Advertising for Developers with Carbon Ads: Our Detailed Experience

We all need to hustle our way to success. However awesome a startup’s product or service may be, it won’t be worth a penny if the right people don’t know about it. If there is no significant growth in the user base over a significant period of time, the company will inevitably end up, like too many others, in the ever growing startup cemetery.

There are hundreds of ways for startups to make some noise in order to cut through the chatter and reach their target users. Some will incorporate virality into their products, looking for different ways to hack their growth. Some will build meaningful online communities, take part in key events, spend SEO dollars, and much more.

Recently, we tried something else. We stumbled upon Carbon Ads, a premium ad network that rapidly caught our eye.

Why we chose to try Carbon Ads

At first, the team was divided over whether we should spend a chunk of marketing money on Carbon or not. After talking it through during a Kinect game of golf, the majority agreed to take this leap of advertising faith.

We had already tried some of the popular advertising options out there. As far as Facebook ads and promoted posts go, we sometimes found it hard to target the right audience. Our advertising with the Blue Giant didn’t generate interesting amounts of qualified traffic. AdRoll, on the other hand, can be a great tool, boosting your % of returning visitors, but sometimes, the re-targeting pops up in front of the user on sites completely out of context with our product.

We didn’t necessarily want to follow the classic online advertising road, so when we found out about Carbon Ads, we were excited to try something fresh. To be honest, their tagline worked like a charm on us: Connecting highly qualified audiences with highly relevant services, products and brands. With its audience-specific circles of publishers and users, Carbon seemed like a decent way to connect with the people that matter to us: the web developers and designers, those tech-savvy professionals Snipcart was built for in the first place. Of course, the idea of showing a single, clean ad unit to engaged audiences on relevant publishers’ sites was appealing to us. So we chose to advertise our product inside the Dev/Code Circle, eager to see if this premium, more focused way of reaching out to our audience would pay off.

Carbon defines its Dev/Code Circle as a “mixture of how-tos, best practices, and information sharing.” A long list of interesting publishers is part of the circle, including the likes of Bootstrap, Coding Horror and JSHint.

We’re 100% positive every developer who’s also a Lakers fan clicked on this one.

Extending our reach a bit

At the same time we ran the Carbon campaign, we were running an AdRoll campaign. This means every developer who’s clicked on our ads and been on our site has strong chances to come across Snipcart again in his future navigation (if he’s not using AdBlock, that is).

Let’s talk numbers

A full month of advertising (June) on Carbon cost us 1575 $. Our ads were seen 464 464 times.

While our CTR mostly stayed higher than 1% during the first weeks, it ended up dropping to 0.39% at the end of the campaign. That’s 18 114 clicks for the month; with an average CPC of 0.08$. Carbon was one of our top referrers for those 30 days, accounting for about 20% of our overall traffic.

Among the clicks we obtained, our conversion rate was about 1.25%, which means 19 confirmed signups for our product. And since we’re talking numbers, here’s how much we paid for each of these qualified developers’ signup: 83$.

Our conversion rate once the user has signed up is around 25%. This means one quarter of the user who sign-up manage to go through all the account configuration steps, enter their credit card info and end up making one real transaction. Five new active users ended up actually using Snipcart thanks to our efforts on Carbon. We paid 315$ for each of these new customers.

So, do we think it was a good investment?

Well, yes and no.

First, an active Snipcart user can, in the long run, be worth way more than 315$.

Second, an important part of this campaign’s ROI will be hard if not impossible to calculate due to our adoption cycle often being long-term. A developer encountering an e-commerce solution like ours, however awesome it may be, won’t necessarily need it immediately. He might bookmark our site, share it with a community or on social media, suggest it to colleagues, but unless our solution answers to one of his urgent needs, this potential customer’s value simply can’t be evaluated on a short-term basis. However, it doesn’t mean this developer we reached has no value for us, quite the contrary. We believe that out of the thousands of developers that have clicked our ads, a lot of them will give some serious thought about using Snipcart next time they take on an e-commerce project (hence the ongoing AdRoll campaign).

I love the @snipcart product but doubt I'll make another #ecommerce site anytime soon.

— Niels Oeltjen (@NielsOeltjen) June 30, 2014

Of course, conversions were not the only goal we had with this campaign. Brand exposure and awareness was also part of the plan, and with regards to this goal, we believe the marketing effort was worth it. We’re still a young startup (1 year old soon!), and we need to get out there and be seen as much as we can.

Missing: landing pages

Since we were spending some precious dollars on that advertising campaign, we should’ve taken the time to create specific landing pages for the users clicking our ads. We’re pretty sure our immediate conversion rate would’ve went up a bit if we did. Our homepage isn’t really conversion-optimized right about now. So, yeah, we’re definitely planning on designing and A/B testing some of them in our future marketing efforts.

What we liked

Carbon can sure send qualified users to your site, if that’s what you need. In our case, we realized our traffic was already well qualified; the conversion rate of our organic and paid traffic turned out to be very similar. Also, our CTR ended up being higher than what the Carbon managers told us in the first place.

What we didn’t like

  • Sluggish support: responses were almost always delayed, and sometimes there just weren’t any.

  • Lousy admin panel: we tried numerous times to produce detailed reports, and they never showed up. (EDIT: Just before hitting publish on this post, we received an e-mail from Carbon exlpaining us what went wrong.)

Would we do it again? No, we wouldn’t. Carbon Ads was our first big marketing push, and although it brought us signups, we believe we could’ve gotten them from producing our own relevant content. We had also looked carefully at Syndicate’s native advertising network, and we’re considering giving it a try in the upcoming months. If we were to spend another 1500 dollars on online advertising, we’d try something in the vein of Syndicate: associating valuable content with our brand and product. We’ll keep you posted on our next experiment!

Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences with any kind of online advertising in the comments!

About the author

François Lanthier Nadeau
CEO, Snipcart

Francois has worked in SaaS & digital marketing for over 7 years. He’s been published on Indie Hackers, The Startup, freeCodeCamp, Baremetrics, Wishpond, and—among others. He’s spoken at 13+ startup and web development conferences in Canada, U.S.A., and Europe. He's been a vocal bootstrapping and Jamstack proponent for years.

Follow him on Twitter.

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