What Product-Led Storytelling Is And How It Drives User Acquisition
“Storytelling is the most underrated skill,” said Ben Horowitz, founding partner of Andreessen-Horowitz, in a Forbes interview. He continued: “You can have a great product, but a compelling story puts the company into motion.”
It appears many startups, including SaaS companies, took the words of Ben and other experts who signaled the importance of storytelling to heart.
The result? Brand storytelling became a trend:
But here’s the question: When purchasing software, do B2B buyers value stories about SaaS companies?
Not really. According to a study by Avanade:
“61% of B2B buyers report third-party sites and feedback from business partners, industry peers or social channels as more important than conversations with a company’s sales teams when making a purchasing decision for their company.”
So why would B2B buyers trust “feedback from business partners, industry peers or social channels” over your brand story?
It’s simple. No one wants to waste money or time on a product that doesn’t solve their problems irrespective of what you say about your brand.
David Ciccarelli, Founder & CEO of Voices, said it right: “You know what [your brand story] is—it’s what you tell your customers your product is going to do for them [that matters]. Does it deliver on the brand promise consistently?”
In a nutshell, while your brand story isn’t completely irrelevant, the story of your product—how it helps your potential users solve problems—matters most.
This ideology is central to product led growth, and it proves you’re better off using your product as the primary vehicle to acquire and activate users.
It also makes sense when you examine the growth of PLG companies like Slack, Atlassian, Zoom and others. Many of us don’t know what each represents as a brand. But it’s how valuable their product is to solving our problems or making our work easier that convinced us to become customers.
So how do you leverage the time-tested power of storytelling, wield it around your product, use it to get customers for your SaaS, and drive growth?
I examined SaaS companies doing it, and I found that you can achieve this by implementing what I call product-led storytelling.
What is product-led storytelling?
At its core, product-led storytelling is a product-focused form of SaaS content marketing. In more detail, it’s the art of crafting discoverable stories that show how your product will help people will overcome a specific challenge.
A couple of months back, I spent over three days tweaking this cold outreach cadence. I watched lots of YouTube videos and read several articles.
I was looking for the perfect template for cold-emailing a growth-stage SaaS founder. Once I found it, I rewrote and trimmed the email copy many times before hitting send.
Proceeding to visualize how my “busy” prospect will see this cold email, I realized I’d screwed everything up: I forgot to include the most important link in the first email. Without this link, the value I pitched made no sense.
Could there be a way to retrieve this email? My thoughts were racing, and I opened Chrome and typed into Google’s search bar: “how to recall email messages in gmail.”
I didn’t know or have a SaaS product in mind. I only wanted a solution to my problem. And I needed it right then and there.
Long story short, I found an article by DocSend on the SERPs (search engine results pages), which not only calmed me down with a warm story but ended with how a feature on their SaaS tool handled such disasters.
Through this experience, I discovered DocSend for the very first time and signed up for their free trial. It was and has been a lifesaver. And it wasn’t because I knew or cared about their brand story—it was because I saw how their product could help me.
This is what happens when your ideal customers find stories about your product when they’re looking for solutions to their problems.
The only challenge: How do you ensure they’d not only find it but sign up to use it at those times as I did? This is where product-led storytelling shines.
The case for prioritizing product-led stories
Product-led storytelling isn’t a revolutionary way to approach SaaS content marketing. The fundamentals of using content marketing to generate and nurture leads, as well as establish your SaaS brand as a thought leader, still hold.
But this approach requires a significant mindset shift.
First, it calls for the thoughtful creation of content layered with relatable stories that resonate with your ideal customers. For example, how DocSend’s content, which I found on the SERPs, began with a story of someone desperate to retrieve an email and immediately resonated with me right off the bat.
Also, it demands that you use each content piece to show (not tell) and properly educate prospects on how your product overcomes a problem for them. Doing this is critical, according to research by Simon Bel & Andreas Eisingerich. Their study found that the more you educate your prospects, the more it affects the relative technical importance of your product, as well as builds customer trust.
Finally—and this is often omitted in the content marketing mix—this tactic calls for you to approach the creation of each content as a long sales page. Aim to ensure any time an ideal customer consumes it, they’ll take action, sign up for at least a trial of your product, and start overcoming their problems that same moment.
You can see product-led storytelling as a process of blending content strategy, product storytelling and SaaS copywriting into each content piece you produce.
This isn’t another theory to wave aside.
Going with the PLG concept of using your product to acquire users, this theory works. And this is because each time ideal customers discover your product-led story, the chances increase that they’ll take action.
For example, product-led storytelling is the foundational theory Tim Soulo, Ahrefs CMO, leveraged to grow the company to over $40 million in ARR.
According to Tim in an interview: “My theory is that people first learn how to use your [product]. And they sign up because they know how to use your tool.”
In a Medium article where he shared how Ahrefs generates customers 24/7, Tim also said: “Each [Ahrefs] article is “a sales page” in disguise that shows readers how to solve the issue they were searching for with the help of our product.”
And it works well for Ahrefs. The intentional creation and distribution of product-led stories generate them over 230k organic visitors monthly. And they publicly admit doing this represents [their] “second-best marketing channel, sending [them] hundreds of new users.”
In an examination of how it helps Ahrefs to over 3k new users per week, Tim also confirmed this: “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.”
Product-led storytelling is vital across roles and departments
In Scott Hanford’s article Building a System for Growth, he reminded us that growth is a team sport. He went on to state that ultimately, “Growth is a system… a mindset.”
In other words, it’s not the singular job of your marketing, sales or product teams to drive growth. First, all hands must be on deck to ensure the product is great. And all eyes must be on end-users to help tweak the product based on what they need, what resonates with them and what captures their interest most.
When you see growth as a system, the priority of any go-to-market strategy you choose shouldn’t be to generate or increase metrics. It should be to infuse a mindset shift by helping your prospects visualize a better life possible with your product.
Sieve through all the campaigns Apple leveraged to ascend into the tech behemoth it is today. You’ll see they all aimed to change our minds using short, memorable stories.
The reason for this is simple: Once a mindset shift happens, potential users start nurturing the need to take action, as their brains make sense of the decision to use your product.
Kevin Simler, who has degrees in philosophy and computer science, captures it excellently. He said: “If a brain anticipates that it will be rewarded for adopting a particular belief, it’s perfectly happy to do so, and doesn’t much care where the reward comes from—whether it’s pragmatic (better outcomes resulting from better decisions), social (better treatment from one’s peers) or some mix of the two.”
So, it doesn’t matter whether your product, sales or marketing team steers your go-to-market strategy. As long as you get potential users to anticipate a reward for using your product (a mindset shift), you’ll not only earn their attention and interest, you’ll influence their decisions favorably.
Stories play an indispensable role in creating such reward anticipation in people’s brains. Stories help form relationships between customers and your SaaS tool, as they come to appreciate why your brand exists.
Paul J. Zak’s research discovered this: “The ability to quickly form relationships allows humans to engage in the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space.
By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed.”
And most importantly, stories help us move through the complex decision-making process of trading hard-earned money on a monthly or yearly basis in exchange for using your SaaS product.
In his article The Power of Storytelling and How It Affects Your Brain, Micheál Heffernan observed: “With around a hundred billion neurons and almost a quadrillion connections between the neurons, your brain is an extraordinarily complex organism—so complex, in fact, it borders on the wondrous. Yet it’s still a pattern-seeking instrument that looks to put the chaos of the world into some kind of recognizable order. Stories represent our most powerful and meaningful way of doing that.”
Again, in real-time, we can see this play out in sales- and product-driven customer acquisition motions.
I’ve already used the case of Ahrefs to show how marketing teams can leverage product-led storytelling to acquire and activate product users.
Another exceptional example is Mailchimp. Their content marketing includes contextual stories showing potential users how to solve problems with their tools. Also, they’ve taken things to a whole new level with the introduction of Mailchimp Presents.
Mailchimp Presents documents the stories and successes of their customers and is shared heavily across social media channels. This way, potential customers can see how other small businesses like them ignite growth using Mailchimp and can be lured into signing up.
Product-led storytelling in sales and product-driven motions
While PLG advocates giving value upfront by allowing users to trial your product, bringing in sales is critical for closing complex and enterprise accounts.
But even if it’s the product team steering your growth initiative, the primary goal is getting users to see value quickly and make sense of your product’s pricing.
In either case, you’d perform better with product-led storytelling, as is evident in two popular product sales decks to have graced the SaaS industry.
In both cases, marketing expert Andy Raskin observed that these sales decks perform so well by flashing the dreamlands their target audiences crave and the challenges they must overcome to get there in the form of stories.
They also ended the decks with success stories showing how to overcome those challenges and access that dreamland using their products.
But Drift and Zoura are big brands with deep pockets and connections to land spots at major events where such sales decks work, you say. Will product-led storytelling work in a product demo scenario?
Again, DocSend proves it will.
Courtney Chuang Narrated how DocSend leveraged product-led stories to significantly improve the performance of their product’s sales pitch deck. According to her, they ditched their original branded sales deck for a sales story “focused on developing a strong narrative in which [their] product could live.”
The result of doing this spoke for itself. Going on to share more insights, Courtney said: “The ‘secret’ to sales content that closes more deals? A powerful story. And that’s a lesson we learned firsthand when we decided to overhaul our own sales deck.
With our old sales deck [which weren’t crafted with product-led stories], only 17.5% of all viewers made it to the last slide, and you can see the steep dropoff after viewers open the deck.
Now, [after injecting product-led storytelling] 65.4% of all prospects who open our deck click through to the last slide, and, what’s more, our new deck is actually two slides longer.“
Recommendations to implement product-led storytelling
Naturally, storytelling has a way to make difficult things memorable, like your product’s features and how your product solves problems. In fact, a study by Stanford University found stories make facts and figures 2200% easier to remember.
Take a close friend of mine, for example. She ran from science class to pursue a career in arts because math, chemistry, and physics “were too tough.”
But to this day, she vividly remembers the story of how Isaac Newton came up with the law of gravity after observing an apple fall from its tree.
The funny part is how, even now a fashion designer, she still remembers the figure assigned to the gravitational pull on the earth: 9.8m/s2.
That’s how powerful an excellent product-led story can be.
Product-led stories create a mindset shift, helping prospects to always remember how your product can help them overcome their challenges and reach their goals.
And then, when you show how someone can practically overcome those challenges with your product, product-led stories stir them to action. The action here could be anything from acquiring trial users, paid customers, to even getting a non-customer share your story to their network, introducing your product to new people in the process.
But here’s the thing: Product-led storytelling isn’t revolutionary to SaaS content marketing. I must stress this because the fundamentals of creating these stories with content marketing best practices are critical. Doing this ensures you keep the strategy, discoverability and distribution of each story you create in mind.
Where it differs from regular content marketing is in the execution of each piece of content.
Each product-led story you create must aim to show how ONE of your ideal customers will overcome ONE problem. Before you even start creating content, look through all of your target audiences and pick just one ICP (ideal customer persona) who will benefit from consuming it, and create your content exclusively for them.
Next, consider each piece of your SaaS content a sales page. Show anyone who reads it how to solve a problem with your product, getting them to take action and start solving the problem right there.
To do this, you’ll need to blend content strategy, product storytelling and copywriting into every piece of content you produce.
The last thing to think about: promotion. How will prospects discover your product-led stories? Don’t resort to copycat content in an attempt to meet ever-changing SEO ranking factors. After all, every story has to be original.
If it’s not possible to use SEO strategies to help your piece of content rank, turn to alternative distribution channels like paid ads on social media, or promotion in relevant community forums. Just remember: Always start stories with your end users in mind.
We’re looking at the changes companies like Snyk, Stripe, Mulesoft, Confluent, DataBricks, and more made over time to align their front-door and side-door channels.