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Brands To Watch
April 24, 2023
min read
Shoshana Eilon

Canva's playbook for organic coverage

I love Canva. I love how I don’t need to have a graphic design background, or a particularly artistic sensibility, and their site still allows me to put together visual files that look pretty damn good. I’ll take any opportunity to whip up a quick graphic or put together a new slide deck using their templates. I even designed my wedding invitations using Canva! And now that the company has released new video editing tools, there’s a whole new area of the site for me to play with. 

When I’m not using Canva, I’m spending most of my time evangelizing about the site to other people. When a tool is this effective and easy to use, it’s natural to want to spread the word. And it looks like I’m not alone in my fandom: there are thousands of creators out there who want to spread the word about Canva even though (like me) the company isn’t paying them a penny for this publicity. 

Although the brand runs an affiliate partner program (with a selective application process), they have stayed away from sponsored content. We can filter out the affiliate mentions from the overall coverage and see that Canva received 9,079 organic mentions from 1,788 thought leaders over the last year, without spending money on content sponsorships. This content amounts to 27M impressions for the brand, pretty much for free - not too shabby. We’re going to look at how this brand achieved this impressive coverage through organic mentions alone. 

A killer product that attracts the right people

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Canva provides tools that people want to talk about. The company offers a freemium model, to allow everyone to use their software without paying: this mass accessibility allows the product to speak to everyone, not only the people who can afford it or who use it for professional purposes.  

Alongside the free access, the company is very clever about providing tools that are explicitly aimed at creators, i.e. exactly the kinds of people with a platform to promote their brand. Amongst the hundreds of different templates that they offer, they have numerous options that are directly relevant to video creators: 

Canva templates for video creators

Canva templates for Twitch creators

Because Canva provides tools to creators, they are targeting their brand at the kinds of people who have an audience with whom they can share their appreciation of the design software. Of course, not everyone who uses Canva is a content creator, but it makes sense that they receive more organic traction than a tech company that offers software to accountants, for example. (We’re not knocking accountants, just pointing out that generally speaking they don’t attract as large an audience as YouTubers.) 

Tutorials and How to videos

Canva prides itself on the ease of use of it’s drag-and-drop design software, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been able to take advantage of an active content niche on YouTube: the design tutorial. 

Leaving aside Canva’s own YouTube channel which offers all kinds of tips and tricks, there are 97 YouTube videos released in the past 12 months with the words “Canva” and “tutorial” or “how to” in the title.

One example is this video How to Remove Picture Background in Canva by Max Dalton:

This video has received over 17k views so far, and while Max focuses on a feature that is only available on Canva’s Pro plan, he doesn't promote any kind of affiliate link, showing that he isn't being paid for this brand promotion. 

Challenging the old guard

The emergence of these Canva design tutorials indicates that the brand is gradually encroaching on the space dominated by the granddaddy of design software: Adobe. Here is a trend report showing the gradual decline videos with the words “Adobe design tutorial” in the title:

Decline in videos relating to Adobe design tutorial

Over the same time period we see an emergence of videos with the words “Canva tutorial” in the title: 

Increase in videos relating to Canva tutorial

The Hustle recently described Canva as “Adobe’s $40B problem” and these opposing trends speak to the threat this new design solution poses to the industry stalwart. 

Of course, Adobe has many other services and products beyond the realm of design. Therefore if we limit our search to mentions of “Adobe InDesign” or “Adobe design”, the following trend emerges: 

(Yes, I made this graphic using Canva)

A fairytale to believe in

The challenge that Canva poses to Adobe is part of the company’s narrative: the founders aimed to create a design software that was far more accessible and affordable than the previous options on the market. A lot of the coverage surrounding the company focuses on it’s CEO and founder Melanie Perkins (there have been 56 mentions of Melanie Perkins in content in the past year). In her interview on the podcast How I Built This with Guy Raz, she is described as “tak[ing] on software industry titans like Adobe and Microsoft.” 

The story of how Melanie Perkins started the company featured on CNBC’s Make It: 

Perkins and her almost unique status as a highly successful startup adds an interesting twist to the company’s brand image. Term Sheet described Canva as “the world’s most valuable female-founded and female-led startup.” It goes on to examine the unconventional relationship that Perkins has with her wealth: 

Perkins has also been quoted as saying “If the whole thing was about building wealth, that would be the most uninspiring thing I could possibly imagine.” The novel combination of a CEO who is a) a woman and b) someone vocally far more excited about the project they are building than just getting rich helps to award Canva with a lot of the right kind of attention. 

Other kinds of advertising

The fact that Canva doesn’t need to invest in content sponsorships doesn’t mean that the company abstains from advertising altogether. We’ve already mentioned their robust affiliate program, which helps to turn respected creators like Jessica Kobeissi and Ready2Adult PH into committed ambassadors of the brand. 

Canva also makes their presence felt on YouTube with programmatic ads, that have prompted annoyed outbursts from some Redditers: 

Comments about Canva's programmatic ads on YouTube

Of course, contextual targeting would help Canva to make sure that these YouTube ads are showing up only on relevant videos, so that they catch potential customers at the right time, and prevent this messaging from coming across as irrelevant and annoying. (Canva marketing team - feel free to drop us a line and we’ll happily show you how it works!) 

The playbook summary

The fact that Canva hasn’t needed to heavily invest in sponsorships is a testament to the strength of the product they offer. Here are some of the ingredients that make that possible for Canva, all of which are achievements that other brands will aspire to:

  • Build an accessible product that everyone wants to use (and shout about)
  • Challenge the biggest players in your market to create a David vs Goliath narrative
  • Have an inspiring and idealistic founder at the helm

Not all brands have this unique blend of benefits, so it makes sense that other companies receive fewer organic mentions and have to rely more heavily on sponsored content to promote their brand. There are ways in which Canva could improve their programmatic strategy as discussed above. However, the data shows that this is a brand worth talking about, so I won't be keeping quiet about my Canva obsession any time soon.

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