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The Outreacher: Building Links With Social Skills & Science

The Outreacher: Building Links With Social Skills & Science

Link building happens in the inbox. The Strategist may develop the spark of inspiration, but the real magic happens between the subject line and the signature of that outreach email.

This isn’t to downplay the other phases of link building; all your ducks have to be in a row first. But in many industries, if you’re going to get a link, it’s because of an email.

That is why I’m devoting this final piece on our link building team to The Outreacher — the man or woman who takes weeks of prospecting, qualifying and content creation and converts them into links.

This article profiles The Outreacher, outlining the qualities and characteristics that make him or her a winner in the inbox.

I. The Outreacher Knows The Linker

While the content creator needs to know the audience valued by the linker, the outreacher needs to know the linker.

The Outreacher’s first and foremost responsibility is clarifying content benefit to that person. What does the recipient gain from the item you’re pitching?

“Content benefit” (to the audience) is pretty much the only value you can offer to links and resource page curators. But for bloggers and press, the “pitchable benefits” open up a little. With these recipients, you can pitch concepts, stories or offers of value, such as a product to review or story exclusivity.

And for other sites that accept sponsorships or advertising — including nonprofits or events — you’re offering other benefits, such as cross promotion, social proof, and even support if you can attend the event (which you should be doing). But sometimes, even financial support offers can be ignored if the outreacher has not built enough trust.

How The Link Outreacher Works Her Magic

The Outreacher is used to the public; she doesn’t mind going out on a limb and greasing the social wheels.

Recently, a woman came to my front door selling vacuum cleaners. She remarked on immediately observable details to build quick rapport. I was holding my two-year-old, and she jokingly referred to him as our “security guard,” then asked when she could bring some vacuums over. I didn’t buy, but I did try to hire her — she had that spark that makes for an excellent outreacher.

It may be humor, tact or stellar listening skills, but a good Outreacher should have a sense for how to engage strangers in conversation, virtual or otherwise.

This “social savvy” may sound like a soft skill, but when it’s present, it’s a boon to the entire link-building team. And when it’s absent, you’ll pay in missed link opportunity.

II. The Outreacher Builds Trust

I think the term, “relationship building,” is overused; it’s just a fancy way of saying “trust building.”

Of course, it’s the best case scenario if your favorite coffee buddy is a New York Times journalist or the webmaster of a high domain authority .edu resource page. But there are ways Outreachers build trust into their email conversations without adding addresses to anyone’s holiday card list:

A. Including Social Proof

Humans trust humans who have been vetted by other humans they trust. So, what can you tout?

  • A high number of social followers.
  • Other publications that have featured the writer’s work.
  • Industry leaders the writer or brand has previously worked with.
  • Number of people subscribed to your newsletter.
  • Key, industry-known partners or clients.

B. Picking Up The Phone

Yes, we call linkers, and/or we give them a phone number where they can call us. We’ve mentioned this tactic in previous articles, as it’s a useful way to prospect for content ideas. (“Hey, what needs exist in your market?”) But offering a phone conversation in an outreach email is a great way to reassure the reader that you’re human.

C. Acting Human

SEOs and link builders are the nerds of marketing world. Who doesn’t like a good pivot table to organize? But the Outreacher, more than anyone else on the link-building team, needs a feeling-oriented personality streak.

  • Take the time to treat the people you’re reaching out to like people; don’t over-templatize.
  • Answer your recipients’ questions, if any.
  • Empathize with them; make sure you’re familiar with content shared on their website.

Some may call this “relationship building.” I call it “being a human.” Call it what you want, just don’t treat potential linkers like a vending machine.

III. The Outreacher Understands The Value Of Experimentation

Email outreach is not about finding the optimal tactic and abusing it to death. — it’s about constant trial and error and trial again.

Testing Templates & “Best Practices”

Even after publishing a blog post and webinar on the importance of experimentation in email outreach, we’ve received emails saying, “Nice webinar, but where’s the template?”


Here’s the hitch:

There is no perfect template. And even if there were, it would be so quickly overused that its effectiveness would be dulled within a few months.

Unfortunately, in this industry, Outreachers have been trained to copy and paste formats from expert blogs instead of finding out what works for their campaigns and audiences.

In Section V of this post, we’ll provide a checklist of some items that an Outreacher may want to consider during template development, but beyond that, we highly encourage A/B testing your own ideas.

How to A/B Test Email Outreach:

  1. Divide your list in half.
  2. Email one half of the list with your “new idea.”
  3. Email the other half of the list with no modification (as a control group).
  4. Measure number of positive responses versus any negative responses, or measure the number of links acquired, or both.
  5. Repeat. Don’t depend on one result for a new “hard and fast” rule.

One Major Rule: Make sure to test only one variable at a time. Try testing:

  • Subject lines (Sentence or question? Long or short?).
  • Tone (Formal or informal?).
  • Order of information shared.
  • Level of detail in intro email.
  • Some say “withholding” works, but have you tested for yourself?
  • Level of personalization.
  • Including personal anecdotes or company mission details.
  • Any other idea that pops into your head. If it sounds crazy, great — that means you’ll stand out!

IV. The Outreacher Pays Attention To The Inbox

Just getting emails sent is a win, but it’s not the end. If you’ve done your job well, you will have created a new task: inbox monitoring.

Respondents may have questions the Outreacher has to relay through other team members or the client. They may have complaints and never want to hear from again. They may want you to know that left five months ago, so please contact their replacement,

The Outreacher manages all of these conversations — and leads them to the link — with the grace, efficiency and panache of a vacuum cleaner saleswoman.

The Outreacher Can Coax A “Yes”

An Outreacher knows when a “maybe” or confusion can transform into a “yes.” We do not condone badgering or repeatedly contacting people who don’t want an email, of course. But there are times when an email lands in the wrong inbox and could use a resend to another person within the same organization, or when a polite “no” from a former campaign can be rekindled into a “yes” for a more relevant content benefit.

The Outreacher Learns From A “No”

Again, this is where experimentation expertise comes in.

  • What are the “no” people saying?
  • Is there something off about the content?
  • Did the Prospector or Qualifier mislabel this website as a potential outreach target?

The Outreacher is the only member of the link-building team with access to the success rate of the others’ work. He or she has the responsibility to respond to contacts with respect and also constructively relay issues to other team members. This is another area in which the Outreacher will be called upon to develop those spreadsheet skills.

V. The Outreacher’s Template Checklist

When people ask us for example templates, we facepalm — not because we’re stingy about operations, but because email templates are so dependent upon the asset, the asset benefit and to whom it’s being pitched. It’s like asking a stranger to write a love letter for your spouse.

That said, we can offer our checklist. Below are some of the items the Outreacher considers as she builds out her request email:

A. Clarify What (Is The Link Building Tactic)

The tactic being used helps us determine what information we need to gather.

For example, if I’m doing guest blogging, I don’t need a URL ahead of time that we’re building links to. What I’m doing instead is saying, “Hey blogger, you did a great job on this piece: I’m trying to reach an audience with great content. I’ve gotten 1,000 shares before on a guest post, and I always share from my Twitter handle (@Twitterhandle).”

If I’m reaching out to a linker, then I’m going to need to make sure my template copy corresponds with the content creator’s finished piece. If I’m reaching out to a journalist, I need to double-check for previous related press mentions and so on.

B. Determine Who (Is Doing The Outreach)

Sometimes it makes sense to reach out as a member of the client’s team, but an Outreacher running that type of campaign had better make sure they’re very well acquainted with the brand’s outreach style.

At other times, an Outreacher will contact as a member of his own agency. Even so, he still needs to establish guidelines with the client. Can the client be mentioned in the email? Does the client need to look over pitches before they’re sent? What about email responses?

Communicate clearly and frequently beforehand to prevent fires later. (See checklist items G and H.)

C. Develop Two or Three Subject Lines To Test

The subjects lines can vary, but they should always:

  • Convey benefit.
  • Get people to open (an art form in itself!).
  • Prepare recipients for the full message (no “bait and switch”).

It’s crucial to ensure that the email delivers on the subject line. Misleading emails violate trust.

D. Introduce The Topic

How can we make this content pitch into an interesting story?

  • Is it seasonal?
  • Is it current event-related?
  • Is it part of a brand mission?
  • Are there any relevant Outreacher personal details that it would make sense to share?
  • Is there any company news we could/should be leading with?
  • Alternately, what can we (not) mention about the client?

E. Add In Trust Builders

  • Social Proof
  • “Let’s hop on the phone.”
  • “I read your post on _______ and enjoyed it because _______.”
  • “I share every blog post to my 3,000 Twitter followers.”

F. Show Off The Content Benefit

Your linker is busy — make it easy for him or her to skim the email and digest the benefit of saying “yes” to you. (Try doing this in the subject line, if the benefit is enticing enough.)

You can also test leading with the benefit versus placing it right before or after a link. Which works best for a particular group of linkers?

G. Follow Your Internal Brand, PR & Legal Guidelines

  • Ensure that the rules for how to speak “as” the brand and “for” the brand are clearly established.
  • Are there guidelines for personality and tone?
  • What can we offer? What is the extent of what we’re allowed to offer?

H. Request Internal Feedback

The Link Strategist will almost always want to be notified of outreach progress. In addition, the person in charge of delivering the content benefit should be given a draft of the email outreach template(s) for editing.

If the benefit is content, get the content creator to look over the pitch. If the benefit is a PR push, get the PR manager’s thoughts on your outreach.

In essence, you want input from someone who cares about what you’re pitching the most.

And Break!

Holy penguin. We’ve reached the end of our Link Building Team series. For those of you who are just joining in, we covered four other members of an ideal enterprise link-building team over the past few months:

  • The Link Strategist
  • The Opportunity Prospector
  • The Qualifier
  • The Content Designer
  • The Outreacher (this piece)

Not every link-building team will have the resources to break itself into five unique individuals, but whether you have multiple roles at one desk or a handful of employees for an individual role, I hope these articles give you an overview of the mindset for and approach to each aspect of link building.

Now go. Get out there, and make the internet a better-informed, slightly more gracious place than you found it.