SaaS venture-backed companies can use some of the tactics Shopify used to grow their revenue by nearly 100 percent. Shopify is one of the most popular and fastest growing eCommerce platforms for startups and small business.
It now hosts over 377,000 active online shops. With its new focus on social commerce as well as mobile shopping, the platform is continuing to evolve to meet the growing demand and requirements of new online stores and e-commerce companies. Over the past year they grew their revenue from $205.2M to $389.3M which is a 90 percent increase. They also nearly doubled the number of products being sold through their platform from $7.7 billion to $15.4 billion.
Do you wonder how you can achieve the same results?
You may be wondering how they achieved this growth? Stephen M Baldwin of Fortune mag calls Shopify the “invisible selling machine” also we are to list back the curtain. Here is a detailed history of how they grew from a snowboard shop to a $10B commerce ecosystem.
Let’s walk through eight conversion and ranking strategies they used that you should borrow and implement to scale your own SaaS profits and market share.
1. Build free tools that solve your customer issues and search optimize them.
Shopify’s development team built tools to help e-commerce business owners, and it turned out to be a creative way for them to dramatically increase your organic traffic. They saved the brand awareness for top of the funnel keyword search phrases.
They researched many of the questions that would relate to someone starting or setting up an e-commerce store and provided content and tools to answer those questions. They targeted relatively high volume keyword search terms and created entire subdomains that would end up dominating on the first page of Google.
The first subdomain they used was Burst Shopify — a website dedicated to helping e-commerce startups find free stock photos for their new shop. The keyword phrase “free stock photos” is a pretty competitive search term in Google, which gets almost 40,500 average monthly searches.
They a created a subdomain and optimized it to come up and rank on the first page of Google for this keyword phrase, which exposes a whole new set of people to their brand.
Along with the Burst subdomain, Shopify also a made a marketplace platform subdomain for entrepreneurs to buy and sell ecommerce website businesses called Exchange. This subdomain ranks first on the first page of Google for the keyword “websites for sale” which gets around 4,400 average monthly searches.
The search volume for “websites for sale” is a tenth of the search volume for “free stock photos.”
Now don’t think that just because the volume is less, that this was a wasted effort for Shopify. Most companies neglect to go after the long-tail low competition keywords that are easier to rank for or to optimize landing pages that answer potential customer business queries.
You can use a similar approach and dominate search results just like Shopify. In fact, Matthew Barby, Hubspot’s head of SEO recommends acquiring websites as one of his 19 actionable SEO tactics for increasing organic traffic.
The best one they created, in my opinion, is a tool called Shopify’s business name generator. Now this one is not a separate subdomain but is a free tool being offered by Shopify, that is being used a lot. The keyword phrase “business name generator” is searched over 33,000 times every month. Shopify’s business name generator tool is ranking in the first position because they used a featured snippet.
Shopify’s business name generator has done so well that it’s their fifth most popular organic and paid keyword (and it’s one of the few non-branded keywords that made it onto their top keywords list):
Clearly, this page has been important for Shopify in terms of both organic as well as paid traffic but it also has strategic business growth value for them also. If a person searches for “free stock photos” or even websites for sale, they may not be ready to start signing up for Shopify’s platform and services yet.
On the other hand, if someone is looking for a way find a name for a new business, take a guess what the next logical step might be? And Shopify makes the next step very clear directly below on the name generator page:
In fact, Shopify has made 21 other “tools” just like this, so they have clearly doubled down on something that is both useful to users and themselves for increasing traffic.
Here’s a quick look at how much global monthly search volume Shopify’s top tools help to generate their ranking on Google:
If you are a funded startup with an application or product development team, build a tool that has strategic value for your business and directly helps your customers solve an annoying problem.
2. Set up PPC funnels that match where your customer is on the buying journey.
So Shopify has the challenge of appealing to a diverse range of audience members. And one way they make this possible is by developing very specific PPC landing pages that vary based on the prospect’s keywords and specificity of their search intent.
Here are a few examples of Shopify’s paid search funnels that show you exactly how they are accomplishing this.
Paid Search Funnel #1: Top of the Funnel Search Intent.
So Shopify sets up their PPC ad copy to match your search intent. Each ad listed in the above image highlights one of their 3 selling propositions: their free trial, low-cost plans or ease of use (using words like “simple”) as an extra reason for someone to click on it.
If someone clicks on it, then they are sent to a landing page that is short, sweet, yet still offers up features that would appeal to anyone who plugged in those search terms.
Paid Search Funnel #2: Mid Funnel Search Intent.
So if a person searches for a long tail phrase such as “design and sell your own t-shirts” they clearly are looking for a very specific result. So they would not be looking for a page that says anything different.
What is more useful is a landing page that is catered towards selling t-shirts. So, Shopify makes sure to create ad copy that leads with “Sell T-Shirts Online.” They match it with a landing page about selling t-shirts online that reflects exactly what the searcher wants to see.
And as an added bonus? Google AdWords rewards landing pages that are highly relevant to their PPC ads with a better quality score and lower click costs.
3. Develop a partner program that actually makes you and your partner’s profits.
Shopify is pretty well known for having one of the most generous affiliates and partner programs. And here a few ways that people can become a partner:
If you take a look at the image above, Shopify is giving pretty generous incentive:
20 percent monthly commissions for referrals.
70 percent commission for eCommerce themes.
80 percent commission on marketplace apps.
The average revenue ranges from $2,000 to $11,000 per month per partner.
One drawback is that Shopify’s partner program is limited to these two criteria:
Must have design and development skills.
Work in e-commerce already so you have clients you can refer.
But there is a silver lining, they also have something called Shopify affiliate program.
How it works is similar to a lot of affiliate programs, you signup and then offer special promotions to your followers with an affiliate link. If someone signs up using your link, you get paid, and the payout is pretty respectable as well.
The value and purpose of the affiliate program, to broaden the reach outside of Shopify’s typical audience that is currently being reached. This is pretty broad, almost anyone can become a part of it. It is quite popular with:
Work from home mom websites.
Here is an example of one, this is a typical affiliate promotion, of which I noticed at the end of a drop shipping guide on a blogger’s site.
So Shopify has opened up this program allowing a wide range of industries that helping to promote their products and platform. You may be wondering what is Shopify’s benefit for giving out such high commissions to their partners and affiliates?
There are two benefits:
Benefit one) They are tapping into the online influencer craze and turning them into an extension of Shopify’s marketing team.
This is what happens with all affiliate programs. By incentivizing some decent rewards for each signup or sale that an affiliate makes, affiliates will then have more reasons to keep promoting Shopify wherever they can.
Benefit two) They are spurring innovation by encouraging people monetarily to create new things that will ultimately make the Shopify platform more robust for members.
They are accomplishing this by guaranteeing app developers and new theme designers a portion of their sales, which can incentivize them to keep creating products for Shopify instead of other e-commerce platforms. This also gives Shopify a pick of the litter on all the best ideas, apps, and themes.
And the team behind the affiliate and partner programs are there to help everyone be as successful as possible. This can include marketing material (ad banners and templates) and a monthly affiliate newsletter.
This ensures that more people will be interested in joining up as well as making the people involved in it money.
Build a partner program designed to make both you and your partners a lot of money. Build incentives by paying high commissions that motivate your partners to want to promote you (Shopify does this by paying partners anywhere from 20% to 80% commissions).
4. Use ad copy and landing pages that target your competitor’s customer pain points.
It’s not new or uncommon to see companies bidding and running PPC ads on their competitor’s name.
Shopify takes a slightly different strategy of trying to convert and steal it’s competitors traffic and users. Instead of trying to persuade and lure in potential new prospects, they try to get people that are already paying customers on a different mobile commerce platform to make the switch.
A lot of people will conduct a search on Google for a brand’s name to log in instead of having the site bookmarked. If you can do research into why any of your customers have made a switch from your competitor to you, you can then use that as persuasive ammunition in your ad copy and landing page to point out why you are better to win their click and get them to convert and switch to you.
Shopify does this by highlighting they are more affordable and less of a headache.
If I click the Shopify ad, here’s the first thing I see:
Right away, I can see that the goal of this landing page is not just to explain to me why Shopify is better, but make sure I know it’ll be easy to migrate to (which is one of ecommerce site owners biggest concerns if they have to switch platforms). They also a show bit of social proof of well-known brands to boost trust.
It then goes on to do this with a breakdown of Shopify’s benefits:
Match the offer in your ad and on your landing page to solve the biggest pain or frustrations that people have with your competitors (Shopify does this by addressing people’s concern of migration and offering them a dedicated launch manager to make switching from competitors hassle-free).
5. Build your content strategy around answering the common questions using a variety of formats (ebooks, video, podcasts, articles).
Shopify has huge amount of useful content on their website that does not require an email opti-in download to access it. If you take at look at this screenshot, that shows some their stats; they have low bounce rates, long average visit duration and high page per visit.
They have a curated blog that gets contributions from its members and their marketing team of which they publish high-quality stuff on it once per day (it got 27,000,000 pageviews last year):
They have in-depth ebook guides that give their customers insights and position them as an ecommerce publishing authority (they were downloaded 70,000 times last year):
They have a Shopify Masters podcast which gives listeners actionable insights into starting up a store through interviews with successful store owners (it had 1,542,000 listens last year and it allows Shopify show off impressive case studies of customers):
They have five step-by-step video courses recorded by ecommerce entrepreneurs for prospects of all experience levels (from beginner to expert level):
Then even created a business encyclopedia kind of like how the website Investopedia does it!
This encyclopedia gives Shopify a bonus search engine optimization boost. It puts them on the first page to answer to all those “what is [business word]” search queries.
If I search “what is retail” on Google, the “retail” page in Shopify’s business encyclopedia is the #1 organic search result:
For this one keyword, Shopify gets 2,900 monthly search volume (plus potential traffic for related keywords like “what does retail mean” and “what are retail stores”):
Shopify has optimized their encyclopedia pages so well that it currently ranks #3 on Google for the short tail keyword “retail” that has 40,500 monthly searches.
Is any of this easy to do at this level no? As you could imagine, this is clearly a huge amount of time and resource commitment for Shopify to write, develop and manage all of this content. You may be wondering, why would a company even bother with this in the first place? Well, like our team here at Vab Media Digital Marketing, Shopify trusts in the power of content marketing.
And yes, seeing the return on investment from your content marketing efforts can take a long time (6 to 12 months or more), which is why many companies sometimes choose to invest in something like paid search or influencer marketing to get that instant gratification instead.
The bottomline is that there is no way that Shopify, Gary Vee, Hubspot, Google or First Round Capital would bother to put together so much content and resources if they did not know that the effort was going to pack back handsomely over the long run.
But don’t just take my word it, Shopify is not shy about bragging about their own stats — and you shouldn’t be either.
They have put together one of the most comprehensive content marketing strategies that I have seen.
Their content strategy also revolves around taking their audience’s most commonly searched keywords or most commonly asked questions and building content around that to further help people along in their buyer journey.
When putting together your content strategy, build content around answers to your customer’s most common questions. Provide the best answer (Shopify does this with articles, guides, video series, podcasts and a business encyclopedia so their audience can access the type of content they want in the format they like to consume it)
6. Forget niche targeting — Shopify splits it’s home page to go after different audiences.
As marketers, we often hear that you should focus on a specific niche and direct your marketing messages to appeal to a small targeted audience of potential customers that are most likely to buy.
Well, Shopify is doing the opposite of that. They work with several different types of business owners, who may have varying levels of awareness, backgrounds and ecommerce experience so that niche marketing technique does not work for their business platform.
This means that Shopify needs to find a new way to reach different kinds people, from someone dreaming of their first ecommerce website to those who are already well-established businesses. Take a look at the homepage to see how they tackle this.
The purpose of them keeping the headline above-the-fold is that Shopify is something that can work for all types of ecommerce businesses.
Like most SaaS startups that have a free trial option, Shopify also makes the free trial their first CTA. Free trial CTAs are enticing and low-commitment buttons that don’t need to do a lot of convincing to get clicked on. This makes it the perfect warm-up CTA that’ll appeal to any audience member.
Next up is a rotating slider with 3 images of successful Shopify shop owners:
The next section further conveys the message of Shopify being the “go to” ecommerce store option, no matter who you are. All three women business owners in the images run very different types of stores but have still have found success with the platform.
This helps less aware prospects imagine the possibilities while also convincing more aware buyers of Shopify’s usefulness.
The following section attempts to overcome and answer a potential by hesitation: that setting up an online shop will be complicated. Instead, this is the message Shopify wants to put out: you can open up a successful ecommerce store even if you don’t have all the technical developer coding skills.
This is a clever message to offer potential customers who are early in the sales funnel and still trying to gauge how difficult it actually is to set up an online store.
This little reminder also makes sure these early potential leads don’t just throw up their hands in the air and give up because they feel overwhelmed so soon.
Next section comes a breakdown of Shopify’s valuable in scannable bullet point form:
This is where, Shopify, continues to convey the message: of relax this will be an easy process and we are here to assist you as well. But let’s talk one thing they are doing, they are choosing to use text links instead of a call to action button. Why?
Clearly, Shopify has done some customer experience journey mapping and persona profiling, to figure out that customers coming to their website will have a bunch of different questions. So they let the user direct themselves to the most appropriate next-step for them.
Shopify has empathized how a typical audience member will feel when landing on their website. They are probably either:
New to the drop shipping process and are overwhelmed and intimidated or
Already using a different ecommerce platform and frustrated that they have to make a big switch.
So, if someone who’s feeling either overwhelmed, intimidated or frustrated and landed on Shopify’s homepage to a barrage of glowing CTA buttons, how do you think that would make them feel?
Most likely it wouldn’t make them feel any better.
So instead, by them choosing to make these text links, Shopify is able to give prospects clear access to a lot of extra info without overloading them….especially if they are a newbie.
By doing it this way, it allows Shopify to direct more experienced ecommerce members to the info they are ready for without getting too in the face for everyone else.
In the following section, Shopify drills home the idea of their platform working for any seller with these real-life examples that you can click through:
The next section Shopify chooses to three social proof testimonials that can solidify that Shopify is a useful and trusted ecommerce platform.
After that is a visual summary of Shopify’s features and a “find products CTA:
The features section appeals to buyers with more awareness that are already savvy about their eCommerce product.
But in case a less experienced user is reading this, they rope them in with a follow-up question “Need products to Start?”
If you’re someone who’s just starting in the digital commerce world or have only ever thought about it, this is Shopify acknowledging that they’re still useful to you.
They say this pretty openly with the phrase “We’re here to help you at every stage of your journey” just below the question.
Finally, the homepage finishes with a final in the CTA in the footer for Shopify’s free trial.
7. Run a business contest that entices signups with chance of winning big.
So the background of the story, is the best selling author and technology investor Tim Ferriss met Shopify’s founder Tobias Lütke back in 2010, they were thinking of something to collaborate on, and “Tim said, ‘Yeah. We should do a contest. How about we give away $100,000?’
At first, that seemed like a lot of money, so Shopify needed to figure how many signups would be needed for this to be a success. The number they came up with was 600 new accounts. And from there, the now famous Shopify’s Build a Bigger Business competition came to life.
This became more successful than they had first expected, by the end of the contest Shopify had signed up more than 1,200 new businesses. Here is a more detailed look at the results:
As you can see, this had some pretty awesome outcomes:
Added monthly revenue of $400,000 for Shopify at the contest’s peak.
1,378 new store signups.
$3,543,191 total revenue made by store owners.
But here’s the real power of the contest, in Shopify’s founders’ words:
“These people have built life-changing businesses using Shopify and wouldn’t have done so without the extra motivation from the contest.”
Today, this idea has grown into a monster competition that gets them thousands of new customers every year, proving that a contest like this is just the push many aspiring entrepreneurs need to get started.
Set up a contest and don’t be afraid to make it big. It could just be the push you need to get hundreds of new sign-ups and encourage some entrepreneurial spirit.
8. If you have app partners and integrations, optimize each landing page to rank for that name.
As we mentioned earlier in section five, Shopify gets 27 million blog page views and has a strong SEO strategy, which is contributed to all the content marketing they do, here is another added strategy they use to generate even more traffic.
Shopify has a huge variety of apps, plugins and integrations (1,400+ in total) that customers can tie in with Shopify’s platform.
Many of these are well-known, very successful companies that people regularly search for on their own.
So, how does Shopify leverage this?
By creating individual, keyword-filled landing pages for every single app they partner with. Many of these landing pages then show up in one of the first few pages of Google search results.
For example, if I type in “Zendesk” which is customer services sales software into Google, I find this organic listing on the first page:
By clicking the result I am sent to this landing page in the Shopify app store:
Shopify uses integration partners like Zendesk to increase their traffic and have you download the app. But they also use the landing page to get you to grab your Shopify free trial (the green button in the upper right).
To optimize for on-page SEO, many of the pages follow this five-step sequence:
1) Headline at the top with the name of the integration.
2) A 3 bullet point summary of the integration.
3) A brief description of the integration.
4) A bullet point list of major features once you have the integration.
5) Customer reviews.
Not all of the pages have the full 5 steps in the sequence (Steps two to four are written by the integration partner). Yet, these pages are still ranking in Google (as you can see in the table below). So, they’ve clearly found the sweet spot for which of the 5 steps are the most essential for SEO (steps: one, two, and five).
This table breaks down some of Shopify’s most highly trafficked branded app-based organic keywords, their monthly search volume, the landing page they bring you to, and their first page Google ranking.
Shopify is using this integration SEO technique for it’s own platform to build brand awareness by optimizing app pages for these well known branded high volume keywords.
If you have a SaaS software business try building SEO-rich app integration pages to get your own app featured on the first page of your integration partners branded keywords (Shopify does this with six specific on-page SEO optimization tactics).
Shopify has set up a SaaS business that sustains on subscription fees and growth with transactional volume. But they’ve also been successful because of their ability to anticipate what the market will want and respond quickly with helpful products.
When it comes to pushing innovations, marketing, cultivating a community and skyrocketing growth, Shopify is clearly kicking ass.
And now that I’ve dug a little deeper into some of their strategies and shown you how to do the same, it’s time for you to try of few of these tactics and test it out on your own startup.