Content marketing is undoubtedly one of the most powerful ways to attract attention and build links in the modern era, but by no means is it the only option, nor is it necessarily always the best choice. In fact, placing too much emphasis on content can actually distract from what we should be doing most: approaching the unique needs of each client and niche.
With that in mind, we’ve put together five approaches to link building that aren’t designed around “content,” at least not in the traditional sense. Let’s get started.
Tactic #1: Build a Community
To be fair, this approach gets quite a bit of attention from the SEO community nowadays, and isn’t exactly a “neglected” strategy. That said, few online marketers have quite mastered this one, and it’s definitely worth talking about.
I won’t spend too much time talking about how you should engage your audience on Facebook and Twitter, ask and answer questions on forums or Q&A sites, and generally just get involved in “the conversation.” Hopefully you’ve heard all of it already. Instead, I’m going to talk about two of the more neglected parts of community building: reaching out to influencers, and building native communities.
Reaching out to influencers
Few SEOs worth their weight in salt are strangers to outreach. We all understand how important it is to contact influential people. Unfortunately, this is usually done with a singular goal in mind: to get a guest post.
I recommend you start thinking bigger. Look at the relationships between Rand of SEOmoz, Will of Distilled, and Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land. These are influential people who frequently talk to each other and mention each other within their content. They often meet in person and attend each other’s events.
These are the kinds of relationships that seriously impact your community building efforts. When you borrow the trust and authority of an influencer within your niche, you have an opportunity to expand your persistent reach that is simply impossible to accomplish in any other way.
Start building relationships with influencers. Don’t be afraid to use email or, *gasp*, the phone to solidify these relationships. When possible, meet in person. This leads to the kind of long term collaboration that you can’t get out of a guest post.
Building a native community
How solid is your community? SEO Book’s community is so solid that people are willing to pay to stay a part of it. This is the kind of community that you need to build, and it’s not going to happen on a social network.
Don’t misunderstand: social networks are a great place to expand your reach, but I’m of the opinion that you’re job’s not finished (as though it ever is) until you’ve build a community on your own web property.
You can do this with blog comments alone, but this can be limiting and isn’t always the best option. Setting up a forum or Q&A section on your own site can be an incredibly powerful way to solidify your online community. Granted, it takes a lot of work to pull users off of their social network or the blog comment page onto your forum in the beginning, when it’s empty, but it’s worth the payoff.
Remember, forums are all about conversation. Once you build a strong base of just a few regulars, the rest is easy. So, once again, put the focus on that relationship building.
Forums aren’t the only option. Look to Wikipedia, Cheezburger , or QuickMeme for even better examples. These sites give their core users the ability to create something of their own with ease, and a native community naturally follows.
Tactic #2: Tools That Trump Content
Before I start a flame war here, I’m not arguing that tools aren’t “content.” Google certainly sees them that way, and when a tool suits the user’s purpose better than a blog post, it’s even the optimal kind of content.
That said, content marketers rarely talk about tools, and SEOs and inbound marketers in general tend to think the same way. To us, content = blog posts, infographics, videos, and white papers. Tools tend to be the last thing that comes to mind, and that’s a mistake.
Just look at the most linked to sites on the web. Tools are everywhere. Most of the top sites on the web are most accurately described as tools or communities (usually both). They aren’t content sites like the Huffington Post or Cracked (though those are great examples of content done right).
Tools can be incredible community building assets, as we already mentioned with Wikipedia, Cheezburger, and QuickMeme. Not to mention, you know, Facebook, YouTube and WordPress.
A tool may also serve a searcher’s purpose better than traditional content. Sometimes a specialized calculator or an app is going to be more useful than a blog post (though certainly not always). Polls and other interactive media are also underutilized.
Tactic #3: Gamification
In 2011, over 70 percent of Forbes Global 2000 companies planned to implement gamification in some way. The fascination with gamification may have been driven by Zynga’s rapid rise to power. Its subsequent fall from grace seems to have hampered the trend, and you don’t see as much talk about gamification as you used to.
Part of that was failed design. Most companies that employed gamification put all of the focus on rewards system, and it became little more than an extension of existing ideas like company loyalty programs.
Perhaps Jane McGonigal was right to distance herself from the word gamification, and push the phrase “gameful design” instead.
Granted, forum point systems and badges (like Reddit karma) can do a great deal to compel users to come back, but the concept of the reward system got pushed so hard that marketers lost sight of the “fun” part of gaming. It was all about building compulsion loops that may have kept people coming back for a while, but eventually burnt them out, much like Zynga did.
To truly embrace gamification (or, perhaps, “gameful design”) you need to put the focus on gameplay. The video game industry has been larger than the movie industry for quite some time, and it’s not because of the badges and points (which very few gamers care about). It’s because the game itself is rewarding.
A genuinely gamified web presence doesn’t compel users to come back with points and badges for referrals. It creates a fun and interactive experience. The UI itself is fun to interact with.
Take Perrier’s Secret Place as an example. This is a literal online game that puts you on a hunt for clues to find a “secret” Perrier bottle. Finding the bottle does get you a chance to win a trip, but the itself is fun to play.
You don’t necessarily need to take things as far as designing a full-fledged game, but an understanding of game mechanics and gameplay is vital if you want to create a truly gamified experience. Rewards and badges alone can certainly lead to some success, but a truly captivating experience is what’s going to pull in the serious links.
Tactic #4: Hold a Contest or Eye-Grabbing Promotion
This one’s nothing new and I’m not going to spend too much time on it, but it’s worth mentioning because it can work very effectively.
Just to give an example of how this can work, consider what Queensland did a few years ago. To promote tourism, they offered a contest to win the “best job in the world,” where they would get paid AU$100,000 to go on holiday for half a year in Queensland, while blogging and making a video diary about all the fun they were having. The winner was chosen based on support from the public, so the best promoter was the winner. This attracted tons of attention and links for the site.
For more on contests, we like what Social Media Examiner has had to say. While this post is about Facebook, the same basic rules apply to any online contest.
Tactic #5: Traffic, Traffic, Traffic
Finally, one of the most surefire ways to get natural links is to simply pummel your site with traffic. This is the simple law of numbers at work. The more people who visit your site, the more links you will get.
Yes, we know, you want the links in order to get the traffic, not the other way around. We get it, and we get why this tactic isn’t everybody’s favorite.
Still, the organic search results aren’t the only source of traffic out there. You can send enormous amounts of traffic to your site if you start putting the focus on referral traffic, not manual links. There are several ways to go about this:
- Shift your manual link building efforts toward permanent referral traffic, even if it means buying no-follow links.
- Buy traffic from Facebook and niche specific display ads (Yes, it does work as a link building tactic).
- Optimize your advertising spend for the most clicks instead of the highest (short-term) profit margins.
This approach gets tremendous resistance because you don’t have direct control over the links, but that’s kind of the point. These are exactly the kinds of links Google wants to see: links that occurred serendipitously.
You can afford to cut short term profits in order to attract additional traffic for exposure and links. All link building tactics cost money. Remember that.
Yes, the SEO industry is moving toward content marketing as a frontier for growth, but there are plenty of other inbound marketing strategies that can be leveraged to build links. Remember to approach each situation uniquely, without getting too caught up in trends.
What link building tactics are you using that aren’t driven by content marketing trends?