How to Use Your PPC Campaigns as A Prospecting Tool for SEO

When launching a digital brand, PPC can be a great way to immediately break into a new market and start generating website traffic. But with rising CPCs and unmitigated click fraud, PPC can also get really expensive quickly. Even the most skilled digital marketers can struggle to run profitable Google Ads campaigns. For this reason, […]

The post How to Use Your PPC Campaigns as A Prospecting Tool for SEO appeared first on CXL.

When launching a digital brand, PPC can be a great way to immediately break into a new market and start generating website traffic. But with rising CPCs and unmitigated click fraud, PPC can also get really expensive quickly. Even the most skilled digital marketers can struggle to run profitable Google Ads campaigns.

For this reason, getting more out of your PPC spend is not just about properly optimizing; it’s about using all of that PPC data to shape a smarter SEO strategy. In this article, I’ll break down how to use your Google Ads campaigns as prospecting tools for SEO. 

Why PPC is an effective short term strategy, but SEO is the long game.

With PPC, it’s critical to remember that you’re in essence “renting” visits to your website in the short-term. 

Brands that rely heavily on revenue from paid than organic search are only one crisis away from having their business turn upside down. The moment you stop paying for search ads is the moment your traffic dries up.

You can certainly jumpstart traffic with paid search, but if you’re on a budget this strategy can be difficult to maintain.

Unlike PPC, organic SEO allows brands to earn that same traffic without paying, and if done correctly, continue to benefit over time. That doesn’t mean Google Ads can’t be a valuable part of your marketing strategy, but putting all your eggs in one basket can come back to haunt you.

Depending on the competition and the rate at which you build your site authority, seeing the rewards of SEO can take months. That’s why PPC is one of my favorite ways to quickly start testing out digital strategy and sales processes. 

To prospect well, you need to properly optimize your Google Ads campaign

Before we look at how PPC campaigns can help with SEO, it’s critical to ensure you’re already optimizing your PPC campaigns first. 

There is a lot that goes into optimizing Google Ads campaigns, here are some 

1) Take an iterative approach

Most likely, your first campaign will not be profitable. But an unprofitable campaign can still give you loads of information about your set of keyword targets, bid amounts, ad formats, and the details you need to improve the effectiveness of your campaigns .

For example, if your ad is being triggered for irrelevant search terms or generating the wrong types of clicks, add those terms to your negative keyword list. If your ads are earning impressions but not clicks, revise your ad copy and work towards making them more relevant. 

In terms of the ideal length of a PPC campaign, I recommend you have enough monthly budget to acquire at least a few hundred clicks (you need enough conversions to calculate a statistically significant conversion rate.) In my experience three months of PPC budget is enough time to iterate your optimizations and prospect for SEO. 

Make small adjustments, monitor your results, then implement new changes accordingly. 

2) Use single keyword ad groups

Many PPC managers agree that one of the best optimization practices is single keyword ad groups. Yes, it takes more work for your marketing teams, but pages with the most relevant ad copy will generally improve click-through-rate and conversions. 

Adwords Account.
Single Keyword AdGroup Structure (Image source: LinkGraph)

I find the SKAG campaign structure to be incredibly helpful, and it uses only one keyword per ad group (rather than one ad group targeting multiple keywords). SKAGs make it easier to determine which keywords will perform well or not for SEO because:

  • The SKAGs with the highest CTRs and conversions will likely be winning SEO keywords
  • SKAGs help uncover relevant search terms that are worth targeting organically
  • SKAGs make split testing easier (the next optimization step) and can help you identify the most effective headlines and descriptions that you can utilize on SEO-driven pages.

3) Write highly-targeted ad copy and utilize A/B testing

If you’re structuring your campaigns properly and using SKAGs, you can create unique text ads for each target keyword in an ad group. With the Google Ads built-in A/B testing feature, you can also test out different headlines or descriptions to see which performs better. 

With the “Optimize,” ad rotation setting, ad served get weighted toward the ad that statistically appears to perform better. To run a proper A/B test, you need to have a clearly defined variant that you are testing, as well as two sets of ad copy that are unique enough to produce different results. In the below example, the description is the variant being tested, and the data shows that the B variant performed better (despite far fewer impressions).

Ad tests.
Example of Google Ads A/B testing feature

One of the most common pitfalls of A/B testing is that advertisers test out too many variants making it difficult to determine why one ad performed better over another. For this reason, it’s important to only test one variant at a time. 

4) Use a Google Ads bid simulator to determine the price you’re willing to pay

A bid strategy will ultimately play a big part of paying less for better clicks in PPC campaigns. There are benefits and drawbacks to manual and automatic bidding, but both require advertisers to determine appropriate keyword bids for their highest-value keywords—marketing effectively is hard work!

The Google Ads bid simulator is a great tool for finding this magic number. Many digital marketers often set their max bids too high and end up overpaying for clicks.

Google Ads bid simulator.
Google Ads bid simulator for the keyword “kitchen curtains.” 

The degree of the curve can help you determine an appropriate price to set your max bid amount. Where the curve flattens off shows where increasing your bid will only result in minimal traffic increases. 

In the above example, if you increase CPC from $1.41 to $3.00, the marginal cost-per-click for the incremental traffic is over two times more expensive for only 7% more impressions. I would bid $1.07 – $1.41 here. 

5) Optimize your landing pages for conversion

The work of PPC doesn’t end after the click. Although some brands run PPC campaigns just for brand awareness, performance-based campaigns are easier to measure, and in my opinion, conversions should be the ultimate goal of paying for your clicks. This means your  PPC landing pages need to be designed to be efficient mouse traps. Check out CXL’s guide on how to build high converting landing pages to help ensure your landing pages are optmized. 

How to use PPC Campaigns to Prospect your SEO strategy 

Once you’ve optimized your Google Ads campaigns and start buying clicks, you will begin collecting loads of data not only about whether your PPC campaign structure is effective, but whether or not you can redeploy it in SEO. 

PPC campaigns can help digital marketers simultaneously test out three things: 1) keyword targeting, 2) traffic quality, and 3) their website’s conversion funnel.

1) Use PPC to identify the high-value keywords for which your website can realistically rank 

One of the most advantageous elements of a PPC campaign is it helps digital marketers test out certain keywords before designing an SEO strategy around ranking organically for them. 

The Search Terms Report is the best place to go to get information about your keyword targeting. 

Example of a Google Ads Search Terms Report

It’s important to remember that your Google Ads are not only triggered for the search phrases or words that you add to your campaign, even if you use “Exact Match.” 

So be sure to review your search terms report to see the various phrases your ads are being triggered for and utilize that data. 

There will likely be many search terms that are generating clicks that weren’t originally on your radar. This report will also give you a broader sense of the long-tail keyword variants that present SEO opportunities, because those keywords are often less competitive to rank for (but still have high search intent). You can then create new landing pages or blog posts that are optimized for those long-tail phrases.

The search terms that generate quality clicks help establish that those keywords are likely worth targeting in SEO. If you find search terms in this report that are not relevant to your products or services but your ads are showing up, there is likely something off with your keyword targeting. 

There are of course many possibilities for this, but the most common errors are that your keywords are either too broad or they are multi-intent keywords that bring traffic that is not necessarily in the sales funnel. To correct this, add those keywords with less relevance to a negative keyword list.

The cost-per-conversion of your Google Ads can also help you understand the potential long-term economic value of ranking organically for certain keywords. 

Google Ads cost per conversion metrics.
Google Ads cost-per-conversion metrics

If it would cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to generate clicks in a PPC campaign, but you can find a way to get that same traffic to perpetuity from organic rankings, you can make significant headway in improving the overall ROI of your marketing spend. 

SEO has a wonderful way of drastically lowering cost-per-acquisition over time. Once you understand which search phrases have the potential to bring clicks and customers, you can optimize your website to rank for those same keywords and get the same traffic (but this time, for free.)

2) Understand traffic quality and the economic value of clicks

The second major benefit of PPC is that you can use their campaigns to prospect the economic quality of the traffic that comes with specific keywords. 

What makes traffic have economic value? If it enters your conversion funnel. 

Naturally, Google charges advertisers more money when the data shows that the keyword is more likely to result in conversions for your business. But any well-seasoned digital marketer will tell you that high CPCs don’t always directly translate into quality traffic. 

If a user clicks on your search ad and doesn’t enter the conversion funnel on your website, you’ve essentially paid for nothing. The consequences can be deadly: Low-quality traffic (whether from click fraud or improper keyword targeting), higher cost-per-conversions, lower Quality Scores, and higher CPCs in the long run. So the best place to understand the traffic quality of those keywords targets is by using Google Analytics

Another essential step in optimized PPC campaigns is setting up proper tracking (this is especially important for B2Bs where marketing attribution is already pretty tricky.) If you’re not doing so already, it’s critical to  link your Google Ads account with Google Analytics so you see exactly what your site’s visitors are doing once they arrive on your website via a paid click.

Here are some of the Google Analytics metrics that provide insight into the quality of your PPC clicks. Remember, bad keyword targeting and irrelevant ad messaging is bound to return low-quality clicks (but that’s on you). 

  • Geographic Location: Traffic from certain geographic areas can mean site visitors with smaller budgets or less buying power. To understand buying power even more, you can use geo-targeting to segment audiences in their PPC campaigns by region and compare conversion rates and economic value. When it comes to applying this to your SEO strategy, although some keywords may have high global search volume, it doesn’t guarantee the traffic will have strong buying intent.
  • Desktop vs. Mobile: In general, mobile has a lower conversion rate for most products and brings wildly different traffic than desktop. A poorly designed mobile version of your site may prevent qualified users from entering your conversion funnel, but if a lot of your PPC clicks are coming from desktop but are not converting, it could be a sign of low-quality traffic with less buying intent. 
Desktop vs mobile.
Desktop versus mobile conversion rates tracked in Google Analytics. (Image Source: Hallam)
  • Exit Rate: This metric represents the rate at which people leave your website on specific pages. If your exit rate is high on those pages that have lead capture forms, pricing information, or checkout pages, it’s likely that traffic is not ready to convert or make a purchase and should be categorized as low-quality.
Exit rate metrics on Google Analytics
Exit rate metrics on Google Analytics

Low-quality traffic can destroy your PPC campaigns, with organic SEO there’s more room for error. Even if it is easy to rank for a specific keyword organically, Google doesn’t consider site traffic in its ranking algorithm. Although that low-quality traffic might have brand awareness value, the SEO value is little to none.

3) Test whether your landing pages are well-designed to convert

PPC campaigns also provide the opportunity to test your website’s conversion funnel. With Google Ads conversion tracking, you can get a great sense of whether your landing pages are pulling their weight and guiding users toward the desired conversion action. 

To set up conversion tracking, you need to select which conversion actions you want to track. For ecommerce companies you’ll likely want to track when a user adds items to their shopping cart. For B2B or B2C brand (where the next step in the sales funnel isn’t necessarily a purchase) you may want to track actions like lead form submissions, downloads, or demo bookings.

Example of conversion actions that can be tracked in a Google Ads campaign.
Example of conversion actions that can be tracked in a Google Ads campaign

If certain conversion actions are significantly higher with your PPC campaigns, your landing pages that rank well will likely benefit from harnessing similar CTAs, lead capture forms, or design elements.

Traditionally, specialized PPC landing pages look much different than SEO-driven landing pages. With PPC, landing pages usually present users with a more obnoxious call to action, limit the content depth on the page, or sometimes even remove the nav bar to prevent users from browsing through the website. 

Illustration of a landing page designed for SEO and one designed for PPC (Image Source: TempleToaster)

These design elements can often conflict with what it takes to get a landing page to rank organically (e.g. In-depth content, breadcrumbs, external links, information architecture, rich media, etc.) 

Use your PPC campaigns to test out different landing page design elements or conversion-optimized practices and identify what works best. Some ideas include:

  • Number and placement of of CTAs;
  • Design elements like fonts, colors, size of buttons, etc;
  • Conversion-optimized features like sticky bars;
  • Removal of navigation menu.

You can also send PPC clicks to landing pages that already have strong keyword rankings, or you know have ranking potential, to test whether your conversion journey will translate for users who arrive to your website organically.

Conclusion 

PPC campaigns can be a great way to generate clicks in the short term, but are also incredibly helpful in improving your overall SEO strategy as well.

Though coming at a cost, PPC campaigns provide incredible amounts of valuable data about keyword targets, traffic, and whether your website is or isn’t conversion optimized. 

Here are the key takeaways to execute a SEO prospecting process with your PPC campaigns.

  • Use your PPC campaigns to identify the highest value keywords for your SEO strategy— keywords that get impressions, clicks, and bring quality traffic to your website.
  • Prospect traffic quality by linking your Google Ads campaigns with your Google Analytics account. Look at the data to help you determine buying intent, such as geographic location, traffic by device type, and exit rate.
  • Use Google Ads conversion traffic to test and iterate on your website’s conversion funnel. Incorporate the conversion-optimized design elements that worked in your PPC campaigns to your SEO-driven pages. Or, send PPC traffic to your SEO-driven pages to test the conversion journey.

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Product Innovation: How To Build Products Your Customers Love

How do you go from good to great? How do you remain relevant as your competition continues to gain more market share? As the technology and business landscape continues to shift rapidly, companies that embrace innovation will have a clear advantage over those who don’t.  As with most things in marketing and business, product innovation […]

The post Product Innovation: How To Build Products Your Customers Love appeared first on CXL.

How do you go from good to great? How do you remain relevant as your competition continues to gain more market share? As the technology and business landscape continues to shift rapidly, companies that embrace innovation will have a clear advantage over those who don’t. 

As with most things in marketing and business, product innovation isn’t something that happens from a few meetings or putting together a polished slide deck. From who you hire to holding your team accountable for certain OKRs, innovation requires buy-in from your entire organization. 

In this article, I’ll share what product innovation is, why it matters, and how to build a company culture where innovation is the standard. 

What is product innovation? 

When you hear the word innovation, what immediately comes to mind? 

Do you think of companies like Amazon and Google? Does product innovation refer to creating entirely new products or improving previous offerings? 

At the most basic level, product innovation is the process of developing and marketing a new or improved product to solve your customer’s problems. 

In The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most, authors Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russel have a more direct take: 

“Innovation, at its core, is change that can be measured because it generates profits.” 

No matter how great your product or service is now, innovation is critical for continuing to serve your customers based on their current needs and desires and avoiding becoming an afterthought. 

The challenges of innovation 

To be innovative, you have to experiment. If you want to have more inventions, you need to do more experiments per week, per month, per year, per decade. It’s that simple. You cannot invent without experimenting, and here’s the other thing about experiments, lots of them fail. If you know it’s gonna work in advance; it is not an experiment.

– Jeff Bezos

Despite most businesses understanding the importance of innovation, it remains challenging to do. According to a McKinsey Global Innovation Survey, “although 84% of executives agree that innovation is important to growth strategy, only 6% are satisfied with innovation performance.”   

In another study, “only one-third of U.K. business leaders said they were innovating successfully enough to generate revenue or measurable growth; only a quarter of boards of directors make innovation a priority, and 40% of leaders reject disruptive ideas because of a fear of failure.”

Many organizations claim innovation is a priority, but their high-level strategy and day-to-day operations say otherwise. For larger organizations especially, getting buy-in for innovation initiatives can be tricky. 

And yet, you can’t expect to create a culture of experimentation if your employees are too afraid to speak up and share their ideas. You can’t build a culture of innovation if failure is treated as something to be ashamed about. 

Innovation, by its very nature, carries risk. That said, in my many years of experience working with companies all over the world, the cost of not innovating comes at a hefty price.

Here are some of my key takeaways on how to build a culture of innovation as well as build products and services your customers love. 

1. Avoid catastrophic failure 

When it comes to innovation, knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to get right. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen companies make in their quest for innovation is not taking into account the worst-case scenario. 

The upside of innovation can be a game-changer for your business, but not at the risk of damaging your brand permanently. 

As I shared in my talk Test & Learn Community, author Nassim Taleb argues that it’s just as important to guard against catastrophic events (black swans) than it is to make incremental improvements.

Just as buying insurance can never generate ROI, validation experiments will not result in more money directly but does provide a safety net against business catastrophe. 

While there are many examples of product innovation gone wrong, Netflix’s decision to spin off into another company called Qwikster nearly a decade ago continues to be talked about in many business circles today.  

It turns out, two companies, two logins, and two billing accounts were something their customers did not want or need.

As CEO Reed Hastings noted at the time:

It is clear that for many of our members, two websites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs… This means no change: one website, one account, one password… in other words, no Qwikster.

Another example I’ve discussed in the past, is the redesign Snapchat rolled out a few years ago. 

Here’s what TechCrunch had to say at the time:

Snapchat’s redesign was a disaster. It cratered ad views and revenue and led Snapchat’s user count to actually shrink in March. That’s why CEO Evan Spiegel just announced a big reversal of the redesign’s worst part.

While both Netflix and Snapchat were able to avoid true disaster (at the cost of millions of dollars and lousy PR) for startups and smaller companies, a wrong move could lead to a situation that puts them out of business.

That isn’t to say, innovation is not worth the risk, but avoid experiments that may lead to irreparable harm. 

2. Have a clear goal for innovation in mind

While virtually everyone business can benefit from innovation, innovation for the sake of innovation is a losing strategy. Yes, it’s important to continue to improve and enhance your products and services, but without a clear why, you’re at a significant disadvantage from the start. 

As I wrote previously on CXL about running marketing experiments, getting clear about your resources and goals for your experiments is critical:

Is it feasible? It’s true that experimentation should not be confined to rigid business goals. However, it’s important to consider the budget, resources, and potential metrics that might be affected negatively by a failed test in advance.

The first consideration in feasibility is practicality. How will you accomplish this test? What sort of resources and manpower would you need to execute it on the ground?

I’ve found the 5 Whys framework to be helpful for getting clarity on your customer’s most significant pain points and challenges to determine opportunities for innovation. 

In my course on product innovation, I give the example of how we used this framework at Convoy

Why: Experimentation Platform doesn’t provide tools for analysis. 
Why: The Platform doesn’t know what metrics or algorithms are used in an experiment.
Why: Metrics definitions and algorithms are not standardized and are not generic. 
Why: The variety of metrics and algorithms used at Convoy are varied and change often. 
Why: Convoy is a two-sided marketplace with small data. Typical Tests don’t work.

An innovation strategy without a clear goal is not a sustainable and repeatable process and can lead you down a road that costs you both time and money.

3. Put your customers first

Any successful product innovation strategy should always start with your customer. It may be tempting to launch a new product based solely on what your data says, but without talking with your customers, you risk investing in an unnecessary flop. 

I always recommend starting with asking whether or not your customers want your proposed initiative.

The first thing we should always ask before launching a new experimental business initiative is: Does the customer want this?

If the customer isn’t interested in what you’re offering, then it doesn’t matter whether or not your testing program has the budget to roll out a test to 500 stores nationwide; it’s going to be a waste of money.

There are many methods that help in understanding whether a product or service is wanted or not, but for now, we will just focus on two. The first is easy- Talk to your customers. Ask them what changes they would like to see or whether an additional feature would help their buying experience.

While talking with your customers won’t guarantee they like or respond positively to your experiments, it does give you valuable insight that will increase your chances of success. 

As the book Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice puts it:

Most innovative products were conceived, developed, and launched into the market with a clear understanding of how these products would help consumers make the progress they were struggling to achieve.

That work led to our theory of disruptive innovation, which explains the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost have become the status quo—eventually completely redefining the industry.

By only guessing about what your customers may or may not want, your innovation strategy is almost certain to fail. 

4. Create a culture of experimentation 

Creating an innovative product once can certainly help you grow your business, but building a repeatable process is what’s going to continue to allow you to remain miles ahead of your competition.  

That starts with building an organization that values and incentives your team to take innovation seriously. Generally speaking, all the most innovative ideas at the world’s smartest companies come from immersed professionals understanding the opportunities in their space and being encouraged to take risks. 

Creating a culture where your employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas (and taking risks) is an essential part of innovation at scale. 

Having clear OKRs and North Star goals can help you and your team stay aligned on the big picture while also allowing the freedom for employees to test or run with their ideas.

Your employees should feel comfortable in running their clearly defined experiments with the knowledge you’ll back them up should it fail.

Yes, hold your team accountable, but at the same time, allowing your employees to own their experiments and support them through the process can rapidly increase company-wide innovation. 

As Sean Ellis author of Hacking Growth shared:

For me, the main thing that creates a culture of experimentation is committing to a testing cadence and sharing results. In the beginning, you may need to be patient to generate results. But I’ve never seen a company run 10+ highly considered tests and not achieve a meaningful improvement. Wins drive buy-in, and buy-in accelerates testing momentum.

So for me, the most important first step is committing to a weekly experiment release schedule. Stick with it for at least a month. Sharing results will drive more company-wide participation. Over time you’ll find that the whole process is pretty addictive. But it requires a commitment and perseverance in the beginning.

Conclusion

There’s no way around it; product innovation is incredibly difficult. That said, because it’s so challenging, companies that can innovate consistently are the ones who will remain the industry leaders for years to come. Here are the major takeaways:

  1. Avoid catastrophic failure: Innovation is great (and essential), but not at the risk of making a mistake you can’t recover from. 
  2. Successful product innovation starts with having a clear goal (and objective in mind); without having a detailed strategy in place, you’ll struggle to innovate consistently.
  3. Innovation starts and ends with your customers. You can make assumptions about what your customers want and need, but without talking with them and understanding their pain points, those assumptions are just a guess. 
  4. Product innovation is not a one-off process; to continue to reap the benefits of innovation, it’s critical you build innovation into your organization’s culture. 

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Closing The Backlink Gap: What It Takes To Outrank Your Competition

There’s no shortage of SEO advice on how to rank higher for key terms. Create high-quality content. Have an effective distribution strategy. Optimize your on-page SEO. Yet, even today, acquiring high-quality backlinks is still one of the most effective components of a successful SEO strategy. But what does it take to do it right?  In […]

The post Closing The Backlink Gap: What It Takes To Outrank Your Competition appeared first on CXL.

There’s no shortage of SEO advice on how to rank higher for key terms. Create high-quality content. Have an effective distribution strategy. Optimize your on-page SEO. Yet, even today, acquiring high-quality backlinks is still one of the most effective components of a successful SEO strategy. But what does it take to do it right? 

In this article, we’ll look at what the link gap is, how to effectively close it, and the keys to outrank your competition through your link building efforts. 

Is investing in a link building strategy still worth the effort? In most cases, yes. 

One study by Moz has shown that brands that don’t do link building have significantly lower chances of ranking high in Google. 99% of the top 50 Google results had at least one backlink to their website. 

Another Moz study, makes the strong case that the nature and the quality of links matter too. In other words, the authority of the linking site or page can significantly impact your position in SERPs. Paying for a bunch of low quality links is not a winning strategy. 

While backlinks are important, they aren’t the only thing that matters when working rank higher, even if they are coming from a super-authoritative website. 

Through my work, I’ve seen dozens of situations where a site built tons of valuable links, but it didn’t help it rank higher. Investigating further, I found that the most common scenario was the lack of meaningful content backed up by well-delivered keyword research. 

First and foremost, your content needs to be written to rank for key search terms. Without that foundation, backlinks really won’t move the needle. 

In addition to that, the responsiveness of your website is also an important ranking factor. If your website doesn’t display properly on every device, isn’t protected by HTTPS protocol, and loads very slowly, don’t be surprised if your link building efforts don’t work out. 

Links are extremely important for ranking higher in SERPs, but you shouldn’t disregard the rest of the ranking factors as well. Don’t make the mistake of investing in an expensive and time consuming link building strategy without getting the basics right first. 

Now let’s talk about what you came here for—the definition of the backlink gap and how to calculate it. 

The link gap is a difference in the number of referring domains that you have vs. that your competition has already acquired. 

In practice however, the link gap formula isn’t as straightforward because not all links are created equal.

When calculating the link gap, you should consider only the links that are valuable, not ones from sites with a low DR. 

To better illustrate my point, on the screenshot below, I used Ahrefs’ Domain Comparison report to run a quick analysis: 

You can see that my website is doing quite well since our DR is nearly as high as Page One Power’s, which as one of the oldest link building agencies is a competitor. 

However, if we look at the number of referring domains, you’ll see that, Digital Olympus, has about half the referring domains of Page One Power. 

Why then, do we have such a difference in referring domains while our DRs are nearly the same?

The answer is quite obvious—not all links that Page One Power has built are considered valuable. If we take a closer look at Page One Power’s link profile, we’ll see that the majority of referring domains are low quality. 

To calculate the link gap, your focus should be on the  number of meaningful links. The easiest way to get that number is by evaluating the DR of each referring domain. You can do it via Ahrefs’ Referring Domains report, which shows you the number of all referring domains. Other SEO tools such as SemRush have similar features.

At this point, filter the results from the highest to the lowest DR (for me, the minimal DR is 30): 

Once you have a  list of websites and their DR, you need to export the results and see how many links the top-quality (DR > 70), medium-quality (DR ≥ 30), and low-quality websites (DR < 30) have:

Here’s a side-by-side backlink profile comparison of Page One Power and Digital Olympus and the link gap we have for each link type:

In the screenshot above, you can see what I’ve been talking about a bit earlier – the link gap between Page One Power and Digital Olympus is significant, while our DRs are very close. This is already a warning sign since building about 400 links should have boosted Page One Power’s DR up to 75. The difference makes me suspect many of their links are low-quality.

So how can you determine how valuable your competitors’ links are? 

One of the easiest options is to run these links through a tool such as LinkResearchTools. If a link has a value above 1000, it is considered low quality. While it may be tempting to load up on low quality links in volume, the likely penalties can be costly. 

Below, I checked the links from Page One Power’s profile, and 200+ of them had an incredibly poor link quality score. 

While you can check each individual link manually, it’s quite a time consuming process. To speed things along, you can use a tool like  Majestic Bulk Checker which crawls page titles and helps you quickly find suspicious and low quality links. 

In this example, the initial link gap was over 400, and we cut it to a bit less than that by filtering the websites with low DR. Next, we figured out that around 250 of these links are low-quality by running them through LinkResearchTools. The final link gap ended up to be a bit more than 100 links, which is much easier to compete against. 

Okay, so we’ve defined the backlink gap and why the initial formula needs to be tweaked for more accurate insights. 

Once you’ve closed the gap, how do you stay ahead of your competition? The answer lies in link velocity. 

Simply put, link velocity is the number of monthly referring domains that a website gets. This number may include organic links as well as those generated through link building strategies. 

To help you understand the nature of link velocity, think about the movie called Catch Me if You Can. In it, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a very talented forger, who also was a master of deception and scams. Even though he was pursued by a detective, he managed to stay ahead every time because the detective didn’t follow his pattern of thinking. 

Essentially, link velocity resembles the same idea of thinking and acting like competition. If you ignore link velocity, it becomes the reason why your competitors always beat you to the punch. 

So how do you calculate it?

The easiest way to get the roughly estimated link velocity of any domain is through the Newly Acquired Links report in Ahrefs. Just make sure you’ve selected a decent time frame (at least 3 months) to get a more accurate result. 

Then the formula is simple—you get the general number of links, divide it by the number of months you’ve selected, and you get your link velocity. In the example above, our competitors have built 289 links in 3 months. Hence, their link velocity is 96. 

Once you’ve calculated your competitor’s link velocity, you’ll need to calculate yours. If you have a lower number than your competition you have work to do. 

I’m not going to sugar-coat it—closing the backlink gap is not something you can do once and cross off your todo list. It’s an always evolving process that requires constant attention. 

Here are a few effective strategies that can make your link building routine easier that I’ve used at my own link building agency.


Even if you’re a relatively new SEO, you’ve likely heard about the importance of ‘quality links.’ And it may be tempting to nod your head and say “I know!” Yet, you’d be surprised at how many marketers ignore this critical component of an effective link building strategy. 

The question is, which factors determine the quality of links? I’d recommend considering the following ones:

  • The website’s DR should be higher than 50. But if it’s an influencer’s blog and the DR is only 30, this site can still be considered trustworthy enough for link building
  • The historical growth of referring domains should be a slow rise not a massive spike. Here’s a graph from SEMrush do give you an idea of how a progressive growth looks like:
  • The referring domains that a website has should be related to its niche. Majestic can be of great help here as it analyzes page titles of all referring domains of a website and makes it easier to identify the relevant ones. You can also scan the list of referring domains manually if you know your industry well enough. 
  • The sites with a high DR and but low number of referring domains aren’t as trustworthy.
  • Generally speaking, a linking website should have a blog with a history of publishing high quality content. 

All these metrics show whether a website you’re analyzing is following a shifty link building strategy or not. Any suspicious spikes in the growth of referring domains or a lot of irrelevant backlinks are a reliable indication as to whether or not a link is quality. 

In my experience, I’ve noticed that SaaS brands are often a great place to start with link acquisition. Many SaaS websites often show strong DR growth dynamics as well. Theoretically, if you build a link on a website with DR 30, this metric has all the chances to reach 60-70 very soon. 

However, when it comes to link building, caution is the parent of safety. Again, before you get involved with a SaaS brand and jump right into building links, always check the historical growth of its referring domains: 

If this metric shows smooth link acquisition without abrupt spikes—it’s a good sign you can proceed with little risk. 

I would recommend starting your link prospecting by checking various products featured on G2, Capterra, ProductHunt, and so on. I’ve also found great success by scanning private groups on Facebook related to SaaS products. For instance, here’s a link to the group that has over 13k members:

The next step is to find marketers from tools that are relevant to your niche and connect with them via LinkedIn. I traditionally recommend against using Facebook for outreach as it can be perceived as spammy.  

I wrote a previous article here on CXL that covers the most effective link building outreach strategies.

When possible, prioritize links from pages with a high quantity of relevant links over links that are just related to your niche.

You can find such pages in Ahrefs’ Best by Links report. Ideally, if you get a link from such a page, this link’s value will jump through the roof. 

Of course, many high DR websites are pitched daily, so it’s not always easy to build a link building relationship. Instead, you can switch your focus on the pages that are currently attracting a lot of links. This can be done through the Best by Links’ Growth report in Ahrefs:

Additionally, you can use LinkResearchTools to spot such pages as well. They have the LTV metric that shows the link growth to a particular page or domain in general:

Essentially, these pages show a good link building potential and will soon become rich with links. If you take advantage of them, you’ll have a high-quality link in your profile over time. 

4) Seek out the industry professionals who write guest posts

One more way to build top-notch links is through guest posts. While not as valuable as they once were, they are still an excellent method to get links though somewhat time consuming.

I recommend finding someone from your niche who has submitted guest content on industry-relevant websites and pitching a collaboration. 

You can find such industry professionals through BuzzSumo—just take a couple sites with guest posts, run them through the BuzzSumo search, and it will show all the authors who have submitted content there: 

Next, click on the author’s name, and BuzzSumo will show their content portfolio.

Your task here is to get the contacts of at least 15 writers. If just starting out, don’t pitch high level marketing celebrities right off the bat. 

Once you’ve finalized your list of attainable folks to outreach, you can begin building the relationship. Here’s an example of an outreach email with a partnership offer: 

At this point, keep in mind that you will also have to return the favor. And, if you don’t write guest posts yourself, you will have to allocate the backlink to those folks on your website which may not always be ideal. 

In this case, the best solution is to write a guest post yourself or hire someone to do it for you and place the reciprocal link there. If you write at least 2-3 guest posts, you can include about 10-20 links in them. However, be sure to make that decision based on the number of reciprocal links your partners expect from you. 

5) Outreach through email and social media is still effective 

Of course, email outreach is also a common practice in link building. Its perk is not only building partnerships but also developing long-lasting relationships. 

Traditionally, this strategy is most effective when you send a high volume of emails. Keep these things in mind.

  • Personalization is a must. And no, adding a name is not enough. Try to diversify your emails by mentioning the previous company where the person worked, their last publication, tweet, etc. Most of us can spot insincere flattery a mile away. But when done right, it can be a great hook to get you in the door. In the example below, we used Pitchbox merge fields to identify the right personalization hook for the email—the country where the addressee lives. 
Protip: Never ever lie or mislead with your outreach. Not only is it morally wrong, it can cause harm to your reputation.
  • Provide a reason for a link building partnership. Here the goal is to demonstrate what’s in it for them. For example, altering them of broken links from their website or highlighting the issue with their mobile experience. You can also point out some toxic links in their backlink profile.
  • Mind your reputation. Do your email outreach campaign in a way that won’t negatively impact your brand. Remain classy, provide solid reasons for a link building collaboration, and don’t beg for links if you want to build meaningful relationships with a potential partner. 

There’s one final suggestion I find incredibly important—don’t start the outreach process via email if you can. Instead, try contacting a potential partner on LinkedIn. There, you can learn more about the person’s professional activity and find an interesting topic that will help break the ice. 

Conclusion

Closing the link gap and maintaining high ranking compared to your competition is not a one and done process. Taking a long term approach to your link building strategy will help you build a strong foundation and continue to dominate your rivals. 

Here’s what to keep in mind.

  1. Determine your linkgap and account for the quality of links of your competitors. 
  2. Calculate the link velocity of both you and those you’re trying to out rank. If your link velocity is lower, there’s plenty of room for improvement. 
  3. Link quality matters, ignore this advice at your own risk.
  4. Experiment with getting links from up and coming SaaS companies.
  5. Prioritize links from pages with a large number of quality links.
  6. Create link building partnerships with industry experts who are known to guest post.
  7. Outreach via email and social media is still quite effective. 

The post Closing The Backlink Gap: What It Takes To Outrank Your Competition appeared first on CXL.

FLoC: Google’s Plan to Kill Off Third-Party Cookies

Third-party cookies are the new Flash. Safari and Firefox have already started to wean advertisers from them. Now, reluctantly, Google is, too. Google plans to end Chrome’s support of third-party cookies by 2022, and they created a Privacy Sandbox to test new ideas and solicit feedback. Decisions that affect Chrome—with a nearly two-thirds market share—are […]

The post FLoC: Google’s Plan to Kill Off Third-Party Cookies appeared first on CXL.

Third-party cookies are the new Flash. Safari and Firefox have already started to wean advertisers from them. Now, reluctantly, Google is, too.

Google plans to end Chrome’s support of third-party cookies by 2022, and they created a Privacy Sandbox to test new ideas and solicit feedback. Decisions that affect Chrome—with a nearly two-thirds market share—are decisions that affect the Internet, especially paid advertising.

Google code.

But it’s still a time crunch for Google to figure out how to defend their ad empire without access to the user-level data that’s made it so lucrative. The solution has to balance four variables:

  1. Revenue for publishers that sell ad space;
  2. Targeting capability for ad networks;
  3. Return on ad spend for ad buyers;
  4. Privacy for users who see ads.

The first three go hand-and-hand—if advertisers can measure and get a good return on ad spend, they’ll keep buying ads. Ad platforms will keep selling inventory. Publishers will get their ad revenue.

But eliminating third-party cookies won’t improve ad targeting. It will get worse. The question is: Can Google develop a new system to keep ad buyers buying if users are anonymous?

Third-party cookies don’t affect everything

Third-party cookies are the backbone of display advertising, but they’re not the only way that websites gather user data.

Nothing is changing, for example, to first-party cookies. First-party cookies are set by a website when you visit it. Users can block first-party cookies, but doing so often impacts the user experience (e.g., clearing items you left in your cart, forcing you to log in again).

Third-party cookies are set by someone else (e.g., an ad platform) and are accessible anywhere else their code loads. They aggregate far more of your clicks across the Internet and power the hyper-relevant ads you see (e.g., an ad for a product you left in your cart on another site).

The incentives to block third-party cookies are high—the only real consequence is that you see less relevant ads. But without third-party cookies, what’s a display network to do?

FLoC tries to solve the simpler problem—interest-based targeting

interest-based targeting

Ad networks have three ways to determine which ads to show:

  1. First-party and contextual information (e.g., “put this ad on web pages about motorcycles”);
  2. General information about the interests of the person who is going to see the ad (e.g., “show this ad to Classical Music Lovers”); 
  3. Specific previous actions the person has taken (e.g., “offer a discount on some shoes that you left in a shopping cart”).


Plenty of sites aren’t making the most of their first-party cookies; fixing that should be a priority. The third category is addressed through TURTLEDOVE and related programs (more later).

Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC, is all about number two. It’s slated for a trial in March 2021 with the release of Chrome 89.

How FLoC works

The idea behind FLoC is to hide individuals “in the crowd.” The technological breakthrough, announced in 2017, is the “federated” component—the ability to train a machine learning model without a centralized repository of data:

It works like this: your device downloads the current model, improves it by learning from data on your phone, and then summarizes the changes as a small focused update. Only this update to the model is sent to the cloud, using encrypted communication, where it is immediately averaged with other user updates to improve the shared model. All the training data remains on your device, and no individual updates are stored in the cloud.

Targeting based on personalization.
Your phone personalizes the model locally, based on your usage (A). Many users’ updates are aggregated (B) to form a consensus change (C) to the shared model, after which the procedure is repeated. (Image source)

The algorithm analyzes data from your browsing history—the sites you visit and the content of those sites. Ironically, for a company that runs the world’s most sophisticated search engine, the assessment of site content for FLoCs is elementary:

Our first approach involves applying a SimHash algorithm to the domains of the sites visited by the user in order to cluster users that visit similar sites together. Other ideas include adding other features, such as the full path of the URL or categories of pages provided by an on-device classifier.

Google and Facebook have been employing similar mechanisms in their bidding algorithms with great success,” says Amanda Evans, President of Closed Loop, “so there is no reason why FLoC won’t work from a performance perspective. But adoption of this practice outside of Google will require substantial investment and certainly favors larger ad platforms with large amounts of resources and data.

A FLoC ID protects users based on a principle of k anonymity. At k number of users, individual identities are unknowable. (FLoC IDs use non-descriptive names, like “43A7,” to prevent the ID itself from passing information about users.)

The value for k is still unresolved. Tests by Google—including the primary test they cite to demonstrate FLoC’s effectiveness compared to random cohorts (“a 350% improvement in recall and 70% improvement in precision”)—used a k value of 5,000.

“Whether or not FLoC works,” says Allison Schiff, who’s written extensively about FLoC for AdExchanger, “it will not be a replacement for third-party cookies. Nearly nothing can be, because cookies, as flawed as they are, have so many different functions. So FLoC might be just one of multiple alternatives for the targeting functionality that cookies are used for today.”

Word clusters based on FLoC k values.
Word clusters based on Google tests of FLoC at various k values.

The unsurprising logic is that a lower k value improves targeting at the expense of anonymity; a higher k value improves anonymity at the expense of targeting. This is the tension.

“If a FLoC is too small, that presents both data privacy issues as well as potential performance issues,” continues Evans. “While machine learning has improved, we continue to see flaws in machine-learning performance for extremely niche advertisers or advertisers with small data sets.”

Is anonymity even enough?

Anonymity at the user level doesn’t resolve all concerns. As a critique from the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes:

A flock name would essentially be a behavioral credit score: a tattoo on your digital forehead that gives a succinct summary of who you are, what you like, where you go, what you buy, and with whom you associate. The flock names will likely be inscrutable to users, but could reveal incredibly sensitive information to third parties.

Princeton computer science professor Arvind Narayanan agrees:

If an ad uses deeply personal information to appeal to emotional vulnerabilities or exploits psychological tendencies to generate a purchase, then that is a form of privacy violation—regardless of the technical details.

Google has discussed ways to exclude “sensitive” data from flock assignments, but, as they concede, there is no consensus as to what qualifies as “sensitive.” A FLoC associated with pregnancy is one thing for a 30-something and something else for a high schooler. Anonymity and privacy aren’t one in the same.

You can opt out, and Chrome will send a random FLoC instead of an accurate one. (The algorithm might also add “noise” by occasionally sending a random FLoC.)

Sites can also opt out of inclusion in FLoCs. In both cases, however, the default is “Allow.” As Firefox has argued, “defaults matter.” Before their Enhanced Tracking Protection was the default, only 20% of users had enabled it.

There are other risks for abuse, especially for sites that have access to personally identifiable information:

Sites that know a person’s PII (e.g., when people sign in using their email address) could record and reveal their cohort. This means that information about an individual’s interests may eventually become public.

And none of this enables marketers to target existing audiences, like cart abandoners. The solution for that is more complex—and contentious.

How do you retarget an anonymous user?

FLoC helps companies target users based on interests, even if they’ve never interacted with a company’s website. Targeting users based on past actions is a whole other process.

These user groups could come from a “user list,” “remarketing list,” “custom audience,” or “behavioral market segment.” The challenge, for advertisers, is how to target individual users without piercing the veil of anonymity.

The current solution is a patchwork of proposals from Google (TURTLEDOVE, DOVEKEY) and ad vendors (SPARROW, PARRROT, TERN). The core innovation is to store the data that builds these lists in the user’s browser or with an independent third-party—not on the ad network.

TURTLEDOVE: The foundation of a new system

(Image source)

TURTLEDOVE stands for “Two Uncorrelated Requests, Then Locally-Executed Decision On Victory.”

The “two uncorrelated requests” are from the browser to the ad network that places the ads:

  1. A contextual ad request based on the URL (e.g., nytimes.com/nyc-marathon/) and any first-party targeting information (i.e. user data from past browsing on nytimes.com);
  2. A separate request—oblivious to the current page or user data—based on an advertiser-identified interest previously pushed to the browser.

The second request could happen before a user lands on the page where the ad is served, with the browser caching the ad information until requested. That temporal gap protects users against “timing attacks”—an ad network seeing both requests come in at the same time and using that timing to match contextual data with interest data.

In the initial version of TURTLEDOVE, the user’s browser then holds the auction (based on decision logic delivered with the two requests). As the auction takes place on your browser and your machine, the two data sources can be combined to improve bidding without exposing your information to ad networks.

(That combination gives ad buyers control over where their ads show up—so an airline isn’t bidding for space on a news article about a plane crash.)

You see the ad with the highest bid.

Here’s what a step-by-step example of the process might look like:

  1. You visit Article.com and browse sofas. Article.com pushes your interest information (i.e. sectional-sofas) to your browser via a new API. It also gives an ad network, AdMatica, permission to view that interest.
  2. At some regular interval, the browser requests interest-group ads from AdMatica. AdMatica sends the sectional-sofa ads, including the logic needed to hold an on-device auction. The browser caches the information.
  3. Sometime later, you visit cnn.com, which uses AdMatica to serve ads. The browser requests a contextual ad from Admatica. Admatica returns the contextual ad as well as a request to hold an on-device auction if an interest-based ad also exists.
  4. The browser finds the cached interest-based ad and holds an auction between it and the contextual ad based on the logic sent from the ad platform.
  5. The browser loads the ad with the highest bid.

A test by RTB House on product-specific ads suggests that this method can work well when interest groups include 30 users. Their experiment estimated that 90% of their advertisers would retain at least 74% of their current click-through-rate levels, with most retaining far more:

Still, it’s a big change. Presently, auctions take place on ad network servers—with all the accumulated data about user behavior and direct access to platforms’ bidding algorithms.

Moving the auction to the browser would require ad networks to serve any algorithm experiments alongside the two uncorrelated requests. The networks would learn about the success of those experiments only from aggregate reporting of results (with added noise).

That’s one reason that ad networks didn’t like the initial TURTLEDOVE proposal. Alternatives, such as SPARROW from Criteo, argued for moving the ad auction from the browser to a trusted third-party server—”The Gatekeeper.” Google agreed.

SPARROW and “The Gatekeeper”

SPARROW moves the auction from user devices to a third-party server. The shift makes it easier for ad networks to A/B test ads and avoids sending their proprietary auction algorithms back and forth millions of times per day. (It also skirts other issues with on-device auctions, like draining phone batteries or using up cell data.)

But it unwinds a central tenet of TURTLEDOVE—that the sensitive, de-anonymizing processing occurs only on your device. Whether SPARROW meets data privacy goals depends on how much you trust a third-party server to be, in fact, an independent third-party. (And, yes, they could get hacked.)

As the SPARROW proposal details:

Gatekeepers must remain independent from other parties in the ad tech ecosystem. In particular, DSPs cannot run as Gatekeepers for their own ad services.

This independence could be ensured by a legally binding agreement and appropriate audit procedures. An industry consortium, or regulators, could ensure that gatekeepers fulfil their duties and could certify new Gatekeepers. Ultimately, in case of contractual breach, browser vendors would be the ones blacklisting Gatekeepers since interest-based display opportunities are sent out by browsers to Gatekeepers.

Gatekeepers provide a service to advertisers, running their models to compute bids, and should be paid by advertisers.

Google’s DOVEKEY is a twist on TURTLEDOVE plus SPARROW. It turns The Gatekeeper—the third-party server—from the processor of the ad logic to a simple lookup table that “will cache the results of existing control and bidding logic. ”

Google’s DOVEKEY.
With DOVEKEY, the third-party server has a reduced role: “a trusted Key-Value (KV) server which receives a Key (a contextual signal plus an interest group) and returns a Value (a bid).” (Image source)

The proposal weakens anonymity, suggesting that anonymity from the advertiser is the only anonymity that matters:

Because the server is trusted, there is no k-anonymity constraint on this request. The browser needs to trust that the server’s return value for each key will be based only on that key and the hostname, and that the server does no event-level logging and has no other side effects based on these requests.

The trial rollout of the system, called FLEDGE, is happening in the first half of 2021, with ad networks serving as their own Gatekeeper (a temporary “bring your own server” model).

The changes to how ads are served has knock-on effects, especially when it comes to reporting.

How these new tracking proposals affect reporting

(Image source)

The post-third-party-cookie conversion reporting solution is called the Conversion Measurement API.

It works by tagging ads with metadata (e.g., click ID, campaign ID, URL of expected conversion). If a user clicks the ad, that metadata—up to 64 bits of information—is stored in their browser.

Adtech platform chart.
How conversion tracking for ads might work without third-party cookies. (Image source)

If, then or later, they convert, their browser pairs the conversion event data to the ad click data. (There is no current solution for view-through conversions.)

The conversion data is only 3 bits—enough to define the type of conversion that took place, not identify the user who converted. (Chrome even suggests adding noise by sending a random 3-bit value 5% of the time.)

The amount of data sent with the ad impression is controversial:

Apple’s proposal allows marketers to store just 6 bits of information in a “campaign ID,” that is, a number between 1 and 64. This is enough to differentiate between ads for different products, or between campaigns using different media.

On the other hand, Google’s ID field can contain 64 bits of information — a number between 1 and 18 quintillion. This will allow advertisers to attach a unique ID to each and every ad impression they serve, and, potentially, to connect ad conversions with individual users. If a user interacts with multiple ads from the same advertiser around the web, these IDs can help the advertiser build a profile of the user’s browsing habits.

Click data.
Far more data is passed based on ad clicks than conversions to protect individual identities.

The browser then schedules a conversion report to be sent—days or weeks(!) later to prevent timing attacks that can de-anonymize data. 

So, days or weeks after an ad campaign is running, you may be able to see which ads generated the most conversions (and the types of conversions they generated). But you won’t be able to dig into which individual users converted from which ads.

There are other practical challenges to the post-cookie era—like ensuring that those ad clickers and converters are, in fact, real people.

Trust tokens

How do you know if the clicks come from real humans? Historically, doing so required “fingerprinting”—all sorts of de-anonymizing methods (e.g., gathering data about your device, language preferences, user agent, etc.) that browsers are trying to eliminate.

Google’s proposed solution is a “trust token.” Trust tokens are “non-personalized” and “indistinguishable from one another,” which lets them be shared without undermining privacy.

Who gets to give them out? Other websites with which you’ve established yourself:

You might have shopping history with an ecommerce site, checkins on a location platform, or account history at a bank. Issuers might also look at other factors such as how long you’ve had an account, or other interactions (such as CAPTCHAs or form submission) that increase the issuer’s trust in the likelihood that you’re a real human.

While FLoC and DOVEKEY have generated criticism, the trust token concept has been universally welcomed, and Google’s ownership of most of the CAPTCHA market should help with its rollout.

Conclusion

Cohorts are “where the future is headed, at some level, in terms of targeting,” Google’s Chetna Bindra told AdExchanger.

If big changes are coming, what should you do now? Google recommends that you “implement sitewide tagging with the global site tag or Google Tag Manager in order to minimize disruptions during this time.”

“Get email addresses,” says Schiff. “That stuff is consented gold!”

Beyond that, encourages Evans, focus on first-party data:

Act now instead of “waiting for the industry to figure all this out.” First-party data will be a cornerstone of digital advertising targeting and measurement, so advertisers should start collecting first-party data; developing systems and processes to easily pull and segment the data; and push it back into the ad platforms.

Advertisers who have not yet implemented Google Offline Conversion Tracking and Facebook’s Conversions API should prepare to do so now.

As Schiff concurs, this is “an opportunity for publishers that have become disintermediated from their visitors due to too many middlemen to try and take control of their destiny again.”

Featured Image Source

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Cracking the Product Demo Code: Lessons From 78 SaaS Demos

 “Show, don’t tell” is a time-tested rule in writing and filmmaking that helps viewers draw their own conclusions rather than relying on a spoon-fed version created by the author. Yet, when it comes to product demos, many marketers and sales teams fall short in creating demos that convert.  How do some of the most successful […]

The post Cracking the Product Demo Code: Lessons From 78 SaaS Demos appeared first on CXL.

 “Show, don’t tell” is a time-tested rule in writing and filmmaking that helps viewers draw their own conclusions rather than relying on a spoon-fed version created by the author. Yet, when it comes to product demos, many marketers and sales teams fall short in creating demos that convert. 

How do some of the most successful SaaS companies approach their demos? In this article, we’ll look at some of the most important components of running a successful demo and what to consider when creating yours. 

Case study data collection

Despite the common misconception, the goal of a demo isn’t always to make a sale. It can be an incredibly effective way to qualify your prospects and nurture your leads as well.

While thorough feature pages and detailed pricing tables are great components to have on your website, what better way to qualify prospective customers than with video marketing?

Getting to see the demonstration of a tool you’re interested in can answer so many questions instantly—including some you may not have known you had.

To better understand the current SaaS demo trends, I set out to study subscription-based software websites to see how they treated their demos (or lack thereof). The data in this case study is a group of 78 businesses in all kinds and sizes of niches, including email automation, WFH solutions, accountant tools, e-commerce inventory management, and more.

I tracked everything from the call-to-action (CTA), elements used on the page, what style of demo was employed, and more.

The main questions I sought to answer are:

  1. How commonly are demos used in the SaaS space?
  2. What types of demos are used, and are there correlations between B2B and B2C demo usage?
  3. What are the most frequently included supporting pieces to a demo sign up page?
  4. Finally, what are some great examples of demo implementations that stand out from the crowd?

Since there are many ways to go about creating an effective demo (and pros and cons to each method), the end goal of all this data is to provide you with objective information and identify potential trends so you can employ a good demo for your business. Ultimately, only you can determine whether a live demo is better than a recorded demo. As with most things in marketing, you can do that by testing different methods. 

Breaking down SaaS demo groupings

Before sharing my findings, I first want to walk through the different demo groupings that I noticed during the research collection as well as unique examples of each. The overarching patterns I noticed were:

  1. Live demos
  2. Pre-recorded demos
  3. Real-use demos

Solution 1: Live demos

A live demo is simply a one-on-one demo with a real person from the company’s sales team. These are scheduled, structured interactions, where the prospective customer can ask any questions to the salesperson directly. The sign up flow is typically very simple, with a CTA in the navbar.

Fullstory get demo.

Or hero section of the home page which redirects users to the demo sign up page.

These pages can vary in complexity, but the common element in all of them was some type of sign up form.

This was either self-service and had users schedule a time directly or noted that a salesperson would be reaching out to them soon.

Vcita schedule.

While they varied in length, there are some inputs that were almost always included, which I’ll be sharing later in the data section.

Live demo pros and cons

The advantage of live demos is a high level of one-on-one engagement, but comes at the cost (training, compensation, etc) of having a dedicated sales team and vetting leads.

Solution 2: Pre-recorded demos

Simply, these are walkthroughs that are usually screencast or “floating head” style videos. Similar to a live demo, the presenter shows the possibilities of the product in a normal use-case. Although some had a dedicated page, like Wrike.

During my research, it was more common to embed them on the home or feature pages of the product. A good example of this is Tuple, which isn’t a very marketing-heavy site, that decided to embed the demo right underneath the hero section of the home page.

Tulpe demo page.

Pre-recorded demo pros and cons

The advantage to this type of demo is that they’re relatively easy to produce and scale, but it may not fully answer the objections of a prospective customer the same way a live demo would (though there is a way around this I’ll mention later.)

Solution 3: Real-use demos

Real-use demos are highly engaging demos that allow users to play around with the product in a sandbox mode. A good example of this is Webflow, which allows people to experiment with the tool to build a dummy website.

Real-use demo pros and cons

The advantage to these types of demos is that they’re not time-intensive for any personal interactions, but they’re still effective at showing what it’s like to use a product on a daily basis.

The caveat is that if there’s a learning curve to using your product, people might not know where to ask for help or may give up completely. It’s also possible that these demos might have an up-front cost to design, code, and deploy.

Demo data analysis

Let’s dive into the data and trends in this case study to help determine what kind of demo and format might be best for your business:

  • 71% of the companies in this sample are B2B companies, the remaining 29% being B2C or a hybrid of B2B/B2C.
  • Based on the companies in this sample, 59% of the sites exhibited a demo or demo sign up page.
  • The two most-used call-to-action texts were “Request a demo” (30%) and “Get a demo” (26%).
  • The most common type of demo is a live demo (70%), then the pre-recorded demo (27%), followed by real-use demos (3%).
  • There was no significant difference in live demo usage between B2B or B2C companies, being 70% and 71%, respectively.
  • Of the schedulable demos, the most commonly included contact information was an email address (97%), a name (74%), a phone number (65%), the contact person’s job title and company (48%), an optional message field (19%), and niche-specific information (42%). The vast majority of sites (83%) mandated name, email, and phone together be required.
  • As for the demo pages themselves, 31% of sites included a form of social proof (companies they’ve worked with or client testimonials). 16% of pages had an outline for client expectations of the one-on-one demo, and 14% of sites quickly summarized the core features and benefits of their product on the sign up page.

Let’s break down the raw data and try to establish some applications for your business.

Interpreting demo usage

As you may have noticed, although more than half of the SaaS sites included some form of demo, there was near-identical usage between how B2B and B2C SaaS companies used live versions. This finding surprised me—as I was expecting at least a soft level trend in live vs recorded vs real-use demos across company types.

Attempting to find a different correlation between demo types and companies, I then narrowed in on businesses that didn’t implement live demos. Since live versions have an inherent cost to them (expenditure of time or management of a sales team), I looked through the lens of company size to explain why they might have chosen recorded demos. 

My logic was that smaller companies wouldn’t be able to justify a sales team and would instead opt for recorded demos. Although there were some outlying data in companies that have teams of 4-10, there wasn’t enough proof to establish a trend. For example, Box is a sizable SaaS company that decided to host a collection of in-depth recorded demos on their website.

There seems to be no hard and fast rule when it comes to what type of demo to use. Based on this data, I think it comes down to a combination of the complexity and cost of the product offered, the average objections of the target audience, and the existing infrastructure in the company to handle more complex demos.

For example, a solo founder who is still in the early stages of product development with a relatively competitive price point might want to focus more time on maturing their product quality and opt for a recorded demo. With the data from this case study, it might be important to consider the best type of demo to use on a case-by-case basis.

Let’s talk about the trends in the forms for the demo sign ups themselves.

Contact information

Based on the data, the consensus is that name, phone, and email are required together – 83% of forms required all three. A good note here is that most forms also had “Business email” or “Work email” as the placeholder for the input, seemingly to qualify more serious leads and reduce spam submissions.

Nearly half of all forms required the contact’s job title and company. Whether or not this is important to your implementation will come down to who the target customer is for your SaaS.

If your ideal subscriber is part of a large business, it may help to qualify them; but I can’t see the advantages of these fields if you’re trying to engage with solo business owners, for example.

Niche information

42% of sites with a demo form included short questionnaires about niche-specific information. These fields were normally optional. For example, Kinsta, a WordPress hosting service, had options to declare the number of websites that need hosting, their average monthly visits, and more.

This kind of information is obviously valuable to a sales team so they can tailor the product’s features that solve potential issues of companies that size. It seemed that this sort of information was more important to companies whose pricing models scaled based on client use. If that’s something your company does as well, it might be worthwhile to consider.

Implementing supporting elements

So how did these SaaS companies help convince prospective customers that they should try the demo? Well, 35% of businesses didn’t. Instead, they kept their sign up pages simple with only a form and no other supporting elements.

However, if only having a form isn’t getting the quantity and quality of demos you’d like, I recommend seeing if adding these features helps out. Letting your analytics and demo conversion data help guide your decisions, here might be some things to split-test:

  • Expectations outline: 16% of sites included a bulleted list that outlined expectations for the live call. This can be a reassurance that the business takes the demo seriously and that it will be an effective use of the client’s time.

More importantly, it’s a great chance to solve the most common objections people might have with a service. For example, check out how TravelPerk uses an outline to show how the demo will solve 4 core issues their customers need help with.

What to expect.
  • Social proof: With 44% of sites in this case study including some form of social proof, it’s important to consider for your implementation. Based on this data set, there were only two ways social proof was used:

Testimonials

Testimonials.

Client logos

An interesting note is that the quantity of testimonials were used sparingly on the sign up pages (a max of 2, but usually just 1).

  • Product features: A concise list of features/benefits was found on 14% of sites in this study. When used to quickly summarize the key benefits, like BetterCloud did, it can be an effective reassurance to the customer that your product could be the right fit.

Alternatively, you could use this space to display average, objective gains users can expect from using the product, like ShowPad. Note that it’s probably important to also tell how this data was collected.

Real-life examples of SaaS demo pages

With a good understanding of common features and styles of demo pages, I wanted to break down a couple of fantastic examples for the two most common types of demo (live and pre-recorded). While real-use demos can be great, they’re far less common (remember, only 3%) and usually just include test data of the existing software suite.

Live Demo Turned Coaching Session: Slite

To make the case of a well-optimized live demo, we have Slite. Slite is a remote work solution with a strategy unlike any other site in this case study. Rather than framing their demo as a demo, they personalize the experience by branding it as a “Remote coaching session.”

The copy in the hero section emphasizes that this is just a 30 minute chat to answer any questions and “show you the ropes.” 

Backed by some social proof in a logo list and a section dedicated to what makes Slite different, they certainly put priority on the benefits the prospective customer will receive.

To further clarify exactly what the attendee will get out of the coaching session, they include an outline of expectations.

A nice touch to enhance the “coaching” approach is to include a group of employees from Slite the person signing up might interact with.

Not many other companies did this, and it really stood out as a way to humanize the company and make anyone signing up more comfortable. Ultimately, if people feel more comfortable to ask questions in the demo, the better they can evaluate if your product is the right solution. This is better for both parties long-term.

Lastly, the sign up form is kept incredibly simple with only two steps. The first question aims to identify the main challenges the user is facing, for a tailored experience during the demo.

The only other input in the form is the user’s email. It’s relatively frictionless, while still gaining essential information for the sales team.

A Great Way to Educate: Hey

Repping for recorded demo inspiration, we have Hey email, created by the founders of Basecamp.

As a solo founder, a recorded demo was the best solution for my company LeadGeek, and Hey’s demo flow played a huge part in the design process for my own. There’s a lot to learn here about good product education in written and video format.

Right from the start, Hey places a huge importance on their demo by making it the primary CTA of the home page.

The demo page is relatively lengthy compared to others in the market, with a heavy weight on benefits of daily product use.

What’s interesting about Hey’s treatment of their demo is that they qualify attendees in the CTA itself.

Their approach is more webinar-like than demo—37 minutes is a somewhat lengthy recorded demo to sit through. People are redirected to Youtube to watch the demo; It’s an interesting decision with one major apparent benefit: comments.

While answering questions in a live demo would be the most thorough way to alleviate objections, answering in comment format is the next best thing. As your demo matures and gains traction, it’s likely that the question one person has will already be asked/answered. This serves as a mini FAQ in addition to a demo, which further saves time.

Building your own demo

As you think about how to implement a demo for your own business, it’s important to remember how open for interpretation this data is. Though there are trends, there’s no purely right or wrong way to handle this process.

Factors that might influence your decision are your company size and resources available to dedicate to a demo, current growth or stagnation, and quality and quantity of your customer base. Only you know your business, but this section is dedicated to helping you find answers in your demo execution.

It’s logical that the first question you should ask is if a demo is even right for your business. Many companies in this case study instead opted for a collection of past webinars in lieu of a demo – does that make more sense for your use case?

If you think a demo is the better solution, should you go live, recorded, or real-use? From my analysis, this decision depends on the product itself. Thinking through its complexity, price, and common customer objections will help you decide. Here are some questions to consider:

To implement a live demo:

  • Who will be interacting with prospective customers? Is there a team dedicated to this—and if not, is the benefit in time spent potentially worth it?
  • What form fields should I include to reduce friction as much as possible without sacrificing customer quality?
  • How will scheduling, communication, and follow up be handled?
  • Where does the script/structure of the demo come from?

To implement a recorded demo:

  • Is my product simple enough to explain in a video format?
  • Can I make this interesting/engaging enough to sit through so I can clearly explain the benefits?
  • How can I handle the most common customer objections? (email, Youtube comments, etc)
  • Does one long, thorough demo or many short, single-feature explainer videos make more sense?

To implement a real-use demo:

  • Is this really the best format to showcase my product?
  • How will this be created, coded, and deployed? Is it worth that investment?
  • Can I make my product clear enough so that someone who has never used it won’t become discouraged?
  • How will I handle support and questions?

Regardless of which demo format you choose, some other quick questions to consider are:

  • How visible should I make my demo and what should its call to action be?
  • What supporting features can I include? (testimonials, outlines, feature lists, etc)
  • What should the strategy be to nurture demo no-shows and other leads?

Conclusion

A quality demo is a fantastic way to qualify customers and really get that long-term fit for both you and them. A well-qualified customer is particularly important in affecting the overall business’s CAC, LTV, and MRR; And since retention rate is paramount to SaaS growth, it’s extremely important to consider the best demo strategy for your business.

Here are some of the key learnings from my findings.

  • Slite proved that longer form inputs don’t necessarily qualify leads better, although it’s probably important to include options for name, email, and phone. It’s also okay to stray from the pack and tackle demos from a different perspective.
  • Hey showed us that while they keep their content engaging, they rely on their customers to do some digging and learn a little on their own.
  • Add supporting features as your analytics data suggests. Though most companies may not have the clout of putting top-tier software businesses in their logo list, do what makes sense. Incorporating social proof with even a testimonial can reassure leads that a normal person benefited from using your product.

Constructing a great product demo takes some self-reflection on what you offer to the market, who your ideal customer is, what your ideal customer wants, and how you can communicate that. And while it may take some time to get right, but in many cases it’s well worth the effort. 

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