You know the SEO story. You produce “great, unique content.” Then you write guest posts and ask influencers for links. It’s a simple story. And it’s not a lie. It does work.
But it’s not what any of the top sites on the web have done.
The most successful sites on the internet do little to none of this. Instead, they’ve focused on a different story. They’ve built things that were worth linking to. Those things were so useful, so engaging, so entertaining, that not even the press could avoid talking about them. And with the help of some carefully crafted promotion, they have come to dominate the web.
I’m talking about linkable assets. You don’t need them to be a successful SEO. I’m not going to sell you that lie.
But do you want to completely dominate your competitors? Do you want to secure a future in the business landscape? Do you want to dramatically reduce the amount of work it takes for you to rank every future piece of content?
If so, I suggest you get onboard.
Let’s talk about how.
What Are Linkable Assets?
We dedicated an entire Search Engine Journal blog post to that question, but the answer is fundamentally simple. A linkable asset is something worth linking to. The definition is too ambiguous to get more specific than that, but I would argue that linkable assets tend to have certain properties, like these:
- Usefulness – If something is worth linking to, it’s often because it’s beyond useful. It’s not just another blog post. It’s a resource. Not only that, it’s arguably the best resource within a particular niche. And we’re not talking about some obscure micro-niche. I mean it’s so useful that at least one major industry publication is going to feel compelled to reference it once they find out about it.
- Emotional Impact – Linkable assets tend to evoke emotional reactions. By far the most powerful emotions are humor and awe. More important, however, is the “arousal” the emotion causes. Negative emotions like sadness, for example, do not arouse us, but negative emotions like fear and anger do. Linkable assets that incorporate fear, anger, humor and awe will tend to do best of all. (Awe, in this case, refers to that sense that you see things in a new way, that you’ve had a revelation. This is one reason why scientific discoveries, not to mention conspiracy theories, tend to be surprisingly viral.)
- Relatability – This one is perhaps less important than the last three, but it’s often the only way to distinguish yourself from your competitors. While it’s generally a bad idea to intentionally court controversy for its own sake, it’s often necessary to take stances and draw a line in the sand. Various studies have demonstrated that consumers are more likely to buy from brands that share their ethical stance, and will even pay more because of it. Appeal to subcultures and you will win their support. Try to focus on the positives, though. It’s rarely a good idea to bash “enemy” subcultures, since this can alienate you from the mainstream, or even call attention to some of your faults. In any case, it’s better to have personality than to say things that sound “corporate” and “sterilized.”
The big question you should be asking yourself when you are brainstorming ideas for linkable assets is this: “Would a major industry blog link to this?” If not, you probably aren’t there yet.
Types of Linkable Assets
The list you’re about to see is by no means comprehensive. Keep in mind that innovative ideas are the most linkable. This isn’t a copy-paste formula. That said, taking a look at examples of successful linkable assets can help you think about how to approach this.
We mentioned before that interactivity is massively important for linkability. Tools aren’t an outright necessity for link bait, but in my opinion they are one of the most powerful things you can invest your time and energy in.
It’s hard to find a top site on the web where tools don’t play a crucial role. We keep reminding our readers to check out the Moz top 500 and learn from the examples you find there. Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, WordPress, Adobe…it’s pretty clear that these sites would be nothing without their tools.
Now take another look at the sites listed. Other than Google, they are all masters of crowdsourcing. Every one of them owes their success to the fact that they give their core users a platform to create something of their own.
Successful crowdsourcing of this kind generally requires three bare minimum capabilities:
- The ability for users to create something using a tool or platform on your site
- The ability for other users to vote on what they create, so that the best content takes center stage
- The ability for others to respond to what the original user created
While you will want to be at least a little innovative with how you approach this, you don’t need to create the next Facebook. The goal is to attract attention and build a native audience by empowering your users.
There are, of course, other ways to crowdsource. Wikis, content contests, and polls can also be quite powerful. If nothing else, set up a forum. The key is to keep users involved and give them something to do.
Everybody knows that videos do quite well on the net. Unfortunately, this is only true for some of them. Most videos, like most blog posts or infographics, end up falling flat on their face. Videos are also unpredictable. Most of the viral videos on the web are highly amateur, and yet most amateur videos go nowhere. And while professional videos tend to get more consistent results, they are paradoxically less likely to get massive exposure (barring the occasional music video).
Success with videos comes back to those four factors I mentioned previously: usefulness, interactivity, emotional impact, and relatability. While there are an innumerable number of ways to accomplish this, you could start with this basic guide:
- Start with usefulness. Pick a common problem that your target audience deals with, do thorough research to find out how people can most effectively solve that problem, and draft a video outline.
- Your emotional impact and relatability come from your personality. Whether you’re doing a talking head video or a slideshow, don’t be afraid to share a few personal stories. Try to incorporate some humor into the video (as naturally as possible), and don’t be afraid to touch on fears or angers your audience might have.
- It’s better to do something simple correctly than to try to accomplish something elaborate and end up with a hokey imitation. In the same way that no special effects is always better than cheap special effects at the movies, your video is going to be best if you stick to doing things you know how to do, like speak openly and craft slideshows.
- Consider working with a “professional.” If you do want to try something a bit more elaborate, try working with somebody who has already crafted a viral video on YouTube, or if that environment is too amateur for you, look to the more professional filmmakers on Vimeo. Your success will always be multiplied if you work with people who have already earned attention online.
In fact, that segues into our next type of linkable asset quite well.
This is one of the most overlooked tactics for building authority online, and I think it’s brilliant. The goal here is to either work with an influencer or do something that will attract their attention. The goal is to grow your audience by leveraging an influencer’s existing following. There are several ways to go about doing this.
- Hire an influencer to create a piece of content for you (blog post, video, photo, graphic design).
- Interview an influencer on your site (text, audio, or video).
- Mention and quote influencers in your content and your social media activity.
- Ask a series of influencers a simple question and compile the results into a comprehensive list post.
- Create an “awards list” of the top influencers in your niche.
Finally, if there’s one thing you can bet on in every major niche, it’s that the big publications just love to talk about studies and surveys. One of the best ways to become a trusted authority in your corner of the market is to conduct original research and become a source of information for bloggers and media outlets to rely on.
Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to perform this kind of research. SurveyMonkey allows you to ask an unlimited number of questions and get an unlimited number of responses for just $17 a month. The real difficulty comes not from having access to data, but in knowing what kinds of questions to ask, knowing who to ask, and ensuring that the results are meaningful.
It’s a good idea to start by taking a look at how academics use SurveyMonkey. While a business doesn’t necessarily need to live up to the standards of an academic institution, a badly conducted study isn’t going to transform you into a trusted source of information, it’s going to turn you into an outcast and make you look like an idiot.
It’s worth hiring or temporarily working with a statistician or academic researcher to avoid this problem.
Once you have collected your data, you will want to find a way to present it that is appealing. Look for an “angle,” and try to focus on publishing data that is surprising and counterintuitive. If you can, publish it in a visually appealing format (not always an infographic).
In addition to things like SurveyMonkey, if you have your own internal, proprietary information, it’s worth considering sharing that information for the exposure it will bring. Needless to say, you don’t want to give away your competitive advantage, but sharing information that others will find useful can be a worthy trade-off in many circumstances.
So, now that we’ve discussed some of the types of linkable assets out there, and how you can approach each of them individually, I’d like to take things a bit more broad.
Keep in mind with all of this that original research is not an excuse to brag. For example, some of the most linkable assets on the web are case studies, and yet most case studies end up falling flat on their face. Why? Because most companies are using them as a way to brag about their results. Rather than using the case study as a learning experience, most companies just point to how positive the numbers are. They use it as a selling technique.
Original research is not about selling. It is about increasing exposure, and you do that by being useful. Leverage that exposure to sell later. Don’t sabotage all chances of improving exposure by trying to sell right away.
A General Process for Linkable Asset Creation
As I said before, a huge part of creating linkable assets is innovation, so while the preceding advice is helpful, you can’t approach it as a cookie-cutter process. Sometimes the best answer is a tool, crowdsourcing, a video, or influencer activity. Sometimes it will be something else radically new and different.
Thankfully, the fact that linkable assets need to be new and interesting doesn’t mean that there isn’t a pattern to the process of creating them. While there’s always more than one way to achieve your goals, the following process works very well.
Most people probably already think they know how to brainstorm. Unfortunately, many industry standard practices either haven’t been scientifically tested, or worse, they are actually less effective than other techniques. We discussed this at length at ProBlogger, but for now we’d like to focus on the takeaways:
- Overcome the fear of creativity – While we all claim to want creative ideas, experiments verify that this isn’t always the case. It’s true that we like creativity under “normal” circumstances, when we feel certain about our future. But if we’re uneasy about the future, we actually reject creative ideas. One of the best ways to overcome this is to emphasize the mindset that there is more than one solution to every problem. (This has been scientifically tested and shown to be true.)
- Mix and match ideas – Creativity is often, possibly always, the result of combining two or more ideas. In one experiment, participants were primed with one of four different circumstances. They read about an idea for a product, and then read responses from “expert judges.” In the first circumstance, the judges either impressed by how cheap it was or its quality. In the second, they were impressed by the quality and price. In the third, they were impressed with the quality, but not the price, because quality and low price are opposites. In the final, the judges were impressed by both, especially because quality and low price are usually opposites. Only this last circumstance led to superior performance on a creativity test. In other words, you need to be able to recognize things as opposites, and recognize that they can still somehow complement each other. It’s not enough to recognize that things or different, or that they can go together. You must be able to recognize both at the same time.
- Find a way to laugh – This may seem a bit touchy-feely, but it’s been scientifically proven. Positive mood is good for creative problem solving, and humor is best. Participants who were asked to watch a funny video did better at solving a creative problem-solving task (called the candle problem) than those who were asked to watch a math video (or nothing at all). In a similar experiment, participants who were given a gift to lift their spirits saw similar results, though the results weren’t as powerful as the funny video.
- Don’t focus too much – Odd as it may sound, too much focus is bad for creative problem solving. It’s an absolute necessity for follow-through, but it gets in the way of idea formation. Experiments have shown that people are best at solving problems that require a single burst of insight if they come in during their least focused time of day. Similar results have been found in people with frontal lobe damage, and even in people who were given alcohol before solving these kinds of problems. For this reason, any brainstorming technique you use should actually encourage distance and daydreaming.
- Use the right incentives – If generating linkable asset ideas is a team effort, be careful with incentives. In one experiment, participants were rewarded based on the number of creative ideas they came up with. In another condition, they were simply rewarded for completing a task. In a final condition, they weren’t paid at all. Afterward, the participants were asked to draw a picture, which was then rated on creativity. Oddly enough, the participants who weren’t paid at all did better than the ones paid just for completing a task. Those who were paid explicitly for creativity did best at all. So if you choose to use incentives, make sure it’s completely clear that the incentive is for creative work. Also, keep in mind incentives can’t solve everything. In a different experiment, which involved creative problem solving, incentives, at best, caused people to increase their average creativity score only by eliminating less creative ideas. None of the incentive choices changed the number of highly creative ideas. In other words, sometimes incentives act more like a filter than a source of ideas.
- Use brainwriting, computer interfaces, or brainstorm alone – In general, businesses prefer to perform brainstorming sessions as a group. Oddly enough, this is rarely the most efficient way to brainstorm. People tend to come up with more ideas, and more creative ideas, when they work alone. Of course, other experiments demonstrate that it’s not that simple. One series of experiments demonstrates that people brainstorm more creative ideas when they speak with others before they brainstorm alone. Another experiment demonstrates that people are even more creative if they brainstorm with others through a computer interface. This eliminates anxieties and distractions that tend to slow down the creative process. Perhaps even more strange, another experiment suggests that if you do choose to brainstorm in person, you will actually get better results if you encourage debate and even criticism. This prevents the phenomenon of “groupthink,” and paradoxically makes people feel more comfortable taking a minority stance.
For implementation of the idea to work, a few things need to happen:
- A basic plan needs to be put in place
- Talent needs to be assigned
- Resources need to be allocated
There are many ways to go about doing this, but I like to borrow a few ideas from agile management and similar disciplines:
- Teams are self-organizing, and work on only one broad problem at a time.
- Plans take place in a series of relatively short iterations (roughly two weeks).
- Iterations are designed around mini-goals, rather than exactly how implementation will occur. (It’s usually impossible to design a foolproof, step by step plan up front with this kind of work.)
- If more specific steps are needed, they are made more granular over time as they approach, rather than in the beginning.
- Goals are prioritized, and high priority goals are approached first, so that resources are used accordingly.
- Ideally, teams operate in the same physical space, and if they don’t, information is shared through a simple, intuitive interface that every team member has access to.
- If micro-managing starts to look like a necessity, it probably means that the teams are too large, which means that the problems haven’t been broken down into small enough mini-problems yet.
- The purpose of daily meetings is to ensure that everybody is aware of what happened yesterday, what’s going to happen today, and what problems people are dealing with. These meetings are restricted to 15 minutes and aren’t intended as a place to solve problems.
Promotion and Viral Spreading
I’d like to be clear before we move on: there is no line between creation and promotion. You should be using the methods just discussed not only to create your linkable asset, but to promote it, and much of promotion is also a part of creation. There are several reasons for this:
- The more influencers who are involved in the creation of the asset, the more easily it will spread when it is published.
- The inherent virality of the asset has everything to do with what goes into its creation, and nothing to do with how you promote it afterward.
- Some of the best linkable assets are built around ideas either supplied by, or inspired by relationships with influential people. Often, these assets are designed specifically to appeal to a single influencer first, with ancillary appeals taking second place.
- If your audience is involved in the design and creation of the asset, they will feel more invested in it and will be more interested in the final result.
- “User testing” is as much a part of asset refinement as it is a part of promotion.
All of that said, there are several things you can do to help promote the asset:
- Yes, write guest posts and reference the asset. This is starting to become a bit more “old school,” but it still works. Focus on massive traffic blogs. Take a look at our Moz guide to advanced guest blogging for advice on this.
- As we’ve said before, try to involve influencers in the creation of the asset itself, rather than just trying to push the idea on them after the fact.
- Put out a press release through a platform where it is likely to actually get picked up by the press. If you don’t think your idea would get picked up by an industry resource, it probably means the idea isn’t really a linkable asset to begin with.
- Take a look out our guide to using Twitter for influencer outreach.
- Promote the post on Facebook, but recognize that when it comes to Facebook, it’s not the linkable asset that goes viral, it’s the Facebook post itself. Link to the asset from the text field of an image. Design the image to go viral. This usually means posting an emotionally intense (usually funny) image, complete with a caption containing the most “mind-blowing” piece of information from your entire asset. The goal is to fit every major element of success into an image sized perfectly for Facebook. (Remember: useful, emotional, interactive on some level, and relatable.)
- The title is a huge part of your success. Choose a title that is specific and emotionally arousing, and that conveys the usefulness of the asset. Numbers tend to do quite well. It’s a good idea to test your title with ads or surveys before publishing to the general public, if the resources can be justified.
- Reach out directly to the press and niche influencers who are explicitly looking for information, and point them to your asset. Be sure to mention any credentials you have and any influencers you worked with when you do so.
That about wraps this up. Remember, the point is to be worth talking about. You will almost certainly be in far better shape if you produce just one linkable asset per month, and nothing else, than if you publish every day with traditional blog posts. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t do both, I’m saying that linkable assets are the highest priority if you want to dominate your competitors.
I hope you’ve learned something new, and if you did, we’d love it if you passed this along. Please leave any questions or comments below. Thanks so much for reading.
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