The Death Of MQLs And The New Era Of Product-Led Storytelling

“My theory is that people don’t sign up for your tool and then learn how to use it. My theory is that people first learn how to use your tools, and they sign up because they know how to use your tool.”

This is Ahref’s CMO, Tim Soul’s hypothesis on how to grow a SaaS company, and something he’s personally used to grow the company to over $100 million. 

Peter Theil (co-founder of Paypal) had some similar advice for all SaaS founders and executives in his book ‘Zero to One’ when he said, 

“Customers won’t care about any particular technology unless it solves a particular problem in a superior way.”

They’re both saying that customers will pay you in direct proportion to your tool’s ability to solve their problems.

It makes total sense, right?

On close analysis, you’ll see that Ahref has shaped the perceived value of their product (which is an SEO tool) through customer education. 

They have taught potential customers how to use their tool even before they’ve signed up. 

The result?

And Ahref is far from the only SaaS company doing this. 

Take Mailchimp, for instance. 

Their resource section helps you understand how you can use Mailchimp to succeed with email marketing. 

They also incentivize users to share their products and build customer loyalty with feedback loops. And this strategy has helped them acquire more than 11 million users over the years. 

This form of content marketing where you educate the user on how to use your product to solve their problems and succeed is called product-led storytelling. 

And it’s been widely used by companies like Grammarly, DocuSign, ClickUp, and many more. 

But before you jump ahead of yourself and conclude that it’s tied to product-led growth and relies on the freemium version of the tool to prove its value, hear me out.

First, let’s talk about what companies are still doing wrong in our user-driven, product-led era. 

The Traditional Way Of Acquiring Users

When 2020 drove individuals to return home, the necessity to meet buyers on their terms accelerated B2B enterprises’ digital transformation.

Buyers today expect the same ease of use in their business purchases as they do when ordering a book on Amazon or an Uber ride. 

Avanade’s global research further strengthens this argument. It points to the demand for consumer-centric sales processes in the B2B market and a shift in buying behavior that closely resembles consumer shopping behavior.

And this transition has ushered in a new era of B2B marketing and sales, where buyers want solutions to their problems and answers to their questions fast. 

They don’t want to fill pointless email forms that spam them with marketing emails and calls from undertrained SDRs. 

Plus, B2B buying is very different today than it was before 2020. To quote Latane Conant, CMO of 6Sense,

“B2B buying has become a much more fragmented experience, with each member of the buying team owning only a small piece of the transaction. In this new world, each member of the buying committee needs to be engaged at different times and with different approaches and value messages, all in the hopes of building consensus across a very diverse set of functions, needs, and readiness. You need to rethink the idea that an individual MQL is an indicator of where an account is in the buying journey.”

The problem is that many B2B organizations still use lead generating and demand creation funnels created ten years ago. 

The MQL process produces generic purchasing experiences and focuses on acronyms over people and leads over income.

Moreover, not every MQL will transform into a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL) even if they indicate interest by downloading your ebook or whitepaper. 

What do I mean by this?

Website visitors might download gated content out of curiosity and not with the intent of purchasing your product. 

Think of the situation as shoppers in a retail mall. Not every person who walks into a store intends to make a purchase. 

Also, SaaS buyers no longer want to give out their email address and get tagged as MQLs or SQLs.

That’s why you can’t rely solely on MQLs to bring qualified leads to your business. 

So, what’s influencing buyer decisions today? 

As per a survey done by TrustRadius, buyers are looking to experience the product before they sign up. 

It revealed that SaaS buyers trust the ‘product experience survey’ the most when purchasing software. 

Plus, 87% of B2B buyers who were surveyed said that gated content didn’t motivate them to become a lead.

It was either 

  • Their own experience with the product. 
  • Free/trial account. 
  • Referrals, or
  • Product demos 

This means that software buyers wanted to gauge the product’s value even before they’d signed up in one way or another.

And more than 60% of companies that embraced this shift in customer interactions reported a large customer base and a growth in customer loyalty. 

(Many high-growth SaaS companies, like Slack, Docusign, Lessonly, and others, saw this trend quickly and capitalized on it.)

Because clearly, downloading a template or a training guide does not mean the person is necessarily interested in buying the software. 

Lessonly ditched the traditional way of acquiring product users with MQLs and focused on product-led growth and product-led storytelling to drive customer acquisition.

Kyle Lacy, Lessonly’s VP of Marketing confirms this herself, in an interview with Better Product, admitted that it took a lot of will to say that they were okay with less leads. 

But she confirmed that using product-led storytelling has got more leads than they expected. Plus, she says they’re more qualified

Okay. So, before we go any further, let’s explore PQLs. 

PQL And Why You Should Consider Using it

PQL refers to any prospect that has experienced meaningful value using your product. 

Many of you reading this may argue that the way to experience a product is usually through a free trial or freemium, which isn’t always the ideal scenario for all SaaS tools. 

So, how do you make your prospects perceive the value of your products? 

And how do you do it in a way that makes them see the value of your product and become a paying customer?

Now, there are two ways to go about this. 

The first is through a viral loop—product-led growth virality like Slack’s. 

But there’s a catch to this method of user-led virality. 

What if they don’t talk about you? 

What if your happy customers don’t share stories of your product in a way that makes their friends and colleagues sign-up for your SaaS tool?

You cannot be waiting for the viral loop to set by itself and not do anything proactively, right? 

Fortunately, there’s a second way to drive growth without waiting to go viral. 

And in this day and age of user-driven growth, it’s called product-led growth (PLG) or product-qualified storytelling. 

It helps consumers perceive the tool’s value by showing them how it can solve their problems first-hand through attention-grabbing content pieces.

Your readers are taken through engaging stories which show them how to use the product to solve their problems even before they have signed up (just like Ahref does.)

Even Kyle Lacy Of Lessonly argued that there were too many competitors in the market today and it’s only your ability to tell a different story that differentiates and delivers a different value than just a feature set. 

In order words, Lessonly attributes its ability to attract prospects and product users to differentiating the story it tells.

As per research by Stanford University, stories make it 2,200% easier for prospects to remember the technical aspects of your product.

And Ben Horowitz, who is an influential VC to SaaS brands like Optimizely, Asana, Instacart, and dozens more, said: 

“Storytelling is a very underrated skill…

You can have a great product, but a compelling story puts [your] company into motion.” 

Using stories to attract and hold people’s attention isn’t a new thing. However, infusing your product into these well-crafted stories to attract, convert your ideal customers, and drive growth is.

You’ve to evolve your content marketing for meaningful engagements and experiences. 

Additionally, you’ve to create a process in which you can engage the customers throughout the buying journey because that’s what’s needed.

Because clearly, potential customers don’t want to be forced with MQL tags that don’t add any value to them (or you.)

But before we jump any further, let’s analyze the effectiveness of these content marketing campaigns. Do they work? 

Well, clearly yes. And there’s hard data to support these claims. 

A study has shown that content marketing, when done right, can generate 3 times more leads than traditional marketing and that it costs 62% less. 

Categorically, content is still king, which is why more than 4.6 billion content pieces are produced every day. 

However, with so much content out there, you must adjust the content to give your prospects what they want to succeed. 

Your content marketing should help customers see the value of your products and how it can help them solve their problems. 

And to reiterate Ahrefs theory, you have to teach customers how to use your product even before they have signed up. 

This form of product-focused form of content marketing is precisely what product-led storytelling is all about.

It’s the art of crafting discoverable stories to create meaningful experiences that engage users and turn them into trial users and ultimately paying customers. 

Product-led storytelling will allow you to attract your target audience and filter your ICPs. 

You can then engage the filtered ICPs with relevant stories that engage them and show them how your SaaS product/service can help them solve their problems (think case studies, product use cases, testimonials, ratings/reviews, etc.) 

Finally, you can persuade the user to trial your product with a CTA and some good copywriting. 

But product-led storytelling is not enough. 

You have to couple it with content marketing best practices and focus on optimizing and distributing the stories as much as creating them.

Plus, you have to align them with TOFU, MOFU, and BOFU queries to meet your customers at their stage of the purchase journey and tell product-led stories accordingly.

Here’s the 9-step solution to creating optimized content:

  1. Start with a benefit-driven headline or show a promise that this content will help them solve their problem.
  2. Hook the reader with stories and set the context right by calling out your ICP, i.e., only those who align with your business goals.
  3. State exactly what the customer will get at the end of your content and include a TOC.
  4. Take them through how your product exactly helps them solve the problem and include media (screenshots, videos, etc.) of your tool in action.
  5. Cover any additional queries and questions the user might have, and briefly touch on other relevant details.
  6. Include stats, quotes, and other relevant social proof and introduce the first subtle CTA to your product.
  7. Elaborate on a relevant use case or testimonials with outcomes similar to the ICP that that product story targets.
  8. Conclude with an invitation to trial your product and get started immediately with the solution to the problem. 
  9. Add a CTA to the product trial and use risk reversal to spur the commitment or action (no credit card details required, cancel anytime, etc.)

Product-led storytelling is user-driven and aims to deliver actual value to your prospects through your content marketing. 

You are not focusing on vanity metrics that get you nowhere. Instead, you’re focused on improving the product messaging that attracts and converts targeted customers. 

Not only that. But you’re also freeing up your sales and marketing team to focus on improving product experience and ensuring customer success through it. 

Product-led storytelling will help you focus all your efforts on a single source of truth which is your product. 

Plus, it’s what customers want and will help you deliver value-driven by your organization’s intent and purpose. 

Wrapping Up

So, does product-led storytelling work? The sure answer is yes. 

The traditional SaaS sales funnel still has its place, but Product-Led Storytelling is a better way to engage prospects as the B2B buying behavior has changed. 

Prospects now consume content from third-party websites and lookup reviews before buying. 

Product-led storytelling is the best way to align with your prospects’ wants and convert them into paying customers as it shows them how your product solves their problems. 

Companies like Ahref, ClickUp, TimeDoctor, and DocuSign are already using it to hack their way to success and convert customers one product story at a time.

So, don’t wait. Get started and help people see the value of what you create, engage them with meaningful stories, and prod them to trial your products. 

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