Thriving through uncertainty: What we learned

In November 2022, we held an event titled ‘The in-house SEO’s guide to marketing through uncertainty’ aimed at helping you to plan, execute and report on your 2023 organic marketing strategies as the world continues to be uncertain. 

The talks and Q&As spanned experts and friends of the agency across top brands and finished with a Q&A lead by myself with David Lionetti, Head of Marketing at GLL, a non-profit Social Enterprise and the UK’s largest provider of sport and leisure facilities, and Jóhann Benediktsson (or Jói), Digital Marketing Manager at Icelandair, Iceland’s flagship airline.

We explored how the two brands thrived and drove results through and beyond the uncertainty of the pandemic, and how we can take learnings from this into the here and now with ongoing global turbulence. 

For GLL, results included: 

  • 178 links across sites including Grazia, Huffington Post and Stylist
  • These links saw a 35% increase in visibility for the gym landing page 
  • Ranking page one for the term ‘gyms’, which is searched for 1m times a month
  • A relationship between traditional PR and digital PR that’s gone from strength to strength

For Icelandair, results included: 

  • The best quarter the airline had since 2017 
  • +226% more organic revenue in Jan-Aug 22 vs 2019 in the US 
  • Growth in US organic presence of +35% since the beginning of 2019
  • +103% more organic revenue in Jan-Aug 2022 vs 2019 in the UK 
  • +40% increase in visibility for priority keywords in the UK 

If this is something you want to achieve? Read on….

How the events of 2020 impacted travel and leisure brands

Q: What were those first few weeks like for your brand and industry?

Answer from David: In the first few days and weeks for GLL, our staff had to react to the news that the country would be closing down. The operations team started the task of hibernating the facilities, while national marketing worked on communicating with members about what the closure of facilities meant for them. 

Answer from Jói: For Icelandair, the trigger to all this starting was when the US closed its borders. This saw bookings instantly drop and then when the world closed, cancelled flights meant that the customer service team was swamped. This sparked a really beautiful moment of camaraderie between teams coming together to support the frontline teams in helping customers that were maybe afraid, or scared and just wanted information.

Customer demand for both brands completely changed, for GLL all leisure centres, sports facilities and libraries were closed resulting in customer memberships being frozen. And for Icelandair, all flights were grounded until countries reopened their borders. 

The challenge was to not view this as the demand for both brands’ services stopping, but instead to consider and act on how they could continue to provide value to their audiences through what was going to be a very difficult time for them. 

So, at a time when most brands were switching their marketing off, GLL and Icelandair set about rewriting their marketing plans based on this shift in customer demand and needs. 

Why gaining stakeholder buy-in for the new plan was integral to success

Q: How did you gain buy-in for the pivoted marketing plans?

Answer from David: For GLL, it meant going back to our purpose, existing to improve the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of local communities. The only way this was going to be delivered was through our content, digital PR and marketing strategies. 

Answer from Jói: In the case of Icelandair, people wanted information on if travel was possible, what borders were closed, who could fly, and how to cancel or rebook flights. All of this needed to be communicated and the most efficient and effective way of doing this was through updating the content on the website and ensuring this was communicated through social media, PR and digital PR activities. 

These strategies reflected the huge responsibilities that the companies had to their audiences, and ensuring this was evident in every stage of the marketing plans meant buy-in and sign-off for the new plans were achieved. 

A new way of providing value to customers 

Q: How did your teams set about implementing the pivoted plans?

Answer from David: My team worked very closely with the relevant government departments to understand guidance, as well as with ukactive and Sport England to tap into their intel. From this, and our own data combined with Builtvisible’s, we knew that demand was going to shift to home workouts, online classes and advice on keeping kids entertained at home instead. 

Of course, at this point, we weren’t ranking for any of these searches as it wasn’t something we’d previously provided, so the product and content teams went about turning this around. A new product, Better at Home, was launched as a framework, and to deliver these we partnered with a supplier of virtual fitness classes and videos.

The PR and digital PR team then set about making sure people knew what these were and positioning GLL as a thought leader in the health and wellbeing space. Within a month, GLL had about 130,000 people already accessing the home workouts. The links built to the dedicated page created for Better at Home also saw us ranking for key terms. 

Answer from Jói: For Icelandair, all content needed to shift towards being pandemic related and making sure that all necessary information was available for all current and future customers. The team responsible for creating the content was the busiest at this time, working to ensure that it was as good as it could be in addition to releasing it.

As a result, the media and consumers started trusting Icelandair as a source of information whereas previously, people simply visited the site to book flights. Yet, we were able to develop that long-lasting trust naturally through search as well as through proactive digital PR efforts sharing this material since we felt a responsibility to our audiences.

Bringing teams together toward a shared goal 

Collaboration is always something we strive for, but in situations like the ones the teams at GLL and Icelandair found themselves in during the pandemic, collaboration towards a shared goal happened more naturally than ever before. 

Q: How did your teams work together during this time and beyond?

Answer from David: Our reactive press office, PR team and the digital PR team have always communicated their activities and worked alongside each other. But during the pandemic, collaboration and teamwork between our PR team and digital PR team went to a new level to deliver the new strategy. The time helped each function see the real value the other had and how they complement one another. 

Since then this way of working has gone from strength to strength and I’m so proud of it, it’s one of our best relationships and it’s actually delivering results, which is good.

Answer from Jói: The need to achieve delivering informational content and content that would help people feel safe and inspired to travel again when they were able to, such as our Iceland Welcomes you Back campaign, really brought the content team, digital marketing team and web development team closer together. 

Since then everything SEO related, whether it’s technical or digital PR, is understood and appreciated across teams. There’s an understanding that it’s not just something that one department’s responsible for, but something everyone can have an impact on.

The results of thriving through uncertainty  

Focusing efforts on continuing to provide value to customers even though they weren’t able to access the brands ‘traditional’ products ensured that both GLL and Icelandair remained relevant and stayed front of mind for audiences throughout the pandemic. 

For GLL, this was using content and digital PR to showcase and cement their position as thought leaders in health and wellness, and supporting communities through a difficult time. While for Icelandair, this was positioning the brand as the trusted source for all information on flights and whether or not destinations were open to travellers on routes they services.

This, alongside efforts to not only maintain the previous efforts put into SEO but to ensure their websites were ready to capture the demand once things returned to ‘normal’, meant both brands were rewarded for their support when demand did just that. 

Q: What impact did continuing marketing activity have?

Answer from David: The work meant that our gym landing page (a SERP that’s incredibly competitive) saw a 35% increase in visibility, enabling us to capture the pent-up demand for our audiences’ renewed appreciation for health and wellbeing. 

The team secured 178 links between October 2021 and February 2022 on sites including Grazia, Huffington Post and Stylist. The /gyms landing page moved to page one for the keyword “gyms”, with its monthly search volume of 1m. 

The Weight Loss with Better content and digital PR collaboration saw 38 new keywords, with a monthly combined search volume of 13k, start to rank, and a sharp increase in visibility since the page went live which has driven over 9k in impressions in the 3 months since launch.

Answer from Jói: When travel was allowed again, we had the best quarter we’d had since 2017 aided by the pent-up demand of those that haven’t been able to travel for so long. 

In the US, visibility for priority keywords increased by 39%, driven by a 62% growth in the top 3 rankings (+168), 22% growth in page 1 rankings (+192) and 68% increase in the overall volume of ranking keywords (+998).

In the UK, the teams achieved a +40% increase in visibility for priority keywords, from 114% growth in top 3 rankings (+157), 101% growth in page 1 (+343) rankings and 72% growth in new ranking keywords (+744).

In addition to these results, marketing through this uncertainty has benefits that will continue to provide long-term value for both brands in the way teams work together. 

We as an agency were very appreciative of the trust put in us to continue working on SEO together with their internal teams, but it’s even more rewarding seeing how much more bought into SEO other teams within marketing are from social to digital PR.

Since then, we continue to work with GLL and Icelandair’s teams to deliver value and plan for whatever may happen in 2023. And if you’re interested to read more about our work with both brands during the pandemic, you’ll be pleased to know that we’ve written a case study on the success seen by both GLL and Icelandair.

If anything you’ve read in this piece has inspired you to reconsider your marketing strategy for 2023 and beyond and you’d like to discuss this with us, please do get in touch.

Join the Inner Circle

Industry leading insights direct to your inbox every month.