Your Link Building Processes are Broken: Data & Creativity Will Fix Them

BY

Tom Whatley

PUBLISHED ON

April 14, 2021

At Grizzle, we witnessed volume-driven link building becoming ineffective long ago. To meet our own objectives (and our client’s), we decided it was time to shake things up before response rates dropped to zero.

After all, content marketing has long been about quality over quantity. Why shouldn’t link building follow suit?

This article is the result of our findings after taking a long, hard look at the state of link building, why it’s so broken, and—more importantly—what to do about it.

Link building and the law of shitty clickthroughs

If you search for information on link building, you’ll see the same old tactics; identify broken links or people linking to outdated content, and “add value” by sharing their content on social media before reaching out.

This results in bombarding web admins, content creators, and marketers with emails following the same formula:

  1. Personalize your email with a contrived compliment
  2. Let them know about their broken/outdated links
  3. Give them something to replace it with

It’s not an attractive offer. You’re competing with dozens of other SEOs following the same advice—sometimes using email templates found in popular articles word-for-word. This is an effective way to get ignored, burning through potential relationships before they’re even established.

Then there’s advice that tells you to “add value before reaching out.” This so-called value usually comes in the form of sharing their content with your audience, engaging with them on social, and adding comments to their blog posts.

But is this really valuable to busy influencers? Are decision-makers stirring awake at night, thinking to themselves, “Boy, I sure wish more people would Tweet @ me?”

There’s a misalignment between what common practice deems valuable and what influencers genuinely care about. “Warming up” every contact by engaging with them on social media is not only time-consuming, but incredibly insincere.

Here’s the biggest problem with all these link building guides: the more prospects are exposed to an approach, the more they’re aware of the intent behind it.

Even if what you’re sharing is the best thing they’ve seen on a topic, it’s unlikely to be new or interesting. Much like the law of shitty clickthroughs, every marketing channel or tactic eventually becomes ineffective the more an audience is subjected to it.

For influencers, they’ve seen your definitive guide a dozen times before.

The solution? Create exceptional data-driven and creative content

The link building practices above are lacking three critical elements to successful, long-term link building:

  1. Building something truly interesting,
  2. Providing bloggers and journalists with something they value, and
  3. Intelligent, well-targeted outreach

Producing data-driven and creative content—while establishing long-term partnerships—is the best link building philosophy you can adopt. Using this as our guiding principle, we’re able to generate an average response rate of 37.5% and a link acquisition rate of 44% across our digital PR campaigns. Why? Because what we create is interesting, and we take an interest in what matters to our partners.

You can’t “10x” your way through the competition anymore. In competitive industries, skyscraper content has simply become a framework for adding more waffle to the conversation with little substance.

If link building is a priority, you need to create something that people want to link to. Instead of building links to an SEO-driven article, create something link-worth and rely on internal linking power.

In 2019, we took a long hard look at how we were doing this for our clients. Grizzle started as a guest blogging service, and by going back to our roots, we helped clients get featured in popular industry publications, fast.

While this has a host of benefits, we needed something that would make a bigger impact, allowing our outreach efforts to be amplified by the people we were connecting with.

The solution was surprisingly simple. In short, we replaced our old-school link building processes with a digital PR methodology, producing content that turns heads and gets links fast

This meant creating content that no one else dares to, utilizing two well-known and proven principles as the foundation:

  1. Data-driven content: Provide statistics or insights from a study or dataset (owned or acquired)
  2. Creative digital PR “sprints”: Produce content and products using unusual (or a blend of) formats to acquire links over weeks, not months

I’m fully aware that “digital PR” has become a trope in the SEO world. For many, it’s simply a different way to package the same old “link building tactics.”

But if that’s the case for you, you’re probably doing it wrong. Digital PR has benefits far beyond generating links alone—which you’ll learn about in the rest of this article.

To get these results, we utilize four content models as the bedrock of all our digital PR and link building activities. When used as principles rather than “content-creation-by-numbers,” you can produce digital PR assets that not only generate hundreds of links, but something to be proud of.

Let’s dive into these four content models, along with examples from brands who have nailed their execution:

1. Create industry reports (with a bit of spice)

Studies and data-driven reports are a tried-and-tested digital PR approach. They help bloggers and journalists create stories around tangible, factual information.

The problem is, most of them are so fu*king boring.

Luckily, you don’t need to do that much to stand out—just provide a better experience and provide journalists or bloggers with something attractive they can use in their content.

Buffer and The Social Chain’s “State of Social” report is a solid example of data-driven content crafted around beautiful design:

Each data-point is accompanied by expert commentary and infographics to visualize the data they’ve collected:

This provides journalists, editors, and bloggers everything they need to create a story behind Buffer’s findings. Since publication, this report has generated over 2,800 backlinks across 1,220 domains—including mentions in Entrepreneur, HubSpot, Search Engine Journal, and other leading business and marketing publications:

While the report itself generates little organic traffic, a rising tide lifts all ships. Improving Buffer’s backlink profile increases their domain authority, and including internal links from the report to other content assets will allow that “link juice” to pass on.

How to produce data-driven content that doesn’t bore people to death

The first step is finding a unique angle. For example, dozens of sales studies are conducted every single year. But Pipedrive’s is the only one that segments and presents data from the perspective of women in sales.

You must also align your angle with something newsworthy. Find out which themes are in the media zeitgeist, adding your own commentary to the conversation.

The hardest part of this process is sourcing a statistically significant dataset. Use owned resources like your email list to conduct an extensive study or collect in-house data that tells a story of your customer’s behaviors.

Failing that, collaborate with other brands with access to this data (or an audience segment). Make it easy for them to say yes by offering to create the content itself, committing some budget into promoting it.

Most importantly, make sure it looks great. Produce assets that content creators and journalists can easily embed in their content and make it more engaging for their readers.

Creating graphs and infographics is the best approach here. Just make sure they don’t look like they were whipped up in Excel.

2. Media-driven storytelling

Stories allow us to connect with people. They provide a narrative around struggles, successes, and revelations that traditional “how-to” content doesn’t always convey. And while there will always be a place for instructional content, stories build stronger connections with buyers and consumers alike.

No matter if you’re B2B or B2C—you’ll always be “business-to-people.” Using media as a platform for storytelling not only bags links, but builds stronger customer relationships.

Mailchimp Presents is a solid example of media-driven storytelling. Here, they develop shows that focus on entrepreneurship, business, and the future of technology.

For example, their series “Book Shook” partners with influential women like Reese Witherspoon and Jameela Jamil to share the books that have influenced them:

You can replicate this approach by creating a single series on a specific topic for your audience. Partner with other experts/influencers in your space, getting them involved in the content creation process while elevating their own stories and experiences.

For Mailchimp, these collections are a tremendous source of backlinks, garnering media coverage every time they launch a new series. As you can see in the Ahrefs graph below, each launch is met with bursts of coverage followed by sustained backlinks:

How to create media-driven stories

Great stories elevate the struggles and successes of other people, not just the brand telling them.

Think of some of the most successful documentaries of the last ten years. Black Fish covered the corruption of Sea World, but the story was really about Tilikum.

The first step is to find your muse. What story do you want to tell, and who does it belong to? This can include the people within your organization, but look outside the box and ask yourself; who else would my audience be interested in learning about?

Next, figure out what format to deploy. Will it be an episodic series, a one-off video for YouTube, or a podcast? Understand which formats and platforms your audience is already familiar with and cater to those tastes. Kristen LaFrance does a terrific job of this with Shopify’s Resilient Retail:

Video content production can seem daunting, but these days it’s not nearly as complex or expensive as it used to be. Check out our complete guide to scaling video content to learn more about producing videos without breaking the bank.

3. Digital real estate & proprietary tools

Building and launching standalone products, tools, technologies, and microsites can generate vast amounts of buzz. A great example of this is Mention’s Influencer Marketing Stack:

This simple microsite generated over 1,900 upvotes on Product Hunt and has acquired over 847 backlinks from websites like Inc., The Next Web, and Content Marketing Institute.

Here’s what Mention did to produce something so simple, yet so popular:

  • Massive amounts of value: The microsite is a hub for tools, agency vendors, and how-to information marketers can utilize and experiment with. It’s truly a one-stop shop for all things influencer marketing.
  • Top brand partnerships: Collaborating with the likes of HubSpot, Later, and BuzzStream helped to extend their reach
  • A deliberate launch plan: Mention didn’t achieve success by accident. They coordinated with their partners and ensured the timing of the launch was just right.

These kinds of “side projects” can be product-driven and useful. For example, carsharing startup Turo created “Carculator,” a calculator that estimates what car owners could earn from renting out the vehicle they own in their home city:

These examples all have one thing in common: they’re news- and noteworthy, providing journalists with interesting stories that add value to their readers.

How to create digital real estate, software, tools, and side projects

If you’re building something for digital PR, you must still approach it like any other product development effort:

Find out what the market wants, validate it, then build it.

Product validation becomes easier when you’re not looking to sell units on the back end. It also means you can take bigger risks. Couple this mindset with a digital PR sprint methodology, and you’ve got a powerful marketing engine on your hands.

If you already have strong journalist relationships, start by asking them what they think of your product idea. Share your project’s purpose, the value it will bring to the world, and what you aim to achieve.

You’ll also need to conduct customer interviews. Reach out to existing users, leads, or subscribers and see if your new product aligns with their current needs. Remember, it doesn’t have to solve a burning problem. Even if it sits in the “nice to have” camp, it can still gain vast amounts of attention.

If you’re building an app or software, enlist the help of your in-house engineers or an agency like Thought & Function or Work in Progress. You can even use no-code tools like Bubble and Webflow to build an MVP without technical know-how.

The same goes for microsites. I still build websites and digital real estate properties to this day. This very website you’re visiting was built on Webflow. Even if you don’t have engineering experience, building microsites becomes a stress-free experience thanks to no-code tools.

4. Exclusive product drops

Supreme’s business model is a flywheel of attention, building tremendous amounts of hype whenever they drop a new product. This buzz is only amplified further by their collaborations with other artists, brands, and influential figures:

Their entire product launch approach is designed for engineering exclusivity, making them the perfect darling for this particular digital PR approach.

Producing exclusive products that blend with timely themes not only generates sales from die-hard fans, but gets picked up by press outlets and industry-leading publications. We’ll call it “product PR” for simplicity.

One unlikely example of effective product PR comes from German supermarket chain ALDI and their Hanging Egg Chair:

It’s one of their best-selling products, and every year they make noise once it’s back in stock. They know it sells like hotcakes, using digital PR to produce coverage around the re-launch:

But the coverage doesn’t end there. During the latest launch, they attracted over 200,000 customers before 8 AM across the UK alone. This gave media outlets a reason to further cover the story, providing journalists who missed out on the first wave to get in on the action:

You don’t need to rely on seasonal demand to execute a product PR campaign. Take matters into your own hands and launch exclusive products around relevant and timely themes.

For example, following the Easter theme, sex toy brand Ricky created a series of limited edition Easter eggs containing one of their adult products. The launch got picked up by mainstream media outlets like Gizmodo, Yahoo, and Metro:

How to create product PR “drops”

Remove any red tape that prevents you from being daring. Ricky wouldn’t have made such a splash in the media if they didn’t take a gamble on their CPG product.

You must have the ability to move fast if you’re to jump on trends before they pass. It’s possible to prepare ahead for seasonal events, but newsjacking requires a reactive approach.

It took Ryan Reynolds three days to create a video in response to Peleton’s controversial Christmas ad:

Would he have hired the same actor, produced the ad, and published it in time if someone had to approve every step of the process? It’s doubtful, and the fact the video generated over 7 million views is a testament to the power of responding quickly.

This is why many PR campaigns fail. By the time they’ve dropped, it’s too late. Prepare a seasonal product in advance or develop a culture that allows creativity to ship fast.

Turn heads and conquer

If your link building campaigns are looking a little flat, it’s likely you’re not putting yourself in the shoes of your audience.

Yes, most journalists, bloggers, and influencers are always looking out for new stories and content to pick up. But if they’re not paying attention to you, it’s likely because they’ve seen what you’re offering a thousand times.

Reverse engineer where their attention is going. It’s unlikely to be another high-level “definitive guide.” To acquire links, you need to offer something truly interesting. Use that to foster solid relationships and put those contrived outreach scripts in the trash.

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Tom Whatley

Tom is the Founder & CEO at Grizzle, a content marketing and SEO agency that provides SaaS, agencies, and technology brands with end-to-end services.

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