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Master the Art of SaaS Expansion: Unleashing the Power of OKRs, Virality, and Customer Success for a Thriving Subscription Business


Ever wondered what sets thriving SaaS businesses apart from those that struggle to grow? As an experienced product and marketing leader, I’ve witnessed this dynamic firsthand. Over the past four years, I’ve helped lead the turnaround of Microsoft’s consumer subscription business, Microsoft365 Personal and Family. This large-scale subscription business went from flat line growth in 2018 to double digit YoY growth every quarter over the past 4 years. In this blog post, I’ll share invaluable insights gained from this experience and reveal the top 10 tactics that can propel any SaaS company towards remarkable subscriber growth.


  1. Align OKRs across teams:

 This is the most critical tactic to get right, especially in large companies. It’s essential for all teams to speak a common language and measure their impact on a shared North Star metric. Different teams too often use metrics that don’t ladder up to the same business goal, leading to misalignment and suboptimal results. To ensure all teams work towards a common business goal, it’s vital to align the KPIs across departments and establish a shared “North Star” metric, such as gross monthly subscriber adds, Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR), or customer lifetime value. By doing so, you can create a unified, collaborative effort to grow your subscription business effectively. Here are examples of how companies often get this wrong with different teams focusing on different KPIs that don’t align with the overarching business objective:

  1. Marketing team: This team may concentrate on metrics like website traffic, social media engagement, and content downloads, without tying these metrics to actual leads generated or conversions. As a result, their efforts may not directly contribute to the overall business goal of increasing paying customers.
  2. Sales team: The sales team might focus on the number of deals closed, but not necessarily on the quality of those deals or the long-term value of the customers acquired. This could lead to a high churn rate if the customers are not a good fit for the product or if their needs are not adequately addressed.
  3. Customer success team: This team might prioritize metrics like customer satisfaction scores, response time, and the number of support tickets resolved, without connecting these KPIs to customer retention or upsell opportunities. Consequently, their efforts might not translate into reduced churn or increased customer lifetime value.
  4. Engineering team: The engineering team might focus on technical KPIs, such as code quality, deployment frequency, and system uptime. While these metrics are essential for a well-functioning product, they may not directly impact customer acquisition, retention, or revenue growth.
  5. Finance team: The finance team might track revenue, expenses, and profitability, but may not connect these financial metrics to customer acquisition costs, customer lifetime value, or the ROI of various marketing and sales efforts. This can result in misallocation of resources and missed opportunities for growth.


2. Improve awareness of paid user value via in-product education
In-product education is vital because it increases the perceived value of your paid offering and encourages users to upgrade. By showcasing the benefits of your paid product in a relevant and timely manner, you can drive conversions and grow your subscriber base. When done well, this tactic has a significant impact on gross adds, as it targets users who are already engaged with your product. Canva does an excellent job of showcasing its paid features through subtle prompts, tool-tips, and watermark previews. Users can clearly see the value of upgrading to the paid plan as they work on their designs. But so many subscription offerings struggle to provide in-app or in-product guidance on the benefits of their paid plan, making the distinction between free and paid features more apparent.  This is not just the job of your marketing sites or your SKU chooser landing page!


3. Remove friction from the user journey  

A frictionless user experience is vital for retaining users and driving conversions. By streamlining the sign-up and onboarding process, you ensure that users can quickly access the most valuable aspects of your product, leading to increased adoption and gross adds. Friction can occur at various points in the user journey, from sign-up and onboarding to feature discovery and product usage.  Mailchimp’s straightforward sign-up process and user-friendly interface allow users to start creating email campaigns quickly.  To optimize the user journey, you should analyze every touchpoint, from sign-up to feature usage, and identify areas of friction. Use analytics tools to track user behavior, drop-off points, and feedback to determine which parts of the journey require improvement. Conduct user testing and gather feedback to refine the experience further. Examine the following aspects of your user journey:

  1. Sign-up process: Lengthy sign-up forms or complex authentication processes can deter potential users. Simplify the process by requesting only essential information and streamlining authentication. Social media logins or single sign-on (SSO) can also help reduce friction.
  2. Onboarding: A confusing or slow onboarding experience can make it difficult for users to understand your product’s value. Implement guided tutorials, tooltips, or in-app messaging to assist users in navigating your platform and discovering key features.
  3. Navigation: A cluttered or unintuitive UI can make it challenging for users to find and use features. Conduct usability testing and gather user feedback to identify pain points and improve the UI/UX.
  4. Feature discovery: Users may be unaware of valuable features if they’re hidden or difficult to access. Make sure your product’s core features are easily discoverable and consider utilizing in-app prompts or notifications to highlight these features.
  5. Performance and reliability: Slow loading times or frequent crashes can cause frustration and lead to user abandonment. Especially cart load and purchase times. Regularly monitor and optimize your product’s performance to ensure a smooth user experience.


4. Cross-sell across products
Cross-selling is crucial for maximizing customer lifetime value and driving growth. By exposing users to multiple products within your suite, you create synergies and add value for the end user. This tactic can lead to higher gross adds by encouraging customers to invest in a more comprehensive solution. Adobe Creative Cloud integrates various tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, allowing users to switch between apps with ease, fostering greater adoption of multiple products. Many other large companies can improve how they connect their suite of applications by improving the user interface, fostering seamless integration, and providing clearer incentives to use multiple products.


5. Virality
Virality is essential for rapid growth because it leverages word-of-mouth and the network effect to acquire new users at a low cost. By building a product that encourages users to share and refer others, you can amplify the reach of your marketing efforts and drive substantial increases in gross adds. Virality plays a crucial role in the growth of SaaS businesses, as it leverages the power of word-of-mouth and user-generated referrals. Here are some tactical, actionable examples to drive virality for your SaaS product:

    1. Referral programs: Create a referral program that incentivizes existing users to invite others to try your product. Offer rewards like free months of service, additional features, or discounts to both the referrer and the new user upon successful sign-up. Example: Dropbox’s referral program offers extra storage space to both the referrer and the referred friend when the friend signs up for an account.
    2. Embeddable content or widgets: Develop content or widgets that users can easily embed on their websites or share on social media platforms. This can increase exposure for your product and drive more sign-ups. Example: Typeform allows users to create and share engaging forms and surveys, which often showcase the Typeform branding and encourage others to try the service.
    3. Social sharing: Encourage users to share their achievements, results, or creations made using your product on social media. Integrate social sharing buttons within the product interface to make sharing easy and seamless. Example: Canva enables users to share their designs on social media platforms directly from the design editor, increasing the visibility of Canva as a design tool.
    4. Viral loops: Design your product in a way that naturally encourages users to invite others. This can be achieved by creating features that work best when used collaboratively or by leveraging network effects. Example: Microsoft Teams and Slack’s team collaboration platform becomes more valuable as more team members join, creating a natural incentive for users to invite their colleagues.
    5. User-generated content (UGC) campaigns: Run campaigns that encourage users to create and share content related to your product. This can increase brand visibility and attract new users. Example: Trello, a project management tool, hosts regular contests where users submit their best Trello boards, with winners receiving prizes and recognition.
    6. Influencer and community partnerships: Partner with influencers and online communities within your target market to promote your product. This can help you tap into existing networks and amplify your reach. Example: Notion collaborates with YouTubers and content creators to showcase use-cases and tutorials, reaching a larger audience and driving sign-ups.
    7. Exclusive access or limited-time promotions: Create a sense of urgency or exclusivity around your product through limited-time promotions or by offering exclusive features to early adopters. Example: Clubhouse, an audio-based social networking app, initially grew its user base by offering invite-only access, creating a sense of exclusivity and driving demand


6. Leverage content marketing
Content marketing is essential for attracting, engaging, and converting potential customers. By providing valuable, shareable content, you can establish thought leadership, create trust, and nurture leads, ultimately driving higher gross adds. HubSpot’s comprehensive blog and resources provide valuable, shareable content that attracts and engages potential customers. The company offers in-depth guides, webinars, and templates that users can utilize to improve their marketing efforts. Asana, on the other hand, could benefit from providing more content that showcases the advantages of its project management tool and offering resources that help users optimize their workflows.


7. Offer a freemium model
A freemium model is important because it lowers the barrier to entry for potential customers and allows them to experience your product’s core value proposition before committing to a paid plan. This approach can lead to increased conversions and higher gross adds, as users are more likely to upgrade once they’ve experienced the benefits firsthand. Trello’s simple, free tier allows users to experience the core functionality of its project management tool, creating a low barrier to entry. Salesforce, however, could improve by offering a more accessible free option that showcases the essential features of its CRM software, enticing potential customers to try the product before committing to a paid plan.


8. Utilize customer testimonials and case studies
  Showcasing customer success stories is crucial for establishing trust and credibility with potential customers. By demonstrating the value your product has provided to other users, you can drive interest and conversions, leading to increased gross adds. Zendesk features comprehensive case studies that demonstrate how their customer support software has helped businesses improve their operations. B2B SaaS businesses especially could benefit from featuring more customer success stories that showcase the impact of their helpdesk software on clients’ businesses.


9. Optimize pricing and packaging
Competitive pricing and clear packaging are essential for attracting and converting potential customers. By offering a compelling value proposition at an accessible price point, you can drive higher gross adds and improve customer satisfaction. Notion’s straightforward pricing tiers offer clear value to its target customers, with a balance between affordability and feature offerings. Many productivity, security  and cloud storage subscription services today, however, have confusing pricing structures with multiple tiers and unclear distinctions between features, which may deter potential customers from upgrading. Determining if your pricing and packaging are optimized requires a combination of market research, user feedback, and data analysis. Consider the following to evaluate and refine your pricing strategy:

    1.  Market research: Conduct research to understand how your pricing compares to competitors, considering factors such as features, target audience, and perceived value.
    2. Feature usage: Monitor the usage of specific features within each pricing tier to determine if customers are utilizing the features they’re paying for. This can help you assess if the value provided is appropriate or if adjustments are needed.
    3. Price sensitivity testing: Experiment with different pricing levels to gauge customer reactions and find the sweet spot between value and affordability.
    4. Churn analysis: Monitor your churn rate to identify if pricing is a factor in customer attrition. High churn rates may indicate that users don’t perceive enough value for the price or that the pricing is too complex.
    5. Customer feedback: Gather customer feedback to understand their perception of your product’s value and whether they believe the price is justified.
    6. Tiered pricing: Offer multiple pricing tiers with varying levels of features and value to cater to a wider range of customers, which also allows you to analyze which tiers are most popular and adjust pricing accordingly. For consumer subscriptions, less is more.  Too many tiers is confusing and leads to less sign ups. 


10. Invest in customer success
Prioritizing customer satisfaction through excellent support, onboarding, and training is crucial for retaining customers and encouraging referrals. By ensuring that customers receive the help they need to succeed with your product, you can build loyalty, drive word-of-mouth, and increase conversion to paid users.  Intercom’s robust customer success resources include personalized onboarding, in-depth knowledge base articles, and responsive support, ensuring that customers receive the assistance they need to succeed. Intercom’s focus on customer success helps build loyalty and long-term relationships. All subscription companies could improve by providing more personalized support, addressing customer concerns more effectively, and offering tailored onboarding experiences that cater to the unique needs of their diverse clientele.

In conclusion, growing your subscriber base requires a comprehensive approach that considers all aspects of the customer journey, from aligning goals across teams to providing excellent customer support. By analyzing the strategies employed by successful SaaS companies and learning from their successes and shortcomings, you can refine your approach and accelerate your company’s growth. Always remember that, in the SaaS world, understanding and addressing your customers’ needs is paramount to your success.

What tips would you share from your experiences?

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