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Oh, boy - it’s a scary time to be setting up Adwords campaign for a SaaS company.

In basically every major SaaS market, there are established players spending a ton of money on every click. Not because it necessarily makes math sense for them, but because they can spend it on bringing in that additional 10% of incremental revenue.

For example, there are north of 200 CRM vendors and CPC on generic keywords can go up to $25. Single click. It’s really hard to make the math work at this price if you’re not a major brand player and really don’t care if you pay 3 to 4 years in LTV on Adwords.

So, the only obvious way is to get super creative!

To give you some inspiration: I recently combined my love for competition study and hands-on Adwords research and I’ve found that a lot of smart companies are trying to bid on competitor’s keywords in a unique way-- using the knowledge about competitors’ weaknesses while driving traffic their way and exposing their own strengths.

I think bidding on exact competitor name keywords can be a bit “sleazy” and also questionably effective since the prospect is clearly looking for your competitor.

That said, bidding on keyword phrases like “[your competitor name] alternative” makes a ton of sense. Think about it: the user who types in this type of query is clearly looking for either a replacement of their current solution or trying to compare different vendors during the initial purchase phase.

Enough talking - Let’s dive right into the ad examples!

The good examples

I truly love how you can see that the best companies in the examples I’m listing below carefully studied their competitors’ features and weaknesses and used them to their advantage.

I’ve tried to look into each of the ad examples below and analyze the good and not-so-good features. Of course, I don’t know their conversion rates but I’ve seen a couple of them unchanged for months now, so they must be pretty darn effective.

Example 1: Buzzbundle


What’s good about it:

  1. I love the straightforwardness here: they go right into their biggest supposed advantage - you get more than you would get at the competitor, for a lower price. Must be extremely hard to resist clicking on this ad if you’re in the market for a Hootsuite alternative.

What could be improved:

  1. The ad body is a bit short and doesn’t tell much. The best ads I’ve seen use every single possible character to provide useful info.

  2. Why not include some kind of social proof? Looking from here, Buzzbundle might be a one month old startup or a company with 100,000 users (which they actually are). I don’t know. Why not reassure me?


Example 2: Freshbooks


What’s good about it:

  1. I like how they expose their biggest advantage prominently in the title - they are quick and easy to use.

  2. Great use of two different types of social proof: 5 million users and a quick review testimonial from GetApp Blog.

What could be improved:

  1. They could have even more directly emphasized their main advantage(s) over Quickbooks. It’s not that clear right now.

  2. While I really like their first two social proofs (look above), I can’t understand how exposing 841 followers on Google+ helps them in any way.

Example 3: Hootsuite


Wow, almost a perfect ad in my opinion. Really hard not to click and check it out if you are out there trying to find a Buffer comparable social media tool.

What’s good about it:

  1. Going heads on and bets on its richer feature set (“Everything Buffer Does and More!”).

  2. AAA use of three different types of social proof: impressive customer number (“Over 10 Million Users”), PR mention (“The most popular social media management tool”) and a big number of followers on Google+.


Example 4: Jostle


What’s good about it:

  1. Great bet on simplicity in comparison to Sharepoint (haven’t met anyone who would say that Sharepoint is simple to use - why not rub into it).

  2. Good emphasis on the fast onboarding time (“An engaging intranet in a week”). Huge advantage over the slow-to-deploy, traditional Sharepoint on-premise solutions.

What could be improved:

  1. They repeat 5x employee participation twice.

  2. “Simple & turnkey” is basically just repeating the same benefits in a different way.

  3. Since Sharepoint is used by bigger organizations that need reassurance that this is a serious alternative, I miss some social proof. Either show number of customers or an important press mention (Hootsuite above does this perfectly).

Example 5: Mailchimp


What’s good about it:

  1. Absolutely love that they’ve studied GetResponse and know that one of their main features is “Autoresponders.” That’s why they cleverly adjusted their whole ad to focus on the automation part of Mailchimp’s features.

  2. Some real social proof: 29,193 followers on Google+.

What could be improved:

  1. The first two sitelinks seem pretty random to me (“Integration Fund”- “Brand Assets”) and don’t add any value in convincing me to click on the ad.

Example 6: Mixpanel


Oh, I love this one. It shows that the Mixpanel team has deeply studied KISSmetrics and found their biggest weakness. Not surprising, as Mixpanel’s CEO is well known to obsess about their competitors.

What’s good about it:

  1. They obviously see people complaining about performance of KISSmetrics and they are betting their money on it (have seen this ad for a few months now whenever I type KISSmetrics in Google).

What could be improved:

  1. The social proof with the number of followers on Google+ is too weak with only 334 followers.

  2. The Android fragmentation sitelink seems pretty random.

Example 7: Pipedrive


What’s good about it:

  1. Very cool of them to state in the title that they are an alternative. They’re not trying to confuse prospects into falsely clicking on their ad expecting Base CRM.

  2. They cleverly address the always-important CRM data concern head-on (“Import Base Data In Moments!”). This is usually a major obstacle when switching CRM systems.

What could be improved:

  1. How is Pipedrive better than Base? Is it the easy pipeline view, maybe better pricing? Whatever it is, it should be stated more clearly. 

Example 8: Route


What’s good about it:

  1. Really like that they go straight to the chase: “Amazingly easy/cheap alternative.” Since Hubspot’s entry point is not low, there must be a lot of prospects looking for cheaper alternatives. That makes this a pretty good differentiator.

What could be improved:

  1. The ad is not very “rich.” No sitelinks, not much body text. Thus, it comes across a bit amateurish and “startupy.” 

Example 9: Ruxit


What’s good about it:

  1. They nicely play to their greatest strengths: no application monitoring alerts. (Honestly, I don’t know how this actually works in reality, but admittedly, alerts are annoying.)

  2. AppDynamics (and New Relic), as leaders in APM, are expensive tools. Ruxit plays this card too: emphasising that Ruxit is better and cheaper.

  3. I like that they make the sitelinks really useful and actionable. That said, same goes for their competitors above.

What could be improved:

  1. Ok, if I’m searching for AppDynamics directly, I probably know they are a big player. Maybe I’ve seen them at some conference, maybe I’ve seen them in the press. That’s why not attaching at least some social proof is a pretty big weakness in this case.

Example 10: Sendinblue


What’s good about it:

  1. Nice word play (Mailchimp vs Mail Cheap) that emphasises its biggest advantage - being cheaper than Mailchimp.

  2. Good use of sitelinks that actually make sense.

What could be improved:

  1. The social proof bit is pretty weak (only 188 followers on Google+).

Example 11: Similiartech


What’s good about it:

  1. Clearly pointing out the main advantages: “More data, better prices.”

  2. They are not the cheapest provider and I guess that might be the reason why they mention the price - to avoid clicks from people that are looking for a too-cheap solution.

What could be improved:

  1. They could have added some social proof (press mention, number of customers, etc.). 

Example 12: Similarweb


What’s good about it:

  1. Clearly exposed advantages.

  2. Great social proof (a press mention, decent number of followers on Google+)

  3. Sitelinks that actually mean something and make sense.

Example 13: Smartsheet #1


What’s good about it:

  1. Nicely repeated keyword that makes sense: “Best Wrike Alternative.”

  2. Amazing social proof: “2,000,000 people tried Smartsheet.”

What could be improved:

  1. The user numbers in title and ad body text don’t match (2,000,000 vs 5,000,000), which raises concern about their trustworthiness.

  2. The social proof mention seems a bit dated: “#1 Productivity App of 2013.”

Example 14: Smartsheet #2


What’s good about it:

  1. Straight-on attack on Sharepoint’s biggest weakness.

What could be improved:

  1. “Smartsheet is just right” - Em, why exactly?

  2. The ad is pretty sparse - feels like they could take some of the ad copy from the ad above and add sparkle it with some nice social proof.

Example 15: Sugester


What’s good about it:

  1. Spot on title and ad body text that addresses some of the weaknesses of Freshdesk (bloat + high price).

What could be improved:

  1. The ad sounds cool, but why not take it one step further and almost force me to click on the ad with a nice press mention, customer number, etc.

Example 16: Varonis


What’s good about it:

  1. It’s hard to compete with Dropbox. But one of the only potential weak spots are the security concerns surrounding it - and Varonis brilliantly strikes right at them.

What could be improved:

  1. Maybe mention why it’s more secure. Data center outside of U.S.? Better encryption measures?

  2. The social proof (“137 followers on Google+”) is more of a weakness than strength.

Example 17: Wrike


What’s good about it:

  1. Clearly exposes some of the features that Asana misses natively (“Gannt Charts. Visual Reports.”)

What could be improved:

  1. Again, you are going against a major player here. Thus, some social proof wouldn’t hurt.

Example 18: Zoho CRM


What’s good about it:

  1. Straight on addressing a common concern about Salesforce: its hefty price tag.

  2. Pretty cool social proof (PR mention and a decent number of Google+ followers).

What could be improved:

  1. The title is a bit misleading. It’s quite obvious that they are preying on people that are not completely focused, people that just quickly see “Sales Force” and click on it. You might get people to click on the ad, but if they expect to land on Salesforce’s website, they’ll bounce even quicker than they came.

Bad Adwords Examples

Ok, I also wanted to expose a few not-so-good ad examples. Ads that I believe must be performing badly, for one reason or another that I try explain below.

What’s funny, is that I see quite a lot of big, reputable companies on the list - maybe they simply don’t care that much. Maybe the big brand names convert enough prospects by itself. In any case, looking solely at the ads, these are less than impressive.

Example 1: Asana

bad adwords

What’s bad about it:

  1. Jira is mainly an issue tracking tool, I’m sure Asana people know that. So why not be more direct in the ad copy? Why should I check out Asana if I don’t know them? - How are they better than Jira?

  2. Everything in their current ad copy is merely just repeating the standard features of a project management app. The ad copy could literally be copied to any of their 50+ competitors.

Example 2: CampaignMonitor

campaign monitor

What’s bad about it:

  1. They don’t explain at all how they are different than Mailchimp. In this example, the person is directly looking for Mailchimp (no “alternative” in the search query). That means that the ad really has to stand out and convince me to check them out (and not just hope for clueless clicks).

  2. The social proof is really weak (277 followers on Google+). In reality, CampaignMonitor has more than 120,000 customers, which is super impressive. So why not expose that?

Example 3: Instapage


What’s bad about it:

  1. Come on Instapage, you can certainly do better! “Make Better Landing Pages” sounds like the fluffiest marketing slogan ever. It’s certainly not an actionable Adwords title ad copy.

  2. I know that Instapage is considerably cheaper than Unbounce, and I also know that quite a lot of small businesses find Unbounce’s entry level plan too expensive. So why not rub that in?

What’s good about it:

  1. Ok, it’s not all bad here. I really like how rich the ad is and that it shows two different types of social proof (the press mention and the ok number of Google+ followers). 

Example 4: Microsoft CRM


What’s bad about it:

  1. There is no single word about why someone should pay attention to this ad and switch to Microsoft’s CRM. Just fluffy words that can be slapped on marketing material of any other CRM vendor (“Easy implementation,” “Engage with customers,” “Innovative CRM solutions”).

  2. The ad seems to solely rely on Microsoft’s brand power. As if they thought: “Well, some people will click on it just because it’s Microsoft.”

That’s it - I hope these examples gave you a few ideas on how to approach structuring your newest adwords campaign by targeting your close competitor keyword phrases.

All-in-all, the recipe to a great ad goes like this:

  • Title: Clearly exposed strength in comparison to the competitor you’re targeting. Best example above: #6 Mixpanel.

  • Body: Rub even more into competitor’s weakness and make your advantage super clear. For the cherry on top, add some attractive social proof and win. Best example above: #3 Hootsuite.

  • Sitelinks: If you are including sitelinks, make sure they mean something. The best sitelinks I’ve seen are actionable and actually add additional reasons for me to click on the ad. Best example above: #10 Sendinblue.

  • Length: I like long and rich ad copy that features all the above elements. Best example above: #5 MailChimp.

We would love to learn more about your experience with targeting competitor phrases in Adwords. What worked and what failed in your case?