What’s really working in SaaS content marketing in 2019?
I wanted to go beyond best practices, and look at how the fastest growing SaaS companies are using content right now.
I analyzed 15,729 pieces of content from the fastest growing SaaS start-ups and uncovered:
- The 12 most common content types, and which types generated the most backlinks (there was a pretty big gap here, with the most linked content type yielding 178% more referring domains than the least linked content type).
- The 16 most common CTA offers used, including the three offers that made up half of all CTAs.
- A couple dozen unique content ideas I’d never thought of before, addressing a wide variety of acquisition, activation, and retention use cases. We’ll touch on a few of them below, and I’ll also give you access to the raw data with all my notes.
Before we jump into all the SaaS content marketing insights, a couple notes on methodology…
My intent going into this research wasn’t to do a broad quantitative analysis of the industry. There are other companies with access to better algorithms for those types of analyses. In my view, my strengths are as a strategist and creative thinker so it doesn’t make sense to compete with algorithms head to head on quantitative pattern recognition.
Instead, I wanted to focus more on the qualitative side of things. And actually review the content myself. Obviously, reviewing tens of thousands of pieces of content isn’t possible. So I decided to leverage the algorithms and tools to narrow down the highest performing content. And then jump in with my qualitative observations on that more focused data set.
So here’s the approach I took:
- I started with the SaaS1000, an index of the top 1000 SaaS start-ups ranked by 6 month employee growth. I wanted to focus on high growth startups, so I carved out a segment of companies whose employee growth was at least 15% over the past six months. This resulted in a list of 330 companies.
- I dropped the domains of these 330 companies into Ahref’s Content Explorer tool, which compiles a list of pages from all the domains and allows you to sort by various SEO and social engagement metrics. I filtered the results to only show new pages added between January and May 2019, because I wanted to focus on what’s working in 2019 not what has performed well in the past.
- This resulted in 15,729 pieces of content. I then sorted these by referring domains (how many unique domains were linking to the content). I wanted to look at what type of content was generating a lot of backlinks. This is an indicator of SEO value, but also shows:
- What types of pages are generating a lot of organic links. This can be viewed as an indicator of value by the larger market each SaaS is a part of i.e. what types of content external sites view as valuable enough to link to.
- What pages SaaS companies view as strategic enough to build links to through non-organic methods like link building outreach.
Is sorting by referring domains the best or only way to prioritize “successful” content? No. It’s just one angle to splice things up from, depending on your goals. But I thought it would be the most interesting one for this research project.
- What types of pages are generating a lot of organic links. This can be viewed as an indicator of value by the larger market each SaaS is a part of i.e. what types of content external sites view as valuable enough to link to.
- I picked the top 100 pieces of content that had the most referring domains for my qualitative analysis. This is the top 0.5% most linked content, of the fastest growing SaaS companies. Because the sample I was pulling was fairly small (100 pieces of content), I did my best to remove outliers and took a couple of sites out of the search like Vimeo and Imgur. These sites had a lot of user generated content that dominated the top 100.
The 12 Content Types Used by The Fastest Growing SaaS Companies
Plus, Which Ones Received The Most Links
So to recap: I pulled 15,729 pieces of content produced between January-May 2019, from the top 330 fastest growing SaaS start-ups. Then, I isolated the top 100 pieces of content that had received the most backlinks (calculated by number of referring domains).
Next, I visited each of these 100 pieces of content and manually reviewed them one by one. The first thing I looked at was what type of content framework each one could be bucketed into.
What types of content were being produced the most? And which ones were generating the most backlinks?
Ultimately, I identified a dozen content types. We’ll break down each type in a second. But first here’s the high level data on how often each content type was used:
As you can see, the three most common content types were feature announcements, tech walkthroughs, and landing pages. These made up 55% of the content frameworks used by the SaaS companies in the top 100.
However, how often the content type was used didn’t correlate directly to the average number of backlinks it generated.
Below, you can see each content type broken down by the average number of backlinks it generated per piece of content:
Here we can see that the content types that generated the highest number of referring domains on average were help articles, original research, and landing pages.
This points to a potential opportunity gap for SaaS start-ups looking to create higher performing content.
An Opportunity Gap for Producing Higher Performing SaaS Content
Below, you can see an overlay of the number of times each content type was used along with the average number of links generated for each content type…
One big potential gap that shows up in the chart is the help article framework (although the sample here is really small so best taken with a grain of salt). It was one of the least used frameworks, but received the most number of backlinks on average.
Another opportunity gap shows up for the original research framework, with the 2nd highest average number of backlinks but relatively low utilization by SaaS companies in the top 100. This echoes research I’ve done on this content framework in other industries as well. People like original research, but it’s not produced as often (probably due to the effort required).
Breaking Down Each Content Type
Plus, How the Fastest Growing SaaS Companies Are Leveraging Each Content Type in Unique Ways
Ok, so let’s dive a little deeper into each of these content types. What are the best ways to apply these in your SaaS? How are the companies in the list applying these frameworks in unique ways to maximize their results?
Below is a table of contents of all 12 content types. You can scroll down and browse through them all, or click the ones that are most interesting to you and get taken straight to the corresponding break down.
Breaking Down The 12 SaaS Content Types
Content Type #1: Case Study
Why Case Studies Don’t Typically Get a Lot of Backlinks, and Why You Should Still Use Them
These are the typical product case studies where a customer story and use case is highlighted to help explain a core feature or functionality of the software. These tend to be pretty dry and boring for everyone except the prospective user with a matching use case, so not a big surprise that only two pieces of content in our list falls into this category. A couple hypothesis on why case studies might not get a lot of backlinks…
- They’re viewed as sales tools and therefore highly biased.
- They don’t typically provide content that has wider appeal (beyond answering bottom funnel, product focused questions), and therefore are unlikely to have sites naturally linking to them.
Bottom funnel case studies definitely have their place in the marketing mix, helping push warm leads through the pipeline. However, I think there are opportunities for using case studies closer to the top of the funnel as well.
In the right context, I’ve seen more informational case studies perform extremely well traffic and backlink wise. I think the key is taking the focus off the product, and putting the spotlight on telling an interesting story about how to solve a problem your audience cares about – and then you can subtly tie in your product as a supporting character in that story.
Content Type #2: Company Announcement
How Segment Used an Otherwise Dry Company Announcement to Connect With Their Target Audience
Company announcements are another example of a standard piece of content that is usually dry and boring, but a necessary part of doing business. Whether it’s announcing a new funding round or some other company milestone or news, these often seem focused on investors and tech news outlets rather than reaching out to users or generating SEO value.
However, I came across a few interesting examples that bucked that stereotype and used company announcements as an opportunity to create linkable content that connected with users.
As part of their announcement of a $175M Series D round, Segment decided to create a 3,000 word retrospective piece detailing key lessons learned on their journey from a small seed stage startup.
This story appeals to one of their core target audiences, growing digital startups. And helped net them 70 referring domains in just over a month.
Content Type #3: Competitor Comparison
BackBlaze’s Unique Twist On Capturing High Intent Searchers
Competitor comparison posts are something we’re all familiar with. We Google a brand name we’re researching, only to find one of their competitors offering a “top 5 brands for X” comparison post (with their brand as a top choice, of course).
The truth is, these posts work extremely well for poaching high intent searchers from competing brands. And even though only 3% of the content on our list falls into this category, I think we’ll see this tactic become even more mainstream going forward.
One thing to note, and a possible reason why we don’t see a lot of these in our list, is that you don’t typically need a lot of backlinks to rank for these branded search terms. So companies might not be putting a lot of effort into manual link building here.
One unique twist I came across in the top 100 was an example from Backblaze, which created a post exploring the reliability of SSD drives. Backblaze offers cloud back up service, so someone searching for information on SSD drives would be a prime candidate for their product. And rather than targeting a specific brand, they created a post reviewing a more general competitive option to their service (people buying an SSD and backing up on their own).
Content Type #4: Feature Announcement
How CloudFlare Added 1.4 Million+ Users to The Waiting List for Their New VPN Feature Before Launching It
Feature announcements were the most common content type on the list, accounting for 22% of the content I looked at. This one is pretty self explanatory; any content that involves announcing a new product feature.
These are often focused on explaining the ins and outs of a new feature, both for existing users and as a way to capture the interest of potential new users. From an SEO perspective, they can rank well for search terms related to the specific feature that potential users might be searching for. And if the feature solves an important pain point or job to be done, it can also generate a lot of backlinks from industry sites and blogs.
One of the most interesting examples I came across was from Cloudflare, announcing a new VPN feature for their existing mobile app. Rather than just announce the feature when it was ready, they decided to pre-launch the feature with a waiting list.
This allowed them to build buzz around the feature before fully rolling it out, as well as slowly roll out the feature to a smaller initial test group and fix bugs along the way. I signed up for the waiting list myself, and clearly the strategy has generated a lot of buzz for their new service. The share trigger is also worth noting.
Content Type #5: Help Article
An Overlooked SEO Opportunity?
While help articles (aka knowledge base pages) accounted for just 3% of the content on our list, they also had the highest average number of backlinks. This might be driven by integration partners linking to key how to’s, or industry blogs pointing out popular product features.
I think this hints at the potential overlooked SEO value in a knowledge base. It could be worth exploring your knowledge base from a jobs to be done and SEO keyword perspective to see if there are any use cases people may be searching for that your help article could provide useful information on. Optimizing these help articles for both search ranking and as a potential conversion path into your product for new users could yield a new source of growth for your SaaS.
It’s also worth remembering that existing users may use Google as a way for searching and accessing your knowledge base, so on page SEO best practices should be followed regardless.
Content Type #6: How To
How SproutSocial’s Mega-Post Generated Backlinks from 324 Domains
The “how to” article is probably what comes to mind for most people when they think of content marketing. Pick a problem, and write a brief article explaining how to solve it (in most cases, just a compilation of other sites’ content Googled by the writer).
How to articles accounted for about 10% of the content on our list. However, it’s important to point out that none of them followed the standard approach described above. The internet is saturated with me too, generic how to content. To get a lot of organic links from your how to content today, it needs to be the definitive source on your topic.
That means covering your topic from all the important angles, providing high quality insights from expert sources, and providing the kind of depth and specificity that allows the reader to actually solve their problem without wading through a dozen other articles.
Like this 6,898 word mega-post by SproutSocial on how to use social listening:
It’s worth pointing out that the average content length of the how to articles on our list was 2,683 words, highlighting that these aren’t surface level fluff pieces.
Content Type #7: Humor
How 1Password Fooled Their Audience?
Humor focused content definitely didn’t top our list, used only a single time in the top 100. But the April Fool’s post by 1password generated 89 referring domains, so who says a little humor doesn’t have any place in business?
They also did a good job in this 318 word blog post of tying humor into a key selling point for their product, by teasing people who still use a notebook at their desk to keep track of their passwords.
A little humor can go a long way to building a stronger relationship with your user base, and has the potential for picking up a lot of links and shares if it strikes the right nerve.
Content Type #8: Landing Page
How Duolingo Won Backlinks from 431 Domains by Teaching Klingon (and How That Applies to Your SaaS)
Product landing pages were the 3rd most common type of content on our list, accounting for 15% of the top 100. Boilerplate product landing pages are relatively easy to produce, and can be used to target a wide range of verticals using the same page template.
Duolingo dominated our list for product landing pages, using a boilerplate landing page template for a variety of different languages available on it’s language learning platform.
The funniest example (and the one that got the most backlinks with 431 referring domains generated in only a couple months), was their landing page for learning Klingon.
But it wasn’t just “viral” languages like Klingon and Valyrian that cracked our list, they also had landing pages for regular languages like English, Japanese, and German that made the top 100.
Avoiding duplicate content “penalties” for product landing pages
The key to making these pages work from an SEO standpoint is making sure that you include vertical/segment specific text for each page. This unique text is how Google will differentiate one page from all the others using the same template. So make sure your target keywords are included in this customized portion of each page.
You can get more info on SEO for boilerplate landing pages in this guide, including this quote from John Mueller at Google explaining how boilerplate content is ranked:
“What generally happens in a case like that is we find the same text snippet on multiple pages on your website and that’s perfectly fine… What will however happen is when someone is searching for something just in that text snippet then all of these different pages are kind of competing against each other in the search results and will try to pick one of these pages to show and try to figure out which one is their most relevant… So that could be that maybe your category pages see more traffic but that would kind of come at the cost of your product detail pages seeing less traffic.”
John Mueller, Google 2018
Content Type #9: Narrative
How a Highly Technical SaaS Like RedisLabs Told an Emotional Story that Connected With Their Audience
Narrative content could be classified as any piece of content that tells a story. However, lots of content types tell a story on some level or include stories to illustrate key points. What sets narratives apart in my mind is the depth they go into the human and emotional side of the story being told.
These are pieces of content that create a deep emotional connection between the reader and the story being shared, often by revealing struggles and emotional vulnerability experienced by the subject(s) of the story.
A great example of this is a post by RedisLabs that shares the story of their first post on HackerNews and the emotional journey of getting their first follower.
When thinking about telling emotional stories, most people probably wouldn’t think of a highly technical SaaS product like Redis. But their story resonated with their audience of developers and tech founders, and yielded links from 126 referring domains.
Content Type #10: Original Research
How JetBrains Built an Original Research Growth Loop, and Streamlined High Value Content Development
Content that included original research of some kind generated the 2nd highest number of referring domains of the 12 content types explored here. Despite that, it only accounted for 7% of the pages on this list. This highlights a strong interest in original research, and a potential untapped opportunity for SaaS companies willing to invest in it.
Original research could be as simple as sharing the results of a customer survey, some market research (like this blog post), or anonymized user data if your user agreement allows for it.
Conducting this kind of research might seem intimidating, and it does require more work than throwing together the typical blog post. However, building out a repeatable process will reduce that effort over time. You can also explore the possibility of partnering with another non-competitive vendor or firm to share in the investment.
The Python Developer Survey by Jetbrains is a great example of building a repeatable original research process.
At the end of the page sharing results of a developer survey, they invite readers to share with colleagues. But most importantly, they ask the reader to sign up for their list to participate in future surveys or receive future survey results. This helps them build a mini growth loop for developing high quality original research. The more people who sign up to participate in their surveys, the better their research gets, and the more people it attracts.
Content Type #11: Tech Walkthrough
A Critical Type of Content for Customer Success
Tech walkthroughs were the 2nd most common type of content on our list, after feature announcements. But they were one of the lowest performing types in respect to backlinks.
A tech walkthrough is any piece of content that walks readers through a particular aspect of technology associated with a SaaS product or feature. It’s generally used to explain more complex aspects of back end technology, and is often geared toward developers who might require a deep understanding the tech in order to integrate it in their work.
You can see an example of this from CircleCI explaining what Orbs are (sounds very mystical).
The technical nature of these walkthroughs and the narrower dev audience might partly explain the low backlink numbers for this content framework. However, they’re a necessary workhorse to ensuring customer success if you have a more technical product.
And even if your user base isn’t made up of devs, I think there is still a lot of potential in tech walkthroughs to help laymen understand key points behind your tech. Especially if it’s tech that differentiates you from your competitors, and you keep the focus on how that creates better outcomes for the user.
Content Type #12: User Profile Page
How Greenhouse Created a “Powered by” Growth Loop (And The SEO Benefit Most People Overlook)
A user profile page is any kind of user generated page that exists as part of the SaaS product you’re delivering. Most people think of platforms and marketplaces when it comes to user generated content, but I came across a few examples from SaaS companies on our list.
Most of these were from job boards like Greenhouse, where the user received a company page under a sub-domain to post their job listings like this one from Magicleap.
The real secret of Greenhouse extracting SEO value from pages like these is in their “Powered by” logo and link at the bottom of the profile page.
One job post from Magic Leap generated 168 referring domains. And thanks to the powered by link, all that link authority gets funneled into the Greenhouse root domain boosting the authority of the entire site. This is happening across thousands of user profile pages.
It may be worth thinking about how your SaaS could add value with some kind of public facing page (or embedded widget, integration, etc.), and how you could use the “powered by” tactic to leverage the SEO value. In addition to SEO benefits, the “powered by” tactic can also be effective at boosting viral awareness and K-factor, creating a powerful growth loop.
Mapping the Content Funnels of the Top Performing SaaS Content
The 16 Most Common CTA Offers
Ok now that we know which types of content perform best, what next steps are these SaaS companies taking with visitors to maximize the value of their content?
As part of the manual review of each piece of content in the top 100, I also looked at what the primary CTA offer for each page was.
Most of the pages had multiple CTAs, so I subjectively chose what I thought was the most prominent CTA or the one that was most contextual to the actual piece of content. For example, lots of pages had nav bar CTAs (sign up, demo buttons, etc.). If there was another CTA that tied into the context of the article, I focused on that instead. Since it would likely be more relevant to someone actually consuming that specific piece of content.
I found there were 16 common types of CTA offers used…
As you can see the big three CTAs were Learn more, App download, and Sign up. Accounting for roughly half of all CTAs.
Then we had Suggested posts, Subscribe, and Gated whitepapers making up another 25% of the CTAs.
With a long tail of 10 other CTAs making up the remaining 25%.
Breaking Down The 16 SaaS CTA Offers
App download – Offering a direct download of an app
Demo – Sign up for a demo with a sales rep
Event – Promoting a live event
Feature waiting list – Add your name and email address to a product or feature launch waiting list
Feedback form – Asking visitors for feedback
Gated whitepaper – Offering some kind of gated content asset
Help article – Get more info from a help article
Learn more – Learn more about the product from a marketing focused web page
Open source – Invitation to check out some open source code e.g. on Github
Partner invite – Invitation to become an integration partner or affiliate
Sign up – Sign up for the product, generally freemium
Subscribe – Subscribe for newsletter/blog updates
Suggested posts – Suggesting similar blog posts to read next
Trial – Sign up for a trial subscription
Webinar – Sign up for a live webinar or replay
Powered by – These were found on user generated profile pages and linked back to the SaaS provider via a “powered by” branded link
The Importance of Understanding Buyer Paths In Your Market
The diversity of CTAs here highlights the wide array of education paths available to prospective buyers. Being aware of what paths are available to buyers in your market is important to designing the optimal buyer’s journey for your products.
Software buyers today have a wide variety of sources and types of content to help them choose the best product for their needs. And if your content path is missing a key piece to that puzzle, it could be an opportunity for a competitor to leverage that medium or topic to reach more of the market.
One example of this is offering a trial or freemium in a market where only paid sign up or sales driven demos are available. Or it could be a missing piece like not having a whitepaper covering a key job to be done for buyers. Or not having SEO blog posts to position you on key terms buyers are searching for.
Key Points to Remember and Action Steps
I hope that if you take away one thing from this research, it’s that content marketing doesn’t need to fit into the same boring box of “how to” blog posts.
There are dozens of unique, creative approaches you can take to reach your audience and educate them on the value of your product. And in a world saturated with noise and marketing pitches, getting creative about reaching your audience in an authentic way that delivers real value is mandatory if you want to stand out.
I encourage you to take the types of content outlined in this post as a starting point, not an end point. Try out some of the approaches for yourself. But push yourself to go beyond these frameworks and keep trying new things, with the intent of helping prospective buyers make the best decision and succeed in the outcomes they’re seeking.
The Importance of Content Research In Your Vertical
I’d also encourage you to conduct some of the same type of research in your own vertical or market. Each vertical will have its own unique set of high performing content types and topics. This broader SaaS industry research should be taken as a source of ideation and inspiration. But you really need to dig into the dynamics of your own market to craft the best content.
If you’re interested, I also encourage you to dig around in the raw data to see how this research was conducted and dive into some of the other metrics. The spreadsheet also includes the top 500 most linked pieces of content if you’d like to explore more on your own: