10 mins read
3 SaaS Brands Show Product-led Storytelling Trumps Product-Led Growth
Product-Led Storytelling in SaaS marketing, exemplified by DocSend, Encharge, and MailChimp, demonstrates its potency, contrasting with the conventional Product-Led Growth approach
Lead Strategist @VEC
You don’t judge a fish by its ability to climb trees; neither should you compare it to a kangaroo’s speed outside the ocean, right?
Unfortunately, relative to growing SaaS businesses, the “Product-Led Growth” buzzword goes contrary to this reality.
Have industry experts you respect jumped on the PLG train?
Have they declared it the future of growing SaaS companies?
Don’t jump all in on the PLG train just yet!
Wait and see, with detailed examples, why being a PLG SaaS won’t magically scale your business.
Based on my findings, the PLG concept doesn’t make complete sense because its advocates fail to address something more critical:
Until they do so, I’d wait for another train (and you should, too).
But why listen to a random guy on the internet?
By the end of this article, you’d discover product-led storytelling is how DocSend, MailChimp, and Encharge.io drive stunning results and not just by being PLG brands.
Plus, you’d get guided steps to power your SaaS growth, using product-led storytelling.
No doubt, it makes sense to drive product adoption via how people use your software, which is what PLG primarily advocates.
However, postulating it is better than a sales-led or marketing-led approach for scalable SaaS customer acquisition is what I refute.
I have two contentions with that postulation.
One, if you don’t have a large fan base spreading out the word of your tool (like Slack, Zoom, Atlassian, etc.), how do you even get prospects to discover, get interested, and trial your product in the first place?
Secondly, let’s say you even had hundreds or thousands of happy users.
Still, does it make sense to sit down and hope users will go out of their way, tell others about your tool, attracting new customers in the process?
Hope doesn’t play out like that in reality.
For example, examine how the prime pioneers of Product-Led Growth, OpenView Partners, introduce the concept:
Well, last time I checked hope (like waiting for Jane to hear about your tool magically) wasn’t, and still isn’t, a strategy.
So putting all energy and resources into some stylish product development and hope it’d magically drive adoption, as a PLG brand, won’t cut it.
Enter product-led storytelling.
What is Product-Led Storytelling?
One of Silicon Valley’s most influential VCs who backed Facebook, Twitter, etc., Ben Horowitz, said:
“You can have a great product, but a compelling story puts [your] company into motion.“Ben Horowitz
It is a product-focused form of SaaS content marketing, which involves the art of crafting helpful, discoverable stories showing how your target audiences can overcome obstacles using your product.
In other words, you need a solid product, which solves a real problem for users.
No questions about that.
But once you’ve built one, discoverable and shearable stories about it is how you make it found and drive predictable customer acquisition and growth.
Want a different way of explaining it?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never discovered or signed up for any SaaS tool because they were product-led, sales-led, or marketing-led.
Like, who the f*ck cares about what’s led(ing) you?
People go out of their way every day in search of tools to solve their problems.
Trial users become paying customers because of the extended value a product offers them.
Existing customers become loyal brand ambassadors when they’re convinced a product will make it easier to achieve their long-term goals.
So, the big question I sought to answer, which led to this article is:
Can you, as a SaaS owner, achieve all of those, posing as a Product-led Growth brand?
My findings and this article affirms.
But, can you reach new customers, promote the extended value of your product to trial users, and convince existing customers you’d be there for them, using product-led storytelling?
Don’t take my word for it, read on to see how the three SaaS brands spotlighted below are doing it.
How Does Product-led Storytelling Trump Product-Led Growth?
Ali Messe’s GrowthSupply drove over 11.3 million unique page views, thousands of leads, and several hundreds of customers for his SaaS clients.
Mind you; he didn’t do it by helping any pose as better PLG brands.
He only used stories.
In short, one of Ali’s SaaS clients, the CEO of JotForm, said:
The point here isn’t to rehearse the importance of storytelling in driving sales.
The point here, however, is to demonstrate mere posing as a “Product-led Growth” company won’t drive predictable and scalable adoption of your product.
No wonder, SaaS marketing expert, Sujan Patel, said:
He made sense.
So, want people to find your amazing SaaS tool without hoping on a few existing users to refer it to others?
You need equal attention creating and promoting quality stories about how your product helps.
In other words, product-led storytelling trumps Product-Led Growth because no matter how excellent your SaaS tool is, it won’t automatically attract customers if no one knows about it.
If you really want to grow your SaaS, don’t hope to magically attract customers, ask:
What’s a reliable and predictable way to spread out the message of your SaaS product?
Let me also add.
Not some random brand stories to feed your founder’s ego, you need product-led stories.
Aleks Peterson explains why brand stories don’t guarantee growth:
In other words, product-led stories are proven customer acquisition vehicles and business growth drivers.
Still not convinced?
Then, examine the following examples.
Using Product-led Storytelling to Grow SaaS Brands: 3 Examples
I examined several software companies driving incredible growth via product-led storytelling.
But I didn’t just limit my research to popular SaaS brands.
I studied early, growth, and enterprise stage software companies and identified the same pattern before going ahead to write this piece.
Why did I do that?
My goal is to show you that product-led storytelling can drive predictable growth for your SaaS business irrespective of your current position (and even if you don’t pose as a PLG company).
DocSend is a SaaS tool used to send attachments and documents, giving its users “maximum control, and real-time, actionable analytics.”
They operate a freemium model, which according to Wes Bush, author of the Product-led Growth book (a great read, btw), is typical of a PLG company.
In his definition:
“Product-Led Growth is a go-to-market strategy that relies on using your product as the main vehicle to acquire, activate, and retain customers.“
So, the question is, does DocSend rely entirely on its product as the primary vehicle to acquire customers?
No doubt, they have a solid product, which is inevitable.
But stories or product-led stories play a more significant role in taking them over 12k customers worldwide.
Writing for DocSend, Courtney Chuang confirmed this when she said:
“The “secret” to sales content that closes more deals?
A powerful story.
And that’s a lesson we learned first-hand when we decided to overhaul our own sales deck.
With our old sales deck [which weren’t crafted with product-led stories], only 17.5% of all viewers made it to the last slide, and you can see the steep dropoff after viewers open the deck.
Now, [after injecting product-led storytelling] 65.4% of all prospects who open our deck click through to the last slide, and, what’s more, our new deck is actually two slides longer.“
In short, DocSend doesn’t only rely heavily on product-led stories to close sales.
They also use product-led storytelling to become discoverable and attract prospects to learn about their product to even stand a chance of getting them on their sales deck.
How did I know this?
Because I first knew DocSend existed when trying to overcome a problem their product solves.
I mistakenly sent an email and desperately needed to retrieve and make some corrections.
As you’d know, you can’t recall messages on Gmail after a couple of seconds.
So, off to Chrome, I typed what you see in the image below into Google’s search engine and found this link to DocSend’s piece:
As expected, what followed was a story empathizing with me about the frustration people face with retrieving sent emails in Gmail:
They went on to explain how the options available for undoing sent emails on Gmail sucked, ending by showing me how I could avoid such problems with DocSend:
Now, that’s product-led storytelling.
DocSend crafts discoverable stories their target audience can find by optimizing it for the search engines.
Then, while readers explore this content, they subtly introduce their product:
So, ask yourself, if DocSend didn’t craft that discoverable product story, would I have known about them or cared if they were a PLG company?
Hence, our first example proves that product-led storytelling trumps “Product-Led Growth.”
Still not convinced?
Let’s examine a more popular SaaS product.
MailChimp needs no introduction in the SaaS world.
Thousands of organizations, including myself and other SaaS brands use MailChimp.
Starting in 2016, more than 1 billion emails go out from MailChimp per day.
With all this hype, I know you’d be wondering; where the hell is this guy driving at?
Let’s find out if they’re growing because they’re a PLG brand.
Also, I’d lay out the numbers, so you contest if product-led storytelling isn’t the primary customer acquisition vehicle MailChimp leverages to this day.
Now to the acquisition numbers.
Since 2017 to date, they’ve been getting 14,000 customers per day.
These stats are stunning.
Keep in mind that PLG, as we’re told is:
“…a go-to-market strategy that relies on using your product as the main vehicle to acquire customers…“Wes Bush.
So, I dug deep to see if posing as a “Product-Led Growth” company is how MailChimp acquires such amounts of customers daily, which many SaaS startups could only dream of in their entire lifetime.
First, MailChimp is heavily invested in creating and promoting search engine discoverable stories to help their target audiences overcome challenges their product solves.
Due to this product-led storytelling efforts, 21.79% of MailChimp’s monthly 29.46 million site traffic comes from search engines:
That’s 6.42 million visitors per month from the search engines [21.79%*29.6 million].
As you see from the snapshot above, 79.28% of this search traffic is organic. And this comes from 13,854 organic keywords.
Again, I did the math:
How do I know these are product-led stories?
MailChimp publishes a backlog of helpful resources.
These resources are collections of stories featuring their product, as the tool a reader needs to overcome the problem discussed in each:
And there’s even more.
With video and podcasting becoming major customer acquisition channels, MailChimp didn’t concentrate solely on their product and hope existing customers will tell others about their product.
Just as being a “Product-Led Growth” brand postulates.
Instead, they’ve invested heavily in another form of product-led storytelling disguised as entertainment:
Here, the SaaS company produces entertaining documentaries, short videos, podcasts.
But guess what?
Most of these stories feature their customers achieving fantastic results and subtly talks about how they’re doing so using MailChimp.
Again, product-led storytelling.
And because such stories aren’t easily discovered on search engines, but suited more for social media, MailChimp promotes them there.
As a result, 2.83% of their entire website traffic comes from social:
They get over 833k visitors (or potential customers) from these efforts per month [2.83%*29.46 million].
In all, and as you see, through product-led storytelling, MailChimp introduces millions of people to their product monthly.
Doesn’t it better explain why they’re getting over 14,000 new customers per day?
Mind you; I’m not castigating being a PLG brand.
You do need a great product and should monitor precisely what end-users want from it, no doubt.
However, I’m showing you how being a product-led storytelling company is a more reliable vehicle for acquiring users and not exclusively the product itself.
But what if you’re building the next big thing?
I found you’d lift off better with product-led storytelling.
Kalo is a budding entrepreneur.
He had just sold his product, HeadReach, to a competitor and wanted to validate a new SaaS idea.
Kalo didn’t consider the next tool he’d build as the primary vehicle he’d use to acquire customers, i.e., being a “Product-Led Growth” brand.
Instead, he turned to product-led storytelling to introduce and validate his next big thing.
Here’s how he did it.
Kalo Yankulov (calling out his full name because he went above and beyond here) wrote a 70-page story, detailing how he started and sold HeadReach.
From afar, you won’t know why Kalo was telling this story until you read to the very last section:
As you see, he used the opportunity to introduce his next SaaS tool, Encharge.io, collected email subscribers, and invited people to follow his journey.
And many did follow him (read comments on the post to see yourself).
In a later story, Kalo explained how those efforts helped them to validate Encharge.io by raising $3,950 in pre-launch sales.
Take note; they did this without even having a product users could try out.
Do you understand my argument?
PLG says the product should be the primary vehicle to acquire users and drive growth.
Was that the case with DocSend, MailChimp, and now, Encharge.io?
In short, even with a couple of customers, Encharge.io didn’t turn all attention to their product and hope existing customers will tell others about their tool; neither do they expect people to magically find it, ideas of “Product-Led Growth.”
They’re heavily invested in product-led storytelling:
Encharge.io creates and promotes stories to help their target audiences – SaaS companies who want better email onboarding and marketing automation – something their product solves.
As you saw from the snapshot above, none of these stories directly talked about Encharge.io, looking at their titles alone.
However, when you go on to read any, you’d see it subtly tells you how Encharge.io helps you overcome the obstacle discussed in each story.
For example, this one (which I love so much) detailing why choosing product-led onboarding vs. sales-driven onboarding must start from your ICP (ideal customer profile).
So, even in this third case, is being a Product-Led Growth brand how Encharge.io is acquiring customers?
They’re creating awareness of their tool and acquiring customers with product-led stories.
Once more, showing that product-led storytelling trumps (comes before or is what truly powers) PLG.
The good part?
You, too, can use product-led storytelling to grow your business.
How to Craft Product-led Stories for Your SaaS
Every time you publish a story mentioning your product online, the internet automatically attaches a link to it.
That link can be visited, copied, and shared at places beyond your imagination, reaching people never dreamed of, and driving interest in your product from far and wide.
In a word, a link to any content piece online is:
For example, how did you find this article you’re reading now?
You found it via a link because it was discoverable.
Now you’re here, the more you enjoy this article, the more you’d realize how I blend content strategy, product storytelling, and copywriting into content pieces.
And often, it’s when people (like you) enjoy my work they go on to appreciate my expertise, become subscribers, and trust me to develop their SaaS content strategy.
Pardon my humblebrag; I only used it to expose three criteria, you must look out for when crafting product-led stories to drive business growth.
So, like this one you’re reading, each SaaS content piece or story you create for your product must be:
- Discoverable and explorable.
- Focused on one goal and for one person.
- Interesting and actionable.
Whenever your SaaS content writing checks those three boxes, you come out with product-led stories armed with true universal links.
Fancy a little deep dive into my process?
I got you.
Discoverable and explorable
Two questions get stationed in my mind whenever I create SaaS content:
Will people find it (discoverability), and if they do, will they see the need to read it (explorability)?
Look at it this way.
If no one will find your product-led story, what’s the point of writing it?
If at all they find it but don’t see the need to read it, do you score any point?
So to make each piece I create discoverable, I never lose sight of the places my target audience goes to find information.
These could be search engines, SaaS newsletters, social media groups, community forums, reading platforms like Medium, Hacker News, etc.
Firstly, I ensure each piece is excellently optimized for the search engine because once you rank on Google, you can attract endless traffic.
Next, I promote it massively on relevant platforms so people can discover it when browsing or hanging out there.
Those efforts make your story discoverable, but discoverability is only half the battle.
Your story must also be explorable whenever your target audience discovers it; else, they’d swipe to something else.
How do I make my content appear explorable?
The rule of thumb is to focus on using each piece to solve a problem for your target audience.
People are naturally selfish and will mostly explore something that promises some value in exchange for their time.
Your product solves a problem, right?
In the same vein, stories you create to promote it shouldn’t be any different.
From your headline to the introduction and body of content, write helpful stories showing how your target audience can overcome their problems.
Doing that wins people’s attention and interest by feeding on their selfishness to only trade time for what’s valuable to them.
When you have people’s attention and interest in your content, you can then subtly show them how overcoming their problems is easier with your product.
If you observe, you’ll notice I’m subtly showing you I help craft better product-led stories for SaaS companies by educating you on how to do it.
Doing this works for me (and will work for you) because it’s a time-tested principle:
In giving, you receive!
Focus on one goal and for one person
Early in my SaaS content marketing consultancy career, I created each content piece trying to appeal to all my target audiences or demographics.
Also, I tried to achieve all my goals with one article (engagement, leads, customers, etc.).
I was wrong.
Like me, many SaaS founders and marketing executives still make this brutal mistake.
From a distance, it makes sense, trying to appeal to everyone who needs your product and achieve all your business goals with a single article.
Unfortunately, one thing this mindset fails to consider is that only one person reads your story at a given time.
In short, according to Psychology Today, when you give people too much to do, they end up not doing anything.
This criteria for creating results-driven product-led stories stems from common sense.
You can’t kill two birds with one stone, so why try to achieve multiple things or appeal to everyone with one content piece?
When next you embark on writing a story to promote and drive interest in your product, do this:
Focus on achieving one goal, examine your customer demographics, pick an ICP (ideal customer profile), who’d need to hear that story the most, and write for him/her.
For example, I wrote this article for one of my ICPs:
My Ideal Customer
And my goal?
I want to show him why being a “Product-led Growth” SaaS brand without product-led storytelling won’t drive predictable growth for his business.
Have I done a decent job so far?
Please, leave me a comment. It’d make my entire week ????.
Make it interesting and actionable
Your product-led story got discovered by your ideal customer persona, and you succeeded in crafting it with one goal in mind.
Now, how do you hold their attention, so they read your story enough to learn about your product and take action favorable to your business?
By making it interesting and actionable.
For a long read like this one, you need high-level SaaS copywriting skills.
However, you won’t go wrong if you strive to ensure each story about your product is entertaining, educative, and inspiring.
It doesn’t matter if your stories target B2B clients. Everyone (including B2B customers) fall for entertainment, as observed by Privy’s CMO, Dave Gerhardt:
In my case, I craft each SaaS content with a mix of education, sprinkles of humor/logical questions to entertain/make it interactive, and strategic CTAs, inviting my readers to take action.
So, there you have it, my three criteria for crafting results-driven product-led stories.
Once again, they are:
- Discoverability & explorability
- focusing on one goal & for one person, and
- Making it interesting & actionable.
6 Steps to Apply Product-Led Storytelling
Now you’ve learned how to create product-led stories for your SaaS tool, what next?
Brendan Hufford, an SEO Director at Directive Consulting, outlined seven steps to apply product-led storytelling.
In each story you create to promote your product, Brendan recommends you:
- Name a big, relevant change in the world [a change your target audience craves].
- Show them there’ll be winners and losers [ensure to highlight outcomes that favor your product].
- Tease the promised land [where your customers will be, and enjoy, if they overcome obstacles].
- Introduce features [your product’s features], as “magic gifts” for overcoming obstacles to the promised land.
- Present evidence that your product can make the story come true.
- Combine or inject a hero’s journey into the story, where your potential customer is the hero while you [your product] is the guide – like Obi-Wan or Yoda.
I have no problem when promoters of the PLG concept tell you to have a solid product users will love enough to tell others about gladly.
My contention, however, is that you shouldn’t fold your arms, bury your head in perfecting your product, and hope the world magically finds it.
There’s no guarantee you’d be as lucky as Slack, Zoom, Atlassian, and others campaigned as the holy grail and de facto examples, proving all SaaS products should dump the marketing-led or sales-led approaches.
All to become Product-Led Growth brands.
However, using MailChimp, DocSend, Encharge.io, I’ve shown you how product-led storytelling is a more reliable and predictable vehicle to acquire customers.
Also, powered by the topic clusters model, other SaaS brands leverage product-led stories to drive even better results.
It’s how Grammarly’s marketing strategy drive millions of users.
Each story you craft, which shows how your product can solve a problem for your target audiences, will go places unimaginable.
It is universal because of the link the internet attaches to it, and anyone across the globe can find it, read it, and discover your product in the process.
Finally, keep this in mind.
Existing users may not tell others about your product, no matter how much value they get.
Potential customers research new tools every day.
Sometimes, they don’t even know how a product can help them until they stumble upon a story showing how to overcome their problems.
Why not be the one who crafts and promotes such stories?
Why not promote stories of your product yourself instead to hope for your existing customers?
Remember, hope isn’t a business strategy.
Product-led storytelling is because it’s a unique form of SaaS content marketing.
Lead Strategist @VEC
Founder, Lead Strategist @VEC. Thinker, reader, words-crafter, and husband to Omosede. Besides crafting product-led stories, I love scouting and grooming rare marketing talents.
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