SEO case study: How Venngage turned search into their primary lead source

 

Venngage is a free infographic maker that has catered to more than 21,000 businesses. In this article, we explore how they grew their organic traffic from about 275,000 visitors per month in November 2017 to about 900,000 today — more than tripling in 17 months.

I spoke with Nadya Khoja, Chief Growth Officer at Venngage, about their process.

Venngage gets most of their leads from content and organic search. The percentage varies from month to month in the range of 58% to 65%.

In Nov 2017, Venngage enjoyed 275,000 visitors a month from organic search traffic. Today (16 months later) it’s 900,000. Nadya Khoja (their Chief Growth Officer) extrapolated from their current trend that by December of 2019 (in nine months) they will enjoy three million organic search visitors per month.

In 2015, when Nadya started with Venngage, they saw 300 to 400 registrations a week. By March of 2018, this was up to 25,000 a week. Today it’s 45,000.

While Nadya had the advantage of not starting from zero, that is impressive growth per any reasonable metric. How did they do it?

Recipe

There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle. I’ll do my best to explain them, and how they tie together. There is no correct order to things per se, so what is below is my perspective on how best to tell this story.

The single most important ingredient: Hypothesize, test, analyze, adjust

This critical ingredient is surprisingly not an ingredient, but rather a methodology. I’m tempted to call it “the scientific method”, as that’s an accurate description, but perhaps it’s more accurate to call it the methodology written up in the books “The Lean Startup” (which Nadya has read) and “Running Lean” (which Nadya has not read).

This single most important ingredient is the methodology of the hypothesize, test, analyze, and adjust.

What got them to this methodology was a desire to de-risk SEO.

The growth in traffic and leads was managed through a series of small and quick iterations, each one of which either passed or failed. Ones that passed were done more. Ones that failed were abandoned.

This concept of hypothesizing, testing, analyzing, and adjusting is used both for SEO changes and for changes to their products.

The second most important ingredient

This ingredient is shared knowledge. Venngage marketing developed “The Playbook”, which everyone in marketing contributes to. “The Playbook” was created both as a reference with which to bring new team members up to speed quickly, as well as a running history of what has been tested and how it went.

The importance of these first two ingredients cannot be overstated. From here on, I am revealing things they learned through trial and error. You have the advantage to learn from their successes and failures. They figured this stuff out the hard way. One hypothesis and one test at a time.

Their north star metrics

They have two north star metrics. The first one seems fairly obvious. “How many infographics are completed within a given time period?” The second one occurred to them later and is as important, if not more so. It is “how long does it take to complete an infographic?”

The first metric, of course, tells them how attractive their product is. The second tells them how easy (or hard) their product is to use.

Together these are the primary metrics that drive everything Venngage does.

The 50/50 focus split

As a result of both the company and the marketing department having a focus on customer acquisition and customer retention, every person in marketing spends half their time working on improving the first north star metric, and the other half spend their time working on improving the second.

Marketing driving product design

Those north star metrics have led to Venngage developing what I call marketing driven product design. Everywhere I ever worked has claimed they did this. The way Venngage does this exceeds anything ever done at a company I’ve worked for.

“How do I be good?”

This part of Nadya’s story reminds me of the start of a promo video I once saw for MasterClass.com. It’s such a good segue to this part of the story that I cropped out all but the good part to include in this article.

When Steve Martin shed light on an important marketing question

I’ve encountered a number of companies through the years who thought of marketing as “generating leads” and “selling it”, rather than “how do we learn what our customers want?”, or “how do we make our product easier to use?”

Squads

The company is structured into cross-functional squads, a cross-functional squad being people from various departments within Venngage, all working to improve a company-wide metric.

For example, one of the aspects of their infographic product is templates. A template is a starting point for building an infographic.

As templates are their largest customer acquisition channel, they created a “Template Squad”, whose job is to work on their two north star metrics for their templates.

The squad consists of developers, designers, UI/UX people, and the squad leader, who is someone in marketing. Personally, I love this marketing focus, as it de-focuses marketing and causes marketing to be something that permeates everything the company does.

There is another squad devoted to internationalization, which as you can infer, is responsible to improve their two north star metrics with users in countries around the world.

Iterative development

Each template squad member is tasked with improving their two north star metrics.

Ideas on how to do this come from squad members with various backgrounds and ideas.

Each idea is translated into a testable hypothesis. Modifications are done weekly. As you can image, Venngage is heavy into analytics, as without detailed and sophisticated analytics, they don’t know which experiments worked and which didn’t.

Examples of ideas that worked are:

  • Break up the templates page into a series of pages, which contain either category of templates or single templates.
  • Ensure each template page contains SEO keywords specific for the appropriate industry or audience segment. This is described in more detail further in this document.
  • Undo the forced backlink each of the embedded templates used to contain.
    • This allowed them to get initial traction, but it later resulted in a Google penalty.
    • This is a prime example of an SEO tactic that worked until it didn’t.
  • Create an SEO checklist for all template pages with a focus on technical SEO.
    • This eliminated human error from the process.
  • Eliminate “React headers” Google was not indexing.
  • Determine what infographic templates and features people don’t use and eliminate them.

Measuring inputs

I personally think this is really important. To obtain outputs, they measured inputs. When the goal was to increase registrations, they identified the things they had to do to increase registrations, then measured how much of that they did every week.

Everyone does SEO

In the same way that marketing is something that does not stand alone, but rather permeates everything Venngage does, SEO does not stand alone. It permeates everything marketing does. Since organic search traffic is the number one source of leads, they ensure everyone in marketing knows the basics of technical SEO and understands the importance of this never being neglected.

Beliefs and values

While I understand the importance of beliefs and values in human psychology, it was refreshing to see this being proactively addressed within an organization in the context of improving their north star metrics.

They win and lose together

Winning and losing together is a core belief at Venngage. Nadya states it minimizes blame and finger-pointing. When they win, they all win. When they lose, they all lose. It doesn’t matter who played what part. To use a sports analogy, a good assist helps to score a goal. A bad assist, well, that’s an opportunity to learn.

SEO is a team effort

While it is technically possible for a single person to do SEO, the volume of tasks required these days makes it impractical. SEO requires quality content, technical SEO, and building of backlinks through content promotion, guest posting, and the others. Venngage is a great example of effectively distributing SEO responsibilities through the marketing department.

To illustrate the importance of the various pieces fitting together, consider that while content is king, technical SEO is what gets content found, but when people find crappy content, it doesn’t convert.

You can’t manage what you don’t measure

This requires no elaboration.

But what you measure matters

This probably does justify some elaboration. We’ve all been in organizations that measured stupid stuff. By narrowing down to their two north star metrics, then focusing their efforts to improving those metrics, they’ve aligned everyone’s activity towards things that matte

 

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Source: Search Engine Watch

 

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