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The SaaS conference marketing challenge

2009, when Server Density started, was very early in SaaS. Most software was still sold on-premise with licensing. Some well known products like Salesforce, Xero and GMail (G-Suite/Google Apps) were delivered SaaS-only but they were the minority.

This meant that the understanding of SaaS marketing was also very early. “Growth hacking” wasn’t a thing and a lot of marketing was still around AdWords and banner ads. Indeed, one of our more effective early campaigns was a banner ad on the newly launched Server Fault as part of the Stack Overflow community!

Content marketing was also new. I was able to build up a huge following over the years simply by writing good quality technical content that would appeal to my target audience. The Server Density blog was and remains the biggest source of traffic and leads to the product.

2018 is very different. We’ve reached saturation point for all of the above low-cost channels. You have to do them all but they are only a small part of the marketing mix.

The biggest component in SaaS marketing today is events and conferences. This has been growing over the last few years but attending, speaking at and sponsoring events is now a huge, if not the largest, aspect of SaaS marketing spend. You have to pay to play.

Regardless of who you’re targeting – from developers to small businesses and from startups to enterprise IT managers – being at conferences is a highly effective method of generating leads, and talking to your existing customers.

Potential customers use conferences to discover new vendors. It’s the new way to search for products to evaluate. This surprised me when I was manning our Server Density booth – the number of potential users who come up and ask about your product as part of an evaluation they’re starting. Or because they’re interested in what’s new. These are kind of people you’d expect to hate any commercialisation – that stereotype is outdated.

Existing customers are just as important. If you don’t have a stand, they’ll wonder why you’re not there. They want to see the vendor they picked with a huge presence and lots of marketing materials, and probably t-shirts and swag they can take home, too. It validates their past decision and is also another channel to market to them for cross selling new products or explaining new functionality. Conferences are a legitimate channel for customer success!

If you’re not at all the big industry events, you’re not being seen.

The challenge is that it is expensive.

The cost of sponsoring combined with travel, hotel and food for several team members in high, not to mention any marketing collateral, banners, swag and all the other booth materials. Just sponsoring for your logo to appear isn’t sufficient – you have to have the booth table, too. And you need a good location with plenty of traffic. If you don’t, your competitors will. That’s not cheap.

This is hard for startups. You need a team of people working the conferences and managing the logistics not just a few times a year but a few times per month. The spend quickly ramps up. But the reasons are obvious – it’s difficult to match the lead volume and quality, because you can qualify and demo on the spot. This is why all your competitors are doing it, and it’s why you need to be doing it too.

It’s also a big reason why you can’t do SaaS without significant funding. Without it, you simply can’t compete with the spending levels needed to get the conference machine going.