Inside Awesome Motive’s self-perpetuating marketing machine
Awesome Motive have built a marketing machine powering millions of dollars in revenue. In WordPress we broadly understand this as stemming from CEO Syed Balkhi being extremely good at marketing, and then deploying this to devastating effect across a suite of products.
The Awesome Motive (AM) suite of products is best understood as a decentralised network: each product is standalone, on a standalone website, and branded separately. These have either been started from scratch or acquired over the last decade.
The most prominent examples include WP Forms and OptinMonster, alongside newer acquisitions and investments such as Smash Balloon, All in One SEO, and – most recently – Sandhills Developments’ Easy Digital Downloads, AffiliateWP, and WP Simple Pay.
AM today is a network of ~15 WordPress products. The growth in the quantity of products in the network has been significant, tripling in the last couple of years. I’d assume Syed has plenty more plans to expand.
The network has expanded so rapidly because it delivers network effects. The sum is more valuable – and powerful – than the constituent parts.
You can plug any WordPress product into AM’s network and it immediately becomes more valuable. Adding an extra product also makes the entire network stronger and more powerful. This is hugely effective and, I think, has been only partially understood.
This is what makes the acquisition of Sandhills Developments’ products so interesting: at a stroke, AM have increased the value of EDD, AffiliateWP, etc, whilst also strengthening their whole network.
How does this all work? It seems AM have a marketing “playbook” that’s applied across all acquisitions and products. These all operate independently. This post is an exploration of what’s in the playbook. I have not verified any of this and have no privileged information; this is all based on public data and is in good faith. Researching this was fascinating. Let’s dig in.
A potent mix of SEO Content, freemium, and email
We see three primary marketing channels for AM products:
- SEO Content
- Email marketing
These three drive the vast majority of results across the vast majority of products. We also see some other marketing activities: affiliates, PPC, and paid search/social, but these seem to make up a small portion of the marketing mix.
I find splitting marketing activities into channels an extremely useful heuristic. For each channel that works, you want to get maximum value out of it before moving to the next channel. That’s exactly what’s happening here: three primary channels, delivering millions of dollars of sales each year.
Nearly 2 million visitors from search a month
SEO Content is at the core of AM’s marketing strategy. It all started with WP Beginner, and the blog remains central. People understand WP Beginner as an SEO Content powerhouse, and that’s true. What’s missing, though, is that it’s not just WP Beginner. Every AM site is an SEO Content powerhouse.
Over the last couple of years, AM has systematically turned every site they own into a source of a huge amount of SEO traffic. They have around 1.75 million visitors per month across the 15 sites we looked at. WP Beginner makes up two thirds of this traffic, as you’d expect:
The sheer scale of traffic on WP Beginner (over 1 million visitors per month) makes the other numbers look small, but don’t underestimate them: there’s 600k visitors per month to those “small” sites. It wouldn’t surprise me if that traffic drove multiple millions of dollars in revenue each month.
I want to be clear on the traffic to those “smaller” sites: they are bigger than most other WordPress product businesses. Here are the top three compared to a couple of other WordPress businesses for context:
Where the network gets its power is AM sites can cross-promote all other AM products with SEO Content. It was weeks after the acquisition of SearchWP that we saw posts like this pop up across the AM network:
This is the SEO Content play: content promoting every AM product, across every AM site. This means it’s not just SeedProd promoting SearchWP; it’s all 15+ other AM sites promoting SearchWP. We’ve understood previously that AM is powered by WP Beginner, but that’s not the case any more: every single AM product is part of its content marketing machine. This lets AM own multiple positions within the top 10 for each of its target revenue keywords.
We looked at what we thought are the main target keywords for each AM product, coming up with a list of 70 keywords. All 70 of these are in the top 10 on Google. If you’re any other WordPress product business, this is as good as you can do – you only have 1 site. Having 1 site in the top 10 is generally considered a good result for SEO purposes.
AM, though, can do better: for 89% of these keywords, they have at least 2 results in the top 10. That continues, all the way to 11% of results having six or more AM results in the top 10:
Roughly a third of all results in the top 10 for AM’s revenue keywords are from AM sites. The power of this is absolutely huge.
If you search for an important search term for AM: “wordpress contact form plugin” (2k searches/month), you’ll find 10 results. Half of these are from AM properties:
- WP Beginner (rank 1)
- SeedProd (rank 4)
- WP Mail SMTP (rank 5)
- WP Forms (rank 7)
- MonsterInsights (rank 10)
As an average WordPress user searching for that term, you’d have no idea that WP Forms and Formidable Forms are number 1 and 2 on all of these lists because these seemingly independent sites are all part of the same company. You could, of course, easily find this out, but does that actually happen?
This is where we see the network effects: every company AM adds to its portfolio is both an opportunity to grow that company and grow every other company in their network. There is a point at which this becomes an unstoppable combination, and the addition of the Sandhills products may well be a sliding doors moment.
People are asking if consolidation is bad for the WordPress economy. I generally don’t think so: the barriers to entry in WordPress remain low enough that a new product can disrupt a category within a year. That’s going to keep competition healthy. But – if AM have entire search terms completely sewn up, those barriers to entry become harder to climb.
You can see how adding EDD and AffiliateWP in particular is a perfect fit. Both sites are relatively underutilised for SEO traffic (22k visitors per month) but have great domain authority (82 and 76 respectively). These are ripe for SEO Content work, and ripe for being plugged into the AM marketing machine. It’s a matter of weeks before that happens.
The content itself is solid, well-done SEO Content and the product of 10+ years of focus on this. It looks like a team of ~30+ are producing the content across all the sites, and using modern AI-powered SEO tools like Clearscope to do this.
Interestingly, whilst Clearscope is giving AM’s content excellent scores, our Ellipsis FALCON AI that we use for our SEO Content clients identifies about 25% extra topics to cover in the content. FALCON AI also sees scope to increase content performance by tweaking some of the titles and meta descriptions.
This is – depending who you are – the exciting or scary part of this: only about a quarter of the potential here is fully realised. This chart shows how many results each AM site has for the 50 AM revenue keywords we looked at:
As you’d expect, WP Beginner makes the biggest contribution. It’s probably unreasonable to think every AM site can make a similar contribution, but the MonsterInsights/WP Forms performance is a good benchmark. There is still a lot of potential for AM to unlock cross-selling across its network.
SEO Content is the marketing channel with the biggest potential for this kind of cross-selling. This is already extremely powerful, locking up entire search terms with AM results (an interesting side-effect of this is this makes AM a huge affiliate player, as “best” posts need to include competitors). This is the primary way we’re seeing AM as a network, delivering network effects. The wild thing here is that this is only just getting started. The window for anyone else catching up is either closed or closing rapidly.
Free plugin installs and upgrades at scale
A significant source of sales for AM products is freemium. Plugins like WP Forms, MonsterInsights, and SeedProd have millions of installs between them. It’s interesting freemium is only used on some products, typically those aimed at beginners with mass appeal.
The free plugins can get installs in a number of ways:
- WordPress.org search
- SEO Content
The big AM plugins do extremely well in WordPress.org’s search, primarily from their large number of active installs. That gives them more users, further locking up the top rankings.
Installs can also come from SEO Content, with free plugins promoted as much as, or alongside, the paid plugins.
The partners are a product of the influence of AM’s SEO Content: SiteGround and other hosts pre-install AM free plugins on all of their new installs of WordPress. These are installs with low-relevance, as the user hasn’t chosen to install the plugin, but given these are mass-appeal plugins that may not matter. It also gets the active install count up.
I do want to dispel one myth before continuing. AM plugins tend to get a higher review rate than an average plugin. I’m here to disappoint the conspiracy theorists: we track the metadata of popular plugins for our internal tools, and we just see a well-done process to get 5* reviews from users in action here:
Once those free users are installed, they’ll get help to ensure they get value out of the free plugin – and then an upsell for the paid version. That upsell will include a huge discount on the first year, typically accompanied by a countdown timer. This creates urgency that is extremely effective at generating conversions; the psychological response is akin to panicking users into buying:
These discounts expire after the first year, massively driving up the average order value compared to competitors. Assuming the customer is getting value out of the product, though, that’s no problem. This leads to our next channel neatly.
Email for renewals, upsells, and cross-sells
Email is an excellent marketing channel for engaging existing customers. I don’t have much visibility into AM’s email play, but what I’ve seen looks like well-done email campaigns. A couple of insights I found:
- Email for onboarding seems to be important, with onboarding sequences used to reduce churn
- Emails throughout the year will educate customers to ensure they get value from their product(s), and thus renew
- Cart abandonment emails are important! I’d guess they’re recovering a quarter to a third of abandoned carts
I haven’t seen cross-sell emails for other AM products, but these must exist: if you buy WP Forms, surely it makes sense to get a pitch for OptinMonster too? I am fascinated as to how important these are, though. I’d imagine for other network-based businesses the cross-sell is important, and email would be the way to do it. I wouldn’t be surprised if at AM, cross-sell emails are either limited or missing.
This, to me, shows the value of the network: you don’t need to pitch your WP Forms customers on OptinMonster if, when they search for a wordpress popup plugin, they are guaranteed to find it anyway. This is an area with more potential to unlock; email as a marketing channel you wholly control is extremely compelling and valuable.
Paid ads are a new channel, and seem to be working
You’d expect a company with a suite of products to be exploring different marketing channels. It seems search ads are a relatively new acquisition method for AM, with these really ramping up in the last couple of months.
Some products, like WP Forms and OptinMonster have had some ads for a while with these being ramped up from July:
Whereas others such as MonsterInsights have gone from having no ads, to a fairly intense experiment, to a modest spend:
This is your classic mix of brand-match, competitor, and feature-match keywords. Here we see an OptinMonster ad running against “popup maker”, a competing product:
These ads are well executed, with the clicks going through to a string of presumably well-optimised landing pages:
We see something similar for WP Forms:
Those pages are, of course, made with SeedProd, another Awesome Motive property. The ad experiment is presumably successful, as they’re hiring for a role to oversee PPC campaigns, build A/B tests, and build new landing pages.
We also saw earlier in the year that WordPress business owners were finding “Generating a good ROI on PPC ads is tough.” That may be changing: AM’s experiment seems to have started in July/August, and so far it looks like they’ve been successful in adding paid search ads into their marketing mix.
Facebook ads seem to be a newer experiment: the only ad WP Forms is running, for example, was created earlier this month. It’s what you’d expect, though; discount-driven ads with a bunch of variations:
We saw that bids for WordPress search terms are up significantly in the last year. I doubt AM’s spend will have showed up in our data, as we were looking at the entire WordPress instury, but AM getting in on a new marketing channel is going to increase competition and could contribute to bids going higher:
Assuming these are working, I’d expect to see more of these. For competitors, this should be the frightening thing: AM’s marketing machine is currently powered by a couple of marketing channels, and they’re not even close to maximising everything they could do.
Awesome Motive’s marketing machine has further to grow
It’s extremely important the WordPress industry understands what’s going on within the industry. Awesome Motive’s acquisition of Sandhills’ products is an extremely important moment in WordPress.
AM as a network is vital for understanding their growth and strategy. The network makes the individual products worth more than the sum of their parts. This is what is going to led AM accelerate its growth: as each product within the network becomes more successful, the entire network strengths. The addition of EDD and AffiliateWP in particular immediately strengths the network significantly.
I don’t think we’re at the point where competition is futile, and I don’t think we’re close to it either. I do think that specific competition in specific marketing channels is going to be much harder, when you’re up against an AM product. The window for competing may not be open forever, though. The best time to plant a tree was ten years ago; the second best time is today.
Building a network of products and a self-perpetuating marketing machine is a serious feat that Syed and his team deserve a lot of credit for. I have no doubt that the first ten years of this were just a trial run, though, and there’s a lot more to come. The WordPress industry needs to understand this and compete.
Good article. TY.
The cross marketing power of AM is massive at this point. It’s somewhat akin to what Freemius has been doing for a long time as well. The marketing value of these networks is impressive, but it’s _just_ marketing value. It sadly hasn’t created better user experiences.
Awesome Motive’s model is 99% marketing. There are some very good plugins in their stable, but they don’t work together or really compliment each other. I’ve seen very little if anything done to them them post acquisition to provide value added integrations or really improve the core functionality either.
A great example of the opposite of this model is PublishPress. PP has has really focused on acquiring specific functionalities they could integrate together into a holistic suite of functionality for publishers.