Your SaaS startup website is your showroom – is it awesome, or is it a FAIL?

You have content, e-mail and social marketed, optimized SEO and spent on PR and SEM to drive customers to your website… but the customer shows up and doesn’t know who you are, what you’re selling or how to ask questions. FAIL. All that traffic effort and spend is for naught. We’ve all had this experience in a real store. Walking in, being ignored, or worse not being able to find someone to help. You leave.

Despite endless sharing of best practices on website structure and design in the market, there is still a wide range of quality in the websites of even the most innovative startups. A great myth of SaaS and e-commerce business models is that they are self-service – a battle won on the product front. Customers will narrow down options, compare with your competitors and choose yours because it is the best product, right? Nope. This thinking is an unfortunate fault of the product obsessed tech community. As I’ve said before, Service is a big part of SaaS, and service starts with your website “showroom” experience. It’s time to change our thinking:

Your website is a place for you take to action, not your customer – your chance to touch, wow and speak with your customer

Below are a few tactics to reinvigorate the showroom conversation with your customer – and also highlights on urgent trends changing the way we design customer interaction. Most of these concepts apply to product design as well, but here our focus is “showroom” design.

Chat: literally, talk to your customer (aka, move beyond the contact form)

As the digital world moves habit from phone to email to texting, a phone number on a website is an inadequate help lifeline for your showroom visitor when your goal is conversion. Lower the barrier with live chat. According to Forrester, 44% of online consumers report chat as critical during-purchase website feature. While this is a B2C based metric, I’m a firm believer in the consumerization of B2B software purchasing behavior. Professionals are consumers too. They want attention.

There are affordable SaaS chat solutions abound including LiveChat, ClickDesk, Hipchat, etc. They have slightly different features and backend integrations. If you use marketing automation (and you should), be sure to look for integration with Marketo, Hubspot, etc. Older ones are popups that take time to load. Newer ones work in-browser. There are some new services using video chat like, WorkFace. These are worth exploring too, especially for large ticket price sales where trust and relationship are important.

As in a real store, don’t wait for customers to approach a sales person with a question. When a customer lands, automatically initiate a chat: “Hi, I’m Guy. How can I help?”. Most customers will ignore it but be happy to know you’re there; the ones who engage will be wow’d. This sure beats the nauseating contact or e-mail form where customers fear for the abyss of non-response.

The cost of chat is needing warm bodies to staff it. For most products and services, this can be done with a few bright-eyed marketing interns or even an existing customer service or inbound lead staff. Of course, this type of service is easier to justify when a lead could be worth thousands of dollars (as in high priced B2B SaaS), but I know freemium/premium models that make it work too.

Call your customer to action: What do you want your customer to do in your showroom?

A shocking number of startups websites are missing calls-to-action. A big fat “push me” button above the fold in the middle or slightly offset. When a customer lands, they know exactly what they should do. Push the button. Here are some classic call-to-action concepts:

  • High ticket price B2B SaaS: “Get a demo” or “Chat with us”
  • Low ticket price B2B SaaS: “Start your free trial”
  • B2C SaaS: “Login” or “Signup for free”
  • B2C app: “Download now”

But don’t stop at a call-to-action; consider personalizing it based on traffic source our other visitor attributes (geography, time of day, etc). Hubspot has a terrific post covering a 42% conversion lift seen from personalizing calls to action.

Some businesses like roll with multiple calls-to-action (also notice live chat tab on their website). This can work, but A/B test the crap out of it.

Below is a screenshot of our portfolio company, Farmlog’s, landing page (arrows are mine). They do the above really well: Calls-to-action (one for information, one for signup), immediate ability to signup on front page and tab for help. The help tab is a chat tab when staffed and a contact tab when not. Either way, you don’t have to search for help. The site is a bit busier than you get with a very well known product like dropbox (check it out, super simple). This is because unlike dropbox, FarmLogs has to explain what it is.


Consider social login: start the conversation fast and knowing as much as you can!

Below is a graphic of my personal cloud database. Most of this data is public and even more of it I’m willing to share if it makes my life easier. Use this stuff!

In the cloud

Mintel reports that while only 10% of baby boomers are willing to share social profiles, that rate is three times higher among Millenials. It will keep increasing. Offer Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and/or Twitter social login as an option for your SaaS trial enrollment. It will increase conversions for people who don’t want to enter the same old info into boring forms. It will also let you market to them better during their trial given the data fields you’ll get access to (age, geog, profession, etc). Which logins to offer? Here’s a way to think about it:

  • High ticket price B2B SaaS: LinkedIn
  • Low ticket price B2B SaaS: LinkedIn, Google (note that a lot of SBs and MBs use Google Apps)
  • B2C SaaS: Facebook, Twitter
  • B2C app: Facebook, Twitter

AngelList uses social login really well. Simple, one click signup. It also fits their business model perfectly.


There are, of course, downsides to putting someone else’s brand on your site, entrusting security to them and using customers’ own data. A 2012 MailChimp blog post on social logins has some great counterpoints as you consider using social logins.

Video: show it in pictures AND words

Kissmetrics reports that website visitors who watch videos are ~75% more likely to convert than those who don’t – OK, some possible selection bias here, but Treeopedia found a 27%to 46% increase in a controlled study. Wow.

There was a time a year or so ago when every startup had a 60 second cartoon video of what it does. Way overdone. But video can be a powerful tool to educate potential customers on specific products, services and use cases. For example, video is great way to profile customer success stories. Keep them short (in most cases 30-120 seconds) and directly embedded. ReelSEO reports a 2x view rate when videos are embedded directly rather than as a button with link. Here is much more from on how to use video on your site to increase conversion.

In many cases, video is best used “below the fold” so it doesn’t distract from the primary call-to-action for those who are really motivated when they land. Our portfolio company LevelEleven is one that uses video very effectively below the fold to educate visitors who want to know more before they signup for a demo. See screenshot below. Notice the use of an accompanying secondary call-to-action to “learn more” right next to the video. And the video is embedded with a single click to play. A lot of video embeds involve a popup with 2-3 clicks to play. Complicated.


Responsive design: RD is a technology solution, not a design solution.

With Americans spending 1.4 hrs a day surfing the web on a mobile device, responsive design is becoming table stakes to ensure customers can engage with your showroom (or product) from any device. This is true whether you sell product or software to consumers or businesses. But it is a means to an end, not a design nirvana itself.

Matias Duarte, Android’s design chief, says that responsive design is a technical answer not a design phenom. “Responsive technology is design for a device not a user” he says. The nuance is important. Responsive design meets users’ basic needs across multiple screen sizes through mechanical resizing and configuration of site features and elements. But the resulting experience on each device may not be design optimal – either for user experience or business goals like conversion, transaction, and engagement. Optimization of calls-to-action, video content, image content, flow, etc on a 21” screen with keyboard doesn’t mean those features are optimized on a 8” or 4” touch screen.  User behaviors and context (see below) are different with touch and smaller screen sizes.

Duarte further dissects this saying user design is no longer about enabling interaction on multiple screens (what responsive design does) but enabling “natural user flow BETWEEN screens”. People don’t just use one screen or another, they use multiple throughout the day or even at the same time.

Below is the full video of Duarte’s interview with The Verge on this and other topics. Long but priceless.

Context: the new holy grail of user design

15 years ago, your showroom visitor was likely a professional employee, under 40 or otherwise relatively well-off internet user… sitting at a desk with a screen, keyboard and mouse. You could make a lot of assumptions with pretty limited information.

Not so today with screens everywhere, every kind of person using them at every time of day. CONTEXT has now become the critical paradigm to understand users’ engagement with your showroom. You need to understand who is doing what, where and why when engaging with your site; there are a diverse set of users and situations you are designing for. That’s the bad news.

Cennydd Bowles, Design Lead at Twitter, wrote an amazing blog post last year on the use of context in user design. I’d consider Twitter to be a leader in user design – including facilitating flow across endpoints. Cennydd designs for seven types of user contexts: Device, Environment, Time, Activity, Individual, Location and Social (yup, DETAILS).  Read the linked post for much more info on this.

The good news: While today’s connected world is more complicated than it was two decades ago, there is a lot more data available to help you understand context. That is part of the case for social logins – deep public and semi-public records of customers’ needs, wants and desires right at your fingertips. We also now have layers of cookies, countless mobile sensors on our phones and the “big data” ability to crunch these inputs in real time. But Bowles warns the availability of data can be a trap for mistakes and distrust: (1) Assumptions based on data are correct on average, but not in each customer case, and (2) the existence of public data about a person doesn’t justify its unpermitted use. We must “assume gently” and tread lightly.

Actually doing it: design as iterative proposition and testing of hypotheses on user experience

Okay, so you need to move away from mechanical responsive design and optimize for flow between screens used in many different context. Easy, right?

As the header indicates, great design starts with informed hypothesis development. You can derive hypotheses from design best practices (there are myriad best practices on calls-to-action for example), user focus groups, live site user data, etc… This process has been followed for years, but Duarte’s idea of optimizing across endpoints is fairly new. To do this, you needed the ability to track user activity across screens. Easy for “logged-in” applications. Harder for non logged-in applications.

Then you test, measure, re-hypothesize, test, measure… optimizing. KissMetrics has a case study on a customer’s website optimization journey starting with workflow mapping and moving to A/B testing – a great primer if you’re new to this. You can run A/B testing to your hearts content yourself or use a testing automation tool like Optimizely. Remember, however, that mechanical A/B testing isn’t a substitute for design thinking and process. It is just one of many tools, only finding local maximums based on the options you define from informed hypothesis and iteration.

Nothing works without ownership: someone has to own the showroom at your startup

I’ve seen showrooms fall by the wayside in small startups strapped for resources. This is a big mistake when getting customers is the most important – and hardest – thing to do. Early on, “the website” usually falls part time to one or two people on the engineering team who make ad hoc tweaks based on opinion and conjecture from the exec team. FAIL. The showroom is its own product and needs to be treated as such. In our portfolio companies who do it the best, showroom design and optimization falls under the purview of the marketing team or “growth hacker” function with close sales team cooperation.

Would love to hear from others on this topic!