The ads WordPress businesses are running have been in the news recently: Bluehost was using the WordPress trademark in its ads, and Elementor was called out for running ads against “full site editing”, the phrase used to describe Gutenberg’s functionality. 1 1. WP Tavern has reporting on both of these: the Bluehost story and the Elementor story. ×

This put a spotlight on ads, and prompted me to take a deeper dive into this. What ads are WordPress businesses running, anyway?

Ads are one of the most obvious digital marketing channels for WordPress businesses to try, and nearly everyone who contacts us has tried them at some point. Often, the story is that they can’t get them to work profitably, however.

We tend to recommend ads for small-to-medium sized WordPress product businesses in fairly limited cases. For most WordPress businesses in that category, SEO Content is a better fit. There are increasingly businesses, however, that can get ads to run profitably. Once you get to medium-to-enterprise sized, too, ads become a more obvious fit.

This post looks at the different ads WordPress businesses are running, and why. You’ll read:

  • The difficulty most businesses run into
  • The one type of ad that works for everyone
  • When you should consider running “brand-match” ads
  • How WordPress hosts are all running the same ads – apart from Bluehost

The trouble most WordPress businesses have with ads

Most WordPress businesses try to run ads, and it’s extremely common for them to spend a reasonable amount of time and money before deciding they can’t get them to run profitably. This tends to lead to frustration and often leads to people coming to us to solve their marketing problems. Ads not working in general is also why we don’t offer this as a service.

One of the themes of this post is going to be that ads can work when you’re past $10k+/month, but below that they’re hard. There are, however, some issues everyone has.

Your first problem with ads is that you either need to know specifically how much you can spend to acquire each customer, or you need to spend so little on the customer acquisition that the number doesn’t matter. Financial analytics for WordPress businesses, in general, are extremely poor, so for many this is a roadblock that means you can never be confident you’re spending the right amount to acquire the customer.

The second problem is that ads require a lot of optimisation. Ad optimisation is a highly commodified space – which is one of the reasons we don’t do it – but it can be extremely difficult to know whether the reason your ads don’t work is that your freelancer or agency is bad, or the ads just don’t work.

You also have lots of different types of ads:

  1. Search-based ads such as Google or YouTube ads
  2. Audience-based ads on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, with variations including general audience targeting, hashtags and custom “lookalike” targeting based on customer lists you provide
  3. Re-targeting ads based on a tracking pixel on your site
  4. Other paid-for content such as sponsored guest posts

You thus also need to know if the problem is the type of ad you’re running in addition to the above. We’re just focused on the top three for this post. 1) and 2) are the ones that can work, and 3) is the type I’ll argue later everyone should consider.

Search-based ads are the most common type I hear businesses trying, and they’re one of the least effective. SEO Content is a much better fit in general. Once you’re at $10k+/month, there are generally very few keywords with high purchase intent that it’s worth bidding on, even if you’re also doing SEO Content as well.

I spoke to a couple of WordPress business owners. Here’s Zack Katz from GravityView on his journey getting ads to work:

I’m working with an agency to manage my PPC campaigns on Google and Facebook. When we started working together, my campaigns were not as focused as they could be. They recommended reducing where we show ads to only a few top-converting locations (found using Google Analytics) and expanding from there. We started by showing ads to only the top three converting states in the United States (our top-converting country). Now that we’ve dialled in the ads for those states, we’re expanding to most of the country except for four low-converting states. We’re slowly expanding back to global ads while maintaining focus on return on investment.

My biggest PPC tip is to make sure you have mobile ads essentially turned off! In AdWords, I turn the mobile ad cost-per-click bidding down as much as possible (-90%). Mobile ads—both phone and tablet—have always performed terribly for us: our conversion rate from mobile ads is 1/10 of our desktop conversion rate. Make sure to disable any advertising on mobile apps (Android, iPhone). These are rampant with fraud, which cost us thousands of dollars.

Zack Katz, GravityView

Even if you can get your ads to work, the kicker then tends to be fraudulent clicks and getting accurate conversion tracking. Click fraud is a multi-billion dollar problem. You pay Google for every click on your ad, so it’s obvious to see where fraud comes from: a nefarious competitor just needs to click on your ads and you have to pay for it. That’s before you get into allegations of more sophisticated schemes.

You then also need to be able to track your sales coming from the ads. Google Analytics, Facebook’s Pixel, and similar make conversion tracking relatively straightforward, but it’s common to see slight discrepancies between different sources. Katie Keith, co-founder at Barn2, shares her experience:

We promote our plugins on both Facebook and Google and currently spend roughly $5,000 per month. I have found that targeted ads are much more profitable than more general ads aimed at a wider audience. We monitor our ads each month and edit or pause any that don’t appear to be profitable, which improves the return on investment over time.

However, I do worry that we’re paying for clicks from customers who would have bought from us anyway. It’s impossible to know how often this happens so we continue running the ads, but I wish there was a way to know whether they are genuinely increasing our revenue more than the amount we spend on them!

Katie Keith, Barn2 Plugins

Chris Hadley from HeroThemes describes another experience with Google search ads:

Generating a good ROI on PPC ads is tough. At HeroThemes we promote our products via PPC ads on narrow high intent keywords. These ads are the most expensive we run but do generate a positive ROI. We’ve found conversion rates plummet when we target anything broader.

Chris Hadley, HeroThemes

Getting visitors with purchase-intent back to the site is usually worth it

Re-targeting ads are the one type of ads I can recommend to everyone. Re-targeting ads give you the opportunity (once you’ve collected the appropriate consent) to show display ads on Google or Facebook, or through a third-party ad network, reminding the visitor about your product and giving them the chance to come back.

You can run re-targeting ads on all your traffic, or just visitors who show a specific search intent. This is the one type of ad I normally recommend running when doing our Marketing Audit and Strategy work, and this is the primary thing that works across the board for WordPress product businesses.

Re-targeting ads require less optimisation than other types of ads, although you do still need to keep an eye on them. Here’s Steve from Gravity Flow on the re-targeting ads he’s been running for years:

We’ve run ads for Gravity Flow for the last couple of years, and the only thing that has consistently worked is retargeting ads. We ran search ads for a long time, but these weren’t profitable. We run the retargeting ads through AdRoll and get a strong return on ad spend with fairly limited optimisation, although there’s accurately attributing to the ads has been a challenge.

Steve Henty, Gravity Flow

Steve’s ads focus on the product’s main value proposition, and are aiming to get people back to the site. Below is an example of a display ad Gravity Flow are currently using:

An example ad Steve uses

Zack from GravityView has an extremely similar experience and recommendation for re-targeting ads, although he runs them through Facebook rather than a network like AdRoll:

For our remarketing campaign, we set our bid strategy on Facebook to be “Lowest cost” and show ads that provide social proof using testimonials, address fear by reminding potential customers about our 30-day refund period, and reinforce that they’re making a good choice by showing an ad that highlights the average number of improvements GravityView receives per week.

Zack Katz, GravityView

Katie has a similar experience here, and also shares the average cost per conversion. This goes up to nearly 50% of the average order value on the customer’s first year, which I suspect is higher than many would be comfortable with. If you know your customer’s lifetime value and the marginal cost of each additional sale you make, though, then you can make decisions like this whilst maintaining a desired level of profitability:

Our Facebook retargeting ads (which we show to people who recently visited a plugin sales page but didn’t make a purchase) cost between $16 and $48 per conversion on an average order value of roughly $100 – whereas when we ran Facebook ads to people working in a specific industry who might be interested in our plugins had no purchases at all.

Katie Keith, Barn2 Plugins

It’s worth noting that we do these for Ellipsis too. Take your own advice!

Brand-match ads

“Brand-match” ads refers to ads targeted at a brand keyword. They’re slightly controversial: Google is monetising searches specifically for you, letting your competitors “steal” your customers. Basecamp CEO Jason Fried has complained about these in the past, and Basecamp felt they were forced to run ads when 4 competitors ran ads against searches for “Basecamp”:

They’re here to stay, though. They’re something to consider if:

  1. You have a significant volume of brand-match searches
  2. Competitors are running ads on your brand-match searches
  3. Other results are showing up first for your brand (ie WordPress.org outranks your dedicated site)

GiveWP are an example of a medium-sized product business that is running ads. Drew Griswold gave me the details, and also noted that this type of ads makes up 5-10% of their search budget:

Our paid advertising strategy at GiveWP is focused first and foremost on making sure that we are informing potential customers about the benefits that our platform has to offer. We’ve really focused on diversifying our traffic from paid ads over the last year to go beyond search and into video, display, and social ads as well.

We do run brand match ads for a number of reasons. Primarily to really own our brand space, and make sure that we control the first thing that people see when they are asking about us. It’s also really qualified traffic that we can direct to the most relevant parts of our website. Finally, it allows us to prevent competitors from getting placements over us on our own name.

Drew Griswold, GiveWP

Using Ahref’s lookup tool, we can see this keyword has around 1,000 searches/month, so the volume is covered. It doesn’t look like competitors are currently bidding on this keyword, so the cost per click should be low:

This gives Give double placement when you search “givewp”: their ad, and then they rank as the first organic search result. If you meet the conditions for running ads like this (which is probably a very small proportion of readers!) this is something to consider. Otherwise, you can probably get away without them.

Managed hosts are all running the same Facebook ads (with an important exception)

Managed WordPress hosts are all running the same Facebook ads, with one exception – Bluehost.

WordPress hosts are in a completely separate category for ads. Hosts (especially managed WordPress hosts) have significantly higher average order and lifetime values than other WordPress product businesses, so they can afford to spend dramatically more on their ads.

The biggest five managed WordPress hosts – Kinsta, WP Engine, Flywheel, SiteGround, and Pressable – are all running very similar ads. They’re a mix of lead generation whitepaper/resource ads, and offers based around making WordPress faster.

117 variations of these ads are currently running from WP Engine, promising a faster WordPress speed when you switch to them.

It’s intriguing that they all have these same ads. These must be the only types of Facebook ads that work, as Facebook makes it so easy to test different variations of images and copy (note how WP Engine are running 60 variations of a single ad, for example).

Kinsta outdoes WP Engine’s claims, promising “up to 200%” speed improvement when you switch to their hosting.

Obviously not every managed WordPress host can be the fastest managed WordPress host, but I’ll leave the hosts to settle that claim themselves. This shows you how difficult it is for hosts to differentiate themselves, and how much small things matter – a small edge on speed, or customer experience and customer support is worth a lot.

SiteGround doesn’t make a specific speed claim, but does promise to make your sites “faster”.

The mix of ads are getting people into a sales funnel where they can be “nurtured” and sold to, and selling directly to people who have expressed some sort of interest. Tom Zsomborgi from Kinsta explains the strategy:

We promote our content to a wide, cold audience and retarget our web visitors with lead magnet ads.

We go for the hard sell with a narrow retargeting audience that has shown higher intent of purchasing.

Selling a WordPress product and a t-shirt through direct Facebook ads are different worlds. For your WordPress product, you better promote your educational content (blog post, ebook, free version of the plugin/theme) and through this create brand awareness and build trust.

Let’s say selling hosting plans from a FB ad to a first-time visitor is close to impossible and you are just burning your ad budget. Use retargeting and drive clicks to pages that provide value to the visitor.

Tom Zsomborgi, Kinsta

This strategy relies on having a high customer lifetime value, something which rules it out for most WordPress plugin businesses, but if you can understand what numbers would work for you, then this is an interesting and currently under-utilised area for WordPress plugin businesses to explore.

There’s one major host which doesn’t use these types of ad, though, and that makes this all the more interesting. Bluehost’s Facebook ads are based around the controversial “recommended by WordPress” text:

Three ads Bluehost started running on 1st March, featuring “recommended by WordPress for a reason”.

This text must be working, as they launched new ads with this text as recently as 1st March, and they’ve been using a variation of this copy as far back as May 2018:

Facebook’s ad history tool shows an ad with the text “WordPress officially recommends Bluehost” from 2018.

Thus, it’s noteworthy that all hosts except Bluehost are running ads based on speed, but Bluehost has been running the “recommended by WordPress” ad for nearly three years. I’m sure other hosts would love to run those ads, and if there isn’t clarity on the trademark I’m sure they will.

WordPress hosts more or less live in a separate world with their ads, and these insights won’t be especially useful if you don’t work at a hosting company. WordPress agencies may be the most similar businesses to hosts for ads, and if you can define and reach your target audience this type of lead generation is an interesting option for agencies.

Elementor is spending its VC money on ads

Finally, I want to look at the ads the likes of Elementor are running. This is effectively a separate category of WordPress business: WordPress product businesses with significant venture capital (VC) funding. Elementor is one of the first in this category, so they’re extremely interesting as a case study.

On this blog, in our Press Marketing newsletter, and in MasterWP, I’ve talked a lot over the last 12 months about the implications of increased funding in the WordPress space. We’re seeing more WordPress businesses take VC money, and with a possible Automattic or WP Engine IPO on the horizon, this trend is likely to accelerate.

Elementor is a good example of this: they raised $15m last year from Lightspeed Venture Partners, a top-tier VC firm. They’ve got to work on spending that money quickly, hiring plenty of roles, launching Elementor Cloud, and increasing their marketing spend. When you want rapid growth, spending money on Google Ads is an obvious option: you can pay to get results quickly.Around 12.5% of their traffic comes from paid search, according to SimilarWeb, and we can see from Ahrefs’ tiny graphic that ad spend has ramped up significantly since October last year:

Ahrefs’ ad lookup tool shows Elementor is running ads against ~2,500 keywords related to WordPress. That’s a lot of keywords, and suggests to me they’re running ads against everything they can find. That’s common practice if you’re trying to maximise your ad spend. It is very interesting to me that Elementor are positioning themselves as separate to WordPress with some of their ad copy:

Some of the ads Elementor are running on Google are a little more antagonistic than many in the WordPress community would be comfortable with. I used Ahrefs’ ad export tool to see the copy used against individual keywords. Most of it is “Elementor.com – Create a Stunning New Website” or similar, but some focused on removing WordPress “frustrations” or appropriated Full Site Editing (or did both on the same ad!). We see something very similar with Elementor’s Facebook ads:

Three recent Facebook ads from Elementor, including the text “WordPress, Frustrationless”. These are good ads!

This is a glimpse at the future: someone was hired to write these ads, and in insolation they’re good ads! They don’t, however, adhere to the unwritten norms and expectations of the community. We can’t expect everyone coming into the WordPress economy to immerse themselves in the history of the project, and more funding is going to bring more people into the WordPress economy. I’d personally pull those ads, but I can understand why you’d make them.

I did reach out to the Elementor team, and they declined to comment.

Ads are worth considering for WordPress businesses doing $10k+/month, but they’re not a primary channel

The conclusion, then, is that ads are reasonable marketing channel to consider if you’re doing $10k+/month, or if you have a big pile of other people’s money to spend. Re-targeting ads are the possible exception.

Ads look like a better channel than in the past, and the increasing ability to get ads to work likely reflects the technology getting better and the increased sophistication of WordPress product businesses.

What is clear, though, is that ads are not a primary marketing channel. The $10k/month threshold is there as it necessitates you having at least one other marketing channel working. Long-term, I’m still much more bullish on SEO Content than I am ads.

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About Alex Denning

Hey, I'm Alex! I'm the Founder of Ellipsis, and I co-curate the really good weekly newsletter MasterWP. I'm @AlexDenning 👏