How CDBaby Built 20,000 Citations With One E-Mail

CDBaby* is an online distributor of independent music. Founded by well-known entrepreneur Derek Sivers, the service became a huge hit with independent musicians because it offered the first easy way for artists to distribute and sell their music online.

Sivers, a professional musician, took CDBaby on a unique path that differentiates it from many other businesses – in that he didn’t ever want to run the company at all.

He started CDBaby in 1997 because his friends asked him to post their songs online as he had his own. One favor led to another, and eventually Sivers built his company to the point where it was sold for $22 million in 2008.

Sivers’ unique background and thought process pervaded into his business practices. At one point in the process, Sivers looked at his purchase confirmation e-mail and found the blasé, boring business-speak there didn’t match the core ideologies of his company.

So, Sivers sat down and pumped out an e-mail in twenty minutes (as he describes in his new book Anything You Want) that he found a bit more fun – and a lot more representative of what he believed CDBaby to be as a company:

Your CDs have been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CDs and polished them to make sure they were in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CDs into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved ‘Bon Voyage!’ to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Sunday, December 11th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby.  We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as “Customer of the Year”.  We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you once again,

Derek Sivers, president, CD Baby

This e-mail, meant only to be a small bit of fun and more importantly – a disattachment from the norm, was so revered and talked about by CDBaby’s customers, that it attracted over 20,000 citations online – as verified by a simple search for ["private CD Baby Jet"] on Google.

Sivers spent 20 minutes writing this simple, text based e-mail – and he attracted 20,000+ citations, many of which included live links.

Link Building Lessons From CDBaby

Sivers already had an established audience with CDBaby, but when exposure met remarkability, the links came in droves. The first thing to learn from CDBaby is the concept of static marketing. Static Marketing is an idea that we should set up “force multipliers” that make every single marketing effort more powerful based on their implementation, especially those that only take a one-time, sunk-cost effort to implement.

The most prominent examples of static marketing implementations are in the form of social share buttons. On this post, you’ll find many Twitter, Facebook and other share buttons which, when implemented as calls to action within blog posts, greatly increase the potential spread of this or any other post. The second they are implemented, they become “force multiplers” for all future content creation from the source.

Social share buttons are one easy example of static marketing, but the concept has many potential applications – such as the e-mail from CDBaby. Once written and implemented, this small piece of e-mail marketing acts as a force multiplier for every purchase made until the website functionality changes.

The remarkability of the e-mail inspired action – so many of their customers went to share the information with their friends online in various forms. And here I am, continuing the cycle of social spread by writing this post.

I suggest creating your own remarkable purchase confirmation e-mail. If you can’t get away with the kind of personality Derek offers in CDBaby’s confirmation, I suggest at least offering up Twitter and Facebook account “follow and like” calls to action – as well as a persuasive ”please link to me” request with HTML to cut-and-paste for ease of use. You won’t get tons of links right away, but the steady dribble of customers turned into fans and brand advocates will make for a lifetime of potential benefit.

For increased link volume using this process, I suggest using an application like Tynt. Tynt makes it so unsophisticated users, when cut and pasting your e-mail into a blog post, will automatically embed a link. Beyond this e-mail confirmation application, it’s also great for web publishers who find their content cut-and-pasted with frequency – especially by less sophisticated users.

Content Types That Promote Linkability

Beyond the brilliant use of static marketing by Sivers and CDBaby, one other unique characteristic of the e-mail stands out as well – the format that promotes the linkability of the content. The Web – and world – is turning into a unique funnel of data about businesses.

It is an increasing reality that social citations count for search, but it is still a pretty unanimous thought that links are still the number one currency of the Web. Most of the time, it is much more beneficial (especially for us as SEO-fueled businesses) for a user to share through a do-follow hyperlink rather than a Tweet, share on Facebook, or word-of-mouth referral to a singular friend.

For businesses that rely heavily on search, it is still in their best interest to push users towards linking rather than those other channels. CDBaby does this beautifully with their e-mail; an e-mail whose brilliance as linkbait is informed by the following characteristics – other than just being “great content”, of course:

  • Privatized. This is not immediately discoverable content on CDBaby; it is behind an e-mail wall that one can’t point to through Facebook or Twitter. Since a person can’t simply tweet or share out the location of something remarkable that adds all the description they need, they are forced to create a blog post and share that way, or point to another blog post if they seek one out and trust that author as well.
  • Length. Not short enough to be shared on Facebook or on Twitter – and not long enough to lose the readers attention, Sivers’ e-mail pushes the linkerati into a funnel that forces them to create a blog post or be forced to more awkward channels to share their experience. A simple “CDBaby has such a cool confirmation e-mail!” just won’t cut it.
  • Perpetual discovery based incentives. Given the “private wall” of e-mail, the link effects are similar to someone saying “new blog post” on Twitter, which, according to Dan Zarella’s research, is one of the 20 words/phrases that garner the most retweets. Every new user that finds this content will believe themselves to be pioneering a new territory – and because of that, they’re more likely to share the information, partially because of that “discovery” incentive behind sharing the information.
  • Text based. Because the content is primarily text, the barrier to linking is extremely low. If the behind-the-wall experience was a rich infographic or other flash-based experience, it could be more difficult for many users to replicate that experience or talk about it through any channel.
  • Linkerati incentivized at high interest point. Right after purchase, the interest in your product and offering is at a high that can only be exceeded by future pleasure with actual use of your product – which, conversely, could also mean a drop in interest if it’s not up to expectations. Also, this peak of customer interest aligns with access to a computer. The linkerati’s ability to act is important – if your product is physical, they may not be near a computer when the peak moment of satisfaction is reached – when they open it and use it for the first time. Therefore, the customer satisfaction peak, hybridized with intent to link, is at that moment in time – so a confirmation e-mail is a brilliant way to take advantage of it.

These properties are mostly distinct within this unique channel, which reflects on the brilliance of the CDBaby e-mail. But they’re aren’t exclusive as linking properties – they apply across the board. But what also makes them difficult to implement is that matching “great content” which these same properties can often be extremely difficult (or worthwhile) to do.

That makes this hybridization, in this exact implementation, something that is as powerful of a linking tool as a business can possibly hope for. An e-mail newsletter has many of these same properties, but it isn’t as static – meaning that it requires frequent writing and iteration to incentivize a linker that isn’t as beneficial as a purchase confirmation e-mail.

It can still be valuable, though – Jason Calacanis of Mahalo, for example, utilized a privatized e-mail list in 2008 that incited frequent republishing of his e-mails. He didn’t use it for SEO purposes, but based on the reception and the remarkability of his content, you can see how that created a wave of links back to his websites.

Opt-In E-Mails for Link Building – A Powerful, Low-Cost Tool

How you use e-mails to build links is up to you, but the power it has  (as exemplified by the aforementioned CDBaby and Jason Calacanis examples) show that it can be an incredible tool for building links back to your business.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Week Column


About The Author: is the SEO Manager at Full Beaker Inc, a Seattle online media company. Ross is accomplished link building expert with a history in a diversity of roles, from in-house, consultant, agency, to a hybrid of all three. His strengths are in content creation, and also, rambling on link building strategies and theories over at his SEO blog.

Although he originates from Southern California, he is not a reasonable surfer, nor a model, and most certainly, not a reasonable surfer model. You can follow him on Twitter @RossHudgens.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter


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