Keyword Research for SaaS & Subscription Services

Recurring Revenue is Magical, and it’s magical for only one reason: It recurs.

And this simple fact explains the move to subscription business models across most major industries – from the ecommerce box trend, to desktop software like Office and Photoshop – to media properties and even charities moving to monthly subscriptions.

But marketing subscriptions is different than marketing normal, one-time purchases – consumers have higher standards, consider more options, and often need to be continually resold on their original purchase.

There are tons of ways to growth hack your SaaS business or subscription company – but as you grow, Product Hunt and Hacker News will no longer move the needle – you’ll have to build a machine to sustain continuous growth.

Let’s look at how to do that with SEO.

In the most simplistic thinking about search marketing, you’ll want to market to people looking for your solution. But unlike keyword research for blogs or for lead generationselling SaaS with search take a different approach.

This distinction is important – because we’re not talking about something crazy different, after all, if you have a marketing automation platform, it still makes sense to sell to people searching for a ‘marketing automation platform’.

But search marketing can actually drive a lot more value for your business, by targeting people earlier in their buying process; getting them into your conversion funnel sooner thus maximizing lifetime value (LTV).

Driving Traffic Early in the Funnel

Let’s talk about how you can capture a potential customer’s subscription consideration set.

Before purchase, marketers think about the classic marketing funnel – where people move from unaware to aware to interested to desirous. You can apply this funnel to search marketing keyword research as well:

SaaS Keyword Marketing funnel

In this case, you can think about four stages of the consumer purchase journey – along with their complementary search marketing strategies:

  • Unaware of the Problem – Searchers don’t know that they even want what you sell – in this case, you want to build your audience and build your permission marketing assets like email lists.
  • Aware of the Problem – Searchers know they have a problem – and you can put yourself in a great position to find them with pain point keywords. These are queries like “slow website” or “increase email opens” – the searcher knows they have a problem.
  • Aware of Solution – Now that searchers know they’re looking for a “marketing automation platform” or a “sock of the month club”, you can rank directly target these categorical keywords.
  • Comparison Shopping – Then they compare you against the competition and make their final decision, which we’ll tackle in the next section.

Audience Development Keywords: Marketing to the Unaware

Many subscription services don’t correspond to a direct need.  And depending on what you do, your customers might not even know they have the problem your service solves.

Most people don’t know they need a group chat application, a predictive lead scoring system, or a box of healthy snacks every month.

That’s where audience development through search comes in.

If you can find out what your customers are searching for – before they’re even thinking about your service – you can build that audience (and email list and social audience) – and subsequently drive that demand down the funnel.

To find these terms, you can start with your competitors – but a better move is to start with media sites in your vertical that attract your audience. Think “If I was going to advertise on a site, which one would I advertise on?”

Then, use a tool like SEMRush to analyze these sites, and find out what terms are driving traffic to them:

SEMRush image

Then, you can use a tool like Term Explorer to expand and expand your keyword list and build on those phrases, and you can grab all these for free with Term Explorer ›

Term Explorer KW Expansion

These are great phrases for content marketing and building landing pages for very ‘top of the funnel’ visitors – who can be activated later.

Additionally, many of these keywords also correspond to highly linked-to content – so you can use the assets you make for these keywords in your link development efforts as well.

Pain Point Keywords

The next stage of the funnel is about reaching  potential customers suffering from the problem you solve – this can range from boredom with their kids on a Thurdsay night to a website that’s too slow to a sales force that lets deals fall through the cracks.

To find these keywords, start by brainstorming what problems your service solves – and how people might search for them.

For example, if I was marketing a caching plugin for WordPress, I would look for people who were unhappy their WordPress site was slow. They might search for terms like

  • WordPress Slow
  • Blog is Slow
  • Speed Up WordPress

And the like.  After coming up with a list of these, I would use Term Explorer to broaden my list, and help me understand where search volume was present, and which terms I could realistically rank for:

Term Explorer Term Rankings

Aware of the Solution

So once someone is aware of what they need – be it a “toy of the month club”, a “marketing automation platform”, or a “enterprise database”, their search behavior changes yet again.

These terms are probably the most valuable and most commercial – and at the same time, often have limited volume and the most competition, from both a paid and organic perspective.

This is particularly true in SaaS – if you focus solely on these terms, you generally won’t have enough volume to move the needle for your business.

Google Adwords Keyword Planner is a great tool for finding these kinds of terms – they tend to be obvious and competitive.

google adwords keyword planner

One technique here is to use a suggestion tool like Ubersuggest or KeywordTool.io to look at modifiers people are searching for around these terms.

ubersuggest term expansion

If you’re working with a newer or niche brand, you might not want to take on the top term – but instead go for the “argyle sock of the month club” or “fun sock of the month club”.

Winning the Last Mile: Comparison Queries

By this point, your keyword list should be very long, and contain many different sections as your potential customers move through the funnel.

But what about when people actually want to pull the trigger and sign-up for your service?

Google says that B2B decision makers today make more than 12 searches before they decide to engage with a brand – and you can bet many of those are later in the process.

This is almost where reputation management and acquisition-oriented search marketing overlap – you want to put your best foot forward to potential new customers.

Own Your Review

The search “[brand] review” is now done by just about everybody before they commit to something like a subscription service.

If your service requires a credit card upfront, this will almost certainly be a major part of your funnel – today’s consumer is simply too savvy to try something before understanding what other people think.

Take a look at this SERP on a regular basis.  If you have bad reviews, consider using some online reputation management-like strategies to improve this SERP.

If a crowdsourced review site (like G2Crowd or TrustRadius) has poor reviews of your service, consider asking high NPS customers to leave a review on that site.

Win the VS

In addition to the “[brand] Review” query, you’ll typically see a lot of queries with “[Brand] vs [Competing Brand]” – in categories ranging from enterprise software to consumer subscription services:

This query is important – it reflects a potential buyer that’s choosing between two options.

You can create pages for queries like this – some brands go as far as to make pages with very selective comparison between their work and their largest competitor:

zendesk vs groove this is bold

However, brands are inherently unbelievable for many potential customers – of course a company thinks it’s better than the competition.

While these pages can be very helpful – especially for new, challenger, ‘disruptor’ brands – they often aren’t trusted by searchers. Also, consult with your legal team before you take on this sort of strategy – different countries and industries often have different rules about competitive claims.

This is another area where encouraging happy customers to be public about their experiences – be it on their own blogs or a Q&A site like Quora – can be very valuable from a search marketing perspective. 

Alternatives and Coupons

One common pattern in *aaS searches is people looking for coupons.  If you have a coupons, you should consider having something here.

And even if you don’t have coupons, unscrupulous marketers will often try to pull your potential customers into their funnel.

It can even be a good idea to build your own coupon page – if people pick coupons from your page instead of RetailMeNot, you can both save money and have better control over the selection and assortment.

Another really common pattern we see here is ‘[BrandName] Alternative’.

If you’re comfortable talking about your competitors, you can get into their funnel – this is a particularly good tactic for scrappy startups taking on big players.

Conclusion: Win the Search, Grow Your MRR

Subscription revenue recurs – which enables you to build a great business.

But to earn that subscription revenue, you’ll need smarter search marketing.

By targeting a variety of keywords across your funnel, you can grow revenue without major new investment – and that means happy investors, happy clients and happy customers.

Good luck and Good Marketing!

3 Responses to “Keyword Research for SaaS & Subscription Services

  • This was informative. So I recently started using this tool call Rank Tracker Tool. It tracks keyword position, alexa ranks, competitors etc. So far so good. Here it is: http://www.ranktrackertool.com.

  • Great tips and I like the way you explained each step. I would normally use a combination of Serpstat and Semrush when analyzing sites and carrying out competitor analysis. That way , i get more results.

  • Actually, the default order for results in Google s keyword research tool is relevance. It tries to give you terms that are the most similar, and you ll see a mix of terms with higher and lower search counts. I often find when I sort by search counts that I end up having to wade through lots of less relevant terms.

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