usto is a startup worth $3.8b that powers HR for small businesses, originally known as ‘ZenPayroll’. It recently passed 100,000 customers but is gunning for the 6 million businesses employing less than 100 people in the United States. Given that 80% of small businesses use Facebook for marketing, running Facebook ads is a natural acquisition channel for Gusto. Gusto seems to have a very data-driven, technical team and paid acquisition seems to be an important part of their strategy, so I’m confident we’ll find some interesting B2B growth tactics here.


If you’d like to download all of the ads featured in this post, we’ve made them available in this google drive folder, as part of our Facebook ads library resource. All ad examples come from the Facebook ads library tool.


What did we learn?

Gusto is a strong Facebook advertiser, using many of the best practices of B2B marketing. They have testimonials, custom illustrations, social proof, clean design and strong value propositions. They’ve done particularly well to identify with modern accountants, who act as channel partners to maximize the ROI of acquisition. There is a weird departure into a kind of fake news fear-mongering content, but other than that Gusto is top of class.


If you’re interested in Facebook ads (if you’re reading this article, I presume you are!) then you might want to take a look at Spotlight. It uses machine learning to see what’s IN your images and text, then automatically show you what’s driving performance.



Social Proof Plus Value Propositions

This ad format is the bread & butter for B2B marketing; you presumably developed your product to have one or more value propositions, and you have some sort of proof people like it, so it makes sense to combine them to make your first ad. It helps people self-select (“do I have this problem?”) and builds trust (“if that many people are using it…”), so is highly effective.

Gusto are good at this tactic. They use a clean, bold background with a view of the app on a mobile phone (positioning it as easy to use on the go). They have one clear value proposition on each panel of the carousel ad, and enviable social proof at the top — 100,000 businesses can’t be wrong!

The end panel is well branded and flows well from the rest of the carousel panels. It drives them to the call to action to get started today. They use the learn more call to action button, which is less aggressive than ‘sign up’—probably needed for a considered purchase like HR software.

They’re also testing different color backgrounds to see what works. However one thing I didn’t find here was a copy test. They use the same value propositions in the same order with the same social proof at the top in all of these variations. You should always be testing, because there is bound to be some other variation that works better.

Abstract Custom-Designed Illustrations

This is a growing trend in B2B where instead of stock images you stand out by designing your own custom illustrations to express abstract concepts related to your product. Of course, like any trend, it’s starting to get overused. Of course as a trendy Silicon Valley startup it’s no surprise that Gusto has jumped on this particular bandwagon.

They use the same social proof from their other bold background ads, same carousel style with one value proposition per panel, but have designed custom illustrations for each one. This is really well done, and coupling it with the text promoting their 1st month free, it should be effective. Designing your own visual style is very helpful in building trust—if you weren’t a serious company you wouldn’t have made that investment in your brand.

The interesting thing for me was seeing that they use different value propositions here than they do in the other carousel ads. A quick win could be to test these propositions with the bold background style, or the propositions from the bold background ads with custom illustrations. 

Ease of Use Animated Videos

Every top Facebook advertiser experiments with Video ads — if you get it right, they can outperform other formats because they give you the space to tell a story. They also give you more credibility — anybody can stick a stock photo up but to produce a video takes an investment that proves you plan to be around for a while. Gusto uses video ads combined with custom illustration and animation to really drive home that their platform is easy to use.

“Make payroll a breeze” is a great tagline because it’s instantly understandable to their audience, and it’s a specific problem they face. Right now payroll probably isn’t a breeze, so by just using a handful of words Gusto has opened a whole box of emotions for the average business owner. Video can magnify this effect, because they can animate the phone sliding in on a gust of wind (get it), and communicate visually how simple it is to submit payroll.

This two sided screen effect is particularly well done. It communicates that you’re moving from one world to another, from piles of paperwork to a simple mobile app. This is the type of thing that’s hard to do without video, and it’s a format that’s endlessly adaptable.

Fear-Inducing Business Trends Content

There were a couple of instances of content promotion that stood out as completely different from the rest of the highly polished B2B ads. They look more like local news stories than ads for a multi-billion-dollar company, drumming up fear around a macro-economic business trend.

Images of empty shelves, economic recessions, trade wars with China, it’s just really strange to see these ads amidst the custom drawn illustrations and animated videos. They seem to be just promoting popular blog content, but I’m wondering if negative content drives more sales?

These are issues that might potentially affect small businesses and the content is well written by very credible writers for example Steve Strauss, author of The Small Business Bible. Yet some of these feel almost borderline manipulative. 

I mean they’re certainly higher quality, but they don’t feel too far of a leap from the ads the Russians ran to hack the US election. They’re also pretty far divorced from HR issues and outside of the normal tone of voice for the Gusto brand.

Discrimination is an important issue, but if I told you an outsourced payroll service was running an ad about discrimination, would you guess it was about how to get funding as an LGBTQ business owner? They aren’t spending a huge amount (<$100 each on the ones that I could check because they got tagged as ‘political’), and it’s hard to know how this helps their blog engagement, but it was such a departure from the rest of their marketing it’s worth highlighting.

Channel-Based Partnership Marketing

One thing that Gusto seems to have really cracked is channel partners, specifically marketing through accountants. Each accountant works with multiple small businesses they can refer, so they get more bang for their buck. When an employee leaves a Gusto-powered business, the accountant in their new place has to log in to get their information. This introduces the new accountant to Gusto, who in turn can be nurtured into a partner… resulting in a positively reinforcing viral growth loop.

By positioning Gusto as the modern solution, and showing a more relaxed, casual style accountant, hopefully they’ll take the early-adopters, the tech-savvy crowd who are frustrated with ancient payroll software.

Most accountants feel like they can do more than just crunch numbers, so this is a real identity play. They are pushing this narrative that with Gusto you can become the hero in your own story, which is a classic format that works.

They’re also using some of the custom illustration style that seems to work well in their other ads, with a clear standout text in the image with that central message “you’re more than…”. They list the various things Gusto can do for you, all of which should be instantly recognizable to an accountant, so this helps them quickly decide if it’s right for them.

Showing modern trendy people working inside offices is a highly effective B2B tactic, because again it plays on that identity. If you think you look like one of these people (or if you aspire to be like this) then you’ll identify with Gusto too. It’s the same principle that works in B2C — show the person your customer wants to become, and sell your product as one way to get there.

They do a good job here of making it tangible — if it currently takes you significantly longer than 10 minutes to do your payroll, you will definitely be curious. What this ad doesn’t do very well is use social proof however — I might not believe the 10 mins claim without it being backed up by some credible source, some patented technology or a testimonial from a recognizable client. Your claims have to be understandable and appealing but also believable.

This is a great company to choose for a testimonial — Acuity is a well known scheduling software used by small businesses, so it’s likely to land well. However the quote itself is too vague — it sounds like what you’d write if you’d never used the software yourself. If they make this testimonial more authentic and coupled it with the “less than 10 mins” value proposition, plus the pictures of modern accountants, I think they’d be onto a winner.


If you’d like to download all of the ads in this post, they’re located in this google drive folder for this blog post, in our Facebook ads library, categorized by section. All ad examples come from the Facebook ads library tool.


Now that you’ve finished reading, I’m sure you’ll be inspired to run more tests of your own. When you’re testing at least 3-5 ads per week, you need a tool like Spotlight to help you get insights into the plus or minus factors driving creative performance. 



Sep 6, 2019

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