How Ahrefs does SEO: 7 unconventional lessons in product-led content marketing
Over $50M in annual recurring revenue.
$0 of funding.
+65% growth year-over-year.
3,200+ new leads every week (as of July 2020).
695,000+ monthly search visits to their blog (as of June 2020).
50+ employees of whom 10 are marketers.
0 sales people.
It’s fair to say that Ahrefs has taken an unconventional approach to growing a SaaS business. It’s also fair to say that what they’re doing is working.
And that’s why in this post, with the help of Tim Soulo, Ahrefs’ CMO and Product Advisor, we’ll dive deep into the single biggest reason behind the company’s impressive growth: product-led content marketing and SEO.
But before we break down the seven unconventional content and SEO lessons you can learn from Ahrefs, let’s quickly define what we mean by product-led growth and product-led content marketing to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Ahrefs: a textbook example of product-led everything
If you’re in or into SaaS, you’ve probably heard of “product-led growth”.
The term was made popular by OpenView Partners and Wes Bush (who wrote an awesome book on the subject. Read it. Then re-read it. And then read it again just to be safe.)
For those of you who need a refresher, product-led growth refers to a go-to-market strategy where the product is used as the primary driver of customer acquisition, activation, and retention.
If you need a more practical definition, think of Slack, Zoom, Dropbox, Clubhouse, or well… Ahrefs. Instead of downloading a bunch of vaguely product-related ebooks or whitepapers from these companies’ websites, I would bet anything that you fell in love with (one or all of) them by using their products.
And then, something like this happened?
(P.S. I totally swiped the idea for this illustration from the geniuses at OpenView, sorry guys!)
But unlike the other product-led companies I listed above, Ahrefs is also a textbook example of something called product-led storytelling, which is a term Victor Eduoh coined in his recent guest post on the OpenView blog.
In short, product-led storytelling boils down to educating users on how to get the most value from your product using marketing channels like the company blog, YouTube, and social media.
But let’s break this down even further by looking at the seven unconventional lessons you can learn from Ahrefs if you want to become amazing at product-led content marketing and SEO.
Lesson #1: Obsess over your customers in everything you do — whether that’s marketing or product development
If you want to replicate any part of Ahrefs’ SEO and content marketing success for your own business, the first thing you have to realize is that you have to start and end with your best customers: who they are, what they’re trying to achieve, and what they care about.
While identifying and getting to know your best customers is typically a complex process that involves several steps from analyzing customer data to interviewing people, according to Tim, the Ahrefs team never took any deliberate steps to identify their best customers.
Tim says, “For us, it has always come down to understanding who our customers are by being in the trenches and actually hanging out with them online and offline.”
And that’s why this first lesson can be drilled down to two simple steps:
1) Get to know your best customers
2) Don’t be afraid to say who they are out loud
In other words, Ahrefs is an SEO tool for anyone who wants to get more organic traffic and better rankings — whether they’re an expert or a beginner.
By doing this, Ahrefs positions the product as an easy-to-use SEO tool and opens it up to a much wider audience than professional SEOs only. Clever, right?
The other side of the customer-centricity coin is that Ahrefs has decided to blatantly ignore what everyone else in the market is doing. Instead of imitating the likes of Moz and Semrush, they’re laser-focused on serving their customers in any way possible.
In fact, shortly after joining Ahrefs, Tim realized that he could help further improve the product by bridging the gap between their customers and the product team. And that’s why at first, he spent a big part of his day to day on facilitating feedback from existing and potential customers, curating it, and passing it on to the product team.
Tim says, “This is ultimately how we came up with many interesting features and product solutions that our competitors didn’t have.”
And so according to Tim, the first lessons in product-led (content) marketing are to:
- Develop a good understanding of the market you’re in and its needs
- Understand the position your product plays in that market
- Figure out what needs to be done to the product in order to improve that position
TL;DR: Instead of stealing your competitors’ marketing playbook, get to know your customers and figure out ways to serve them better than anyone else — whether that comes down to marketing or something else.
Lesson #2: Build a team based on what you’re trying to achieve — not based on what everyone else is doing
You know how pretty much every B2B SaaS marketing team in the world consists of content marketers, product marketers, email marketers, and performance marketers? Well. Not Ahrefs.
Tim says, “As the marketing team was growing, we didn’t feel any need to split people into roles or departments like performance marketing, product marketing, etc. We were bringing the kind of people to our team who were smart enough to see the gaps and proactive enough to stand up and fill those gaps when needed.”
He continues, “Once we saw a cool thing that we wanted to do, but were lacking the “manpower”, we’d start looking for a proper person to fill that role.”
And as Tim explained in a recent interview on the Growth Hub Podcast, each member of the 10-person marketing team works as a double agent:
- The first part of their job is to relay product ideas and feedback to the product team so that they can build awesome features that are based on real customer needs.
- The second part of their job is to educate the market (as well as Ahrefs’ existing customers) on how to use all the features of the product. As Tim says, “educating the market involves getting some eyeballs — i.e. traffic — on our materials”
TL;DR: Don’t mimic your team structure from similar businesses without understanding the context behind their decisions. Like Tim says, “Understand what’s the next thing that needs to be done to market your product and see if you have enough resources to get it done. If not — hire someone who can help you out with it.”
Lesson #3: When you’re starting out, do one or two things really well — and say no to the rest
Now that you know who you’re targeting and who’ll do the actual work (yay, you!), it’s time to start figuring out which marketing levers you can pull to reach your goals.
The very first thing you’ll want to define are your key marketing channels, i.e. the best ways to reach the audience you want to engage with. You can start this by asking yourself: “where do these people hang out?”
For an SEO company like Ahrefs with a lot of relevant search demand, the obvious answer would’ve of course been “Google”. Luckily, though, they didn’t stop at the #1 search engine in the world, but also went for the #2: YouTube.
But as Tim says, “We’re lucky that there’s a lot of search demand for SEO-related topics. If people weren’t searching for SEO stuff, we’d have to rely on some other channels.”
Stripped down to its core, Ahrefs’ content and SEO strategy can be boiled down to this sentence: being there for people who are searching for answers to any SEO related questions.
More recently, they’ve started applying this same search-driven content strategy to five other languages by directly translating their English originals.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Ahrefs marketing team is world-class in saying no to initiatives that aren’t in line with their strategy and priorities. They don’t do guest posts, co-host webinars, or do partnerships.
Why? Because all those things would be time away from doing the things they know will work.
Tim says, “We tried it all: webinars, partnerships, Google Ads, and even an affiliate program. But the truth is that we didn’t like the results compared to content marketing and SEO.”
TL;DR: Think of the Ahrefs marketing team as the Marie Kondos of marketing: they focus their time and money on proven channels and tactics, and say “no thanks” to the rest.
Lesson #4: Forget the (content marketing) funnel
Now that we’ve got the foundational stuff out of the way, it’s time to get down to the juicy part: the way Ahrefs actually does content marketing and SEO.
Conventional B2B marketing wisdom would dictate that you’d have to serve three parts of the funnel with your content: the top, the middle, and the bottom.
In fact, most content marketers are trained to think that top of the funnel content is the fun, exciting, and audience-friendly stuff, while bottom of the funnel is dedicated to the boring, embarrassing, and pushy stuff that their sales teams keep begging them for.
But what this logic fails to take into account is that in a product-led company, you don’t necessarily even have to bother with the awkward alphabet soup that is TOFU, MOFU, and BOFU.
To quote from Tim’s 2019 presentation at Grow with HubSpot, “Traffic means nothing if you can’t convert it into sales and customers for your business.”
He then goes on to explain that by far the most viewed (~84,500 pageviews per month) post on the HubSpot blog is this gem on “How to type the shrug emoji in two seconds flat.”
Tim then goes on to say, “It blows my mind how you can take a person who searches on Google ‘how to type the shrug emoji’ and then make them convert into a customer of a marketing software.”
And it’s true. Ahrefs’ content marketing strategy couldn’t be further from HubSpot’s. In fact, Ahrefs’ blog is full of closely product-related blog posts like these ones:
- How to create SEO-friendly URLs
- SEO copywriting: 12 easy tips for better content and higher rankings
- How to improve page speed from start to finish (an advanced guide)
And closely product-related videos like these ones:
- How to rank higher on Google (step-by-step tutorial)
- SEO tips to improve organic ranking in under 15 minutes
- Can you rank content without building backlinks?
You get the point.
If I had to describe Ahrefs’ editorial mission in one sentence it would be: educate the audience on how to do SEO with Ahrefs.
Tim explains, “We don’t care about TOFU/MOFU/BOFU. All we care about is business potential. To assess the business potential of each keyword and topic, we’ve developed something we call the Business Potential Score. And we only try to target topics where our product is an almost irreplaceable solution to the problem.”
Image credit: Ahrefs / HubSpot
TL;DR: If you’re in self-serve SaaS and there’s some search volume for the kind of search queries that your product can help solve, you can say buh-bye to your friends TOFU, MOFU and BOFU, and instead, focus on producing content with real business potential.
Lesson #5: Focus on business metrics over marketing metrics
Ahrefs is the only SaaS company I can think of that charges for their trial. And while they only ask for 7 dollars for a 7-day trial, it’s still pretty unconventional in the SaaS sphere, where other marketers are doing everything in their power to remove friction from their trial signups.
And even though charging for the trial is definitely unconvention, the real kicker is this: Ahrefs is also the only SaaS company I can think of that encourages people to not start a trial until they understand how the product can help their business.
This screenshot is taken from their website home page.
Even though telling people to wait until they start a trial may seem royally confusing if not blatantly counterintuitive, there’s actually a solid business logic behind it.
“My theory is that people don’t sign up for your tool and then learn how to use it. My theory is that people first learn how to use your tools, and they sign up because they know how to use your tool,” Tim has said in an interview.
After all, as a marketer in a self-serve SaaS company like Ahrefs, optimizing for the highest possible number of trials shouldn’t be your main goal.
Or as Tim said on Ahrefs’ SaaS Marketing Vlog, “Trial sign ups? That number doesn’t mean much unless they become our paying customers.”
Indeed, you should be optimizing for revenue, aka paying customers. And to borrow from Tim, “the best way to do that is to educate your prospective customers before they try your software”.
The goal of maximizing revenue and customer lifetime value is also interesting from a content marketing perspective.
Because as you can probably imagine, the kind of product-related articles and videos I listed above aren’t only an acquisition play. They also serve existing Ahrefs customers who are trying to make the most of their Ahrefs license.
By producing helpful content that educates both non-customers and customers about all things SEO, the Ahrefs marketing team has managed to create a content marketing engine that optimizes for the quality of trial users and new customers, while also improving customer retention.
TL;DR: The goal of marketing at Ahrefs isn’t to win any new trials or customers. According to Tim, the goal is to “educate the market on what the tool can do for them, and then leave the decision to try it up to them. The last thing we want to do is to lure people in with cryptic promises, only to leave them on their own once they’re inside.”
Lesson #6: Choose quality over quantity and hard work over magic tricks
Considering that Ahrefs has been in business since 2010 and knowing that they’ve put a lot of their eggs into the SEO and content basket, you would think that their blog would be flooded with thousands of blog posts by now.
Instead, though, they’ve built a content engine that relies on only ~250 high-quality, long-form blog posts in their English blog — and direct translations of them in other languages.
Rather than focusing on producing new content on top of the old stuff, they’re constantly updating their older pieces with new information and fresh perspectives.
For example, this post on selling SEO services was originally published on May 14, 2015 and last updated in August 2019.
They’ve realized that since Google is their main source of blog traffic, they’ll have to spend almost as much time on optimizing old posts than creating new ones.
Tim says, “Once we notice that a post is losing traffic, it’s a sign that we need to refresh it. Or even if the post is doing super well, but we feel it has some outdated info, we go and fix it. There’s no fixed amount of posts that we want to update per month.”
Staying on top of your entire blog and updating your old posts may not be sexy and it may not be exciting (unless you’re me, in which case making old content better is very exciting), but it sure does pay off.
The end result of doing all that hard work is an evergreen library of high-quality content that the readers can trust — regardless of whether a post was originally published in 2015 or 2020.
TL;DR: If you have a search-driven content strategy, you need to make sure that all the stuff people can find through Google is up to date. Otherwise you’re risking your reputation.
Lesson #7: Don’t be afraid to stand for something
As a product-led company, you would think that all Ahrefs ever talked about was their product. Well, you’d be wrong.
And as you’ve probably noticed, I’m a huge fan of pretty much _everything_ Ahrefs does. But my favorite thing about them is that they’re not afraid to stand for things that they believe in.
Even if those things are risky or controversial.
For example, the Ahrefs marketing team is so committed to doing what’s right for their audience that they’ve willingly abandoned a ton of SaaS marketing “best practices”, including:
- A/B testing
- Google Ads
- Website pop-up forms
- Lead forms
- Churn follow-up cadences
Tim explains, “A lot of these activities, i.e. popups, retargeting, discounts, and promotions, were banned by our CEO & Founder Dmitry, because he didn’t like them.”
Tim also says that his team gets a lot of mixed feedback about these decisions. Interestingly, one of the most controversial decisions they’ve made concerns split testing.
“A lot of people ridicule us for not doing A/B tests. So we could just keep that a secret and pretend we’re like everyone else. But because we know that our business is doing very well without A/B testing or retargeting, we’re not afraid to openly talk about it — even though we get some haters this way,” Tim continues.
Ultimately, the Ahrefs team’s willingness to openly share all their unconventional opinions comes down to trying to help other people in the industry. Tim says, “It’s easy to be intimidated by all these experts that pile dozens of ‘must-have’ marketing tactics on your shoulders.”
But if being open and transparent about how the Ahrefs team does things will help someone avoid the trap of following these universal best-practices, Tim and the team are more than happy to share.
TL;DR: Don’t be afraid to talk about how you do things — even if the things you do are unconventional. Take a stance, stick with it, talk about it, and if people willingly start writing about your philosophy and beliefs (like I am now)… Well, I believe that’s called brand marketing and/or good publicity.
You could, of course, wake up tomorrow and decide that you want to model the Ahrefs marketing strategy, tactics, and team down to the T.
But after getting all the way to the end of this post, you know as well as I do that that’s probably the least Ahrefs-y thing you could possibly do.
So while I’m saying that the seven things I’ve detailed above have been incredible growth drivers for Ahrefs, I’m also saying that they might not work as well for your company.
But before you ask: “What was the point of this post if you don’t want me to copy Ahrefs?” I want you to apply some lateral thinking.
More specifically, I want you to think about:
- What your non-negotiable values are and what you believe in as a company.
- What the top 2-3 marketing growth levers are for your business.
- If there’s any way for your business to benefit from a product-led and search-driven content strategy.
And when you’re done with that little exercise, let me know what you thought of this post on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Psst! We’ve just launched an Ahrefs connector that allows you to move your backlink and cross-link data to your reporting or analytics platform of choice (whether that’s Google Sheets, Google Data Studio, or Excel).
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