Competitive ads can be an incredibly smart play for SaaS companies. Since they attract competitors’ prospects at key points in the buyer’s journey, these ads are ideal for lead generation and customer acquisition.
But this advertising tactic isn’t always a failsafe solution for leads and signups. From keyword optimization to audience targeting to landing pages, every element has to align for the campaign to succeed.
So how can you create a winning ad strategy? In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about competitive ads for SaaS—including expert tips and examples to guide your campaigns.
Why do competitive ads work so well for SaaS?
Competitive ads are hardly unique to SaaS. In fact, many of the best-known examples come from consumer electronics and consumer packaged goods (CPG). So why do they work for tech—especially B2B SaaS?
Independent buyer research
The typical SaaS buying journey lasts for several months, particularly for deals above $10,000 or $20,000. In fact, the average SaaS sales cycle takes 84 days. Only deals under $5,000 tend to be significantly shorter.
However, buyers navigate a significant portion of this process independently. The average buyer handles over 60% of the buying process before reaching out to a vendor, according to Gartner.
For many SaaS buyers, Google searches are integral parts of the research process. That means search ads targeting competitor keywords can be effective for attracting high-intent buyers as they actively research.
In many categories, SaaS buyers have an overwhelming number of options to consider. Products with the most brand recognition often become default choices for buyers—but they aren’t always the best fit.
Competitive ads give SaaS companies a chance to get their products in front of the competition’s prospects. If they can differentiate the product and position it in a way that resonates, they may be able to capture a bigger market share.
For example, the ad above appeared at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) for “semrush vs.” The SpyFu ad calls out the competition’s data limitations and high prices, positioning itself as a better and more affordable alternative.
Content marketing alignment
Competitive advertising campaigns don’t have to exist independently from other efforts. They can align with your content marketing program, enabling your team to get more value from both channels.
Growth marketing consultant Nick Lafferty explains, “I ran competitive ad campaigns in Google as Loom’s former head of growth marketing. I like this strategy because it has both an SEO and a paid media play.”
“The content you write can rank well in search and you can use the same pages in Google ads,” Nick continues. “We were prioritizing low-hanging fruit opportunities at Loom and I identified competitor keywords like ‘Loom alternatives,’ ‘Loom vs Vidyard,’ etc as obvious keywords for us to target because the purchase intent is so high.”
“I run these ads so often in my freelance work that I’ve turned the process into a competitive playbook that anyone can use to easily test out this strategy. It’s a no-brainer for anyone looking to capture demand for their competitor’s products and is most useful in crowded industries with lots of competition.”
For example, the ad above appeared in a YouTube search for Sprout Social alternatives. The ad leads directly to a blog post comparing Agorapulse to Sprout Social. As result, the post can rank organically and serve as a Google ads landing page.
Where should SaaS companies run competitor ads?
Paid search is one of the most common placements for competitive ads, but it isn’t your only option. While paid social requires a completely different setup, LinkedIn and Meta can also support this ad strategy. Here are some examples of competitive ads on each major network.
Google search ads are ideal for targeting competitor keywords and positioning the product as a top alternative. For example, the WINN ad below highlighting the platform as a top alternative to Gong.
Search ads also work well when they call out specific points of differentiation. For example, the Pipedrive ad below positions the platform as a better alternative to HubSpot with fewer feature limitations and a lower cost.
LinkedIn doesn’t support keyword targeting, but it’s still a good choice for running competitive ads for B2B SaaS. Why? “LinkedIn has the best B2B targeting on the planet by far,” explains Paul Fairbrother, a Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn advertising specialist.
For example, the Zoho ad below highlights the rising costs of Salesforce. The carousel ad positions Zoho as a more reasonably priced yet equally capable solution.
Facebook and Instagram may not have the B2B tech audience that LinkedIn does, but Meta can work well for comparative ads—especially if they have strong visuals. Below, ActiveCampaign positions itself as an email marketing platform to which Mailchimp users can graduate.
Another ad from the same Instagram campaign places ActiveCampaign and Mailchimp side by side. The ad compares costs and features to position ActiveCampaign as the more affordable solution.
How to build better competitive ads: 7 expert tips
Competitor campaigns need specific messaging, audience targeting, keyword optimization, and landing pages. Use these expert tips to avoid common mistakes and get better results from your ads.
1. Optimize keyword targeting for search ads
For search ads, getting keyword targeting right is arguably the most important element. As Nick Lafferty explains, “There are two buckets of keywords to bid on:
- X Alternatives (e.g. Loom Alternatives)
- X vs Y (e.g. Loom vs Vidyard).”
But think twice about using broad match for competitor keywords or bidding just for brand names. Keep in mind that many branded searches are navigational in nature.
In other words, when users type a competitor’s name into the search bar, they’re often looking for the company’s homepage, not researching alternatives. For example, the ad below appeared at the top of a navigational search for “ToastTab.”
If you find that your search ads are getting a lot of impressions but not many clicks and even fewer conversions, revisiting your keyword targeting is a good place to start. Focusing on “vs” and “alternatives” keywords may improve results.
2. Consider manual bidding for competitive ads
Smart bidding has become the default option for most advertising networks. While it may be faster to set up competitive campaigns with automated bidding, you’ll end up having less control—which can cost you.
“I prefer not to use Google’s bidding algorithms like target CPA or target ROAS and instead use the old school manual CPC style of bidding,” Nick explains. “I’ve found that the bidding algorithms don’t show your ads as frequently for these keywords and I’d rather manually set my CPC high to ensure I’m always in the auction.”
To use manual bidding in Google ads, start by adding a maximum CPC to your ad group. Then set individual CPC bids for each keyword and adjust them as the campaign gathers data.
3. Take caution when mentioning brand names
Using keywords like “[competitor] alternative” in search ad copy can be an effective way to stand out in search while maintaining a high quality score. While you can target branded keywords, using brand names in ad copy isn’t always feasible.
If the brand name isn’t trademarked and if you aren’t using it in a deceptive way, it may be possible to include it in your search ad copy. For example, the Scribe ad below mentions competitor Loom directly.
However, it’s less risky to avoid using brand names whenever possible. For example, the Loomly ad below shortens competitor Sprout Social to “Sprout,” using a reference buyers are likely to get.
In some cases, you can avoid mentioning the competitor altogether. For example, the Duda ad below encourages users to “Move to Duda, Build More Sites” without ever mentioning competitor Wix.
4. Adjust for low quality scores
No matter how creative your search ads may sound, they can end up with low quality scores if the copy doesn’t include users’ search terms. If using competitors’ brand names isn’t possible for legal reasons, you may run into quality score issues.
As Nick explains, “the higher your quality score, the lower your average CPC. There’s no way around this, but even with a low quality score you can still get good traffic that converts.”
How? Setting bids manually can give you more control over whether your ads appear. Linking out to landing pages that fit users’ search intent can also improve quality scores.
5. Convey the value proposition concisely
Since search ads offer such limited character counts, the value proposition has to be clear and concise. To capture attention right away, place the main value prop in the ad’s headline. Then highlight other differentiators in the descriptions or assets.
Above, the Connecteam ad copy highlights the platform’s low pricing compared to the competition. The ad’s description explains how easy the platform is to use, and the sitelinks provide social proof.
Above, the Freshworks ad concisely calls out the clunkiness of other CRMs before highlighting the platform’s affordable starting price.
6. Create high-intent audience segments for social ads
Unlike Google ads, LinkedIn and Meta ads don’t support keyword targeting. Although it can be trickier to get competitive ads in front of the right users on these social media networks, you still have targeting options.
Competitor community groups
If your competitor is large enough to have a LinkedIn or Facebook group, community-based targeting can be a good place to start. For example, you might target users who have joined a HubSpot group.
“It’s very powerful, although the big limitation is finding large enough user groups for a product. If it’s a large software product you might find some, but not for more niche platforms,” Paul Fairbrother cautions.
One option is using ABM tactics. To make this approach work, you first need to know which companies are using your competitor’s product or service. Then you can build a custom audience in LinkedIn Campaign Manager.
Fabian Maume, growth hacking consultant at Tetriz, breaks down his workflow:
“Step 1: Purchase BuiltWith database of competitor’s users.
Step 2: Filter the database for big users. BuiltWith database includes estimates of web traffic, which is convenient for filtering big players.
Step 3: Create a custom audience on LinkedIn for those users.
Step 4: Run the campaign for 3 weeks, with 3 steps of one week each:
- Display campaign leading to comparison pages
- Display campaign leading to G2 comparison pages (if the company has a better score than the competitor)
- Inmail campaign offering a demo call
LinkedIn InMail cannot be run in the EU, but it’s still a good workflow for the U.S. and Canada.”
For paid social, a single touchpoint is rarely enough to generate leads or drive conversions. That’s why remarketing is so important for LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.
“LinkedIn Ads is mostly about very precise B2B targeting,” Paul explains. “LinkedIn recommends minimum budgets of $5,000 per month, as CPMs and CPCs are very high. Under $5,000, you can have success but focus mainly on remarketing.”
“When remarketing, you can use your website visitors, any email list or company list uploads, and anyone who views your video ads or engages with your image ads. So for example you could put a video ad out there and remarket 25% video views,” Paul suggests.
7. Align the landing page with the ad and the intent
No matter which advertising platform you use, it’s critical to align the landing page with the ad copy and the buyer’s intent. In most cases, that means optimizing the page for lead generation, trials, or demos.
“For alternatives pages, I prefer using blog posts because the user is looking for multiple options and I find the blog format most conducive to that,” Nick shares. Below, the DevRev search ad leads directly to a blog post covering Intercom alternatives. For X vs Y pages, Nick recommends using traditional comparison pages. He explains, “These will convert better and allow the buyer to still make an informed decision when evaluating both tools.”
For example, the EmailOctopus ad above leads to a comparison page that compares the email marketing platform to Mailchimp. Both the ad and the landing page focus on cost, aligning the messaging around a key concern of the target audience.
The landing page also has an interactive calculator that allows users to see exactly how much they could save with EmailOctopus, based on their unique email marketing needs.
While comparison and alternatives pages often work well for search ads, they aren’t always the best fit for paid social. “Comparison pages as landing pages are okay for very bottom of funnel. But to be clear, LinkedIn isn’t like Google ads,” Paul explains.
“On Google search, people are looking for a product so you want to get your competing product to be visible and then demonstrate why it’s better with a comparison page. But on LinkedIn, people aren’t searching for your competitor. So you need to tell them about your product first, before telling people why your solution is better than rival ones.”
For example, the Zoho ad above links to an enterprise product page that features a downloadable report.
Final thoughts on competitive advertising
With the right keyword optimization, audience targeting, and landing pages, competitive ads can deliver leads and conversions. For tech companies in a crowded category, they can be a valuable part of a bottom-of-funnel SaaS advertising strategy.