Brands must become publishers! It is a mantra that is heard often, but increasingly it is becoming a reality for marketers.
As the search engines continue to evolve their algorithms, the technical SEO tactics of yesterday no longer hold. Instead web marketers must evolve into becoming sophisticated publishing operations.
The story of Discover Africa, a travel agency based in South Africa, showcases just how quickly and dramatically web marketers need to change to keep pace in the changing search environment.
Discover Africa: A Leading African Travel Agency
Discover Africa was founded 10 years ago by partners Steve Conradie and Andre Van Kets. It books travel for 8,000 vacationers per year.
The company operates through three direct-to-consumer brands: DiscoverAfrica, DriveSouthAfrica and OverlandingAfrica.
The company designs vacations for its customers and then books their travel, accommodations and activities through its network of tourism providers, earning a commission on the bookings.
Van Kets (left) is a “web geek” who handles the company’s Internet marketing; Conradie was “born on safari” and handles the vacation design.
The Good Ol’ Days: “Easy to Game Our Way to the Top”
The company was founded to take advantage of the opportunity around search marketing in their segment.
“Ten years ago there were lots of great companies offering safaris and offering tours” in South Africa, Van Kets said. “But they didn’t have a clue about web marketing, SEO, or anything like that.”
Given that landscape, Discover Africa was able to quickly climb to the top of the search rankings.
“I taught myself SEO on the go," Van Kets said. "I wacked out a site, got a few links. And it was pretty easy to game our way to the top.”
Without doing anything black hat, Van Kets and team followed best practices and soon ranked high for their keywords.
“For the first five years we had it easy getting to the top of the search engines,” Van Kets said. The formula for the team was simple: “We were pure SEO. We put out fairly half-decent content. Coded it right. Got links and we did well.”
And the formula worked: Discover Africa’s SEO efforts drove web traffic, and the traffic converted into paying vacationers.
New Animals on the Safari: Pandas & Penguins
But after those initial years, the search landscape began to change for Discover Africa. First, the competition started rolling in.
“The other tour operators who had been around for 30 or 40 years realized that the web is where they needed to be now,” Van Kets said.
It quickly became more difficult for Discover Africa to own its keywords.
Furthermore, the web marketing formula shifted. While his customers were focused on zebras, Van Kets said that there were “these new black and white animals – Pandas and Penguins – running around the web and changing how things work.”
As the algorithms changed for the search engines, Discover Africa had to change its marketing formula.
”We had to adjust to content marketing. Us geeks needed to be more real world and be really good to our consumers not just work Google the best we can,” Van Kets said. “I realized that we had to do things differently. If we just kept on putting up mediocre content trying to get to the top of Google but it does not really impress our customers, we’re not going to survive.”
So in addition to his SEO programmers, Van Kets began to hire writers. He even brought in a managing editor with experience in the media world. Content was the new priority, and he put his company’s resources behind it.
Back to the Drawing Board: The Brand as Publisher
Discovery Africa’s new emphasis on content began paying dividends, and their properties were able to grow their traffic and revenue. Still, Van Kets felt he needed a structure to organize and optimize the new strategy and team members he put in place around content.
“We had content going, but we needed a game plan that could bring efficiency and maximize our results on it” he said.
Van Kets then came upon a blog post laying out how to build and operate a content marketing machine. His team then convened around their white board, and put together a business process around their content:
Discover Africa had created a strategic framework to guide their content efforts. They created a grid with Buyer Personas on one axis and Buying Stages in the other. They targeted nine personas:
- Mr. Business
- The Weekenders
- The Holiday Makers
- The 4x4 Guy
- The Family Guy
- The Campers
- The Sports Guy
- The Travel Industry Player
- The Student/Backpacker
And four buying stages:
Each piece of content is targeted at addresses the concerns of one or more personas at a particular stage. Their content marketing machine then operates to pull prospects from where they are now down the buying path to becoming customers.
They also recognized that just publishing content was not enough, and that they had to put a “mini marketing campaign” around each post, where they reached out to key influencers in their topic to earn links to the posts, driving referral traffic and search rankings. They identified a key set of processes and metrics to monitor to make sure that their new content marketing machine was running well end-to-end.
The strategies for web marketing and SEO have changed dramatically, both for Discover Africa and all marketers. Search’s dependence on technical tactics has given way to a new paradigm focused on quality content.
Companies like Discovery Africa who can make the shift and build content marketing machines will be the ones who survive the changes and excel in the new content-centric era.