Thinking Beyond the Link Building “Campaign” [Case Study]
Over the years, I’ve often referred to our link building work as “campaigns”, which isn’t wrong, but isn’t completely right, either. I think that as an industry we need to alter our mindset to focus on what link building should be: an ongoing, integrated, business-as-usual activity.
Link building processes that work for brands now and that will continue to work in the future need to sit closer to the rest of the business. This means tighter integration with other disciplines, or at the very least, acknowledgment that link building isn’t a siloed activity or dark art like it used to be.
In this post, I’d like to propose how we should think about link building and share some ways to make it more sustainable, efficient, and effective.
The problem with campaigns
I want to start by being super clear on something, and I make no apologies for reiterating this throughout this post: Link building campaigns aren’t a bad thing. My core point is that they should be thought of as one piece of the puzzle — not something we should focus all of our time and attention on.
“Campaign”, in the context of link building or digital PR, implies a few things:
- It has a start and an end point
- It is a one-off activity
- It is about a specific “thing”, whether that be a topic, product, or piece of content
There is nothing wrong with these as such, but link building shouldn’t be thought about only in these ways. If link building is seen as a series of one-off activities, or about a specific thing and with a start and end point, it’s never going to be integrated into a business the way it should be. It will always sit around the edges of marketing activity and not benefit the bottom line as much as it could.
Even if you are reading this thinking that you’re okay because you have lots of campaigns lined up — maybe one a week, one a month, or one a quarter — the core problems still exist, but at a more zoomed-out level.
As digital marketers, we want link building to be:
- Taken seriously as a tactic which helps support SEO within a business
- Integrated with other areas to allow for efficiency and wider benefits
- Fit into the overarching digital strategy of a business
- Have measurable, consistent results
Let me demonstrate the final point with the graph below, which is the monthly performance of an Aira client on a 6-8 week campaign schedule:
On the face of it, this looks pretty good. We built over 200 links in 12 months, and were ahead of target in terms of individual campaign objectives.
This graph is the reality of link building campaign execution. We were honest and up-front with clients about the results, and those peaks and dips are perfectly normal.
But it could (and should) be a lot better.
Let’s take a quick step back.
An uncomfortable truth
The uncomfortable truth for many link builders is that a business shouldn’t really need to worry about link building as an intentional, proactive activity. Instead, links should be a natural consequence of a fantastic product or service which is marketed and branded well.
However, companies in this position are the exception rather than the rule, which means that as link builders, we still have a job!
I’d argue that there are only a relatively small number of businesses that truly don’t need to worry about link building. Think of the likes of well-established and popular brands like Apple, McDonalds, Amazon and Coca-Cola. These companies truly are the exception, rather than the rule.
Trying to be an exception and aiming to reach the nirvana of never actively worrying about link building should absolutely be your goal. Putting efforts into areas such as product development, customer service, content strategy, and brand building will all pay dividends when it comes to link building. But they all take time and you need to generate organic traffic sooner rather than later in order to grow the business.
Link building, as part of your larger integrated and robust digital strategy can get you there quicker. I worry that businesses often leave money on the table by waiting for that nirvana to come. They may indeed get there, but could they have gotten there sooner?
The question then becomes, how do they move quicker toward that ideal state, and what does link building look like in the interim? Running campaigns can help for sure, but you’re not really building upward as quickly as you could be.
This is the crux of my worry and problem with running link building campaigns and allowing our strategies to lean on them too heavily:
When the campaigns stop, so will the links.
I know, I know — Aira launches campaigns all the time.
Yes, we have launched many, many link building campaigns at Aira over the years and have been nominated for campaign-specific awards for some of them. I’ve even written about them many times. Campaign-led link building has a very valuable part to play in the world of link building, but we need to reframe our thinking and move away from campaigns as the primary way to generate links to a business.
Driving the right behaviors
It’s not just about results. It’s about driving the right behaviors within businesses, too.
Putting link building in the corner of a one-off project or campaign-led activity is not going to encourage habitual link building. It will drive behaviors and thinking which you don’t really want, such as:
- Link building is a line item which can be switched on and off
- Internal processes have to bend or break in order to accommodate link building
- There is little desire or motivation for wider team members to learn about what link builders do
- Link building is an isolated activity with no integration
- Link building results aren’t consistent (you get those huge peaks and dips in performance, which can bring into question the marketing spend you’re being given)
Working under these pressures is not going to make your life easy, nor are you going to do the best job you possibly can.
I worry that as an industry, we’ve become too focused on launching campaign after campaign and have gotten too far away from effecting change within organizations through our work.
As digital marketers, we are trying to influence behaviors. Ultimately, it’s about the behaviors of customers, but before that point it’s about influencing stakeholders — whether you’re an agency or in-house SEO, our first job is to get things done. In order to do that, link building needs to be thought of as a business-as-usual (BAU) activity. Campaigns have a place, but are part of a much, much bigger picture. Link building needs to get to the point where it’s not “special” to build links to a content piece, it’s just done. If we can get there, not only will we accelerate the businesses we work with toward link building nirvana, but we will add much, much more value to them in the meantime.
Link building as a BAU activity
It is my firm belief that in order to mature as an industry, and specifically as an activity, link building needs to be understood much more than it currently is. It still suffers from the issues that plagued SEO for many years in the early days when it truly was a dark art and we were figuring it out as we went along.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve come a long way, especially since April 2012 (can you really believe it was over eight years ago?!) when link building began evolving into a content-led practice thanks in part to the Penguin update.
But we still have further to go.
We need to get out of the corner of “launching a campaign” and train our bosses and clients to ask questions like, “How can link building help here?” and “Is there a link building opportunity in this activity?”.
A case study
The best way I can explain this shift in thinking is to give you a real example of how we’ve done it at Aira. I can’t give you the exact client, but I can give you an overview of the journey we’ve been on with them, supporting an SEO team that is relentlessly committed to getting things done — the perfect partners for such an initiative.
I should also point out that this has never been easy. We are on this journey with a number of our clients, and some of them are barely into it. The examples here show what happens when you get it right — but it does take time, and the reality is that it may never happen for some businesses.
Where it started
One campaign. That was it. One shot to get links and show the client what we could do.
This was back in 2016. We were lucky in that the client trusted the process and understood why things had gone wrong on this occasion. So, they gave us another chance and this time did a great job.
From there, the project grew and grew to the point where we were launching scaled campaigns like clockwork and getting links consistently. All was well.
Then I was asked a question by someone on the client’s team:
“What’s the evolution of our link building?”
Whilst link building is never far from my mind, I didn’t have a mental model to answer this straight away with any conviction — particularly given what I knew about this client and their industry. I took some time to think about it and consolidate a bunch of observations and opinions I’d actually had for years, but never really made concrete.
Side note: It’s often hard to take a step back from the day-to-day of what you’re doing and think about the bigger picture or the future. It’s even more difficult when you’re growing a business and generally doing good work. It can be hard to justify “rocking the boat” when things are going well, but I’ve learned that you need to find time for this reflection. For me at that point in time, it took a direct question from my client to force me into that mindset.
I confirmed that our existing model of link building for them was something that was likely to continue working and adding value, but that it should NOT be our sole focus in the coming years.
Then, I explained what I’ve talked about in this post thus far.
I told them that our work wasn’t good enough, despite them being one of our happiest, most long-standing clients. We were getting hundreds of links a month, but we could do better.
Running campaign after campaign and getting links to each one would not be good enough in the future. Sure it works now, but what about in two years? Five?? Probably only partly.
We knew we needed to bridge the gap between different content types:
- Content for links (aka campaigns)
- Content for traffic (informational and transactional pages)
- Content for building expertise and trust
We’d only been focusing on the first one, pretty much in isolation. We’d come up with some relevant topic ideas, build them out and get links. Job done.
This wouldn’t be good enough a few years down the road, because link building would be taking place in a small pocket of a very large organization with limited integration.
It’s now been over a year since that conversation and guess what? Our campaigns are still working great, but we are evolving to do so much more.
If you haven’t taken a look at what else your business is doing and where link building can add value, this is the first step towards better integration, and thus better link building. By the time the conversation above happened, we’d already recognized the need to integrate with other teams within the client’s organization, so we had a head start.
With the help of the client’s SEO team, we started to discover other activities within the organization which we could add value to or leverage for greater wins:
- The traditional marketing team had been running campaigns for years on different industry topics. Some of these crossed over with the topics we’d created content for.
- The internal PR team had lots of activity going on and had often seen our coverage pop up on their trackers. As it turned out, they were just as keen to meet us and understand more about our processes.
- The brand team was starting to review all on-site assets to ensure conformity to brand guidelines. Working with them was going to be important moving forward for consistency’s sake.
- With our help, the client were building out more informational content related to their products, with us helping brief their internal copywriters.
All of these opportunities sowed the seeds for a new focus on the evolution of link building, and pushed us to move quicker into a few things including:
- Running joint projects with the internal PR team where we collaborate on ideas and outreach that don’t just focus on data visualization
- Running ideation sessions around topics given to us by the SEO team, which are also focused on by their traditional marketing team
- Building relationships with several subject matter experts within the organization who we are now working with and promoting online (more on this below)
- Testing the informational product content for link building after noticing that a few pieces naturally attracted links
- Working alongside the PR team to carry out brand-reclamation-style link building
Where we are now
Just one year from that open and honest conversation, we have been able to show our value beyond launching campaign after campaign whilst still building links to the client’s content. This will hold value for years to come and mean that their reliance on campaigns will be reduced more and more over time.
We’re making good progress toward taking our reliance off campaigns and making it part of our strategy — not all of it. Yes, campaigns still drive the majority of links, but our strategy now includes some key changes:
- All campaigns (with the odd exception) are evergreen in nature, can always be outreached, and have the ability to attract links on their own.
- We are launching long-form, report-style content pieces that demonstrate the authority and expertise the client has in their industry, and then building links to them. (They’re far slower in terms of getting links, but they are doing well.)
- We are raising the profile of key spokespeople within the business by connecting them with writers and journalists who can contact them directly for quotes and comments in the future.
- We are doing prospecting and outreach for informational content, aiming to give them a nudge in rankings which will lead to more links in the future (that we didn’t have to ask for).
Link building isn’t quite a BAU activity just yet for this client, but it’s not far off from becoming one. The practice is taken seriously, not just within the SEO team, but also within the wider marketing team. There is more awareness than there has ever been.
Content strategy framework
I want to share the framework which we’ve used to support and visualize the shift away from campaigns as our sole link building strategy.
We’ve been aware for a while that we need to ensure any link building work we do is topically relevant. We’d found ourselves defaulting to content which was campaign-led and focused on links, as opposed to content that can serve other purposes.
Link builders need to take a long, hard look at the topics we want our clients and businesses to be famous for, credible to talk about, and that resonate with their audience. Once you have these topics, you can start to plan your content execution. After that, you’ll start to see where link building fits in.
Contrast this with the approach of “we need links, let’s come up with some relevant content ideas to help do that.” This can work, but isn’t as effective.
To help clients shift their strategies, we put together the framework below. Here’s how it works:
Let’s imagine we sell products that help customers sleep better. We may come up with the following themes and topics:
Notice that “Campaigns” is only one format. We’re also acknowledging that topics and themes can not only lead to other forms of content (and links), but also that our KPIs may not always be just links.
If we put together a long-form content guide on the science of sleep, it may not get on the front page of the New York Times, but it may get a slow, steady stream of links and organic search traffic. This traffic could include potential customers for a sleep product.
Once you have a specific topic in mind, you can go deeper into that topic and start thinking about what content pieces you can create to truly demonstrate expertise and authority. This will differ by client and by topic, but it could look something like this:
In this case, the blue circles denote a topic + format which may be link-worthy. While the orange ones denote a valuable execution that aren’t as link-worthy, we may still want to create this content for longer-term link and traffic generation.
To wrap up
Link building campaigns still have huge amounts of value. But if that’s all you’re doing for clients, you’re leaving opportunities behind. Think bigger and beyond campaigns to see what else can be done to move you and your business closer to link building nirvana.