Content marketing is baked into the DNA of most successful horizontal SaaS companies.
And with good reason: the growth challenges these companies face can be uniquely solved through content. For the Zapiers, Webflows and Airtables of the world, content is more than marketing: it is acquisition, activation, and retention.
Here’s how we think about content marketing for horizontal SaaS.
The Challenges of Horizontal SaaS
Generally speaking, a vertical SaaS company is one that sells into a single target vertical, like our customer SimpleLegal selling to in-house legal teams. A horizontal SaaS company is vertical-agnostic, offering a product that can find use in a range of different verticals—like Airtable, selling into in-house marketing teams, non-profit events teams, and even directly to consumers.
There are unique challenges for horizontal SaaS companies to overcome:
1. Mile-wide Marketing
By their nature, horizontal SaaS companies have huge total addressable markets (TAMs)—take Webflow for example, a website builder that can be used by developers and non-developers, for-profits and non-profits, solopreneurs and Fortune 500s.
Whilst a huge TAM offers huge growth potential, it makes marketing harder, at least in the near term, requiring you to solve for near-infinite demand with a finite budget. The biggest risk: targeting too many industries, spreading your marketing thin, and rendering it ineffective in the process.
2. Blank Page Problem
Many horizontal products are also highly extensible, and this creates another challenge: once a user has arrived in-app, they’re confronted with an overwhelming array of possibilities, both in terms of the things they can build and the ways they can build them.
Take a tool like Zapier: if you can connect virtually any piece of software to any other, where should you start? Horizontal SaaS companies need to overcome this blank page problem, reducing the user’s time-to-value by nudging them towards a proven, useful workflow.
3. “Low Barrier to Entry, Incredibly High Ceiling”
As a final hurdle, horizontal SaaS often has what David Peterson, an early Airtable employee, calls a “low barrier to entry, [and an] incredibly high ceiling.” While it’s easy to build a single database in Airtable, real, long-term value comes from more complex use cases, like an agency building their entire operations system on the platform, or a startup managing their entire business development pipeline.
Getting a single user to their “aha!” moment is great, but more important is enabling power users and evangelists to build the product into the heart of their company operations. To do that, you need to continually shepherd users towards advanced use cases and features.
Content Strategy for Horizontal SaaS
Content can help overcome these challenges. Here’s how we help horizontal SaaS companies grow through content:
1. Choose a Starting Vertical
Your marketing doesn’t need to be mile-wide and inch-deep: it’s usually better to start mile-deep and inch-wide. The best results will come from focusing your content strategy on one or two high opportunity verticals, building a functional marketing funnel, and then reproducing the formula in another vertical—and another, and another.
There are lots of valid ways to prioritize these use cases:
Strongest social proof. Where are you seeing early traction? Which roles and functions tend to “get” the value of your product? Where do you have the most convincing social proof, in terms of testimonials and customer logos?
Closest to the money. If near-term revenue growth is your goal, it’s usually better to prioritize B2B use cases over B2C, and focus on teams and use cases as close to revenue as possible (if you can help salespeople closer deals faster, it’s easier to attribute revenue to your product—and easier to justify spending money on it—than if you’d focused on marketing use cases).
Least contested. Where will you have the least competition from incumbents and competitors?
The great value of horizontal SaaS is the huge TAM—but that market needs to be tackled systematically, one vertical at a time.
Many of the challenges of horizontal SaaS can be cleanly solved with a single type of content: templates. Take this content marketing pipeline template from Airtable by way of example. With a single piece of content, Airtable is able to:
Generate awareness. In most niches, there’s a lot of search volume for “X template” keywords. Find these keywords, build a template using your product, and embed it in a search-optimized article to turn templates into an acquisition channel.
Get people into the product. By embedding the product template directly in the blog post, you make the leap from “reading a blog post” to “playing with the tool” immediate and intuitive.
Reduce time-to-value. Templates help overcome the blank page problem, making it easy for new users to get into the tool and start deriving value from a relevant use case.
If you’re not sure where to start: prioritize templates that have the highest monthly search volume.
3. Kickstart the UGC Growth Loop
Templates are powerful but have a weakness: they’re resource-intensive to create. It’s a good idea for your company to “seed” the first few dozen templates, but the secret to longer-term growth lies in UGC—user-generated content.
The most successful horizontal SaaS companies have all found ways to create huge template libraries by creating incentives for users to build and share their templates with other users. These incentives can take the form of monetary rewards, like Webflow’s templates marketplace, or even social prestige, like the Airtable Universe (an incentive even we at Animalz are not immune to).
In both cases, the costs of creating new templates are passed on to users, allowing you to dramatically scale template creation without spending huge amounts of money in the process.
4. Roll Up
Once a critical mass of templates has been created, it becomes possible to generate new traffic by rolling-up existing templates into top-of-funnel blog posts.
For example: with a decent library of sales-focused templates—like a “cold outreach” template, “lead nurturing sequence” template, and a “sales deck” template—it becomes possible to create new articles that reference these templates—like “15 essential sales templates” or “how to onboard new sales reps.”
These rolled-up articles create opportunities to target new keywords and drive new traffic—whilst also giving every visitor a glimpse of your product’s potential.
Here’s a helpful way to think about this: templates function as the “atomic unit” of your content strategy, while top-of-funnel blog posts act as a kind of organizational layer, grouping templates and documentation together into blog posts targeted at different audiences and pain points.
“Templates are the atomic unit of your content strategy… blog posts are the organization layer.”
5. Roll Out
This strategy allows you to build a fully-functional marketing funnel for one core target vertical or use case—like “sales teams” in our example. Templates can attract potential customers through search and provide a quick and easy access point into the product. UGC allows you to scale template creation, while “roll up” articles let you infinitely reference those templates for continued awareness.
Instead of spreading limited resources thin and trying to appeal to dozens of target use cases at once, this process provides the confidence (and revenue) you need to scale the process to other use cases and verticals. Start small to grow big.
Close the Gap Between “Content” and “Product”
One of the great risks of content marketing is publishing articles that generate tons of traffic but do little to get people into the product. This risk is particularly great for horizontal companies: with a huge TAM, it’s easy to spread marketing too thin and never really resonate with any particular person or use case.
By prioritizing a handful of high-priority use cases, creating templates to jumpstart the UGC flywheel, and rolling up templates into dozens of search-optimized articles, horizontal SaaS companies can create content that supports the entire growth process: awareness, activation and retention.