Case Study: 0 to 300 Users for DevOps SaaS

In this case study, we share how we helped a small deployment automation startup acquire their first 300 pre-launch users.

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Screenshot from MailChimp

Moreover the strategy allowed the client to generate a long tail of leads even after we stopped all acquisition activities. 

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Screenshot from Google Analytics

Read on to find out:

  • How we researched the target audience
  • The strategy we chose to acquire new users
  • Which channels we used for acquisition

Who is DeployPlace?

DeployPlace is the new kid on the block of deployment automation tools. Their tool allows you to deploy your applications regardless of the level of complexity. This includes Kotlin, Java, and Scala applications. Additionally, the tool does an excellent job of providing a live editor for monitoring and controlling every step in the software deployment process.

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DeployPlace’s website


DeployPlace’s Objective

The development of such a tool can be very expensive. Besides its core functionality, we have to take into account the many integrations with third-party services — 100+ integrations with industry leaders like GitLab, Jenkins, Travis CI, CircleCI, New Relic, Sentry, Rollbar, and Slack.

DeployPlace’s founder wanted to make sure there was enough demand for the tool and to collect a list of 300 users who could help test the tool, become the core audience, and establish the product community.

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We asked Liam to help us, but he was very busy 😄

Challenges of the DevOps Market

  1. The market is highly competitive, with many companies backed by venture capital and huge budgets. For example, CircleCI raised $215M (source), Codeship $11.4M (source), and Shippable $10.1M (source).
  2. The market is mature, with many established and “untouchable” leaders. Once adopted, software tools stay there for many years (see the Google Trends chart below). 
  3. The market is saturated with countless projects and use cases (XebiaLabs’ periodic table of DevOps tools contains 400 different solutions).

The Services We Provided

Though the initial goal was to acquire 300 leads for the early access (which sounds like “launch acquisition campaigns”), in reality we couldn’t limit it to the acquisition campaigns only. The product was not ready, the website had no copy, the target audience was not clear enough, there was no content to support acquisition — and many other tasks that almost every startup encounters on the journey.

Below is the short list of actions we took on our way to the desired goal:

  • Marketing Strategy
    • Competitor research — analysis of which channels competitors are using for acquisition
    • Customer development — creation of the Ideal Customer Profiles and finding the right messages
    • Create a marketing strategy with a list of hypotheses to test
  • Website
    • Create compelling copy
    • Analytics setup
    • Lead capture (Mailchimp) setup
  • Content Marketing and SEO
    • Content strategy and content plan
    • Create a piece of content every week
    • Repurpose and distribute the content
  • Conversion Rate Optimization
    • Landing page analysis with heatmaps and user behavior recording
    • Improvement of weak points
    • Add additional conversional elements
  • Work with communities
  • Run growth experiments constantly

The Approach with Examples and Details

All our activities were divided into three categories. We created this list to amplify the value of proper research and preparation:

  • Research and analysis
  • Setup and preparations
  • Actions

The Research Stage

Competitors and Target Audience Research

We created a list of possible product use cases and researched social media, communities, channels, and groups. We used a number of paid digital marketing tools to gain insights into the market and competitors’ strategies. Based on this, and on information from our customer, we defined three main buyer personas. We had even more potential buyer personas but dismissed other persona types that were not so clearly defined.

We invited 3–5 people from each buyer persona segments to an interview and carried out customer development exercises, through which we discovered plenty of valuable insights. Many startups neglect customer development and lose the opportunity to gain such knowledge. 

The Ideal Customer Profile

Based on the insights from the interviews and research, we created an Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) for every persona. The ICP helps to align the DeployPlaces’s team and our team on the core value proposition and messaging.

Multiple Useful Lists

While doing interviews and researching social media, we collected lists of useful resources such as top relevant communities, niche websites for guest posting, newsletters, podcasts, influencers, conferences, etc.

The Setup Stage

After finishing the research stage and understanding our disposition, we proceeded with the website, landing pages, etc.—everything we needed to have a successful launch.

Fixing Technical and On-page SEO

Though SEO is considered a long play, we decided to spend some effort on SEO to build a base for future growth.

After the audit, we collected a list of technical errors, speed blockers, and mobile issues, passing the information on to our customer.

Creation of Compelling Copy for the Website

Based on the ICP, we created several variants of website copy and calls-to-action. We showed the results to our persona groups to gather feedback. Needless to say that after reviewing the feedback, we managed to improve the copy so that at least 80% of our target audience understood the core value and features.

Lead Capture Setup

A lead capture form was set up. Based on customer requirements, we decided to go with Mailchimp. A simple automation sequence was also created.

Funnel Setup

Getting users to sign up for a new deployment automation tool is not an easy goal. The prospect’s project should be at the proper stage; no one would rebuild their CI/CD pipeline right after they saw a new, promising deployment automation tool. We discovered that prospects should have a project at an early stage or be ready to update the deployment pipeline due to some internal reasons.

We decided to build funnels to target not only users ready to try a new deployment tool but also users who are one or two steps away from it.

The main funnel included the following stages:

  • Visited one of the blog posts or an external article
  • Viewed landing page
  • Engaged
  • Subscribed for early access

We used remarketing campaigns and emails to push users through the funnel toward the subscription. Due to the limited budget, we chose Facebook Ads and Twitter Ads.

Content Plan and Content Calendar

Before we dove into the execution, we took a moment to plan and understand how many pieces of content we needed. There were many interesting ideas to test on one hand and a tight budget on the other.

So we created both a content plan and content calendar for internal and external publications, estimated budgets for content creation and distribution, and got it approved by our customer. 

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The content plan created for DeployPlace

The Launch Stage

Content Marketing

Content marketing was one of the channels we focused on. We created blog articles according to the plan, keeping several goals in mind:

  • Receive search traffic from Google and Bing
  • Use as relevant landing pages in advertising campaigns
  • Use as a subject for outreach and link building
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Blog page—notice the call-to-action element to the right

You can see a few blog article examples below. We tested different topics and approaches to find out what works best. The articles on deployment strategies are very relevant for the right decision-making stage, while “Heroku vs Docker” is a great way to approach users in the earlier stages.

External Content and Guest Posting

Publishing content on niche websites and external platforms is one of the low-hanging fruits of content marketing when in need of quick results. Such content covers thousands of visitors. This strategy worked well for DeployPlace.

Best tools for {name}” or so-called “listicles” is one of the frameworks we used. Listicles are a great way to tell the audience about your product. The reader’s intent is essential for success — people who read listicles are usually using multiple tools and are trying many others, and they are ready to install and sample something new. 

But there are so many listicles with the same list of tools for developers. To overcome this issue, we created a list of tools that had not been mentioned before: a list of upcoming tools for developers. We put GitHub Actions in the first position on the list to build trust.

The distribution of such articles is also straightforward. We reached out to all the Founders/CMOs/Product Directors of the tools mentioned in the article on every social media and asked them to help share the listicle. Because all the tool developers on the list were really interested in drawing more traffic, they supported the article. Moreover, all the tools have pretty much the same audience, and this helps to educate that audience about other tools.

We tested different content marketing frameworks and covered a number of external media websites and platforms such as DZone, dev.to, HackerNoon, FAUN, etc.

Content Distribution

Content promotion and distribution are necessary for new websites with low Domain Ratings, tiny audiences, and tight budgets. Though many marketers ignore the distribution, we spent 50/50 (both time and money) on content creation and distribution/promotion. Some of our articles reached third and fourth positions in Google SERP for competitive keywords (see screenshot).
To make sure every piece of content would be distributed, a content distribution plan was created, and distribution activities were led according to it.

One of the content distribution strategies was a promotion in social media communities. We created topical clusters for every content piece, searched for good places our content could give value, and posted it there. To avoid spamming, a unique relevant answer was created. Below you can find several examples of content promotion.

On Quora

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We found a relevant question on Quora, wrote the answer, and mentioned the article

On Reddit

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DevOpsLinks thread on Reddit

On Indie Hackers

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Project goals on Indie Hackers

Collaboration with Influencers and Opinion Leaders

We collected a list of 1,405 (yes, it’s the real number, and yes, we used automation tools to do it) entry- to mid-level influencers who wrote about relevant topics in DevOps and created an opinion round-up article.
We asked them three simple questions, mentioned them in our article, and helped to promote their content and projects on social networks. We didn’t ask them to promote our content or our tool. We focused on giving them value and started a relationship without asking anything in return. 

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The DevOps Trends article based on influencers’ opinions

Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

A/B Tests

Though we had limited opportunities for A/B testing due to low traffic, we ran a series of A/B tests and managed to improve the performance of the website.

Heatmaps and Users’ Behavior Recording

We created heatmaps and recorded users’ behavior for every important page on the website. This method helps to understand how users consume content on your website and find bottlenecks. We received several great insights from this data and slightly tweaked the funnel performance.
Did this cost a ton of money? No! We used a free plan from Hotjar.

The image below shows that users read the introduction pretty well. We did a great job to engage users with the first paragraph of the article. It didn’t happen accidentally; we did several iterations to achieve such engagement.

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A heatmap from a blog page

Conversional Elements

Are you happy with your blog conversions? We are never happy and always search for new ways to improve it.
To better broadcast the value proposition, we designed visual illustrations for our blog articles. We wanted to ensure our awareness blog posts informed users about our product values in a nice-looking and compelling manner.  

Notice that each conversional block has its own unique design that resonates with one of the product benefits:

  • Streamline deployment process to save time
  • Focus on the product, not on the deployment
  • Reduce routine deployment tasks

Work with Communities

Communities are a great place to find new customers for new products.
We created a list of the most relevant communities and worked with them regularly.  Comments, likes, shares, creating new posts, etc.—all these take much time and effort but give you warm leads in return.

You can’t post about your product every time without annoying other members, but fortunately, you don’t have to. There are many post formats that can add value to the community.
For example, for DeployPlace, we focused on Indie Hacker and shared our marketing plans, activities, and results.

Launch of Quick Acquisition Tests

To keep all the experiments structured, a list with acquisition ideas and hypotheses was created. We estimated and prioritized ideas and did our best to try a new channel or test a new hypothesis every week.

The best practice says you should focus on one acquisition channel before you master it, so we focused on content marketing but allocated time for experiments. Due to this, we…

  • Performed quick acquisition tests to identify the most effective and efficient strategies to maximize conversion rates.
  • Identified several channels with good CAC and scaled them until the CAC started to increase.

Results

When you read such case studies, it seems that everything is straightforward and effortless, but it’s not. The devil is in the details.

Were the strategy and execution 100% perfect with no mistakes made? No! Considering the low budget and small team, we used the 80/20 approach to squeeze out the maximum value, leaving the rough edges behind.

We worked really hard, made many mistakes, learned a lot, and finally achieved the desired goals:

  • 300+ early-access users were acquired for DeployPlace with the CAC significantly lower than expected. As a result, the company received 300 pre-launch leads and proved that there is a demand for their service, allowing it to go ahead with the development.
  • We tested acquisition channels and messaging to prepare a roadmap for scaling after product launch.
How to get prelaunch users for SaaS

It’s been a privilege working with such a promising project as DeployPlace, and we look forward to helping them scale their customer acquisition further once they launch.