The Top Go-to-Market Channels to Grow Your SaaS Business

By: Michael McEuen

First-time founders are obsessed with the product. Second-time founders are obsessed with distribution.”
– Justin Kan

As a bootstrapped founder, you’re always thinking about improving your product and growing your company. In our experience, the question bootstrapped SaaS founders need to be asking is: how do you get your product into the hands of more customers? Because in SaaS, distribution is oxygen.

There are five primary GTM distribution channels to consider for growth:

  1. Product-led growth (PLG): Let your product speak for itself through free trials and self-service demos.
  2. Sales-led growth: Actively target and pitch potential customers.
  3. Marketing-led growth: Build awareness and excitement through content, campaigns, and a strong online presence.
  4. Referral-led growth: Enable happy customers to spread the word.
  5. Partner-led growth: Leverage the reach of other companies through resellers, integrations, or joint marketing efforts.

The key is to identify and then focus on the pillar that best suits your business.

To help unpack this concept, we hosted a webinar with Camille Trent, Content Director at Teal, and Mainsail’s, Michael McEuen. In the webinar, they break down the five primary GTM distribution channel strategies and presented the pros/cons of each to help identify which strategy your company should focus on.

The key takeaways are below, and you can also watch the recorded webinar here.

#1Product-led growth (PLG)

Product-led growth is a GTM strategy in which growth is driven primarily by the product itself. Good examples of companies with PLG include Canva, Miro and Grammarly.

Your company might be a good fit for a PLG-based GTM strategy if you have the following:

  1. Product with quick time-to-value examples. Easy to create an elevator pitch around, easy to understand, and simple to start, so customers can quickly find value within the product on their own.
  2. Easy-to-use interface. Users can understand and work within simple UIs without requiring help from a sales/success team.
  3. Product that complements team workflows. Horizontally based, meaning that either the entire team — or many teams — can set up and use the product easily.
  4. The end users can influence purchase decisions. Does the entire team use it? Are there many end users, and do they have a say in whether the product is purchased at the business level?

Most companies with a PLG strategy ground their acquisition and conversion models in free, self-serve trials. But — not all products thrive within a self-discovery environment.

Using PLG as a growth strategy would not be ideal if your company has:

  1. Product that is complex to stand up (i.e., one that requires human interaction and walkthroughs).
  2. Products that need a rep to communicate the value.
  3. Enterprise buyers with decision-makers who won’t use the products and see the value directly themselves.

A PLG-based strategy can work for bootstrapped companies if founders remain strategic when it comes to cost-per-acquired customer. But PLG can wreak havoc when it comes to running a profitable business in the early stages of growth. It requires higher R&D upfront costs, which may be a better fit for venture capitalist-backed start-ups.

Tips for implementing a PLG-based strategy

Think in terms of growth loops
Fast-growing apps such as Notion, Postman, Figma, Mira, and Airtable attribute much of their growth to the fact that they share product templates to the open public. This means they can integrate product templates from partners, large businesses, or individual creators who can then use, showcase, champion, and incentivize new users that help grow the product.

“It’s simple: You have users who utilize your product, so they are creating content for you. How are they setting up your product? How do they use features and functionalities within it? When this happens, you can package that content up and share it with potential customers.” –Michael McEuen

Make onboarding easy and intuitive
If you’re banking on a seller-free experience, your onboarding experience has to be fully self-serve. In your demos, trials, and onboarding sessions, ensure your users know how to get started and how to succeed, seamlessly.

Small touches matter, as does personalization. A few ideas:

  • Add a progress bar to the initial setup so customers know how far they’ve come.
  • Include messaging to help direct next steps.
  • Send an email if they don’t finish the demo to help nudge them across the finish line.

An example of a great onboarding process comes from Superhuman which sends its initial onboarding email from the CEO. New customers can respond directly, ask questions, and provide feedback, which goes back to the Superhuman team, creating a completely personalized onboarding experience.

#2Enabling a sales-led growth strategy

A sales-led growth motion relies on the outbound sales team actively reaching out to target customers, introducing your software, and using sales strategies to qualify and close deals. Classic examples of companies deploying sales-led strategies include Salesforce, ServiceNow and ZoomInfo.

Where does sales-led growth shine?

  1. When increasing the average contract value of your customers and building relationships to go upmarket.
  2. For companies with strong investment in SDR culture.
  3. For products where decision-makers don’t always use the product.
  4. For complex products that are difficult to onboard and require customization.

Where is sales-led growth not a good fit?

  1. SaaS businesses that offer month-to-month low-cost tools customers purchase on a credit card.
  2. Companies whose initial founder-led sales program had trouble gaining traction.
  3. Companies that can’t afford or don’t invest in front-line managers, RevOps, and sales enablement.

Tips for implementing a sales-led growth based strategy

Define your ICP and get your TAM in your database.
To make a sales-led GTM motion work for your company, you have to have a firm grip on your ideal customer profile (ICP). To define your ICP, work with your Sales and Marketing teams to identify characteristics of your best customers, such as:

  • Industries
  • Revenue
  • Employee size
  • Job titles

Next, review sales metrics like win rates, average deal size, customer churn, NRR and NPS . Identify the customers who are and have been a good fit for your product.

Then, segment your customer base. Find out who loves your product and try to clone them in the market. To empower your SDRs, build out target accounts and contact lists.

Invest in your sales culture and coaching
Don’t forget that your front-line sales team has it tough. Many are entry-level in their career; they lack training; and they spend their days getting rejected. By investing in their development and the culture of your SDR team, you can make a real difference in developing this group.

Michael provided a few specific ideas for bolstering your SDRs:

  1. Celebrate the difficult and small moments, not just the wins. Offer SPIFFs for a variety of outcomes, not just for the wins.
  2. Personalize SDR/AE coaching based on individual style, and continuously train them on the product, sales process, and objection handling through group call reviews.
  3. To keep motivation high, implement gamification and leaderboards within your sales teams.

Invest in sales enablement
The impact of Sales Enablement is too often overlooked and underestimated. Your reps need tools! They need to get social, to streamline their processes, and they need help from other teams, like Marketing. Sales Enablement can offer reporting tools, systems, and software so SDRs can understand their progress and whether they are hitting their goals.

#3Moving the needle with marketing-led growth

A marketing-led strategy prioritizes driving awareness and excitement around the business by attracting potential customers to your website, content, or product demos. HubSpot, Zendesk and Mailchimp are prime examples — especially HubSpot, which made its name through content marketing and now owns entire conversations around marketing.

Marketing-led growth is all about positioning: what is your stance? What is your brand’s POV? How can you rally your ICP around your product? How do people see your company? How can you become a favorite brand through your content and the way you present yourself?

Marketing-led growth works particularly well for:

  • Companies with a dedicated inbound sales team.
  • Products with free trials that are not required.
  • Audiences that are active on social platforms.
  • Reaching large audiences and multiple team members (amplify your content!).
“Marketing-led growth is one-to-many. If you’re worried about headcount, amplification helps get your brand and exposure out there. At Mainsail, we found distribution of marketing-led growth to 65-70% sourced revenue. It is a key driver at the early stage of a SaaS business.” –Michael McEuen

Marketing-led growth is not ideal for:

  • Products with poor customer reviews
  • Prosects who are hard to reach on digital (not active on LinkedIn or Facebook)
  • Sourcing opportunities for reps in the field (micro-territories, small-TAM products)

Tips for implementing a marketing-led strategy

Create a strong POV and story
In marketing-led growth, your story is your strategy. You need to understand your pitch and why you created your product, then communicate that. Andy Raskin, a coach in strategic narrative for CEOs, breaks it down as follows:

  1. A strong POV helps you stand out.
  2. Paint an enemy: If your product doesn’t solve a problem, you have an issue. Sometimes, the “enemy” is the old habits your audience uses to get work done.
  3. Tease a promised land. Show what success looks like.
  4. Your features should help customers get to the promised land. Tie each feature to benefit.
  5. Lead with the voice of your customers. Reviews, feedback, Gong calls, case studies. Clear and simple messaging.

Invest in organic search and content
The average cost per click on Google search for B2B is $3.33, according to Wordstream. This can get expensive for bootstrapped companies, which is where organic search and content strategy comes into play.

Don’t produce content in a void. Consider what pillars, themes, topics, or bottom-of-funnel (BOFU) content to build out, then create topic clusters to drive your content production. Review how many people are viewing your pages, clicking on content, signing up for demos, and converting. Find what resonates and produce more content around that message.

Focus on improving conversion rates. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Navigating your website should be seamless for your potential customers. To ensure this, experiment with and test your landing page layouts, special offers and forms. Try tools like HotJar or FullStory to see where users are spending time on your site and adjust accordingly.

When you get a lead from your channels, reduce friction in the marketing funnel as much as possible by focusing on increasing your team’s speed-to-lead and nailing the SDR to AE hand-off.

#4Boosting revenue with referral-led growth

Word-of-mouth referrals are powerful. They often lead to faster deal cycles and higher lifetime values, make your sales team’s lives easier, reduce churn, and improve NPS. The downside? This motion isn’t easy to start with.

Tips for implementing referral-led growth

The easiest way to get a referral is to ask for one just after a sale. Your Sales team has spent time building rapport with a decision-maker who is hopefully excited about the product, which means it is the perfect time for the AE to say, “We’re thrilled to work with you – know anyone else who might be interested in what we have to offer?”

You might also request a referral after a high NPS score submission or a great CSM touchpoint.

A more difficult but plausible route for referral-led growth is to test a customer referral program. Be warned: incentives like a $300 gift card or a partner affiliation don’t work as well as you might hope. In our experience, tangible goods work the best. Think: a limited-edition pair of Nikes, a fancy steak dinner.

Referral-led growth as a primary strategy won’t ever be a huge lever to pull for your business.

Sidebar: Community-led growth

Traditionally, community-led growth falls under marketing. But there’s a shift in the industry in which at least  50% of the Cloud 100 companies are investing in community-based websites.

Their strategy has been to build a forum of customers who interact, grow, and learn from one another, as well as request features and functionalities of the product from your team. Some complex forums even include leadership boards and certification boards.

If you’re just getting started, a simple LinkedIn or Facebook group can allow your audience to talk to one another. Ideally, this forum can lead to new sales and community-led problem solving that reduces support team tickets.

Keep in mind that this is a long-term investment.

#5Expanding through partner-led growth

In partner-led growth, companies rely on external partners to drive sales and revenue, creating a network of partners to perpetuate business. This can be challenging early on, but you can always use your network to expose your business to more customers.

Here are the types of partners to consider.

Value Added Resellers (VARs) and affiliates: Only works for select companies and is particularly effective for IT, MSPS, etc. Find power affiliates and super-advocates to focus your efforts.

Product integration partners: Particularly helpful for companies that offer integration tools. They can tell a “better together” story, which can also help build out content for organic search and your website. Consider reaching out to your non-competitors working within your industry, especially if there are bigger players you can integrate with early and often.

Co-marketing partners: Attracting new customers is difficult and expensive, but if you can partner with another brand, you can easily double your network. Be opportunistic. For example, if a lead comes in who’s not a great fit for a customer, think about whether that lead would be great for a company you’d like to partner with.

Launching the right GTM strategy for your SaaS start-up

Choosing the right go-to-market strategy is critical to your company’s success. It’s tempting to try several GTM strategies at once, but focusing on one core strategy that best suits your product, target market, and resources will give you better results than spreading your org too thin.

None of these strategies rely on one team to lead them; they all require collaboration across your entire company. So, experiment. Track your metrics, see what works, and adjust your strategy over time.

For an even deeper dive, check out our full webinar.

Mike is a Senior Director of Demand Generation at Mainsail. He helps Mainsail’s portfolio companies build, optimize, and strengthen their demand generation & sales impact strategies.
More by Michael McEuen
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