There’s a debate I’ve recently been having with myself.
To scale up the content production at Growth Models do I…
- Hire cheap labour and spend time editing and training
- Hire experts who cost more, but turn in perfect work product
On top of that, do you outsource content production? Or bring it all in house?
It’s something I’m not entirely sure about.
I mean, I could point to dozens of successful brands who each approach this in a different way.
However, one of the brands I’m consistently impressed with when it comes to…
- Content marketing
- Building and leveraging expert reputations
- Using their tool as a key aspect of their marketing strategy
… is Ahrefs.
I think their approach to marketing is incredible, and incredibly interesting.
Mainly because their approach feels like it’s 80% the same as everyone else’s.
However, the 20% difference is where the magic happens.
It’s that 20% that’s helped them grow a rabid fanbase who will defend them at every opportunity.
That 20% has helped them grow 60% YoY and achieve an average revenue per employee exceeding $1,000,000
There’s something special about Ahrefs. But it’s not easily identifiable.
- They do produce incredible content – but so do many other brands.
- They do run social and search ads – but so do many other brands.
- They do have a solid SEO tool – but so do many other brands.
I want to know what it is that sets them apart and has led to success the marketing world looks at with envy.
So this month, I’ve spent my time diving deep into their processes and approach to marketing to see exactly what it is with the 20% that makes Ahrefs a standout marketer in a competitive niche.
What is Ahrefs?
- Ahrefs is an SEO tool that originally focused exclusively on backlinks.
- They only have around 50 employees, but revenue is around $55MM.
- That’s more than $1MM in revenue for every employee.
- Ahrefs is one of the biggest SEO tools on the market. While they now offer a full suite of SEO tools and features, they originally started out and built their reputation focusing on one key aspect of SEO – Backlinks.
- The team is surprisingly small at around 50 employees. I say surprisingly because they have revenues of around $55MM, which is more than $1MM revenue per employee. Compared to many large brands, that’s a better revenue per employee than Microsoft, eBay, and PayPal.
The first question most people have when they come across Ahrefs’ marketing is…
“Is it Ahh-refs? H-refs? A-H-Refs? How do I say this?”
To cut a long story short on this one, it’s “h-refs” As confirmed by CMO Tim Soulo here.
The second question is “what does Ahrefs do?”
The simple answer is it’s an SEO tool to help brands of all sizes improve their SEO and organic rankings.
Ahrefs started out primarily as a backlink checker and optimisation tool. Backlinks being a key component of ranking (the more high-quality backlinks you have, the higher authority and thus rankings Google gives you) made this a must-have tool for many SEOs.
As time has gone by, Ahrefs have expanded their offering to include more than just backlinks.
Backlinks still form a central element to their service, but customers can now also…
- Analyse competitors
- Identify high-potential content ideas
- Find and diagnose SEO issues on your site
And so much more.
It has grown to become one of the best SEO tools on the market and is favoured by many serious marketers.
When was Ahrefs founded?
Ahrefs was founded in July 2010 by Dmitry Gerasimenko. Dmitry’s from Ukraine, but Ahrefs is now headquartered in Singapore.
Ahrefs was initially intended to shake up what had become a very stagnant area of SEO – backlink analysis.
It kickstarted competition in backlink analysis with many tools racing to add a competing feature set.
However, few are able to compete with Ahrefs 15-minute refresh and update rate of their backlink database.
As Ahrefs isn’t a publicly traded company, I’ve had to dig deep into research of multiple third-party sources on their revenue.
The below are the averages from multiple sources.
In short, over the last ~10 years they’ve grown to just over $50MM in revenue with an average annual growth rate of 60%.
Here are the three numbers where there seems to be an agreement of revenue.
Here’s the incredible thing though.
Ahrefs only has around 50 employees.
That means, on average, they’re making over $1MM per employee. An incredible feat for any business and a far better revenue-to-employee ratio than many big players.
In the below, that would put Ahrefs in between Microsoft and Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
And what makes it even more special is that Ahrefs has done this with 0 salespeople.
Their marketing team is a full 10 people strong, but there’s no one dedicated to sales.
And if that wasn’t enough, they’ve done this with no funding as well.
I have to agree with Dmitry on the no-funding route. Offering up a chunk of the equity of your biz for a shortcut just doesn’t sit well with me. His exact quote on the topic reads…
“Lots of startup founders want to avoid climbing this ladder and would rather take the elevator. The ticket to that elevator is sold by VCs, and is being paid for with your company’s equity, loss of full control, and smaller chances of success.”
So, in short let’s quickly recap.
- Grown to over $50MM in revenue in just over 10 years
- Only have 50 employees so make $1MM per employee
- Have never taken any funding
- Experience around 60% annual revenue growth
They are an impressive company.
The question is, how do they do it?
How Ahrefs attracts new customers
- Ahrefs has built their entire attraction approach around high quality content on 2 platforms their blog, and YouTube
- Paid acquisition is often run through Tim – The CMO – personal account and leads direct to content rather than a sales page
- Their content generally follows one of 4 different templates, and is focused on different stages of the customer journey (ToFU, MoFu, BoFu)
- Ahrefs is known for their SEO tool. And they put what they preach on their channels into practice. They’ve created a lot of high-value content on their blog that ranks well on Google, and then supplemented that with complementary videos that rank on YouTube. Thus they have the world’s 2 largest search engines covered.
- Unlike many brands, Ahrefs runs paid ads through Tim Soulo’s social accounts for better engagement. These ads also don’t lead to a hard sell sales page, but instead back to their best performing content.
- When analysing their content you’ll find they tend to rely on two things. One is the template, of which there are 4 types of content. The other is the intent of the content which is split into the stage of awareness and place in the funnel the user is at.
Check appendix A for…
- Templated versions of Ahrefs’ best articles
- An intent guide for the best content for your brand
As one of the world’s premier SEO tools it’s no surprise that Ahrefs has a very strong SEO play.
Diving into what they’re doing is pretty interesting.
Ahrefs’ SEO approach
From a high level, you can easily see that Ahrefs has a very strong focus on one particular topic for their blog content – SEO.
The “General SEO” category has 127 articles. The next highest number of articles is General Marketing with 42, followed by Link Building with 40.
Hardly surprising, right?
If you take a look through the article categories, you’ll note the huge majority of them are on one aspect or another of SEO – or getting your site to rank higher on Google.
This is a really smart play a lot of other brands don’t do.
What Ahrefs are effectively doing here is building their reputation in the SEO space.
Partly for their potential future customers. By going deep on SEO they’re known as “the SEO people”.
But more so for Google.
While individual articles target long-tail keywords that have a specific search intent, their overall site aims to be the most complete source of SEO information.
That builds domain authority, which means they have a much better chance of their individual articles ranking well on Google.
They’re not taking the traditional keyword approach to SEO. They’re taking a topic approach to SEO.
A lot of brands have a loose focus on a topic.
They’ll look at a broad overview of their topic and focus instead on high-traffic, low-competition keywords.
The result is a site that’s somewhat disjointed and trying to straddle multiple focal points. These are often complementary focuses, but it makes it harder to rank.
For example, a site on a general topic like “marketing” would publish content on everything from PPC to SEO, affiliate marketing to email copy.
With enough time, they could rank for all of these.
However, for both Google and the customer it’s going to take time to build a reputation as the “go-to resource”.
This general brand will be outperformed by the brand who goes deep instead of wide.
Going deep on a topic is a faster way to build a reputation and genuinely help your readers.
Which increases the trust they – and as a result Google – has in you. Which improves all key metrics.
If you think of any of the big content marketing brands or individuals out there, most focus intently on one thing.
The exceptions to this rule are the brands who have huge resources and are able to go that deep on multiple approaches at once.
But for most of us, the better goal is to go deep.
Both to rank for the topic, but also to become known as a trustworthy source of information in the space.
When Google recognises your site as an expert on a topic, they’re more likely to rank your specific articles on that topic.
Whilst you do need to worry about keyword research to target the key issues people are facing and searching for, you should be looking to build a holistic approach to the topic you focus on.
Ahrefs makes certain Google recognises them as a topic authority through interlinking of content.
You’ll always find links to other Ahrefs articles in their pieces with relevant anchor text.
This helps them build up a “hub” of relevant pieces, which then feed one another with SEO juice.
It’s often referred to as the hub and spoke model.
None of this should come as a surprise.
The hub and spoke model, interlinking content, and focusing on becoming an authority on your topic are all key to SEO success.
And, of course, the content you produce should be helpful above all else (good SEO relies on writing for people, not algorithms).
But what I really love with Ahrefs’ approach is how they break down their content.
When you explore those categories, it appears most of the articles are split into three levels.
- Top of funnel
- Mid funnel
- Bottom of funnel
Again, this shouldn’t be anything new to seasoned marketers.
But it’s interesting how easy the division is to spot.
Here are the top 3 results in the Link Building category.
- The beginner’s guide to link building
Obviously a very top of funnel article.
This is there to attract and engage people who are a the beginning of their careers in SEO and need a foundation.
- Simple ways to build links with images
This piece is perfectly aimed at people who understand the concept of link building, but need some help on doing it effectively.
Ideal for the middle of funnel users.
- Link building case study: How we built backlinks with a “stats” page (and ranked #1)
A case study that proves the power of Ahrefs as a tool, and the knowledge of the team.
It’s perfectly positioned as that little push that would take a person who’s on the fence to signing up for an account.
And you dive deeper, you tend to find they have a couple of basic article formats.
Article type #1 – General explanation
Example – Blog SEO; The Complete Guide
These explanation pieces are generally high level explanations of core concepts related to SEO.
While the above example is positioned as a guide, it’s more an explanation that covers…
- What SEO is
- Why you need to know about it
- What it can do for you
They’re meant as introductions to a concept for people. And they both serve to attract people at the top of funnel, and to build initial trust in Ahrefs.
- Funnel target – Top of Funnel
- Goal of piece – Intro and explain a core concept readers need to know about
Article type #2 – The guide
These guide pieces are pretty simple in format.
They’ll lead with a basic intro, then explain why this is needed to build interest.
After that, they get into a step-by-step of setting up the approach.
They’re intended for people who know what the thing is, but aren’t sure how to do it. Ahrefs can then use the guide to show just how easy it is to achieve the goal with their tool.
- Funnel target – Top and middle of funnel
- Goal of piece – To further build trust, and/or highlight the benefits of using Ahrefs as a tool
Article type #3 – Listicles
Listicles are the bread and butter of many SEO marketers.
They’re easy to produce and, if your site already has reasonable domain authority, are relatively easy to rank.
All they really are is a collection of…
Add a little explanation to each one and you’ve got something that can rank relatively well.
They’re often aimed at the problem aware stage. You’ll find people searching for things like “Best way to solve [PROBLEM]”. Which means they’re a great way to position your product as the best solution.
- Funnel target – Middle of funnel
- Goal of piece – To introduce your product to people who could benefit from it, to build trust by showcasing multiple solutions/options
Article type #4 – Case Study
Case studies are a great way to add real proof to your content.
If you explain how you achieved a goal your ideal users want, it’s going to grab attention and build a tonne of trust.
All Ahrefs do is explain why they are taking this action before explaining how they did it.
Of course, Ahrefs as a tool is heavily featured and so this becomes a not-so-subtle promo.
- Funnel target – Bottom of funnel
- Goal of piece – To show, with real results, how great your offer is and explain the results it can achieve
Visualised, it looks a little like this.
Here’s the thing.
Ahrefs has great domain and topic authority.
They’re gonna publish these articles on SEO and they’re going to rank very highly on Google for relevant search terms.
And that, in itself, kind of present a nurture funnel.
Someone at the beginning of their SEO journey might search for “What are sitelinks”. Which, for me in the UK, has Ahrefs as the #2 result.
That’s going to get a good portion of the traffic.
And people who read it will recognise Ahrefs as a useful source of information. Which means when they search for something more mid funnel, like “Internal links guide” one of two things will happen.
- They’ll go straight to their new trusted source – Ahrefs
- They’ll search and the Ahrefs result (currently #3 for me) will stick out because they’ve built that trust with the user
And that’s great. But it’s not enough.
Taking this approach alone is too passive for my taste. Yes, ranking well provides consistent traffic, but you also have to take action to guarantee the traffic that comes to you is relevant and you remain at the top of the search results.
Ahrefs does this in 2 ways.
The first is through YouTube marketing.
I’m not going to go super in depth on this here. I’ve already done a full analysis on YouTube you can find here.
Here’s what Ahrefs appear to do with their YouTube channel’s content.
Much like their blog channel, they seem to have targeted top, middle, and bottom of funnel content with their YouTube videos.
Again, a smart play to attract people at various stages of consideration.
It also appears that they reproduce a lot of the same content and guides that are on their blog but in video format.
This is smart. If you have written content that’s doing well, craft a video to complement it.
If you have a video that’s doing well, write a post to complement it.
People learn in different ways and Google and YouTube are the 2 biggest search engines in the world.
What works on one has a good chance of working on the other.
And by combining the two you can create a multimedia guide that appeals to people who learn through text and through video.
Which will increase engagement with the post, which increases positive signals to Google, which should increase your rankings.
What Ahrefs are doing here is pretty simple.
They’re finding problems and topics that are resonating with their ideal audience. They’re then rolling them out to multiple platforms for more blanket coverage.
And by linking everything together, they’re increasing the network effect of their owned assets. It looks a little like this.
But that’s not all they do.
This next section on paid ads is what initially drew me to Ahrefs.
Ahrefs, like many other SaaS brands, invests in paid advertising.
What’s odd with their approach is that they…
- Don’t track conversions from paid advertising
- Don’t use retargeting pixels (and so can’t run retargeting ads) on their site
- Optimise for clicks
Now, there’s a great video here that explains why they do this, and I kind of agree.
Tim’s explanation is that direct response marketing is all about short term goals and tracking the return from each $ spent.
But with a tool like Ahrefs there’s a long decision cycle. Most people won’t sign up for Ahrefs after reading a single article.
So, their plan is to bolster their content marketing efforts.
The idea is to have their content seen in as many places as possible so they remain top of mind.
When I first heard about this I thought it an interesting and very logical approach.
But since I first found out about it, I believe it makes even more sense now.
Since the inclusion of iOS 14s privacy improvements, the ability to track conversions from paid ads has become much more difficult. Performance advertisers are scrambling to figure this out.
But if you’re of the opinion that distribution of content is king, and you’re happy to track things from a very macro perspective (money paid out in advertising vs overall profit gain), then the Ahrefs approach should work well for you.
Direct response vs content marketing
In addition to the lack of tracking, the majority of Ahrefs’ ads direct people to content over a sales page.
Now, a lot of the studies I’ve done have a very hard focus on sales.
… build their ad campaigns to get an immediate response and return through something like a tripwire offer.
They then can adjust their ad targeting strategy to get the best short term results possible.
It’s typical direct-response marketing.
Ahrefs though, is a behemoth in the content marketing space.
They’re not here to get quick sales.
Their entire approach is focused on building reputation and helping people until that person wants and needs to use the tool.
And so they direct people to content.
Take this Facebook ad as an example.
This ad then links to a piece of blog content.
This is a very backwards way of doing things when compared to the hard sales approaches of brands like ClickFunnels. But it fits perfectly with a complex tool solving very complex issues.
By pushing out their best content, they can put their best foot forward and kick off, or continue, the customer education journey their content is built around.
Here’s where things get really interesting though.
Brand vs personality
If we’re being honest, we’ve all become completely oblivious to 90% of the ads we see.
It’s something that happens time and time again.
Banner blindness was the term given to selective attention in the digital era. But it’s nothing new.
Advertisers are constantly having to come up with new ways of grabbing attention. As soon as something fatigues, they need a different new approach.
And one of the easiest ways to make your ad unmemorable is to serve it from your company’s account.
People the world over have been trained to ignore posts and content that’s from a brand.
Why? Because they know it’s an ad.
The Ahrefs team know this, and they also know that people like people.
So, they often runs ads under the CMO’s – Tim Soulo – accounts. Here’s an example.
220 likes is quite a lot of engagement. Most ads don’t get anywhere near as much – as demonstrated by this ad from Universal Studios which has a much wider audience and greater mass appeal.
Here’s the thing.
In the video I linked to above regarding Ahrefs’ advertising experiments, Tim made a few observations.
In short, the ads from his personal account massively outperformed ads from the Ahrefs account despite having the same targeting and messaging (copy was amended to fit the personal brand, but the message was the same).
Here’s a quick screen grab of the key stats.
Tim’s stats are on in the left column within each image, Ahrefs on the right.
The general trend seems to be that ads run through Tim’s personal account performed 2X better than those through Ahrefs.
At first glance the lesson here is “run your ads through an individual’s account rather than the brand”.
But that’s not the real lesson.
It works for Ahrefs because of a few key reasons.
When to run your ads through a personal account
If you have someone within your business who has a great following, you might get better engagement by running ads through their account.
After all, people prefer people over brands.
However, their reputation has to be built around the brand’s key offer.
If you’re an SEO tool running ads through an employee account known for reviews of grilled cheese food trucks, you’re not going to get good results. Regardless of the size of that audience.
And to be blunt about this, you shouldn’t consider early-career or entry-level employees for this.
This person is going to be the unofficial face of the business. They’re going to be asked to…
… speak at conferences…
…be featured on podcasts…
… be interviewed for video shows…
And that means you need someone who has the experience both within the industry and your business to speak with genuine authority.
This person is the face of your brand, and you need to present the best face possible.
The risks of running your ads through a personal account
Of course, giving your brand a face carries some inherent risks.
The risks always come down to that person being the public face of the brand. They’re often the first person people think of when you mention the brand.
And so if that person becomes embroiled in some form of scandal, it reflects negatively on the brand and can affect things like revenue or stock price.
You need look no further than the wild fluctuations in Tesla stock when ver Elon Musk decides to Tweet something controversial or he thinks is funny.
Like when he Tweeted that he thought Tesla’s stock price was too high.
The person could also leave the company.
Here, I always think of Rand Fishkin and Moz.
Back when Rand was at Moz and running things like their Whiteboard Friday series, I knew a lot about the brand and what they were doing.
However, as soon as he left and set up Sparktoro, my knowledge of Moz and the relationship I had with the brand plummeted.
The short of this is you have to be very careful about who (if anyone) is made the face of your brand.
The benefits in the short term are an increase in trust and also the engagement with your brand assets.
But the downsides in the long term can be huge if that person leaves or causes problems.
You can mitigate people leaving by offering equity and ensuring they have a real home at the brand.
But you can never fully rest easy with this approach.
I’m sure Ahrefs is treating Tim very well and, as someone who’s been at the brand and led incredible growth for them, I can’t see him leaving anytime soon.
But these sort of relationships are not something that’s easily replicated, and should be approached with caution.
But let’s get back on track.
The Ahrefs “Attract” Model
Let’s quickly sum up how Ahrefs attracts new customers.
The focus for Ahrefs, unlike other brands like Clickfunnels, is their content.
Their entire attract model is built around content, and they leverage three extra elements to really kick this up a notch…
- They’ve focused on topic expertise over single keyword optimisation
- They interlink both written and video content for greater reach
- They leverage an individual’s social accounts to run ads
Visualised, the model looks like this.
How Ahrefs Converts Users
- Ahrefs is unusual in that they don’t funnel all people towards one primary sales page that outlines their entire service, instead preferring trust-building content. They leverage Ahrefs’ features within that content as promotions.
- These soft promos link to dedicated sales pages that feature the specific tool. They buck the trend of many SaaS brands and offer a cheap trial instead of a free trial. This creates motivation and a sense of urgency.
- Most brands have one primary conversion asset they link interested people towards. With Ahrefs, that’s their content. They continue to churn out high-value content that works as a sales funnel in itself.
- They turn readers into customers through soft promotions of tools within the content. The content will explain how to solve a problem using a specific feature of Ahrefs. Those mentions link to dedicated sales pages that focus only on that feature which creates more desire and a better UX.
- Instead of a free trial, Ahrefs offers a $7 7-day trial. This cheap fee reduces the number of people who set up throwaway email accounts to use the service, and also adds in see urgency and motivation. People will be more engaged as they won’t want to waste the money.
Check appendix B for…
- A feature sales page template
- Feature sales page markupsContent promo email markup
- Content promo email template
When digging through Ahrefs’ approach to converting their users, I noticed a few pretty interesting elements.
The first is the CTAs within their articles.
There are, surprisingly, no hard CTAs within content to sign up for Ahrefs. They take a different approach with their CTAs and use their content expertly.
The first CTA within every piece of content is a simple sticky sidebar on the right.
The sidebar gives abasic readout of the stats of the piece (with those stats being pulled by Ahrefs).
However, underneath that readout is a simple sign up box to drop your email address in.
This, obviously, adds you to their email list.
Here I was expecting a hard sell in the form of a “Get Ahrefs now for % off” type email.
But nope, they’ve continued on their hard content marketing stance and linked me to their top articles on the blog.
Here’s what I love though.
These articles are super in-depth and actionable, as you’d expect from Ahrefs.
And pretty much all of their articles heavily feature the Ahrefs tool.
That in itself is great because it perfectly encapsulates an age-old marketing belief “Show, don’t tell”.
They’re showing how Ahrefs solves the problem. Which builds trust in the tool.
And for anyone who then wants to follow the actionable tips, they’re going to need to use Ahrefs to get the results.
The problem that could come up here is to do with directing the traffic to a relevant page.
Ahrefs have overcome this with smart linking from their top content.
Take the email above as an example starting point.
If I click on the 12 Actionable SEO Tips link, I see this piece.
The actionable tips make use of Ahrefs’ feature set, like this reference to their Content Gap tool.
You’ll note the hyperlinked copy for “Content Gap tool” in there.
Now, someone looking to implement this tip will naturally want to check out the tool used in the explanation.
Ahrefs don’t link to a generic sales page that has all of the information on it.
They link to a dedicated page that talks only about the Content Gap tool.
The page is a full (albeit short) sales page that focuses on that particular feature.
It leads with a headline of what it is – ensuring that people who click on the link are greeted with the thing they want to know more about.
It has a simple, but effective, value prop for the tool.
It has a relevant “in-use” image.
And then a full body copy area to explain how it can help you.
I love this approach.
Ahrefs is basically engaging people who have a problem by outlining the solution.
And then immediately – and naturally – linking them to the feature – not product – that enables that solution.
By creating standalone sales pages for each feature, they’re ensuring relevancy.
So even if someone doesn’t sign up right now on the Content Gap tool sales page, they know more about the overall product and how it can help them.
Meaning when they next hit a sales page, they know more about the tool and how it can help them.
It might seem like a long way around the whole conversion approach.
Which it is.
However, from a “build trust and stay top of mind” content marketing perspective, this multi-touch approach works wonders.
Ahrefs unusual trial
The final step in the Ahrefs’ conversion journey is their trial.
Now, all of the brands we’ve analysed so far take one of two approaches to getting new people to sign up for their offer.
Option #1 = Free
A lot of the brands I’ve analysed, especially the software companies, often lead with a completely free trial.
You’re allowed full use of the base tier of the app , and the brand will send messages prompting you to set up specific features.
The idea is to either help you see the value in the service, or get you so invested that you can’t cancel before the first billing cycle hits.
Option #2 = Paid
Option 2 is to go straight in with a paid offer.
This is the bread and butter of physical product brands.
You have to pay full price to get the item you want. It’s simple, and a very traditional way of doing business.
However, both have their flaws which Ahrefs has tried to circumvent.
On the Ahrefs sales page you’ll note the offer isn’t a free trial or full priced product.
You can get a trial for 7 days, but it’ll cost you $7.
Tim has put a video together explaining the business reasons behind the $7 for 7days trial which you can watch here.
He covers the common problems anyone who’s run a free trial program in the past will tell you.
- Heavy abuse through throwaway email addresses.
- A poor free user to paying customer CVR.
- An overburdened customer support department
All are common problems when it comes to offering a free trial.
And Tim’s idea to charge $7 for 7 days is a genius workaround.
However, one thing I don’t think Tim covered in the video is the psychological importance of that pricing.
I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but Tim has set up a Yes Ladder here.
Here’s the way it breaks down on the two common methods.
Free trial yes ladder problems
With a free trial the barrier to entry is non-existent.
There is absolutely zero risk to setting up an account and so you’re going to get everybody and their dog setting joining your tool.
As Tim mentioned in his video, that leads to unqualified or poor fit customers.
The other problem here though, is that there’s no motivation to get the most out of the tool.
As it’s free, the perceived value is as low as the risk. And so there’s nothing to spur the user to really dig deep and get the most out of the tool.
If their free trial runs out, what have they lost?
And all they really need to then do if they want to try again is set up a simple GMail account and try again.
Especially because then the jump from free to $99 / month is a huge jump.
Tim mentioned they had 2X as many free users as paid when they offered 14 free days.
And I’d be willing to bet those free users rarely (if ever) logged into Ahrefs.
While free trials are great for attracting leads, they’re terrible for conversions and LTV.
We all know that repeat sales are where the money is. And for you to get repeat sales you have to first have made a sale.
By not pushing a sale up front, you’re making it hard to identify the people who truly value your offer and will pay increasing amounts of cash.
And, as mentioned above, you’re removing the impetus for them to get results.
Which is in contrast to charging full price up front.
Full price yes ladder problems
Charging full price for your service off the bat also has inherent problems.
It’s not an issue if your offer is…
- A buy once every few years item (e.g a desk, lifetime access to software, TV etc)
- So cheap as to not be a problem (anything below $100)
Which is why brands like The Agora often lead with a very low cost purchase and then hit with a revenue growing upsell.
With Ahrefs, you’re looking at a minimum cost of $99 / month.
That is a huge ask.
Even with all of their free content out there, it’s a big jump to go from spending nothing to ~$1000 year for an SEO tool.
Of course, if someone does pay, the motivation to get results is high.
And I’m sure the retention rate of people who sign up – even for the base tier – is also high.
But there are a lot of people on the fence who might not want to take that risk.
Which is where the 7 day trial comes into play.
The cheap trial yes ladder
Whether or not Tim and the Ahrefs team planned this, I think it’s genius.
As mentioned above, the problems with free trials are…
- Attracts bad fit customers
- Lack of motivation to get results
And the problems with a fully paid service are…
- A big jump in the ask
- Potentially cuts out good customers who need their fears allayed
The cheap cost Ahrefs are charging cuts out the people who will abuse the system with throwaway email addresses and helps them identify the customers with better potential LTV.
Coupled with the short time frame, the motivation to get results and not waste the $7 fee is high.
Sure, $7 isn’t a lot of money. Especially if it can be written off as a business expense.
But there’s a mental side to this. And no one likes needlessly wasting cash.
By charging even this small fee, there’s a desire to get your money’s worth.
And so the customer is more likely to spend time getting results with Ahrefs.
Put that all together and it acts as both qualifier and bridge.
- Ahrefs gets users who are more serious and willing to spend.
- The users have the motivation to get results.
The gap between the free content to full subscription is bridged with both the sign up fee and results they’re more motivated to get.
They’re not explicitly asked, but they act as motivators and trust builders so when they ask themselves the question of “should I upgrade to a full account”, the answer’s more likely to be a yes.
The small fee has forced them to interact with the tool and get results, which bridges that trust gap.
Lack of email hard sells
The final thing I thought worthy of note is how Ahrefs doesn’t go the hard sell route through email.
In some of the other brands I’ve analysed, there’s a very very hard sell email sequence you’ll be subjected to as soon as you’ve handed over an email address.
With Ahrefs, all I appear to be receiving are the weekly emails that detail the best content.
This, in itself, is part of their model.
These emails redirect me to their content, which then – when appropriate – redirect me to a dedicated sales page for a specific feature.
It’s a much more roundabout method of getting conversions.
But it also fits with Ahref’s approach to content and marketing as a whole.
I think this is one of the few brands where doing as they say is just as good as doing as they do. There’s nothing they’re doing that’s not in what they’re teaching.
Ahrefs’ Conversion model
Ahrefs hasn’t taken the hard sell model a lot of the other brands I’ve analysed has.
Instead, they stay true to their ideals of great content marketing and building trust.
It’s a more roundabout way of getting people to a sales page, but once they land on it, they’re gonna be more invested and trusting of Ahrefs. Here’s how it looks.
The whole process is built around their content. From each piece of content the user has 2 potential actions.
- Check out the specific sales page for a singular feature/tool set of Ahrefs
- Sign up for the email
If they take track 1, they’re in for the 7-day trial.
If they take track 2, they then get weekly newsletters which redirect them back to content.
Of course, each new article read increases the chance that the user will check out the specific feature and sign up for the 7-day trial.
It’s less direct than a hard sell, but it builds more trust by showing continued use cases and expertise.
How Ahrefs Engage New Customers
- After signing up, Ahrefs has a really simple setup. You can import the relevant data simply by linking your Google Search Console with a few clicks.
- Ahrefs then populates the dashboard and drops you in neck deep to the data. Which can be intimidating. They send a weekly email of “Crawl Errors” which redirect back to a page within Ahrefs to help you fix them.
- The Ahrefs setup is surprisingly easy. If you have a GSC account (which people using Ahrefs should and would), you can literally import all of the data they need to help you improve your site in just a few clicks.
- The friction here is basically non-existent. However, after importing that data you’re dropped into the dashboard. There are readouts and graphs everywhere and you’re kind of left to figure it out.
- As their primary audience is serious SEOs, this probably isn’t an issue. However, for more casual users this can be very intimidating.
- They also send a weekly email with errors they discover on your site. These errors are explained and have a CTA to check out more detail. That CTA leads you back to the Ahrefs dash where you can get more info to solve the issue.
Check appendix C for…
- Email templates and sequences to promote your Key ROI Feature
The real question for me is how Ahrefs is able to get people to see the value in the tool before their bill increases from a $7 free trial to a $99 / month fee.
What I’ve noticed is how wonderfully simplistic and straightforward their approach to engaging new users is.
After logging in, you’re greeted with the below screen.
I’ve mentioned in the past how I’m not a huge fan of simply listing a number of steps on the home dashboard.
That dislike comes from overly cluttered instructions that have no real order.
You’ll often find SaaS brands list multiple items like…
- Add your branding
- Set up billing
- Activate feature X
- Set up campaign Y
The problem I have with these approaches is that it’s hard to know what to do first and what you need to get the result you need.
If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know I like the approach I termed the “Key ROI feature model”. Basically, you have to highlight the best feature for your users to get ROI within their trial.
With so many options, it becomes hard to know how to do that.
Ahrefs, rather than offer multiple steps, tell you in no uncertain terms what to do.
“Add your first project” with a big ol’ button to get started.
It’s straightforward and makes knowing what to do to kick things off simple.
And that simple approach persists throughout.
You can add manually, or simply link your Google Search Console to have them pull over all the relevant data.
Now, I have no idea on the stats of this, but as Ahrefs is geared towards serious SEOs, I’d be willing to bet a huge majority of them all have GSC set up.
This effectively turns the set-up process for Ahrefs into a 2-step approach.
You then choose what you want the project to include.
And just like that, you’re set up.
This took less than 5 minutes to do.
And sure, if you were doing it manually it would take longer, but I can’t imagine serious SEOs not having a GSC account to link.
Here’s where things start getting a little difficult though.
So, once your site has been crawled by Ahrefs, what next?
From the main dashboard, it’s kind of hard to know what it is you should be doing.
There’s an overabundance of data in there which, to anyone not sure how to use Ahrefs, is very overwhelming.
I mean, look at the below and tell me where you’d start to find out how to improve the Growth Models site.
It’s hard to figure out, right?
For those of us who don’t live and breathe SEO, it’s enough to make you question whether this tool could be helpful.
The frustration I’d feel from this could easily be enough to make me cancel my account on the spot.
Here’s the thing.
A lot of the tools and features you’d need to improve your site and figure out the best SEO growth actions are in the top nav bar.
Clicking on them takes you to a blank page where you’ve kind of got to figure it out yourself.
There are on screen prompts, but I’m not entirely certain how I’d know what the best action for my growth would be.
Once you start using the tools though, things start to fall into line.
Take the Content Explorer tool as an example. Click the top navbar option and you’ll see this page.
I tapped in Growth Marketing and received a page of stats and ideas. However, more importantly was the little popup box that told me what to do next.
You’re then presented with a lot of datas you’ve kind of just got to figure out. Of course you could click the little help button for Ahrefs 101 though.
It’s the same story across all of the top nav bar features.
That is until it comes to the Site Audit option.
Driving engagement and quick wins through email
I’m assuming a lot of the keyword, topic, and content research items in the feature set of Ahrefs don’t have a hand-holding option because the tool is aimed at serious SEO folk.
These people likely know how to use these features and what they’re looking for.
What I do like, however, is their Site Audit option.
Once you’ve linked your GSC, Ahrefs starts automatically crawling your site for errors.
As soon as that’s done, you get an email that highlights the biggest problems.
Now these things would be difficult to find on your own so this info is invaluable.
What I love though is how simply clicking on the “View” button next to the associated record takes you to a page that explains in more detail.
And if you click the “Why and how to fix” element, you get some detail on the best actions for this issue.
Here’s what I like most though.
The thing that sticks out most to me is the red alert button in the left hand nav column.
Which, if clicked takes you through to a full report of errors with information on how to fix them.
This, to me, is one of the key features for Ahrefs, especially within the Site Audit tool.
It takes a few clicks to get there, and that could really do with being streamlined.
However, once you’re there it can act as a central hub for you to fix the problems your site is experiencing.
Sure, finding the best keywords and content to produce is great. But fixing problems to supercharge everything you’ve already created is equally as important.
I’d argue that this is their Key ROI feature, and it should be more prominently displayed and linked to.
I could make changes to my site and rectify problem within 7 days and start to see improvements as a result of my actions.
Keyword and content research for future actions is great. But when I then have to write, optimise, upload, and distribute that content the gains from it are going to take a long time to manifest.
With 7 days to prove value before the full price, I would heavily feature the Site Audit > All Issues report more heavily.
This is what is going to make a greater step up in their Yes Ladder to the full price.
And thanks to the frequent crawl update emails they send out, they could continue to redirect users to this page to help them both stay on top of problems, and continue to rely on the tool.
I have to admit that I think this is the weakest area of Ahrefs’ strategy.
It’s an absolutely incredible tool.
And you could get over the complexity of its features because it’s generally used by experts.
But helping people quickly see a positive return is key. And I think they’ve not featured the strongest element for this as prominently as they could have.
At the minute, their engage model looks like this.
Which is fine. But I think redirecting people to the site audit more directly could help increase engagement and the ROI their users are getting.
That would look something like this.
The only real difference is using in app messages to prompt people to set up the key feature of Site Audit.
Then using that as the HQ for people to solve their problems moving forward by having the weekly crawl reports emails direct back to that page.
This is, of course, all based on the assumption that this is the feature that helps people get the best ROI.
How Ahrefs Encourages Referrals
- Ahrefs doesn’t have a traditional referral or affiliate program. Probably because they want to focus on quality over quantity.
- Thanks to the quality of their product, they’re often still included in many of the roundup pieces of “best SEO tools”.
- They don’t do affiliates, but they do have a small sponsorship program for hand selected brands and influencers.
- Ahrefs don’t have an affiliate program. Looking at the rest of their approach to product and marketing, I imagine it’s because they want to focus on the quality of their assets, not the quantity.
- A free to join affiliate program offers huge reach, but is very difficult to manage quality control. This hasn’t stopped them being included in many “Best of” listicles, which are a great way to get your brand listed at the top of Google. However, thanks to the lack of affiliate commission for referrals, they rarely take top spot. That often goes to someone like SEMRush who have an affiliate program.
- They also sponsor one or two people. These are obviously hand-selected sponsees who produce quality, respected work and have an overlapping audience.
Check appendix D for…
- Checklist for qualifying potential sponsee
Once again Ahrefs bucks the trend here.
Every other brand I’ve analysed has some form of easy sign up referral program in play.
And to cut a long story short here – Ahrefs doesn’t.
Now, I could end this section with that and move on to the next brand.
But I think their reluctance to run an affiliate program also bears scrutiny.
Why Ahrefs might not use affiliates
I’ve got to kick this off by saying everything from here on out is conjecture and speculation on my part.
However, I think there are obvious connections to be made between the way Ahrefs runs their business and their referral programs.
Ahrefs is a bootstrapped company that’s hit 8-figure revenues by focusing on quality.
The quality of their product.
The quality of their marketing.
The quality of everything they produce.
Tim and his team are very discerning about what makes the grade.
I mean, for a brand that gets a reported ~7.5 million monthly users and is making around $50MM / year…
… Ahrefs has surprisingly few pieces of content.
Searching their category page will tell you that they have around 360 articles.
And I’m sure more than a handful of them show up in more than a single category.
There are plenty of other sites out there that have similar traffic, but have needed 10X the content to get there.
Why is Ahrefs so successful with this?
Because they’re deliberate in what they do.
While many of the brands we’ve looked at will try multiple approaches to find success before doubling down, Ahrefs takes time to really analyse what’s working.
The result is less scope in what they have done, but the completed assets are then of a much higher quality.
You could say the same for their product.
While competing brands like SEMRush have built their product out horizontally to include features that – whilst related to reach and impressions – aren’t pure SEO, Ahrefs has kept a firm handle on their SEO focus and gone deeper.
With Ahrefs the focus is deep. All deliverables are on a specific topic and of a high quality, rather than a wide selection that stretches their resources.
Both are viable options for growing a brand.
But the difference is then in who you help.
SEMRush, which has a very wide feature set is known as an “all in one” tool for general marketing needs.
Ahrefs is known as a specialist tool for serious SEOs.
Going narrow and deep ensures a richer quality to the product. And I think they’ve taken a similar approach with their affiliate programs.
When you have a tool like Noom, you want as many people as possible to promote it because…
- It has wide appeal
- It’s a relatively cheap investment
- It’s a very saturated market – and being very visible benefits you
So Noom won’t mind opening things up and having multiple affiliates promote their offer – even if those affiliates aren’t vetted and approved.
That would be the wide but shallow approach.
Ahrefs, on the other hand, is a specialist tool that has a premium price. They need to present a high-quality image over multiple touchpoints to secure a single sale.
So they need to go narrow and deep into the marketing world and hand select affiliates that add to the value they offer.
It goes back to their focus on quality over quantity.
If they were to go wide and open an affiliate program that was free for anyone to join, they run the risk of having that reputation damaged by money hungry affiliate marketers.
Sure, they could overcome this by having a fully managed, invite only program. But with their small teams and smart use of resources, this might be more hassle than it needs to be for them.
To go narrow and deep and maintain that value, the easiest option is not to have an affiliate program at all. And instead keep tight control of where you’re mentioned.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t leverage other people’s audiences.
What Ahrefs do instead of a referral program
At its core, a referral program is simply an easy way to borrow an established audience.
You compensate the person who has grown the audience and they promote your brand.
Ahrefs have brought their signature quality and control to this.
Rather than a simple affiliate program, they run sponsorships.
Now, I’ve not been able to find many of these, but I know for certain that they sponsor Harry Dry’s marketing examples.
This isn’t a typical affiliate or referral agreement.
It’s not performance based, and there’s little flexibility in how the affiliate/sponsor can promote the brand.
But that ties in with the Ahrefs model of marketing.
Through this sponsorship model they know that…
- They’re going to reach a high-quality audience
- The sponsor/affiliate won’t do anything to embarrass them
- They can have more control over the content and focus of the ads
Not to mention there’s a fixed cost with this model.
It all comes back to the control and quality Ahrefs appear to hold as their primary goal.
They could go the mass marketing route and simply use a generic affiliate program to get in front of as many people as possible.
But due to the nature of Ahrefs’ offer, the price point, and of course the image Tim has painstakingly built for Ahrefs as a powerhouse of quality, sheer scope of visibility isn’t the goal.
It puts a strain on the quality they’ve built and could very quickly become unmanageable.
The static sponsorship for referrals model allows them more control and to hand select the places that will feature an Ahrefs promotion.
It’s once again tied to their core approach of quality over quantity. And I think it’s a great lesson to other owners and marketers how being focused on the vision and end-goal of your product is key to successful growth.
This feels a little like a copout as there is no affiliate or referral program to deconstruct.
But you could also argue that the quality of their product is all they need.
Thanks to Ahrefs being one of the best tools on the market, they’re often referenced in “best of” lists and in various social discussions.
Which, let’s face it, is where most affiliate marketers ply their trade anyway.
Here’s the one thing that might be a little detrimental to Ahrefs though.
The potential damage of not having a referral program
You’ll know if you’ve read our Noom study that you can dominate page 1 of the Google search results by offering people already ranking a healthy commission to include your product with an affiliate referral link.
While researching various sites for the best SEO tools for mentions of Ahrefs, I found one of two things.
- A complete omission of Ahrefs
- Ahrefs never being the #1 recommended tool
Take this article from PCMag as an example.
The “Top Picks” carousel at the top does include Ahrefs. But only if you scroll through the entries.
Upon opening the page you’re greeted with the below.
All of which are linked to with an affiliate link for their referral commission.
If you scroll right one time, you’ll find Ahrefs.
It’s not a huge issue.
I mean, as mentioned above, the target audience for Ahrefs is skilled, professional SEOs.
They know these roundup pieces are often little more than an attempt to make affiliate referral commissions, and that they’re written by an outsourced content team with little to no expertise on the topic.
But even knowing that, it is damaging their reach.
To put it in SEO terms, the top Google search result gets ~31% of the total clicks.
I’d assume the dropoff is similarly steep for listicles tha recommend tools.
By not being the #1 recommended tool, you’ll see fewer clicks and traffic.
And so by not offering an incentive to promote Ahrefs, the team is guaranteeing they’ll rarely be the #1 spot in any “review” article.
I’m really not sure if this is too much of a problem though.
The serious SEOs who could get the results they need from Ahrefs aren’t taking advice from PCMag or any of the other page 1 results.
The major loss to Ahrefs is that loss of brand recognition for people who are, right now, at the start of their career in SEO.
The tools that have the affiliate programs, and as a result the top billings on articles newbies will read, will solidify themselves as solid options for these new professionals.
That is the major downside I see here.
Ahrefs is giving up that early exposure to maintain quality of their brand image. But having collaborated with Tim on one or two projects in the past (pre-Ahrefs), I know he’ll have done the research and will have decided this a risk worth taking.
The question is whether or not you should follow in their footsteps.
That’s something I can’t really help with, but have attempted to help you identify in the downloads.
The Full Ahrefs Growth Model
What this really comes down to is quality over quantity.
Ahrefs have been able to grow to such an incredible revenue per employee because everything they do – from content and marketing through to product development and support – is of the highest quality.
They’ve not gone the quantity route.
And for them it’s paying off. However, it does mean that their growth model is more unique than many of the others I’ve analysed.
Here’s the full breakdown of Ahrefs’ Growth Model.
Ahrefs relies on their superior SEO and content approach to drive a lot of their traffic.
It’s a great example of linking assets well, and getting maximum visibility to content to build trust.
- Create high-quality content your audience is actively searching for
- Craft content topic hubs that explore more of that topic in more detail
- Create YouTube videos on popular topics (thus covering the 2 biggest search engines)
- Link on site assets and YouTube videos together to form hubs, and then embed and link to promote cross platform traffic
- Promote your best content through a personal social account rather than the brand’s social account
Ahrefs uses an unusual method for their conversion model.
Unlike many other brands who pester you with countless hard sell emails leading to highly persuasive sales pages, Ahrefs relies on their content to do the heavy lifting for them.
Here’s how it looks and a short breakdown.
- Craft high value content that solves a real problem your ideal audiences faces
- Make sure to highlight a specific feature of your offer and how thast helps solve the problem
- Offer 2 simple CTAs for each piece of content with the content itself
- When you reference a specific feature of the offer, link it to a dedicated sales page for that feature
- Offer email subscriptions for more information for those not yet ready to purchase
- Follow up with email subs weekly with links back to the high-value content
- Offer a cheap, paid for trial of your tool through the dedicated sales pages
The dedicated sales pages are key here.
They allow you to really highlight the power of specific features, and then drive the traffic most interested in that feature to that page.
This is the first area where I feel Ahrefs misses an opportunity.
While the 7-day $7 trial will force people to take swift action, after initial sign up and set up it’s hard to know how to analyse the overwhelming depth of data.
Ahrefs does send a weekly email with errors they’ve found on your site, which is a great HQ of sorts to run your next steps.
But other from that, after set up you’re dropped in and expected to know what to do. This could be because they only really target experienced SEOs as users.
- Drop the user into a blank dashboard
- Offer a simple setup CTA that leads them to the next step
- Make the setup as easy as possible. In Ahrefs case it’s as simple as allowing access to your GSC – done in 3 clicks
- Redirect back to the dashboard with their data now available
- Send a weekly email of errors they discovered when crawling your site
- Redirect the user back to a page where they can fix the error