As a content marketer, I believe that the best way to improve domain authority — and therefore search engine ranking — is to earn a large number of links from high-authority publishers. To do this successfully, you have to produce top-quality, relevant and interesting content that journalists will want to write about.
In my last post for Semrush, I talked about how digital PR specialists can improve their outreach emails, citing an internal analysis of my team’s successful pitches as evidence of what works. I talked through a few major points: subject lines, pitch length, closing, and follow up best practices.
If you read that post, you already know how to write a successful email pitch. In this post, we are going to cover who to pitch. That is, which publishers deliver the most bang for your buck (or, the most ROI on your pitch) when it comes to content marketing outreach.
In 2018, our media relations team earned 41,545 press mentions for our client content marketing campaigns. These press mentions appeared on a variety of top-tier, national, international, and local websites across all verticals. Note: 1,135 of those press mentions were the result of direct outreach to a journalist by one of our media relations specialists.
So, where did the other ~40,000 stories come from? Two words: natural syndication.
What Are Publisher Syndication Networks?
My first encounter with a publisher syndication network occurred over three years ago when I earned my first placement on USA Today; a great placement for someone new to media relations. After the initial excitement of seeing the story I pitched come to life wore off, it was business as usual. I continued pitching the content to other publishers. As I was list-building, however, I came across the same USA Today story — by the same author — published on multiple websites with unique domains. How could this be?
USA Today is owned by Gannett Company, an entity that owns over 100 daily newspapers as well as close to 1,000 weekly newspapers. While the article didn’t syndicate to all of Gannet’s properties, it did get published on about 20 separate online newspapers.
So, a single email pitch earned placements on 20 unique domains with distinctive audiences? That is some high ROI if you ask me.
USA Today isn’t alone in this effect. Other publishers act as hubs, or influencers, publishing articles that are either automatically syndicated (like in USA Today’s case) or organically “picked up” by other journalists looking for reputable stories to feature within their beat.
So, which publishers act as the biggest influencers of content distribution?
After three years of pitching content to nearly every online publisher in the United States, I have developed a deep intuition of which domains have the most syndication potential for our clients’ content. But my team wanted to learn more.
Using Semrush, Fractl co-founder, Kristin Tynski, took a look at the link networks of the top 400 most trafficked American publishers online. She then used Gephi, a powerful network visualization tool to make sense of this enormous web of links. Essentially, the visualization below shows the relationships each unique publisher has with each other.
Click the picture to interact with the visualization
Tools like Semrush and Gephi allow us to more deeply understand how online news publications and influential niche blogs interact with one another. We were able to gain insight into how content is distributed and syndicated through link networks.
There are some immediate relationships we can recognize just from clicking around on the visualization:
Nodes clustered around each other are publishers that link to each other often. A good example is NBC.com, MSNBC.com, and Today.com. They are all owned by the same proprietor. The closeness of these nodes is the result of heavy interlinking and story syndication.
Some news publishers grouped near other news publishers have similar political leanings. Liberal-leaning publishers Politico, Salon, The Atlantic, and Washington Post are all grouped together, while more conservative publishers Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and BizPac Review are grouped.
Why Understanding Syndication Networks Will Vastly Increase Campaign Success
If you had the choice of sending a pitch and earning a placement or sending a pitch and earning 20 placements, which would you choose?
When you start to understand which news outlets have the largest syndication networks, you are empowered to prioritize those high-syndication publications over publications with lower reach.
After all, not all placements are created equally.
It all comes down to list-building. While both a travel writer at PopSugar and a travel writer at Reuters might enjoy your data-driven travel content, the Reuters writer has a wider influence, plain and simple.
As a result, the content you are pitching will earn significantly more widespread link pickups.
By using the visualization above, you can clearly identify the top publishers for list-building. They are not surprising: CNN, The New York Times, BBC, & Reuters are immediately obvious. The New York Times enjoys earning the most Pulitzer prizes of all time — and that should give you an indication of why they are a trusted source for other journalists to find authoritative story ideas.
If your content gets picked up by any of these sites, it is almost guaranteed that you will earn dozens — if not hundreds — of press mentions from other websites without any additional outreach on your part.
How to Leverage Natural Syndication Networks to Expand Your Reach
Step 1: Create Newsworthy, Relevant, Unique, and Share-worthy Content
There is a reason that earning a placement on the New York Times is such a big deal — it is notoriously difficult to do. If you are trying to organically earn exposure on influential content hubs like the NYT, the Washington Post, or CNN, you can’t start with a drab piece of content.
So what makes newsworthy, relevant, unique, and share-worthy content? According to Semrush, “quality content relies on precise analytics and trustworthy data. When content is not supported by data, one can never be sure that it will directly hit the audience’s pain points.”
After years of experience, I confidently agree that "data-driven content marketing is what produces the most high-quality backlinks we receive for our clients. Here are some ideas for finding the data sources that can become the basis of your content strategy:
- Analyze existing data sets in an unexplored way.
- Utilize your own internal data to reveal trends in your industry.
- Create new data by developing a survey about a topic that's tied to your brand.
Once you have your data, learn what makes content worthy of high-authority placements by including these three characteristics of high-quality content.
Step 2: Identify High-Authority Publishers with Large Natural Syndication Networks
Build out a list of dream publishers for your content.
When evaluating whether to select a publisher or a journalist for outreach, there are four main qualifiers you should be thinking about.
1. Topical Relevance
Identify a few choice writers or editors that cover the specific beat that your content is relevant to.
It might seem obvious, but this key qualifier is often neglected by PR practitioners that care more about pitch volume than their reputation. Irrelevant pitches are very high on the journalist pet peeves list and will land your email in the trash folder 99% of the time.
2. Domain Authority
Domain Authority (DA) is “a search engine ranking score developed by Moz that predicts how well a website will rank on search engine result pages (SERPs). A Domain Authority score ranges from one to 100, with higher scores corresponding to a greater ability to rank.” — Moz
Domain Authority is a third-party metric developed by Moz to help marketers identify the strength of their website. While Google isn't completely transparent about their ranking algorithm, DA is a scoring system that you could use to compare websites against each other. Domain Authority is a good qualifying metric to use when building an outreach list. Generally, the higher the DA of a website, the wider their audience, and the more likely that they have broad natural syndication networks.
A good rule of thumb is to select publishers for your outreach list with a Domain Authority of 60 or higher, depending on the content you're promoting. Moz created a free Google Chrome extension called the MozBar that you can use to check the DA of the news publishers on your list.
3. Social Engagement
The goal of any good outreach activity should be to get whatever you are pitching in front of as many eyes as possible, within your target audience. For example, if you are representing a fitness brand and promoting jogging-related content, who would be better to pitch than a health and fitness journalist at a lifestyle publication with an active social media presence and a broad reach? And, how might you find this journalist?
Buzzsumo is one tool that every marketer should have in their arsenal — I use every day to help find the most powerful influencers within any given niche. Here's how a quick Buzzsumo search can help you identify who to pitch in a matter of minutes.
First, head over to Buzzsumo.com and select the Influencers tab at the top. Then, type in your search query.
For this example, I wrote “fitness writer.” Buzzsumo allows you to filter results, and for this query, I selected Bloggers, Influencers, Companies, and Journalists (I deselected “Regular people”). I also selected “Active Influencers” to ensure that this person actively engages on social media and “Verified Influencers” to weed out unverified Twitter users. After you have typed in your query and selected your filters, click “Search.”
Here is one of the first results I see from my "fitness writer" query:
When you check out Amanda Loudin's Twitter profile, it is plain to see that she would be an excellent outreach target for a running campaign. Not only is her featured image a picture of her running, but her Twitter bio clearly shows her authority as a fitness writer for the Washington Post, Outside Online, Runner's World, and ESPN Woman. She also has 11,000 followers and has tweeted in the last 3 hours. Who better to pitch than her for your jogging campaign? It is that easy.
4. The Potential for a Broad-Reaching Syndication Network
Unfortunately, not every target on your list can have broad-sweeping syndication networks. But you can be sure to at least include a few targets that have the potential to naturally syndicate content across the Internet.
By using the one-of-a-kind interactive visualization our co-founder created using Gephi and Semrush, you can easily identify top publishers with massive link networks to include on your outreach list.
To figure out which sites enjoy the most links from the widest variety of sites, look to the most central nodes on the visualization. You will immediately identify Reuters, CNN, and the NYTimes are located at the center, with large volumes of links incoming from all over; this basically means that these sites get linked to the most often from other sites, often as sources. If CNN covers something, other journalists might pick up the same story and write it for their own publication.
You also may realize that the tighter the cluster of nodes are together, the more interlinking happens between them. Publishers that appear closer together are often either owned by the same company (like Gannett) or have built-in automatic link syndication relationships. A good example is the Gizmodo Media Group. Gizmodo owns Deadspin, Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel, Kotaku, and Lifehacker. The closeness of nodes in this group is the result of heavy interlinking and story syndication.
After you have identified which publishers with large linking networks you would like to target, you can search for individual journalists at those publications using Google search operators. For example, say I want to include CNN on my outreach list for the jogging content. I might enter "site:cnn.com exercise" and filter results from the last year.
On the first page of results, this article comes up: "Three benefits of (and three precautions about) outdoor winter exercise". The author of the article, Dr. Melina Jampolis, writes a column for CNN and might be a good fit for your data-driven jogging content. A placement with CNN could be the first of many as a result of CNN's broad natural syndication network.
Step 3: Send a Killer Pitch
If you have great content, and you have built a list of influential journalists and publishers in your topic vertical, the only thing standing between you and a massive, diverse backlink portfolio is your pitch.
Between the subject line, the introduction, the pitch body and the close, that is a lot of pressure on a single email! Learn how to optimize your media pitch in my previous Semrush post.
Not All Placements Are Considered Equal
Taking advantage of natural publisher syndication networks can mean the difference between generating less than a handful of links or hundreds of press mentions for your content.
I encourage you to test this strategy out with your next content marketing campaign. If you do, let me know how it went in the comments below!
The link graphs of news syndication networks were built using backlink exports from Semrush. The visualization we created is free for you to use to optimize your own content outreach practices.