Learn some of the reasons why B2B SaaS ABM (account based marketing) fails for startups. Don’t make these mistakes on your path to T2D3 growth!
A guide to building your first B2B SaaS marketing dashboard
To inspect what you expect, you need a good B2B SaaS marketing dashboard to underpin your strategy. Start here.
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Once you agree on where you want to go and how you want to grow, you need some way to measure if you’re on track. Your dashboard lets you track key performance indicators, metrics, and other data points relevant to your B2B SaaS growth. This is a quick guide on best practices when building yours and helps you start to inspect what you expect.
Before we dive into specific examples, let’s discuss a couple of dashboard fundamentals that help you run your business and marketing playbook, versus just creating busy work for your team and vendors.
- Be accurate: always double-check your numbers. Have someone in your team pressure test the data on a regular basis to ensure your dashboard is dependable and credible. If the numbers are wrong, everything else will go off the rails.
- Compare and contrast: No number can be reviewed in isolation. Compare vs. the past, compare multiple channels, compare vs. the competition.
- Have a target: Make sure you’re always working against a target. Know what it is. Even if a KPI is new and you have limited data, you need to aim for something.
- Provide insights: If our KPI is on track, explain what you think is going well and what can be scaled up. If your KPI is behind, what’s happening that’s different from what you expected?
- Plan what’s next: How is your marketing plan this week going to help you improve your performance or do more of what works?
Many dashboards aren’t very useful. They get outdated, have information that’s misunderstood, lack good benchmarks, or just have the wrong data and thus aren’t credible.
So what should be on your dashboard? Let's get started.
Here are five dashboard rules to do it right
1. Pick the right KPIs
- Only track KPIs that you’re managing against. If someone asks you what you'll do about a certain number if it's not performing well, you need to be able to answer. If not, don't include that KPI.
- Goals and Targets - Each KPI should have a goal/target. Even if we don't have historical data, it's important for the CMO, and for example, your SEM team to be aligned on the "What's it for?" as in, “Why are we doing this $15k/month investment on clicks?”. In this example, if the goal is not to get MQLs (if we want to focus TOFU for example) we can have a different type of goal, like "Run X # of tests" or "get Y # of eyeballs/clicks in this add group to determine its validity" or "get 100 negative kw phrases to sharpen our ICP". Any goal is fine, as long as we have one.
- Make sure the KPIs are very well defined, including a descriptive data source. They need to be easy to understand by everyone.
2. Automation & Ownership
- Prevent manual data management. Ideally, every KPI has an automated data feed. If not, make sure to explicitly declare how the data gets generated and ensure consistency.
- Every KPI needs a data owner. If automation fails, the owner should update the number at a set time each day or week.
- If you can’t keep the data for a KPI up to date, consider dropping it.
3. Stick with it
- As your marketing function evolves, you’ll learn. It will be tempting to update the definition of your KPIs as your team grows up. Limit changes. An imperfect set of KPIs that stays consistent over time is better than KPIs that constantly change. Trying to make KPIs perfect while constantly losing historical data is a recipe for failure.
- It will take a few months of discipline to get the most out of measuring and managing your marketing function based on data. Insist on a daily/weekly routine to look at and talk about the numbers.
- When the numbers are still small and trivial, it's the ideal time to make sure you're measuring the right things and course correct.
4. Benchmark (numbers in isolation are meaningless)
- What would mean success, vs. "ok" vs. failure and reason to try something else?
- Include actuals and original targets. Don't bother with forecasts or adjusted targets. Focus on closing the gap if you're behind, not on coming up with new (still arbitrary) goals.
- Provide a trend over time, ideally as granular as possible. Even if daily or weekly data is not very accurate, it’s good to capture this to potentially uncover patterns in the future when the numbers become larger. Also include YOY, QOQ, MOM, and WOW comparisons.
- Track attributes to benchmark your KPIs by marketing channels, audiences, segments and, if applicable, competitors (for example for search engine results positions).
5. Keep it simple
- Time series should run from left to right, not top to bottom. That's a basic rule in presenting data, especially to executives, and also makes it easier to put these on a slide as needed (and aligns with HubSpot and many other reports).
- Stay away from percentages. Use absolute numbers where possible. They provide the best insight into real growth and performance trends. For some KPIs like conversion rates, percentages make sense.
- Don't overthink tools. Google Sheets or Excel are excellent dashboard tools. One tab is better than multiple tabs - I think a report can have weekly tabs for executive review and comments. It's critical though, to have all the data (weekly) in one table.
- The conditional formatting in Microsoft Excel is great. Both can be shared as online web-browser-based tools. You can invest in fancy business intelligence tools or graphing solutions later. At this stage, it's all about getting and using the right data.
- For automation, a great tool is a simple calendar reminder for the people on your team who own each KPI. Just schedule time in everyone's calendar at the same time every week or day where everyone updates the actuals of the KPIs they own.
- It pays to apply the above principles with iron discipline. I believe it can be the difference between success or failure for a young, fast-growing startup.
Another extreme time drain is debating definitions of stages of the funnel, arriving at an agreement on what should be discussed in the first place. You should get your definitions straight, so everyone is singing from the same song sheet. I’ll discuss some examples here.
KPIs are the metrics against which you’ll measure your marketing and sales progress. Let’s start with the stages that define your funnel.
The first stage of your funnel are visitors who can be digitally identified with for example a cookie, but who have not given you any contact information. These are unique (that is, non-repeat) visitors to your website who have found and viewed content on your site. Hubspot has an advanced way of missioning these called sessions, where they try to minimize double-counting of the same unique visitor by maintaining a certain session length.
In the next stage of the funnel, we will know who the visitor is. I like to use the “contact object” of an individual person as the foundation for the marketing funnel. When the funnel changes to a sales funnel, it’s best to switch to a “company” as the funnel object.
These are contacts from companies that match the ICP and can be reached via outbound channels (i.e., social or email). Since these have not opted-in, these are usually lists that you have acquired, or contact records that you have collected using other means.
Note: I recommend you don’t market to these using the same email services as you use for your ongoing marketing automation, since you run the risk of building up a spam reputation on your primary domain. Ideally, you use dedicated outbound tools like Outreach.io, and only use inbound tools like Hubspot for opt-in subscribers.
Think of this as the “follow me home” metric. Contacts who have consented to receive communication by subscribing to a blog or inviting you into their network via a social connection (i.e., LinkedIn connect requests or accepted invitations). These are your followers. You can include subscribers to your RSS feed, podcast, or video channel as well, if you have a unique identifier that you can use to contact them, like an email address.
Leads are “hand-raisers” who have shown interest in what you have to offer. These contacts have downloaded a resource, consumed content on a regular basis, attended one of your webinars, or engaged with your social media channels.
I recommend you add one more criterion to contacts becoming leads. They should be in your ICP profile, ideally with an assigned persona. Using your analytics of their digital behavior, you can tag them as a specific persona and nurture them beyond your standard newsletter subscription.
Marketing Qualified Leads are contacts that marketing believes are ready to be handed off to sales. These contacts have triggered multiple “buyer signals” like downloading product information, visiting a competitive comparison guide, or asking for a sales conversation. They’re qualified hand-raisers. You can use lead scoring to prioritize your MQLs. Using a lead scoring model based on ICP attributes and digital activities you determine their intent and use this to prioritize follow-up by a Sales Development Representative.
Leads can become MQLs with one action based on booking a product tour or requesting a demo. If they fill out a “contact us” form, an additional step to verify the information may be required to filter out pranksters, current employees and customers, or potential competitors before these leads become MQLs. These days some forms also get filled out by bots, so some scrutiny to filter these is required.
Note: Speed of follow-up when leads become MQLs is one of the most critical parts of the funnel. These days prospects expect instant gratification, and they usually are shopping with multiple potential vendors. Minutes matter. When your follow-up is delayed, it gives your competitor a chance to get that follow-up call scheduled before you, and you risk the prospect only wanting to continue the process with one party…the fastest. If your follow-up is taking too much time you may need to rethink your sales process. It’s a good practice to automate sending a scheduling link to an MQL who has asked for a meeting, even while risking this is not a real person. You can always cancel the meeting later after you’ve researched the lead.
After the MQL is passed to sales, an SDR (or sometimes Business Development Representative…many titles are in use) has confirmed the MQL to be worth pursuing. This means the interest is genuine, and we have established human contact with the buying party.
To become an SQL, the lead also goes through some form of opportunity qualification (Can we win this? Do we want to win this?) using the methodology that’s appropriate for the type of solution being sold. The sales team needs to confirm fit, connection with a decision-maker, and ability to afford the solution. Now the lead gets turned into a Sales Qualified Lead.
In addition to the lead Contact Record getting an SQL status, an opportunity (or deal in Hubspot) gets created in the Sales CRM system. An opportunity can be connected to multiple contacts, so this is a new type of object that will go through its own sales funnel.
Deals that are managed as opportunities are owned by a Sales Executive and become part of the sales pipeline. Sales assumes accountability from marketing and adds data like potential deal value, competitors in play, needs, budget, and decision-makers. The SDR typically checks in with the Sales Executive during the sales process to learn from the follow-up activity so they can constantly improve their qualification criteria.
One of the most important KPIs is customer retention. Or as its opposite is known, customer churn. Churn refers to those customers who buy into your service and then, for whatever reason, leave. Churn levels help predict your future ability to grow revenue and profitability. I recommend measuring real customer churn (customers churned as a percentage of all paying customers), since revenue churn can be less actionable.
Lifecycle stage vs. Lead status
Once everyone is aligned on terms, there’s still an important point to keep in mind about the marketing and sales funnel: customers and prospects define themselves where they are. While you can track separate activities planned for this lead, you don't get to determine whether someone is a subscriber, a qualified lead, or an opportunity. Prospects actually do that themselves. A prospect becomes a lead instead of a subscriber because they happen to fit your ICP—your ideal customer profile. We call this the lifecycle stage in the funnel.
Someone turns from a marketing qualified lead into a sales qualified lead because they’re not a customer or a competitor but an actual lead that your sales team could talk with. They become an opportunity because they hit all your opportunity qualification criteria.
It’s not something you do. It’s something they do. That’s why the funnel lifecycle stage is always moving in one direction. These opportunities and prospects graduate to a new stage in the funnel because of things that happen to them. Their state of mind changes. They become more interested in or comfortable about your product or circumstances change within their company.
Their status is reflected in the way you measure and report on your funnel and the way your CRM is set up. What you call these different stages of the funnel is not as important as that you agree upon their definitions.
You can of course add another attribute to all your leads as they move through the funnel. Lead status (very different from the lifecycle stage) can be defined by your CRM tools and workflow as the state that you control. The different activities show what you’re doing at a given point in time. Whether your team is calling a lead or is waiting for them to get back to you. Whether you’re nurturing a certain lead, scheduling a demo, or sending out a proposal.
These are extremely important states to track in your CRM. It’s the activity that you’re planning or just completed. But the two funnels are different. When teams have arguments about these two different funnels is when leaders struggle to get the right dashboard in place with the right measurements.
The lifecycle stage is set by the prospects and customers and is often easier to nail, so I always recommend starting there. The state of what you do with the lead is more about setting up workflows, automation, nurture campaigns, and your sales team's behavior and their activities. It’s far more custom.
It's very seldom that you see one company do that in the same way as another. But the most important thing is to think of these two funnels as separate things and keep them in separate conversations.
In addition to your funnel metrics, the following KPIs are worthy a place on your monthly or quarterly Executive Dashboard:
Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) - As this term suggests, this is the total subscription revenue billed monthly. This figure can be pulled straight from a billing system (like Recurly or Chargify).
Average Revenue per Unit (ARPU) - This measurement is one of your key KPIs. Units can be customers, accounts, users or devices. Divide your total monthly recurring software revenue (MRR) by the total number of paying accounts (customers who have paid their last bill and have a valid payment method status in your billing system for the next billing cycle). Make sure to exclude one-time revenue like implementation fees.
Lifetime Value (LTV) - The total amount of revenue a subscriber generates over their life as your customer is their LTV. One of your goals should be to achieve as high an aggregate LTV as possible. To calculate, divide ARPU by your churn rate. If your ARPU is $500/month, and your churn rate is 0.5%/month, then your customer LTV would be $1,000.
Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) - While customers do pay for your service, unfortunately, there are costs associated with acquiring them. These should include all your sales and marketing costs, including staff. Total all our marketing and sales costs. Then divide by the total number of paying customers for a given period. Be generous and include all costs that you should allocate to your sales and marketing functions. It can be useful to track CAC excluding people cost as well, as this spend is easier to influence short term by optimizing growth tactics.
Cost to Service (CTS) - As you start understanding the all-up cost to service your paying customers, it’s important to manage this and add it to the dashboard. CTS includes The cost of your customer success team (onboarding, support), infrastructure and product (cloud capacity, engineering investments), the cost of retaining your customers with special programs (loyalty campaigns, incentives, promotions), and even legal support. For a SaaS company, the ongoing cost of running a service is the key to profitability. As you get insights into your CTS you can start targeting the customers who are the ideal customers for your bottom line.
With these metrics on your dashboard, you can manage your marketing function responsibly.
Historic performance vs. Funnel state
Let’s discuss a fundamental source of confusion in many marketing and sales teams, that can at best derail meetings, and in worse case scenarios cause multiple weeks or months of confusion and lack of accountability. The difference between “state” or “status” metrics, and historical KPIs that you can use for planning purposes.
Most everyone is familiar with our cars’ dashboard. We look at it for information as to how far we’ve gone, how fast we’re traveling, any system alerts we need to take care of, and if we need to gas up any time soon. Some of these things have to do with what’s happening right now in the moment. It’s important to know how fast you’re going. Other dashboard items have to do with planning ahead. The amount of fuel in your tank is not something you need to necessarily address right now, but it is something you’ll need to prepare for eventually. There’s also data that, while perhaps important, you wouldn’t include on your dashboard. Like the cost of owning your vehicle. It’s not info you need driving to work, but it may come in handy down the road when deciding whether you should be driving a car or taking public transit.
Similarly, in business, there’s important information that you need to act upon right now. For example, what to do with a lead as it sits in a funnel, do you take advantage of a discounted media buy, should you jump at the chance to fill an unexpected trade show opening? There’s also information that has to do with planning ahead: the quarterly budget, potential future hiring, and the like. There’s also info that has to do with neither, such as the number of your employees.
The key is to know what information is important for right now, and what info is important for later. In many sales and marketing meetings, status and strategy get confused, which takes time away from what should be rightfully focused on. This brings us to your three dashboard needs. Status, strategy, and scrutiny. In my mind, the three most important items to focus on in terms of sales and marketing. Let’s examine each more closely.
This area focuses on what’s the status of sales and marketing now, this week. Status should cover everything that’s driving the business. It’s the finger on your marketing pulse that allows you to keep your marketing ship on course.
For example, what’s the state of the marketing funnel? What’s stuck and what can you do about it? Are there parts of the funnel where a certain channel is not performing anymore? Is there a leak somewhere and conversion in that stage of the funnel has dropped significantly? Is a handoff between Marketing and Sales clogged because someone left the company? Is your cost per click up for a paid channel after a competitor started bidding more?
As you inspect the sales funnel, are there places where you should cut bait on an opportunity that’s not a good fit if it’s draining your resources? What about that lead that came in two days ago in an RFP? When is our proposal due? Who’s taking the lead on that? Is one Sales Development Representative outperforming the others and can they learn from her? What’s hot that may need extra support?
Your status dashboard is all about fixing the clogs in your funnel that are happening at this moment in time. Examples to put on yours are conversion rates per channel, time that leads or opportunities have been in a certain state, new leads and visitors coming in, and Cost/per KPIs for various marketing tactics.
The benchmarks you need for your status dashboard are mostly time-based, comparing your KPI versus the same time period before. I like to track things on a weekly basis, as that is enough time to have meaningful change, and it’s fast enough to be able to act. Monthly is less meaningful for your status dashboard, as you’ll be relatively late to respond, and the different length in months makes it harder to quickly compare your data vs. historic trends. Once you have enough history, having a Year-over-Year view can support adjusting your analysis for potential seasonal effects.
Example Dashboard Status KPIs, updated weekly:
- Lead generation per campaign
- Current # of leads per funnel stage
- Lead status by owner (Marketing, SDR, Sales)
- Pipeline value per stage
- Key opportunities to close
- Sales pipeline by Sales Rep
- Forecast for current month and quarter
While ideally your status dashboard is automated in a tool like Hubspot, I’ve found it helpful to have a spreadsheet version with weekly numbers in the early lifecycle of the marketing and sales team. Focusing on entering and validating the numbers manually on a weekly basis helps dial in the definition, understanding, and accuracy of the data before automation. I’ve also found that building an automated dashboard can be very frustrating and time-consuming if the team is not yet on the same page regarding data source, KPI definition, and reporting process. Thus, doing it manually first can save a lot of time.
If the status is the state of things now, strategy is about planning the business. Typically, these are items that don’t change on a weekly basis, for example, channel benchmarks, forecast accuracy, resource and territory planning, campaign performance. You basically use the past to predict the future.
When you think of funnel performance, how are things tracking from certain channels? How are leads from a certain event performing compared to leads from your website? How do you use that knowledge to plan? How do you use new information to deploy your resources, and update priorities? What campaigns should you be running based on the data you have?
Check-in on these types of issues on a monthly or quarterly cadence when you have good quality data and can invest the time to have well-informed conversations about strategy. Because driving the business (status) and planning the business (strategy) are very different, I suggest putting these on different dashboards, and discuss them in different meetings. When you include too many strategic data points in your status meeting, it can easily derail a one-hour weekly meeting. Conversations could easily veer from moving the pipeline forward into a strategy or planning session. For example, the expected revenue by channel or the reason leads have been unqualified.
For strategic meetings, you need information about trends and an ability to benchmark the alternative methods you use to drive your marketing and sales tactics. Ideally, you combine both outcomes and the cost of achieving those outcomes in one view, like the following example comparing MQL volume with the cost of getting those MQLs.
In addition to a time series, it’s important to be able to drill into the underlying drivers of either the cost or the results. For example, a drill-down report that shows the lead sources that drive the MQLs.
In addition to graphs, I also like to use bowling charts. They are easy to look at, with basic information answering, “Are we hitting our goal or not?”. I like to keep the numbers simple. Ideally, you use absolute numbers instead of percentages. Working your way down the table you learn how many of those are converted. This wouldn’t be the dashboard that you use to run your weekly sales meeting. It doesn't tell you much about what’s happening with your funnel right now. But it does tell you a lot about where you’re trending, what’s working, what’s not. You can ask a lot of questions about the numbers on this dashboard, which is helpful to do monthly.
By having the right amount of historic information, and connecting the rows with things like conversion rates, you can add interesting trends overtime to help your analysis. The bowler chart is rear-view mirror information about what’s happened so far and is useful to drive future insights. In the following example, I’ve also used conditional formatting and trendlines in Microsoft Excel to show some helpful visualization options.
Another useful tool to do strategic planning are Pareto Charts. A Pareto Chart is a graph that indicates the frequency of occurrences, as well as their cumulative impact. Pareto Charts are useful to find the channels or tactics to prioritize to observe the greatest overall improvement. They are also great to find the largest friction points in your funnel, or opportunities to improve your content marketing or website.
A Pareto Chart is a combination of a bar graph and a line graph. Each bar usually represents a type of tactic or initiative. The height of the bar represents any important unit of measure — often the frequency of occurrence or cost. The bars are presented in descending order (from tallest to shortest). Therefore, you can see which tactics are either outperforming or lagging immediately. The line represents the cumulative percentage of all initiatives, channels, or tactics, whatever is being analyzed.
In any Pareto Chart, for as long as the cumulative percentage line is steep, the types of tactics have a significant cumulative effect. Therefore, it is worth drilling into these for optimization or to address potential issues. When the cumulative percentage line starts to flatten, these tactics do not deserve as much attention, since solving them will not influence the outcome as much. A Pareto Chart is a strategic tool: it helps analyze and prioritize issues and opportunities.
Example Dashboard Strategy KPIs:
- Lead velocity rate (leads vs. previous month)
- Expected revenue by Marketing Channel
- Top campaign performance tracker
- Reasons for unqualified leads
- Cost per MQL/Acquisition per Channel
- Months to recover CAC
- Churn per Acquisition Channel
- ARPU expansion from Nurture Campaigns
Finally, here is an overview slide of both your Marketing and Sales outcomes, vs. the cost of those outcomes. You can replace Cost/MQL with total Customer Acquisition Cost if you have that information.
Optimize through scrutiny
As mentioned, your status dashboard keeps things moving and the strategy bowlers help you plan. Scrutiny is how you hold people accountable, for example, for calls they make every day. I call this type of dashboard “inspect what you expect.”
When you manage people for performance, both in-house, and especially outsourced teams, it’s not always easy to measure outcomes. Actual outcomes from SEO, Customer Wins or Brand Awareness impact can often only be measured after the fact, usually on a monthly, and often on a quarterly or even annual basis. So, what do you measure while the team is working towards these lagging indicators of success?
I liken this to when someone wants to get healthy and measures their weight, or maybe cholesterol levels as a desired outcome KPI. It does not really help to stand on the scale every day. A better ongoing KPI to drive progress is the number of steps you take in a day, or weekly calorie intake. You need to come up with similar “leading indicators” to manage your sales and marketing team on a daily basis.
Your team should know what you expect out of them. These more activity-based KPIs like personalized emails, discovery calls made, and demos delivered are great weekly drivers for the monthly, and quarterly goals associated with them.