What’s the future for unbranded content sites? SAP runs an unbranded content site whose future’s so bright, that the team behind it had better wear shades (to paraphrase that old Timbuk 3 song).
The Future of Customer Engagement and Experience earned the tech brand a finalist nod for Best Content Strategy and Best Multi-Author Blog in the 2021 Content Marketing Awards (CMAs).
And it’s easy to see why. Total page views for the blog hit the high six figures (767,190 in 2020 and 1,177,123 in 2021). Top-performing content generates between 5,000 and 10,000 views a month.
And those aren’t even the most impressive stats.
Visitors spend an average of eight minutes on the site. Almost all (99%) of its archives get views every month. And its bounce rate has never been over 5%, as SAP explained in their CMA nomination.
Seventy percent of traffic comes from organic search. The other 30% arrives from direct or bookmarked links, with social shares and an email newsletter rounding out the traffic sources.
“We never spent any money on advertising, campaigns, or promoted content,” says Jenn VandeZande, the site’s editor-in-chief.
We never spent any money on advertising, campaigns, or promoted #content, says @jennvzande of @SAP_CX impressively successful #ContentMarketing hub via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
So how did the site become such a success? Jenn shared some principles and practices behind the content marketing strategy.
Downplay the brand to play up trust
The robust content hub operates under a non-branded URL. The (barely noticeable) SAP connection comes through employees, customers, partners, and industry experts they’ve onboarded as freelance writers.
SAP created the site based on two basic principles, and it’s never swayed from these:
- To become an authoritative source and community for all things commerce and business related by focusing on great content that answers business challenges in an unbiased way
- To use journalistic standards with an SEO-first, evergreen content strategy
Jenn says the site’s independence is “sacred” because return readers and subscribers expect it and because of the critical role of trust in business relationships: “You can lose a customer in an instant by breaking that trust.
“Nobody wants to be sold when they’re trying to research a problem – at least in the beginning stages. SAP is keeping their eyes on the future, focusing on the importance of unbranded content to lead into the next step of the journey.”
The site draws interest from searchers and a faithful readership of C-suite executives and other leaders with decision-making responsibilities. SAP has found readers come back to places they trust when it’s time to purchase.
@SAP_CX has found people return to the places they trust when it’s time to purchase, says @jennvzande via @AnnGynn and @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
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Use data to please readers and leaders
The initial buy-in was simple. SAP likes forward-thinking, Jenn says, and the site represented a new concept. As the site grew and content competition increased, data led to continued support from SAP leadership.
“It turns out that doing this day after day, year after year, earns loyalty, which then earns sales deals, which has also helped earn executive buy-in,” Jenn says. “It’s a long game with big dividends.”
Data drives content decisions, too. “Most of us on the team are data nerds, and we live by it,” Jenn says.
The hardest decisions she’s had to make involved ideas that sounded great in concept but didn’t resonate with readers. “While it bummed me out to pull the plug on these things, the data made the decision easy.”
To arrive at content decisions, the data nerds looked beyond the general (though impressive) metrics like visits, views, time on site, etc. They wanted a collection of data that would help them better understand their audience’s behavior, such as:
- Which posts get the most clicks?
- Where exactly on the site do most people click?
- What content leads people to the next step on their SAP journey?
- What parts of the site do they engage with and which ones do they not?
The content team’s developer Aaron Graham created a custom plugin to track those metrics.
Now, they can drill down and identify the typical paths visitors follow on the site and what works and what doesn’t. “It’s been a big game-changer for us and helps us to stay focused on what readers want,” Jenn says.
That doesn’t mean their data game is perfect. Attribution remains the unicorn the team continues to chase. Ultimately, they’d love to be able to show that a reader started on X post and then purchased a product at some point in their journey.
But Jenn prizes the anecdotal evidence from readers who forward that day’s newsletter to her with a comment about loving the subject, the content, etc. “I save those emails in a folder because they’re a great reminder of the purpose of what we do,” she says.
It’s also immediate feedback that can prompt a change. “We’re always tweaking copy, reoptimizing, testing, so when we get feedback that folks love what we’ve written, we use it,” Jenn says.
And the feedback isn’t always positive. One reader complained about the subject line “Not new, not normal” and explained why. Jenn thanked the engaged reader for sharing her opinion. The team assumed others might feel the same. “It can be easy to lose perspective when you’re on the inside looking out,” Jenn says.
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Act big, even if you’re small
SAP is a global company with over 100,000 employees, but The Future of Customer Engagement and Experience site doesn’t involve a big team. Executive Editor Marcia Savage manages the calendar, day-to-day content scheduling, and editing and contributes some writing. She’s the other full-time employee besides Jenn and Aaron (the team developer). Contractors help with site images, and the team relies on TAG Communication Services for freelancers.
Ideas come from anywhere – the content team, the contractors, customers, employees, and even competitors. Freelancers craft the content, then Marcia and Jenn edit it for SEO, tone, etc. They also reoptimize and update content every day.
Jenn also keeps an eye out for potential writers on social media. If she reads something interesting, she reaches out to invite the author to contribute. “We’ve gotten some fantastic bylines this way,” she says.
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Grow the platform
A couple of years ago, The Future of Customer Engagement and Experience added more specific sections at the top of the navigation bar based on the topics most critical to their audience:
- Customer experience
“Those sections have turned out really well and been useful for our readers … They’ve proven to be a simple way for the user to find what they’re looking for and to discover content they didn’t know they were looking for,” Jenn says. “We also discuss the topics that are important to our audience, focusing on purpose and the whole self. In doing so, our authentic tone has won over our subscribers and advocates.
But that isn’t the only growth for the original content hub. The Future of Customer Engagement and Experience team launched a podcast that features guests discussing the site’s most engaging content.
Given a prompt from contributor Jesús Hoyos, who wondered about content in languages other than English, the team is now working on updating its content into regions.
Without a big budget for translation, Jenn uses Google Translate for the content on the site, then sends it to a peer in a region with that language to review before she publishes it.
“Inclusion is really important to us, so getting it right has taken time and is constantly evolving, but it’s made a difference for our readers,” Jenn says.
And that’s just one more reason why The Future of Customer Engagement and Experience shines so bright.
All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute