I’m all about systems and processes. That’s the only way to scale. You could be the best link builder in the world, but how are you going to scale that? Until you remove the bottleneck — namely yourself — from the system, you can’t achieve true scale. (At least until human cloning becomes a reality.)
Low quality link building is easy to scale (e.g., mindless robotic scripts that send out email spam to webmasters, or huge offshore link building firms), but that’s the path to destruction in the form of Google penalties.
Building high quality links — editorial links that are earned by merit — requires high-quality human interaction. After all, bloggers and social media influencers are smart folks, and they relate to their own kind (i.e., other smart folks), not to scripts, bots, or link farming sweatshops.
So, how do you scale human interaction? (I’m not talking about Mechanical Turk here or link building sweatshops, either!)
There’s no way around it — we need humans who can sound intelligent and can be persuasive, and we need a team of them. We need a way to train them, delegate to them and empower them while keeping an eye on quality and measuring performance.
Creating a replicable team of people (they can be interns if you so choose) who are empowered with methodologies, workflow, routines and the like is the key to scaling high-quality link building. Essentially, you’re building a machine that runs by itself, ideally with very little of your own intervention or oversight.
What does such a machine look like?
At its core is a workflow-based methodology/system that will make it easy to find, capture, and efficiently manage your outreach to online influencers.
First, let’s talk about the idea of workflow. Workflow is predicated upon having your project or process mapped out. What’s the path from A to B to C? What are the inputs and outputs at each juncture?
Consider this: you undoubtedly have a to-do list on your mind at this very moment. That is inherently inefficient. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is maintaining a list of to-dos in their head. The human brain simply isn’t good at that. Your brain operates at peak efficiency when it’s clear of the minutia. That minutia (information) in your head must all be dumped into your “trusted system.”
You organize that system in a way that it facilitates your turning that sea of information into decisions and actions. I subscribe to an approach referred to by its followers as “GTD” (which stands for Getting Things Done) that was developed by best-selling author David Allen, and it’s based on his book that just so happens to have been named Getting Things Done.
Please excuse me while I do a bit of proselytizing about the value of GTD — in managing your link building, your time, your business and the rest of your life. GTD is life-changing. It makes you more efficient and more effective. In GTD, you have to understand that most things that you think of as actions aren’t really actions; they are projects. A project is anything requiring more than a single action to complete. A “next action” is the next single activity required to move a project forward.
Let’s look at a real-world example, like selling a house. That is clearly a project, not an action. Even finding a realtor is a project. Now, calling your ex-neighbor who sold their house quickly for a good price to get the name and number of their realtor — that is a “next action.”
When it comes to your workflow, “next actions” are the units of progress that you and your team will deal with. My GTD tool of choice for managing my link building workflow is Pitchbox, but there are a number of excellent tools out there. (Full disclosure: I am an advisor to Pitchbox and have free account access.)
Workflow is absolutely everything when it comes to effectively executing an SEO campaign or initiative. Now, here’s my GTD process for influencer marketing and outreach:
This can be as simple as running Google.com and Google Blog Search queries to identify relevant blogs in your market or niche. I look for sites that are topically relevant, authoritative and trusted. I use a number of third-party tools, each their own proprietary metrics/algorithms, to gauge authority and trust of these sites:
Pitchbox integrates with all of the above (via API calls), so pulling the metrics and filtering out low quality sites is fully automated.
Now that I’ve identified the relevant websites based on various criteria, I retrieve contact details from the websites, domain records and other sources. I’m not just talking about names and emails. I’m talking about Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr and other contacts’ social media profiles.
I grab not just one contact per site, but several (when possible). That way, I have multiple points of contact for when I don’t get a response from the first contact I try.
Of course, this too is an automatic process, not manual. Pitchbox, Buzzstream, or any number of similar tools can automatically search for contact info.
Obviously, I am not going to write from scratch every email that goes out. That’s not exactly scalable. This is where a smart template and personalization system comes in.
Each attempt in a series gets its own template. Always attempt more than once, but never more than three times to the same person. Most likely, you won’t get a response the first time. By having a follow-up sequence with one or two follow-up attempts, you will increase your response rate.
Creativity in your approach here is key. We all get those stupid emails asking to guest blog on our sites. Even if these emails are well-written, we discard them, right? I will never accept a boilerplate request to guest post on any of my blogs.
What if instead you asked the blogger about their favorite tools in your industry for an article that you are writing? You offer to cite them as a source and even quote them. Of course they are going to respond to that, and they will want to link to your article because it references and quotes them.
Or, perhaps ask them if they are going to the next industry conference. If you are both going, then you could meet in person. If they respond that they aren’t going, you could then ask them what conferences they recommend. Starting such a dialogue is a great way to build rapport and relationships with influencers.
With these templates on hand, I can now think about personalizing them to making them even more effective. Think “mail merge” like in Microsoft Word or in your favorite email marketing tool (Aweber, Mailchimp, ExactTarget and the like) — but on steroids!
The reason for personalizing is to increase the response rate (duh!) by making the email seem singularly handcrafted, i.e., only for that one recipient, showing real time and thought has gone into the email.
For example, I could include in the outreach email an insightful comment about their most recent blog post or tweet, which would demonstrate the fact that I closely follow and read their content. This insightful comment would be one of the mail merge fields. These fields get inserted into the templates.
Now, who is going to do this legwork and brainwork, you may ask? This is where that crackerjack outreach team comes in. They visit the sites one by one, using technology that facilitates this process of populating the merge fields with data.
The outreach team gets these emails ready to send by marrying my brilliant templates with their web research and thoughtful commentary. But these emails don’t get sent just yet, oh no! They go into a holding tank. From there, I or one of my managers will moderate the messages, approving them to go into another holding tank.
From this second holding tank, the queued messages await their time for delivery. They will go out during the range of hours and days that I previously specified in the campaign’s configuration settings (e.g., 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday).
Anyone who sends any significant amount of email knows you don’t email when your intended recipients are not working — nor do you blast all your emails out all at once, because that will get you picked up by the various email hosts’ spam-catching algorithms (Gmail, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc.). Instead you throttle it.
Anyone in sales will tell you how critical it is to have a CRM and to use it. Otherwise, opportunities will undoubtedly slip through the cracks.
However, I don’t think traditional CRM is a good fit for link building, so I use the CRM that’s built into Pitchbox for that.
Imagine following up with prospects even when you aren’t around… like when you’re sitting on the beach. As I type this, I’m at a resort in Costa Rica. And my business is running without me. Opportunities continue moving through my pipeline. Pretty cool, right? Now if only I could figure out how to automate the writing of my Search Engine Land articles!
How this follow-up happens is that it is scheduled. Seven days out with no response? Then the target gets the second email in the follow-up sequence. Another week and still no response? Then the third and final email in the sequence. Don’t let any outreach go three weeks without a follow-up, unless you’ve already maxed out that prospect with your three outreaches with no response.
The reality of influencer outreach is that it is messy, tedious and has a high failure rate. It takes powerful tools; otherwise, you are dead in the water. A bunch of point solutions just adds to the chaos. An end-to-end solution is the tool required for this job.
Here’s where a unified toolset can become a lifesaver. With that unified toolset, you build and run the outreach campaign in its entirety, from creating the list of sites to target, to getting the contact info, to preparing and sending the outreach emails, to organizing and automating responses, to maintaining a CRM and link “pipeline.”
It brings together prospecting, SEO metrics, personalization, email client with automated follow-up, and CRM; all tied with workflow and next step management.
Of course no tool, no matter how awesome, will ever eliminate the need for creativity in the creation of viral content, but with some systems and workflow in place, you will be able to achieve scale with your outreach in ways you never thought possible.