Chapter 4
SaaS Branding

Your marketing site does more than just convert visitors to leads. It’s the online face of your brand. Whenever anyone googles your company name, they’ll find your site and will immediately form their opinions of you based on what they see. 

You make an aesthetic decision about a webpage within 17 milliseconds—about 1/10th the blink of an eye. If new users coming to your page are confused, turned off, or uninspired by your site and brand then they’ll promptly leave your site for a competitor’s. 

But if that initial feeling is a good one and grows as they navigate your site, then the likelihood of positive perception of your brand increases and the chance of them using and recommending your service significantly increases. 

We recorded video and voice for 90 different users visiting 30 different SaaS websites to capture their first brand impressions immediately at the moments they formed. We were able to observe first hand how users formed their brand opinions by watching to see what users reacted favorably to, what turned them off, and what turns visitors into advocates. In total, we watched 1,800 minutes of user testing video via and compiled it into the most comprehensive study of SaaS branding on the web. (to get three free UserTesting videos use code "SaaSDNA" at

(For more on our methodology, go here.)

Recommending Your Brand

It’s one thing for users to say they like a product. It’s another for them to recommend that product to a colleague, or even a boss. When we make the decision to recommend a site or product to a colleague we’re also putting our own judgment and reputation on the line. Therefore, brands have to overcome this hesitation to gain endorsement. 

To find out whether our users were willing to recommend these SaaS sites to their colleagues we asked them 2 specific questions:

  • How likely are you to recommend this site to a friend or a colleague?
  • If you had to convince your boss why your company should purchase this product or service, what would you say to persuade him or her?

The first question sets a rating score for all our sites on how likely they are to be recommended by the user. The second gets to the core of whether users have really understood what the site is and the service each SaaS company offers, something integral to offering that quick recommendation to a friend or colleague.

How likely are you to recommend this site to a friend or a colleague?

Once they had used the entire site, been through the home page and pricing page and had a chance to look at all the products and features offered, the users were asked how likely they were to recommend the site to a friend or colleague, on a rating of 1-10 [1=Not at all likely, and 10=Very Likely].

Liklihood to reccommend
Highly-rated example: Zapier
Zapier's homepage

Zapier is a strong user of social proof for defining and promoting their brand. They list companies that already use the product, including their logos on the homepage so that any new user will immediately see that this is a trusted brand. 

In addition, they include a number of case studies on the site, showing exactly how other companies have used Zapier, and showing the positive testimonials of the product. For the individuals at companies using Zapier, they often included a photo of the person who gave the testimonial rather than ascribing it to a faceless brand. People felt more likely to recommend the brand after they saw that other significant brands previously trusted and endorsed Zapier. 

Not only does Zapier have a list of companies that use the product on their homepage, but they also reinforced the idea that they are a trustworthy brand in another interesting way.

Zapier's product marketing

Zapier’s service revolves around helping SaaS products integration with each other, so the long list of integrations in their app directory—called their Zapbook—allowed new users to see how they might use the service before they had to sign up. Users visiting the site for the first time could see a direct and immediate application of Zapier’s product into their existing workflow.

This list contains some big name companies—Facebook, Google, Twitter, Dropbox—reinforcing the idea that Zapier is a brand trusted by the very biggest names in tech. Those brands reflected positively on Zapier, even when Zapier didn’t necessarily have a direct relationship with the company in question. Users recognized them and felt that they could trust Zapier by proxy. 

Quotes from the responses:

  • "Right away I see tons and tons of apps that I use—Dropbox, Evernote, Google Sheets, Facebook."
  • "Love, love, love that they have the app icons. Most of these I would know without the name just from the icon."
  • "I always love seeing case studies—who is using them? What ways are they using this company? And how has it affected their day-to-day?"
  • "The case studies also give you good ideas of how to use it—things you might not have thought of."
  • "It’s like the Pinterest of technology. It kind of brings everything into one page for you and makes everything more simple."
Lower-rated example: Pingdom
Pingdom homepage

Though Pingdom also included customer logos on their homepage, in this case the social proof sometimes worked against them. One user saw that Pingdom would be useful for the large companies listed, but couldn’t see a use for her business. 

Another user felt betrayed by an incongruity between the brands showcased on the homepage and the testimonials offered on the more detailed customers page. She didn’t like that Pingdom listed recognizable logos on its homepage from big brands, but when she clicked through to read testimonials, they all came from much smaller companies. That little inconsistency quickly tarnished the brand for this user. 

Users overall struggled to understand what the product does and Pingdom’s value to customers. The product is also far more specific than some of the other companies surveyed, but even tech-savvy users had trouble understanding the more technical language that the site used. As a result, they weren’t able to connect it to their own business and how their companies could use the service. Because they themselves weren’t sure exactly what the service provided, they couldn’t then recommend the service to others. 

Quotes from the responses:

  • "Not many customer reviews considering all those names they put on the front page. Disney didn’t give them a review, Google didn’t give them a review, Ikea didn’t give them a review."
  • "Don’t show me the big names on the front page, and then when I come to look at the reviews only show me these little guys where I don’t even recognize their names."
  • "Maybe for a large company this would make a lot of sense."
If you had to convince your boss why your company should purchase this product or service, what would you say to persuade him or her?

To understand whether users understood the value proposition of the different services and products, we asked them to describe how exactly they would persuade the decision makers in their organization to invest in this product. They were asked this question at the very end of the session, after having browsed through the entire site.

Highly-rated example: Hootsuite
Hootsuite homepage

Users easily identified Hootsuite’s value proposition and used that as the driver to convince colleagues of the value of the service. The use of Hootsuite as a social management tool was obvious from the homepage and users understood how such a tool could impact their company. This made it very easy to communicate to a decision maker why they should use the service. 

Building their brand around the idea of being “serious about social” allowed Hootsuite to co-opt an idea that was already present in users' mind. Social media management is a hot topic—one that users knew about and felt that they should be doing more on. The idea of “get[ting] serious” then became what our users incorporated into their own heads and turned around and used to persuade others. They knew that their colleagues would understand the need for a social media manager, so they pitched it as a tool to amp up their efforts. 

Users could immediately see benefit, without having to dive too deep into the page or understand more complex ideas. All this combined to make it an easy recommendation.

Quotes from the responses:

  • "All of our customers are young, and they have to feel engaged with our brand."
  • "We need to develop a greater social media presence."
  • "We could be better just by engaging with our clientele more or people that aren't too familiar with our brand."
  • "This would help us manage our online presence in the social media realm."
  • "We could automate some of the functions that are done by one of our communication engineers."
Low-rated example: Optimizely
Optimizely homepage

When describing how they would persuade their superiors to choose Optimizely, the users generally used the fact that a free, no-risk version was available, and that it was a time-saving service. However, they didn’t describe what the product actually was, and they genuinely seemed confused about the actual value of Optimizely for their companies. 

The concept of optimization wasn't as clear to naive users as social media management, so playing off of it as “one optimization platform” didn’t work for our users. As users browsed and clicked around, they couldn’t figure out what they product did and how they would benefit. 

Because of this, the users fell back on the other value they saw from the company—simply, that it was free to try. But this became less of a recommendation of the brand, and more a low-risk suggestion with low investment and therefore low accountability. Without a free trial available, the users might have struggled to find anything to recommend about the company.

What three words would you use to describe the company?

The last question the users were asked when still on the company’s site was what 3 words would they use if they had to describe this company.

Highly-rated example: Zenpayroll (now Gusto)
Zenpayroll homepage

When asked what three words best described ZenPayroll the users gravitated towards wording that described how valuable the product would be in their lives. Words like “affordable,” “convenient,” and “informative” show that the users both understood the value proposition of the company and were able to glean all the information they needed from the site. 

Throughout the videos, users sometimes used a 3-word phrase to describe the company, instead of three individual words. However, in this case that answer was the most telling. One user emphatically answered, “It’s about time.” He went on to describe how he had been looking for a service like this for a long time and how he really understood the pain point and ZenPayroll’s core value as a business solution. Only after browsing the site, he wasn’t just ready to be a customer, he was ready to go out and be an advocate.

Quotes from the responses:

  • "Convenient, Complete, Affordable"
  • "Intuitive, Informative, Easy-to-navigate (which I’m counting as one word! I cheated)."
  • "It’s About Time!"

Low-rated example: Basecamp

Basecamp homepage

For lower-ranked companies, users were far more prosaic when asked to describe the company in 3 words. In these cases they used words that described the product rather than the company, or they used words to describe the value that they were told that they would get from the product.

In the case of Basecamp, the users described the company, or rather product, using words such as “tool,” “communication,” and “database.” Though these are reasonable descriptions of what Basecamp offers, they show that the value wasn’t immediately evident to these users, even after navigating the site for 10+ minutes. 

More telling is the user who described the company with the words “organized, simple, together.” Though these initially seem like words descriptive of the value of the product, the user in fact was only parroting what was written on the homepage—organized and together. Similarly, a second user who said “project management tool” pulled the words straight off the homepage. 

Even after having used the site extensively, these users were still having trouble describing the core value proposition of the company in their own words, having been able to been able to see how Basecamp would fit into their own lives.

Quotes from the responses:

  • "Project Management Tool — Tool? Is that the right word?"
  • "Managing, Database, Communication"
  • "Organized, Simple, Together"

Key Takeaways for Branding

  • Social proof helps people feel secure in their recommendations. Being able to show that other successful companies use the service makes it far easier for people to feel confident in their recommendations.
  • Confusing language leads to less recommendation. When users are unsure of how to describe the brand or product in their own words, they are less likely to feel confident about recommending it to others.
  • People are more likely to recommend your brand when they can connect it to their own lives. Brands and products where the value is clear are more likely to be recommended. More obscure services need to define their product in language naive users can understand.
  • When it seems like they wouldn’t recommend a product, users point to the free trial as a way to persuade their bosses. If there is a free trial or unpaid plan available, this makes recommending the product far easier as less is on the line in terms of getting the recommendation wrong.
When users are engaged with your branding, they're saying:
When users aren't engaged with your Brand, they’re saying:

Conclusion & Main Takeaways

A brand’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a metric and a process that helps evaluate customer loyalty. It uses a single question, “How likely is it that you would recommend Company X to a friend or colleague?” as a gauge of overall customer satisfaction and a predictor of business growth. 

We calculated the NPS of each brand using the ratings from our recommendation question using’s methodology. With the 3 users for each site, a promoters was assigned +33 for their rating and a detractor was assigned -33 for their rating (passives are assigned 0). When added together they produce the net promoter score for the site.

  • A user who scores the brand 9 or 10 is considered a Promoter, someone who is loyal to the brand and will actively recommend it to friends and colleagues.
  • A user who scored the brand 7 or 8 is considered Passive. They like the brand and will recommend it, but usually with caveats and some hesitation.
  • Users who score the brand 6 or below are Detractors and are likely to spread bad word of mouth about the brand and stop using it.

We then calculated the NPS of a site or brand by working out the score for detractors, and subtracting it from the score for promoters. The score runs from +100 (entirely promoters) to -100 (entirely detractors).

NPS across companies

We then categorized the brands into 3 groups depending on their overall NPS score:

  • Leading: brands that the users were enthusiastic about promoting
  • Second: brands that had generally positive recommendations, but with some caution
  • Trailing: brands without promoters that users weren’t inclined to recommend.
Leading recommendations
  • NPS: 60 and above 
  • Companies: Buffer, Hootsuite, ZenPayroll, Trello, MailChimp, Campaign Monitor 

For these Leading companies, growth can come through their brand promoters, who share their success with the company and are happy to recommend and refer the product. Promoters are also less likely to churn, and more likely to upgrade over their lifetime, increasing their lifetime value.

Buffer, Hootsuite, and ZenPayroll are the sites that were universally recommended by users, scoring 9+ from each user. These brands are focused around a single value proposition and made that dead simple to understand for users. 

The other Leading brands also have solid, core value propositions that the users surveyed could immediately understand and identify with. For these naive users, having this core value front and center on the site is paramount. Clear language explaining the product in terms of user benefits and easy to find information were the brand traits most linked to a recommendation. 

For most of these companies there is still room for growth, with some users not quite being ready to completely promote the company. The more customers they are able to turn into active promoters, the greater the revenue gains.

  • Simplify the language on your site to emphasize your brand’s core values.
  • Use design as a differentiator to convey the feeling of your brand.
  • Continue to reflect internally on company culture, your mission and your vision for the company. Over the long term, this takes your brand in a differentiated direction.
Second → Leading recommendations
  • NPS: Between 0 and 60
  • Companies: Base, Box, Chartbeat, HelpScout, Hightail, HubSpot, Insightly, Intercom, KISSmetrics, NewRelic, Pingdom, Qualaroo, Salesforce, Shopify, Slack, UserVoice, Wistia, Zapier, ZenDesk 

Companies in this group had some promotors, but also had passive users who weren’t quite ready to recommend the brand to others. This is because they could not always identify the utility of the product in their lives. They often liked the brand, but might be unsure about it fitted into their own workflow and therefore had some hesitation. 

For these companies there is a balance between promoters and detractors, or an abundance of passives. This can hurt growth for these companies as for every customer willing to positively spread the product by word of mouth, there is another who is describing the brand negatively. This means that even if they increase their spend to acquire customers, it doesn’t necessarily lead to sustainable growth. 

Passives can be equally harmful. Although they are happy with most aspects of your service, they’re still likely to define your product in terms of their negative experiences when talking about the product. They’re also more likely to churn and need further convincing if they are going to upgrade.

  • Frame your product in terms of how it can be used to improve your customers’ lives. Make sure customers understand why your brand exists and who it stands for.
  • Use social proof and customer testimonials to show how similar customers are already using your product to be successful. This gives your users backup and ammunition when recommending the product to others.
  • Relentlessly improve the clarity of any confusing language about your brand.
Trailing → second recommendations
  • NPS: Below 0 
  • Companies: Optimizely, Basecamp, Geckoboard, Localytics, Mixpanel 

With a majority of detractors, it can be difficult for trailing companies to achieve considerable growth, both through a lack of referrals of new customers, and increased churn of existing customers. 

A lack of clear information that the users could understand and easily explain to their colleagues was the main reason for not feeling comfortable recommending a brand. For the brands that tended towards having backend, technical SaaS products, they need to work harder to explain their product in simple, benefit-driven language to make it easy for naive users to understand the core value of their services.

  • Make sure that you have a clear, simple value proposition for your product. Talk to your existing promoters and use the language that they use when they talk about your product.
  • Shift the terminology on your site to clearer language that can be understood even by naive users. At minimum, every visitor to your site should understand what your product does and why it exists.
  • Offer a free trial to get more people in the door who will be able to try the product even without being totally on board with the brand
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