Good outreach is crucial to link building, but it’s not easy. Columnist Ian Bowden explains why it’s a tough, yet essential, element of a strong SEO campaign.
After spending several years in a media agency, I’ve come to the opinion that link outreach teams have the most difficult job in the agency.
Imagine telling a programmatic trader that he had to get impressions for a client, but he wasn’t allowed to pay for any of them. Or imagine telling a TV buyer that they had to get some spots based on some “exceptional” creative. Again, no money was allowed to be exchanged.
The life of someone in outreach has become very challenging. Long gone are the days of emailing travel, mommy and lifestyle bloggers and slipping them a cheeky $50 payment to publish a link within their content under the guise of merchandising or a guest post.
Compliance with Google Webmaster Guidelines is higher than ever, and outreach teams are expected to deliver the same number of links as they were before. They are expected to get influencers to talk about a brand on the strength of some content that the brand alone has. Following are a few of the reasons I think they have the most difficult job in the agency.
1. Bloggers still expect payment
For many years, bloggers would commonly receive payment in exchange for a guest post. Because of this, it became normalized, and still, there are bloggers who are happy to feature branded content, but they still expect payment to do so. A large part of the link graph has essentially become “polluted,” and the industry only has itself to blame.
When outreach teams are not allowed to make payments to bloggers to ensure compliance with guidelines, it restricts the number of bloggers who can feature the content. There are particular verticals of bloggers — such as mommy and travel bloggers — where this is more prevalent. This makes it challenging for outreach teams, as they have restrictions on the coverage they can achieve, irrespective of the quality of the content.
2. The content doesn’t always sit on the client’s website
Sometimes, outreach teams will be given some great research or content to distribute, but it doesn’t reside on the client’s website. This provides another challenge for outreach teams — how to get the influencers to still link back to the client’s website.
While the ongoing battle to get content live onto a website is being addressed, links still need to be built (and results achieved).
Even if the content is awesome and the influencer is happy to cover it, the outreach team still has the challenge of giving them a compelling reason to link back to the client’s website, as there is no link between the content and the client’s website, beyond the fact they produced it.
On top of that, the outreach team ideally would get a link back to a product page related to the research rather than the home page. This creates a real challenge.
3. The content given to the outreach team isn’t linkworthy
It’s not uncommon for the outreach team to be passed a piece of content that will be a tough pitch to bloggers.
By the time a piece of content has been signed off on by the various stakeholders within an organization and deemed to be “on brand” and consistent with the wider communications strategy, sometimes the content has been stripped of all linkworthiness.
There are common traits of content that earns links and shares, as found in this study. Some of the traits identified, such as opinionated and political content, are out of reach for brands. But if the content is not at least insightful, bloggers won’t want to share it with its readers.
In this instance, outreach teams have to rely on their connections and relationships as “a favor” to get links, but there is a limit on the number of times you can do this.
4. Contact restrictions limit them to lower-tier influencers
The outreach team needs to get authority links, but they might not even be allowed to contact authority influencers.
It’s likely that medium-sized or larger organizations will have additional social or PR functions. It is usually these functions which hold relationships with authority influencers. Most people who have worked in the industry will be aware of the importance of developing strong relationships with these teams, since they can restrict the amount and authority of influencers the SEO team can contact.
The outreach teams are tasked with building links from websites that pass authority but are restricted in their ability to actually contact websites with sufficient authority to deliver results. This can be really challenging for outreach teams.
Why you should adopt a positive mindset around outreach
There are instances where brands are getting content live and are doing successful outreach campaigns, so it’s certainly possible.
Those who have spent some time in the industry will be aware of some of these challenges. However, there is also a danger that focusing on these challenges creates a negative mindset, limiting what is possible. A positive mindset should be encouraged, one that continuously challenges what is possible, without blinkers.
Additionally, here are some key ways these challenges can be addressed.
1. Improve responsibility and accountability of the performance
Those doing the outreach must be involved at all stages of the content creation.
Sometimes, in larger teams, or when multiple agencies are involved on an account, the outreach team may have a limiting influence on the ideation and production of content.
The person who often knows what content will work the best is the person who does the outreach. It’s important not only that they are involved at the ideation stage, but importantly, that they are given the remit to be accountable for the entire process of Content Marketing.
This avoids the blame game, when the outreach team blames the content for the lack of results, and the content producers blame the outreach. Having one team both responsible and accountable avoids this.
This extends to the overall performance of a website in organic search. There are often two teams: one that is responsible for the technical optimization of a website, and another team that is responsible for the content marketing of a website. Collectively, they need to be made accountable for the client’s performance, rather than just the team that reports back to the client.
2. Strong client stewardship
Many of the issues around poor content, or getting content live, can be addressed through strong client stewardship. This means getting involved, meeting all of the key stakeholders and understanding exactly what the requirements are to get content live. An obstacle report can help make very clear to everyone the barriers to doing this, and therefore, the actions to move forward.
This includes a clear approach to stakeholder management which ensures that client signed off can still deliver against the campaign objectives, and there is a good working relationship with social/PR teams.
To wrap up
In my opinion, outreach teams have the most difficult role in the agency. Some of their challenges will be due to things outside of their control, but many are due to organizational dysfunctions that can be addressed and improved.
A few years ago, content distribution platforms such as Outbrain and Taboola appeared and boomed in popularity. It’s no surprise. They could have provided the holy grail of instant and wide-reaching distribution of content, which was almost guaranteed due to the paid media nature of the platforms. It would take off some of the pressure of earned content distribution.
Unfortunately, case studies where these have demonstrated delivering SEO benefit are few, and they now have lower-quality inventory and are filled with “clickbait” casino and weightless adverts. Paid distribution has a purpose and can be used tactically to wonderful effect, but its presence as a line item on a media plan should be for incremental gain in the mix, rather than a substitute for earned distribution.
Outreach is still important, and it is critical that agencies get it right.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.