“My theory is that people don’t sign up for your [SaaS product] and then learn how to use it.”
Tim Soulo, Ahrefs’ CMO, continued:
“My theory is that people first learn how to use your [product]. And they sign up because they know how to use your tool.”
Is this some Ukrainian theory (where he comes from) Tim used to hack Ahrefs growth, reaching $40 million ARR?
It’s far from a magic wand.
Rather, it’s a predictable SaaS customer acquisition tonic most founders and executives ignore.
What’s a better name to summarize Tim’s theory or SaaS growth tonic?
I’ve never heard of that before, you say.
Coined by me, product-led storytelling is a:
“…product-focused form of SaaS content marketing. It involves the art of crafting helpful, discoverable stories showing how your target audiences can overcome obstacles, using your product.”Victor Eduoh.
I’d show you how Tim and his team at Ahrefs apply product-led storytelling to this day.
As you’d see, this tactic is a primary driving force of the company’s over 3,000 new users per week:
Amazing figures, right?
What’s even more breathtaking?
It’s easy to adopt Tim’s product-led storytelling tactics and grow your SaaS too. I’ve broken everything down to 3 easy steps you, also, can start implementing today.
On to the first step.
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Product-Led Storytelling, as the Name Goes, Starts with a Great Product
And that’s exactly where Tim began this incredible growth story.
Because, even though I’d love to contest it as a SaaS content strategist, great products sell themselves.
Well, maybe not as fast as one backed with great marketing. But just as goldfishes can’t hide, great products get discovered one way or another.
This reality gave birth to Product-Led Growth (PLG), as pioneered by OpenView Partners.
They define it as follows:
“Product led growth (PLG) is an end user-focused growth model that relies on the product itself as the primary driver of customer acquisition, conversion, and expansion.“OpenView Partners.
In order words, when you have a solid product, users happily refer it to others.
Openview Partners went on to explain this concept, using Slack:
In summary, great products, through word-of-mouth, organically sell themselves.
As I pointed out, this is the first thing Tim ensured when he joined Ahrefs in 2015.
His core belief?
“Marketing only works if the product is great.”
So, in an interview with Leedfeeder, Tim admitted that throughout his first year at Ahrefs:
“He didn’t do a single activity that was traditionally classified as “marketing.” He did not produce any content, make any videos, or run any ads.
Instead, while others continued “traditional” marketing like creating content — he went to work on the product and the user experience.“
Those efforts weren’t only critical; they paid off big time.
First, because the product became great, people happily identified with the Ahrefs brand, as well as introduced it to others offline.
Some months after Tim joined Ahrefs, he attended a digital marketing conference. There, SurveyMonkey’s int’l marketing director initiated conversations with him just because he wore Ahrefs branded T-shirt.
According to Tim, not only did Eli Schwartz talk to him:
“He proceeded to introduce me to a lot of other people at that conference, and he kept dropping phrases like:
Ahrefs is the best SEO tool ever; their data is just absolutely incredible; they blow their competitors out of the water, etc.”
However, even after getting the product to “great” status, Tim didn’t stop there.
He did more work on the Ahrefs product user experience by “…envisioning the user journey, and improving it,” according to Leedfeeder’s report.
This is paramount because the user experience of your SaaS tool is a crucial business-driving factor.
Users will gladly pay more for a better experience. A study by Salesforce confirmed this, revealing that 80% of customers take the experience a product provides seriously.
Again, is Tim’s improvement of Ahrefs user experience paying off?
Users, even without any solicitation from Ahrefs, now give fantastic online reviews of the product:
Lessons From Ahrefs Product-Led Storytelling First Step
Ensure to have a great product. And that’s a no-brainer.
Goldfishes don’t hide.
So, having a great SaaS tool – one that solves a real problem for your target audiences – will grow organically.
People may not find it from viral PR stunts or million-dollar-backed advertising campaigns. But, once they do, they’d not only stick to it, they’d tell stories about your product to others.
This will earn you word-of-mouth advertising, which drives the most organic growth.
But, what if your organic growth isn’t sustainable?
What if you’ve built an amazing SaaS product, yet no one talks about it?
I got you covered.
You don’t fold your hands and hope for users to start telling friends or colleagues about your product, as PLG advice.
Hope isn’t a business strategy.
Again, you do what Ahrefs is doing to capture about 12,000 users/month, going by their homepage data.
How to go about it?
Let’s proceed to Ahrefs second product-led storytelling growth secret.
Strategic Creation & Promotion of Product-led Stories
In an ideal world, having a great product should be enough to land a billion-dollar business.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world.
Worst still, competition in SaaS is now synonymous with the word, Sa-turated.
And that’s because, currently, over 7,000 SaaS tools yearn for the same share of the market as you.
No wonder, prominent Venture Capitalist, Ben Horowitz, said:
“You can have a great product, but a compelling story puts [your] company into motion.”Ben Horowitz.
In their case, Ahrefs have SEO tool behemoths like Moz, SEMrush, Helium10, etc., to contend with.
And they knew they couldn’t overcome these giants, waiting for users to tell others about their SaaS tool.
So, to put their company in its present enviable growth motion, they turned to content marketing.
But, this wasn’t to create some random content pieces, Ahrefs does hardcore product-led stories.
How exactly do they do this?
Immediately after he made the product “great,” Tim Soulo switched his attention.
He began to strategically create and promote stories of the Ahrefs product.
Most importantly, each story addressed a problem faced by its target audiences. And showed readers how to overcome the same using Ahrefs easily.
Key-phrase: “showed how to solve problems with Ahrefs, meaning each story revolves around the tool.”
In other words, they went all-in on product-led storytelling to acquire users.
Again, has this been pivotal in Ahrefs generating over 3,000 new users per week?
Absolutely. And they openly admit it.
Tim Soulo first revealed it in a 2018 interview.
He told the interviewer, Si Quan Ong:
“For most of our new users, when they sign up, they tell me:
I read your articles. I saw how you use Ahrefs for this, and this made me sign up.”
He wasn’t lying:
Does this product-led storytelling growth hack still work for Ahrefs today?
Si Quon Ong, Tim’s interviewer in 2018, now telling Ahrefs story in 2020 said:
“The Ahrefs blog gets over ~230,000 organic visitors per month.”
“Besides word of mouth, this is our second best marketing channel, sending us hundreds of new users…”
Want to see exactly how they do it in action?
How Ahrefs Implements Product-Led Storytelling
Every story published by Ahrefs is a walkthrough showing how to do something or overcome a challenge using their product.
The story I got the screenshot below gave a broad view explanation of what content hubs are—[For SaaS; I call it the content topic clusters strategy].
But most importantly, it also showed readers how to create content hubs, using Ahrefs tool:
The next one is from a story, detailing proven ways readers can drive website traffic.
It showed how to generate high search volume, low competition keywords, using Ahrefs:
In short, Ahrefs mostly publishes stories on topics where they can showcase their tool.
Another example is their story for the wildly popular search term, “free SEO tools.”
While they did a wonderful job, listing 44 free tools for readers to choose from, they made sure to include all their 6 free tools.
And got thousands of shares for this content (like most get).
Their free SEO Toolbar was 12th on the list:
Their free Keywords Generator was 3rd:
Also, like most of these stories do, after helping readers overcome a challenge, it ends by inviting them to trial the Ahrefs tool:
Now that’s product-led storytelling in practice.
You create stories relevant to your target audience queries or challenges. But ensure to show them how using your product makes overcoming such problems easier.
Common sense, right?
How to Emulate Ahrefs Product-led Storytelling Tactics
As established earlier, you don’t build a great product, and hope users will find it magically. Nor should you hope on existing customers to tell others about it.
Again, hope isn’t a business strategy; neither is it a story-discovering one.
Hence, no matter how good your product stories are, no one will find it if it’s buried in your blog.
You’ve got to have a promotional strategy cap on even before you put pen to paper.
That’s what Ahrefs does exceptionally well.
They optimize all their product-led stories for the search engines excellently. Doing this is Ahrefs primary promotional strategy.
Type any of “seo tools,” “seo strategy,” “how to build backlinks,” etc., into Google’s search engine. And you’d find stories by Ahrefs in the top 5.
The reason for doing this?
Once you rank your story on search engines, you’d drive passive traffic [leads, and customers] each time someone finds your content on the SERPs.
However, to achieve this feat, you need to understand SaaS content marketing at a broad and micro level.
Next, you need to develop a SaaS content strategy specific to your business case.
Better if your content strategy powers your SaaS product to create a new category (or build topical authority).
As you saw, Ahrefs built topical authority for topics relevant to their product. They’ve done this by structuring published stories, site, and blog like this:
This is the same strategy Grammarly leverages to power its marketing strategy to acquire millions of customers.
Finally, you need to master the art of writing excellent SaaS content pieces.
Note: All links in the last 6 paragraphs are to articles where I detail the entire process.
Go ahead and check them out later; they’d help you a lot.
Other Ways Ahrefs Promotes it Product-led Stories
Now, your target audiences may not go to the search engines to find such stories. And sometimes, you can’t rank your story due to high SERPs competition.
In other words, can you get your product-led stories across to prospects even if they didn’t ask for it or can’t find them?
Of course, most people, including your ideal clients, hang out more on social media platforms.
So, you can get your stories across to your ideal audience, and drive growth, as Ahrefs does.
As you saw, first, they carefully craft all their content to show how people can solve a problem using their tool.
You must do the same.
Doing this makes each story an educative sales page.
Because each story is a product-led story, solving a problem.
So, on social media, Ahrefs doesn’t ask people to sign up for their tool. Instead, they only promote those prominent product-led stories.
For example, in April 2020, these are the stories they promoted across social media:
Because this tactic works well for Ahrefs, they run minimal Google PPC campaigns.
Even when they do, it’s still to promote their product-led stories.
Remember that story on content hubs I screenshotted earlier?
Because it’s a hot topic and something their target audience craves, that was the only Google PPC campaign Ahrefs ran in April 2020:
Ahrefs doesn’t stop there.
Finally, with video now a thing, they have a YouTube channel, which repurposes each product-led story published on their blog into a video.
These product-led stories have helped them amass thousands of loyal subscribers. And thousands of people watch each story repurposed into a video.
Not only that, but they’re also all heavy with how to solve a problem talked about in each video, using their SaaS product.
But most importantly, do these efforts pay off?
In short, it keeps Ahrefs top of mind of even potential customers. It also makes the product their preferred option when they decide to buy an SEO tool:
Yes, Ahrefs implements other strategies to drive growth, such as podcast and event sponsorship, a Medium publication for posting regular stories, etc.
You can learn more about these from this excellent research by Tom Hunt of Saasmarketer.io.
However, their product-led storytelling efforts outlined here is how they drive the most growth.
That’s something they publicly admit:
Ready for the most significant discovery I made while researching this story?
That’s the third and final piece of Ahrefs product-led storytelling exploits.
Ahrefs Most Significant Customer Acquisition Drivers
Yes, they have a great product. No doubt.
As I’ve shown you, however, it’s not just the product generating Ahrefs enviable weekly customer acquisition numbers.
So what is?
It’s their incredible and strategic creation and promotion of stories about how the SaaS tool helps its target audiences.
By itself, the product, no matter how great, can’t generate over 230k organic visitors per month. Neither can it produce hundreds of thousands of YouTube video views per month.
So, what makes all these possible?
First, Dmitry, Founder & CEO of Ahrefs, hired a top-notch SaaS marketer, Tim Soulo.
Hiring Tim set the foundation for Ahrefs product-led storytelling strategy.
Do you still remember his words?
“My theory is that people first learn how to use your [product]. And they sign up because they know how to use your tool.”Tim Soulo.
Tim, in turn, went on to bring in an SEO specialist, Joshua Hardwick, as his first hire.
Doesn’t that explain why they rank organically for many keywords, driving over 230k monthly site visitors to their stories?
Again, Tim, knowing the value of product-led stories, surrounded himself with marketers who are more of storytellers.
First, it was Si Quon Ong, who interviewed him in 2018.
Then, others like Helen Stark:
And Sam Oh, who repurposes all those product-led stories into thrilling videos:
The end result?
Product-led storytelling in full force, as driven by those who excel at turning dry subjects into thrilling stories.
Takeaways from Ahrefs Driving Thousands of New Customers with Product-led Storytelling.
Start by ensuring your SaaS product is great. By great, I mean one that solves a real problem for people.
Do only that, and as the PLG concept postulates, you’d grow organically. Users who find your tool one way or another will tell others about it.
But if you want to facilitate growth, turn to product-led storytelling.
My definition of this concept is pretty self-explanatory:
“…a product-focused form of SaaS content marketing. It involves the art of crafting helpful, discoverable stories showing how your target audiences can overcome obstacles, using your product.”Me.
Don’t know where to start?
Like Ahrefs did, hire or consult a key person who’d install your initial push to drive growth via product-led stories.
For that, I humbly present myself. You can contact me here.
Want to go about it yourself?
Just be sure you understand SaaS marketing at a broad and micro level. Develop a content strategy unique to your business and be able to craft excellent SaaS content pieces.
Want more details about product-led storytelling and how other SaaS companies like MailChimp, Encharge.io, and DocSend power growth with it?
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