The Link Strategist: The Missing Role For Enterprise-Level Link Building
Your content team fires on all cylinders. You have processes in place that enable your content to garner social shares, page views and engagement from your target audiences. Fantastic! The only problem is that links aren’t happening — and the exec team is looking at your SEO team to explain why.
Link acquisition, at an enterprise scale, requires a careful and strategy-driven division of labor. We’ve identified four distinct, task-based roles — the first and most important of which is the link strategist, covered in this article.
An Enterprise Link-Building Team: The Lineup
I’ll be covering all these roles over the course of this series, but here’s a basic description of each.
- The Strategist. The Link Strategist is the captain of the ship. He or she drives the campaign, designs the strategy, develops a unique mission, and serves as the liaison between link building efforts, the SEO team, the PR team and the content team.
- The Prospector. The Prospector finds website, blog or journalist opportunities based on the Strategist’s campaign parameters.
- The Qualifier. The Qualifier filters through the Prospector’s findings for the opportunities that best fit the campaign’s outreach plan.
- The Content Designer. Often the Link Strategist’s “other” role, this task requires thinking and negotiation with brand teams, PR teams, writers and the link prospects themselves.
- The Outreacher. The template and outreach folks are our smooth talkers and our relationship builders. They take the Strategist’s content and bring it to the linkers our Prospector dug up.
Today’s article will get you acquainted with the “Link Strategist” role.
The Link Strategist: Job Description
An ideal Link Strategist loves research and process. She can explore the Web for hours in a fun, yet structured way, and come back with a defined campaign mission and a distinct process for achievement. Link Strategists like to measure their successes (and failure), and they prefer quantitative metrics because they’re scientists at heart (the mad kind). They’re not afraid to try new tactics, but they’re equally comfortable with scrapping an idea that just doesn’t work.
Each team and each project will be different, but the practices outlined below can help prepare any beginner link strategist for their first link-building campaign.
1. Understand Link Publisher Types And How To Serve Them
When we’re talking about content designed for earning links, there are two distinct publisher types, with very different needs, who will be doing the linking itself:
- News, blog and community publishers. They cover developments of potential interest to your target customers. Often, but not always, these are “in-funnel.” That is, they are directly related to your marketing efforts.
- Links and resource page publishers. These are people who passionately care about a topic and curate a page (or website) dedicated to sharing helpful information. Often, but not always, these are “out-of-funnel,” meaning that they may not be directly speaking to audiences you’re selling to.
2. Understand “Linker-Valued Audiences”
Here’s the part that perhaps 99% of SEOs and at least 50% of active link builders miss entirely. Most believe that “linkable content” has concrete attributes, such as an ideal word count or format type (e.g., infographic or guest post). To some extent, it does… BUT…
Genuinely linkable content serves an audience that the publisher cares about.
Linkable content serves this audience because it is useful, catering to the distinct needs and afflictions of the audience. The linker herself is valuable from an SEO perspective because she serves this particular audience so concertedly (and has the link authority to prove it).
So now you know a fact that separates you from 99% of SEOs out there: You’re not designing content for potential linkers. You’re designing content for the audiences those linkers serve.
Please note that these audiences can and will be different from your target customer personas. Here are a few examples of these linker-valued audiences:
- Senior citizens
- People in the education space (teachers, homeschoolers)
- People who need legal aid/legal advice (vulnerable to exploitation)
- People who care for those who are physically vulnerable (parents, pet owners)
- People with disabilities
- People who care for others with medical conditions (parents of kids with addictions, relatives of people with Alzheimer’s)
Now, we’re not suggesting you throw away your marketing personas and shift to writing content only for seniors, nor are we suggesting that you abandon your current content marketing playbook. In fact, there is definitely room for in-funnel authoritative content in the content-design stage, which I’ll cover in a later article.
We are, however, suggesting that to earn links consistently, you should consider how your brand expertise could inform and empower the various audiences that the internet’s vast expanse of linkers care about deeply.
3. Shifting Your Mindset From Sales Content To Linker-Valued Content
One of the most common roadblocks we see is in how SEOs typically think about keyword research for content creation.
SEOs often start with keywords that are centered around sales (“running shoes,” “sports cars,” “hotels in London”), and these keywords lead to sales-centric content ideas. A post on “The Best Hotels in London” may be a perfect fit for your blog, but you’ll have a hard time finding enough linkers who care about it to justify promotion.
However, a “Guide to The Best Wheelchair Accessible Accommodations in London” or a “Teacher’s Guide to High School Class Trips to London” would be a great resource for linkers who care about people with disabilities or teachers, two linker-valued audiences. These topics solve problems for specific linker-valued audiences with distinct sets of needs.
The job of the link strategist is to help the content team direct at least a portion of their content towards a linker-valued audience. They’re shifting the paradigm from “sales-oriented” content to “linker-valued” content.
Identifying Relevant Linker-Valued Topics
The first step for a link strategist in a new campaign is to find out where the company’s vertical intersects with topics relevant to these linker-valued audiences. This is where she gets to put on the research hat and get lost on the Web for a few hours. The best way to take SEO keywords out of the “sales” space is to search within .gov and .edu pages and see what topics come up.
Let’s use the “running shoes” example. A traditional Google search will bring up SERP after SERP of sales pages. But try [“running shoes” inurl:.gov] or [“running shoes” site:.gov]. Now the picture’s a little different:
If you have any Link Strategist blood in you at all, your mind’s racing with unique content ideas like “How to Start a Running Program for [Audience],” “Guide to Barefoot Running for [Audience],” “How to Know If You Need Prescription Running Shoes,” or “Running Shoes Guide for People with Bone Injuries.”
Searching for keywords in the governmental and educational spaces gives the Link Strategist a view of the non-commercial but keyword-relevant conversations that are happening outside of the marketplace.
Locating Linker-Valued Audiences
Topic is important, but linkable content can’t happen without a specific audience to speak to. “A Guide to Barefoot Running for Seniors” is going to be a different piece from “A Guide to Barefoot Running in Seattle Parks.”
Audience comes from the intersection of your chosen content topic with various linker-served audience groups. Again, these are groups seeking information, not products or services. It’s the do-gooder arm of a content marketing strategy.
Typically, a piece of content created for a linker-valued audience will not appeal to your entire customer base. Is there possibly an existing subset of your customers who linkers already serve? Or is there a cause or group of people in need that members of the company already care about, for whatever reason? This could be a good entry point into a linkable audience that it makes sense for you to serve.
How do you know if a group of people qualifies as a “linker-valued” audience? You test it!
Search for existing links and resource pages to test if a topic or audience has linker appeal, using a search formatted as such:
[“topic/audience” inurl:links.htm] or [“topic/audience” inurl:links.html]
Then, review the results count:
- 50–200 results: It’s productive, but potentially a subtopic. We may need to brainstorm a wider or additional category.
- 200–1,000 results: It’s a solid topic/audience to pursue.
- 1,000+ results: It’s an established topic/audience that could merit further refinement since there’s already so much content here.
Take the following examples:
Keep track of the terms you use to test. These can be used for prospecting further on. Also note that we use inurl:links.html as only a guiding proxy for potential volume of opportunity. When prospecting, which we will cover further on, we use hundreds of prospecting queries, along with authority site co-citation analysis, to thoroughly discover all the pages serving our selected audience.
4. Decide Which Audience You Need To Address With Authority Content
Once a topic and audience are selected, it’s the job of the Link Strategist to work with the content team to create the best possible content for this audience. Ideally, we want to find a question that hasn’t yet been fully answered, a topic area that isn’t already flooded with guides, tips and how-tos. We’re looking for the information gaps that exist in this space.
This can be the most challenging aspect of a Link Strategist’s role — finding a need an audience has and determining how best to serve it. It’s also the most nebulous step to provide advice for, because it’s based on intuiting what content this audience may need based on what currently exists.
Linkers (the page curators and niche publishers you’ll be approaching) serve very specific audiences. They care about providing utility to groups of people with very particular afflictions, pains, passions and concerns.
Unlike a business’ customers-as-audience, this audience’s pain may not be one that a product or service can fix. Don’t think you can drop them into a sales funnel; linker-valued audiences require helpful, experience-based guidance. Further, content should generally be different when targeting resource curators versus industry publishers, even when they’re serving the same linker-valued audience.
Examples of authority content for resource curators include:
- Tips for ____
- How to _____
- Guides to _____
- Resource collection on _____
- _____ Finder
- _____ Calculator
- Data for _____
Examples of authority content for industry-facing publications include:
- Survey results
- Case studies
- Data analyses
- Guides to industry developments
- Expert advice and interviews
Overlap happens. Sometimes you can design content that will appeal to links page curators and industry bloggers — just not incredibly often.
Alternately, your mission to serve linker-valued audiences could support a PR campaign. For example, a company with senior citizen customers could create a training course for seniors caring for partners with Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps with on-phone support, webinars, or even live education sessions at local venues. This effort could justify an online PR campaign.
If you have the time and resources, the best way to get to know customers is to schedule some phone calls. Nothing beats a real-time conversation to determine the needs and pains of particular audiences.
Once the Link Strategist has defined the content need, it’s time to round up the rest of the team to begin content creation and promotion.
A solid link-building strategy can give a campaign the relevance to attract linkers and the purpose to help their audiences. A Link Strategist may wear a few other hats on an enterprise team (e.g., content creator, PR manager, social media manager). But the Strategist should have the time and resources to spend at least 10–15 hours a week researching linker audiences and developing campaign strategy.
In our next posts, we’ll develop the rest of the enterprise-level link-building team, from linker prospecting to outreach mastery. Linkable content strategy may be a paradigm shift, but it’s a change in thinking that builds real results. Stay tuned.