Now we need to create our link building asset. I like to think of building an asset because this helps to make sure it is something truly valuable to the business, and it may also be useful to other departments.
For example, you may work on a great piece of content that visualizes some industry data. This could be used by the PR team, who can take this journalists to use in their stories. Whereas, if you say that your content is “just for link building,” then you won’t get as much value out of it as you could.
Content as a link building asset
This section is biased towards using content as a link building asset. This is deliberate, as I’ve seen first-hand that it is a lot easier to build links when you have something of value to offer someone.
Great content makes outreach a lot easier
Having said that, I will touch on a few other ideas later in this section, as well as some specific content ideas and processes.
Think about your outreach now
Thinking about outreach early in the content creation process helps ensure that you’ll build something people will care about.
Answer the following questions in relation to the content you’re creating:
- Who will care about my content?
- Why will they care about my content?
- Do they have the ability to link?
If you struggle to answer these questions confidently, you may struggle with your outreach. If you can answer them positively, then you not only have a better chance of success, but you’ve already done most of the work you need to do when crafting your outreach message.
Let’s look at these questions in more detail:
Who cares about my content?
To enforce the point on this one a little bit more, I’m going to expand upon it slightly:
Who cares about my content? (Outside of my team)
Sometimes when you’re working on an idea, you’re convinced that it is an awesome idea. Your team probably agrees with you. After all, you’ve probably pitched the idea to them in a convincing way and they like you, so why wouldn’t they like your idea?
The problem? We can become blinded by our own opinions. We get too close. We don’t take a step back and look at the bigger picture, which is a whole lot bigger than you and your team. Think about it, too, when crafting a piece of content – is it you and your team who are the target audience?
The target audience for linking to your content may not care less about what you have created. They’ve seen it all before and it doesn’t excite them. This usually comes as a surprise, because you felt that your idea was amazing.
But did you actually ask anyone else outside of your team? Did you get an opinion from someone in your target audience? If the answer is no, then you only have yourself to blame.
You need a good understanding of your target audience. You also need to be prepared to fail fast. Failing fast lets you sanity check an idea before you go to the trouble of creating the whole thing. If at this early point in the process you find that no one cares about the content, then you haven’t actually lost that much. In fact, you’ve gained valuable insight into what doesn’t work, and if you’re smart, you will have gotten feedback on why it doesn’t work. This information is invaluable and can be fed back into the next piece of content.
When creating a piece of content, you always need to be thinking one thing: who cares? Yes, it’s a tough question, and not one that people like asking themselves, particularly if they’ve become personally attached to an idea, but it can help weed out the bad ideas and leave you with ones that stand a good chance of doing well.
When you think you have an idea for a piece of content and you think it has a good chance of getting links, do the following:
- Set a timer for 10 minutes, go to Google, and find 10 people who will care about your content and have the ability to link to it.
If you can’t find 10 people after 10 minutes, it may not be such a great idea as a link building piece. It could be great as a normal piece of content, but if you can’t quickly find people who not only care and also have the ability to link, you’re going to find outreach hard.
Why do they care about your content?
It isn’t enough to simply find people who may care. Instead you need to figure out why they care.
This is a secondary check against yourself, to make sure that you genuinely do have a good idea. Answering this, at this stage, also helps form an important part of your outreach message, which we’ll get to shortly.
Again, you ideally need to answer this question early in the content creation process because it can drive how the content is shaped and it can really help make it a success.
Ultimately, the reason that someone cares about your content lies in how it provokes an emotional response. It needs to have some kind of hook that makes it stand out and makes it matter. If it doesn’t matter to someone, why would they bother taking the time to read it, let alone link to it?
It could matter to them because of a number of reasons:
- Thought provoking
- Visualizes something complicated
If your content ticks one or more of these areas, it has more of a chance of making someone care about it. But it isn’t enough to simply say “this content is interesting” or “this content is funny.” Why is the content interesting? What makes it interesting to your target audience? Remember: you don’t want to end up being the only one that thinks a piece of content is interesting.
When you are thinking about an idea and asking your team for feedback, try to take your own emotion out of the equation. Avoid using phrases like: “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” Instead, try to begin your feedback by using one of the following:
“It works because…”
“It doesn’t work because…”
This is something I picked up from a book called Creative Mischief by Dave Trott who uses the same process for helping decide how good advertisements are.
Instead of the usual, “I like it, it’s cool,” feedback that you may get, you’ll get something like, “It works because it does a great job of visualizing the history of modern cinema. I can easily see which films have grossed the most and which ones were rated highest.”
Even if the person doesn’t like it, you’ll get feedback on why and you can choose to either improve those elements or you can decide to move onto another idea.
Here is the fun part of all of this: you are putting together your outreach message (which we’ll talk about soon) piece by piece. Let’s look at the previous bit of feedback again:
“It works because it does a great job of visualizing the history of modern cinema. I can easily see which films have grossed the most and which ones were rated highest.”
Let’s imagine we are contacting a movie blogger and telling him about some content we’ve just created. We can change this feedback to state the following:
“This piece of content works because it does a great job of visualizing the history of modern cinema, and you can easily see which films have grossed the most and which ones were rated highest.”
Just a very slight tweak to the feedback has given you a hook to use when emailing a blogger. You’re not only testing your idea to see if it can work, you’re taking the information and using it to help you tell your target audience why it works.
Do they have the ability to link?
This is crucial and probably one of the most overlooked parts of the content-based link building. You can go to a lot of effort to create what genuinely is a fantastic piece of content, but, if the people who care about it do not have the ability to link, it may not work as a link building piece.
The ability to link is crucial. If the people who care do not actually have blogs or websites, you won’t get links. You may get social shares, which is great and will get some traffic to your content. However, if your goal is links, then you probably won’t succeed.
Let’s go to the extreme to demonstrate this. Imagine you owned an online store selling socks and you created a great piece of content about different sock types and how different types of socks can help with different types of activity. You think that the target audience for links is sock bloggers, but when you do your research, you can’t find any sock bloggers. Who is going to link to your content?
In this case, you may need to expand the target audience for links to fashion sites, which may give you more targets, but you’d probably need to tweak the angle that the content takes, too.
Let’s look at a less-extreme example. You put together a piece of content targeted at CEOs of large companies. It is titled, “Everything a CEO needs to know about SEO in less than a minute.” You believe this content can work because CEOs are notoriously busy, but their company probably has an online presence and they want to know about SEO, but do not have hours to read up on it.
However, many CEOs probably do not have their own blog where they may link to your content. Sure there are exceptions—blogs from Brad Feld and Rand spring to mind, but in general, there aren’t that many. This means that the target market for consuming your content is different than the target market for who may link to it.
This isn’t a problem most of the time, but most SEOs do not think about this subtle distinction. So they end up targeting the wrong people for links and end up being disappointed, no matter how good the content is.
So what is the answer?
In this scenario, you need to spend some time researching what CEOs read, where they hang out online, and who influences them. The places that you identify now become your target market for links. So instead of reaching out to CEOs (who are way too busy to reply to you, let alone link to you), contact the places they read, such as The Economist, which lists CEOs as one of its most popular reading demographics.
Broader principles of sticky content
I often get asked if there are general principles that can help content succeed no matter what industry it applies to. The question often comes from agencies where they handle a range of clients across a number of industries. The best answer I can give here is to reference Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. I’d highly recommend that you pick up a copy of the book.
In summary, there are seven principles outlined in the book:
The more of these that a piece of content can tick off, the more likely that content is to be sticky. One thing to mention is that it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll tick off every one of these. From experience though, four or more is usually a good number to aim for and probably means the idea is worth putting more effort into.
Let’s explore each of these in a little more detail to see what they mean.
Is the idea easy for someone to grasp and understand? The person reading your content shouldn’t have to work too hard to understand your key point, and if they do, then they may not actually get all the way through the content. Remember, a simple idea could still take a long time to come up with or create.
Is the message from your content unexpected? Are you presenting something new? If your message is just a regurgitation of something that someone has heard before, then they probably won’t react well to it. This doesn’t mean that your idea has to be completely new or unique – that is super, super hard! However there needs to be something new and unexpected about it. And it may be that you’ve found a new angle on an older piece of data, or that you’ve found a new way of presenting an idea which makes it easier to understand and share.
When explaining these principles to clients, concreteness is always the one that trips people up and needs more clarification! So I wanted to use a direct example from Made to Stick here to illustrate the point.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered an ambitious speech about sending a man to the moon. This came at a time when the Soviets were also racing to land a man on the moon and JFK wanted to capture the imagination of the American people and get them to support this huge goal.
JFK did not say this:
We’re going to win the space race.
He did say this:
First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth
First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
There is little room for ambiguity in this statement, there is tons in the first one. The statement that JFK made was one that people could easily understand and get behind. It made what he was aiming for concrete.
Another way I like to describe concrete is that it’s not “fluffy.” Something that is fluffy is too open to interpretation and could mean several things without trying too hard. We all know how it feels to be told something and not really know what it means or what we have to do next.
The content itself – what it says – needs to be credible. This applies especially to content that is making any bold claims or things that are backed up by statements or pieces of data. The data or statements that are used need to be credible enough for the reader to believe what you’re saying.
The writer of the article also has to be credible. This can either be an individual or a company. Sometimes an actual author may not be attached to large pieces of content, so the company takes the place of the author.
If it is an individual author who is responsible for the content, they need to be credible to the reader. What qualifies them to make the statements they are making in the content? What qualifications do they have? What experience and expertise do they have?
If, on the other hand, it is a company who is classed as the author of a piece of content, the question then becomes: what qualifies this company to talk about this particular topic? This is where some companies can trip up because they publish content for the sole purpose of building links, which can mean that the topic of the content is totally unrelated to the core purpose of the company. While the content may achieve its goal of getting links, it may not actually build credibility for them in their own industry.
If a piece of content can trigger some kind of an emotional response, then the reader of the content is much more likely to take an action. If that action is a positive one and involves sharing the content, then that can be great for the success of the content.
If the content triggers a negative response, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However. it is riskier because it may mean that the reader now associates the brand with this negative emotion, which is damaging for you in the long term.
We are more likely to absorb and remember something if there is a story attached to it. This goes back to when we were children and were told stories by our families and friends. Stories are more mentally stimulating and make concepts and ideas far easier to remember and tell to someone else.
This is a tough one to nail when it comes to creating content because sometimes, the story won’t be that obvious at first. Another way to think about this when it comes to content creation is to ask yourself what the angle is, how would you pitch this to someone else? What’s the one key bit of information you can tell someone that goes to the heart of what you’re saying?
A great piece of content can be summed up in just one or two sentences. This is where the story (or lack of one) can reveal itself.
Making use of these principles
Few pieces of content will tick off every single one of these principles. However, you should try and at least cover three or four of them before investing more time into your idea – that is if you want your ideas to be shared widely. It is also perfectly possible for content to work even without three or four of these principles, sometimes, things will just go huge and you can’t really explain why. The Made to Stick principles have been scrutinized a lot over the years and there are many examples of ideas and content that have stuck with hardly any or none of the principles being present.
However, they are definitely a good sanity check to make sure you’re at least going in the right direction. I’d still rather use them than just rely on my gut feeling.
I’ve seen many marketers (I’ve also done this myself) trip up because they think that every piece of content on a website has to generate links and social shares.
Let’s be clear: they do not.
Some pieces of content are just not likely to get many links or social shares. Accept it and come to terms with it. This doesn’t mean that this type of content isn’t valuable. It is!
Here are a few examples of pages that are unlikely to get many shares or links:
- Product pages (unless you have a spectacular or unique product)
- About pages
- Product reviews
- Product category pages
There are exceptions, but generally these types of pages are harder to get links to without buying them.
Take a look at this content matrix from Hannah Smith at Distilled:
It does a pretty good job of outlining most types of content that every website needs. Just scanning through some of these, you can get an idea of what types of content are more likely to get links. I’d argue that the types of content that are designed to persuade and convert and less likely to get links.
Content that is designed to entertain and educate is more likely to get links – the former because, well, it entertains; the latter because it can become a resource that is referenced a lot, and therefore linked to. This educational content is more likely to be linked to slowly over a long period of time as long as it’s “evergreen” content.