There’s an increasingly common scenario that I encounter, and it looks like this:
We want to do some marketing automation work. We’ve got a Hubspot license - can you help us?
This isn’t a surprise - Hubspot is an incredible business with a product that allows you to do a lot of work. It’s a market leader, and because of this, it’s the most commonly associated brand with the term “marketing automation".
It enjoys a high degree of referenceability. In other words, people want marketing automation, people think of Hubspot.
For most businesses, this quick distinction is a benefit. For most businesses, Hubpot will adequately fulfil their needs with its baseline and even free features. However, it somewhat falls short for many SaaS or web applications.
SaaS and marketing automation go together like birds of a feather.
SaaS means scale, and a good marketing automation platform will enable you to communicate at scale, to the people who matter, with information when they need it.
Thus, it’s become common knowledge that when you’re building a SaaS product, you must integrate a marketing automation platform into your stack.
Whilst this recommendation isn’t wrong, it falls short of explaining WHY one needs a marketing automation platform and WHICH one they should choose. As a result of this, I’m seeing a lot of people making the wrong decision and getting stuck with a long-contract in a platform that doesn’t do what they need it to.
Why Marketing Automation for SaaS Is Different
SaaS businesses are applications delivered via the Internet. The majority of the experience takes place online, and the interactions with your product can be tracked and shared with your marketing automation platform just as easily as they can with your website. This behavioural data is some of the most powerful you have access to as a SaaS business.
However, a more traditional B2B business—a services business like an accountant, for example—might have a website and use it to acquire leads, but their product or service is ultimately delivered in-person rather than through a web app.
Unlike a SaaS business, the interactions that take place with a customer that aren’t within your CRM or on your website are incredibly difficult to track, especially at scale.
And this is where the problem lies.
Whenever I have a discussion with anyone regarding marketing automation, no matter what type of business they are, the same name always comes up first—or has already been adopted:
Rightly so, as according to G2 Crowd, they score the highest in market presence and satisfaction:
However, for all of HubSpot’s positives, it falls short as a solution for SaaS business for one reason:
Hubspot’s primary market is not web applications. It’s small to medium businesses, who deliver their solution offline. Take for example a marketing agency (I use Hubspot personally), accounting firm, pool installations company...Hubspot is perfect for all of these.
Because of this, it doesn’t allow you to make use of any of that useful behavioural data unless you’re on their Enterprise tier, which starts at £2,624. And even then, the platform falls somewhat shorter than being a perfect fit against other solutions.
What does this mean for SaaS businesses?
Most SaaS businesses work on a recurring revenue model, meaning the goal isn’t to just get deals to close, but to make sure people use and understand the value of our product. Amongst other things, one of the most important aspect of achieving this through good onboarding.
Onboarding is without a doubt one of the most important processes for a SaaS business to nail. Poor onboarding means poor retention, low customer lifetime values, and ultimately an uncompetitive business.
A lot of SaaS businesses also operate a self-serve onboarding model—or at least a hybrid of self-serve and managed services. Self-serve onboarding means that you set the product up yourself without the help of a customer success representative.
This is especially important if you have a low customer lifetime value. You won’t be able to afford to hire people to onboard users manually as you scale.
A marketing automation platform can make self-serve onboarding as efficient as possible.
But onboarding isn’t a series of emails sent over the next 7 days after a user signs up. It isn’t a tool-tip walkthrough or a few screens you swipe through that tell you how to use the application.
Defining onboarding as such would be the same as defining sales as 3 phone calls and an email.
Like the term sales explains the complex and dynamic process of taking someone from being in your target market to paying you money, onboarding is the complex and dynamic process of taking someone from signing up for your product to realising the value in it.
Onboarding is only done when the user gets your product. To make sure people get our product—and to send people the information they need at the right time—we need to know how they’re using our product.
The most effective way of getting product usage data into your marketing automation platform is by using events. An event is as it sounds: a notification that an action has taken place, alongside some properties for that action.
Going back to something we said earlier:
“a good marketing automation platform will enable you to communicate at scale, to the people who matter, with information when they need it.”
These events allow us to uncover when people are doing actions in our product that indicate they need some information to aid their progression within it.
For example, when someone creates a card in Trello, the event might look like:
Name: Card Created
Last Card Created: 04/03/2019 10:05:14
Then, the marketing automation system would interpret this data, and onto the contact’s record add:
- A notification that the Card Created event has taken place
- The property Total Cards Created would be incremented (added 1) by 1
- The property Last Card Created would be updated to the time the action took place
For a product like Trello, the number of cards a user has created and the time since they last created a card is a good proxy for the amount of engagement and value they get from the product. They could use this data to ensure that people are being nudged towards creating more cards if they haven’t hit their a-ha moment yet, reminding them they still exist and providing reasons why they should create a card if they haven’t in a while.
You’d communicate with people differently based on how many cards they’ve created—or how they’re using your product.
In HubSpot, this functionality only becomes possible at the Enterprise level.
These types of communications are required throughout a user's lifetime with your product. Without the ability to adequately collect and process this data, you’re relinquishing some of your power to extend the lifetime of your customers.
The only reason I am writing this blog is because I have had a series of conversations with people who have adopted HubSpot but found it unable to adequately match their requirements from a functionality and pricing perspective.
HubSpot has one of the greatest sales and marketing operations of any SaaS business that’s ever existed. They also have extremely ambitious growth goals, and because of this, I think that some people can be lead to believe that HubSpot is the right platform for them when better alternatives exist.
Take for example Autopilot. For half of the cost of HubSpot Marketing Enterprise, I can have a marketing automation platform that is just as powerful, considerably more open, and more intuitive to set up.
If I’m only just starting out and I don’t need all of those features and 10,000 contacts, I can get started with Autopilot—which has events-enabled—at its base price of $49. Autopilot even has native integrations with some HubSpot features, so if you’re a fan of their CRM tool, you could use Autopilot alongside it relatively easily.
If your budget is stretched by Autopilot or you want a sales and marketing system-in-a-box, then ActiveCampaign is another option.
A fully-fledged deployment of ActiveCampaign is only $399 with all of the marketing and sales features you’d get with HubSpot, albeit without the training materials.
You can also use events on ActiveCampaign’s cheapest plan, which starts at $15 per month.
It’s also worth noting that according to G2 Crowd, whilst ActiveCampaign has less market presence than HubSpot, they are more satisfied with it.
The trade-off of adopting Autopilot or ActiveCampaign is that they are a little bit more complicated to set up than HubSpot. However, the amount saved would get you a contractor—maybe even a full-time employee in some places—who could sit with you and create a bespoke setup of either.
If you’re more open to risk taking, then there’s two emerging platforms I’m aware of that aren’t just good at SaaS, they’re built for it.
If onboarding and lifecycle optimization wasn’t such a huge part of what makes SaaS businesses a success, HubSpot’s training resources, ease of use, and close ties to its own products would be a major bonus, as they are for the vast majority of businesses who use it.
However, if you’re a SaaS business that operates a low-touch onboarding model, you’ll quickly find that HubSpot falls somewhat short of expectations and somewhat outside of your budget.
This is not a criticism of HubSpot. HubSpot is a fantastic tool that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of users get so much value from that they’ve become market leaders. However, the dynamics of a SaaS business make it a poor fit.
If you’d like to discuss further how your business could benefit from a well-integrated marketing stack, get in touch today.