand for a product and retain existing customers. According to Tim Soulo, it does so for Ahrefs:
Unfortunately, many B2B SaaS brands go about it the wrong way by either avoiding any mention of their product or going overboard by stuffing their product excessively without context.
There’s a balance, however.
The Product-led Storytelling approach helps you execute content marketing that presents your product as the solution to your reader’s problem, aiming to convert them to Product Qualified Leads (PQLs).
It’s a unique approach where you can confidently send even paid traffic to your content pages, just like Ahrefs: