Over the past two years, 360Learning, the LMS for collaborative learning, has grown its blog from zero to 75,877 monthly pageviews — no mean feat in the face of COVID, increased competition, and unprecedented uncertainty.
The bulk of this growth has come from one place: organic search. By partnering with Animalz, the team was able to scale their content creation to ride the tailwinds created by COVID, thanks to a willingness to experiment and learn from different search strategies.
For other EdTech companies, there’s a lot to be learned from the tactics that had the greatest impact: hub-and-spokes, content arbitrage, and opinionated content.
Escaping the Treadmill of Paid Acquisition
Like many companies, 360Learning began exploring SEO as a way to escape the treadmill of paid customer acquisition. As Joei Chan, the company’s Director of Brand & Content, explained, “You can’t just infinitely scale paid acquisition. The budget will become crazy, it'll get too expensive, and there's no flywheel effect.”
Organic search content offers a way to reduce these acquisition costs over time: a single blog post can generate more and more traffic with each passing month without any additional cost beyond that first investment. The end goal for Joei: “We don't have to pay for attention.”
But starting that flywheel effect wasn’t easy — for three reasons:
Unprecedented uncertainty. COVID precipitated a slew of new buying habits and different online behaviors. With no guarantee that the old marketing playbook still worked in this new world, the team needed to experiment with new tactics.
The EdTech boom. The EdTech industry has boomed in the wake of COVID, encouraging new entrants to the market and accelerating their growth (according to our research, EdTech companies in 2021 saw average traffic growth of a whopping 162%). Each of these companies is vying for the same search terms and the same search visitors as 360Learning, creating a huge amount of competition — and noise.
The constraints of being a content team of one. With no blog and little online footprint, Joei — then 360Learning’s sole content marketer — needed support. As she shared, “I know I'm good at telling stories, coming up with a voice and stance...and I know I'm not as good at technical SEO and keyword research. I needed help on those specific things first, and I needed an extension of what I could do.”
Soon after joining 360Learning, Joei chose to hire an agency to solve these challenges and kickstart the organic search flywheel. She had two criteria: she wanted a thought partner — capable of analysis, strategy, and experimentation—and not just a content factory: and she wanted someone really good.
“I knew I needed SEO help, I knew I needed an agency, and I wanted to find the best one... so I asked around, ‘What's the best agency you've worked with?' I got good recommendations from Intercom and Wistia.”
Animalz and 360Learning partnered up to build and refine an organic search strategy. Here’s what worked.
1. Hub-and-Spokes for Must-Target Keywords
Every company has a handful of must-target keywords: those describing a core product category or feature, topics your brand wants to own, or those you want to prevent your competitors from owning.
For these keywords, the benefits are greater than traffic: they matter at a strategic, company-wide level. As Joei shared, “You need to be there for these keywords because your competitors are.”
For these high-priority keywords, Joei and the Animalz team created dedicated hub-and-spoke strategies: long, comprehensive “hub” articles targeting a competitive short-tail keyword, while linking out to supporting “spoke” articles that target related keyword variations.
Lots of internal links to the page (40 in this case) help search engines understand the relative importance of the page and funnel traffic from low-competition spoke pages — targeting keywords like “evaluating training programs” and “employee training templates” — to the high-competition hub page. Links from the page (76 in total) pass PageRank and help visitors find related content to keep exploring.
These rankings are more than vanity metrics. As Robin Nichols, 360Learning’s Content Lead US, explains: “After getting our hub pages to rank, we worked with Animalz to create 'cheat sheet' style gated content to embed onto our highest-traffic pages. We were able to drastically increase the number of MQLs coming from SEO traffic.”
“We were able to drastically increase the number of MQLs coming from SEO traffic.”
Many lucrative keywords — like what is cognitive learning theory and cognitive theory examples — reflect a simple, utilitarian search intent: the reader just wants a quick definition or list of examples.
Instead of cluttering up their blog with short, basic blog posts or over-engineering the solution with long-winded essays, the 360Learning team has embraced the search intent, building a content hub that looks more like a wiki than a conventional blog post, complete with a dedicated navigation bar and a wiki-style nested folder structure (guide/topic/subtopic).
The approach works: their Learning Theories guide has generated over 38k monthly pageviews since publication in August.
2. Content Arbitrage to Scale Organic Traffic
With the launch of a hub-and-spoke targeted toward employee onboarding, the team saw one article — a collection of onboarding templates — perform particularly well.
As Robyn shares, “This goes to show that you need to try out a lot of different angles and ideas to strike gold. None of us expected that first template article to take off as it did, and now those articles are huge contributors to our SEO traffic. As much as you may want to push and contrive to rank on a certain article, sometimes you have to work the other way around.”
“As much as you may want to push and contrive to rank on a certain article, sometimes you have to work the other way around.”
Curating third-party templates into comprehensive articles. This type of article is a form of content arbitrage, and it’s an efficient way to grow traffic. Not every article needs to be laboriously created from scratch — it’s possible to add value to readers by curating fragmented resources from around the web into a single, centralized place.
Adding value beyond the source. These articles provide context and personal experience to justify each inclusion, including screenshots of the team’s own onboarding templates; they connect the templates back to a “bigger picture,” explaining when and how to put them to use; and they link out to other helpful resources, both internal and external.
Maximizing distribution by targeting secondary keywords. Content arbitrage makes it easy to aggregate dozens of related keywords into a single search-optimized article, dramatically increasing the article’s traffic potential in the process.
Case in point: 32 Onboarding Templates was optimized with “onboarding template” as a primary keyword, creating a host of first- and second-place rankings:
onboarding process template
onboarding plan template
employee onboarding template
new employee onboarding template
onboarding schedule template
Additional optimization for a secondary, related keyword — in the form of subheaders and paragraphs optimized for the keyword onboarding checklist — has allowed the article to achieve a swath of extra first-page rankings:
onboarding checklist template
employee onboarding checklist
new employee onboarding checklist
onboarding process checklist
This process is indicative of how 360Learning approaches content marketing: experiment with different content topics and types, learn from the data, and use the results to shape the type of content created in the future.
As Joei elaborates, “We experiment with strategy, get it working a little bit, and when we have a foundation to build on, we bring someone in to scale it.”
3. Opinionated Search Content to Stand Out
The final part of 360Learning’s search strategy comes in the form of opinionated search content. Traffic matters — but so does making a meaningful, memorable connection with the reader.
As Joei shares, “You need to have a voice, you need to have a stance... SEO is just our way of amplifying that and making sure that we reach the people we want to reach. It's a means; it's not an end."
“SEO is a means, not an end.”
While many companies pump out copycat content — search-optimized articles that rehash the same tired ideas as every other — 360Learning works its beliefs and opinions into its search content. That means:
Sharing concrete opinions. While most articles hedge their bets — sharing an exhaustive list of options without taking the useful step of recommending one — The Right Way to do a Training Needs Analysis shares a single, opinionated perspective on training needs analysis.
Aside from healthy doses of backlinks and the ability to stand out in crowded search results, opinionated content has a bigger, more foundational benefit: it stays with the reader. This type of content offers an insight into 360Learning’s ethos (and what it’s like using their software), and it’s this type of qualitative benefit that helps turn search traffic into new customers.
Opinionated content also encourages discussion — and that equates to backlinks, with readers sharing the article to reinforce their beliefs or encourage discussion. Many of 360Learning’s most-linked articles fall into the opinionated search category, like this article with 240 backlinks from 196 referring domains:
These types of articles don’t always work. As Steph Yoder, Content Strategist at Animalz, explains:
“In our first year, we wrote an article called 'Your Manager Training Wasn’t Working Before — Now It’s Really in Trouble', with the intent of targeting the keyword 'manager training.' It was (in my opinion) a really interesting and helpful article — and it sunk like a stone. "
The 360Learning team understand that any process of experimentation requires the occasional misfire. The key thing: learning from the experience and using it to improve the performance of future content. As Steph goes on to explain,
“There’s a fine line between sharing something interesting and meeting the search intent. In this case, I think it was the negative spin: people aren't searching to hear what they're doing wrong — they want to know how to do it right. We just refreshed the article with a more positive and actionable title, and I think we'll get better traction.”
“You’ve Proved Your Impact on the Business.”
360Learning’s partnership with Animalz has generated hundreds of thousands of visitors — no mean feat in the ever-more-crowded EdTech industry.
“You’ve seen how much growth we've achieved in the last year and a half. I think that's largely due to Animalz.”
But the success of their search content has had a secondary impact: Joei has been able to scale her content team from a solo operator to a fully-fledged team of ten. In the process, she’s created a veritable content empire, spanning podcasts, playbooks, and video series.
As Joei explains, the success of their search content strategy provided the foundation for everything that followed:
“We proved that organic traffic is growing, that it's actually bringing leads, it's generating SQLs, and we're hitting our targets. And then we could talk about the fun things — the PR campaigns, the docuseries, and the podcasts. If you can say, 'I'm hitting all these pipeline metrics, so give me some room to run these experiments,' then they'll say, 'Okay, you've earned that trust. You've proved your impact on the business.'”