The Most Challenging Parts of the Content-Led Link Building ProcessThe author's views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
Earlier this month, we launched our annual State of Link Building Survey, which aims to give the SEO industry insights into the way link building is currently being done, how it’s measured and perceived, and the future of link building.
This year, we asked a bunch of additional questions related to the content-led link building process, one of which asked respondents to tell us which steps of the process they found most challenging. Here are the results:
Today, we’re going to talk through each step of this process and look at ways to make them less challenging, thus leading to more successful results.
1. Getting links from outreach targets
I wasn’t too surprised to see this picked as the most challenging part of the process. After all, the crucial part of succeeding isn’t in your control. You’re asking someone else to do something for you, and all of the work up until this point will be for nothing if they just don’t want to do it. Not to mention that bloggers and journalists can often get hundreds of emails a day, meaning that standing out can be difficult, even if you have a solid campaign idea. As Stacey MacNaught, one of the contributors to our report, says:
“Naturally, as more and more people turn to content marketing and digital PR tactics, the space gets more crowded. Journalists are getting HUNDREDS of emails a day. So even if what you have is brilliant, there's always going to be that element of things that's out of your control.”
There’s another crucial element in the process here that is rarely, if ever, talked about: luck. As Stacey goes on to say:
“What if your email just lands in that important inbox just as they're getting a response to something really important? What if it lands on a day they just happen to be out of office? What happens if they login and there's 400 unreads in the inbox and yours just gets scanned over? Yes, you can have tactics and strategies in place to chase up, or optimize timing. But let's not fool ourselves into believing that there isn't an element of this that's luck even after you've produced something wonderful.”
One scenario I often think about is the fact that many of us will check email on our phone whilst on the move, or even when taking a break from our desktop and making a coffee. What if a journalist reads your email, likes it, but by the time they get back to their desk, something else has grabbed their attention?
The thing is, as we’ll discuss a bit more later, that the seeds of success at this point in the process are sewn long before you send that message to the person who you’d like to link to your campaign.
With all of that said, how can we improve our chances of getting links at this point in the process, and overcome this challenge?
Don’t treat outreach as a numbers game
It’s 2021 and we’re long past the point of link building being a numbers game. I’m not just talking about outreach here, I’m talking about the effectiveness of links themselves on your organic search rankings. Long gone are the days when raw numbers of links were the key driver, at least over the long-term. You’ll still see some websites ranking off the back of high volumes of low quality links, but it’s not something that a legitimate brand should build their search traffic on.
As Gisele Navarro commented on this question:
“This right here is the reason why trying to scale content-led link building campaigns is a waste of time. I've read people saying what we do is a numbers game but it's not.”
Gisele mentions an important word — scale. Once you scale anything, quality can start to suffer, and this is the same across many processes. Of course, some quality can be maintained, but when it comes to link building, scale often means a number of things:
- Emailing as many link prospects as possible
Using email templates with minimal personalization
None of these are a great way to represent a brand online, let alone be effective at link building.
Gisele went on to talk about the importance of putting time into content instead of worrying about scaling outreach:
“No matter how many emails you send or how many sites you add to your target list, if your content is not link-worthy then you will struggle getting links. Grab all the time and effort you're dedicating to scaling link building and put it into the content you're producing.”
So, the question becomes, how can you be more effective at outreach? Let’s look at a few ways.
Focus on key relationships in your sector
Much has been said about the convergence of SEO and PR over the years, and I don’t want to focus too much on that today. But one thing that PR professionals are good at is building relationships, and I think that’s something that has often translated well into the SEO world.
You don’t need to have a campaign in your hand in order to start building relationships, either. You can start any time with a simple email, and many journalists or bloggers will welcome an authentic message from you where you might be starting a conversation about their work or views on a specific topic. Our team at Aira has done this many times over the years, and real friendships have developed as a result.
Look at your sector and ask yourself how you can engage with key people — without asking for anything in return. You’ll be surprised at how receptive those people are.
The key point to remember here is that you’re putting time and effort into this up front, knowing that you’ll see the rewards later. When the time comes to share a campaign that could be genuinely useful to your contact, they’re going to be far more likely to open and read your email. Even if the campaign isn’t for them, you’re likely to be told that, and have the chance to get feedback rather than having your email completely ignored without knowing why.
Find the right person to contact
When link prospecting, it’s very easy to go to a domain and make a note of the first name and email address that you find, and then continue on. This is fine for small blogs and publications, but you should take time to do more research for the medium to larger ones.
Bigger publications, especially top-tier newspapers and magazines, will have whole teams of people who cover different topics. Even specific topics can often have several people working on them — check out the travel section of any large newspaper and you’ll quickly see just how many writers there are.
It’s worth taking a bit of extra time to find out if there is more than one person who you could contact, and if so, making a note of all of them at the same time. You can then dig into each one a bit more to see who may be the most appropriate person to contact.
Keep an eye out for a few things in your research:
- How often they publish content: do they seem to be a regular writer or more like a guest writer?
Are they on Twitter and if so, are they active? If they are, this may open up a way to engage with them and learn more about what they like writing about.
What specific topics do they write about? Don’t write down “travel”, write down the specific niche within travel.
Look at the headlines they use: are there any patterns in them, or anything you can learn about their reporting style?
Yes, this takes time. But it’s worth it because when you need to do outreach, you’re more likely to contact the right person and increase your chances of getting a reply and a link.
If you still find that your outreach is failing and you need to fix it quickly, check out this process and framework from Shannon McGuirk in her Whiteboard Friday.
2. Coming up with ideas for campaigns
Second in our list of challenges with 23% of respondents was coming up with ideas for their content campaigns. I fully understand why this is a challenge for many people, because knowing if an idea is good or bad can be very subjective. Not to mention, there’s a huge difference between a good idea and a good idea that will get links.
You may well come up with a solid idea for a piece of content that sits on your website and may get traffic, but it may not quite provoke someone to link to it over and over again. It’s important to understand this difference when coming up with ideas.
So, how can you overcome this challenge and come up with ideas that will work?
Develop a process and methodology
Not everyone will describe themselves as a creative person and unfortunately, those who describe themselves as not being creative will assume that they aren’t going to be very good at coming up with content ideas. Even if you’re at the opposite end of the spectrum here and believe that you are creative and can come up with ideas, having a solid process that guides you is a great way to ensure some consistency and save time.
Coming up with link-worthy content ideas can be hard, doing it over and over again is even harder — a process and methodology will help with this because it can be used repeatedly and across different sectors.
There are multiple processes that you can use here and there is not a single right answer, so here I just want to share a few that we use at Aira which may be helpful to you and point you in the right direction.
Content strategy framework
Our content strategy framework is designed to provoke ideas that are tied into the themes and topics that are most important to the brand that you’re working with. It also helps you understand which content formats are available to you and what the associated KPIs should be.
The last point is important because whilst links may be the focus, a great content campaign will add much more value and this should be acknowledged. For example, a campaign may also help you drive referral traffic to your website which could have value.
On the flip side, this framework also helps you demonstrate that some content campaigns will not lead directly to leads or customers — something that can be a common misunderstanding with some stakeholders. Using this framework lets you be explicit on what the primary KPIs for the campaign are, and when driving direct customers or revenue isn’t one of them.
Here is the framework itself, along with pointers for what each line means:
And here is an example of how it may look if we were working with a company who sell products to help you get a good night’s sleep:
Whilst this won’t define every single topic, it gives a solid starting point and importantly, keeps your ideas focused by making sure that they fit within the overarching themes and are linked to the right KPIs.
Audience pain points framework
Another methodology that we use at Aira revolves around the pain points of our client’s target audience, then connecting those pain points to solutions that the client can provide or create. There are there parts to this framework:
Audience: we work with the client to determine their core target audience for their products and keep this as tightly focused as possible on who they want their content to get in front of.
Pain points: we carry out research on this audience to understand what their main pain points are when it comes to the service or product that the client is offering.
Solutions: this is where we look at how the client currently solves these problems with either their products, services or content. This gives us a steer on where we ultimately need to be driving traffic to or if we need to create a new page.
Here is an example which imagines that we’re working with a company that helps people buy a home:
Once complete (although it’s never 100% complete, it’s an ongoing process) we can start to connect the dots between these three areas which can lead to campaign ideas.
For example, we may join the dots between these:
We could then base our idea generation around the target audience, their pain points and the solution offered by the client. This means that a campaign idea will be closely tied to the business and audience of the client, not going off on a tangent and reducing the value of the idea.
If you want to take a deep dive into the creative process, my go-to is always this deck from Mark Johnstone who also recently produced this report which picks apart 31 campaigns from different digital agencies to see what made those ideas work.
3. Getting approval for campaign ideas
Third in our list was getting approval for content ideas, with 20% of respondents saying that this was a challenge for them.
Having pitched many ideas to clients over the years, I understand how this can be a challenge, but it can also vary massively on a number of factors. The projects where I (or the team) have struggled most with sign-off are when we haven’t fully understood client expectations for the ideas.
The truth is that a lot of these expectations should be understood up front either when you sell a project or when you kick the project off. If you put together a creative brief, it should include questions that will help you ensure that the ideas you come up with are as likely as possible to be signed off.
Let’s look at the kinds of questions we need to be asking up front in order to do this and hopefully avoid pain further down the line.
Core topics and teasing out objections
Asking a client up front what topics they are happy to talk about can be useful, but won’t always unearth potential problems. Start by asking basic questions such as:
- What topics do you want your brand to be famous for?
What topics would you say you’re credible to talk about?
What topics does your audience resonate with?
What questions do your customers always ask you?
This can give you a really good starting point but once you hear the answers, you need to go deeper. This involves a bit of thinking on your feet, but you should start to test the client at this point to see where their limits are and what they will and won’t sign off.
Take one of the topics they’ve mentioned and throw out a random example of using that idea, then do it again and again. Start to get a feel for how they react to ideas and listen carefully to what they say. They will start to give clues as to how they respond to ideas and what questions come into their mind.
For example, a reply may be “yeah, that would work but….” then they will give you a glimpse into potential problems. So this may become “yeah, that would work but we’d need sign off from our compliance team” or “yeah, that would work but Jenny in our data team would need to review it first.”
Following on from this, it’s important to get an early understanding of what topics they want to steer clear of. Again, from experience, usual answers here may be fairly typical and not that helpful, such as a client wanting to steer clear of content that may be a bit risky or mention competitors. It’s not uncommon for companies to want to avoid political content being produced by a third party, even if the company doesn’t generally mind talking about political issues.
To try and dig deeper, repeat the process above and give some examples to test the boundaries a little and see how they respond. One way to do this is to ask about any previous campaigns that have gone wrong, not worked or caused issues for them internally or externally.
If you’re not dealing with the CEO, perhaps ask something like “if we wanted to produce an idea on this topic, what would your CEO say? How would she react?”. The additional benefit here is that you can start to see how internal dynamics between teams and the people above them works too.
Brand guidelines and tone
You need to ask how much they expect a piece of content to adhere to brand and tone of voice guidelines. Chances are that they want to make sure that content is consistent with their brand, but the extent of this can vary a lot depending on the business. Some will ask you to stick very, very closely to them whilst others will give you more freedom.
Knowing this is important because it can affect the ways in which you can execute an idea and sometimes, it will mean that some ideas aren’t feasible.
Format of presenting the ideas
When writing up and planning to present your ideas, don’t underestimate the importance of choosing the right format for delivery. This will change based on the client and quite often, how long you’ve been working with them.
At Aira, we have some clients who we’ve worked with for many years who know our process and team very well. These clients may only need a simple email with a summary of each idea in order to sign off or to ask a few questions.
This will be different for a client who is brand new and perhaps hasn’t run any campaigns before. This one will need a lot more detail and probably a full presentation with details/data attached so that they can fully understand everything.
Getting the format wrong up front is a sure fire way to put yourself on the backfoot, no matter how good the ideas may be.
4. Finding enough domains to get links from
Fourth on the list from our respondents, with 13% of them saying it was a challenge, was finding enough domains to get links from. This appears to be a relatively small challenge and even in competitive sectors, there are usually plenty of domains out there that are relevant to the campaign that you’re producing.
There are plenty of guides out there which give away lots of techniques and processes for finding link prospects, here are a few:
- How to Find Sites That Will Want to Link to Your Content
To add to these, I want to encourage you to also think carefully about the attributes of the domains that you’re trying to find and not to obsess too much over “SEO metrics”. Let me explain.
I believe more and more that Google passes value across links in very different ways than they used to. Essentially, Google can pass more or less PageRank across a link based on a number of attributes associated with that link. The concept of this has been around for many years and Bill Slawski has written about how Google may do this here.
Whilst not new, this is one area where I believe Google can (and does) refine more and more as time passes. If we assume that links will remain a core ranking signal for a while yet, it stands to reason that Google will refine the signals within it, of which, there will be many.
Side note: our State of Link Building Report also asked respondents if they felt that links as a ranking signal would still exist in five years time, many believed they would:
The belief reduces a little if we look ten years into the future, but the majority still said yes:
Back to our core point, I believe that it’s important to think about the attributes of links that Google may look at in order to define value, but also to think about what is valuable to you beyond pure SEO or ranking value.
Here are some examples:
- Links that send traffic to you
Links from domains that your audience frequently visits
Links from domains that you don’t already have
Links from domains that your competitors have (and don’t have)
Links from domains that have high levels of traffic
When you start to do link prospecting with these kinds of attributes in mind, you start to think a little bit differently and you naturally lean toward quality over quantity. These are the links that Google wants to reward now and in the future.
5. Design and development of ideas
Finally, in last place in our survey was getting the design and development of ideas. Only 10% of our respondents listed this as a challenge.
We don’t spend too much time on this but here are a few tips for making sure that your content campaign doesn’t fail at this point.
Don’t start with the format
As tempting as it can be, try to avoid any bias toward a certain format or type of execution before your idea is fully fleshed out. For example, try to avoid starting by saying “I want to do a map” or “I want to do an interactive infographic”. Let the idea lead to an appropriate format by asking yourself what the best way to communicate your idea is.
This could lead to a range of options:
- Blog post
The list can go on and you get the idea.
You should still be aware of what content formats can work and keep an internal log of your campaigns to see which ones work best, but don’t let yourself get caught up in the format. A successful campaign that was an interactive piece most likely worked because the idea behind it was strong, not just because it was interactive.
Don’t let the idea get lost
Leading on from the previous point, it’s very easy for a core idea to be lost when it goes through the process of being designed and developed. If we imagine that the core idea has come from one or two people, who have then passed it along to a designer, maybe a developer and also other stakeholders who have given feedback, it’s very easy for the core idea to be diluted.
It’s important to be clear about the core idea and why that idea is so crucial to the success of a campaign at all stages. When you brief a designer, start with the idea. When you pitch the idea to a stakeholder, start with the idea. When you start to do QA on designs and development environments, keep the core idea in mind.
Be aware of restrictions
The design and development of an idea can fall down very easily if you present something that can’t be executed on the company website. For example, if you’re unable to upload interactive content or you have to publish content within an existing template, this is going to cause blockers with design and development. It’s important to be aware of these up front so that you can design and build content that can be published.
To wrap up: every step is a challenge, but is also important
Despite some steps being harder than others, the truth is that you need all steps to be doing their bit and pulling their weight if you’re going to end up with a successful campaign.
Outreach becomes easier when you have a great idea.
Coming up with ideas becomes easier when you have a good brief.
Implementing a design becomes easier when the idea is clear and compelling already
You get the idea. Take time to understand the process in full and optimize each step as much as you can, whilst allowing for flexibility and for people to be creative and do what they think is best.