Lessons learned from launching 100+ content-led link building campaigns Search Engine Watch
Throughout 2018, I was responsible for the launch of just over 100 content-led link building campaigns.
They all had a shared goal of earning links and coverage from the world’s biggest publishers for clients across retail, travel, finance, and other sectors.
Here’s a small selection of publications where I earned links from across the year:
These links, however, came from articles based around content campaigns.
They ran with headlines such as:
In total, upon looking back on the year, I earned over 2,500 links from a whole host of publications. That taught me a fair few things about link building.
You see, link building, especially when using digital PR as the primary tactic, evolves quickly.
Some approaches which worked two years ago aren’t worth bothering about today. And even those tactics which do still deliver keep changing on an almost continual basis.
So how do you make sure that, as a link builder, you’re continuing to stay ahead of your competitors?
It’s simple; you run a fairly large number of campaigns, analyze the data you collected from these and refine your approaches.
I looked back at 2018 and did just that, and below you’ll see the key lessons which I’ve pulled out and learned.
1. Journalists cover stories, not content
Ask a journalist what their job role is, and they’ll likely respond that it’s to tell stories to their audience — not to cover content produced by marketing agencies.
When creating and promoting content campaigns, you need to know what your story is. What headlines could a journalist take from a campaign?
“Brand X Launches An Infographic Which Shows How Much Kim Kardashian Earns” is NOT a story. It’s simply a statement about a format.
“Kim Kardashian Earns The Average UK Salary In 6 Hours” on the other hand, IS a story.
Don’t lose focus on the stories in a campaign and keep asking yourself what these are whilst it evolves. Without stories and enticing headlines, you’ll struggle to land coverage and links.
2. Forget about content formats until you’ve found your headlines
One of the biggest mistakes made in ideation and brainstorming sessions is to go in with a format-first approach.
By this, I mean adopting a mindset where you make a decision to design an infographic or launch an interactive asset before you know the story behind it.
As far as I’m concerned, this often leads to underperforming campaigns, for the simple reason that focus moves away from the story onto the format.
If you’ve got a great story to tell, the format becomes less important and can often be executed in a number of different ways. It’s the whole concept of letting the story do the talking.
Avoid talking about formats until you’ve got a solid story in place. You’ll ensure your primary focus remains on headlines and hooks to publishers whilst coming up with concepts.
3. Campaign concepts need to be validated
There’s nothing more frustrating than having a great concept for it to later be stopped in its tracks for a reason you hadn’t considered.
Trust me when I say I’ve learned the hard way here.
It’s important that you take the time to validate ideas with key stakeholders to prevent delays or roadblocks further down the line.
Common roadblocks to campaigns and things which need to be checked before investing too much into a campaign include:
- Data sources – is the data which you need for your campaign available? Great sources include public data, social statistics, internal company data and research, surveys and more. You just need to make sure you can get what you need and, if you can’t, there’s a way to collect this within your budget and other restrictions.
- Legal restrictions – be sure to have a chat with your own (or your client’s) legal team to validate concepts. If let’s say, the campaign is being run for a financially regulated brand, there may be things to take into consideration which a marketer wouldn’t usually think of. Also, legal teams are a great way to double check that there are no restrictions on the data you want to use.
- Brand restrictions – whilst you need to fully understand that content marketing or digital PR and advertising aren’t the same things, there’s often a requirement to adhere to brand guidelines. Again, get feedback from various teams at the start of a campaign and everyone’s input can be considered as it moves forward.
- An audience of journalists – is there an active pool of journalists who regularly write about topics relating to your campaign concept? If not, ask yourself who you’re going to outreach to. There’s nothing wrong with launching campaigns in small niches, there’s often less noise to cut through which can maximize performance. However, you need to understand the link potential and be realistic on this stance before investing heavily. Unless there’s an active audience of journalists and publications, be mindful that this can present further challenges at the outreach stage.
4. The wider your audience, the more potential to earn links
Are you limiting the impact which your campaign can have in terms of the number of quality links earned by not thinking wide enough?
As an agency, over 60% of the links we earn come from international publications; for us, that means those based outside of the UK.
With this in mind, always consider how you can make a campaign appeal to a wider audience simply by thinking a little bigger.
To bring in a working example:
- The best London boroughs for foodie tourists – has the potential to pitch to niche food, London travel, and regional news publications.
- Best city in the UK for foodie tourists – has the potential to pitch to the above as well as national news publications too.
- The best country in the world for foodie tourists – has the potential to pitch to all of the above as well as international and global publications.
The base concept on these is the same: studying the best locations for foodie tourists.
You can clearly see, however, how the audience can be maximized (and, as such, the link potential) by widening the focus of the campaign.
You can also achieve this be thinking, at the ideation stage, on how you can take a campaign out to other verticals.
5. Your campaign needs to be linkable
Despite what many say, a journalist doesn’t owe you a link. Not even if they cover your campaign.
Of course, as SEOs, we place great value on links and that’s often the end goal. However, it’s easy to forget that in order to earn links, a campaign must actually be linkable.
During ideation and production, you need to consider a campaign’s linkability throughout.
What do I mean by this?
If there’s nothing worth linking to (not referencing stats and quotes and the like here), why should a journalist link? A brand mention would suffice.
A press release isn’t usually linkable, neither is an infographic hosted on your blog (a publisher could take the visual, upload to their own CMS and reference you as the creator).
A link needs to make sense to the story and become a vital part of any article which is published.
Launched a tool or interactive which is being written about? It’s hard to tell the story without a link being in place. Carried out a data study with multiple angles? It’s likely that a journalist has covered one hook and a link adds value, allowing a reader to study the findings in more depth.
The more a link makes sense to be included, the easier you’ll find it to minimize unlinked brand mentions.
6. You need to spend time optimizing & testing different outreach email subject lines
Too many people focus their efforts on writing a great outreach email. But if it’s not being opened, no one is reading it.
The most important element of any outreach email, in my opinion, and experience, is the subject line. The more opens you get, the more people are reading the email and, hopefully, click through to the campaign.
If a journalist hasn’t opened your email, they’re not going to see your campaign and, of course, certainly won’t be linking.
How can you improve open rates, however?
- Use emojis – it may sound simple but in a busy inbox, you need to stand out. We’ve found the inclusion of emojis to be a great way to do this. Don’t go overboard, but clever inclusion can draw eyes to your email over others’.
- Don’t be cryptic – it’s tempting to try and engage a journalist to open your email by being cryptic and using mysterious subject lines which try to use intrigue. But this rarely works. Journalists are busy people and we need to accept this. Get straight to the point with subject lines.
- Use key statistics – Include key campaign statistics in subject lines to make it instantly clear what your story is. Lead with the most shocking and surprising stats and use this as a way to gain opens. If you’ve got a great story and headline, this is where it’s the most effective.
- Use coverage headlines – if you’ve already had some early coverage on a campaign, test the headline published from one of these as your subject line. Journalists are often better at writing enticing headlines than marketers so don’t be afraid to try this out. It’s often successful at landing further links!
7. Not every campaign earns hundreds of links
When you’ve had a great campaign idea it’s easy to set your sights on viral success. However, the biggest lesson we all need to learn is that this isn’t the norm.
Yes, I’ve had campaigns which have earned link volumes into the thousands in just a few weeks, but it’s not how most campaigns play out and that’s OK.
Link building is hard, and it’s only getting harder.
Does that mean that links are becoming less impactful? In my opinion, not at all. The exact opposite, in fact.
Whereas a few years back it was relatively easy to earn links from top-tier media with sub-par infographics and listicles, times have changed.
A campaign doesn’t need to earn hundreds of links to be successful and deliver the results which it needs to.
Our average link acquisition per campaign in 2018 was 32 unique domains.
However, our focus is typically not upon straight numbers earned. There has to be consideration towards the quality of the links you’re building. Trust me when I say that 10 links from top-tier publications will do far more for your brand than 50 from bloggers.
Stop placing a focus on the number of links you’re earning but start to look at other metrics which reflect the quality of the publications.
8. Sustainable link building > One viral campaign
Taking the above point into consideration, it’s important that you’re working on a sustained link building strategy.
A one-off viral hit of links is nice for your ego. But does it really have the impact on your search engine visibility that you’re focusing upon?
Link building needs to be a sustained activity and the most effective campaigns are those which earn links month in month out, not once.
Take the time to map out a strategy which earns links on an ongoing basis and you’ll see more benefit to your brand. If one of those campaigns goes viral and earns hundreds of links, that’s fantastic (and as part of a wider campaign there’s absolutely benefits to be had there). But you need to ensure your primary focus is upon a long-term strategy for continued results.
Above all else, you need to make sure you’re collecting data around your own campaigns and using this to evolve your approach.
These are the lessons which I took away this past year from our own campaigns, but they may not be the same for everyone. Use them as inspiration to gather thoughts around areas to test and changes to make, and combine with your own ideas and thoughts to continue to push your campaigns forwards.
James Brockbank is the Managing Director of Digitaloft.
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