How CarMax Drove $56 Million in Content Value Through the Art & Science of SEO
Contently Case Stories gives a behind-the-scenes look at the amazing stories Contently customers are telling.
“SEO” may be the most ubiquitous marketing word out there—an OG term that sits alongside “engagement” and “cross-channel” in the pantheon of lexicon that’ll never die. But even though everyone from junior marketing coordinators to seasoned CMOs will give lip service to it, a great SEO strategy is hard to find.
Which brings us to CarMax. The nation’s largest retailer of used cars has also become one of the world’s most popular content destinations for car shoppers—thanks in large part to its unique combo of SEO dominance and editorial excellence.
Recently, CarMax let us take a look under the hood of a content program that’s driven over $56M in content value over the past year, and come to rank for 1.5 million keywords worldwide.
Hero, Hub, Help
One of the most impressive things about CarMax’s sophisticated content program is that it didn’t really exist until 2016.
According to Malissa Mackenzie, director of creative services at CarMax, the turning point was gaining support from the company’s senior leadership. After the team ran a small experiment with a few pieces of content, they were able to make a data-driven case for how content could drive valuable search traffic while also helping consumers make smarter decisions. Immediately, the leadership team bought in.
Malissa MacKenzie, director of creative services at CarMax
“Even at the senior executive level, you have those different perspectives coming in, listening to each other, and agreeing on this is a place that’s worthy to invest,” Mackenzie explained.
It also helps that a heavy investment in content just makes sense for CarMax. Car shopping is a high-consideration purchase, so people do a lot of research online. Since CarMax isn’t biased towards any one manufacturer or model, the content team can take an unbiased, editorial approach that puts the customer first.
The content team can take an unbiased, editorial approach that puts the customer first.
They’ve scaled the maturity of their program in record time by adopting the “Hero, Hub, Help” framework, which was developed for YouTube in 2015.
“Hero” content consists of bigger, flashier pieces that draw your audience in and build your brand. (To use the most dramatic example, think of Red Bull dropping Felix Baumgartner from space.)
“Hub” content includes content series that get people to return to your site. (Think Moz’s “White Board Friday” series.)
“Help” content answers key questions your audience is asking—and as you’ll see, it’s where CarMax has shined brightest.
In such a competitive automotive content landscape, figuring out what content to create and what questions to answer are key.
CarMax tackled these challenges by working collaboratively across teams. “Our strategy incorporates inputs from SEO strategists, content strategy analysts, as well as creative and UX,” Mackenzie said. “We have this culture of continuous improvement. We recognize there’s a lot of companies that publish automotive and car shopping content, so we want to make sure we’re developing content that’s unique.”
At the heart of that strategy is CarMax’s comprehensive rankings—like The Best Affordable Sports Cars of 2021 or 7 Best Off-Road Vehicles—and trend stories, like this examination of how classic cars are making a comeback. These guides help buyers during the research process, bring them to CarMax’s site, and keep the brand top-of-mind when someone is ready to make a purchase.
The team takes an art-and-science approach to bring that content to life. “It’s a collaboration between passionate editors and passionate SEO strategists,” Mackenzie said. SEO insights help CarMax figure out what models and categories to zero in on, then editors figure out the unique approach the company can take.
But CarMax doesn’t stop there. They also layer in customer research, product development insights, and qualitative feedback from its associates on the ground. That results in a lot of different content that CarMax needs to create to meet the needs of its audience, which is where Contently’s content marketing platform and award-winning network of freelance writers come in.
“Our partnership with Contently has been a huge benefit to us because we couldn’t do the volume that we’re doing without them.”
“Our partnership with Contently has been a huge benefit to us because we couldn’t do the volume that we’re doing without them,” Mackenzie said. “We pull in CarMax data to make sure that our Contently writers can incorporate a CarMax perspective into those topics specifically.”
That data-driven approach comes to life in pieces like the 4WD/AWD Index, which uses CarMax data to look at where four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicles are most popular in the country, creating a piece of visually engaging storytelling that can be repurposed across channels.
“Contently’s been an amazing partner, and I was really impressed early on by the ability to have a Contently editor who has automotive experience,” Mackenzie said.
Contently writers and editors join CarMax’s weekly standup, which has allowed for incredible collaboration. “It almost feels like they are a part of our in-house team.”
It’s working. Millions of people read CarMax’s content each month—with 75 percent of its traffic coming from search. And that traffic is worth over $56 million, according to Contently’s Content Value Tracker, which measures how much a competitor would have to pay to replicate a brand’s organic traffic through Google search ads.
CarMax’s Content Value growth, as captured by Contently’s Content Value Tracker
Embracing video for Hero and Hub content
In early 2020, CarMax partnered with Edmunds, a car review and shopping site, to up their video content, and later acquired the company in 2021. The acquisition strengthened the partnership they already had on dynamic video content.
Video has helped CarMax extend its search dominance to YouTube, the second-largest search engine on earth. The well-edited, informative, and entertaining clips are hosted by Edmunds editors. Just check out this review of the Dodge Challenger vs. Dodge Charger, which has earned 1,200 likes and over 268,000 views on YouTube.
“CarMax brings data on what we know about sales shoppers, and then Edmunds brings the vehicle expertise that they have with a whole team of car experts,” Mackenzie said.
These videos are TV-quality productions that keep car junkies hooked. Ultimately, it’s all about finding ways to both serve CarMax’s audience and bolster the business case for its content program.
“We hope that we can add value and inspire readers to choose CarMax as the place they want to complete their shopping process, ” Mackenzie said. “But we’re very happy if we know that we’ve added value to the research that they’re doing.”
And that dedication to their audience is CarMax’s guiding light.
“It’s our responsibility to always advocate that the intention of creating content is to help the customer,” Mackenzie said. “That’s the highest business goal we have.”Image by Nuthawut Somsuk