The important thing to remember when you’re trying to attract links—real, powerful, high-quality, authoritative links—is that behind each of those links is a person. The kinds of links that Google wants you to build are the kinds of links that you get when a real live person decides to share or link to your content.
That great content you’re creating is designed to be the kind of stuff people like to share, but getting people to share it often requires outreach. When you ask someone to read and possibly share your content, even if it’s content you think they’ll really like, you’re essentially asking them to do you a favor. That’s a lot easier to do if it’s somebody who already knows you and likes you.
This is why a relationship-based approach to link building can be so powerful. By connecting with site owners on a personal level, you can start creating a positive association between you and the content you share. Start thinking of a link as something that’s given online by a real live person who also exists outside the Internet, and you can move from being a link builder to being a relationship builder. One moment of link outreach can generate a link, but an ongoing relationship can result in multiple links and shares, not to mention introductions into that person’s network of friends and connections.
Plus, you might make a friend!
A few caveats
In-person link outreach is not for everybody. There are a few reasons why building links in person might not work for you.
- No budget: Like many content building and link outreach strategies, some of the in-person link building tactics I outline below will require a financial outlay, which not everybody can swing.
- No time: In-person link outreach takes a lot of time, and some of it will almost certainly need to be spent outside of work hours (or during work hours, but not at work).
- Too far away: If you’re not located in the same city/state/country as your client, it’s going to be harder for you to build links for them in person.
- Not a people person: If you dread talking to people, especially people you don’t know, this strategy is going to be massively unpleasant for you.
Yes, you still have to build good content. Like any good strategy to attract links, building links in person is only going to work if you’re also taking the time to build linkable, shareable resources that people will want to link to. As you’re laying the foundation for your link outreach relationships, you should also be planning your content calendar—that way, by the time you’ve got a great linkable asset ready to share, you’ve gotten to know some people who can share it.
Don’t be creepy. The point of in-person link building is not to lie, cheat, or manipulate people into being friends with you in order to secretly use them for their sweet, sweet links. The point is to form strong, genuine professional relationships with people who will appreciate the awesome work you do. You’ll be a stronger marketer for it, and maybe even meet your next boss or BFF.
All right! Let’s make some friends.
Where to build links in person
Trade shows and conferences. This is the “budget outlay” item that I mentioned earlier: if you can swing it, attend some trade shows and conferences in your/your client’s industry. Of course, this is easier to do if you’re in-house, or only building links for a few clients, than if you have a whole roster of different sites in different industries under your care.
If your clients are in your area, make sure they let you know when they’ll be attending or exhibiting at events, and see if you can tag along. In-house marketers should also see if they can be part of the booth staff at trade shows where their clients are exhibiting. If there’s a relevant conference or trade show in your area and your client isn’t exhibiting, see if you can get an expo-only pass for free or a reduced rate.
Marketing conferences can be a great place to hone your SEO skills, but they can also be a great place to connect with other marketers. If you’re attending a marketing/SEO conference, take a look at the attendee list and see if there are other marketers from your industry who will be attending (especially if they don’t work for competitors). Another SEO is going to understand why you might be asking them to share or link to your content, so it’s worth your while to cultivate relationships with other SEOs who might have access to topically-related sites. A marketing conference is a great way for SEOs with a lot of different clients to build link relationships across multiple industries, too.
Meetups and trade associations. In addition to higher-dollar industry events, most metro areas have a variety of meetups, clubs and associations, many of which are free to join. If your client is a member of an industry association, see if you can tag along to an event that’s open to the public; even closed-membership groups tend to have a mixer or two every year to let potential new members experience the group.
Check sites like Meetup, LinkedIn, Facebook and yes, Google+, for groups in your area. There may be groups focused on your client’s industry/ies, but it’s also worthwhile to start attending local events around marketing, PR, advertising, social media, etc. to connect with other local marketers. Inbound links from sites in the same local area can be quite valuable for websites with a strong local focus, so building link relationships within your local community is definitely worth doing—and is another way to build link relationships for multiple clients at once.
Assessing link relationships
Of course, just because you’ve met someone in person doesn’t mean they’re going to link to you, or even that you’d necessarily want a link from them. Try to do some recon before heading to the event, so you can keep an eye out for your dream link targets.
Wherever possible, get a list of people who will be attending the event; this will help you pick out a few people with whom you’d really like to connect. If you can’t get a list beforehand, compile a list of the people you met afterward and do some research.
Don’t forget that attendees are people, not just businesses—you’ll want to take some time to check attendees out on social media and LinkedIn, too. A person may have a business card from one company but actually work with multiple businesses. Someone with no website of their own might be a regular contributor to an industry blog, or just fantastically well-connected in the community you’re trying to join and still worth getting to know. A person’s position within a company will matter, too—you’re more likely to get a link from a marketing/web person (who has access to the website) than, e.g., the manufacturing plant supervisor (who probably doesn’t, and also has other things to do).
Take some time to evaluate sites like you would any other link prospect. Stay away from sites that appear at risk for a penalty, or are sleazy enough that you don’t want to associate your client’s brand with them. That doesn’t mean they’re not still worth getting to know as people (you should certainly never shun people at conferences, that’s just rude), it just means that they won’t be a focus of your link outreach later.
Make the connection
When you meet someone with whom you’d like to build a link-based relationship, don’t start out asking for the link, any more than you would online. If you’re at a networking or industry event, there’s a basic understanding that people are there to make professional connections—there’s no need to be more specific than that and say you’re there to make connections that might result in links (nobody wants to feel like they’re being used for their links).
After your research, you’ll probably have a few people who you want to make sure you meet, but don’t seek them out at the expense of forming other connections. Remember that your goal here is more than just a link—it’s a relationship, which could be mutually beneficial to both of you. Ask people questions about themselves, their work and what they think about the event. Just like on social media, you don’t want to talk only about yourself—your main success metric for these events should be engagement.
When a networking conversation is drawing to a natural close, excuse yourself (if you need an excuse, getting more food or drink is usually a good bet)—but make sure to get a business card, or social media info from your new professional connection. As you follow your new friends on Twitter or G+, add them to a list or circle for people from the event or group you’ve attended so you have them all in one place later.
By the end of the event, you should have a list of new friends who might link to or share your content. Your next step is not to ask them to do so, however (unless you have a specific content piece that came up in your conversation that they were interested in). Your next step is to nurture that connection.
Start with a quick tweet or email the next morning that says it was great to meet them and maybe references something in your conversation. If your only point of contact for them is email, use it very sparingly—nobody likes aggressive emails. Your best best in this case is to try to see them again at the next event, to continue nurturing your relationship in person. You could also see if they want to meet for coffee or lunch to talk shop.
If you’ve added your new connections on social media, take some time every day to check in with your list. Talk to them—they’re your new friends! Reply to their tweets, answer questions they might ask, and above all, share their content when they post it. You’re showing them that you’re a connection worth having by bringing value to their conversations. Make sure to switch up the time of day you’re doing this, since different people use social media at different times of day. If you get into a conversation with some of their followers, make sure to add them to your list, too.
Over time, it will become clear which people are turning into real connections and which are just not going to respond to you. You’ll also see some of your new pals sharing the content you post, without you even having to ask them—that’s a great sign that they’re seeing you and your content as valuable.
When your feel your relationship with someone is at a point where you can ask them for a favor without it being weird, go ahead and ask them to share or link to a piece of content of yours. Make sure the content in question is actually relevant to what they do/like; one awesome thing about relationship-based link building is that you may actually get content ideas by listening to what your new friends have to say. Be cool about it—a simple “Hey, I thought you’d like this, check it out” is often enough.
All of this relationship building can also be done online—people do it all the time. However, in my experience, meeting someone in person can drastically reduce the amount of time and the number of interactions it can take to build trust with someone and get to the point where you’re happy to share each other’s content. As with most link-building strategies, a time investment up-front can pay dividends down the line.