How to create predictable traction in a new SaaS category?

A 6-step approach to say good-bye to the unpredictable traction in your business.

One subscriber to my Daily SaaS Reflection challenged me earlier this week with an important question: How to create remarkable traction in a new category in SaaS?

To give a bit of context:

For a while, his business has been selling a product, a suite that takes the quality of meetings to a fundamentally different level. Word-of-mouth referrals have primarily driven sales within his network. And long story short: They won some impressive global brands on the back of that.

“They love what it can do, and we don’t have to sell them on the product. It reduces the sales cycle and cuts the whole proof of concept discussion. Our challenge is to scale this – and reach the broader market outside our insider fishpond.”

It is a widespread challenge for many SaaS businesses

You start with a big idea, something that will create a shift in value in the market. And you create a product that once customers see in action, they can’t imagine a life without.

The typical reaction you get: “I’d never even imagined this was possible – let alone thinking there were solutions out there I could even buy.”

All cool, but if no one realizes what you do is possible, how do you grow remarkable traction?

In short, there is a playbook of 6 critical steps

  1. Crystalize the problem
  2. Understand what’s making your customers successful (not just happy)
  3. Focus on making your offer irresistible
  4. Leverage narrative design
  5. Double down on evangelism
  6. Spark a movement

 

Step 1: Crystalize the problem

Let’s zoom into the first route to approach it: Crystalize the problem

By focusing on articulating the problem, people have a point of reference. They do something today, and even though they don’t realize they have a problem (yet), they’re experiencing symptoms that hold them back.

It all starts by making them aware of that.

But how?

  • Provide them a mirror by telling stories that will make them realize what’s going on
  • Show empathy for why it’s just plain wrong that your prospects have to go through this experience
  • Name the negative consequences that their ‘traditional’ way of working is fueling

It starts with awareness. Without awareness, no action


Question for you to reflect upon

What’s the story your teams tell to make prospects aware of a problem they don’t know they have?


Step 2: Crystalize what makes your customers successful (not just happy)

“We’re good at finding happy customers. We’re not good at understanding what makes them successful.”It’s a quote from an MD of one of my customers that intrigued me yesterday – and here’s why:

Failing to understand this undermines your ability to

  •  keep competitors out
  •  attract look-alikes
  •  upsell to them
  •  be resourceful

Happy customers are great, but only if you get why.

So how should you go about it?

Often the answers are right in front of us – it just requires a slight change in our behavior: Ask different questions.

  •  Ask more ‘Why?’
  •  Ask what moments your SaaS helps them make the biggest difference
  •  Ask them how that makes them feel

People try to be polite. It’s easy to say ‘I am happy’ – whether they are… or not.

  • If they are – they’ll be happy to tell you why. The reflection itself works like magic. It will make them proud.
  • If they say they’re happy but really are not so much – that’s your
  • opportunity to find out and do something about it.

Finding out what makes your customers successful is pure gold. It helps sharpen everything – your marketing, sales, customer success – even R&D.

That builds momentum.


Question for you to reflect upon

What makes the people that use your SaaS product successful? What if you’d leverage that more and niche down even further?


Step 3: Focus on making your offer irresistible

Yesterday I asked Shaunak Roy, CEO of Yellowdig, for his expertise around the question: How to create remarkable traction in a new SaaS category?

Shaunak is on a mission to make classroom learning more joyful, active, and engaging – and is, with that, applying category creation in a dense market.

His answer is a valuable one:

“SaaS is transforming from becoming a tool to solving business problems; it’s becoming more important to talk about “outcomes” in concrete terms.

With this, there is a shift from paid-per-license to paid-for outcomes in the B2B space. Pay-per-license doesn’t make much sense unless it is a point solution, which is increasingly rare.”

Here’s the thing

What Shaunak refers to is a perfect example of trait #5 in my book: Remarkable SaaS companies create new value possibilities. It’s one in the category business model change. Combine this with a remarkable product, and you have an irresistible cocktail.

And this is precisely the ammunition you need to create remarkable traction in a new category – for two reasons

  1. Overcome the mental hurdle: novelty is often not enough; it needs to do something significantly better
  2. Overcome the business risk dilemma: You’re asking them to make the jump into the unknown – and that comes with significant risk

Therefore combining a new product with a new business model as a vehicle to enter a new category is a route worth exploring.

Christian Owens, CEO of Paddle, shared a great example in the podcast I posted yesterday.

They created a new category by offering a complete payments, tax, and subscription solution for SaaS businesses, combined with a business model that de-risks everything for their customers: % of transactions (instead of standard one-size-fits-all fees), including a range of compelling guarantees.

The result: short sales cycles, customers prepared to pay a premium, remarkable traction, and very defensible differentiation.


Question for you to reflect upon

How can you extend your SaaS product with a business model and guarantee that makes doing business with you irresistible for your ideal customers?


sales-led-saas Club and traction

 

Step 4: Leverage Narrative design

Delivering desirable SaaS traction requires you to communicate an idea that doesn’t conform to our everyday ideas.

And Narrative Design is the approach to pay attention to if this is what you aspire.

In short, Narrative Design enables Product Marketing to tell a story people can’t ignore.

In that way, it enhances the power of product positioning. The core idea is to create a story that shifts the audience’s perception of your product.

Some famous examples come from category kings like:

  • Salesforce, who leveraged Narrative Design successfully with their No-Software Narrative in early 2000.
  • Drift who planted conversational marketing in the heads of everyone
  • Hubspot who popularized inbound marketing.
  • Gainsight did the same for Customer Success

and the list goes on…

In my view, Narrative Design paves the way for Product Positioning to be successful. It’s used way earlier in the buyer’s journey. But done well, Narrative Design and Product Positioning make you unbeatable when used together.

In that respect, I love Dave Gerhardt’s perspective on it (former VP of Marketing at Drift)

“Why a narrative design? Because stories are everything. There is so much noise and competition in any market/category today. Even if your product IS better, no one will believe it because that is what everyone is saying. So you have to win by creating a STORY that earns you the right to then tell people about your product/service. You have to show them the future — and then how you can help get them there.”

What I love about Narrative Design is how it enables us to build a new reality (the new game) in the mind of our ideal buyer.

  • It creates tension between two worlds: the old game and the new game.
  • It’s an effective mechanism to hit the right nerve with potential buyers by pointing out how their traditional way of working (the old game) negatively impacts them because things have changed.
  • It provides the perfect platform to introduce a different approach to get out of the trap – by playing a new game, i.e., the new, right way to do things. And this is what you’ll ultimately start selling.

As you can imagine, Narrative Design requires you to take a stand – i.e., take position that you’re prepared to defend.

It is about taking a point of view and communicating an idea that doesn’t conform to our everyday ideas, processes, and solutions. So it’s polarizing on purpose.

But that makes it so powerful to spark traction – it helps you create your category within existing categories.


Question for you to reflect upon

What’s the new game you help your customers play?


Step 5: Double down on Evangelism

Let’s go back to the abovementioned question: If no one realizes what you do is possible, how do you grow remarkable traction?

The answer to that is evangelism. For the last 1.5 years at Unit 4, I was the Chief Evangelist, so let me zoom into what I learned in that period.

But first, let’s define the role:

An evangelist is a person who builds a critical mass of support for a given technology, platform, or approach and then establishes it as a standard in a market that is subject to network effects.

Let me zoom into the two key ingredients:

  1. builds a critical mass of support
  2. Establish it as a standard.

Let’s put that into context by sharing a quote from my podcast interview with Sarah Hawley, CEO of Growmotely:

What I’ve understood more recently is that while companies and people worldwide are very open to remote work now, the idea of working in a globally distributed team is still really new.

I missed that it was a bit of a blind spot because I’ve been remote since 2014. And the very first thing I did when I was remote was hiring someone from another country.

So our big hurdle is not the remote work part; it’s helping companies understand the benefits and the power of hiring a globally diverse team.

Key takeaway: It is vital to crystalize what you need to build critical mass. Nine out of ten, that’s about a mindset shift, not the product itself.

Then comes the second part: Establish it as a standard

To do evangelism right, a couple of things are essential:

  • Crafting a clear vision. What future state are you building for, and why is that important?
  • The mindset that you’re building awareness in this stage, not necessarily transactions (yet)
  • It’s about community, connecting with people, and bringing them on this journey together.
  • Storytelling – inspiring people about what can be and getting them to believe in it.
  • Language – and in particular, the use of inclusive language

 


Question for you to reflect upon

What aspect of your approach to driving value with your SaaS product could you evangelize to establish it as the standard?


Step 6: Spark a movement

How to start a movement in SaaS?

It’s the central question we aimed to answer on the Share Cast podcast hosted by Quintus Willemse, CEO of Share Council.

To grow in B2B SaaS, there are two typical motions: Product Led Growth and Sales Led Growth. Regardless of which one you favor, execution is virtually always by push, i.e., a serious effort by the vendor to get people to buy.

What fascinates me is this: How can you flip the effort and turn a push effort into a pull effect? That’s where the power of creating a movement comes in.

Creating a pull effect is hard for a variety of reasons. The most important one is: It’s not about the relationship between you and your buyers. Instead, it’s about the bond your ideal buyers have between each other.

Here’s the thing

Movements can start and flourish when three criteria are true.

  1. An inspiring cause: The most critical ingredient for a movement is a single idea or cause for people to gather around.
  2. A critical gap: People need to acknowledge a vital gap between where they stand today and where they want (or need) to be.
  3. The power of together: They also realize that the only way to succeed in bridging the gap is to master it together

 


Question for you to reflect upon:

What’s the inspiring cause that unites your ideal customers? What can you do differently to help them master this together?


In Summary:

I wrote this blog intending to answer the big question: How to create remarkable traction in a new SaaS category?

In the process, I’ve reflected on my own experience, researched inside the 250 podcast episodes that I’ve recorded since 2018, talked to various B2B SaaS CEOs in the past weeks, and arrived at a playbook of 6 critical steps:

  1. Crystalize the problem
    It all starts by making people aware of what holds them back from achieving their aspirations.
  2. Understand what’s making your customers successful (not just happy)
    Happy customers are a good start. Successful customers become your ambassadors and will bring you look-alikes without asking.
  3. Focus on making your offer irresistible.
    It will help you overcome the mental hurdles and business risk dilemma of being first.
  4. Leverage narrative design
    It enables you to build a new reality (the new game) in the mind of your ideal buyer (the mind shift). It paves the way for Product Positioning to be successful.
  5. Double down on evangelism.
    Investing in evangelism helps build the critical mass of support and accelerates establishing it as a standard.
  6. Spark a movement
    With this, you flip the effort and turn a push effort into a pull effect. It’s not about the relationship between you and your buyers. It’s about the bond your ideal buyers have between each other.

This 6-step playbook works whether you’re acting in a highly competitive existing category and want to create a way to carve out space where you’re ‘the one’ – or whether you’re a category creator in a new market.

Leveraging the six steps will help you build the strategic narrative for your marketing team to shift from capturing demand to creating demand. It will help to attract the right audience and create urgency. These are crucial ingredients to build remarkable traction. And that, again, is what you need to win that race to become (and stay) the category leader.

Good luck!

 

Additional resources to help you build the strongest foundation for remarkable SaaS traction

The easiest way. Book a free call to explore if there’s a fit to do this together.

Otherwise – here are three other options

 

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About the author

Sales Pitch

Ton Dobbe is a former B2B software product marketer who's on a mission to save mission-driven SaaS CEOs from the stress of 'not enough' traction. He's the author of The Remarkable Effect, the host of the Tech-Entrepreneur on a Mission podcast, and writes a daily newsletter on the secrets to mastering predictable traction.