In 1998, stalled negotiations between the NBA Players Association and league owners led to a lockout. During lockout periods, players and teams are forced to the sidelines and can’t participate in official team practices or training sessions. After 204 days, the lockout ended, and the NBA announced it would be playing a compressed 50-game season, with the first games starting in 30 days.  

Many players wrongly assumed the lockout would last all season. This resulted in several players returning in “less than ideal” shape. When compounded with the lack of time for teams to practice together, it led to pretty poor gameplay: 83% of teams averaged fewer points than the year before. Journalist and basketball historian Bill Simmons described it thusly:

Three months of hateful, unwatchable, tortuous basketball ensues with a couple of exceptions: The Jazz, Pacers and Spurs stayed in shape during the lockout and even practiced together (it paid off: San Antonio grabbed a no. 1 seed and Utah and Indy had no. 2 seeds [in the playoffs])

San Antonio went on to win the championship against the New York Knicks. The Knicks were another potential beneficiary of that strange season: they made the finals as an 8 seed and are the only team to ever accomplish that feat. Similarly, on the other side of the COVID-19 downturn, there will be companies that emerge as “surprise” winners.  

Similar to a lockout season, you—and your competitors—have been forced to the sidelines. Like a lockout season, you won’t all use this time with equal effectiveness. This downturn will pass, demand will return, and the winners will likely be those who used this time to not just stay ready, but to gain ground.

3 Ways Affected Industries Can Strengthen Their SEO Strategies with Lessons From Professional Sports Lockouts

1. Performing a Site Audit Is Like Healing Old, Nagging Injuries

Professional athletes often play while injured, and even a full offseason isn’t always enough time to heal. During lockout seasons, many use the time to rehab old, nagging injuries. Every site has tech debt (old code that needs updating) and every marketing team has projects that “they’d love to get to, but it’s not an immediate need.” Of course your business has immediate needs, especially customer-support content.

But remember: not everybody will use this time with equal effectiveness, and the winners will be the ones who use this time to strengthen their organic market share.

If demand is low for at least the next 90 days, but you believe it will end at some point, consider using this time to clean up areas of your site and prioritize initiatives that were often sidelined due to more immediate needs. Many of these do require dev resources, but hopefully those resources have a bit more time on their hands to address some of these issues. For companies going through layoffs and furloughs, these are good reasons to keep more of the webdev team on the list of essential staff.

Here are some examples of what those projects might be:

  • In-Depth Technical Site Audit If you haven’t performed an in-depth audit in a while (you should at least twice per year), then this is a great time to do it. A great site audit often gives you more work than you can handle, and you likely only get to the tasks that are the highest priority and easiest to implement. Use this time to tackle long-standing technical issues with the site—your tech debt—that you’ve been wanting to address but never prioritized. 
  • Site Migrations and Redesigns If you already had this on your roadmap but maybe scheduled for later in the year, consider moving it up. Migrations and redesigns are complex and often carry a fair bit of risk. Furthermore, when you complete a migration, it takes time to recover organic search traffic and rankings while Google indexes your “new” pages. Knowing that your demand will be lower during COVID-19 provides an opportunity to execute on this strategy. It also can put you in a great position for when demand returns by having your new and improved site ready for consumers
  • Site Speed Improvements Improving site speed is a time-intensive endeavor, but it can have a massive impact. It’s a well-known ranking factor and is even more important in the mobile-first indexing era. This project can involve a variety of different tactics, and our partners at DeepCrawl have amazing guides for improving site speed that I recommend. 
  • Site Tools, Features, and Functionality Always wanted to build a calculator, make ecommerce functionality improvements, or enhance design? Do it now. Using this time to focus on projects like this will pay dividends in the future and be an excellent story for your teams when you talk about how not only did you survive this hardship–it made you stronger.

2. Be “Season-Ready” with COVID-19 Keyword Research and New Content

A shortened season can lead a lot of players to rush back into “being prepared.” It can lead to just being plain ol’ out-of-shape, like when Shawn Kemp returned to action 40 pounds heavier after the 1998–1999 NBA lockout, or it can lead to even more dire consequences. In the NFL, there was an average of 6–10 Achilles tears per season from 1980 to 2010. In 2011, after a lockout-shortened training camp that rushed players into preseason competition, 10 Achilles tendon injuries occurred over the first 12 days of training camp.

When demand returns, some companies will be scrambling to assemble personnel and strategies. This has inherent inefficiencies, and in the world of SEO and content, they’ll already be behind the companies that “stayed in shape.”

Here are four ways to think about keyword research and proactive content marketing for COVID-19:

  • COVID-19 Customer Support and FAQ Content
    This is the most immediate need, and many companies are likely already executing here. As an example, if you’re an airline, you need to be well versed in how your brand appears in search results for “how to cancel flights on xyz airline” or “refund policy for xyz airline.” You already know the immediate needs of your customers, and you need to ensure your content is doing a great job of satisfying those needs. To find topics that can be turned into content, use your customer support teams, live chat logs, and call centers. Many customers start their search for answers on Google, so you can decrease the dependence on call centers by bolstering this content.
  • Warranties, Return Policies, and Protection Plans
    Make sure your customers feel safe when purchasing from you by highlighting your various safety nets. For some businesses, this may require implementing or retooling these instruments to adapt to the post-COVID consumer. Create rich content that makes it easy for customers to understand the different ways they’re protected when doing business with you. This means doing more than the perfunctory “return policy” paragraph. Because of COVID-19, customers are more sensitive to the ways they can protect their purchases—consider adding a section to this content that explicitly addresses COVID-19.
  • Safety and Cleanliness  
    As people return to normal life, they’ll likely have new expectations for cleanliness and sanitization. This will be especially true for businesses that naturally create crowds, like a festival or movie theater. What do you think your customers will be looking for before attending? Is it safe to go to concerts? Is it safe to go to the movies? How can I protect myself from coronavirus at a football game? If your brand will be affected by searches like that, then it’s your job to update your business practices in response to the new normal and then educate your customers on how you’re trying to keep them safe. A great example of this is Delta’s content on “Delta Clean.” Notice that it isn’t just a generic policy; it’s an in-depth video showing how the company cleans its planes and why the effort matters. Would you feel safer flying Delta now? 
  • Fill Your Site’s Content Gaps
    Not everything in your strategy needs to be directly related to coronavirus. This is a great time to address content gaps on your site and fill them. Even if customers aren’t buying right now, remember that content consumed now will create brand equity and trust, which will pay off when demand returns to normal. There are plenty of ways to assess content gaps, but two that I always recommend are a competitive content gap analysis and a buyer’s journey content analysis.

3. The Best Teams Remain Cohesive During Lockouts

During the NHL lockout of 2012–13, Sydney Crosby took it upon himself to lead drills with his teammates four days per week until the lockout ended. The Penguins finished first in their division that year before losing to the Bruins in the semifinals. It would be an oversimplification to say those lockout practices were the primary reason for their success, but it does speak to a larger and more time-tested truth of great teams: they’re cohesive and resilient in tough times.

There is a lot of great content on working from home and keeping your team engaged, but here are a few tips for your SEO and Content teams to stay aligned during this time.

  • Daily Standups for the Content and SEO Team
    This is a common practice for product and engineering teams employing the Agile methodology, but  it’s becoming increasingly popular for non-engineering teams too. You can hold these virtually, like in a Slack channel or just meet for 15 minutes at the beginning of each day to discuss what you finished yesterday, today’s priorities, and what may be blocking progress. For some, daily standups may feel like micromanaging, but I’ve found it to be a good way to hold myself accountable and a great way to see what my teammates are working on. 
  • Stay on Track with Your Content Calendar
    Surprisingly, an internal survey of 774 businesses showed that 39% of SEO/Content teams aren’t using a content calendar. Moreover, many SEO and Content teams still operate in silos. This is a good time to break down the silo and keep both the SEO and Content Teams on track by keeping an updated content calendar; this can also serve as a focal point of daily standups. 
  • Enhanced Reporting on Your Current COVID-19 Initiatives
    Our teams have taken to looking at daily metrics for the core business during COVID-19, and each department owns its daily metrics. Over time, we likely will look at these less if conditions improve, but for now, it’s all hands on deck. There are lot of great ways to enhance your understanding of performance during this time (like using Conductor Searchlight for Crisis Management), and here are a couple more ways to enhance your team’s reporting:
    1. Daily Tracking on Key Terms and New Content
      When you launch a new piece of content, it can be helpful to see early indicators of success. Track these metrics daily for net new content for the first 2–4 weeks to make sure your new content is gaining traction. 
    2. Monitor Coronavirus-Related Content from Your Competitors
      In our platform, we recommend tracking the new terms related to coronavirus and then looking at the Market Share for those keywords. This is an easy way to see which of your competitors may be beating you to the punch and can also rally your team to increase content velocity.

This time is undoubtedly difficult for all marketers. It doesn’t affect everybody equally, but all are affected. But it will end. Like every other crisis, there will be some who emerge stronger not in spite of the circumstance, but because of it. Though much is out of our control right now, we can do our best to choose how we will use this time and potentially create competitive advantages. That’s what the best athletes do during a lockout, and that’s what the best businesses can do during the coronavirus lockdown. 

If you need help justifying the ROI of these SEO strategies, Download the Forrester Economic Impact of Conductor Report.

For more COVID-19 Strategies, check out our COVID-19 Resource Hub.

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