Q: How did you get started creating your SaaStr community, and how could I get started on making one for a different industry?
SaaStr is a lot of things, but at its core, it’s a community. The largest community in the world for Cloud and SaaS founders.
But we didn’t start there. We certainly never would have predicted that answering a few questions on Quora and a few blog posts in 2012 and 2013 would eventually lead to a global community with 50,000+ attending our global events over the years (and far more including our digital events), 150,000,000+ views of our content, 2,000,000+ downloads of our podcasts, etc.
Fast forward to today though, and community has finally become “hot” with large VC rounds happening seemingly every week into community software and leaders. So I thought I’d update a prior post on how we built the SaaStr community, and what we learned:
But I have at least learned a few things about content marketing that might help others:
- First, start by speaking about something you really, really know. At this point, there are 100s of folks, if not 1000s, that can write with as much authority on SaaS as I have. There were fewer when I started. But the real learning is that I had both experience and deep passion about these topics. That somehow worked. No blog post I ever wrote in 5+ years as CEO of Adobe Sign / EchoSign ever had any material number of views. But when I started writing about my mistakes, my toughest learnings getting to $1m in MRR … it just resonated with folks. Somehow. Voice matters. If you want to go back in time, you can see how SaaStr.com looked in 2013-2015 here.
- Quality over quantity — but both help. Focus on truly adding value. A lot of content is good, but much more important is fewer, regular pieces that are more widely read, generate SEO, and for businesses, generate leads. Don’t outsource content to an agency that writes boring, formulaic pieces. That’s been done a million times. Instead, focus on adding value. Better 3 pieces a month that add value than 30 talking about random trends in your industry. And focus on content that helps others. That will help you make sure you add value. Having said all this, a quantity strategy also works, and it can be powerful to paid them. The more high-quality content you have, the better. One piece of high-quality content and engagement a day — which isn’t easy — can do magic. Still, you can see even our “500th” most popular piece of content still gets thousands of views a year:
- I’ve been surprised which channels work/perform and which don’t. Quora, our blog, LinkedIn, and later, Twitter have worked for us. But Medium and Instagram, and to a large extent, YouTube, haven’t performed well for us. This is despite the fact that we have published amazing content on Medium and 100s of incredible videos on YouTube. Different content performs differently in different media. Rather than try to get channels to work that don’t work for us, we try them all, and then just lean into what performs.
- SEO still works. I’m not an SEO expert, but there’s a lot of debate in the industry if SEO is somehow dead. Well, I can tell you with a lot of data, it isn’t. Write something canonical, that matters, and there’s a decent chance over time you’ll get plenty of traffic and views from it. This is, however, a big challenge with podcasts.
- You probably have to do it yourself. It is hard to outsource your core. If you want to write and talk about something and be an expert in it, it has to come from you. Not a junior content marketer or agency.
- Don’t promote yourself (directly). At least not very much. I think one key to SaaStr is that while I tried to share so many of my mistakes, I at least tried to do it in a way that didn’t promote me. Perhaps it was because I’d sold my company, and had nothing to promote :). But it freed me to only care about the audience. Now that we’ve put on 1000+ speaking sessions at the various SaaStr Annuals and digital events, we have the data that shows you that speakers that just promote themselves and their products … bomb. They are the lowest-rated speakers, even if they run a decacorn. Share your mistakes, your hard-won learnings, the true tips and tricks in your industry that really work. That folks have an endless thirst for.
- Build your list. Whether it’s an email list, or a text/SMS list, or both … build your list. Even today, with an explosion of newsletters, folks will open your newsletter — if they are part of your community. And they will read your texts. A lot of them will. We get 20%+ open rates on all our email newsletters (4 of them). That means each week, 50,000 of the 200,000+ that get our newsletters read our emails. Your list is gold.
- Tools alone do not drive engagement. Distribution and people do. There are a lot more community tools and software in market than even just 12 months ago — which is great. But most of them are “crickets” once deployed. Only a small subset of your community is going to log into a third-party platform every day. It’s easier in the end to build a community off platforms folks already are on — YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Not easy. But easier. If you do use a community platform, which you should, be very focused on engagement. The metrics are often far lower than on social media and email. Even Slack channels rarely get high engagement (no matter what folks claim). Look at how many you can join that really have no high-quality daily interactions.
- Measure it — and set real goals. If you don’t measure it, you won’t achieve your goals. We track core community KPIs each week and share progress with our entire team via a weekly metrics email. Those KPIs include community growth, newsletter growth, social media follower growth (Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube), blog traffic growth, and attendees to events. Also, it’s critical to have a single owner of each KPI.
- Look for early wins. Our first blog post at SaaStr probably had < 100 views. But the first like was from Aaron Levie, CEO of Box. That inspired me to keep at it. One approach is to try everything and see what fits best with your audience. Podcasts don’t always work. Blogs sometimes do. A weekly newsletter? Maybe. Try it. Try everything 4-5 times and lean in to what takes off the most. For us, in the early days, our blog and Quora answers took off. The rest of social media, even Medium, struggled to gain traction easily.
- It compounds. Like most things, building a community takes time. We had early quick wins with great readers. But it took 2 solid years of writing to build up to our first 800-person meet-up, and 3 years to get to our first 1,500+ person SaaStr Annual. That corpus of content, and referrals, and SEO built upon itself. But not overnight. A bit more on the first 24 months here: SaaStr Grows 10x in 24 Months to 2.5 Million Views a Month: What We’ve Learned | SaaStr
- Get them to come back. We don’t have any magic learnings here, but we think a lot about how to make sure every visitor to a SaaStr.com website or to an event … comes back. This isn’t a core KPI for us tiday, but it probably should be. For next year!!
- Add significantly more value each year, and even each quarter if you can. Communities decay if you don’t invest in them. Too much change can be overwhelming, but our goal at SaaStr is each year to add 1 major new initiative to help our community, and 1 minor but important one. And each quarter, to improve an existing initiative (e.g., make SaaStr University better, or uplevel our podcast, etc). Your community probably won’t compound (per prior point) if you don’t uplevel the value you bring to it regularly. Over time, we’ve added SaaStr Annual, the SaaStr CoSelling Space, SaaStr University, SaaStr Europa, SaaStr Mega Digital events and more as core new initiatives (all Free) that add significant value to our community. Minor but successful initiatives include our eBooks and upgrading our SaaStr Daily and Insider newsletters.
- Focus lots of love on your super fans. I guess anyone that has build a 2-sides marketplace would know this, but it’s all been new to me. Your superfans in a community are so important. We’ll have so many founders who are coming to their 6th SaaStr Annual this year! Those are the folks that write about you. Tweet about you. Tell their friends. And bring their friends. Identify and cherish your superfans.