It annoys me when I hear people describe SEO as a spammy practice. But you know what? Sometimes we as an industry are to blame. And outreach is one area where collectively we can get better.
At the start of my career, I was a journalist — so I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of outreach approaches. And most of them were lamentably bad. Often my name would be misspelled or wrong, the emails would clearly be from a template, or there was nothing of benefit offered to me as a writer. It usually sounded like someone lazy wanted me to do their work for them.
Fast forward to 2015, and there is still too much of this going on. Cheaper SEO agencies continue to use volume-based, spray-and-pray email campaigns that irritate bloggers, journalists and webmasters alike, and make life harder for the rest of us trying to do it right. Any attempt to ask for a link can be viewed as suspicious.
But we can’t give up on outreach. If anything, it’s going to get more important, as the extra investment that companies are pouring into content marketing creates more and more editorial that needs to be distributed — but also more and more noise to cut through. That makes it critical for SEOs to use outreach to build and maintain relationships with those people they most seek endorsement from; to make sure influencers are aware of their activity.
Think of outreach as a brand awareness campaign for your most authoritative audience.
How to do SEO Outreach
Where it All Started to Go Wrong
The perception that more links equals higher rank, and the practice of some agencies to cite number of links gained as a performance metric, has sometimes led to scale being preferred over personalization. The argument goes something like: “If I send 1,000 emails a month and get a 1% link acquisition rate, and you send 50 emails a month and convert 10% of them, I’ve got twice as many links as you.”
Well, I would much rather be the second person. They have probably cherry-picked 50 blogs, resource hubs or peer websites who would make for a valuable and relevant link.
By investing time in personalizing their approach and coming up with a value proposition, they have got a decent level of response and desired action, and most likely more word-of-mouth referrals in the future. And they haven’t burned any bridges, or got any links from low-quality sites they didn’t really want.
Identify and Track Your Best Prospects
The first step to successful outreach is to compile an evolving list of your prospects, broken down by category. Examples could include:
- Blogs you’d like to guest post on
- Blogs you’d like to review your product
- Useful resource pages with broken links that your website could replace
- Sites that have linked to an outdated piece of content, which you plan to create an improved version of
- Sites that link to your direct competitors but not yours
- People you’d like to interview
- Journalists you’d like to build a relationship with
- Potential affiliate partners
- Unclaimed mentions of your brand
There are a number of tools that you can then use to build out your list of outreach targets:
- Google Alerts will pick up your brand mentions
- Advanced queries in Google can be configured to combine search terms with keywords in pages’ URL, anchor text or title (e.g. you could search for “marketing blog” intitle:”guest post” to find guest posting opportunities)
- SEMrush will show you high-strength domains linking to competitor pages but not yours, via the domain vs. domain report
- HARO is great for helping out journalists, acquiring links and building relationships with them
- Twitter is ideal for connecting with journalists and bloggers
- The Check My Links extension for Chrome will quickly crawl a web page and signal any 404s on it (for broken link replacement)
Once you’ve created your list (and made a note to keep adding to it), I recommend using BuzzStream (an outreach CRM tool) to keep track of all your activity in one place. It allows you to scrape for and import link targets, and then record who you’ve contacted, when, what their contact details are, as well as your current status with them (e.g. attempting to reach, or link acquired) and any notes on the dialogue so far. You can also tag sites by category and set calendar prompts to follow up with people.
One warning about BuzzStream: its templated email feature is well-designed, but I would avoid the temptation to use it. Even though it has custom fields, it’s too easy to write a lazy email using this feature or introduce errors that could damage trust. Stick to your email client and log the activity in BuzzStream manually — it takes longer, but you’ll produce better outreach.
Email Your Contact Warm, Not Cold
We all hate cold calls. And we all get too much email. Which makes the cold email, asking us to do something for no obvious benefit, one of the most detestable things on earth.
Not only is it about as much fun to receive a fill-in-the-blanks link request as it is to stab yourself with a pencil, it’s also no fun to compose them in the first place. If you like writing or you like socializing (which I guess is most people), then this is your opportunity to get a bit creative.
Make your outreach contact warm if you don’t want to be ignored
First — don’t send that email! And don’t call them either. Instead, make initial contact with them in a less intrusive way.
Follow them on Twitter, and share a post or two of theirs (using their handle in the Tweet). Find a LinkedIn group or a forum thread they participate in, and make a useful comment. Maybe even meet them in person if you know they’re going to be at an event.
This has huge value, because when they get your first email, they know who you are. So find their individual email, address them by name and start off with some context — mention the conference you both went to, or an article they’ve recently published or something they’ve been talking about recently on social. But don’t be fake. Don’t say you loved their article and give no further detail. Don’t say it was so great to meet them if you just walked past each other at lunch. Yuck.
Next, be direct about what you’re after, and then offer to help them in some way. Basically, you have 30 seconds to introduce yourself, find an angle and show this busy person what you want, and tell them what’s in it for them.
One example would be saying they have a really useful page on a particular service, which other major sites have linked to, but at the moment three of the links are broken. One of those links is to a company that’s gone bust, but yours does something very similar and might be a good replacement. Would they mind doing that when they get round to fixing the page?
Actually, this blog post itself came about because of a warm contact. It started when I wrote an article on SEO myths that mentioned SEMrush as a useful tool. Later, I tweeted about the article and used the SEMrush handle — the social team at SEMrush picked that up, and consequently I had a few conversations with other folks about the article on Twitter. Shortly after, I connected on LinkedIn with an SEMrush employee, who happened to have read my article, and they put me in touch with the blog editor. See, it works!
Testing works for outreach, too
One final point: testing can be just as relevant for outreach as for landing pages. Try batching your subject lines (maybe half with the recipient’s name in it, and half without) and track which group gets better open rates (e.g. with Yesware). Or test response rate when your actual job title is in the signature, versus leaving it out. Or compare formal and informal tones for the opening sentence. There’s plenty to experiment with.
Also, don’t be afraid to follow up — though not with the exact same email you sent previously. I’ve often had a positive reply second time round, as that person had got sidelined into something else, forgotten about it or had never even seen the first email. Silence doesn’t always equal rejection.
Do you have any questions or comments about how best to do outreach? Please post them below if so.