Why SaaS Brands Should Seek Less Category Competition, More Category Collaboration

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Author: Grace Williams
Grace Williams
Why SaaS Brand sShould Seek Less Category Competition, More Category Collaboration by Grace Williams

Teaming up with your competitors seems counterintuitive, both amid economic uncertainty and as part of your marketing strategy. But seeking out category collaboration can fuel powerful results when used strategically to educate your audience, build brand awareness and garner high-level media coverage.

Category collaboration: A contradiction in terms?

The idea of working cooperatively with your competition — termed “co-opetition” in Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff’s 1996 book on the subject — has often included partnerships formed specifically to foster innovation, fund research and development and share needed supplies. Look at Samsung and Apple, for instance: Samsung supplies Apple’s iPhone screens while still selling its own smartphones. Pharmaceutical rivals Pfizer and BioNTech collaborated on a COVID-19 vaccine. 

But beyond supply chain or research concerns, this cooperative approach can apply to SaaS brands’ marketing endeavors, too. 

Even amid concerns of a global economic downturn, Gartner predicts SaaS spend will rise to $195 Billion in 2023, up 17% from 2022. Businesses are still investing in SaaS, even in these tumultuous times — and SaaS companies need to keep their foot on the gas. Partnering with other savvy competitors ensures you’re building your category the smart way.

Category reinforcement through collaboration

You might be picturing collaboration as trading sales sheets and working together on battle cards — that’s not what I’m advocating. Back up a few steps to the top of the marketing funnel. In the early stages of category creation, you’re advocating for your solution and, more broadly, trying to maximize a prospective customer’s knowledge of the problem you solve. When you’re evangelizing for your category, you’re working to promote awareness, educate your audience and gain their trust.

Acknowledging and working with your competition on these educational campaigns provides prospects with further proof that the problem you’re solving is an important one. Competition validates your category as a legitimate space and your offering as a potential solution to a real problem.

Take the layups

In his book “Founder Brand,” marketing consultant Dave Gerhardt frames marketing as a momentum game: You take the small wins to build to bigger wins. During a basketball game, the teams can’t worry over every 2-pointer. When your opponent shoots a layup, you don’t panic about losing the game. They’re moving the game forward, and your team will score soon, too.

In the marketing realm, sometimes you’ll have to take the layups. Remember that as much as you like to win, your competitors do, too. Those minor wins offer some opportunities for lower-stakes collaboration, especially in areas where you and a competitor agree. Every win contributes to a developing storyline around your company and adds to your authority in the space.

From a thought leadership perspective, your competitor’s efforts can — and probably are — helping propel your deals forward. A prospect might read a competitor’s article that also speaks to all of your marketing talking points and builds a case for a solution. During a prospect’s research phase to find a solution, they may reach out to your company, rather than (or in addition to!) the competitor, to solve their problem.

In my own experience, I’ve seen clients share a “great piece on the industry” that came directly from a competitor’s thought leader — another opportunity for collaboration to move the game forward.

Release the scarcity mindset

Here’s the biggest hurdle preventing competitors from collaborating on informative, category-strengthening opportunities: a misguided notion of scarcity. Just as one layup for a rival team doesn’t spell disaster, press coverage for a competitor doesn’t mean your company loses a chance at its moment in the spotlight.

Opportunities to amplify your brand abound, but when every vendor in a given industry contradicts the next, journalists struggle to offer their audience a clear picture of what’s happening in the space. Collaborating with competitors to offer impactful, vendor-neutral insight amplifies your message and provides something substantial to the media (and then, your prospects). This collaboration can be as simple as agreeing on a particular market trend you’ve both identified.

Meet the demands of increasingly complex B2B sales cycles

The B2B customer journey has become even more complex. Forrester’s latest “B2B Buying Study” found that 63% of purchases involve more than four people, and the average number of touchpoints jumped from 17 to 27 in just two years. Buyers seek information from myriad sources during their customer journey — from case studies and peers to industry experts and vendors.

The makeup of SaaS buying committees is changing, too: 73% of the people participating in B2B research and decision-making are millennials, who dive into research well before reaching out to a sales rep. And 80% of B2B purchasing decisions come from “direct or indirect customer experience,” with buyers scouring others’ reviews and recommendations while ignoring paid ads and cold calls.

Today’s buyers want to connect with something beyond a vendor. They’re looking for answers — and you can help them by teaming up with your competitors to tell your category’s broader story, and choosing intentionally to focus less on selling and more on educating. This approach offers prospective buyers more value and equips them to make buying decisions that meet their needs.

Is your main competitor really the villain in your story?

A final obstacle to embracing competitor collaboration is, of course, whether or not your main competitor plays the villain role in your brand’s story. After nine years of working with hundreds of SaaS clients, I can confidently say this scenario is rarely the case.

Most companies working with a PR agency, for example, do so for several reasons:

  • They’re chasing a mindset shift among their desired prospects toward their solution category.
  • They’re trying to raise awareness about the problem their products solve.
  • They’re attempting to elevate a conversation to the board level to gain executive support (and budget approval) for their solutions. 

Your competition’s not out to affect or diminish these efforts, and in fact, collaborating with those in the same space could give these endeavors a boost.

How to get started with category collaboration

Diving into competitor collaboration may feel daunting, but the process starts with a mind shift that includes thinking of your competitors as your peers, not your enemy.

Leverage your existing network. Who do you know, and do you think they’d invite a conversation? Connect with competitors on LinkedIn, and interact with their posts. If their company does something cool — give them props! If their CEO makes a bold statement, and your CEO agrees with it, help them continue the conversation. 

Ask a peer to join you for a virtual coffee (not to exchange trade secrets, but to get to know each other). Connect at trade shows, and use the time to find common points of interest or concern in your industry. Have a story no one’s talking about, but you agree is pivotal? Talk about it jointly on your blogs or in the media, and see what happens. 

Finally, invite a competitor thought leader to co-host a webinar with you or join an episode of your podcast. You’ll have an opportunity to flesh out points of view and garner more significant interest in your category. Each of these connections offers an opportunity to grow your own reach and your category’s visibility when you work proactively to create a cohesive choir of voices in your field. When evangelizing for your category, a rising tide can really lift all ships.