First, here is a little bit about Townsend Security and our marketing environment: we are a smaller, agile data security company with products for the enterprise business.  We deal with a highly educated, highly specialized audience of information technology and information security specialists and executives.  We are in a tight, competitive niche for organic search traffic.  So any win we have in organic search is hard-won and prized.

2016 was a rollercoaster here at Townsend Security.  We started the year off with a full head of steam with organic search traffic.  We worked hard in 2015 with regular blogging, webinars, podcasts, white papers, and eBooks.  The result: our traffic held steady in 2015 and in the first quarter of 2016, we had a robust rise in organic search visitors (27%).

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But all that changed in the second quarter of 2016.  Competition for our narrow band of keywords greatly increased as new competitors entered the marketplace and our larger rivals outspent us on online marketing.  After a record high March and April, we saw a 38% slippage in organic search visitors over the next three months (with a 28% slippage in one month alone), evaporating the hard work of the previous year.  While we fought back and did recoup some of that traffic, we still struggled to regain our high ground in organic searches. 

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The Path Forward: HubSpot Introduces “Topic Clusters”

In late September of 2016, our HubSpot Premier Inbound Consultant, Erin Sliney, introduced us to the concept of creating a content pillar by selecting a core topic with a cluster of supporting subtopic posts.  She described the tactic this way:

  • Identify a keyword that you want to rank well for and one that your prospective clients would use in their searches.
  • Identify a synonym cloud of additional long-tail keywords that would support the primary keyword.
  • Search the primary keyword in Google and identify the top 3-5 pages (in organic search).
  • Note what they talk about, what they don’t talk about, and the overall user experience.
  • Build a primary page (the content pillar) that is more educational, comprehensive, user-friendly, and SEO-friendly than all the top competitors combined.
  • Next, build supporting blog posts that internally link to the content pillar and continue the conversation using the synonym keywords.
  • Promote the content pillar and subtopic cluster posts with social media, blog commenting, guest articles, etc.

Erin gave us some material to read through, as well as some examples of content pillars (or sometimes called, “Skyscraper content").  Since we had been battling for the last six months to regain our rankings in Google (and our thought leadership in the industry), we saw this as a real opportunity to dig in and regain our visitors.

The Process: Building a Content Pillar

Phase One: Research

For the next week, we researched our top four competitors for our primary keyword, “encryption key management.”  Among our main competitors were Wikipedia and TechTarget, both very established domains! 

But the more we took a deep dive into their content, we realized they were lacking in key material and full explanations for vital concepts relating to the keyword.  Further, the top-ranked competitors did not include many graphics to help the user understand the material (encryption and proper key management are not easy concepts to understand). 

By the end of our examination, we realized we had a genuine opportunity to help the community by crafting better content.

Phase Two: Building

For the next three weeks, we set out to work on building the content.  We made the outline and then scheduled a few sessions with the CEO, Patrick Townsend, as well as our compliance specialist and a couple of our developers to make sure we were accurately fleshing out each concept.  We set the modest goal of having 2,500 words with five graphics.  After the three weeks were up, however, we had over 6,100 words and nine graphics! 

Phase Three: Editing

Next came opening up the content for review.  Since the content dealt with cryptographic concepts and international regulations, being word perfect was a must.  One misplaced word or phrase could mislead the user; so we took two months to slowly walk through the editing process. The result: something the whole team could be proud of. 

Phase Four: Construction  

Once the content was completely signed off by the technical reviewers, we set to constructing it in HubSpot.  We used HubSpot to design the website page, as well as the call-to-action buttons and landing page to promote the offline version of the content. We studiously viewed the content on the preview tool in HubSpot, while building out each section to ensure that it looked great on any device.  Once we had it built, we sent it to the team (as a temporary link) one last time for final inspection.

Phase Five: Publishing and Promotion

It took us three months, but in January of this year, we published The Definitive Guide to Encryption Key Management Fundamentals.  It was a labor of love, but we hope it serves as a true resource for the community.

How We Promoted Our Content Pillar

As we were going through the editing process, we built around 20 social media updates and scheduled them in HubSpot to be published to our Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts once the content pillar page went live.  We intermixed their publishing dates with our regularly-scheduled updates over the following eight weeks or so.  Coupled with an email campaign promoting the content pillar page to our active lead community, we were able to get the word out to those already familiar with us.

To reach the wider community, we placed backlinks to the content pillar page by:

  • thoughtfully answering questions on Quora
  • adding insights to other blog posts through blog commenting
  • and by contributing thought leadership through guest posts we published on other websites

Finally, since we had been blogging on encryption key management for years, it was easy to identify a few dozen posts that were contextually similar and that we could place internal links back to the content pillar page.  The links, we feel, enhanced the reader’s experience, since we were providing additional, more relevant content for them (as well as being a clear signal for search engines to understand what the content pillar page was all about).

The Result: A Record Month

Three months after first publishing our content pillar and continuously promoting it, we have some surprising results:

  • We are up 17% in organic searches from January to February of 2017.
  • We are up 32% in organic searches from February to March of 2017.
  • When you compare January to March of this year, it is a 55% jump in organic search traffic. This means March 2017 is our highest month on record for organic searches.
  • From all of our marketing efforts combined, including social, PPC, and guest posting, March 2017 has also seen a record amount of total visitors to our website!

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We are over the moon about the increase in traffic that we have been receiving.  Our content pillar page already ranks on the first page of Google for “encryption key management.”

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We are also ranking well for a host of long-tail keywords that are driving a good amount of organic traffic. One example being, “encryption key management guide”—of which we rank #1 in Google (as of March 2017).

The topic cluster tactic has been a strategic shift for us. It has felt good to dig deep, anticipate all the questions our community would ask about one topic, and then answer them comprehensively.  It has also felt good to see that hard work pay off with increased visitors and leads. 

On a final note, it has been heartening to see how the whole team at Townsend Security has rallied around the topic cluster approach to creating content. We adopted the inbound methodology of marketing years ago because it aligned with our heartbeat of being mentors, educators, and coaches first, and business people second. Creating content via topic clusters, we feel, is a natural extension of that sentiment. 

The capper: after seeing the product we produced and how the readership responded to it, our CEO has already stepped up to personally write our next content pillar page!

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Originally published Jun 5, 2017 2:00:00 PM, updated December 19 2017