I spent the best part of the past 3 and a bit years marketing in the HR industry – specifically HR software – and I thought it was a good idea to write up my thoughts on the experience. Everything within this blog is anonymised – I suppose it’s not hard to join the dots and whilst you’ll get nothing commercially sensitive from this, you should be able to take something from it that you can apply to your SEO or content marketing strategy in your own industry.
If nothing else, this blog is probably something of a cathartic exercise for me and an opportunity to take stock of what I’ve learnt. I wrote a similar case study about my experiences of the role of content marketing in the construction industry.
So to set the scene: a very established business had an HR software product they wanted to do more with it. That business approached the managing director of a division of an extremely well-known software firm about the prospect of taking their HR solution to the next level.
This was to be a new business, with technology spun out from the established company but it would be supported by the established business. Terms were agreed and a senior management team was created. I’d previously worked with the business’ new CMO and it was only natural we’d talk about the prospect of taking up a position in the new marketing team. I joined just a few days later. It was a great time to enter the business, there was only a handful of us in place and the plans for expansion were impressive, to say the least.
Before long, we recognised that we’d have to rebrand the company as we felt the old brand was a little old-fashioned and wouldn’t scale. Additionally, it was clear that we would have to redevelop the software as the existing software couldn’t simply be reskinned and developed further.
I saw rebrand, what we actually realised is we would have to create a new HR software solution, bring it to market, support the sold HR solution and then migrate the clients over to the new software. So much bigger than the rebrand of an established brand.
So we started again. For any marketer, this is an amazing experience. This gives you the opportunity to put everything in place from the beginning. It also provides some very interesting problems in its own rights.
Firstly we had to come up with a new brand, working out how we would position ourselves in an already saturated market. And come up with a strategy that would deliver the acquisition of new customers so we could prove the new brand and software.
We launched the product, created an awesome marketing strategy, had the kind of nurture flows that were bound to convert, put in place a large amount of content and then started marketing. And the good news is we got thousands of leads. The bad news is we didn’t seem to be able to get them over the line.
The huge marketing team we had put in place overcomplicated many things. There were too many chiefs and this slowed our output to a crawl. Redundancies followed and I was fortunate enough remain in the marketing function to help drive forward a rejuvenated marketing strategy.
Over this time I got to see how organic sessions grew to the different content areas of the website.
So whilst this was a rebrand, as I mentioned earlier, it was complicated. The original brand had a fantastic website that generated loads of traffic and which would be brilliant to redirect to pass all the authority and traffic through to the new website. But we couldn’t do that because the old brand needed to remain in place until all the customers had been migrated to the new product.
So we started afresh. A new brand, new website and no domain authority. Coupled with thin, thin content.
We did a load of keyword research. We probably did too much. There was a conversation about what our H1 tag should be (I know…) but this delayed the optimisation of the website for a while. But we got agreement and eventually managed to carry out some half-decent onsite SEO.
We then went on to building links. Bear in mind here that we had a brand new domain (it was a .com) but it had virtually no domain authority. So we had to get the DA up somehow and outreach was the first thing that came to mind, so we set off on that path. We had to increase the site to mid-40’s DA in order to be competitive with the competition. That was going to cost us and whilst we tried to do some manual outreach we had to put some budget behind it to get it moving quickly.
We also wanted to do some PR to give us some really good awareness. But we all know the links, citations and general references you get from PR go a long, long way to benefit the SEO of a website, and it was interesting to see correlations between jumps in the non-brand oriented search traffic and the successful PR activity.
What worked really well with the PR activity is we managed to find a unique perspective that we could own, one of the mistakes we made is when we created the PR strategy we still didn’t really know what the product would actually do. And our PR campaign was based around part of the product roadmap that didn’t go live at the beta launch, or when the product went on sale, it still hadn’t been worked in when I eventually left. We knew about the misalignment at launch and if I had my time again I’d have revisited the unique perspective. But the one we came up with was PR gold and we just ran with it.
We got a relatively large number of links back to the site from websites with a domain authority of between 40 and 60 in a short space of time. This certainly helped get things moving me to bed from a domain authority perspective.
The Role of Blogs in Content Marketing for SEO in the HR industry
In terms of the amount of evergreen content we put out, we never quite got the velocity sorted. We were a challenger brand entering a saturated market and the competitors had around five to ten years on us. We had a lot of catching up to do, and whilst I wanted to invest in bringing us up to parity, it was felt this approach was wrong and fewer quality blogs would be the best way to go about it. Needless to say a blog every week or two, many of which were less evergreen and more brand orientated, didn’t really get any traction.
I got my way in September 2016 and we finally started to produce more evergreen orientated blogs articles and introduce more campaign focused themes to the blogs, which we hadn’t had before. In addition, we increased the number blogs we were putting out from one every week or two, to two or three a week. It was the strategic focus that started to drive growth through the organic traffic. This makes sense as we essentially began to build up a much more targeted silo on the website.
I still believe we should have been producing more of this content. When your competitors are producing one, two or more pieces of content every day then in order to force your way into a market it stands to reason that you should be doing more. And the crime was, we had the capacity to do that.
Additionally, there are a number of different types of blog articles, campaign articles, evergreen questions, seasonal blogs, brand oriented, industry news, opinions, Q&As. Between the markets in the team, there was a consensus that we should focus on campaign articles and evergreen post. In my opinion, this limited our ability to really push it forward quicker. If we could have newsjacked a little more through our blog content and on a more regular basis I believe I could have developed a healthier distribution strategy.
The Role of the Knowledge Base in Content Marketing for SEO in the HR industry
So we planned to create a knowledge base that would house around 130 very legalistic articles in a highly silo’d three level deep structure. This would offer an incredibly dense link architecture.
The thing about the knowledge base is we could generate traffic for vaguely related topics and then introduce the visitor to the software in a relatively non-salesy manner. There was a huge investment in this, to begin with. I’ve done this before and I know it takes a while but even I was surprised both by how long it took for the knowledge bank to become established, but also how much traffic it went on to generate for us every month.
It’s interesting to see how long it took to build up traffic to the knowledge base. Bear in mind that all the content was in place by the start of 2016. I got my hands on the Knowledge Base strategy at the start of 2017, updating the existing content and adding some new content and a new topic in February 2017. At this point, we started to see even greater growth. Although I’m not giving you traffic figures here the graph below demonstrates the organic traffic to the knowledge base section and by the end of 2016, it was already receiving considerable traffic.
So the key takeaway here was to create the knowledge base content, then ensure it was really effectively interlinked in topical silos. We did some link building back to the knowledge base but not a vast amount and we also made sure all the other content linked back to that section of the site where relevant. I think we could have created more content earlier on to add the knowledge base, I also think we could have used this to drive traffic to other parts of the website earlier on as well. However, overall, our knowledge base was the most successful part of the site in terms of acquiring organic traffic.
I also think we fell into the trap of thinking the content could and should be written by someone with more of an expert understanding of employment law. This is the thing that inhibited the expansion of the knowledge base. I believe any good copywriter should be able to research and turn their pen to anything. This is an essential skill of any SEO copywriter.
Selling the product through organic traffic in the HR industry
Of course, getting organic traffic to the blog section and to the knowledge bank is one thing, but we needed to be delivering targeted organic traffic to the conversion pages. This was a bit more tricky. From the very outset, there was a desire not to compromise design for SEO. I had argued for this to be changed but the appetite wasn’t there and we didn’t proceed to produce a design that reflected a well nested and segmented product features section.
The graph below does demonstrate that we started to get organic traffic heading through to the product features section, however, if you see the graph under it you’ll get a feel for the difference between the three areas of the website. Of course, the product features section should never receive as much traffic as the other sections that operate in the earlier phases of the buying cycle but I still felt disappointed by the traffic that was delivered by them.
The graph below shows the growth trends of organic traffic to the knowledge base section (the largest), the Blog articles (the second largest) and the product features (the lowest). It should become clear from this how disproportionately important the knowledge base content was in generating organic traffic to the website.
Bear in mind I’ve only really given you the organic impact of content marketing in the HR industry here. There is still plenty to be considered in terms of content marketing more broadly, how we delivered content through triggered automation emails for example and through general comms. But the biggest impact we had with content was due to PR and organic traffic – so it makes sense to focus on that.
Another SEO quirk of HR software and probably many other pieces of software needs to be taken into account when thinking about the impact of content marketing on SEO. That’s the exponential increase in brand searches. When HR software a single business signs up and their employees start to use the software, and crucially they start to search for the business. That means for every customer you could get tens or hundreds of users. And ever since the Vince Update, why back when brand traffic is an acknowledged signal of authority and credibility to Google.
Summing things up
We generated a lot of targeted traffic and it all seemed to be going well. We managed to create a lot of qualified leads, but we never quite got them over the line into paying customers. Unfortunately, we launched too soon and started a big marketing push far too early.
There was also some politics to be played out in the larger group, and content, social and organic search occasionally got in the middle of that game. For example, we knew we needed to build up the knowledge base over time, but there was a resistance from the group because a major part of the group was engaged in selling legal advice – and this was seen as competitive. Perhaps we could have moved faster had this not have been the case.
The well-structured knowledge base performed the best that I’ve known and otherwise content marketing as always took a long time and required consistency in order to grow traffic.
PR was probably the best form of outreach we could have done, with some of the more challenging or controversial PR activity we created leading to lots of comments and links back to the website. I used to refer to one such PR stunt as the golden goose of link building because we got links month in month out for over a year due to that activity.
It’s always clear that the distribution strategy is one of the most important things to consider and this is something we never quite got right. Sure we had some good marketing automation using content, but we never got to the point where we were distributing content to really develop and reinforce the message and that would go on to create additional backlinks.