Raise your hand (metaphorically is probably less weird) if you still work with brands, or are a brand, who actively have links as an objective of activity?
If your hand is not raised, stop reading now and feel delighted.
If it is, then, me too.
It’s a big point of contention in the industry at the moment, whether links should still even be a focus, but I won’t talk about that (Tom Capper has some eloquent thoughts on this).
I have been working in SEO for quite a long time now, over a decade I think*, and a lot of that has been spent on getting links. From the g̶l̶o̶r̶y̶ very bad days of article spinning and directory submission, to guest posts and widgets and infographics and interactive content, I’ve tried it all.
Though in the past five years or so, I’ve focused pretty much exclusively on getting links from content. That is, creating content, in various different forms, that encourage people to link to it.
I am generally not very good at writing blog posts, as I like to save the more interesting tactics to share in talks, though I’ve been speaking on this topic for a while now and will be going back to my roots and speaking about tech again more in the future, so, strap in, I am going to share everything I know with you on how you can create content that will get you links. (There are other ways to get links beyond using content as your bait, but I’ll leave that to Jon Cooper’s excellent guide).
A link formula
To begin it probably makes sense to try and work out what are the elements that content needs to get links before we go about creating it. I spent some time thinking about this and it can be broken down in to three distinct areas.
A good idea, or an interesting/funny/useful concept, is essential to get links from your content. It seems obvious, but if your content isn’t fundamentally interesting, or novel, or useful, or helpful then nobody is going to share it. For free, at least.
You need reliable and thorough data, or information, to add legitimacy to your idea. This stops content from seeming flimsy, or ill thought out.
The thing that people link to. Often the snazzier the better. Though this isn’t always the case so I’ll discuss how to avoid expensive content costs and still get good results later in this post.
Rand also has a nice definition of this he calls ‘10x content‘.
If you look at most pieces of successful content you are likely to see at least two of these things.
If you nail all three of these elements, I’d be fairly happy to say your content will almost certainly attract links, if you nail two, it’s likely to attract links.
Using this formula as a basis for the rest of this post, I’ll discuss:
- How to have good ideas
- How to generate, or source, data
- How to create assets cheaply and easily
- Content promotion
How to have good ideas
Everything I am about to discuss now is just from my own, personal experiences and what I have read and learnt over the years.
If you prefer a more academic approach to creativity I’d recommend these books.
Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All – This is nice as it’s about how to believe you can be creative, rather than about creativity as an abstract notion.
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention – I like this as it’s research focused, so feels legit.
Trying to find that elusive good idea can be incredibly difficult, though there’s a few things we can do, and things we can stop doing, which makes them more procurable. Throughout my career, I have been in many content brainstorming sessions that included phrases like this:
“Let’s make an inforgraphic! Let’s use Snapchat!”
I myself am guilty of this, and once found myself arbitrarily saying “Maybe there’s something we can do with Pinterest?” in a brainstorming session like I’d hired my gran for the day. These are obvious things to think about when trying to come up with a cool content idea, but they are the secret idea wreckers. When brainstorming, try to avoid things like:
- Using a format as a starting point for your idea. Saying “let’s make some interactive content” is rarely helpful when brainstorming ideas. You need your concept first, and to then apply the relevant format to whatever will showcase your idea off best. Starting with a format, can often mean you are working backwards or not displaying your idea in it’s best light.
- Don’t use platforms as the basis for an idea. Wanting to do something with Snapchat, for example, is not inherently bad, though choosing what platforms on which to share and promote your content, should not inform the concept. Again, start with the concept that excites you most, then see which platforms will best showcase it.
- “We have x budget to spend on this” is a very common way to start any creative project. It is important to understand the confines of what’s achievable, but not yet. I believe that any idea can be executed cheaply. Unless, of course, it’s something like a big stunt, but again that’s a format, not an idea.
- Try not to come up with ideas that are directly related to the product or service you’re offering. This is when we can often fall in to the trap of our content marketing simply being advertising and then payment is nearly always requested.
Here’s an example:
I run a couple of dodgy old affiliate sites, which still get a lot of outreach emails and a nice, unique position on seeing what the industry is up to. In this instance an agency had taken their furniture client and planned a campaign around Sherlock Holmes’ 125th anniversary. Lovely, we all love some Sherlock Holmes. Though the downfall of this idea is that they’re looking to “uncover what furniture is used most in his books”. In one sweep, a potentially interesting hook has been made immediately commercial. It is too closely related to the core product and immediately looks like simply advertising.
There are some things to avoid when trying to capture that idea snitch and conversely, here are some things that help me.
- Do not sit in an office. Get out, go for a walk, change your environment.
- Keep a notepad on you. For some reason, I always seem to have my best ideas in the shower (no idea why) so I keep a now soggy notepad by my bed to jot them down
- Reddit. I love Reddit. Reddit is, as they say, the front page of the internet. The memes you see constantly circulating on your social feeds, probably started on Reddit. Journalists go there to find stories. Spend time on Reddit to really understand what works on the web.
A Creative Process
This is a creative process I loosely follow.
Ideally, we want to find topics that are tangentially related to the brand we are promoting, rather than directly. Tangentially related ideas means that we can create content in the most interesting areas and not be restricted by the market in which we are operating, and solves for the problem above that content directly related to the core product, often just looks too commercial and as a result payment for placement is nearly always requested.
The way we can do this is very simple. Sit down, take your phone and put a timer on for 60 seconds. In that 60 seconds write down your core product, then all areas that are related to this. We don’t want to think about this too much, which is why the addition of speed (as in, time) helps. Keep repeating this process until you have a list, or mind map, of topics that are the subconscious connections between your primary area and other topic areas.
Pick the most interesting ones, stick them in Buzzsumo and identify what content is working in that area. At that point, group them in to themes and you’ll find yourself with a lost of areas that are related enough to your brand, and people give a shit about.
Ideally, we want to create content that people will give a shit about.
How to generate and source data
OK, so we have a core concept that we’re excited about. Now, we need to substantiate that and generate the hook. The way we do this is through data, using statistics to generate an interesting news worthing angle or information, creating an in-depth or interesting resource. The good news about this is that generating data can be incredibly quick, easy and cheap.
One of the most tried and tested ways to generate data is to run surveys. There’s multiple ways of doing this, I personally use Google Consumer Surveys or Pollfish. Both of these cost 1 cent a response, allow for multiple question formats and can return answers in a few hours. I’d recommend a sample size of 1000 minimum though, which means these can start to get a little more expensive.
Survey data, whilst it can still get links and coverage, is becoming sightly less reliable. A lot of media won’t publish stories on just commissed survey data alone now (understandable) so we are likely to have more success if we can find data from trust worthy, authorative sources.
Cue academic data.
Research search engines such as DataSearch and RefSeek allow you to search a huge wealth of academic data which you can then use to support your campaigns. For example, if you’re working with a home wares company, you can research published, and unpublished, academic research on sleep patterns and REM. The great thing about this is that it gives increased legitimacy to your campaigns (particularly if you partner with the academic), allows you to use data to create a story without relying on commissioned surveys and allows you to use that almost share guaranteeing line ‘according to science’.
Other good data sources include Government data, freedom of information request and whitepapers.
How to create content assets cheaply and easily
You can often, if you have an interesting story and good data, skip this step altogether and just send data focused press releases. We’ve earned links for our clients in the Daily Mail, MSN, Babycentre, RadioTimes, The Mirror etc etc blah blah by simply running a survey, finding an interesting statistic and sending out press releases. Headlines have been things like
- “42% of children feel as though they are ignored on holiday”
- “Over a quarter of graduates feel embarrassed by their salary”
- “25% of parents don’t use sun cream”
The link will typically be branded to the homepage, citing the source of the data. This isn’t big or sexy content, but it works and is affordable.
Other excellent options for creating some nice visual assets are:
Slides framework from designmodo. One of my clients actually showed this to me and it’s excellent for making image rich content, which you can pop on a subdomain or directory of any site.
It’s $249 for a lifetime license which allows you to create as many templates as you like. This piece got links in some of the biggest tech press and nearly a thousand shares, not bad for essentially free content.
Outgrow is another excellent tool that you can use to make interactive quizzes and calculators. It is more pricey, though the nice thing about this is that it generates a super easy embed code, so usurps all the ‘who is going to host this? Where will it live?’ challenges that can so often come with interactive content. They have different pricing packages depending on traffic and the most affordable plan is just $25 a month.
How to outreach your content
This isn’t something I do huge amounts of personally anymore, though I have noticed that different members of my team have different approaches and they work well when used in tandem.
The first approach is to use a traditional PR outreach tactics. That is, pick up the phone and speak to a handful of targeted, influential journalists. This is typically done before content has been completed, so it can be tailored to specifically what they want and any additional assets can be created. This is then followed with releases to a broader media, again following up on the phone. This is more time intensive and focuses much more on quality.
The second option is volume. This is typically more the heartland of the traditional SEO, huge lists generated based on sites that have shared similar content before, or using advanced queries to find niche blogs or commercial sites who post content. This can work well because it’s simply a game of volume, the more sites you contact, the more pick up there is likely to be. Note, not to get confused with volume and spam, just because we are contacting numerous sites, and this is likely automated, does not necessarily mean we lose the quality of email we get from the first approach.
Buzzstream published some interesting data on the differences of email responses based on level of personalisation.
Another point to note is something I wrote about on State of Digital a few years ago now, but I feel still rings true.
Outside of my day job I run a couple of sites; one of which, a lifestyle magazine, receives a lot (I’m talking 100ish plus a day) outreach emails. This gives me an opportunity to see how different industries and channels do outreach.
SEO, Digital and Outreach Managers are fairing much worse and for some reason their outreach emails just aren’t landing as well. And I think that reason why, is really interesting.
SEO outreach is riddled with apologetic language.
And I mean, riddled.
Let me give you some examples.
(I have blurred out all information that may allude to who sent the email as this is by no means a shaming exercise)
I was surprised to see that I never replied to this email at all. Thinking about it, it’s from one of the biggest agencies part of one of the biggest networks, so presumably they work with good brands that run cool campaigns, but the email didn’t make me think that. It made me think this.
As SEOs we can still feel like the baddies of the internet. We don’t have the gumption or confidence of other industries as we’ve been told, repeatedly, what we do is bad or spam. This seeps out on both our content and outreach efforts. So my final bit of advice is to try and create something you actually like, that you quite believe in, that you will enjoy promoting and outreaching. Then, when you pick up the phone and tell someone about it, that enthusiasm will translate.
The key thing is whether you think links are still relevant or not, or whether your content efforts have broader objectives like traffic engagement, SEO is not the dirty ‘dark art‘ that it’s reputation can often still dictate and thinking that alone will help you create more exciting, and better outreach your content. So, just remember, SEOs are not the baddies of the internet.
We all know that’s affiliates.
*insert existential crisis here