Link Building Outreach in a Skeptical World – Whiteboard Friday
Posted by randfish
Outreach. It’s arguably the most important part of the link building process—and also the most grueling. Good personalized outreach is impossible to scale effectively, and it’s easy to fall into a rut. What should you be doing to maximize your success rate and to stand out from the crowd? In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand offers up some methods of bartering value to earn genuine links, catching your target’s attention, and gives actionable advice on what exactly you need to include in your outreach correspondence.
Howdy, Moz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about link building outreach in this skeptical, jaded world in which we are forced to live as marketers. Look, I think we know a few things. This is really continuation from our Whiteboard Friday where we talked about the frustrating part of the flywheel where social shares are just not, on average, in most cases, getting us to the links that we need in order to rank.
So we know a few things.
It is still the case that links are well-correlated with higher rankings. It’s still the case that nearly every site and page that ranks well in Google has some input that is related to their link profile, and sometimes that’s stronger and sometimes it’s a weaker influence. But we know we need links to rank well, especially in competitive search results.
It’s incredibly rare to earn those links just by publishing content and sharing it socially. Getting it in front of an audience, unless your audience is extremely link-likely and you’ve already built up some authority, and linking is a behavior that you’ve acclimated your community to, this is really, really tough. It’s not going to work on its own.
We also know that link outreach is a hard, grueling, manual process. There’s no doubt about that. This is frustrating. That’s why many of us try and use social sharing or subscriptions or publication to attempt to end around that need for direct link outreach because it’s such a challenge.
But what we need to talk about…
I know that many of you in the comments and over Twitter mentioned this is: What actually works for link outreach, and how can we make that process less painful and more likely to have success?
I think the reality is that outreach fundamentally involves an exchange of value. As you’re going out and attempting to earn a link from someone directly through link outreach, through that one-to-one relationship, whether that’s happening on social media or happening in person or happening on the phone or happening via email, whatever it is, if you don’t provide value, if you’re simply asking for something, your success rate is going to be extremely low compared to the folks who do provide value prior to the link or, better, as part of the link. The link is the way the value is exchanged.
That’s actually what Google is looking for. They’re not looking for someone who’s very successful at convincing someone to give them a link for no particularly good reason. They’re looking for an exchange of value, where someone says, “Gosh, it provides value to my site and my visitors to link to this resource, and therefore I want to do it.”
Some things that are often perceived to carry real value
Value can be a bunch of different things. Value could be in the ego that it boosts. It could be in the problems that it helps solve. It could be in the form of what you’ve given them in exchange. Lots of things.
So these are things that we’ve seen that are often perceived to carry real value, and some of these are taken directly from the BuzzSumo and Moz study, where we looked at things that earned social shares and also earned links, and there were some good cases of those and some different types of content. Some of this is also things that inherently earn links as it is used, things like embeddable content.
So I’ll talk through these because I think fundamentally when it comes down to it, it’s very tough for me to stand up here and say, “Oh, we did some research.” I saw this at a conference recently. I think it was Searchlove, where someone noted one of the things that we’ve been doing that’s had much better success with our link outreach is we reach out asking if they would like to see the piece that we want them to link to rather than sharing the piece with them directly. That gets a much higher email engagement rate like, “Yeah, okay, I’ll take a look at it.” Then when we do it send to them, those people tend to look at it and link to it more than if we just sent them the link right off the bat because we’ve engaged in that conversation.
Okay, look, there are a lot of tactical tips like that. But if that fundamental thing, that piece that you’re providing that value to the potential linker doesn’t carry real value in their eyes, you can’t have any success, and that’s why these items I think are so critical, so fundamental to the outreach formula.
- Unique research, and we’ve seen research perform very well. I think because unique research that provides value to entities and organizations and to content creators needs to be referenced. It needs that citation, and I think that’s why research, especially research that you do and/or visuals or riffs that you take off of research that’s already been created to analyze that data or to turn it into great graphs or interactive infographics or those kinds of things can provide real value.
- Well, I’m jaded about infographics personally, but I do believe that a lot of customized, high quality visuals can work, and certainly infographics can be a form of that, that do work in some sectors. I think that we’re seeing that in tech and in marketing and in legal, and in a lot of places where you see a tremendous amount of outreach, infographics are actually losing out because they’ve been so saturated, and every content creator in those niches has 10 people reaching out to them every week offering a new infographic. You’re just not standing out from the crowd. But I do think there are other forms of visuals, everything from photography to illustrations to customized graphics and charts, to drawings that can be very valuable there. That’s why I’ve mentioned it here.
- Embeddable content is wonderful because it naturally acquires that link by saying like, “Hey, here’s a calculator or here’s a tool that you can embed on your site if you’d like to.” You get that link back as part of the embed, and I think that can work great.
We’ve also seen a decline, actually. Embeddable content used to be all the rage, say, 6 to 10 years ago. It’s actually waned a little bit, and for that reason, I think can be more powerful, can stand out a little when it is used. So I think that’s a tactic that I would encourage folks to try again.
Badges are a form of this, but they’re the most mild, least uniquely valuable form of that. So if you’re going to do a badge, it better be a badge back to something that is very powerful or really, really triggers a great commitment. So if you’re an Etsy top seller and you get a badge to put on your website or an embeddable widget from your Etsy store so that people can buy directly from Etsy from your website, okay, those things provide real value, and, of course, I’m going to link to them. But just a badge that’s like, “I think you’re a great blogger.” Tough.
- APIs and data plus business development. These are tough things to build, but it can be very valuable. If you’re providing data on an ongoing basis, especially to large organizations or powerful entities who are using that data, either publicly or even privately, very often you can include in those agreements some form of a, “Hey, we’d like some co-branding. We’d like you to link back to us. We’d like you to say the data was provided by us.” Hard to do, but that’s a great thing because it’s powerful and it gets that link.
- Content that makes, well, your target look good. If you are inherently saying, “Hey, here’s a piece of content. We did a truly substantive analysis of 5 or 10 players in the field. Your product, your service, you, your company, your content stands out in this way, and we’ve quantified that, and we’ve produced this piece.” Yeah, I’m going to be much more likely to link to that than just a, “Here’s a badge that says we like you.” So I think these can still work well, and playing to people’s ego can still work well.
- Guest content. We see guest content still doing very well despite Google’s warnings about guest blogging. Of course, we talked about that couple of years ago on Whiteboard Friday. Guest content is still very powerful. It almost always includes a link back. The key is that this content has to actually provide value to the target. I think if that content does provide great value to the target, you can get a link from almost anywhere. The key is convincing them that it’s going to perform well for them and going to perform well with their audience.
As a result, it’s very easy for folks who already have a platform, who are already thought of as influencers and thought leaders, to get their content on to other sites. It’s much tougher as an unknown, and this is one of the reasons why I think building up your platform first and then leveraging guest content can be so valuable.
- Last one that I’ll mention here is a service or favor that makes your target want to refer people to you. Now this is a challenging thing to accomplish, but if you are a service provider, a content provider, a data provider, or a product provider who has done something amazing and unusual, something that makes you stand out in the minds of a customer, and you know that customer has a website, and that customer could be a business or an organization, an entity, those kinds of things, and you know that that organization often deals with people who need services like yours, reaching out and saying, “Hey, we’d love it if you’d refer folks, and here’s what we’re willing to offer,” and those kinds of things can be another great way to go.
The outreach email itself
This is the thing that gets talked about a lot, and I hear the same advice over and over again around link outreach. I get a little frustrated sometimes.
It need to be customized and well-written, and you need to flatter your target, and it shouldn’t be automated.
Those things, that’s just table stakes.
That is merely send a good, competent email. That is not advice or tactical, useful, actionable advice.
I get very frustrated when I see those same pieces of advice over and over again. I think where you want to go is places that other outreach emails don’t go. So if you can, try and look at a dozen or a hundred outreach emails from other sources to people like those in your target market. You know that they’ve received those emails.
You can even reach out to people in your audience who you already have a relationship with. I’m sure you have some relationships like that with people, who are influencers in your field already, and ask them, “Hey, can you send me the outreach emails that you get? I just want to take a look at them, because I think they’re all terrible, and I never want to do that to people. I’ll send you mine.” What you will find is that they are almost never authentic. They’re rarely humble. They almost never create a real connection.
In fact, the vast majority of real connection emails that I get from folks that I’ve never met before are not about outreach, and I think that’s what forms that real connection. I’ve seen a few of these that are outreach emails, but they do create a real connection, like they have actually read things that I’ve made and watched them, or been at events that I’ve been at, or worked with companies that I’ve worked with, or whatever it is, and they form that real connection in the email authentically. They need to stand out as unique. Unique meaning they don’t look like those other 150 outreach emails.
This is the sucky part. These outreach emails do not scale. The ones that work tend not to scale, and it tends to be a link builder’s job to scale this process, because you need lots of links, you need it to point to lots of pieces of content, and so you’re always looking for scale.
I would urge you to go the opposite direction. Narrow your funnel. Worry less about the number of people you’re targeting and more about the success rate, because once you get the success rate high, you can turn up the volume really fast. But if your success rate is low and there’s a limited market of influencers in your field, you can quickly burn all of them with your outreach before you ever have a chance to get good at it.
Link outreach is supposed to be hard.
This process is not supposed to scale. If it scaled, it would be easier. Everyone would do it, and there’d be no competitive barrier, no competitive advantage to being great at building and earning links.
So I think this frustration exists in the world. I want to recognize that and have empathy for it and for all of you who have to do link building outreach, but I also want to say that’s part of the magic that happens here. So you should account for it and expect it and not fear it.
All right, everyone. I look forward to your comments. I’d love to hear your link building outreach strategies and tactics, what’s worked for you, what hasn’t. We’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.
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