The software business has officially entered the age of engagement. So why aren’t more SaaS companies focused on the product engagement stack?

The SaaS product engagement stack

For a while now, we in the SaaS world have been talking about our “stacks” – most commonly our “marketing stack” or our “sales stack”.

For some, this may sound like an obnoxious Silicon Valley buzzword. After all, a “stack” is simply a collection of software tools we use to execute a set of jobs in a specific function. For example, a marketing stack is simply a set of software tools used to run the marketing function.

But what we haven’t started talking about is a stack to cover what is arguably the most important function for a SaaS business: product engagement.

What do we mean by product engagement? In short, we mean everything about how your users engage with your product. Who uses it, when they use it, how frequently they use it, what features they use, and for what reason.

The entire SaaS business model depends upon continuous product engagement—it’s literally the lifeblood of a SaaS business. Without product engagement, there is no activation, there is no retention…there is no business.

But until now, we haven’t really talked about the tools needed to drive SaaS product engagement in any formal, organized way. But we should. So let’s do that. It’s time to start talking about the importance of a solid SaaS product engagement stack.

The growing importance of the product engagement stack

Why do SaaS businesses need to start thinking about the product engagement stack? Why now?

Well, there are many reasons. Here’s just a few:

Reason #1: Because product engagement is super f’ing important!

Software as a Service is a recurring business model. Customers pay for the software as long as it is providing value. As soon as it stops providing value, they stop paying. If they stop paying, well…that breaks the whole model.

Let me be so bold and say that continuous engagement with your product is the most important and most fundamental element of your entire SaaS business.

No engagement, no retention. No retention, no business. It’s pretty much that simple.

Reason #2: Because the job of keeping people engaged with your product has become harder and more sophisticated

The MarTech 5000

This image may look like a really bad Jackson Pollock painting, but it’s actually an infographic showing all the tools available to marketers as of April 2018. Need I say more?

In today’s world, your customers have infinite options for getting a specific job done, and there are new tools popping up every single day. Need proof? Just pay a visit to Product Hunt.

What’s more, the bar for generating product loyalty has been raised considerably. The cost to try out (or even switch to) new tools has dropped significantly. Free trials, freemium offerings, and self-serve options all make it incredibly easy (and affordable!) for your customers to jump ship.

Because of this, we have all stepped up our games when it comes to product engagement. We’re working harder. We’re being more creative. We’re building better products.

In short, SaaS companies must now go the extra mile to keep users from straying. Infinite options, lower switching costs, and better engagement efforts are a trifecta of forces working together to make it harder and harder to keep your users engaged.

Reason #3: Because product engagement is not the job of a single person or department

This is a big topic for a future post, but for the sake of this post, it’s important to mention that product engagement is not something that can be owned by a specific person—or even a single team—within a SaaS organization. Product engagement is the kind of job that extends across multiple functions. In fact, one could argue that every department in a SaaS business should be involved in driving great product engagement.

Ultimately, Product Marketing, Customer Success, and Product teams are all hands-on when it comes to driving strong engagement. Because product engagement can’t be defined and owned by a single group, it needs to be served by a solid product engagement stack, not just a single tool.

Reason #4: Because there are too many jobs-to-be-done when it comes to product engagement

As we’ve already mentioned, the job of driving engagement has gotten a lot more sophisticated. As a result, the list of specific jobs that you need to do in order to effectively drive SaaS product engagement has grown accordingly.

Now, in order to effectively drive engagement, you need to be able to

  • Build an engaging product
  • Activate new users (onboarding)
  • Drive education of existing features
  • Secure adoption of new features
  • Gather user feedback
  • Manage support requests
  • Drive proactive CS programs

To do all of this effectively, you need to know exactly who your user base is, and how they are engaging with your product.

While this list of jobs seems daunting, realize that for each of these jobs-to-be-done, there are several important elements. For example, in order to activate new users, you need to provide:

  • A great in-app onboarding experience
  • Timely and relevant onboarding email programs
  • Good help docs and education programs
  • High-touch CS support and training
  • …and more

And, of course, you’ll also want to begin tracking activation metrics in order to gain a better understanding of all of these elements.

Mind you, this is solely for your activation efforts! For each component of your product engagement efforts, you will likely need at least one, if not several different specialized tools in your product engagement stack.

Reason #5: Because there simply isn’t a great ecosystem of products built to support the various dimensions of product engagement

As mentioned above, for each piece of your SaaS product engagement plan, you will likely need a specialized tool. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’ve reached a really good place in the evolution of the product engagement space. What has seemingly been, up until now, a random spattering of tools touching different pieces of the product engagement stack is now a full-blown, robust collection of offerings. In almost every category, we have multiple solutions and multiple options.

So, while it may have been time to talk about this years ago, we didn’t have the right SaaS engagement tools to create a solid product engagement stack. But now we do now — that’s why it’s officially time to start talking about it.

What’s next?

This is just the beginning of this conversation surrounding this new, essential SaaS stack. The next step is to peel apart the topic and looking at its different elements.

A solid next step is to begin organizing the ecosystem around the highest-level needs of a product engagement program. At this level, you could organize the ecosystem of SaaS product engagement tools around three main, high-level jobs:

  • Drive engagement Messaging programs
  • Manage Customer Support/CS programs
  • Understand Product Engagement

And start to organize the tools around these job categories:

Now is not the time to dive into the detail of each tool, but we can add some more color around the needs of each of these categories:

Drive engagement messaging programs

Obviously, one of the core tenants of any product engagement program is messaging. Messaging programs help introduce your product to new users, drive them toward activation, alert them of features and benefits they may have missed, drive conversions, announce new features, keep users re-engaged, and so on. Much of what you will do in your product engagement practice will involve some sort of messaging program.

These messaging programs can be manual or automated and be executed across multiple channels: email, in-app, mobile, SMS, direct mail, etc. It is likely that you will need multiple tools to execute all of these messaging programs.

Manage customer support / CS programs

Some might not consider customer support or customer success efforts as part of a product engagement program, but they’d be wrong. Your Customer Success team is an essential component of your product engagement efforts.

Let’s face it: most of us have a vision of fully self-serve product offerings that can be supported by completely automated, touchless customer engagement programs. We think our products are so good, they don’t need support. Unfortunately, this is simply not a reality for the vast majority of products.

The reality is that a good CS team is essential for ensuring proper implementation and customer activation as well as for keeping accounts engaged and expanding throughout their entire lifecycle.

Understand product engagement

Simply put, it’s impossible to drive great product engagement without truly understanding who and how people are engaging with your product. There are some fundamental questions that you’ll need to answer on a regular, ongoing basis:

  • Who are my most and least engaged users?
  • Which are my most are least engaged accounts?
  • Who’s engagement is increasing or decreasing – who do I need to pay attention to?
  • What are they doing or not doing?
  • Which accounts are activated? Which ones are stalled?
  • What are the key points for activation and when do they happen?
  • What features or events are actually driving engagement?
  • Are my new features or engagement activities helping to drive overall engagement?
  • And many more…

Having a true understanding of your product engagement is essential to the overall health of your SaaS business. Product engagement, as a KPI, is a leading indicator and predictor of conversions, churn, upsells, etc.

We need to start talking about the product engagement stack

The battle to keep your users engaged continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing most of today’s SaaS businesses. This is not just because the success of any SaaS business is dependent on great product engagement, but also because the whole practice is becoming harder and harder. That, combined with the fact that the market for the tools to help are starting to mature nicely and grow precipitously in number, are making one thing certain: we need to start talking about the product engagement stack.

So let’s do that — let’s start.

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