Outreach is a big part of your job when it comes to link building, especially in the early days when you’re still trying to build up the reputation of your website and do not have many existing relationships that you can leverage. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need to do outreach, you could just have an amazing product, create great content and the links would take care of themselves. This is actually true for a number of websites online. Do you think that Apple or Amazon has to worry about outreach? Nope. The thing is, this is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of businesses who operate online around the world are classed as SMEs and not household names who get links just because of who they are or the product they sell.
You could create the greatest, most creative content in the world, but it will mean nothing if no one ever sees it. You often need to give it some promotion in order for it to stand any chance of getting traffic, let alone getting links and social shares. As time goes on, and you become more established, you may find that things become easier because your target audience may actively seek out your content or they may follow you on one or more of your social channels or naturally be inclined to check your website. This is the long term goal, but knowing how to effectively promote the awesome content that you create is crucial if you ever want to stand a chance of getting the links you need in order to compete.
With that in mind, I have written this section to start off at the basic level, where most of us will start out. It will progress through to some more intermediate and advanced stuff, as well as give some tools and tips to help overcome some of the most common challenges with outreach.
Links vs. relationships
There is often talk from SEOs along the lines of, “You should focus on building relationships, not links.” While I tend to agree with this, it isn’t quite that simple most of the time, and I think it can sometimes make you lose sight of what you are actually trying to get in the first place.
I totally agree that building solid relationships in your niche is vital to long-term success, but like any relationship, there is an element of give and take. The person you’re speaking to will want something from you and, of course, you want something from them. Never lose sight of this because, fundamentally, this is a commercial, business relationship and you need to think of it as such. Otherwise, you’re in danger of not actually getting what you want.
One thing that should be said here is that you are not getting links from websites; you’re getting links from people. Sure, there are a bunch of websites out there where you can stick your link or even buy a link and there is no level of control i.e. nobody manually checks your website. This is what made link building very easy at one point—you didn’t need to worry about dealing with people who have emotions. You just got the easy links, avoided the people on the other end, and, to be honest, it worked.
Times have changed, though. Sure you can still buy links, and even a handful of automated web directories can still give you decent links. But now your job as a link builder is harder. You need to have the ability to communicate and engage with people in order to get the truly great links. You need to be able to know what makes someone tick, what triggers him or her to take action, and what interests them.
All of these skills not only help you with outreach, but they also help you to create content that truly appeals to people. Doing this makes your outreach not only easier, but also, a lot more fun. There is nothing worse than seeing rejection after rejection when doing outreach (I know how it feels, trust me). If you’re trying to promote something that just doesn’t appeal to people, you’ve lost before you’ve even started.
The key takeaway here is to remember that there is a person on the other end of the email you send. How would you prefer to be contacted by someone? What would make you reply? And, importantly, what would make you delete the email?
Bear this in mind when you do outreach and use the following principles to help you along the way.
Crafting your outreach message
Most of this section will be about email outreach, but outreach doesn’t have to be confined to email.
Calling someone on the phone can be more effective and take less time. Picking up the phone can be hard for some people, but I certainly encourage you to do so if you have good verbal communication skills. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people! And I know many people who feel the same about the phone. I’m not a big fan of the phone at the best of times, so pretty much all of the outreach I’ve done has been via email. Things have also changed in the PR world where, in years gone by, outreach was done mostly over the phone. Even this appears to be changing though and more and more journalists prefer to be emailed in a digital-first world.
No matter what though, outreach isn’t about form – it’s about the message. These basic outreach principles can be applied to most forms of communication.
Just take a look at this post on Moz, where the writer got a link by sending a letter to someone!
There are only three real things you need to think about when crafting your message:
- The value you’re offering
- A call to action
If you can really focus on these parts, most of your job is done. Let’s look at them in a bit more detail.
Many bloggers, writers and journalists who you contact, particularly popular ones, will receive many outreach emails every day. Unfortunately, for our industry, most of them are based on a standard template, with little to no personalization, and do not offer anything of real value. These emails are often deleted or marked as spam.
This means that you need to put some extra effort into making your message stand out, the place to start is personalization. You can’t expect to get a great response rate from sending out template emails. If anything, you run the risk of getting a negative response. You could even risk damaging the reputation of the website that you’re representing. And if you’re outreaching to high-level influencers, this is the very last thing that you want to do.
The thing is, it takes time to personalize your emails. This is the main reason that lots of SEO professionals choose the lazy route and send out the same template to lots of link targets.
What I hope to show you in this section is that there are a number of ways to personalize an email whilst being efficient at the same time. Not only will this mean you get a better response rate, but it puts you in a much better position to build a relationship.
Personalizing an email is not actually that difficult and doesn’t have to take lots of time. The time it takes is well spent as you will get more (and better) responses. There are two core ways you can personalize an email:
- Mention something specific to them
Not that hard right? Let’s look in a bit more detail.
This should be a no-brainer. Starting an email with someone’s name is a must, if it is possible. Sometimes it isn’t possible, as some people do not list their name in an easy to find place. But here are a few tips to help you find someone’s name quickly:
- Check the header and footer of a website first for an “About” page
- Click through to social profiles as their name may be listed there, in particular if they have a Twitter or LinkedIn page which nearly always lists someone’s name
- Put their email address into Sales Navigator by LinkedIn to see what it finds about them
- Look at blog posts to see if they use their name as the author
- Do a WHOIS lookup on the domain to see if it is there
- Use the FullContact API or Gmail plugin to get more details
If you absolutely can’t find a name, use something like:
- Hi folks,
- Hi there,
I’d probably recommend staying away from something like, “Hello Webmaster,” or similar, as a lot of automated email tools will use this.
Mention something specific to them
This is another fairly simple way to personalize your outreach email. When you’re doing your link target research, you can actually easily cover this step. So when the time comes to send the email, you can pull in your research and email it very easily and quickly.
Here are some things that you can mention about someone in order for them to see that you’re a genuine person:
- A recent blog post they wrote
- A recent comment they made
- A recent tweet / social update they made
- An opinion they hold
- A shared interest they mention on their about page
It can take less than a minute to find one or two of these, and, if you can do it when you’re doing your initial research, it hardly holds you up at all when sending emails.
The value you’re offering
It would be a pretty pointless email if you don’t tell the person what it is that you’re emailing them about! At the same time, you want to keep things simple and easy to digest.
Remember earlier on, we asked the question, “Why does someone care about my content?”
Well, now is the time when the work answering that hard question comes into play again. The answer to this question can be used in your outreach emails because it can tell people why your content matters to them and why they should take the time to share it.
Communicate to them the value of what you’re offering, and tell them why it is of interest to them and their audience.
A call to action
The other key thing to include in your outreach message is what you actually want the person to do. Many people can skate around this topic and not tell the person why they are being contacted.
Something else to bear in mind is that the action you want someone to take isn’t always to link to you. If you’re contacting someone with a high number of Twitter followers, it may actually be in your interests to ask them to tweet your content. The advantage here is that the effort it takes to tweet something is a lot lower than linking to it.
Examples of outreach emails
Below I’m going to share some outreach emails that I have used and managed to get a few friends to share, as well as a few that I’ve received. These examples will help demonstrate the difference between good and bad outreach emails.
I wouldn’t recommend taking these examples and re-using them exactly as they are, but I would definitely encourage you to look at what helped them work or not work. Then take those principles and apply them to your own efforts.
I’d also advise you against over-thinking outreach, and hopefully by now you realize that my own approach to link building is based on keeping things simple. Don’t worry about tiny details such as how many words to use, whether you should use your own name or someone else’s, whether you should use bullet points or not. Seriously, just remember what we’ve talked about:
- The value you’re offering
- A call to action
Let’s start with good examples and see what we can learn from them.
Good Example 1
This email was reaching out on behalf of an online marketing blog, looking to pitch a guest post. The response rate was very good and a number of links resulted. Here are a few reasons why I think this one works:
- It is clear that you’re a real person by asking them to Google you
- You have shown you’re a good writer by giving examples of previous work – the more high profile these sites are, the better
- You’ve offered to share links to other articles, too
- You’re offering to share some ideas for blog posts too to open a discussion
You’ve included links to social accounts so they can check you out there too
Hi (NAME OF BLOG) or (NAME OF EDITOR),
I'm just emailing to see if I could pitch you an article for (NAME OF WEBSITE)?
I'm currently a freelance online marketer and I'm trying to raise my profile in the industry. I've already blogged on websites such as (EXAMPLE SITE 1) and (EXAMPLE SITE 2) (if you Google my name - they should pop up on page 1 or 2) - and I think your website would be a great place to write for next. Alternatively, if you want me to send over some of the URLs of those articles - let me know, as it's no trouble.
If you're interested in this proposal, would you let me know? I already have some great ideas for blog posts I'd love to run by you, then I could send them over and see what you think.
Looking forward to your reply.
Hope you're having a lovely day.
(YOUR FULL NAME) plus links to Twitter / LinkedIn etc
Good Example 2
This was a template that I used when trying to get bloggers to take part in a series of blog posts where I’d interview them. This was done as a social play because they all had good followings on Twitter, so I wanted to increase awareness of the company I was representing.
It ended up working very well despite only targeting a small number of bloggers. Here is why I feel it worked:
- Plays on their ego – being interviewed is always nice even when you’re busy
- I offer them something in return – links and recognition
The work for them is not much – just a few questions to answer
I'm contacting you to see if you'd mind me asking you a few questions about your profession and publishing the answers in the form of an interview on our blog – (BLOG LINK HERE) - obviously I'd love to include links to your website / social networks and a picture too.
I'm currently trying to put together a series of interviews with top UK (PROFESSION) to get an insight into your knowledge and hopefully, to help the readers of our blog who are aspiring (PROFESSION).
I'd love to know more about what inspires you and what tips you'd give to young (PROFESSION) either doing it as a hobby or trying to get into the industry themselves.
I appreciate you're a busy person but if you could spare a bit of time to answer some questions, I'd really appreciate it!
Thanks for your time.
(NAME OF WEBSITE + SOCIAL LINKS)
I also share some templates later in the case studies section.
Bad Example 1
Hopefully you can see why this is a bad email pretty quickly. I don’t think I need to pick it apart – not that there was much to pick apart anyway!
Just to be clear: this was the FIRST email sent. There had been no prior discussions about pitching a guest post or anything like that. When I dug into it a little bit, I also discovered the website they were representing was deindexed in Google. I wonder why.
I have attached one unique guest content for your site [BLOG URL]. Please review my content and publish my article. I hope you will then send me link to article.
Waiting for your reply.
Thanks & regards.
Bad example 2
Another bad one and it’s pretty obvious why. Another thing to add (which I can’t really show here) is that the first sentence was a different font and size than the second one. This is a telltale sign of a template email sent to lots of people at once.
I've found your website and I'd like to propose an article on Perth, Australia for your website [WEBSITE URL].
Let me know if you think this is a good idea, I have it ready written. it will be a 500+ word article with original information.
Always, always follow up on your outreach. On most link building campaigns, I’ll get more links as a result of my follow-ups than I do on the first round of emails. The fact is that people are busy, they get lots of emails and if you don’t catch them at the right moment, your email will get buried quickly and forgotten. This is even truer due to the growth of smartphones and people checking email while they’re out of the office and not in a position to link to you.
Keep your follow up short and sweet – you’ve already sent them the main details in your first email so you don’t need to repeat it all over again. Something that can work well here is to actually reply from a colleagues email address. This not only makes you seem more legitimate, but gives you a nice reason to follow up because you can say something like this:
I’m just following up on an email that my colleague James sent last week regarding our guide to the best movies of 2012. He is out of the office today and asked me to follow up with you to make sure you got his email and see if you had any questions at all?
Nice, simple, to the point, and doesn’t sound automated or like spam.
Because of the importance of following up, you need to have a good system to remind yourself to do it and to keep track of people who have replied – the last thing you want to do is follow up with someone who has already replied!
There are a few tools that can help with this. I review some of them below.
Dealing with negative responses
Not everyone is going to reply to you. That is the nature of outreach. You need to be able to handle rejection. Sometimes you will get a reply, but it won’t be a positive one. When this happens, instead of letting it get you down, you should do your absolute best to learn from it and even turn it into a positive response.
Always reply. Don’t just ignore negative responses. If you ignore them, you stand very little chance of working with that person in the future. If you’re working in a relatively small niche, then this is not a great position to put yourself in. Even someone who I have a great relationship with will give me a negative reply or some hard to hear feedback at some point, you have to take it in your stride.
When you do reply, be polite and accept their opinion. But ask for any other feedback that you can get. Remember our exercise earlier, when we were getting feedback from our team? We asked them to reply using the following:
“It works because…”
“It doesn’t work because…”
Obviously, directly asking them to reply in this manner may not go too well! But try to keep this in mind, and ask them for feedback on what you pitched them. Ask what they’d prefer instead, or ask what content they’d love to see produced or what data they’d like to see visualized.
This is your opportunity to establish a relationship. Sure, this first effort hasn’t resulted in a link for you. But imagine if you got a great bit of feedback for a content idea, then a few weeks later you go back to the person and tell them you’ve worked on it. You’ll get a much better response second time around!
Dealing with requests for payment
I can pretty much guarantee that, at some point or another, you’ll get a reply from a blogger who is willing to link to you, but they want to be paid for it.
This is tough, and it is your choice on whether you want to go the route of paying for links. I will try and offer a few things to bear in mind:
- It is buying links, no matter which way you cut it. You’re breaking Google guidelines if you buy a link which passes PageRank, which always comes with risk. Ask yourself if this is a worthwhile risk to take.
- Where do you draw the line? Will you pay just this once? Or will you pay everyone who asks?
- If you do pay, is the link going to look like a paid link? Does the website in question clearly sell links to anyone who asks? If they do, you may want to rethink your decision. If you can clearly see it, then a member of the Google webspam team will, too.
Personally, I’d politely decline the offer of a paid link, make a note of the website so that I know not to contact them again, and move on. But that’s just me.