How Drift is (Gradually) Owning a $1.7 Billion SaaS Category

By Victor Ijidola

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The chatbots market is well on its way to being a $7 billion industry.

Last year (2018), it settled at $1.7 Billion. It’s a huge and growing B2B SaaS market, and Drift is taking a huge percentage of it — although they now have other products besides their chatbot.

Fun fact: Drift is three years younger than their closest competitor, yet they’re winning more customers.

(No shade intended at all… only facts)

Drift's SaaS branding success vs. competitors

This is innovative SaaS branding at work.

Innovatively building a real SaaS brand

By definition, a real brand is one with a unique identity. If you’ve ever taken a branding class, the answer to what is a brand goes something like this:

“A brand is a product, service, or concept that is publicly distinguished from other products, services, or concepts so that it can be easily communicated and usually marketed.”

In essence, a real brand is one with a unique identity.

It’s one thing Drift has. And when you have a brand like that, you’ll be hard to compete with, because you’re operating on a different plane than others.

You’ll always own your own space — with new customers choosing your business for one major reason: street cred (your credibility in the market).

Unique SaaS branding brings street cred

Of course, they’ll eventually judge you based on your product and its benefits once they become customers, but that’s after they’ve at least signed up for a trial.

So at first, they will probably choose you because of your brand, your street cred.

It’s the play you’re seeing with Drift; they’re establishing a unique street cred by simply not looking like every other chatbot company.

Their central strategy: to NOT identify as a chatbot product, but as a conversational marketing tool. Or “The New Way Businesses Buy From Businesses.”

You might know them more for conversational marketing, but you get the idea: they’re not blending in with the same narrative their biggest competitors have been pushing.

Instead, they’re stirring a discourse around something bigger and different.

They’re arguing that consumers prefer conversations to things like filling out forms or waiting for queues on phone calls — and that is why they’re using chatbots more.

It’s a different narrative that Drift is pushing, and they’re winning for it — because customers pay attention to reasonable differences.

Customers pay attention to ‘reasonable differences’

I’m not sure I’ve heard the term reasonable differences anywhere else before. But since it drives home my point, I might as well use it.

The meaning is obvious: a difference that is reasonable. Or one that causes customers to pause and think.

It’s not just any type of difference. It’s a thought-provoking one that positions your brand in a class of its own.

Unique SaaS branding

The Reasonable difference approach has been working for Drift.

Everyone knows they’re essentially selling a chatbot product, but they’re not calling it that — since that’s what everyone else is calling it.

Instead, they’re calling it a conversational marketing product.

It’s a reasonable difference from the norm. And people are paying attention to it.

On review sites like TrustRadius, you’ll find customers calling Drift “a conversational marketing chatbot.”

Drift's unique SaaS branding results

And on Twitter, there’s now such a thing as #conversationalmarketing:

Drift's unique SaaS branding in action

They’re literally taking their industry by the hand, leading it where they want.

Slowly but surely, the term started picking up steam and Drift is enjoying all the fame and revenue that’s following it.

How Drift is Controlling a $1.7 Billion SaaS Category Click To Tweet

Now, the next section of this article may sound a bit counterproductive, but Drift’s entire marketing and B2B SaaS branding strategies are centred on “doing things that don’t scale” — or things you can’t measure.

“Doing things that don’t scale” for effective SaaS branding

TechCrunch’s Eric Eldon asked David Cancel — Drift’s founder — how they’re approaching growth at Drift, especially since they have virtually all the resources they need at their disposal.

“So we’re building community; we’re building relationships,” David answered.

“We call it ‘do the things that don’t scale.’

“We have a book, it’s free. You can go on our website and we’ll send you a physical book; it’s called This won’t scale. And it’s like 52 tactical marketing plays that we ran ourselves.”

By the way, several people took to Twitter sharing how awesome the book was.

There wasn’t any direct selling, but every Tweet kept mentioning the book came from Drift. Talk about a boatload of amazing PR:

Drift's SaaS branding strategy includes mailing physical books to prospects

It’s a free book but so valuable someone even wanted to pay for it and to start using Drift — solely because of the content of the book:

This way, Drift started building their community one person at a time.

“We started sending different gifts and things to people around the world and started to build this community one at a time,” David shared.

“We would send books to them; we had a podcast that was really about learning and books called Seeking Wisdom. And anyone who was interested in the book we were reading, we’d just mail them the book.”

But besides the books, Drift builds brand through several other types of content — because it builds relationships.

content Drift uses for their unique SaaS branding

They make most of their content ungated so everyone qualifies for it without having to give their emails or contact information as an exchange.

David also mentioned that when they try (and they do) to do things that scale — like gating content, for instance, — performance flies out the window.

In other words, when they do things that focus on engaging the customer in an unobstructed way, they scale. So doing things that don’t help them scale ends up helping them scale fast. Let me explain.

Doing things that don’t scale helps you scale, eventually

Doing things that don’t scale, for Drift, means sacrificing scale for customer experience.

They do lots of marketing activities that aren’t measurable, knowing that as long as those activities solve critical problems for the customer, Drift becomes top-of-mind for them.

And when they try to actually do things that scale, they end up sacrificing quality or performance — because those things then kill customer experience. It’s like a paradox of growth, a term I just coined(?) — haha, but it works.

“Every time we regress, which we do, and try to go to the easy-to-scale, easy-to-measure kinds of things, the performance goes away… because everyone else [is] doing the same thing,” says David.

Conversely, when they focus on doing things that build great experiences for their target buyers like ungating their premium content or building a content hub that educates potential customers without aggressively trying to sell to them, they end up scaling Drift.

More importantly, they gain more brand recognition — street cred — way more than their competitors.

As I’ve illustrated above, doing things that impact the hearts and lives of customers positively in significant ways doesn’t improve growth metrics immediately.

But they solidify relationships with customers and build brand.

When I spoke with Drift’s VP of content Mark Kilens — and thanks, Mark! — he shared that they focus on using a mix of content and events to create amazing experiences for their target customers.

Specifically, they:

      • Ask themselves, “What do customers have to understand before they buy Drift?”
      • Ask these questions across all buying stages and keep creating content to answer them
      • Become a part of the buyer’s journey, easing them into making a decision with various types of content.

How Drift is Controlling a $1.7 Billion SaaS Category Click To Tweet

Now, here are a few examples of ‘things that don’t scale’ that Drift does to scale:

1. Driving trials through downloadable ebooks

Drift doesn’t try to finagle emails from their audience when they have premium content like swipe files or ebooks. Instead, they offer those resources ungated.

But once you click to read the ebook (or some other resource), their chatbot pops up asking if you’d prefer a downloadable version of it:

If you say yes, they reply to you with a downloadable version of the book — still without asking for your email in exchange.

But instead of asking for your email, they do something smarter. Right after sending you the link for the downloadable PDF, they ask if you’d like to learn more about using Drift on your site:

And if you’ve signed up for content on their site before, they make the ask even more personalized, calling out your site URL:

So while they’re not gating their content, they still try to generate demand, asking readers to try Drift.

It’s a smart strategy that puts customer experience first while asking (not coercing) them to sign up for Drift if they’re interested.

2. Twenty+ expert-written how-to blog posts per month

That’s about five per week.

Then they softly sell you their major product features in these blog posts — where they’re relevant.

This soft-sell approach creates a great experience for potential customers reading their content and eases them into converting. Here’s one of their blog posts, for example, where they’re contextually referencing their video feature.

They do this in roughly 10 posts every month; it’s a smart demand generation strategy.

Then Drift puts a CTA at the end of each content piece to drive sign-ups for an ebook or some other premium content piece relevant to the topic they’re addressing.

These things end up building an audience of marketers and salespeople for Drift, and customer numbers grow organically.

3. Drift Insider

This is where Drift’s video and podcast content lives.

In fact, if you’ve been anywhere near the marketing or sales industry these past few months, you may have come across this at least once.

They share everything about marketing and sales here, and they’re focused on using the content to build a community of marketers and salespeople.

Even more, they seldom create content around chatbot-related topics.

This might sound counterintuitive since that’s what they’re selling, but it builds their brand and gets them lots of love:

All this content sharing doesn’t sell Drift, not directly at least.

But it makes them a force to be reckoned with in the chatbot (and even in B2B, marketing, and sales) space.

In the end, the ROI from being a thought leader is way more than running some paid ads for your product to directly sell them.

That’s usually a race to the bottom; you’ll have to keep increasing your ad spend as competitors raise theirs.

But of course, doing SaaS branding the Drift way (AKA doing things that don’t scale) comes with its challenges too.

The challenge with doing SaaS branding like Drift

Here are four challenges you might come up against if you’re going the Drift way to build brand:

1. Time

Your team will need time to:

      • Think of unique ways to attract customers — ways other brands aren’t doing.
      • Create content and other marketing materials that are truly unique

On top of these, the first few days are probably going to be bumpy and slow, and ROI will not come jingling into the bank immediately.

David shared he and his cofounder had their fair share of doubts about their “unique B2B SaaS branding approach” while starting out too:

“For the first year and a half, the two of us (David and Elias, his cofounder) would look at each other and be like, ‘What did we do?’”

This illustration comes in handy here again:

So things get a bit rough during year one and two. But once you get your first few fans, things usually take off from there — as long as you keep those fans engaged with good content.

What then happens is they’ll start evangelizing your brand to their connections, creating amazing opportunities for your growth.

As the number of fans grows, so does your business.

(Of course, this is assuming your product doesn’t disappoint customers.)

Many will come for content, but leave with the product — if you’re strategically doing your content marketing, of course.

Next, you’ll have to deal with the uncertainty of your unique branding idea.

2. Uncertainty

While being different creates a competitive advantage, it also means you’ll be running your business on a concept that probably hasn’t been tried before in your industry.

So it may give you some level of anxiety because you’re just not 100% sure how it will pan out.

Would the uniqueness of the brand be a reasonable difference for customers?

Is it enough difference for them to pay attention?

These questions make your mind race and cause anxiety.

One way to curb the fear, though, and increase the likelihood your unique SaaS branding will entice customers, is to align it with something that already works.

Simply put, find a message your customers already accept, one other that brands haven’t started capitalizing on, and champion the story. Put a name on it too, so you own it.

For example, at Drift, they knew people already wanted to have conversations.

Most social media products have been successful because people actually want to be social and have conversations. It was a concept that was already working — the Drift team just had to align their messaging to it.

It was an existing trend they tapped into.

They knew they were building their brand on an idea customers already accepted, not some new concept that hadn’t been tested or proven.

This meant they could worry less about whether or not their unique branding would make a reasonable difference in the eyes and minds of their target customers.

So find something your customers already love doing and fit your brand in it — in a way no other brand has.

This will cut your anxiety by, like, half since you’ll be building your brand on a concept that already works.

3. Too hard or too messy

“Basically, we look for what other marketers won’t do because it’s messy, hard to measure, and subscale. Whereas everyone in marketing wants to look for massive scale and easy to attribute,” says David.

Oftentimes, what it takes to be reasonably different is what your competitors may consider too hard or too messy; it will require time, effort, and (of course) money.

unique SaaS branding can be hard but effective

For Drift, it may have seemed hard and messy to their competitors to write a book on an important topic and physically mail it to their target customers’ home or office addresses.

But it’s what it took to get into the hearts of their customers.

For your company, it can be something different than writing a physical book.

It could be:

      • Visiting your customers at their house on a weekend (of course, with discretion and/or permission)
      • Creating content on those important topics your competitors shy away from
      • Promoting content through effective channels everyone avoids because it’s expensive or for some other reason
      • Anything, really, that other brands aren’t doing

With critical thinking, brainstorming, and industry knowledge, you can single out things your competitors aren’t doing but which will get to the hearts of your customers.

It can be hard or messy, but do it regardless, or risk looking like everyone else in the market.

However hard or messy, personalize differently too

Everybody talks about how you should personalize things for your audience, but like Mark Schaefer recently pointed out at ContentJam, “The irony of personalization is that it’s impersonal.”

Goes without saying, but personalization has gone beyond “Hi {firstname},…”

In fact, many customers know that their name in your subject line means you’ve automated your messaging to them — which is good practice.

But it gets bad when:

      • The value you provide doesn’t match your customers’ interests
      • You don’t speak like they do — using their terms and mannerisms
      • Your content doesn’t feel like it’s for their type of business
      • Case studies on your website don’t feature brands that look like theirs

Don’t just personalize, build a structure that guides everyone on your team to personalize all their relationships with customers.

The Drift team would do as much as travel to meet up with their customers:

It’s hard, messy even — but it’s what it takes to build a brand customers respect and love doing business with.

4. Content staff

While researching for this post, I reached out to a couple of marketers asking if they had questions they’d like answered in this post.

Ramin Assemi from Close said he’d like to know how many people are involved in Drift’s content marketing.

I asked Mark, and he shared that they:

      • Have five in-house people working on content
      • Hire freelancers to help out
      • Partner with their customers to create content

Hiring the right people may be one of the major challenges you’ll face when it comes to content. You need folks who understand your customers or are willing to do research deep enough to understand them.

Here are a few places to look when hiring for your content marketing team:

      • LinkedIn: put up a post asking your followers to recommend their best content marketers
      • Referrals: ask your colleagues and friends in marketing if they know any great content specialists
      • A content agency with a great track record (yep, that’s us)

Capitalize on LinkedIn now

“We publish a lot of content on LinkedIn and a lot of times when people meet us, they’re like I’ve seen like 500 videos from you guys,” David shares.

“It’s because we’ve created lots of content there and it’s way more effective for a B2B audience than FB and other channels.”

Sharing content is every marketing person’s job at Drift, or so it seems.

If you’re anywhere in B2B, start creating content to share on LinkedIn.

It’s the #1 platform where you find decision-makers in reputable organizations actively engaging with content they find useful:

Your customers are on the platform day in, day out — scrolling their feeds endlessly, looking for great content to view or engage with.

Every content piece you share there is an opportunity for your brand to make an impression and build brand.

Focus on the customer, building brand one person at a time

“It’s a very small world; you have to treat people the right way,” says David.

He makes a salient point. It’s a very small world. The interconnection that exists within your customer base is wild. One customer can know ten others who can become your customers. So you really want to treat each person well.

From how you build your team all the way to how you attend to each customer, make a conscious effort to make their day.

“You basically have to look for things that other people won’t do because they’re too hard or too messy or, you know, are hard to attribute.”

In a nutshell, focus on creating an amazing experience for customers in a unique way.

Need help with content? Let’s talk…

Author avatar

Victor Ijidola

I help B2B and SaaS businesses plan and create customer-focused content that gets bottom-line results. And... fun fact: my work has been featured on sites like Entrepreneur, NeilPatel.com, Moz, The Next Web, and many others.

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