The Step-by-Step Guide to Turning Link Prospectors into Lead Generators

December 07, 2015
Aaron Polmeer

By John-Henry

Posted by John-Henry

Digital marketing is a pretty introverted industry. This tends to make us a bit hesitant to embrace sales and outbound selling. There’s no beating around the bush: Sales can be difficult, scary, uncomfortable, and awkward — but if you want to grow your client base, it may require getting out of your comfort zone.

Image via Quinn Dombrowski

Sales has a bad rap, especially with digital marketers. Even Moz’s founder frequently expresses how much he dislikes outbound. Let’s make one thing clear first: There’s a difference between spamming a scraped email list with offers for digital marketing and strategically building a database of prospects to work over time. This post is all about the latter.

You may not know it, but your agency has been training quality sales development reps all this time — you’ve just been calling them link builders. At DocSend we have an SDR (Sales Development Representative) team whose day-to-day consists of locating contact information for decision makers, cold email pitching, polite and persistent follow up, and negotiation…. sound familiar? Outreach teams have a nearly identical skill set to SDRs.

Image via HaPe_Gera

If you take a link builder or promotions person on your team and set their sights on local business owners and marketers in your area, your team can build a database of potential leads for your agency that you can strategically contact, work, and close over time. Here’s a step-by-step guide to starting up an outbound sales process for your small-to-mid-sized agency using your link building team.

Table of contents

Creating your ideal customer profile for your agency


Image via Thomas Quine

It’s time to categorize every current and former client and determine what aspects of their business made them a fit (or not a fit) for your agency. Here’s a simple spreadsheet template that I like to use. The goal is to identify the commonalities and qualities of the customers that have been great for your business. I like to bucket my clients into three groups: good, fair, and bad. Here is some criteria I like to use when evaluating past and current clients:

Location: What’s the geographic location of client’s business?

  • Where are your best client located? Does being close in proximity and being able to hold face-to-face meetings correlate with longer client retention for your agency? Do you have an established client base in a distant city where your agency is building up customers + trust that you should target?

Monetization: What’s the primary goal of the site?

  • Lead gen, ecommerce, and advertising models require very different skill sets and domain expertise. Does your agency provide the best results for a specific type of business model that you can focus on and target?

B2B or B2C: What kind of customer does this business sell to, other businesses or consumers?

  • B2B marketing and B2C marketing have some stark differences. Content consumption behaviors of the target demographic and the promotional strategies to get in front of those audiences are vastly different. Does your firm excel at connecting your customers with consumers, or is it stronger at generating interest from other businesses for your clients?

LTV of customer: How much is the ideal client worth to your business? HubSpot has a great guide on calculating LTV for agencies.

  • Everyone dreams of big clients, but where does your business actually get tangible returns? It’s more important to be a profitable agency, rather than a high-revenue agency. Chances are your most profitable accounts aren’t your highest paying.

Services performed: What was in the SOW?

  • Analyzing your clients based on the type of work performed will provide insights into what service provides the best client experience and provides the most value to your agency. Does your agency tend to get clients for local SEO and keep them by providing solid results while losing most of your paid social clients in under a year?

CMS/Technology stack: What kind of technology were they working with?

Point of contact: Who was your point of contact?

  • Does your team work better with founders/owners of earlier-stage companies, where employees all wear a lot of hats, or do they get better results and retain clients longer when there is a dedicated marketing lead to work with and help them drive client-side change?

After going through my historical freelance clients for good fits, here’s what my ideal client looks like:

Locations: Chicago or San Francisco

Point of contact: Sole proprietor/business owner in charge of running both the website and all marketing.

Contract- or project-based: Project

Services: Small-site technical SEO, penalty recovery, local SEO

Employee count: Less than 10

Monetization: Lead gen

B2B or B2C: B2C

Average monthly billings: $500–$2,000 a month

CMS of choice: WordPress

Implementation capability: Requires help with all forms of implementation (which allows for upsells).

Content deployment timeliness: If I provide implementation help, the business can deploy new content the same week it’s delivered.

What analyzing past clients taught me and why it’s valuable

After going through everyone I’ve worked with, I discovered a lot of interesting info:

  • The clients I keep the longest are small businesses in Chicago and San Francisco that have less than ten employees and have a budget between $500 and $2,000 per month to spend on SEO.
  • In the past I’ve worked with East Coast clients, but they don’t seem to be as good of a fit (possibly due to time zone differences).
  • Businesses I work best with are typically consumer-facing and the sites have less than 100 URLs.
  • The business that stay the longest typically need help with technical SEO, local SEO, and penalty recovery.
  • Sadly, this process also helped me discover that clients that need consistent link building (even though it’s something I love doing) are not a good fit from a revenue/retention standpoint.

Although this wasn’t the most exciting way to spend a weekend, this process yielded a lot of valuable findings. I’m less likely to seriously pursue any business on the east coast. If anyone comes to me with a project for a massive site, I’m now quick to pass that lead on. I also no longer provide freelance link building, which is kind of a bummer. This has allowed me to focus on the type of customers that I provide the best results for and retain the longest, and avoid investing in leads that are likely to churn.

Picking target verticals for lead prospecting

Personally, I look for businesses that are sought after once a trigger event occurs for a consumer, i.e. “I need a lawyer because I’m getting divorced” or “I need a house because I’m having a child.” These businesses tend to be competitive in search and their owners are already familiar with SEO and SEM. Here’s some I like:

  • Services:
    • Swimming pool construction
    • Basement waterproofing / seepage
    • Maids and housekeeping
    • Carpet cleaning
    • Tax prep
    • Photography
    • Computer repair
    • Compliance repair
    • Automotive repair
    • Debt consolidation
    • Financial advisor services
    • Accounting
    • Banking
    • Residential painting
  • Real Estate:
    • Residential
    • Luxury
    • Rentals
  • Law:
    • Mediation
    • Tax
    • Labor and employment
    • Immigration
    • Civil
    • Criminal law / DUI attorney
    • Divorce and family
    • Probate
    • Intellectual property
    • Document preparation
    • Real estate
    • Wills and estate planning
    • Disability
    • Bankruptcy
    • Contracts
    • Real estate
    • Personal injury

Don’t just prospect in these industries — this is what works for me, not necessarily for you. Even nuanced outbound cold email has admittedly low response rates, so you are going to need to harvest a lot of prospects to see ROI. The more you blow this list out, the more opportunities you have.

Generating prospect lists for your Local SEO agency

In order to generate a robust database of leads, I use SEMrush to generate keyword lists and Link Prospector to determine market share for a given industry’s keyword set. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown:

Step 1: Plug competitive head terms for the target service into SEMrush

For this example, we’ll use car window repair.

Image via Twanda Baker

Step 2: Export SEMrush keyword data

I like to use either the phrase match list of keywords or the full related list of keywords.

Step 3: Clean your data

Remove all branded and geographic keywords from your data set.

Branded & geo terms will just muck up your data — they must be deleted! Here’s how to use filters to quickly clean your keyword list:

  • Highlight all columns
  • Hit the “Filter” button in the menu ribbon
  • Hit the dropdown menu in the keyword column in cell A1
  • Click “Clear all” from the dropdown filter menu
  • Search for branded and geographic terms in the filter menu
  • Delete all terms that are branded and geographic
  • Click “Select all” and de-select “(Blanks)” and hit OK
  • You should now be left with non-branded, non-localized keywords

Step 4: Localize your keyword set

Once you have a list of at least 50 commercially viable head terms, delete columns B–F in the Google Doc and add geographic keyword modifiers to each of the search terms to localize them to your agency’s preferred service area. For example, “car window repair” would become “car window repair chicago.” Here’s how I like to set it up in a Google Doc:

Step 5: Run your keywords through Link Prospector

Take your list of localized search terms for your target vertical and drop all of them into a custom report in Link Prospector:

After a few minutes, your report will finish and you will be left with a huge list of results.

Pay special attention to the LTS metric. According to Link Prospector’s creator, Garrett French, if a URL ranks in position 1 for a query, Link Prospector assigns the domain 100 LTS points. Each URL below the #1 position gets slightly less LTS points than the result above it in the SERP. This metric was originally intended to estimate SEO link value potential, but it is also a great proxy for market share if you are creating custom reports that solely consist of local keywords for a single industry.

Step 5: Categorize your Link Prospector results for potential leads

After looking at the Link Prospector export, there are a bunch of national sites and service aggregators that are competing for market share. These are likely to have corporate offices, gatekeepers, procurement teams — they are best to avoid. To identify and exclude enterprise sites, I use Domain Authority scores. Anything over a DA of 50 is unlikely to be local.

Here’s the beginning of my categorization for car window repair in Chicago:

You can find some great prospects with low DA and LTS, so go through the whole list.

Step 6: Add potential leads to your CRM

Add any site that’s a potential match to a spreadsheet for easy tracking, or to a CRM if you have one. HubSpot currently has a free CRM and if you already use BuzzStream, it can work pretty well to track potential leads. Here’s a simple spreadsheet that I like to use that you can copy.

Step 7: Manually evaluate the sites marked as “potential lead”

You need to determine if these leads are a fit for your business. These are sites that fit your ideal customer profile that have functional websites that your team can work with. I also like to run sites that seem like a solid fit through SEMrush to see if they’ve been hit by any penalties or filters like Panda or Penguin. I also utilize the Builtwith Chrome plugin for insights about their technology stack to get a feel for how sophisticated their marketing is.

Qualifying prospects for potential agency fit

After going through a chunk of the list for “Chicago window repair,” here are some of the potential leads identified for car window repair in Chicago. In your CRM, place a note next to each site that is manually evaluated by your team, along with the other metrics you decide to track and record. Here’s a sample of some of our notes:

  1.– Good-looking site that appears to have some marketing spend. Several analytics packages, Optimizely, Google remarketing, AdRoll, Facebook and Twitter, and several display network tags live on site. Site is on WordPress.
  2. – Decent-looking site; not as professional as competitor Site has Google Analytics deployed, but no ad tech.
  3. – Site is ranking well, but would need to invest in redesign before I could provide value.
  4. – Site appears to be lead gen owned by
  5. – Site appears to be lead gen owned by
  6. – A more basic website than the typical competition, but still worth approaching. Pitch may need to be framed around betting the market leaders.
  7. – Rough UX and web design, not an ideal client — do not contact
  8. – Rough UX and web design, not an ideal client — do not contact

Finding business owner & decision maker emails

Image via Born1945

Your link builders have experience getting email addresses for bloggers, but getting emails for business owners and decision makers can be slightly different. You can rarely use WhoIs lookups, and tactics like exporting social media posts for contact info don’t tend to pan out. However, it’s easy enough to guess the proper email at a small business that has its own mail server set up.

There’s already been a ton of great posts written on email gathering or guessing. Whoever is doing the prospecting on your team might get some value out of this reading list as a refresher course:

And tools like FullContact’s gmail plugin and Rapportive are the DocSend sales teams’ guiding light when it comes to email address gathering.

Procuring emails for sole proprietorships and small businesses — Advanced tactics

Not all the tricks in the above guides are going to result in a verified email for a prospect. Some of these local businesses may be using Gmail (or even Hotmail or AOL!), so you may have to get crafty.

Hack 1: The BBB is a gold mine of business owner info

Local businesses are often registered with the BBB, and their detail pages sometimes display business owner contact information publicly.

Bonus — full name of business owner acquired:

Hack 2: Hunt for contact info in existing citations

Citations often have contact info; here’s one from Yahoo Maps.

1 down, 1 to go.

Hack 3: Look for responses to reviews online to get business owner/decision maker name and email.

Here’s someone in charge of protecting a network of doctors’ online reputation responding to a negative review; they’ve kindly left their full name and email.

Hack 4: Use reverse image search on social media avatars

Yelp is a battleground for local businesses trying to protect their reputation. To create an account, Yelp allows users to login via Oauth from other social media accounts. When an account on Yelp is created with data from another social media platform, the profile picture from the parent social media account is automatically imported into the Yelp account.

By doing a reverse image search (get the handy Chrome plugin here) on the business owner’s avatar that responds to customer complaints on a Yelp page, you can sometimes find their other social profiles and hopefully their full name — and then guess and verify their email.

After a little bit of sleuthing through image search results, we are able to find the business representative’s full name.

We have the decision maker’s name, and some additional prospecting found two general email addresses for this business. Although we don’t have a direct email for this prospect, we have both the business phone number and address. If need be, we can make contact over the phone or via direct mail.

Moving up market: Prospecting for medium-sized businesses

Image via Sean McGrath

Finding contact info at slightly bigger and more organized businesses can actually be easier than finding the info for one-woman and one-man shops. When it comes to prospecting for decision makers in SMBs, LinkedIn will be your team’s BFF. If you have a lot of Linkedin contacts, give whoever is doing the qualifying on your team access to your LinkedIn profile to navigate corporate decision makers.

This time, let’s go after San Francisco real estate

Using SEMrush again, we are going to compile our keyword list. This time around, I took head terms is currently ranking for in organic search and removed all the branded, geo-targeted, and irrelevant queries. Once the list was cleaned up, we concatenated variations of geo terms for San Francisco. Here’s a link to the Google Doc where it’s all set up.

There were only a few head terms that I wanted to target. Instead of scraping the bucket for long tail keywords, i mixed up the position and formatting of the geo modifiers for each of the keywords to allow for more robust prospecting.

This is just a small sliver of the potential leads I found from the Link Prospector export.

Next, let’s look at a few hacks for getting emails for slightly bigger local businesses.

Hack 1: Prospect on LinkedIn for stakeholders and guess their email using

This email is easy enough to guess; it only took two tries:

Hack 2: Look for executive team and bio pages for contact and detailed lead info

Small businesses might not have an executive page, so make sure to check the “About us” page as well; you’d be surprised at what kind of contact info people publish online:

Sometimes you get lucky, and the prospect publishes a ton of personal data on their bio page that you can use to inform the initial cold intro process:

Compiling your local lead database

Now it’s time to repeat this process for every single vertical that you want to target. Considering outbound conversion rates for cold intros, I recommend getting at least 1,000 local businesses in your database. If you want to outsource the data collection, you can use a cheaper service like Odesk/UpWork. If you are outsourcing email collection, I recommend using a third-party validation service like BriteVerify so you don’t hurt your email deliverability or waste your time. If you are looking to outsource the whole process but with a layer of management and QA, I’ve seen companies get great results with services like LeadGenius.

Make no mistake about it, this is a lot of work, and the initial prospecting and keyword list building can be done with an outsourced service — but I highly recommend that either you as a business owner, or your savviest link builder manually evaluate the websites for potential agency/business fit.

What to do with all this contact info?

The goal here is not to start cold-calling these people and pitching them on your services. Without a trigger event (traffic loss from organic search, penalty, big jump in CPC or CAC) it’s my experience that business are unlikely to switch vendors after a cold pitch.

Here are a few ideas on what you can do with your contacts:

  • Host a free event for local business owners to learn about digital marketing; I stole this one from Orbit Media Studios. They regularly host Wine Web nights at their office where people come to sip a few glasses of vino and discuss marketing trends.
  • Upload their emails into retargeting lists.
  • Run the sites through URL Profiler to further enrich your data with stats like email addresses, PageSpeed, readability, and content metrics, or scrape their phone numbers.
  • Attend local networking events and work the room for people from these companies.
  • Send an ebook filled with helpful and localized tips for small business owners in your area that positions you as a local thought leader.
  • Whenever you need to use a new business or service, reference your list of prospects to see if any of them are a fit so you can get your foot in the door.
  • Start a digital marketing newsletter for local business owners and email everyone on your list asking them to sign up.
  • Analyze their paid search efforts for glaring errors and email them with actionable tips to improve their performance.
  • Run their site through Screaming Frog and find any easy-to-fix technical SEO issues that you can write up and explain in a quick email.
  • Send your rate card for one-off services and let them know you can help them on short notice if they are ever in a bind.
  • Anything you think will build trust and get you in their consideration set for when they have a trigger event.

If you think you can hard-pitch these businesses, go for it, but it’s never worked for me. I focus all of my sales efforts on nurturing prospects and building up trust via helpful information and friendly correspondence. Good luck and happy closing!

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