November 14, 2022
Case Study

Customer’s Journey: A look at how three companies took a customer-first marketing approach


We just got through election season. The smartest social media post I saw about it said, “Elections are a great reminder that ~50% of people don’t think like you.”

As marketers, our success lies in understanding people who don’t think like us. The “other.” For they are often our customers.

To spark your best ideas for thinking like your customer, today we bring you examples from Ahrefs, a freelance writing website, and an insurance company.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

Customer Journey

This article was published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.

“If we don’t start with the ‘other,’ we can’t experience what we are doing wrong with our message,” Flint McGlaughlin taught in Customer-First Objectives Application Session: See real webpages optimized for marketing conversion.

To give you ideas for how to do that, in this article we bring you three examples of marketers that focused on the “other.” For each one, they have a very different “other,” and a customer with a very different journey.

We start with Ahrefs, and its focus on the journey a reporter or blogger takes when deciding what to link to. Then, we look at a freelance writing site that discovered the best way to “promote” its site in LinkedIn Groups was by focusing on bring value to the “other” – content marketers and freelance writers. And finally, an insurance company that learned from customers on their journey through its website to determine how to best communicate with them.

Quick Case Study #1: Ahrefs uses Google PPC Ads for link building, generates 11 decent links for $1,245

How do websites attract more links so they can rank higher in search engines? Well, sometimes, they get more links to rank higher by simply ranking high to begin with. The rich just get richer.

This is where it helps to understand the “customer’s” journey, in this case, the customer being a journalist or blogger looking for information for an article. They search for some information, click on the first search result, like what they find, and link to that page from the article they write.

The team at SEO tool Ahrefs calls this the vicious circle of SEO. One way they attempted to beat this vicious circle was with Google PPC Ads. If that same journalist writing that same article clicks on the first paid ad instead of the first organic result (and finds quality information on the page, of course), maybe they would win the link.

Paid advertising link building campaign for original research

The first blog post the Ahrefs team tried to build links for was a post about the company’s original research, a search traffic study.

First, they blocked search indexing for the blog post with a noindex tag. “The noindex page was a good way for us to get an idea of how much it would cost to earn a link for a statistics page using Google search ads because there's no way to find this page unless you click the ad,” said Sam Oh, VP of Marketing, Ahrefs.

They set up a simple search campaign in Google Ads and added a list of queries they thought journalists might search for, like digital marketing statistics, SEO statistics, and SEO facts.

For the ad creative, the team used the title tag and meta description of the post, since they were trying to see if having the top position on the search engine results page will lead to earned links.

Creative Sample #1: Ad intended to attract inbound links for original research blog post

Creative Sample #1: Ad intended to attract inbound links for original research blog post

The team got 447 clicks for a $540.83 spend. After removing low-quality links (for example, from scrapers), they got seven decent links from referring domains, paying $77.26 per decent link. “Super cheap, considering it was a fully passive and ethical link building campaign,” Oh said.

The links did not happen instantaneously though, and anyone engaged in a paid ads link building campaign should exercise some patience. It took between two-and-a-half weeks to three months to get the links from when the campaign started.

Paid advertising link building campaign for curated statistics

After getting some links for an existing blog post, the team decided to create a blog post specifically designed to get inbound links. They figured if they were able to get these results for a blog post about a unique data study with just one stat, they could achieve better results if they built a blog post from the ground up with several statistics intended to attract inbound links – a listicle stats post.

The team went after the topic “SEO statistics” because people who search for a query like this, and similar variations, are likely looking for an article to link to – in other words, they have “link intent.” “Statistics posts typically won't have much search demand. According to Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer, ‘SEO statistics’ has a search volume of 400 in the US and 1,400 globally,” Oh said. So not many people may be looking for it, but those that do are likely the people you’re trying to reach with a link building campaign.

Analyzing anchor texts of competing pages’ backlinks helped the team determine which statistics to feature prominently in the blog post. For example, they determined links were going to a statistic about the percent of online experiences that begin with a search engine, but that data was from 2006. So, they found updated data, and made it the most prominent statistic in their post.

“We created the content primarily with the help of the Anchors report in [Ahrefs’] Site Explorer to understand which stats people linked to most. We formatted our page accordingly to make it easier for 'linkerati' to find these types of stats,” Oh said.

Creative Sample #2: SEO statistics blog post that was created to attract inbound links

Creative Sample #2: SEO statistics blog post that was created to attract inbound links

Then, like before, the team ran ads with he hopes of attracting inbound links. “The ad copy was written to look like an organic result. We only used Google search ads,” Oh said.

Creative Sample #3: Ad intended to attract inbound links for curated content blog post

Creative Sample #3: Ad intended to attract inbound links for curated content blog post

This time, the ads generated 1,217 clicks for $704.96, but only generated four decent links from referring domains, amounting to $176.24 per decent link.

Why did it get more clicks and yet less links? Well, the team surmised it may have been because visitors were linking directly to the original source of the statistic, instead of Ahrefs blog post that curated all of the data. Since the first ad was for original research, that blog post was the original source of the statistic.

Still, the team was satisfied with the per-link cost.

“If you're currently paying for links in a way that could be frowned upon by Google, it might be worth experimenting with ads, targeting queries with so-called ‘link-intent,’” Oh said.

He also pointed out that while the focus of this search ad campaign was link building, they also likely got many other benefits from these ads – new visitors who viewed Ahrefs content and may have engaged deeper with the company. And combined with their email outreach, they were able to rank in the top three for the keyword "SEO statistics" – an extremely competitive topic – in about four weeks.

“Since link outreach has become spammier than ever, earning links is tough,” Oh concluded. “In my opinion, SEOs and link builders need to: a) surface their content in places where 'linkterati' are looking for resources ...and/or... b) find an actually good reason to ask for a link placement beyond ‘I created great content on [topic].’”

Keyword difficulty

As a bit of an epilogue, I thought it would be worthwhile to mention keyword difficulty. “SEO statistics” was rated 89 – “super hard” – according to Ahrefs own tool.

Creative Sample #4: Overview of “SEO statistics” keyword

Creative Sample #4: Overview of “SEO statistics” keyword

When I asked Oh about it, he stressed that their focus was on link building for this experiment, not ranking per se. “We did consider competitiveness, but ranking was never the goal. However, it was the end result because we all know that links still play a huge role in rankings,” he said.

That said, I asked him if he had any advice for how you should consider competitiveness when going after a keyword. Oh said companies with an SEO content strategy should segment their topics into two to three buckets:

  1. Topics that are important to your company – high business value

If ranking for specific queries will attract a ton of customers, why would you not go after them? Competition matters less here in the short term because this is a long game.

  1. Topics that have value to your business, but you can still compete for (low-mid competition)

You still want to find topics that you have a chance at ranking for in the short- to mid-term. The traffic and revenue you earn from these pages should help in gaining traction. You should also be able to earn some links over time building link authority to these pages.

  1. [Optional] Link bait – competition matters less

Topics should be related to your business, but this is more about brand and authority – not necessarily acquisition or retention.

“Even if you're a small company and won't be able to outrank some of your larger competitors, link bait pieces are always good to have. The two main reasons in my mind are industry authoritativeness/reputation and because these pages can pass PageRank via internal links. The latter is particularly useful when adding internal links to commercial pages that are tougher to earn backlinks to,” he advised.

Quick Case Study #2: Freelance writer website generates 100x more impressions in LinkedIn Groups with value-added posts versus hard-sell posts

“We’ve seen massive success in pulling traffic by targeting relevant LinkedIn Groups,” said Kris James, Founder, HireWrite. “Spamming LinkedIn Groups with your business is exactly what shouldn’t be done, the key is to focus on adding value in your posts to build trust and engagement.”

The team focuses on content marketing and freelance writer groups, which are most relevant to their offering. They seek to post informative and useful content into the group, and occasionally link back to their own website, or answer relevant comments directing users back to the site where possible.

Their focus been on adding value – providing information that is both relevant and useful to the audience receives the highest engagement, while also building trust with the target audience. Its audience responds well to actionable tips and open questions when the information is short and to the point. If the information is too long or detailed, readers lose interest and are less likely to spend time engaging.

What didn’t work – the hard sell

If the information is simply a hard sell, or a direct attempt to influence an action – for example, “Want to find more clients? Visit my website!” – the audience is likely to completely ignore the content and consider the mentioned brand to be low quality.

Creative Sample #5: Hard sell post to LinkedIn Group

Creative Sample #5: Hard sell post to LinkedIn Group

The above example is what happens if the team just tries to plug its brand, without adding any value. Only 27 impressions, and not a single engagement (0 likes and comments).  

What did work – providing value

Here’s an example where the focus is on providing value, before attempting to draw traffic to the business.

Creative Sample #6: Providing value in post to LinkedIn Group

Creative Sample #6: Providing value in post to LinkedIn Group

This post received 2,830 Impressions, 12 likes and five comments – over 100x the impressions in comparison to the hard sell.

“Let's take a look at a second example, where we draw our audience's attention toward an interesting job that happens to relate to a trending topic (Elon Musk), and then ask for input,” James said.

Creative Sample #7: Interesting job post in LinkedIn Group

Creative Sample #7: Interesting job post in LinkedIn Group

The audience responded well to this post. It gained 4,362 impressions, seven comments and five likes.

Overall, the team says they are frequently getting 5,000 to 10,000 impressions and hundreds of visitors from this method.

“We learned from this that since value-added content provides actual value, it is more likely to engage audiences and be popular amongst readers, leading to more likes, comments, and ultimately traffic to the endpoint website. Content that is merely an attempt at pushing a product or service, is glanced at before being forgotten seconds later. Value-added content stands out is remembered for months and is shared amongst peers,” James concluded.

Quick Case Study #3: Insurance company increases conversion 756% with website redesign, but continues to keep pushing to better understand the visitor’s journey

Case studies by nature usually show success. But I don’t want you to read MarketingSherpa and just assume this is all easy. It’s not. It’s hard. And if you keep pushing the envelope to learn more about your customers, not everything is going to work. Here’s a great example.

Enhance Insurance specializes in the medical aesthetics insurance sector, with customers ranging from self-employed beauticians to private health care practices. “It was important for us to re-evaluate the user journey, user experience and site functionality…realizing that the website itself was the first thing to get right if we were to succeed,” said James Hill, Marketing Director, Jentsen Group (Enhance Insurance is a sub-brand of Jentsen).

The team took a series of steps to improve its website by migrating to a website with a smoother site structure and a more accurate quoting structure. They also refreshed the metadata, updated the heading structure, wrote new content for services pages, and created keyword-targeted blog posts.

These changes helped them get more than triple the amount of referring domains. “With a huge jump in referring domains resulting in a newly found trustability in Google’s eyes, we have matched and exceeded our competitors,” said Mercedesz Molnar, SEO Executive, Digital NRG (Enhance Insurance’s agency).

The website changes brought in 244% more organic visitors. More traffic combined with a smoother process resulted in a 756% higher conversion rate for quotes.

CRO landing page test with CTA focus

But they didn’t stop there. They decided to continue learning about the customer.

After the overall success of the website migration, the team decided to work on a specific landing page that received a 35.2% increase in traffic month-over-month but a 16.81% decrease in goal conversion rate. This indicated to the team that the page’s CTAs are not in line with the user intent.

“The heatmap from VWO [indicated] potential reasons of goal conversion decline, in the form of empty clicks,” said Freya Gay, Senior SEO Executive & CRO Lead, Digital NRG.

Creative Sample #8: Heatmap of control landing page for aesthetic nurse insurance

Creative Sample #8: Heatmap of control landing page for aesthetic nurse insurance

Based on many pervious successful CRO campaigns, the team believed that adding a main CTA to the first paragraph would result in a natural spike in conversions. So they added a “Get a Quote” call-to-action button under the first paragraph, above the “Enquire Now” CTA button (which was under a headline of “receive a free quote” a little farther down the page).

Creative Sample #9: Heatmap of treatment landing page for aesthetic nurse insurance

Creative Sample #9: Heatmap of treatment landing page for aesthetic nurse insurance

The treatment did not increase conversion – it actually received 14% less conversions.

Why did the control receive a higher conversion rate? It could be because the treatment CTA button asked for too much too soon from the customer. Or, it could be that the original centered CTA just stuck out better without a competing CTA above it.

But I really appreciate the team for sharing this test, because I think it’s important to see that not every test will result in a massive lift. And the main takeaway for me isn’t the results from this specific test, it’s this – even after having such great success with the overall website migration, you need to keep pushing the envelope and keep trying to understand what the customer wants.

“To provide the best service possible through your site, there are an overwhelming amount of factors you’ll need to think about. The best way to go about it? Really consider your prospects’ needs in your niche – from on-site experience to onsite content to strategic CTA placements,” Molnar advised.

Related Resources

Visualizing the Conversion Journey

Seeing Through the Eyes of Your Customers: Case studies about marketing attribution, the content marketing funnel, and headline writing

Testing and Optimization Panel: How to optimize the customer journey

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