In this case study, we share how we helped a small deployment automation SaaS startup to find their first 300 pre-launch customers, as well as helping them generate a long tail of leads, even after we stopped all acquisition activities
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
What is DeployPlace?
DeployPlace is the new deployment automation tool on the block. It allows you to deploy Kotlin, Java, Scala and other applications regardless of their level of complexity. Plus there’s an excellent live editor for monitoring every step of the software deployment process.
The development of a powerful tool like DeployPlace can be very expensive. Besides its core functionality, it has to be effectively integrated with over 100 third-party services like GitLab, Jenkins, Travis CI, CircleCI, New Relic, Sentry, Rollbar, and Slack.
DeployPlace’s founder wanted to collect a list of 300 users who would be interested in testing the tool, to prove that there was a market for the product and to become the core audience, establishing the product community.
Challenges of the DevOps Market
The market is highly competitive, with many companies backed by venture capital and huge budgets. For example:
The market is mature, with many established, “untouchable” leaders. Once adopted, a business will keep the same software tool for many years.
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 testing program, in reality we couldn’t limit it to a simple acquisition campaign. The product was not ready, the website had no copy, the target audience was poorly defined, and there was no content to support acquisition. DeployPlace was typical of DevOps startups in this regard.
Here is an outline of the work we did for DeployPlace:
- Marketing Strategy
- Competitor research: analysis of which channels competitors use for acquisition
- Customer development: creating Ideal Customer Profiles and finding the right messages
- Creating a marketing strategy with a list of hypotheses to test
- Create compelling copy
- Analytics setup
- Lead capture setup (Mailchimp)
- Content Marketing and SEO
- Content strategy and content plan
- Publishing weekly content
- Repurposing and distribution of content
- Conversion Rate Optimization
- Landing page analysis with heatmaps and user behavior recording
- Improvement of weak points
- Adding conversional elements
- Work with communities
- Running growth experiments constantly
The project work took the form of three distinct stages:
- Research and analysis
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. Combined with information obtained from our customer, this allowed us to create multiple buyer personas; we chose the three most clearly defined ones.
Between three and five people from each buyer persona group were invited 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 each persona. The ICP helped us align the DeployPlace team with 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, and conferences.
The Setup Stage
After confirming our approach on the research stage, we proceeded with the website, landing pages, and 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 an initial audit, we collected a list of technical errors, speed blockers, and mobile issues, passing the information on to the client.
Creating Compelling Website Copy
Based on the ICP, we created several variants of website copy, including multiple calls to action. We showed the results to our persona groups and, acting on their feedback, we were able to improve the copy so that over 80% of our target audience understood DeployPlace, its features and the value it could add to their business.
Lead Capture Setup
Based on customer requirements, we decided to go with Mailchimp for the lead capture form. A simple automation sequence was also created.
It’s not easy getting users to sign up for a new deployment automation tool. The prospect’s project needs to be at the right stage; no one is going to rebuild their whole CI/CD pipeline just because they’ve seen a promising new deployment automation tool. We discovered that the most appropriate prospects would be those in an early stage of a project or who were actively seeking to update the deployment pipeline for specific 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:
- Visiting a blog post or external articleViewed landing page
- Viewing landing page
- Subscribing for early access
We used remarketing campaigns and emails to push users through the funnel towards subscription. Due to a limited budget, we chose Facebook Ads and Twitter Ads.
Content Plan and Content Calendar
Before diving into the execution, we took a moment to plan and understand how many pieces of content we needed. On one hand, we had many interesting ideas to test; on the other hand was the tight budget.
So we created both a content plan and content calendar for internal and external publications, estimated budgets for content creation and distribution, and got the plan approved by our customer.
The Launch Stage
- To receive search traffic from Google and Bing
- To act as dedicated landing pages for each particular sales funnel
- To be used as a subject for outreach and link building
You can see a few blog article examples below. We tested different topics and approaches to find out what worked best. The articles on deployment strategies were aimed squarely at prospects at the right decision-making stage while “Heroku vs Docker” is a great way to approach users at an earlier in their project.
External Content and Guest Posting
Publishing content on niche websites and external platforms is one of the low-hanging fruits of content marketing, especially when in need of quick results. Such content reaches thousands of people. This strategy worked well for DeployPlace.
“Listicles” were one strand of our strategy. Articles like “The 10 Best Tools for [process]” are a great way to tell the audience about a product. They need to reach people who are using multiple tools, and are always on the lookout to install and sample something new.
But so many listicles have 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 straightforward. We reached out to all the founders, CMOs, and product directors of the tools mentioned in the article – on all social media channels – and asked them to help us share the listicle. We received their support: of course they were interested in drawing more traffic. Furthermore, all the tools shared a similar audience, so it would help to educate that audience in a more general way.
We tested a range of content marketing frameworks and covered a number of external platforms such as DZone, dev.to, HackerNoon, and FAUN.
Promotion and distribution of content are necessary for new websites with low domain ratings, tiny audiences, and tight budgets. Though many marketers ignore the distribution, we split our time and money 50-50 between content creation and content distribution/promotion. Some of our articles reached the third and fourth positions on Google SERP for competitive keywords (see screenshot).
To make sure every piece of content was distributed, a content distribution plan was created, and distribution activities were led accordingly. One of the strategies was a promotion within 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 Indie Hackers
Collaboration with Influencers and Opinion Leaders
We collected a list of 1,405 entry- to mid-level influencers (yes, that’s the real number, and yes, we used automation tools to do it!) who wrote about relevant DevOps topics 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 relationships without asking anything in return.
Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)
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 helps understand how users consume content on a website and find bottlenecks. We received several great insights from this data and tweaked the funnel accordingly. Plus, this cost us nothing! We used a free plan from Hotjar.
The image below shows that users read the introduction pretty well. We did a great job engaging users with the first paragraph. It didn’t happen accidentally; it was the product of a number of iterations.
Are you happy with your blog conversions? We’re never satisfied and are always searching for new ways to improve conversion rate.
To better communicate DeployPlace’s value proposition, we designed illustrations for our blog articles. We wanted to ensure our awareness-raising blog posts were attractive and compelling as well as informative.
Notice that each conversional block has its own unique design that resonates with one of the product benefits:
- Streamline deployment process to save time
- Focusing on product, not deployment
- Reducing routine deployment tasks
Work with Communities
Communities are a great place to find customers for new products. We created a list of the most relevant communities and worked with them regularly. Comments, likes, shares, and creating new posts all take time and effort but offer warm leads in return.
You can’t repeatedly post about your product without irking other members but, fortunately, you don’t have to; there is a variety of post formats that can add value to the community. For DeployPlace, we shared our marketing plans, progress, and results, primarily on IndieHackers.
Launch of Quick Acquisition Tests
To ensure our experiments were clearly structured, a list of acquisition ideas and hypotheses was created. We estimated the metrics for each approach in order to prioritize those with the greatest potential and did our best to try a new channel or test a new hypothesis every week.
Best practice says you should focus on one acquisition channel before you master it; we focused on content marketing but did allocate time for experiments:
- We performed quick acquisition tests to identify the most effective and efficient strategies to maximize conversion rates.
- We identified several channels with good CAC and scaled them until the CAC started to increase.
Case studies (such as this one!) tend to make everything seem straightforward and effortless. Neither is true; the devil is in the detail.
Were our strategy and execution 100% perfect? With no mistakes? Of course not! In view of the low budget and small team, we followed the Pareto approach, concentrating on producing maximum value and not wasting valuable time agonizing over insignificant details.
We worked hard, made many mistakes, and learned a lot. And we achieved the desired goals:
- 300+ early-access users were acquired for DeployPlace with the CAC significantly lower than expected.
- DeployPlace received 300 pre-launch leads and proved that there is a demand for their service, allowing them to go ahead with the development.
- We tested acquisition channels and messaging to prepare a roadmap for scaling after product launch.
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.