Is it possible to build a billion dollar SaaS without focusing on traditional marketing channels like paid advertising, using high pressure sales tactics, or relying on manipulative growth hacks?
After spending several weeks reverse engineering and dissecting InVision’s growth marketing strategy I can say the answer is: yes!
InVision’s un-orthodox approach to growth marketing is not only refreshing in its community centric, almost grassroots style. It also appears to work amazingly well…
- InVision started out as a prototyping and collaboration tool for UI designers, but has since developed into a full suite of design tools to take on companies like Adobe and Sketch.
- Since launching in 2011, they have acquired over 4 million users.
- Over 70% of those users aren’t on the design team, part of InVision’s uniquely successful business model.
- They count over 75% of the Fortune 500 as clients.
- In late 2017, they raised a $100M series E round with a $900M pre-money valuation. In total they’ve raised $235M in funding.
- Their website receives over 14M visits a month.
Let’s pull back the curtain and do a tactic by tactic breakdown of one of the most authentic, community focused growth strategies in SaaS.
Table of Contents
Powerful Growth Levers Baked Into InVision’s Product and Model
Before we get into the more specific growth marketing strategies and tactics InVision uses, let’s take a look at the core growth mechanisms that are baked into their product and business model.
These product and model growth mechanisms are the things InVision is trying to amplify with their more granular growth tactics. Think of these growth mechanisms as levers. Rather than applying force in lots of different places, InVision can focus their marketing on these high leverage points to generate the most growth.
If you don’t understand what the growth levers are, their individual tactics might look random from the outside. But once we break down these levers you’ll see how calculated their tactical choices are. And how everything feeds into a bigger growth strategy.
Pricing as a Growth Lever
First, let’s look at their pricing model. Their core product is their design prototyping and collaboration platform. It has a free plan that allows one prototype, several premium plans for individuals that offer more prototype storage, a team plan for up to 5 designers to create new prototypes together, and then it bumps up to enterprise packages.
All the individual and team plans including the free plan allow for unlimited collaborators on prototype projects. That means no matter what plan you’re on besides enterprise, anyone inside or outside your organization can comment on and edit design prototypes. This unlimited collaborator feature is one of InVision’s key freemium layers.
On the other side of this freemium layer is the enterprise plan, which is where InVision earns its bread and butter. Once your team passes 5 designers, you’ll be pushed into enterprise pricing where collaborators are billed on a per user basis.
600% User Growth in the First Three Years of the Customer Journey
At its heart, InVision is a collaboration platform. And it’s letting non-designers on smaller teams use its collaboration features free in the hope that once those teams grow, InVision will be so embedded in the workflows and culture of the company that they can then monetize every single collaborator.
As you’ll see later in this post, everything InVision does feeds into this.
The company’s ethos is all about bringing design to the forefront of the modern organization. Of course, designers will still live at the heart of the design process, but InVision wants to bring voices from across the organization into the design conversation. And this unlimited collaborator freemium model is a key lever for making that happen.
Once a designer creates an account on a non-enterprise plan, bringing in collaborators from across their team is as frictionless as possible.
And the model seems to work. According to an article by Cliff Kuang on Fastcompany, three years after InVision is introduced into a company it sees a 600% increase in users.
If you’re a company starting out on a non-enterprise plan, that kind of user growth may also translate to getting pushed into enterprise level pricing where InVision can begin monetizing each user.
This would happen if your team grew beyond the 5 designers allowed on the team plan. So once you add the 6th designer to your team, you’ll also need to start paying a per user fee for all the non-designers commenting and collaborating on design prototypes.
This freemium approach toward non-designers has a couple other benefits:
- It makes the product extremely sticky. Once non-designers buy into the idea of participating in the design process with InVision, the organization becomes more invested in continuing to use the product than if it were just the design team using the product.
- It creates non-designer brand advocates that can spread InVision to future companies they work for, and expands InVision’s reach beyond the direct designer community.
Freemium Products as a Platform Growth Lever
While non-designers play a major role in InVision’s business model, designers are the linchpin that will a) introduce InVision into a company, and b) have the most influence on the design culture in a company, which in turn will influence how many non-designer collaborators participate in the design process.
This is where InVision’s other key freemium layer comes into play. Rather than push designers directly into their collaboration platform through traditional marketing tactics, InVision has steadily been creating a suite of design products that all feed into the collaboration platform – and are available free to designers.
This freemium layer serves three main purposes:
- It acts as an onramp for designers into InVision’s collaboration features.
- It addresses the problem of activation for designers who have been introduced to the collaboration features, but aren’t engaging with them.
- It nurtures designers in early stages of the customer lifecycle, like the design student who can’t afford premium design tools but may someday work for an enterprise client.
Let’s dive a little deeper into how these three elements play out by looking at InVision’s recently released Studio design tool.
Why Building a Premium Product and Giving It Away for Free Might Not Be as Crazy as It Looks
In late 2017, InVision launched a design tool called Studio. The big idea behind Studio is that the average workflow of a UI designer is fragmented across several tools, and Studio brings all those steps into a single tool.
Designers can mock up designs, create prototypes of interactive elements, and add motion animations all within the app (previously prototypes were primarily created on InVision’s web app). And of course, Studio also plugs in seamlessly to InVision’s collaboration features.
Studio lives on your desktop, and users have full access to all its native features for free. Users are only brought into InVision’s paid plans if they want to start using the collaboration features.
This is a compelling value proposition, especially when leading competitors in the space like Sketch charge $99 for a one year license.
If a designer makes the switch to Studio or becomes the tool of choice for a new design student, InVision’s collaboration features are now top of mind every time they open the app to work.
Creating a Design Ecosystem and Reaping the Rewards of a Powerful Network Effect
But InVision’s new Studio product isn’t just about creating a compelling freemium offer to entice new designers onto its collaboration platform. They also have plans to launch an integrated app store, to provide designers with each individual slice of the design workflow all under Studio’s roof.
While competitors in the space like Sketch already have a long list of plug-ins available, InVision is doubling down on this model with a $5M Design Forward Fund to seed startups in the design space that might integrate with Studio.
If InVision can make this new ecosystem work, it may be able to reap the rewards of some powerful network effects.
The more designers InVision can attract with its free design Studio, the more developers will be interested in creating apps for the platform or integrating existing apps.
The more gaps in the design workflow that can be filled by apps that plug-in to Studio, the more compelling it will be for designers to make Studio the place they spend the majority of their time. And the more likely they’ll be to get drawn into InVision’s paid collaboration features.
How To Use Plugins to Tap Into Another Platform’s User Base, and Improve Activation for Existing Users
InVision’s use of freemium product as a marketing tool didn’t start with Studio. Prior to developing their own fully featured design tool, they created a clever plugin called Craft that connects with designer workspaces in popular design tools like Sketch and Adobe.
Craft enticed designers with extra functionality to improve their workflow, while also providing an easy on ramp into InVision’s paid collaboration features.
Four of the plugin’s seven features don’t tie into InVision’s collaboration platform, making it an interesting plugin even for designers who might not have an immediate need for InVision’s paid collaboration suite.
And for designers who are already InVision users, the Craft plugin also serves as a useful activation tool. Since many of InVision’s collaboration features live in their web app, bringing some of this functionality directly into a designers main workspace puts the features top of mind and creates a UX with less friction.
Amplify Plugin Value and Exposure with Strategic Partnerships
The Craft plugin’s high value features made for great link bait across design community websites and blogs, gaining InVision lots of free exposure. But InVision amplified both the value of the plugin and its exposure by partnering with a popular stock photo site, iStockPhoto.
The Craft plugin allows users to add stock photos directly from the app. And in turn, iStockPhoto has prominently linked to the Craft plugin from across its site (which receives over 20M visits a month according to SimilarWeb). According to an SEMRush backlink report, the iStockPhoto partnership earned InVision over 150,000 backlinks.
Stealth Tool for Poaching Competitors’ Users?
With the launch of InVision’s Studio product which intends to go head to head with Sketch and Adobe, it will be interesting to see what role the Craft plugin continues to play.
In the short term, it could act as an effective stealth tool for luring Adobe and Sketch users into the InVision ecosystem. However, over time Adobe and Sketch may decide to build the plugin’s functionality directly into their products and render the plugin obsolete.
A Unique Grassroots Approach to Acquisition
InVision’s DNA as a collaboration platform seems to extend to the top of their funnel as well. While they have invested more into things like paid search as they’ve grown, overall their approach to acquisition has a unique community focused, almost grassroots flavor.
Rather than hammer designers head on with traditional marketing tactics, InVision takes a more subtle and value driven approach. Instead embedding its brand into the conversations happening across the design community, and casually leading designers into its ecosystem with solutions to the challenges they voice.
A great example of this is how they’ve handled content marketing. Rather than force a narrative out to the design community, they took a collaborative approach and created a blog fueled primarily by contributors from across the design community.
Scaling and Leveraging Contributed Content
While guest posting on a blog is nothing new, InVision doubled down on the strategy and built out a playbook to keep post quality high so it scaled well (going as far as co-writing with contributors in Google docs).
They also paid close attention to what contributed content resonated most with the community, so they could invest their own team’s efforts in the highest impact areas.
Not only did this approach ensure their content marketing was aligned with the real conversations going on inside the design community, it freed up team resources to focus on building up other content assets beyond the blog.
One of the most interesting examples of this was a feature length documentary on the disruptive power of design called Design Disruptors.
How To Get a Community to Rally Around Your Company’s Mission, and Set-up Warm Sales Conversations
In line with InVision’s focus on community, Design Disruptors takes viewers on an hour long journey inside the design teams of some of the world’s biggest tech brands like Facebook, Spotify, and Google.
For designers who might feel isolated in a small start-up team, the documentary makes you feel like you’re a part of a bigger design community and not the only one who obsesses over small UX design details.
At the same time, the documentary welcomes non-designers into the conversation by keeping its concepts relatively non-technical and big picture focused. Along the way, there are obvious seeds planted that tie into InVision’s ethos of making design an inclusive, collaborative process. Subtly inviting non-designers to think about how they might take part in design decision making.
Rather than just throw the documentary online for viewers to stream, InVision used it as a tool for sparking conversations inside management teams of potential enterprise clients.
According to an interview with InVision’s SVP of Sales Ryan Burke on the Drift blog, the documentary generated hundreds of inbound leads wanting to organize screenings of the documentary for their management teams to learn more about the value of design. They would follow up screenings with VIP dinners for 12-15 people with no agenda.
InVision also used screenings as entry points into local design communities. Finding anchor companies like HubSpot, and then coordinating with them to invite the local community of designers to attend the screening as well. This leveraged the local cred of key companies in major tech hubs to further expand the reach of the screenings.
Rather than being viewed as a pitch, a documentary flies under the radar as a sales tool. Viewers value the insights shared in interviews with top tech leaders, while also becoming more aware of the gap that exists between those tech giants and how their own company approaches design. Subtly setting up an open minded conversation to explore how InVision might be able to help bridge that gap.
Acquisition Channels By The Numbers
According to SimilarWeb, InVision’s main invisionapp.com domain receives approximately 14M visits a month. The top two traffic sources are search and inbound links (after direct traffic, the bulk of which likely comes from existing users). Traffic from email and social come in a distant third and fourth respectively.
Let’s break down these traffic sources, dig a little deeper into some of the numbers behind InVision’s top acquisition channels, and look at how these channels tie into InVision’s overall growth strategy.
Social as a Distribution Channel for High Value Content
To create some context and set a bit of a baseline, let’s take a look at some social engagement data. Even though social is one of InVision’s smallest traffic sources at 2% of total site traffic, 2% of 14M visits is still a good chunk of traffic.
According to BuzzSumo, InVision has shared over 2,100 pieces of content on social media over the past year and has generated roughly 110,000 engagements (an engagement would be things such as likes, shares, comments and re-tweets). That’s an average of 52 engagements for each piece of content.
Of those social engagements, about 75% were for posts on InVision’s blog. So InVision is mainly using social media as a distribution channel for their blog content.
Outside the blog, the top three content assets ranked by engagement over the past year were:
While the Design Disruptors documentary we looked at earlier in this post featured hot tech start-ups, this documentary takes viewers on a journey through the challenges of creating a design driven culture at IBM. It seems targeted more toward legacy companies vs. start-ups. It’s also a lot shorter than Design Disruptors and might be considered more of a mini-documentary at 22 min long.
The Design Genome Project is a a series of case studies on how different companies structure their design teams, what design processes they follow, and the software stacks they use. The content could have easily been used on their blog, but instead is packaged into a stand alone portal that enhances the perceived value of the content by adding a premium look and feel.
An evergreen webinar available for streaming on demand via YouTube, that features an actual fireplace.
Leveraging The Social Dynamics of a Community to Create Viral Growth
Inbound links are like the veins running to the heart of InVision’s acquisition strategy. InVision pumps out high value, linkable assets like their free Craft design plugin or Design Disruptors documentary. And in turn, the design community links to these assets and channels new users into InVision’s ecosystem.
To understand how InVision gets so much traffic from inbound links, it’s important to first understand a couple of the unique dynamics of the online design community.
Like most niche communities online, there are plenty of blogs and forums for designers to talk shop with each other. But UI design by its very nature is a visual, digital medium. So the community extends beyond just discussing ideas and trends like in many other niches, and also involves exchanging designers’ actual creations – the designs themselves.
There are sites like Dribbble and Behance that provide designers with platforms for sharing their designs, and to get inspiration from other designers. But this dynamic of sharing designs isn’t limited to platforms, it’s ingrained into the DNA of the community. Designers might link to designs in their resume, on an open source project site, in blog comments, or anywhere else it would make sense to reference a design.
InVision of course is perfectly positioned to leverage this kind of sharing, since it is after all a design collaboration platform. By making it easy to share designs from within the InVision product, they make it easy for designers to share their creations not only across their team but also with other designers across the community.
According to SEMRush backlink data, of InVision’s 700k backlinks, over 100k go to InVision’s project.invisionapp.com sub-domain that handles sharing designs. Many of these links come from staging sites used by internal teams i.e. not intended for the public. However, there are a lot of designers using InVision to share their designs publicly as well.
Tapping Into What a Community Is Already Sharing to Create Highly Linkable Content Assets
The spirit of sharing in the design community extends to designer resources as well. Because the components of design are digital, it makes sharing design assets like wireframes, design templates, and icons easy. Sites like Sketch App Sources provide platforms where designers can post free and paid resources like this, often packaged as “UI kits” with multiple resources in one downloadable file.
InVision has leveraged this aspect of the design community as well, creating half a dozen or so free UI kits. Of InVision’s top 20 pages with the highest number of backlinks, six of those pages are for UI kits.
InVision’s NOW UI kit for example is gated behind an email form. Upon submitting your email, you are directed to a special offer thank you page inviting you to sign up for an extended trial of one of their premium plans.
Other top linked pages include the Craft plugin, the Studio design app, and the InVision blog.
It’s worth noting that many of the back links I investigated across these design community sites appeared to be either purchased by InVision or arranged through some kind of link swapping partnership. However, there were also a lot of organic links.
Expanding a User Base and Creating a Seamless UX With Integrations
A major source of referral traffic, perhaps delivering the lion’s share, are InVision’s integrations with other team collaboration tools.
While InVision aims to streamline a UI designer’s workflow and bring as much of it under InVision’s roof as possible, it doesn’t ignore the team collaboration environment that already exists in tools like Slack, Trello, and Asana.
These integrations are key, even if InVision succeeds in its plan to integrate other collaboration tools into its own Studio design tool and create a truly all-in-one workspace for designers. Because remember, over 70% of InVision’s users are not designers.
That means the best way to build its non-designer user base is to make InVision easily accessible in the other collaboration tools they already spend the bulk of their time in.
In line with this, InVision announced in August 2018 that they would be expanding their integrations and forming a strategic partnership with Atlassian. You can see below their current integration with Atlassian’s Trello. The new partnership, along with an investment from Atlassian, aims to make integrations between the two companies even more seamless.
Using High Value Content Assets to Drive Search Traffic
InVision’s investment in a wide range of content assets has also helped them excel in search, which generates roughly the same amount of traffic as inbound links.
These premium content assets and freemium products are a magnet for back links, which helps drive higher organic rankings. The content assets also drive a general awareness across the design community, which leads to a high branded search volume.
Branded search accounts for roughly 2/3 of InVision’s search traffic. Branded searches tend to convert at much higher rates than non-branded keywords, because visitors searching for a brand are likely at a deeper point in the buying funnel. They may have heard about InVision in the past, and now have a need that brings the brand to mind.
How To Maximize Conversions from Branded Search Traffic
InVision could more effectively leverage this brand awareness by following a few branded search best practices, like those outlined in Mihai Sterian’s article on Everything SaaS needs to know about branded searches.
Adobe is poaching the high intent branded search traffic with their #1 ranked ad for Adobe XD which is in direct competition with InVision’s Studio design product.
InVision could also set-up a knowledge panel in the right column to boost InVision’s brand credibility and anchor the searcher’s awareness to their brand.
Adobe not only has a knowledge panel for its main brand, they also have a knowledge panel set-up for the specific tools they offer like AdobeXD. InVision could also consider optimizing their tool based branded search this way, like searches for InVision Studio and their Craft plugin.
Email as a Content Distribution Channel and Onboarding Tool
According to the InVision blog contributor page, InVision’s blog has over 2.5M subscribers. InVision sends subscribers a weekly digest email linking to a dozen or so of their latest blog posts, as well as a section of links to noteworthy pieces of content from outside InVision.
Email is also a primary channel in onboarding new users across InVision’s various freemium funnel entry points. I signed up for InVision across six different funnel entry points and monitored their corresponding email journeys for a month, and these are some of the most noteworthy things I observed.
For InVision’s freemium offerings (Studio design tool and the free basic prototyping plan) video walkthroughs are the primary onboarding tool. A selection of walkthrough videos are included in the first email you receive after signing up.
InVision keeps the CTA in these emails simple and focused, highlighting only three videos and emphasizing how quick they are.
Activating New Users With Product Plugins and Extensions
Another common thread in InVision’s email journeys is their focus on enticing users deeper into their collaboration ecosystem with additional features and tools.
In the second email you receive after signing up for InVision’s free prototyping plan, InVision invites users to try their Craft plugin (which as we discussed earlier, connects designers with InVision’s collaboration features inside competing design tools like Adobe and Sketch).
It also offers InVision’s Slack app, which brings InVision comments and updates into Slack channels where teams are likely to already be having discussions about designs.
InVision doesn’t waste time before trying to embed itself into team communication and start drawing in team collaborators, which ties into their overall strategic goal of monetizing as many non-designer collaborators as possible.
Driving SQLs with Customer Success for Paid Users
What impressed me the most was when I signed up for their $25 a month team plan. Upon signing up, I received a series of email messages from a customer success rep. While these contained fairly standard onboarding info like video and webinar links, I like that even their lower tier plans are dropped into the more personal feeling journey from a live rep.
This also shows InVision is positioning itself to extract SQLs for their enterprise offering early on in the buyer journey.
Improving InVision’s Email Journeys or Un-gating Content
Where InVision’s email journeys fall a bit flat is when you stray outside of their core funnel entry points. For example, when I signed up for their Craft plugin or one of their UI kits I only received one initial auto response message with a download link and then was just dropped into their weekly blog digest emails. There were no additional follow ups on other features or tools that I might benefit from.
However, this could be an indicator that InVision is moving toward un-gating some of its content assets. For example, while the UI kit I signed up to download required an email address, I came across other UI kits from InVision that didn’t require an email to download.
Tying It All Together Into a Billion Dollar Growth Strategy, Driven By InVision’s Spirit of Authenticity and Community
When you tie together all of the tactics InVision has used to grow to a billion dollar valuation, the most remarkable thing isn’t how creative, unique, or masterfully executed the tactics are.
The really remarkable thing is how aligned those tactics are with adding value to and nurturing an authentic relationship with the design community. This often comes as an after-thought in the world of KPIs, growth hacks, and sprints. But InVision seems to have made it the starting point of all their tactical choices, or at least a core part of their litmus test.
Let’s do a quick recap…
- Their unlimited collaborator pricing model not only removes friction in expanding the user base to non-design collaborators in a new company, it also sets the stage for bringing design to the forefront of company thinking and creating better design outcomes.
- Freemium design tools like the Craft plugin and Studio not only create a low friction onramp into InVision’s paid collaboration features, they also give anyone with an interest in design free access to a premium set of design tools.
- Creating a blog built almost exclusively on contributed content not only frees up team resources and embeds InVision’s brand into the design community, it also gives designers a platform to share their ideas with each other.
- Filming and screening a feature length documentary not only generates warm sales conversations, it also creates a forum where designers and management teams can have deeper conversations about design.
InVision has done a brilliant job of finding this sweet spot between how they can generate the most growth, and how they can do it in the most authentic way. Whether it’s using free products and extensions as a marketing tool, or acquiring users with high quality content that solves real problems for designers.
And if you’re setting out to fundamentally change the way design gets done at the world’s companies, maybe InVision’s spirit of authenticity is a required part of the formula for making that happen.
After all, InVision isn’t just trying to sell the latest and greatest design tools. They’re trying to change up the whole culture and process surrounding design, bringing non-designers into a more inclusive conversation on design. To really accomplish that, you need to do more than hammer the market with ads. You need to establish an authentic connection with the community, earn its trust, and take a real leadership role. At the end of the day, fostering this spirit of authenticity may not just be a moral imperative but also a strategic one.
[su_box title=”Additional Resources”]
Crunchbase company overview
Need help growing your startup?
I help growth stage SaaS start-ups find and fix the bottlenecks in their strategy that are choking growth. Click to learn about my SaaS marketing consultant services.