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Spending $800K on Marketing Ideas: Lessons Learned


We spent over $800,000 on marketing campaigns with zero tracking and zero expectations for ROI. Was it a waste of money? Let’s find out.

Idea 1: Google ads campaign

Starting with this Google ads campaign, we spent around $16,100 to try and earn backlinks. Because backlinks help a page rank higher in organic search, we wanted to test if you could earn these backlinks simply by paying your way to the top of the search results with ads. To test this, we bid on keywords relevant to our content and nonindexed these articles, so the only way to find them would be through our ad. We let the ads run and monitored backlinks to these pages using Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

And in total, we got 101 backlinks from unique websites, which totalled a cost average of $159.31 per referring domain. Not bad. But only 36 of these backlinks were good, bringing our cost average for the decent referring domain to $446.94. Not great. This is the short version of the story. We have a video showing how we ran this campaign and got links for as low as $49.17 per referring domain.

Now let’s rewind to 2020. This was our homepage. It’s about as standard as you can get, and not much has changed on this page for nearly 5 years. It was time to redo it. There wasn’t anything wrong with the page, but we wanted to add some personality and rethink our messaging. So we hired not one, not two, but three different copywriting agencies. Each agency went through a few weeks of market research, dozens of customer interviews and several Skype calls.

And after they’d done their copywriting magic, they sent us mockups of what they thought would portray Ahrefs in the best way possible. And in total, we spent around $33,000 on their services. An interesting thing that happened is that all three home pages were drastically different. As such, we didn’t choose a single agency’s work as the so-called “winner” because they all made great points. So our team kind of “Frankenstein” our current homepage together, which we were and are still pretty happy with.

Idea 2

If you think 33K for a homepage is a lot, wait until you hear about our $52,000 podcast experiment. Now, $52,000 on podcast ads might not sound like a big bet, but in 2018, podcast advertising wasn’t exactly popular – at least in our niche. Plus, there wasn’t much information around it, so we were going in blind. Here’s how our journey began: we started by sponsoring five podcasts, which cost $14,200. From these ads, we got a total of just 339 page views and 11 trial signups. That’s the equivalent of $41.89 per click or $1,290.91 per lead. [You can’t be serious!]

We then discovered how foolish it was to expect a substantial ROI from cold ads to a complex product like Ahrefs with a 30-second pre-roll ad in a 30-minute podcast. The results were so bad that we almost pulled the plug on the campaign. But Tim, CMO at Ahrefs, discovered that people frequently told him at conferences and meet-ups that they heard about Ahrefs. You guessed it, on a podcast. Then, we realized that podcast ads were more of a tool for gaining exposure and brand awareness than lead generation. So we spent another $37,775 on round two of our podcast ads. And in total, we sponsored six more podcasts. And we didn’t even bother tracking clicks or signups because what’s another 40 grand?

Ideas 3

Now, podcast ads are just one way that we’ve sponsored creators. In December 2021, we moved our Google and Facebook ads budget of around $200,000 to support and sponsor creators in our space. Before I tell you the details about our ad spend, some context is due. We’ve all gotten used to a model where search engines and other ad platforms earn more revenue from content than the creators themselves, which is arguably unfair. And if you know anything about Ahrefs, then you know that we’ve created our search engine, yep.com, from the ground up so that we can give 90% of ad revenue to content creators.

So reallocating our ads budget to sponsor creators made a ton of sense. So what does 200k buy you? We sponsored 72 videos, 108 podcast episodes, 138 newsletter issues, 11 standalone projects and events, 9 sponsored blog posts, and 7 social media campaigns. Now, something that I thought was super cool about this project is that for 11 of these creators, Ahrefs was their very first sponsor.

Again, we didn’t try and measure ROI or clicks for these campaigns, so I can’t share that information with you. But to give you an idea of the amount of work involved in running these, I can tell you that our partnership manager, Igor, sent around 2,000 emails and had around 20 hours of Zoom calls to make this all happen. And he’s continued this effort throughout 2022, where we spent an additional $400,000 on creator sponsorships.

In addition to individual creator sponsorships, we also spent around $100,000 in conference sponsorships in 2022. And this only accounts for the actual sponsorship fees to organizers. So no airline tickets, hotels, or swag were accounted for in this number. So based on these marketing activities alone, we spent roughly $838,875, which excludes salaries and other expenses.

The takeaways

Now, old Sam would look at these campaigns, roll his eyes a few times and ask. Where’s the ROI? But now Sam, who’s now worked at Ahrefs for over five years, has three takeaways.

  • #1. When possible, make your marketing campaigns multi-purpose. So as a company that sells software to marketers, pretty much all of our marketing experiments and campaigns can be turned into case studies. This type of content is harder to replicate, and our customers love hearing about them.

Let’s take our podcast ads to experiment; for example: If we expected to get at least $52,000 back from our 52K ad spend on podcasts, it would have been a great failure. But we wrote a case study on this project which got hundreds of backlinks. Influential people shared it in our industry. And it also led to Rebekah getting some of her airtime on industry podcasts. Plus, you just heard about the experiment if you didn’t already know! This kind of secondary brand exposure makes many marketing ideas worth trying because we still get content if the results are sub-optimal. PS. We’re hiring.

  • Takeaway #2 is to accept that ROI is not always trackable. Take our conference sponsorships, for example.

Let’s say we created a special landing page and used campaign parameters to track the so-called ‘effectiveness’ of our presence at a conference. If someone signs up from that special link, can we say they signed up because we sponsored the conference? Maybe they had a conversation with another attendee who had been a lifelong customer. What if three months passed, and then they signed up through that link? Do we know of any other interactions with our blog posts, videos, social content or organic mentions from others in the industry? What about our backlinks experiment?

What is the ROI of a backlink?

The bottom line is that attribution is a nightmare. And if we’re counting touchpoints, we’re, at best, guesstimating the value of an activity. I love data as much as any other marketer, but making assumptions based on bad data will likely lead to bad decisions. So I guess lesson 2b is that common sense can sometimes be the better bet. The next lesson I learned is to spend on things you believe in. As cheesy as this may sound, spending on things you believe in, just as we had done for creator sponsorships and events, gives more meaning to a campaign.

It almost feels weird to call it a “campaign” because things like ROI are no longer the focus. The marketing dollars that went into these campaigns pale compared to what we put into our product-led content marketing efforts, which we’ve pursued heavily for over 5 years.

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