The Subtle Art Of Competitor Ads

How to create highly profitable ad campaigns to redirect traffic from your competitors

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June 23, 2020

Why yes, I did steal this title from Mark Manson’s excellent book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I guess when you’re creating competitor ads, you need to not give a f*ck. I’ve pissed off Shopify, Udemy, and many others, with my slanderous copy.

But let’s start at the beginning. Back in 2014, I was working at a Vancouver startup called LemonStand, an eCommerce platform like Shopify. They were a rising powerhouse in eCommerce with a large marketing budget. We were a 10-person startup fighting to compete. It was like David vs Goliath.

We wanted to experiment with ads but Shopify had bid up our core keywords, like “eCommerce platform”, and we couldn’t afford it. In fact, they were bidding on just “eCommerce”. They do that to this day.

So I decided to bid for the word “Shopify” and that’s when I created my first competitor ad.

Shopify was still small enough to care back then so they emailed our CEO. The fact was, our ads actually were working. And that led to many years of creating ad campaigns for dozens of SAAS companies.

I’ve learned a few things about competitor ads along the way, and I’ll share them in this post.

Why Create Competitor Ads

You mean, aside from your insanely rich competitor bidding up every remotely related keyword?

Think about what’s happening when someone searches for a brand. Let’s say I type Shopify into the search bar. I’m either already using them, in which case I want to log in. Or I’m researching them because I’m in the market for an eCommerce platform.

If the search intent is research, it’s pretty obvious why you should run a competitor ad. But if someone just wants to log in, is it worth it?

I’d argue it is. I’m talking about SAAS specifically, but most SAAS don’t have very strong defensibility. Even Shopify can lose customers early on before they’re fully set up and have tons of sales.

And so, if you can plant the seed of a thought that maybe there’s a better product out there, then if someone has issues with Shopify, they may come back to you. And this holds for nearly every SAAS.

But don’t go throwing up those competitor ads just yet, because there’s a subtle art to it.

PS – Book a free 30-minute consultation with me if you want specific feedback on your competitor campaigns.

Keyword Selection

So while I did say it’s worth broad targeting a competitor’s brand name, there may be times when you want to narrow it down. 

Low Budget

If you have a low budget, you may want to target the highest-potential keywords. These are keywords where you know the searcher is looking for a new tool, such as “competitor alternatives” or “competitor vs”.

This works especially well when your competitor is popular and receives a ton of brand searches. When you narrow down, you’ll still get a decent search volume.

Let’s take Mailchimp, for example. It’s one of the most popular email marketing software, so there’s a ton of search interest for the word “Mailchimp”. 

You’ll notice that only Mailchimp advertises for that keyword. This is good practice to protect their brand name.

However, when you search for “Mailchimp competitors” or “Mailchimp alternatives”, it’s like you’re entering a monkey brothel with a bucket of bananas. Everyone wants your business.

Common Word

Sometimes you may have the budget but your competitor has a brand name that’s also just a common English word, like Apple.

I ran into this problem when I was working at Thinkific, and we set up ads against our biggest competitor, Teachable. I would see people searching for “teachable moments” or variations often. Even with negative keywords, I’d often get highly unqualified clicks.

So I was forced to narrow down, but I opened it up to keywords like “teachable app”, “teachable pricing” and so on. Once Teachable got wind of it, it escalated into a bidding war and ultimately ended in a ceasefire, so I don’t have any screenshots of the ads I created.

However, a good example is FOMO vs Proof, both social proof apps, and both regular English words. FOMO is also slang for fear of missing out, which is what people want to know when they Google it.

But when you search for “FOMO app” or variations, Proof, their main competitor, is on the money. Unlike Mailchimp, FOMO isn’t protecting its brand name leaving Proof to take the top spot.

What’s really interesting is that Proof also protects its brand name, even if you search for “proof” which is a common English word. However, they are limiting it to only exact searches of that word to reduce unqualified searches. 

It’s also surprising that FOMO isn’t running ads against Proof but maybe they don’t have a fear of missing out on those clicks…

Broad Application

You may find that your competitor targets a broad range of audiences while you focus on a specific one, so you may want to narrow it down to searches within your niche.

Take Zendesk, a customer support app for SAAS, eCommerce, and more. When I was consulting with Gorgias, a customer support app specifically for Shopify stores, Zendesk was our biggest competitor but broad targeting didn’t make sense because they attracted too many people outside our niche.

So we had to focus on keywords like “Zendesk eCommerce” and “Zendesk for Shopify”. Alas, my boy Guillaume Cabane, who is now running growth there, seems to have paused my extremely tasteful ads, so I have no screenshots for you. However, Freshdesk and HappyFox have taken up the mantle.

Ad Copy

Despite not having any conscience whatsoever, I do believe it’s important not to trash talk competitors on your ad copy. It’s just good business practice. You don’t want to turn away leads because you sound too boastful. As always, there’s an art to it.

Be Specific

Whenever I see an ad that goes “#1 in XYZ” my eyes glaze over. What makes you #1? If you can’t answer that, why should I take your word for it?

Here’s what happens when you’re lazy and your ad copy says “Best Alternative”

That’s right, everyone else is doing it! What sets you apart?

WisePops is getting away with this because of their smart use of the word “Privy” in their ad (we’ll get to this later) but the fact is the rest of their copy doesn’t tell us how it’s different from Privy.

Remember, if someone is looking for an alternative to a competitor, they have a problem with it. So if you solve that problem, say that in your ad!

A simple Google search for reviews of your competitor will bring up G2 Crowd, Capterra, and other review sites. Look through them to find what people are complaining about. For example, I found negative reviews about Privy’s customer support. If I were WisePops, my ad would say “Privy Not Supporting You? WisePops Can Help”. 

As a side note, I also found many people complain about Privy’s pricing, which WisePops alludes to in their ad. However, I wouldn’t use pricing as a differentiator. Trust me, customers who complain about pricing are never satisfied.

Make It Personalized

As mentioned above, WisePops did well to include the word “Privy” in their ad copy. If the ad copy reflects exactly what I typed in, I’m more likely to click on it.

Here’s an example from Qualified where they use the search term “Drift Chatbot” in the ad copy as well.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong or illegal about using your competitor’s name in your ad. However, if your competitor submits a complaint to Google, you will no longer be able to use their brand name in your ad copy. You can still use it in the display URL and that helps. 

Plus there are ways to get around it. I remember a story Oli Gardner once told me about Instapage’s competitor ads against Unbounce. Even though Unbounce had protected their trademark, Instapage would still use ad copy like “Unbounced?” or “Un Bounce” to get around it.

Profitwell does this with their Baremetrics ad –

If you can’t use your competitor’s name, you can still personalize the ad based on other words in the search, the location of the searcher, and more. When I search for Zenefits in Canada, I see Humi’s ad stressing on how it’s made for Canadian businesses.

Landing Page

Snappy ad copy is half the battle. The landing page is where decisions are made. Besides, a more relevant landing page gives you a better ad score and can even place you higher than the competitor’s own branded ad.

In this screenshot, you’ll see that Asana ranks higher when searching for Trello. One big factor is the landing page which references Trello multiple times. Let’s break down what goes into a good competitor landing page.

Stay Consistent

In the Asana ad above, the headline says “Compare Side-by-Side”. In their landing page, they follow up on it with direct comparison charts. 

This is good practice in general. Your ad sets the expectations that your landing page must fulfill. So if you’re making claims about being the #1 alternative to a competitor, you need to follow up on that statement on your landing page.

Here’s what it looks like for ActiveCampaign alternatives. Both Iterable and MailerLite are directly pitting themselves against ActiveCampaign. In the ad copy, they both claim that marketers are switching over to them.

However, on the landing page, Iterable doesn’t actually follow up on that claim. It’s just a standard lead form page with no mention of why they are better than ActiveCampaign and why people are switching.

MailerLite does a much better job. There’s continuity between the search query, ad copy, and landing page. They describe MailerLite in terms the searcher will understand.

Highlight Benefits

It’s important to list feature differences like in the Asana example previously, and I’ll come to this in the next section, but I prefer starting with benefits. Features are the what, but benefits are the why and they’re more powerful.

When you click on Front’s ad against Intercom, you’ll see what I mean. Right away, in the hero section, Front mentions the 3 big benefits of switching over.

I might even make the copy more benefit-oriented. So the first header would be, “Save time with a unified inbox” and the next would be “Respond faster with real-time chat”.

PandaDoc takes this a step further in its campaign against Proposify. They go deep into 8 benefits of switching over, a few too many in my opinion, but really drive home the point.

Support Wars: Pandas vs Humans

Compare Features

Highlighting your top 3 or 4 benefits will do most of the work for you, but sometimes people have a checklist and they need to go through the motions, so you might as well humor them with a feature list.

In their campaign against AppCues, Whatfix has a section that lists out feature differences between the two products. This is a common practice though I don’t much care for it. 

The problem with this is most people won’t know what you mean by “Smart Algorithm” or “Branching”. These may be common terminology within your company and existing community, but outsiders will probably misunderstand.

Instead, this feature comparison by Mixpanel against Heap is more helpful.

Use Social Proof

When I was working at Thinkific, I’d see potential customers post in our FB group, asking everyone else if they switched over from a competitor and why. The responses would often convince the poster to switch over as well. Social proof is a hell of a drug.

A common method is to list logos. Asana does this right beneath their hero section on the Trello comparison page.

Further down on that page, they also display user review scores from comparison sites like G2Crowd and Capterra. It turns out the scores for Asana and Trello are almost the same so I’m not sure how effective this tactic is.

A better way to follow what BigCommerce does on their Shopify comparison page. They embed quotes from customers who actually switched over from Shopify.

Boosting Performance

So people have seen your ad, they visited your landing page, and… they’re not converting! Worry not, my friends, for there are more tricks in Sid’s bag of insidiousness.

Start A Conversation

If someone isn’t converting on your page, they’re either not ready to, or they still have questions. The best way to figure this out is ask questions with a live chat conversation.

When I was doing research for this post I looked at every live chat software out there and the only one that actually did this was Qualified.

This shows up on their Drift competitor page. I like how they segment the visitor into whether or not they have Drift. This helps them figure out what information to send the visitor.

I’ve personally used simpler chats in the past. Something like “Hey there, what’s stopping you from signing up right now?” works wonders.

Retarget Them

A retargeting campaign is a basic requirement for any company as I explain in my previous post. It becomes even more important to have one when you’re driving traffic to competitor pages. These are people who are even more likely to convert than your average blog visitor, so you need to stay on them.

MailerLite and Asana are the only two retargeting ads I’ve seen so far. MailerLite advertises a blog post in theirs. I wouldn’t recommend this and would go straight to a signup landing page because these visitors are close to the bottom of the funnel.

Asana is on the right track, though. The ad is clearly driving toward a free trial.

Defense Against The Dark Ads

Ok so you’ve launched ads against your competitors but they’re doing the same to you because they read this post. How do you defend against that?

The fastest way is to set up your own brand ads. Founders are often hesitant when I suggest this because they don’t want to pay for what could be a free organic click. However, they tend to change their mind when I show them a screenshot like this.

This is a search for Aircall where the first four links are all competitor ads. You don’t get to Aircall until the fold! If you were at Aircall, would you rather see this or pay for your ad to be on top?

Or how about suffering the indignity of this ad if you were Gong?

You could trademark your brand on Google to stop competitors from using it in their ad copy but ads like Chorus will still remain.

Another benefit of launching your own brand ads is that your competitor will end up spending more per click, especially if they want to retain the top spot. At some point, it may just become economically unfeasible for them to continue targeting you.

Now, if you’re really tight on cash, you can just advertise for searches that contain words like “alternatives”. I like what Canva has done with its brand ad copy.

And if it turns into a mutually destructive bidding war, you can always call for a cease-fire. 

Putting It All Together

Here’s a great example that combines the principles I mentioned for ad copy with a consistent landing page experience –

LogRocket highlights one major differentiating factor between them and Fullstory. The ad copy is specific and personalized. 

When you click over to the landing page, it stays consistent and has some social proof. What I’d like to see on this page are more specific benefits of using LogRocket over Fullstory and perhaps a quote or two from someone who switched over.

When done right, competitor ads can be a great source of highly qualified yet affordable leads.

If you’re setting up ads for your startup, book a free 30-minute consultation with me

Get My Growth Templates!

This is the framework I use to grow MRR for my clients by over 20% MoM