If you’ve been following my previous articles, you are already aware that I refuse to constantly reinvent the way we write content for SEO purposes every time Google updates its algorithms. Good content will always be valuable.
One of the other common hamster-wheel e-commerce activities is link building. For whatever reason, this has remained one of the little details website marketers have latched onto. Google ranks web pages higher in search results if they are seen as having more “value” – an ambiguous ranking system that is influenced by a long list of factors, including “backlinks.” Literally, how many links are there from other sites back to yours, are those links on valuable sites themselves, and are they surrounded by relevant content to yours?
There have been endless schemes over the years for ways to “trick” Google into thinking your site was wildly popular and valuable by fabricating backlinks to it. Seriously, back in the day we all used to troll forums on topics even vaguely related to our offerings and post “I totally know what you mean, but then I found this awesome thing” and link to our sites. It was spam.
Subsequently, it has also remained one of Google’s pet peeves, and punishing sites with questionable link building tactics in a recent update sent digital marketers into a tizzy. (Side-rant: Once again, if we all just stuck with legitimate, justifiably appropriate practices to generate content and promote our websites, we wouldn’t have to have to be spanked like children for trying to game the system.)
This brings us to my point. In my opinion, one of the most useful and easiest to create types of backlinks is posts from bloggers. A strong blogger outreach strategy will automatically generate backlinks in the form of reviews and giveaways that feature your products.
User Generated Content
Oh, how we love our user generated content. What we mean is… any content that users in general contribute to a website. Online reviews are the perfect example – consumers post directly onto our sites, talking about the products sold on that page.
Content generated by users is particularly valuable to us. Search engine optimization is all about guessing at the words shoppers might use while describing the products or services we sell. When they’re literally contributing that language to our pages for us, they are instantly optimizing our content with those words. Genius!
This content is just as valuable outside of our own websites, especially on pages that link back to ours.
A word of warning to my fellow grammar police and marketing language control freaks:
I have found that it’s common for bloggers, reviewers, and other content contributors to get things wrong. They might pluralize a singular word in your company name (trust me), describe your products incorrectly, or simply misspell words you consider important.
Learn to embrace these errors. As long as they don’t create real trouble for you (like offering care instructions that would destroy your product) just roll with it. Though inaccuracies might make you cringe, they are a perfect example of pure, user generated content. Because they’re the words that consumer actually chose, they are all the more likely to be used (and searched) by another… and if they’re not words you’d usually use, they are serving a much more beneficial purpose: meaningfully expanding your terms without you having to intentionally mis-use them. Consumers can get away with saying things we as marketers can’t. Bonus!
#1 Reason to Use Bloggers
It all boils down to reaching new audiences. Every blogger has a style, a set of interests, and a following. As they become more engaged and loyal, those followers come to trust the opinion of the blogger.
A new product mentioned on a blog carries as much weight as a friend recommending something they use. It’s a stronger message than any marketing we can do as the brand, and because it will be presented to a targeted audience on their terms, it’s much more accessible and more willingly accepted.
The Savvy Blogger
Blogging began as a sort of voyeuristic hobby, with random people posting to their blogs the way anyone might write in a journal. The topics were personal, opinionated, random, and often poorly presented. On the same blog, you might hear about a family crisis one day, misfortune at the bus stop the next day, and a really lovely sandwich over the weekend. Random. Not much value.
Over time, two things changed this:
- Web marketers began to understand the value of content and links from a powerful blog.
- Bloggers came to realize the need to create a targeted audience… and the fact that if they were good at this, they could get lots of free stuff!
This relationship became symbiotic, as bloggers got better and better at refining their craft to become more valuable to marketers, and marketers learned to seek bloggers who were the best match.
Blog posters now understand what a digital marketing pro really wants from them:
- A captive audience with a clear demographic that trusts the blogger’s opinion, and shares common interests, styles and priorities.
- Great, SEO-friendly content that presents the product or company in a positive but believable (not overly contrived) light.
- Links back to the company’s website – preferably directly to the product page if relevant.
- Encouragement for followers of the blog to truly discover the company and ideally, to become prospects and customers.
They have become so savvy, that when bloggers reach out to us and offer to write about our company, services or products, they often include statistics and data usually reserved for marketing professionals. I’ve seen notes that include page views, engagement rates, and even rates of increase in social following for the company after a post.
Reviews vs. Giveaways
Bloggers realize you’re not the only one they have to sell to. Sure, they want you to think they’re smart and interesting and have a dedicated following. But how do they make sure that’s the case and keep their readers engaged, while talking about your or your products? Reviews and giveaways.
Reviews in Blog Posts
When writing a review, bloggers often post informal photos (if it’s workout gear, you might see her wearing it while planking; if it’s a kid’s toy you might see a toddler poking it). If you’re selling services, it’s a different approach. You might offer a free introductory something to the blogger… I’ll focus more on products here, for relevance.
Bloggers will generally introduce your company, and your product. They’ll talk about its features, what they like about it, and why they recommend it. Knowing that this is the type of content you can expect, it’s always a good idea to direct bloggers toward your content in advance. Feed them the features, benefits, and selling points. You can’t guarantee what they’ll say, but you’ll feel better knowing you’ve put your copy in front of them and they will often refer to it when they post. The best bloggers really do their research.
A review is essentially a personal endorsement of the product. Bloggers have somewhat of an unspoken understanding – if they don’t have anything nice to say, they most likely won’t post about your product at all. Unless you’re dealing with a food critic or tech writer or someone similarly contrary and opinionated, you’re most likely going to find a positive post if you get one at all.
Giveaways in Blog Posts
Giveaways or contests, on the other hand, bring in the highlights of a review with an added twist. Generally, the blogger writes about the product, and offers one to a winner or randomly selected recipient. There might be requirements for entry – anything from commenting on the post, to entering to win using an embedded app.
There are lots of social apps out there, from free to about $1500/month, with various features. The less expensive ones are robust enough for most so don’t get carried away if you’re in the market for one and don’t need it to integrate with your other systems. But realize that when someone enters to win, they’re handing their contact info over to the blogger, not to you. They often wind up subscribed to the blog or mailing list. This incentive to subscribe is a huge benefit to the blogger.
The particularly crafty bloggers get extra creative. I love seeing the ways bloggers find to increase engagement with the company they’re blogging about. Something as simple as “go out to their website and comment below what your favorite product is” actually generates a lot of activity (and new visitors to the site, who may sign up for your mailing list even if they don’t purchase right away). Remember that it takes lots of exposures to your company or products for a new customer to convert – every touch point is one more step in the customer acquisition process, so a stranger to your offering who clicks through to your site and bounces right back out still saw your name, logo, and products, and will have some level of recognition when they see it again.
With giveaways, realize that there may be thousands of entrants, and one winner. All of those other blog followers are engaged with the blog, but will they remember your name?
Pro tip: Salvage those relationships by circling back to the blogger (or setting it up in advance) to offer a discount code to everyone who entered. Make the code something similar to the blog name so the blogger will feel they’re giving a gift… but this small incentive might just be enough to jog an already interested potential customer into converting – or at the least, it’s an excuse to get your name in front of them in a positive way one more time.
How to select a blogger that’s a good fit for you
For this to be most fruitful, you must sift through the piles of blog sites out there to find the ones that attract the audience you want to be speaking to. Selling yoga pants? Find a cute fitness blogger. Selling gourmet food? Find an entertaining foodie.
There are directories of blog sites and organizations for bloggers of each major topic (fashion and beauty, sports, and of course the coveted mommy bloggers). Do your research, see who catches your interest, and develop your own set of metrics to evaluate them.
Once you start sending free stuff out and getting those reviews, though, other bloggers will take notice. I promise you, the unsolicited requests for samples and offers for reviews will start coming in. Remember to put each one through your vetting process to make sure they’re a good fit for you.
You’ll want to be selective – don’t just use a blogger because they contacted you. Review their metrics, and trust your instincts. This blogger will be representing you and if it’s not a good personality fit, you might not be happy with the association that results from the post. On the other hand, a perfect fit will present you in the best light and may become more than just an active backlink to your site, but a peer influencer and brand advocate for you!
Do always keep in mind, though, that Google carefully monitors the links to your site. All of these other details aside, you’ll want to also choose blogs whose topics and volume of content support your goals. Yes, definitely appeal to a niche audience of one of your random products to drum up some interest. Case in point, at Berkshire Blanket, we got Gizmodo to review our Screen Cleaning Throw. That was awesome (and the comments are hilarious). But a tech blog isn’t seen by Google as valuable in the soft home goods (bedding, decorative pillows, etc.) space. So overall, links from this type of blog will help the site less than building a pile of links from sites seen as more relevant and influential to our overall subject matter.
Managing the Relationship
Just like any marketing effort, blogger outreach requires oversight and management.
I recommend keeping a spreadsheet of blogs with their URL, major metrics you value such as number of followers on the blog and major social media sites, how frequently they post, what their areas of interest are, age of blog, engagement (you could just look at the comments from readers), and quality of posts as they pertain to you.
Then as you publish with each one, add columns for publish date and link to the post so you can see at a glance who’s posting for you and how frequently, and make sure to spread it around so you don’t repeat with the same one too often. You might also pick a metric to use as a quantification of the success of each post (referred traffic, lift in email signups, engagement on the post itself, etc.) so that you can see at a glance which blogs give you the best results.
I also like to keep track of the dates of initial contact, whether we or they initiated it, and the date we send product. Some bloggers post very quickly and others sit on it for weeks or months before they show up, with varying levels of communication in between.
After the post, always make sure to send a note of thanks for their help. More importantly, establish a plan for staying in touch with your blogging community. Create a mailing list and a plan for reaching out to them regularly. If you have multiple audiences, group your blog publishers by topic and when you have a new product to introduce, send a note to the relevant bloggers, offering them the chance to highlight it.
Far from public diary writers, these are now professional writers and self publishers. They have made a business of blogging and they will appreciate your treating them professionally. They understand that this is a two-way street, and they want to work with you. You’re sending them something, and that is a form of compensation – they should strive to keep you happy as well. (If they don’t work well with you or their posts don’t perform, let them fall off your list.) Learn what each one wants from you and provide it. Nurture that relationship and it will continue to serve you.
At-a-Glance Blogger Outreach Strategy Steps
- You reach out to a blogger or they contact you.
- You vet them to make sure they’re viable, a good fit, and someone you’d want representing your company or product.
- Provide your terms (yes – be formal about it and always have terms written up).
- Your requirements, such as linking back to your site and always using a tracked URL that you will provide (so you can measure the traffic.
- Requirements that the blogger state clearly that they received free product from you but that their opinion is theirs after evaluating the product (this is an important legality to respect – receiving product is a form of compensation and has to be disclosed).
- Anything else you might require, such as posting within a certain time period, using your protected terms correctly (put the registered trademark symbol on the product name, for instance) or making sure to mention recommended ages for use of your product. Try to keep this minimal – just the things you must ask.
- Ask that they reply to the email indicating that they understand and agree to the terms.
- Find out what their requirements are.
- For reviews, they’ll likely just want one of your products (you won’t get it back).
- For giveaways, they might want two (one for them and one to give away) but I’ve also seen some that require you to give them two to keep, and leave you responsible for shipping another to their winner (they usually couch it as “we don’t ship your product” or something). Unless it’s truly a rock star opportunity, I might think twice about that diva blogger.
- Don’t ask outright, but be prepared – some might require that you not work with competing blogs simultaneously.
- Send your product to them. Realize that you may not require them to post at all, and you certainly can’t guarantee they’ll post positively. If you were dictating the content this would quickly become legally questionable. If you’re concerned about receiving a negative post, avoid bloggers who write like critics and seek the positive ones. They’re more likely to write a flattering piece or nothing at all.
- Use shipment tracking to confirm they received it and follow up to see that it arrived safely and offer to provide any information they might need about it.
- If you haven’t heard from them after a couple of weeks, follow up to ask if they think they might post about it in the near future. Be soft but assertive. Always stay in touch.
- When they do post, link to it from your blog or social media sites. Make a big deal about it and do them the courtesy of return traffic as well.
- Track the results as explained above and revisit bloggers that were easy to work with and garnered the best results. If you offer them the first opportunity to introduce a new product or an especially appealing giveaway, they will work harder for you and you’ll build a strong network.
- Build blog posts into your promo calendar. Although you can’t control when posts are published (some will post right away, others may go 4-6 weeks before your post shows up) you will get a handle on each blogger’s usual timing as you work with them and track the results, so plan in advance for a certain number of posts each month. With that expected schedule, you can build a plan around how often you should send out product, and work the strategy into your promotional calendar.
- Once you have an established relationship with enough bloggers and a schedule in place, you’ll have a pipeline that will continually generate relevant, valuable, on-topic posts full of juicy user-generated content that link directly back to your site.
See what happened there?? Forget about creating bogus backlinks.
Now you have an army of content publishers genuinely creating the links – and bonus awesome content – for you!