How did Notion become a $2 billion SaaS company with 1MM+ users, and what can they do to reach the next million users?
Those are the questions I was asking as I dove deeper and deeper into the growth strategies in play right now from Notion—the collaboration, productivity, spreadsheet, note-taking, pretty-much-everything SaaS tool.
And they’re the questions I’m going to try to answer today.
In this article, I’m going to break down some of the strategies Notion has used to build a $2 billion company, grow to 1 million users after a single seed round, pull in over 20 million site visits monthly & hit over 40,000 unique referring domains in just four years.
I’m also going to share two SaaS-specific content marketing strategies to help Notion break away from the competition and tap into a brand-new user base that’s actively on the hunt for the exact tools Notion is offering—to ultimately propel Notion toward the next $2 billion.
If you’re owning growth at a SaaS company of your own, I’m confident these two strategies can be applied to your industry as well to boost traffic and acquisition starting this year.
Before we dive head-first into strategies and tactics, let’s clarify one thing…
Notion is reinventing the spreadsheet & competing with thousands of software companies at the same time
You’ve heard it before and I’m going to say it again:
For most SaaS companies, Excel and Google Sheets are your biggest competitors.
We’ve talked before about the unbundling of Excel and how most SaaS companies are built around single spreadsheet use cases like HR and payroll, budgets, project management, etc.
And sure, you’re going to have direct competitors that also specialize in what you specialize in. For example, in the project management space, you’ve got Asana, Trello, Todoist, Basecamp, etc., all competing with each other to win the almighty user.
But at the end of the day, the good old-fashioned spreadsheet is still coming to eat your lunch.
- Using Asana to collaborate with clients? There’s a spreadsheet for that.
- Using Trello to track project statuses and owners? Spreadsheet for that too.
- Using Todoist for personal task management? Yep, Google Sheets can do that too.
Don’t get me wrong—these project management tools all have their unique value props that help them continue to grow even with Excel slowly coming for them.
Our economy runs on Spreadsheets. 📊
Many SaaS companies think their biggest competitor is another SaaS company. In reality, their biggest competitor is often Excel: https://t.co/0Or3YptkSg
— Ross Simmonds (@TheCoolestCool) October 17, 2019
Then there are the companies coming for Excel.
These are companies that are reinventing the spreadsheet entirely.
Notion, Airtable, Coda, Spreadsheet.com, Smartsheet and others are positioning themselves as spreadsheet alternatives to directly challenge Excel and Google Sheets across the board.
Here’s what it means:
Not only do most SaaS companies still need to compete with Excel, they’re also now competing with these new-school spreadsheet tools. And these companies reinventing the spreadsheet aren’t just competing with each other; they’re competing with everyone.
For example, Notion isn’t just trying to pull users away from Airtable or Excel. They’re trying to attract users from thousands of SaaS companies across dozens (even hundreds) of industries.
- Accounting SaaS tools
- HR SaaS tools
- Project management SaaS tools
- Content scheduling SaaS tools
- Event planning SaaS tools
- Real estate SaaS tools
Every template and use case in Notion, Airtable, Spreadsheet.com, etc., can take the place of a SaaS company that was built to address that use case.
Throughout the rest of this article, I’m going to examine Notion’s marketing tactics to figure out what they’re getting right and where there are even more opportunities for growth.
Let’s jump in.
How Notion Is Winning With Their Community & Flexibility
In this section, I’m going to be breaking down some of the strategies & tactics the Notion team has used to grow so quickly & build a highly engaged community of “Notioners” in <4 years.
First of all, what actually is Notion?
Notion calls itself an “all-in-one workspace.” Basically, it’s a no-code software that allows teams to build wikis, share documents, take notes, manage workflows and more.
Notion has taken off over the past few years because of how flexible and user-friendly it is—it’s essentially a powerful sandbox where teams can build any systems they need without having to code or connect dozens of tools.
In this section, I’m going to show you what they’re currently doing well from a marketing and growth perspective.
Calling out the competitors you’re replacing
Right on the Notion homepage, they’re calling out the exact tools that their software can replace in each of their three most common verticals.
For team wikis, it’s Confluence and GitHub Wiki:
For project and task management—Trello, Asana and Jira:
And for standard note-taking and documents—Google Docs and Evernote:
Since Notion (like most other spreadsheets and no-code database software) is essentially a blank canvas with thousands of different use cases, they’re mentioning these well-known competitors to give you some context for how you can use their software.
Here’s what they’re saying with these elements:
Storing all of your important docs and information in Confluence?
Use Notion instead.
Managing your work in a separate project management tool?
Use Notion instead.
Relying on Google Docs and Evernote for note-taking?
Use Notion instead.
This helps users who aren’t 100% familiar with Notion better understand the capabilities—with examples to boot. And by talking about how you can move multiple different use cases into Notion, they’re also pushing one of their primary value propositions from the jump.
Breaking down barriers to entry with integrations
Of course, just because you can replace some tools or use cases with Notion doesn’t mean you want to replace every single tool in your stack.
To tackle that barrier head-on, Notion lists a few of the many tools they play nice with, showing how they can fit into the workflows you’re already comfortable with:
Use Slack often? Notion works well with Slack.
Don’t want to ditch the Google Suite entirely? You don’t have to. Notion works with Sheets, Docs and Drive.
“But wait—don’t they call out Google Docs on this same homepage?”
Yes they do, but not every Notion user is planning to completely abandon Google Docs—and they’re making it clear that you don’t have to.
Building a 46,000+ member Subreddit around their product
Notion’s Reddit community is huge.
It’s become a place for current and future users to connect to share templates, ideas, accomplishments, product ideas, etc.
Over the past 1.5 months alone, the community has grown from 38,500 to just shy of 47,000:
That’s a daily trend of 170 new subscribers on average every single day:
Let’s not skip past the actual impact this growth can have as well.
A community dedicated entirely to Notion is adding 170 members every single day (weekends included). That’s 170 new people who could either (1) become first-time Notion users, or (2) level-up the ways they use Notion already, turning regular users into power users over time.
And this isn’t just a community where users hit the “join” button only to never come back again. There are 25 new posts and 119 new comments shared every single day:
This community is also mostly hands-off for the Notion team themselves. It’s a community-led group where users connect and share insights with other users.
Not only does that keep the Notion team from having to hire dozens of full-time community managers just to keep the wheels turning—it also keeps the conversations happening inside 100% genuine and authentic.
Where this community becomes even more interesting is when we start to unravel what Notion actually is doing to work side-by-side with its members through their ambassador program.
Establishing a Notion Ambassador program for power users & creators
One strategy in particular Notion has leaned on (and seen great success from) has been finding and working with the most vocal members of these communities.
To test this strategy, they launched an ambassador program called Notion Pros as an experiment to see which members (if any) would be interested in working closely with the Notion team to improve the product, stay connected with the community, finding even more potential Notion users, etc.
Notion’s Head of Marketing, Camille Ricketts, talked about the early stages of this program during her conversation with Forget The Funnel.
For the experiment, they built a simple landing page using the Notion platform and hit 400 applications right off the bat.
To keep it manageable, they limited the Notion Pros program to 20 total seats at the start. As of August 2020 they’re now up to 60 Notion Pros representing, supporting & promoting the tool across the many Notion communities out there.
One great example of a Notion Pro helping drive growth for Notion while building her own brand is Marie Poulin.
She’s grown her YouTube channel to 15k subscribers focused entirely on how to best use Notion across a wide number of use cases:
Her videos are consistently hitting 5-figure view numbers & cover everything from setting up a weekly agenda, using Notion for popular task management methodologies, building advanced databases, setting up recurring tasks, etc.
And Marie is just one example of a Notion Pro creating great content around Notion. Keep in mind—the program is up to 60 members at the moment. That means there are 59 more people creating content, talking about Notion, and helping new users discover Notion.
The big takeaway for SaaS growth teams:
Find your power users. Connect with them. Explore what opportunities exist for collaboration.
Let them take the wheel and guide the ways they’d like to collaborate with your team, then build a program to support them. Give them content to run with, give them access to your product roadmap, set up a Slack channel for them—let them help you grow.
Amplifying positive community feedback
Notion embeds real tweets from real people directly on their homepage:
This is a great tactic to take the “social proof” piece of your landing pages even further. Sourcing testimonials and quotes from current users is still a good idea, but pulling positive mentions like these directly from Twitter adds that extra layer of authenticity.
Sure, Notion could be running a backchannel conversation with everyone in that screenshot asking them to say something nice, but I’d put the chances of that at just about zero. People love the product, they’re telling their communities exactly that, and Notion is just boosting the message.
Tailoring their onboarding to specific user entry-points & objectives
This is one of my personal favorites…
Back to Camille Ricketts’ (Notion Head of Marketing) conversation with Forget The Funnel—she talked about how Notion has used their onboarding process to customize every new user’s first experiences with the product.
After a new user signs up, they go through a quick onboarding quiz to help Notion better understand what they’re trying to accomplish with the product.
For example, let’s say I’m looking to set up a new Notion workspace for the Foundation team from my laptop.
After I sign up with my Foundation email, I’m asked how I plan to use Notion:
After I choose “with my team” they get me to create our workspace, set how large the team is, and share which department I’m in.
I’m choosing 5-20 employees & the marketing team:
Then I’m taken to an invite screen to get my team members connected (our first referral growth opportunity) before I jump in:
And finally, the activation begins.
Once I hit the product for the first time, I’m given a handful of templates to get started with. Because I said I planned to use Notion with my team and I’m part of the marketing department, they’re getting me up & running with:
- Brand Assets (wiki)
- Meeting Notes
- Media List
- Content Calendar
- Mood Board
All tailored to match up with what I’m most likely to be interested in—which not-so-coincidentally happen to also be the templates that are most likely to keep me engaged.
If I would’ve chosen to use Notion for just myself and from my phone, here’s the page I’d land on & the templates they’d serve up once I hit the product:
By going through this pre-onboarding process, Notion can quite literally tailor the screens you first see inside the product to maximize the likelihood of you poking around and getting your feet wet.
Here’s how the process maps out:
This is something I’d highly recommend just about every SaaS company steal for their own onboarding process. Setup a quick quiz to try to better understand every new user’s intentions (and potential pain points) as they’re signing up, then show them what they’ll want to see.
Building a scalable growth loop with 250+ templates
This is where things start to get even more interesting with Notion.
Because of the basically infinite number of use cases Notion has, it’s no surprise that Notion users have built an impressive gallery of templates. In the company’s public templates directory alone, there are user-created templates for…
Design feedback documents:
University / college course planning checklists:
And quite literally hundreds more when you factor in the templates Notion users share in the r/Notion subreddit—all available for free. The community has even created tags specifically for posting Setup Showcases and Templates:
And through the community, members are sharing their own personal templates like this task list built specifically for students:
Templates are so popular that some Notion members are even creating their own newsletters just for sharing templates every week:
Notion’s built up an engaged community of users who love to create systems that work for them and then share what they’ve created with their peers.
The best part for Notion’s growth?
As more templates are shared in Reddit circles, Slack channels, Facebook groups, etc., more potential users are being introduced to Notion, and existing users are finding more use cases to tie their workflows and systems into Notion even further.
That’s a winning growth lever across acquisition, activation, retention and referral.
Here’s how this growth loop works, using my friend Nick as an example:
- Nick discovers Notion through a template shared on Twitter
- He signs up for a Notion account to start using this particular new template
- During the onboarding process, Notion finds out more about Nick’s intentions and surfaces 5 more templates they’re likely to be interested in
- After Nick builds a page from one of these 5 templates, Notion shows him a few more templates he can now connect to his new page
- As Nick starts to use the product more and more, he starts searching for even more templates from the community to level up his workspace and processes
- By now, Nick is using Notion every day and he’s become an active user
- Now that he’s more comfortable with how Notion works, he starts to build templates of his own to fit even more use cases
- Because he’s already pulling so much value out of the r/Notion community, he wants to give back & starts to share his newly built templates with others
- Nick also decides to share his new template on his own Twitter account
- Then 3 of his friends—Lisa, Alex & Chris—see his Notion template and sign up…
… and the loop continues.
Acquisition. Activation. Retention. Referral.
All through the use of templates—templates you can build yourself, and empower your own power users and community to start building and sharing.
The growth takeaway for other SaaS companies?
Create opportunities for your existing customers to share the systems, processes and workflows they’re using successfully with others in the community.
Untapped Content & SEO Growth Opportunities
In this section, I’m going to break down two new content marketing & SEO-specific strategies the Notion team can starting building to continue growing their active user numbers.
First thing’s first, let me say this:
The Notion team is doing a great job across plenty of channels and growth strategies.
They deserve full credit for everything we just covered, and they’ve been able to grow to $2 billion by building a great product, promoting it well, and building one of the most engaged product communities I’ve ever seen.
The suggestions I’m about to share are two opportunties that came up while researching their current approach for this teardown. Both are extensions of some of the great work the team is already doing.
Let’s jump in.
Pitting themselves against competitors in search
Yes, Notion is calling out the competition on the homepage. That’s one step toward convincing potential users who rely on those tools today that Notion is a viable replacement.
But what if potential customers want to do more research? What if just knowing Notion can replace Asana or Evernote isn’t enough for them to pull the trigger?
They need more information.
And when they’re after information, they turn to Google.
- Top keywords: Notion vs evernote, is notion better than evernote, evernote vs notion
- Volume: 2,000 searches/month
Right now, 2,000 Google searches are happening every single month comparing Notion to Evernote. That’s 2,000 people per month who are on the fence looking for answers.
And guess what? Notion has a Switch from Evernote page:
… but it’s pretty much nowhere to be found in Google:
That’s a grand total of SIX keywords where Notion is in the top 20—and they’re on page 2 in Google for every single one of them.
Cliche alert—the best place to hide a dead body? Page 2 of Google.
Search is a zero sum game.
If you're #1, you're eating.
If you're #2, you're snacking.
If you're #3-10, you're getting scraps and crumbs.
and if you're on page 2… you're starving.
— JH Scherck (@JHTScherck) August 18, 2020
If Notion is sitting on page 2 for searches that directly compare their product to one of their top competitors, it means someone else is getting to control that narrative.
Maybe the pages ranking on page 1 are pro-Notion, recommending that Evernote users make the switch. But maybe they’re not.
And Notion’s “Switch from Evernote” page isn’t even on the radar for the overall “evernote alternative” topic, which is getting 6,100 searches per month with 14 different search terms:
Even beyond Evernote, there’s plenty of opportunity for Notion to target “alternative to” searches for every competitor they’re already calling out on their homepage, like Trello, Confluence, Jira, etc.
In fact, we looked at how often people are searching for alternatives to some of Notion’s top competitors:
All in all, that’s ~24,000 people actively searching for a solution like Notion every single month.
To capture this search traffic, I’d recommend Notion build a comparison page directory that houses standalone comparison pages for each and every competitor they want to call out:
Here’s what a comparison page directory would help Notion achieve:
- Rank for “notion alternatives” to retain customers at risk of churn and convince them that Notion is still the best choice
- Rank for branded “notion vs [competitor]” to control the narrative and highlight why Notion is better than the other options
- Rank for “[competitor] alternatives” to capture users who are actively searching for a replacement to Notion’s competitors
Each page inside the directory can use the same overall template and page structure. All that needs to be updated are the comparison details (pricing, features, etc.) and the supporting content throughout.
The best part about a comparison directory like this?
Especially for an Excel / spreadsheet alternative like Notion.
Remember at the beginning of this post when I talked about how the new Excel alternatives (e.g., Notion) are also competing with thousands of SaaS companies that are more specialized?
This means Notion could technically create hundreds of comparison pages over time to position themselves as an alternative to every tool on the market.
- Trello alternatives
- Squarespace alternatives
- Basecamp alternatives
- Dropbox alternatives
…and so on.
The key takeaways for SaaS companies:
Put the competition in your crosshairs and control the narrative when a prospect is doing their research. To scale, build a comparison content directory with a templated page structure.
Optimizing their templates directory for search
As powerful as Notion’s templates directory (and overall ecosystem) is becoming, there’s still massive untapped potential for these templates.
The most glaring is organic search.
Based on Ahrefs data, there are over 350,000 different search queries containing “template” or “templates” happening every single month.
Notion doesn’t have a pre-built solution for all of those searches, but I have no doubt there are thousands of unique searches that Notion does already have solutions for.
For example, every month, 600+ people are turning to Google to find habit tracker templates.
These people are asking for a ready-to-use tool, and they’ll probably be highly motivated to sign up for whatever SaaS tool can deliver.
But wait, Notion’s already got that covered, right?
They have exactly what these people are searching for in their templates directory—plus dozens more user-generated habit tracker templates not currently highlighted in the directory that all satisfy these users’ search intent:
Well… as of today, for the primary target keyword “habit tracker template,” you’ll have to click all the way to page 7 in Google before any Notion pages show up:
And it’s not just niche use cases like habit tracking where there’s massive opportunity for Notion to use templates that already exist to attract quite literally thousands of new users a month.
Let’s look at a few more:
Weekly planner templates
- 45,000 searches/month
- 225 keywords
Notion has weekly planner templates ready to go:
If they can rank on page 1 for a high-intent query getting over 45,000 searches per month, there are users to be earned.
Content calendar templates
- 8,100 searches/month
- 46 keywords
Notion’s got you covered there as well:
The best part is, those 8,000+ people searching for content calendar templates are going to be creators, content marketers, marketing team leads—ideal Notion users.
Trip planner templates
- 3,200 searches/month
- 49 keywords
Notion can deliver on that search, too:
And the list goes on.
Another good one—of the Notion team were to build a hub page with their best resumé templates and offered some guidance on how to use them, they could capitalize on tons of search traffic.
You see how far this could go…
How Notion (and other SaaS co’s) can build template directories at scale
In 6 steps, here’s how I’d recommend that Notion capitalize on their templates to boost organic traffic and user acquisition:
1. Identify priority template groups.
Which templates best align with Notion’s ideal users? Which templates are getting the most searches per month? Blend these two answers together to find the highest priority types of templates to promote.
2. Build hub pages for each template group.
Instead of relying on the individual templates to rank, build hub pages that round up the best templates available for that group. Use easy-to-understand URL structures and house everything underneath the main “templates” directory:
3. Round up Notion-created and user-created templates that match.
Instead of housing every individual template in one massive directory (which puts the onus on the user to hunt for a template they can use), use these hub pages to round up some of the most popular and well-constructed templates.
PS: Highlighting user-created templates will especially help *big time* later on. More on that in a bit.
4. Add supporting content to the page—walkthroughs, tips, etc.
Complete each page with content that helps visitors use these templates successfully. To scale this approach, each page can be built from one standard structure.
Canva’s already doing a fantastic job with this. Their template hubs all follow a similar overall structure:
5. Distribute, distribute, distribute.
When the Notion community finds something helpful, they tend to go crazy for it. So when these template hubs go live, distribution is key.
Here’s when it pays off to include user-created templates.
Reach out to every single creator whose templates have been featured to let them know—this’ll help nurture the relationship with these creators while also giving them a reason to promote the template hubs.
6. Build backlinks—often.
It’s no secret that backlinks are a major ranking signal for Google. The more links you’re earning from high authority websites, the better your pages are going to look in the eyes of Google.
After each hub launches, invest in backlink outreach. Hit up pages already talking about the topic. Find the most influential communities for each topic and reach out. As traffic increases, the template pages will start to pick up links naturally as well.
If the template hubs are organized effectively (e.g., notion.so/templates/[TOPIC]) with proper internal linking throughout, then every link acquired across the templates section is going to help the entire directory climb in Google.
Notion’s been able to build a $2B SaaS company on the back of a great product, a great community, and a great team.
They’ve established a scalable growth loop through their templates that acquires, activates, retains & refers users on its own, and they’ve built a customized onboarding process that increases the likelihood of keeping new users engaged after they’re acquired.
If their goal is to creep on the traditional spreadsheet’s SaaS market share and compete with nearly every niche software tool available, they’re definitely on the right track. And there’s still even more opportunities for growth with great content and great SEO in particular.
Two of the biggest opportunities to do exactly that:
- Explain how they match up against the competition
- Dominate top-of-funnel “templates” searches
Don’t get me wrong—Notion didn’t cross 1 million users by sitting on their hands, missing growth opportunities left and right.
The Notion team has built an amazing product (can’t lie, I use it daily) that looks great and works even better, a seriously powerful community (46,000 subreddit members and counting) and a brand that pulls in new users like a magnet.
But hey—there’s always room for growth, right?