You run a SaaS. You probably got accepted into the HubSpot for Startups program. Now you can’t wait to explore and set up your HubSpot account.
I don’t blame you. HubSpot is one of the leading marketing automation platforms among B2C, B2B, small businesses, and startups alike. It’s the company that coined the “inbound marketing” term and one of the most frequented libraries of marketing resources on the web.
Before you make the final move and start importing your users in HubSpot, I wanted to give you an in-depth review of the software and share my opinion on the best ways to use HubSpot for marketing if you run a SaaS business.
Let’s jump in!
Don’t have time to read a 3000-word review? Skip to the Final verdict section.
HubSpot Marketing Automation Review Basis
In this post, I’m going to review the marketing automation and customer messaging capabilities of HubSpot.
- Email marketing — both newsletters and automated emails
- Marketing automation workflows.
- User segmentation
- User events and user activity.
Below I highlighted the aspects of HubSpot that I’m going to review:
What I’m not going to cover:
HubSpot is a big all-in-one sales and marketing suite. Doing an in-depth review of the whole platform could easily take a book.
I understand that this makes it really hard to cover every single use case that HubSpot supports. However, as I have shared in my post on how to choose a marketing automation tool for your SaaS, I believe SaaS companies need to focus on a few critical things:
- Powerful and flexible workflow builder that allows you to automate customer journeys.
- User segmentation.
- Support for user events/actions (i.e., the ability to bring in user activity data in your marketing automation tool).
- Multi-channel messaging (emails, in-app messages, ads, etc.)
- Support for 3rd party apps to automate tasks across your marketing stack. This also includes automation between your sales and marketing tools.
For that reason, I’m not going to review the Sales or Customer Service products of HubSpot. Things like the CRM, live chat, tickets, knowledge base. (Although a good alignment between marketing and sales is important.) Or any marketing features not directly related to marketing automation like blogs and SEO.
What HubSpot plan do you need to access HubSpot’s marketing automation?
To take advantage of the HubSpot’s marketing automation capabilities, you need to be on the Marketing Hub Professional plan.
The Professional plan starts at $9,600/year. Or 90% of that price for the first year if you get accepted in the HubSpot for Startups program.
Can’t afford $9,600 for a marketing automation tool? Check out this section of the post where I talk about Encharge — the cheaper HubSpot marketing automation alternative built for SaaS companies and how you can use Encharge with the HubSpot Free Tools.
With that out of the way, let’s review HubSpot’s marketing automation!
HubSpot Marketing Automation Workflows
The marketing automation workflows are the front and center of your marketing automation strategy. They allow you to send automated messages to your leads, users, and customers at different stages of the customer journey — for example, a welcome email when a user signs up for your tool.
Flows also allow you to automate tasks across your marketing and sales stack — for instance, assign a new sales task in your CRM when a user activates a specific feature in your app.
When you create a new workflow in HubSpot you’d be asked whether you want to start from scratch or choose a template:
Most of the flow types and templates in HubSpot revolve around:
- Contact properties — trigger a flow when a property matches a specific value or changing a property value when something else happens.
- Deals’ values or stages — for instance, trigger a flow when a deal value becomes $10,000.
- But you can also start with a company-based, support ticket-based, or quote based flow. These flows are triggered or automate tasks related to companies, tickets, and quotes, respectively.
The flow templates don’t come up with pre-populated email copy. Also, don’t expect any SaaS-specific flow templates (for onboarding, retention, churn, etc).
HubSpot’s marketing automation is heavily focused on flows that automate things in high-touch businesses — e.g., agencies, service businesses, offline businesses, etc. This shows prominently across the app and in the workflow triggers/actions that we’re going to explore in a bit.
Starting a flow from scratch
When starting with a Contact-based flow, you can start from scratch or with a date-centered flow that triggers at a specific date. With a date-centered flow you can re-enroll contacts (trigger the flow again) on a specific recurring date, which is a helpful feature.
Yet, when you start with a date-based flow, you won’t be able to change/delete the trigger of that flow for reasons that I couldn’t understand, so I just decided to start from scratch.
The flow builder
Once you’re inside the HubSpot workflow builder, you can create automation flows with visual steps for Delays, If/then branches, and a number of different actions.
UI-wise the flow builder looks great. However, bear in mind that the flow it’s one-directional — all steps go down vertically, and you don’t have any control of how the flow is aligned. You can’t drag and drop, align and connect steps as you see fit. This could be restrictive if you’re coming from a marketing automation platform like Encharge (like me) or want more flexibility when designing flows.
To connect steps horizontally or generally steps that are not aligned in consecutive order, you need to use the “Go to action” step:
Below is a list of all of the possible triggers that can start a flow in HubSpot:
I find the triggers under “Activity properties” (screenshot below) to be very comprehensive and well thought out. You can start a trigger from dozens of activities related to Meetings, Deals, Calls, Emails, Conversions, and more.
You can also start a flow when a Deal details change, a user submits a form on your website, or leaves their email in a pop-up form.
Fans of all-in-one tools will rejoice and find HubSpot’s automations easy to set up as HubSpot’s flows are very well connected with the rest of the suite, mainly its CRM. For instance, you can trigger a flow when a contact or company property changes. And as you guessed, HubSpot has hundreds of contact properties that you can use to trigger a flow with.
No automations with user actions unless you pay $40,000
It’s really important to stress something out for all the SaaS people out there that plan to use HubSpot for marketing automation:
Events and the Event trigger (the trigger that starts a flow with events/actions from your SaaS app) are only available on the HubSpot Enterprise plan that starts at $38,400 a year.
In other words: No Events or Webhooks in HubSpot at all unless you pay $40,000.
This is a huge roadblock for SaaS people that want to send behavior-based triggered emails.
If you want to create automations based on what people do or don’t do in your app, then you have to go with something like Encharge or Customer.io
Once a flow is triggered, you need to select an action that you want to automate.
Below is a list of all of the possible automation actions (steps) in HubSpot:
Again, HubSpot shines when it comes to contact/company property and deals-related actions. You can automatically set property values, create deals, tasks, and more. All of these actions are very well connected with the rest of the suite.
You can also send internal team emails, SMS, and even team in-app notifications — if you want a team member to receive an in-app message when they’re inside of HubSpot. This makes automating and orchestrating internal team communication between sales and marketing a breeze.
HubSpot also supports Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn ads. You can use the flow triggers to automatically add or remove people to an audience at specific times and/or when specific conditions are met.
If/then branches, on the other hand, allow you to split your flow into multiple buckets. T§hey work as filters or conditions (in a similar fashion to the filters you use when creating lists).
No omnichannel messaging in the HubSpot workflows
If you look closely under the “External communications” section, you only get the option to send emails.
I was quite surprised to find that there is no way to automate in-app, push, or SMS messages to your users. You’ll need to rely on Zapier to do that.
The lack of omnichannel messaging in the flow builder comes as another drawback for SaaS marketers that want to automate communication across different channels. It’s also one more proof that HubSpot is geared towards high-touch communication — after all, if you run an agency, you probably don’t want to send automated text messages to your clients (maybe unless you want to remind them about an appointment).
No automations with 3rd party apps
The whole product vision of HubSpot is to be an all-in-one tool. Following this vision, there are no triggers or actions with 3rd party apps in the HubSpot flow builder. In other words, there are no ways to natively automate tasks outside of the HubSpot suite.
Want to trigger a flow when a user submits a Typeform form?
Congratulate a user for becoming a customer through your Stripe account?
Show an in-app message in Intercom when a deal stage changes?
Sorry, you won’t be able to do that with HubSpot unless you use Webhooks (Enterprise plans only) or Zapier. The drawbacks of all-io-one platforms.
If you’re looking for a platform that plays well with the rest of your marketing stack you should check Encharge.
Additional flow features
Apart from the standard flow builder in HubSpot, you get a few additional features that are pretty nice:
Execute workflow actions at specific times
You get to option pause all actions for the workflow between specific time windows. This is a nice way to avoid over-emailing people if you run multiple flows at the same time.
I was quite impressed with HubSpot’s reports on their workflows. You can see how many contacts have entered a flow, completed a flow, and so on, as well as metrics breakdown of all of the emails in the flow. Nice job!
Another great feature in the HubSpot workflows is the History tab. You can see an extremely detailed view of all of the user actions executed in that flow and even filter by specific actions.
Not only that but you can also see a complete history of all of the revisions done in a specific flow. This helps a lot if you have multiple people working on flows, or you want to backtrack a problem in a flow.
Sequences vs Workflows
You have probably noticed that apart from Workflows HubSpot allows you to create sequences, so you might be wondering what the difference is? It’s pretty simple. Sequences are used for simple time-based email sequences (e.g., sending emails on day 1, day 3, day 5) and cold outbound sequences.
And with that out of the way, we’re finishing our review of the HubSpot workflow builder. In the next section, we’re going to take a look at Email marketing and newsletters in HubSpot.
HubSpot Email Marketing and Newsletters
Although not exactly marketing automation, email marketing is still a larger part of it. In this section, we’re going to review email creation and sending newsletters in HubSpot.
Emails in HubSpot are accessible through the Marketing panel → Email.
When creating a new email, you get to choose from:
- Regular email — standard one-off newsletters.
- Automated email — Emails used in the automation workflow.
- Blog/RSS email — sent when you create a new blog post.
Bare in mind that you can only use Automated emails in your workflows. Regular emails will not show up in the workflow builder.
HubSpot offers a small variety of email templates, and again no templates related to SaaS, so you’ll probably need to start from scratch.
When it comes to the actual email editor, HubSpot has a beautiful, easy-to-use drag and drop editor. Building custom multi-column layouts seems straightforward in the editor. You can also set email-wide template options if you’d like to keep your emails consistent.
One of the shortcomings of the email editor is that it doesn’t provide access to the HTML code. You can still build HTML templates, but that is only accessible in the Design Manager, and even there, there’s no way to switch between the standard drag and drop builder and the HTML editor, which I find somewhat unintuitive.
The email previews/email testing is really impressive. It works à la Litmus and offers dozens of clients to preview your email in, as well as dynamically generated content based on the user you select.
The email analytics are equally good, offering a wide array of metrics like Time spent viewing email and Engagement over time on top of the standard stuff like Opens, Clicks, and Replies.
Another nice feature of HubSpot’s emails are the Subscriptions (as HubSpot calls them). Subscriptions are essentially email lists that your users can unsubscribe from. Instead of unsubscribing the user from the whole email communication, they get to select which subscription they want to unsubscribe from. That way, you can create, for instance, one subscription for your transactional product emails and another one for your marketing emails.
Overall, apart from not having access to the emails’ code, the email marketing in HubSpot is really well done. It will serve good SaaS companies that want to create custom email templates and send one-off broadcasts about product updates and new blog posts.
HubSpot User Segmentation
User segmentation is critical for all SaaS businesses. You want to send the right messages to the right people. That’s why your marketing automation tool must support precise user segmentation and a wide range of conditions.
Let’s explore how good is the user segmentation in HubSpot.
In HubSpot, user segments are called Active lists. In fact, there are 3 ways you can group your contacts in the platform:
- Saved filters — predefined views that you can apply in different sections across the HubSpot platform like the CRM, for example. Filters can’t be used in workflows. To trigger a flow when a person meets specific criteria, you need to use an Active List or Static List, like the screenshot below:
- Static lists — lists of contacts that don’t update dynamically. For instance, when you import a set of people that you want to email.
- Active lists — dynamic segments that people enter and leave when they meet or no longer meet a set of conditions.
When it comes to the conditions that you can segment by, HubSpot has a lot of them. You can filter by:
- Contact properties.
- Company properties.
- Deal properties.
- Form submissions.
- Workflow activity.
- User Events (Enterprise plan only), and more.
Being a CRM-driven platform, HubSpot offers 145 default Contact fields and 70 Company fields that you can use to build user segments. Of course, you can also segment by custom fields.
Some of the fields that you can use include:
- Contact information — Email, name, city, annual revenue,
- Email information — Marketing emails open. Marketing emails open, Now in workflow, Last marketing email click date, and so on.
- Conversion information — First conversion, recent conversion, Number of form submissions, and more.
Some of these properties are automatically generated or pre-populated like “Time of first session”, “Time last seen”, “Company revenue”, and others. Others require manual input or a connection with your app. Based on my personal experience, the automatically generated and pre-populated field data is quite reliable.
HubSpot’s segments also support AND/OR rules and allow you to create groups of filters/conditions (screenshot below). A small quirk of segment building in HubSpot is that the UI doesn’t allow you to change [AND] rules to [OR] rules or vice versa. This means that if you change your mind in the middle of the segment building process, you’ll need to recreate the whole segment from scratch.
Similarly to the workflow builders, Events are not available when creating segments in HubSpot unless you’re on the Enterprise plan. That is: you won’t be able to segment users based on what they do or don’t do in your SaaS app unless you pay $40,000 a year. Needless to say this is a huge roadblock if you run a self-serve SaaS business or have a trial acquisition model and want to segment by user activity.
This leads to the last section of this review…
User Activity and User Feeds in HubSpot
When building your marketing and sales stack, you want to have a tool that serves as a single source of truth — a place where you can see the full customer journey of the users.
HubSpot has a great CRM with a great looking contact activity feed (screenshot below).
It also suffers from the same limitation as the rest of the suite. Event-related activity is only available on the Enterprise plans. That is, you won’t be able to see what people do in your app when you view a contact activity feed in HubSpot.
Your app, your Segment.com account or any other app that works with events won’t be able to send events to your HubSpot account:
With that (rather important) caveat, is HubSpot a good single source of truth for your SaaS?
In my humble opinion, no. Not being able to see the full picture of what your users do in your app is just too much of a big deal when we talk about SaaS.
✅ HubSpot Marketing Automation Review for SaaS — The good
✅ Robust marketing automation related to contact/company properties, deals, meetings, calls, and other sales-related activities.
✅ Advanced automation that facilitates internal communication between sales and marketing teams.
✅ Comprehensive email and flow reports.
✅ Advanced flow history.
✅ The workflow builder is very well connected with the CRM and the rest of the suite.
✅ Great email testing capabilities a la Litmus.
❌ HubSpot Marketing Automation Review for SaaS — The Bad
❌ No user Events/actions unless you’re on the Enterprise plan, starting at $40,000 a year.
❌ No automation based on what people do or don’t do in your app. You won’t be able to send automated emails or automate any other tasks when a person does something or fails to do something in your app. (Enterprise plan only)
❌ No user segmentation based on user events. You won’t be able to create segments based on what actions have your users taken or not taken in your app. (Enterprise plan only)
❌ No user events in the activity feed. When you look at a single user profile, you won’t be able to see the actions that the user has taken in your product. (Enterprise plan only)
❌ No support of in-app or text messages.
❌ No Integrations with 3rd party apps in the workflow builder. Want to automate your whole marketing stack? HubSpot is not the tool for you, as it really only automates things that happen inside of HubSpot.
Final Verdict — Is HubSpot’s Marketing Automation Right for your SaaS?
The short answer is NO.
Unless you have $40,000 to spend on a marketing automation tool.
Your SaaS runs on a low-volume/high-value, 100% sales-driven acquisition model — i.e., no trial/self-serve.
The lack of user events is too big of a roadblock for SaaS companies to find the platform viable for any sort of automation.
When you combine this with the lack of in-app messages and any sort of 3rd party integrations in the workflow builder, HubSpot is an easy pass for a growth-driven SaaS company.
Want to use HubSpot’s superb CRM with a powerful marketing automation for SaaS companies? Continue reading…
Encharge — Powerful marketing automation tool built for SaaS that plays nice with HubSpot
HubSpot is still one of the best CRMs out there. At Encharge, we use HubSpot, too, so we get it.
The problem is that it’s simply not a good marketing automation tool for SaaS. That’s why we have a better HubSpot alternative for you:
Use your HubSpot CRM and supercharge it with the marketing automation of Encharge.
We built Encharge — the most powerful marketing automation platform for SaaS companies. With Encharge, you can increase your trial conversions and retain more customers by sending automated emails based on what your users do or don’t do in your app.
Encharge also has the most powerful user segmentation for SaaS currently on the market.
You can build marketing automations with tools like Segment, Stripe, Typeform, Facebook Ads, Intercom, Salesforce, and more.
But the best part is that Encharge integrates natively with your HubSpot CRM. Some of the things you can do with Encharge + HubSpot include:
- Automatically send your HubSpot CRM contacts to Encharge.
- Create new deals in HubSpot when a contact is created or updated in Encharge.
- Update deal stage in HubSpot based on activity in Encharge or other tools in your marketing stack
More Resources on Marketing Tech Stack for SaaS
- How to Choose the Right Marketing Automation Tool for Your SaaS Business?
- User Segmentation for SaaS — How Well the Top Marketing Automation Tools Handle It
- The 36 Best Marketing Automation Tools to Use in 2020
- Why You Should Switch to Encharge if You Are a SaaS and Want More Customers?
- Mailchimp’s Marketing Automation for SaaS: In-depth Review