September 25, 2020
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Using Tent-Pole Projects For SEO Growth

The wonderful thing about running A Media Operator is that I have a direct feedback loop with readers. I know when a piece has resonated because you all tell me.

Over the summer, I wrote a piece called Two Ways to Identify Organic Search Opportunities & Using Q&As to Build Traffic. In it, I said:

I find many people I talk to spending a ton more time thinking about social media as a driver for audience rather than organic search traffic. There are inherent problems with this approach. The first is that social is very hit dependent. To get another rush of traffic requires you to have another hit piece. The second problem is that there is no baked in intent, versus people that search things. Said another way, social traffic is passive whereas search is active. The searcher is on a mission.

Because of this obsession with social media, I find many of the young audience development people I talk to don’t actually know much about organic search traffic. Any traffic they do get from Google comes naturally rather than because of any decision.

I think there are two reasons for this obsession.

First, we use these platforms more than ever before. For many audience development professionals fresh on the job, they know more about TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat than Google.

Second, it feels more instant. A friend and I have a running DM where we laugh at the blatant growth hacking tweets people send out. High click bait; low quality. You know the type.

My background is on the SEO side of things. Google is not a platform where using it teaches you how to better rank. Additionally, it is nowhere near instant.

An SEO strategy might take months or years to really accrue value. However, unlike a social strategy that requires constant support, you can continue to generate dividends from your investment for years to come. I’ve seen projects done five or six years ago still generating hundreds of thousands of users.

However, for it to work efficiently, publishers need to figure out how to get people linking to them. Links are the currency of SEO. The more you have from high quality sites, the better you are likely going to do.

My first job out of college was literally emailing university libraries asking them to link to our website. It was awful. But getting a backlink from a .edu domain name could really move the needle; especially if it pointed to a specific page on the site.

There were dozens of ways of building links. But as time went on, Google increasingly made each tactic obsolete. It’s a constant battle between Google and those that work in SEO to find ways to rank for specific keywords. Perhaps this is why fewer pay attention to SEO. It got harder.

In my mind, though, SEO remains one of the most efficient ways to bring relatively consistent traffic to your site. I want more publishers to spend time on this channel.

To get links in a safe way, they need to be given to you naturally. In other words, if an editor links to you by choice, in Google’s mind, that’s good. In my experience, one of the best ways to get natural links is to build tent-pole projects. These are in-depth tools and reports that are really easy to write about.

That’s the key point here. To amass the greatest number of links from high quality sites requires earned media. There are few things better than The Wall Street Journal linking to your site. That site is old and it has incredible domain authority. But the only way to get that link is to provide a very compelling story.

So, let’s make the journalists’ lives easier with a few ideas…

The Survey

This first idea is actually pretty straight forward, but it requires some prep work to make sure that you’re consistently delivering quality results.

The goal here is to identify key details about a specific topic that your audience cares about. Let’s say, for example, you run a media company for the waste management industry.

Every quarter or every six months, you want to ask your audience the same questions:

  • Do you think waste costs are going up or down?
  • Does your company take your carbon footprint seriously?
  • Recycling is too cost prohibitive and should be rethought. True/False

This is about as advanced as I can go with waste management, but you can see the point. If you can poll a large enough sample size of your audience, you’ll be able to gain a pretty good snapshot of what the industry believes about specific topics.

You then turn around and create a beautiful page on the website that lays all of this data out in an elegant design.

Then the fun starts… You’ll want to start building a list of journalists that have written about your industry at least a few times. This might be competitors or major media that has one journalist covering multiple beats.

However, you also want to build a list of journalists that cover topics important to your industry. Take, for example, the second bullet point. That’s about your carbon footprint, which means it’s as much about global warming as it is about waste management. Therefore, find journalists that cover that.

At this point, it’s all about a well crafted pitch. I wouldn’t blast every single journalist with a carbon copy message, though. Make it unique to each individual journalist. Any well respected PR professional will tell you this is a relationship business. Be personable.

The nice thing about this is that the story continues to get updated as you continue polling. You can then go back to that same journalist a year later and say, “hey, year over year, we saw a 15% increase in companies taking their carbon footprint seriously.” That’s a lede right there and something a journalist can work with.

The Ranking

In a similar vein to the survey, the ranking is about giving journalists a simple headline that says “Company A or Product B considered top in its category.”

That’s a very simple story to write.

The perfect example? The U.S. News & World college ranking. This ranks all the colleges and universities in the United States using a variety of factors, including surveys as well as other third party data points.

U.S. News & World have become so dominant in this space, if you google “Top University,” you’re going to find that publication first.

What I also like about this is that those that rank high are incentivized to do their own press about the news. Princeton ranks #1 on the 2021 report. I imagine they not only link to that on their site, but they are also probably doing outreach to journalists they know telling them the good news.

From time to time, there might even be an upset in there. University of Chicago ranks #6 in 2021. What if in 2022, it jumps to #1? “University of Chicago becomes #1 school for first time, beating out Princeton.” That’s a story right there.

The Index

The final example is the hardest to do and requires a blend of product, editorial and data mindset. However, if you can do this well, it could generate audience for literally years to come.

I’m talking about building a basic financial index. This is a tool on the website that a user can use for information. There are a couple ways to do this.

One way is to do what sites like Bankrate do, which is simply list all the financial data that matters to a consumer. Interest rates, mortgage rates, brokerage fees; you name it, they’ve got it. In major stories, I have seen Bankrate mentioned for information about mortgage rates. It’s a good resource.

Another option, which I believe is harder to replicate and gives you a competitive advantage, is to create an index of some sort. Specifically, I’m talking about a financial index, which has to follow specific rules and tracks an underlying asset.

Let’s say that we are back at our waste management business.

I’m going to assume that every waste management company charges its own rate per pound of waste removed. In some areas, it’s higher and it’s lower. That’s basic economics.

What if you could take the rate of these various waste management companies and capture the average? This would become a blended price per pound. Instead of hundreds of prices, you can turn around and say, “The 2020 price per pound of waste removal is $X.”

That’s a story to some journalists.

But let’s take it one step farther… Rather than just capturing this as a single snapshot in time, why not try to make it more real time? If you can deliver this index over months and years, suddenly, you’ve got a tool that journalists will seek out.

The nice thing is, once you’ve built it, maintaining it really only about adding new or removing incorrect sources of data.

Additional points about all this

There are a few things to understand about this strategy…

First, the goal is to create assets that journalists will want to reference in their reporting. If you’re helpful in the crafting of stories, you will likely benefit from a backlink.

Second, many of these projects can have a commercial benefit beyond just link building. If you do a survey, why couldn’t one of your partners be the sponsor of it? Being the sponsor of a yearly tent-pole survey has a certain gravitas to it that many companies might want to be associated with.

Finally, there is one major red flag about tent-pole projects that are worth discussing. Anytime people come up with a link building strategy, someone is going to come along and try to scale it and, therefore, ruin it.

It used to be in vogue to create widgets. These were embeddable tools that publishers could add to make their sites more dynamic. Every single one of these would have an automatic backlink to the creator’s website. You can see a few examples over on Google’s webmaster blog.

For a long time, this worked. However, if you read that blog post, it doesn’t work anymore. Google does not want automatic linking to exist and will ding publishers that rely on it.

The editor needs to choose to link to you rather than automatically linking to simply because they use your embed code. It’s more work, but it ensures that Google rewards you for the link rather than penalizes.

To sum it all up…

Anytime I think about audience development, especially for newer sites, I think about trying to come up with tent-pole opportunities. It’s a lot of work and it takes a ton of time, but in the long-run, the payoff can be significant.

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