Research: What content actually performed in 2018?

Kirsty Hulse

MD & Founder

Feb 18

I have been thinking about, talking about and in particularly pathetic times, dreaming about what types of content is most likely to get links/shares/traffic/conversion for a long time. Though now, more than ever before, it feels like the goal posts of quality, consumer expectation and media fatigue is growing stronger than ever.

The content we create is getting less links than it used to, ideas I am convinced will smash it out the park turn out to be a damp squib that results in embarrassing metrics and awkward conversations, whilst pieces that I expect to be small, supplementary content completely exceeds my expectations.

At the start of the year I approach this reality in the way I do so many situations…with crippling self-doubt of course! Is it just me? Am I losing my mojo? Are my team all miraculously losing their mojo at the same time?! Am I simply not as good as my job as I used to be? Or, is the market really changing? Are journalists really getting fatigued and do we all need to adjust our strategies and our expectations?

The more honest of us in the industry will admit that consistent campaign performance is getting harder; we can less easily entice journalists with our shiny visuals and whizzy graphics, bloggers pretty much exclusively request payment, local press are generally nofollow, campaigns don’t so easily fly as they used to and the tactics we rely on, whilst still effective, are less consistently so.

The barrier for entry keeps getting higher, competition keeps getting stiffer, medias inboxes keep getting fuller and my commitment to this sentence structure has started to waiver.

In 2019, content effectiveness is not our issue, consistency and ease of that effectiveness is.

One of my resolutions for 2019 was to get back to doing real work again. (I spent too much time focusing on growing a business rather than writing Excel formulas sexier enough for a Tinder bio, but that’s a topic for another post). So, I decided to indulge myself and dedicate some time doing some analysis, to identify, what content was actually linked to in 2018.

Also, I wrote this in one big ass go, so it gets funnier and more honest as I start to get really tired and bored at the end, so if that won’t entice you to read this I DON’T KNOW WHAT WILL.

What I wanted to find out:


I manually analysed with my eyes the “top” (as defined by Trust Flow and Citation Flow) 100ish links for 2 random well ranking sites in Insurance, Ecom in an interesting niche, Ecom in a dry niche, Travel and Finance. I only really cared about links that looked, to me, to have been strategically ‘built’ through the active creation and distribution of a thing. That thing can be as involved as huge scale video production, right to a simple Tweet sharing a quote with a journalist. I ignored links that looked, to me, to have occurred entirely naturally such as genuine forum discussions, certain reviews and so on. I did this because I am interested primarily in understanding what strategies are most effective in order to ensure I am doing the best shit now, and for the future.

Note, I was doing this manually through my experience of spotting a crafted link or story a mile off, though allow room for human error. And especially in Travel because I was definitely drunk when I did that one.

I then grouped this content in to one of the below “content types”. (Note, I am not grouping the content of the link in to a type, simply the type of content that earned that link. In other words, if you created an infographic that got a link in an article, the infographic is the content type, not the article).

Content Types

Data journalism: This was mainly survey based content that had been created to generate a news hook and angle and then shared as a press release. Some generic examples for illustration:

Interview / Comment: Links generated through providing journalists quotes and opinion on a topic they are already writing about, or submitting an individual for an interview with a particular publication.

Research / Whitepaper: Heavy duty, resource intensive research

Giveaway: A self explanatory one; giving a product away for review. This is definitely not a strategy I’d recommend, not specifically because it’s “against Google Guidelines” but actually because I believe, and this research also suggests, that you can get better, more high quality links and coverage without giving away products. Based on this, I won’t include it in this post though did in the analysis as it kept cropping up as a regularly adopted strategy, mainly from smaller brands working with bloggers, who may have metrics beyond links. (How. Dare. They).

Product Guide: This is the process of actively outreaching your product, be it a cool gadget, a holiday or HR software, to be included in guides and product information. Often through responding to journalist requests or through active guide outreach or press releases about product updates, new lines or changes in features. This strategy is essentially giving journalists information to find cool products they may want to feature in their guides and breakdowns, or update their readers with new, relevant product information.

Static Visual: Infographics or images used as a hook for a link.

Interactive: Larger scale content with involved creative or development resource. Often interactive in nature, I used this term to group big campaign “SEO” content, often hosted on it’s own subdirectory page on a site, as such interactive maps, interactive visuals, quizzes or large scale video production.

The “don’t lambast me please SEO community” caveats:

OK, let’s do this.

Most Linked to Content

From the random sample I selected, Product Guide was the most linked to content in 2018, followed by Interactive.

It is worth noting that the product guide data came out high due to a handful of Ecommerce companies and one HR software company, that nailed it with regular, reactive, product outreach.

The great thing about this though, is that

With the right approach top tier media links and coverage is available to any brand, with any budget

Why does Product Guide content work?

Well, the upshot of why this works is simply because you are giving journalists exactly what they need to write the stories they want. It’s worth stressing, that whilst there’s a direct application, this tactic is not reserved for the Ecommerce brand with interesting products, I saw this work effectively in travel, B2B, finance and tech niches, through companies actively responding to journalists wanting to write about specific products, through sharing updates and changes and responding to journalists requests. For example:

They key is to be genuine, helpful, reactive and persistent.

How to replicate this strategy

Why does Interactive work?

It’s worth noting, first off, that through my research I found quite a lot of stunningly visual content that was interactive and involved in its execution, yet was only being linked to on low quality inforgraphic sites. I also found a lot of examples of interactive content that had got no links at all. Interactive is not up here because it’s a dead cert strategy, far from it. It’s up here because when it does work, it really works

It’s also worth noting that when I looked at the likeliness of a link to be paid, interactive was pretty high up.

Interactive content seems to either really really work, like Kennedy rockets on the moon work. Or really not, like Nixon wiretapping politicians not.

(In other news I am trying to brush up on my 20th century US history).

A brief aside as I don’t cover this elsewhere due to keeping this post growth centric; infographics are pretty much exclusively pay to place. Don’t want to buy links? Don’t make an infographic.

The above graph represents how likely a link is to be paid for from 1 (highly unlikely) to 4 (highly likely), again based on me manually reviewing the links.

It makes sense, of course, that interactive content is up there, for two reasons:

  1. If we have invested a lot in it’s creation, then by jove are we going to get that shit linked to. I have been there, the awkward despair of a big campaign flop, the desperate “we have a call with the client tomorrow” panic. It’s very easily done, the more we invest in something, the more we need it to work.
  2. This is traditionally the realm of the SEO and buying links is more traditionally an SEO tactic.

So, back to the main point, what made the interactive content that did work, work?

The key distinguishing factor was that the format of the content was an added bonus, rather than the primary reason for it’s creation.

All too often we fall in to the trap of executing on a big campaign idea because of the pull just to make something interactive. For example, a period table of how spicy a chilli is, is super cool, fun to look at and I can certainly understand why we would want to create it, but what’s the idea, really? What’s story? What’s the news angle? The interactive content that really worked had a story first, often grounded in data, that was then represented in a wonderful way. Over the past few years I have ran workshops with several agencies on how to improve their creative, content and link offering (you should totally do one, they’re actually pretty good if you want to get links for clients) and repeatedly find this to be a very easy trap that we all fall in.

I fell in this trap too, in the summer, with a campaign that I was absolutely certain would nail it. We were working with very tricky finance client. Tricky simply in the sense it was a hugely competitive market that many journalists, especially finance journalists, were very reluctant to endorse in any real or overt way. However, we did a reasonable job for them and secured links and coverage on some very powerful, relevant sites. Then in the midst of that glorious heatwave summer, I had an idea. The content they enjoyed to create sat snugly in the area of supporting people to manage money effectively, without expressly giving financial advice, so we decided to create an interactive, searchable by postcode, map of all free gym, fitness and outdoor sports classes, to find where you could get fit, for free, in the summer.

It was functional. It was useful. It was visual. It was relevant without being product focused. It could be localised for local press and regional coverage. It was a flop.

It was a flop a couple of reasons. Whilst the brand sentiment was poor and I do this believe hindered it, many of our other campaigns we had ran had gone off without a hitch. The reason this specific campaign didn’t work as I thought it would is because, I believe, this was all about the functionality of the content itself, as opposed to anything else. The data already existed, all we did was collate it. We identified this, generated some additional data on the benefits of outdoor exercise, and then it started to perform.

For those pieces of interactive content I found that really flew and got upwards of 40+ high quality links, there were always a few consistent factors that ran throughout all of them. A few years ago, a well performing campaign would have got links in the hundreds, I didn’t find one that quite did that, so I think it’s reasonable to assume a campaign with 40+ links is successful.

How to replicate this strategy

  1. Have a roomy budget. If you are going to invest in interactive, in order for it to work it has to be incredibly well thought out by people with experience, tested, beautifully built, designed and with supporting data and research. We have had success in the past creating beautiful, high performing content on a budget  (there’s an example of this in the below presentation, email me if you’d like to learn more about this) but as a general rule, there are other ways to get links for people without a decent chunk of money and time to play with.
    Content marketing tips that won’t break the bank (or your spirit) from Kirsty Hulse
  2. Ensure there’s a genuine news hook to what you’re creating. Those pieces that worked incredibly well had potential headlines built in to them. Some were genuine world firsts. Others told a surprising story. The key is to focus on the narrative, and let the content fall around that. Never begin creating a piece of content without knowing exactly what the headlines could be when it’s placed.
  3. Validate your ideas. The risk to fail is too large here to go in on a hunch, ensure your ideas are validated through research and data, then tested by reaching out to a relevant audience and media in advance of content creation to gauge the response.
  4. Don’t just do it because you think it’s your only option. Do it because it’s the genuinely best way to illustrate your point.
  5. If it’s your first time, I’d recommend seeking out experience first.

Why does Partnership / Discount work?

I won’t spend long on this because it’s self explanatory and from the well fingered (lol) book of successful link strategies 2008 but hey, if it’s not broke! This is the active outreach to be featured on partner sites. Identify which companies you have a positive working relationship with and get them to feature your greatness. It appears a lot of brands offer discounts to universities which gets them on the university and alumni sites, which is nice. You got it.

So those are the two strategies that performed well in 2018 for generating a volume of links, though what about quality?

What content gets the best links?

I thought it prudent to look at not only what gets volume and links and coverage, but what gets the best quality links and coverage, as determined by the sites DA. I know this isn’t the most statistically significant metric and doesn’t include important factors like relevance or whether people are actually reading or clicking on the content we place (heaven forbid!) but it’s a good indicator nonetheless. Again, I am only interested in trends here, not granular detail.

I smiled when I first saw this chart. A, because I need to get out more and B, because it’s kind of what you would expect. Here, Interview / Comment comes out top. There were a couple of examples I saw here that really stood out. For example:

This is also once of the tactics that we employ most readily for our clients. Speaking to companies about their business as opposed to simply their product or niche, opens up a whole new area of opportunity. For example, we work with a high end, growing travel brand and consistently get powerful links simply through sharing the founders stories of growing the business. I also trialled this tactic for myself with good success when I had a book to flog.

How to replicate this strategy

  1. Are you a business? Congratulations, you win free links! Speak to your/clients’ internal team to identify any potentially interesting business angles you can sell in to relevant business media. For example, we got huge success from a client whose original founders were best friends, so turned that in to a story about the benefits and pitfalls of starting a business with friends that lots of publications were interesting in featuring, quoting and conducting interviews.
  2. This works very well in industries where expertise is valued (ie all of them) though some that spring to mind would be finance, tech, legal, HR. Find internal champions that you can use to offer interviews to media. For example for small business “Dear journalist, would you like to speak to XXX the Founder of XXX on their experience navigating XXX”, or alternatively for tech “Dear journalist, would you like to speak to XXX the software engineer about something that technical people like…IDK. Sick ass Linux config”
  3. Read the news! I know, Brexit, gross, though stay abreast of what’s happening to identify potential opportunities to offer expert quote and opinion.
  4. Have an opinion. What I typed above just triggered this, but if your business is EU or UK based and has an active stance on Brexit, then use it. Provided it’s completely in line with my fundamental viewpoint which is PLEASE GOD CAN WE STAY. (lol).

I have been writing this for hours now and I am getting tired, can you tell? Stay with me. We can do this.

Research / Whitepaper

As you’d expect, this gets high quality publications. Likely in this instance as a lot of them were based around tech and science, so earning really high authority links in scientific press. If this is a strategy to focus on, ensure it has expert validation, either through yourself as a business, through academic partnerships (these were the whitepapers that worked the best) or working with independent governing bodies and boards. It’s important to note that those whitepapers that performed well were not long blog posts with a big of Canva graphics in a PDF (I’ve been there) but genuine, thought out, research.  Go get it, my STEM beauties.

Why does Data Journalism content work?

Data journalism sat in the middle of the volume chart, but worth briefly covering off here. It’s not going to change your world, though it can, when done well, generate a strong stream of links and coverage. Though, proceed with caution as I have seen reticence with the media to cover topics where the survey is commissioned. Interestingly, and something I will certainly take away from this research, is that a large part of the data journalism that worked, did not reference a “survey” or a “report”, it positioned it as “asking people”. This seemingly comes across as more legitimate and real, somehow, than a “survey”. Potentially this has become a trigger word for many journalists as marketing. Likewise, when a story features actual company data as opposed to externally generated data, it’s much more likely to stick and also convert in to a link rather than simply coverage. I spoke about how to go about a successful data journalism campaign in this artuicle here, if you’re interested.

Key Takeaways

Ideas, not formats, are your friend. It is good ideas, that will continue to carry us through to success in the future. If you find you are spending budget on paying for links when things don’t quite stick (I saw this a lot in the research) then take that budget and invest it in improving your creative process. I talk about that here. Or you can book a GREAT WORKSHOP. Or you can read this book.

It is imperative we begin to treat creativity, and the generation of good ideas, as a skill than can be learned and developed, rather than a simple talent one does, or does not, just have.

Your success is not necessarily bound by your budget. If you budget is tight, then identify areas of opportunity, such as Product Guide or Interview / Comment content types where you can earn quality links in a lean, agile way. The volume will be lower than the success of a big campaign, but the risk is lower.

There is no real correlation between effort and reward. In other words, spending longer on a campaign does not de facto make it better or more likely to succeed. Only it’s authenticity and quality of the idea can do that.

I am, gleefully, not just getting worse at my job, it is getting harder to secure the same volume of links as we used to. It’s still entirely possible, but competition is fiercer and media reticence is higher. That’s not a stop sign to you absolutely smashing it, just a speed bump. We have to be very considered in all the choices we make.

Whatever you do, do it with integrity. Integrity and genuineness are consistent within well performing content. Do not try to awkward bolt on interesting topics to try niches, identify the business areas that are cool and interesting.

The lines between “PR” and “SEO” are no longer blurred, they are barely even visible. I believe this is why SEOs push to create more interactive or visual content as it is an area we can cling to as ours. To that I say we have data, we’re getting really good at this shit and there’s plenty of work to go round. Take those traditional PR strategies that are shown to work, run with them and own it.

Thank you. I hope that was useful! I think my dinner is ready.

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