Mode Analytics, a SaaS company with an SQL-based analytics platform, has found a “non-traditional” path to success with content marketing.
Their team does plenty of what we could call “traditional” content marketing. Mode’s blog—for example—is excellent and drives a regular flow of qualified traffic and leads to the site.
But the blog is not the biggest driver of inbound leads.
That award goes to SQL School, a microsite Mode built at the same time as Mode’s initial analytics product—a site that today generates 500+ leads a month.
We sat down with Emily Ritter, Mode’s Director of Marketing, to get the full story.
In this article, you’re going to learn:
How and why SQL School was built
Why it works so well as a lead generating machine
How you can do something similar, regardless of your product, market, or competition
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SQL School Was Built to Help Data Analysts
The first thing to know is that SQL School was built to serve the people Mode Analytics serves: data analysts working with SQL. Mode’s product is built “for analysts, by analysts,” and SQL School is no different.
As Emily wrote in a 2014 article about the microsite:
“As we began building Mode…analysts often mentioned workshops they’ve created to teach peers—and repeated a common frustration with the lack of SQL resources focused on analysis. As a side project, we created SQL School to fill this void.”
Mode cofounder and CEO Derek Steer wrote the content for SQL School, back when the company was just six people working on the beta version of Mode’s product.
Optimizing the Microsite to Increase Inbound Traffic
Derek Steer wrote SQL School intending it to be a resource for analysts–or aspiring analysts–looking to get more out of their SQL-based tools or Mode’s product.
“We’ve always believed that people should be empowered to become as technical or capable of interacting with data as they want to be,” Emily said. “As someone who’d taught many other people SQL, and seen what worked and what didn’t, Derek wanted to give back to the analyst community, helping people wherever they are on the journey of learning the skills needed to be a great analyst.”
Interestingly, Derek didn’t write SQL School with the explicit intent of it being a strong driver of inbound traffic—and he wrote it to be worked through from start to finish, as an analyst might teach SQL to their peers.
Several pages on the site—however—were exceptionally (if accidentally) well optimized for Google’s search algorithm.
About a year after the microsite went live, they were surprised to see pages from within SQL School surpassing the first page of the tutorial as some of the highest-ranking “landing pages” on the site—especially from organic traffic.
At that point, they knew they had a marketing asset on their hands.
Emily and the marketing team went to work optimizing the microsite for SEO.
They started with keyword research on terms related to those being used to find SQL School—and added pages as appropriate. They also looked at the composition of their best performing pages and tried to replicate their structure.
“Originally there were fewer pages and we had a bunch of different pieces that would be covered on one page,” Emily said. “When we saw that some pages were acting like landing pages, we broke out some of the content into other pages and optimized them to look like the ones that were performing so well.”
The changes began driving meaningful traffic increases. So, when the product team started gearing up to add support for Python Notebooks, the company decided to launch a Python tutorial simultaneously.
At this time, the marketing team made its largest investment to allow for future learning resource development, switching the subdomain from sqlschool.modeanalytics.com to community.modeanalytics.com, and completely changing the structure of all the URLs.
The changes paid off over the next year, as Mode saw a continued increase in organic traffic to the site.
Python—another language that’s growing in popularity among analysts—allowed the team to expand the number of keywords that have been driving traffic to the site.
As a result, Emily and her team have seen a consistent increase in both traffic and leads from the tutorials ever since—now totaling over 500 leads a month just from traffic to the school.
How Does SQL School Convert Traffic to Leads?
There are two primary types of people who find the SQL Tutorial by way of Google:
Students wanting to learn SQL
Professional data analysts trying to solve a problem in their work
In both cases, the “students” who learn from SQL School have the option to use Mode’s sample data to practice and learn with.
Sample data sets might sound pretty benign.
But for the students—and for Mode’s sales team—they’re huge.
Here’s what Emily had to say about their importance:
“In talking with students who’ve used SQL School to train for interviews and land dream jobs, we’ve heard that it’s difficult to prepare for life as an analyst. They find the biggest hurdle to be one of access: proprietary company data simply doesn’t exist publicly. We’re filling this void with the help of the Mode community by building fake data sets and case studies to mirror on-the-job situations.”
Why do sample data sets matter so much to Mode’s sales team?
Because, in order to interact with the sample data sets using SQL, students must create a trial account for Mode.
Which means… they provide their name, contact information, and email address.
From that data, Mode’s marketing team gets a strong indication of whether the person is worth pursuing or not.
If the person converts their free community account into an organization and connects their company’s database, it’s kick-starts a powerful conversation for the Mode sales team.
In most cases, that’s the team’s signal to pass the lead to sales.
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Should You Create an Educational Microsite for Your Company?
SQL School was not created to be a lead generating asset for Mode.
And yet, that’s exactly what it’s become.
Instead of having lots of little content assets published over time (as most blogs are), SQL School is an example of a big project that was written and published all at once—then optimized as analysts began to find it.
It’s proof that what wins on the web are content assets that are genuinely helpful to the people who read them.
Which begs the question…
What can you build that would be genuinely helpful to your audience?
If you are inspired to build a similar microsite for your company, here are several specific strategies to keep in mind as you plan:
1. Ensure It Meets a Need for Your Audience
The key to SQL School’s success is its focus on helping its audience. It was written for data analysts because there was a lack of analysis-specific SQL information available.
If you want to build an educational microsite, you need to answer two questions:
Who is it for?
What problem does it solve for them?
Note that the Mode team had heard analysts mention a lack of SQL education as a pain point multiple times. Pay attention to what your audience says is a pain point, not what you think is a pain point.
2. Do Extensive Keyword Research
Once Mode realized SQL School was attracting organic traffic, it began doing keyword research to “fill in” any gaps it could find. Emily and her team found numerous long-tail keywords that justified adding pages to SQL School.
If you have no idea how to do keyword research, check out Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO, which covers Keyword Research in detail in Chapter 5.
3. Be Patient
Today, SQL School is an amazing resource for Mode Analytics. But it took a while before it began to really pay off. The microsite didn’t reach 500 leads a month until 3+ years after its publication.
Your experience will probably be similar, so be clear about your expectations going in.
SEO is a long play. Think in terms of years, not months.
4. Optimize as You Go
From the beginning, Mode has done an excellent job monitoring the performance of its website. Without that focus, it may not have realized how much of a content asset SQL was proving to be.
As you build your microsite, do the same. Watch your analytics, monitor your performance, identify what’s working, and try to replicate the success across every page on your site.
5. Tie It to Your Trial Plan to Generate Leads
Finally, if possible, provide a unique asset that’s only accessible to people who sign up for a trial of your product.
For Mode, it meant providing unique data sets students could use to learn SQL-based analysis.
Your product is unique, of course, so be creative about this strategy. But, if you can get people to create trial accounts, that will give your sales team much better information about them, their company, and their likelihood to convert into a paying customer.
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