Content Marketing Fairy Dust



NEWSFLASH!   Despite what you’ve read, your “epic content” isn’t going to magically go viral seconds after you click the publish button. There is no content marketing fairy. Like it or not, you’re going to have to work hard to promote your content. I mean really hard.

“Well, Hi Paul….Bad Start to the Day?”

Why the rant? Well, Cyrus Shepard wrote a fantastic “blueprint for ranking” post recently on the Moz blog (one of the best posts of the year, IMO). I found myself nodding in agreement throughout it…until I got to the end and read this: 

“This blueprint contains 25 steps to rank your content, but only the last three address link building. Why so few? Because 90% of your effort should go into creating great content, and 10% into link building.”

In fairness to Cyrus, there’s more nuance to his thoughts than this quote conveys, but this fits into a theme that seems to be gaining momentum in some circles.

I first saw Rand propose this at a Distilled conference I attended last year. The presentation was titled “F*** Link Building, Content Marketing FTW!” I’m paraphrasing, but in this presentation he said something to the effect of:

I have this awesome link building tool…you should totally get it. Every time I use it, I get links from 400 unique domains. It’s called the publish button.”

Here’s the Reality

Look, I agree with most of Rand’s ideas about SEO (and marketing in general for that matter), but the suggestion that active outreach and promotion is unnecessary is making me crazy. It’s simply unrealistic. 

We all know that we need to up our games dramatically when it comes to content creation…and a stake needs to be driven through the heart of the “500 words for $5” industry. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to conduct outreach on behalf of your content.

There’s an exchange in the comments of Cyrus’ post that captures the issue pretty well. Hannah Smith from Distilled states:

“Whilst I totally concur with investing in content creation, the rule of thumb we use is if you spend 40 hours creating a piece you should typically spend a further 40 hours outreaching / seeding / promoting (and often we spend more).

Now, in contrast, Moz has content like “the Beginner’s Guide to SEO” that generates tons of links/mentions with next-to-no outreach required. The problem is that this doesn’t apply to most people out there.  This model only works if you have either:

  • A HUGE budget (I’m talking “Kanye and Jay-Z at the club on a Saturday night” big),
  • A BIG brand, or
  • A TON of time

That wipes out most of the marketers that I talk to. On top of this, it turns out that there are loads of top notch companies that are spending big money to create terrific content, and they’re still struggling. Let’s look at an example (hat tip to John-Henry Scherck for pointing this out).

Harvest: A Case Study

Harvest is a time tracking service that many of our customers use. They’ve been around for almost ten years, they’re a trusted brand (PR7, Domain Authority of 77), and they have a great product. A while back, they created a piece called “The Harvest Field Guide to Pricing.”

harvest field guide to pricing

It’s a fantastic piece. Informative, engaging, and the design quality is easily at the level of the “The Beginner’s Guide to SEO.” I don’t know what it cost, but I’m certain they spent a pretty penny to put it together (or if they did it in-house, they invested significant time). In fact, they thought highly enough of the piece that they’ve made it the secondary call to action on their home page.

So they should be able to click the publish button and let the magic happen, right?

Well, not exactly.

harvest shares

As of yesterday, that piece received 300 tweets, 205 shares and links from 19 domains.

Not surprisingly, Harvest now has an opening listed on their jobs page for a marketing generalist. Guess what they want that person to do?

harvest job spec


Why the “Don’t Promote/Outreach” Advice Needs to Stop

Here’s the problem I have with all this…

The “create great content and everything will work out just fine” message doesn’t set people up for success. The people that live SEO day in and day out know that (our awesome customers, for example) :), but I don’t know if the rest of the community does. It works for Moz because they’ve spent YEARS building a community and developing great content. Most people don’t have that kind of time, and most people aren’t operating in a market that’s so prone to sharing/promoting content. 

Hannah’s comment on Cyrus’ post nailed it. Hannah is an experienced, highly skilled marketer and she works at an agency that has excellent, trusted clients. So if anyone should be able to skip the promotion step, it’s her.

Yet they’ve found that they need to spend as much time on content outreach, seeding and promotion as they do on content creation.

Building great content and focusing on the community are table-stakes. You still need to promote it though. 

Rant Complete…Now Here’s Where Rand and Cyrus Have it Right.

So here’s where I agree wholeheartedly with Rand and Cyrus…

The old “link building” model of outreach needs to die.

So what do I mean by “the old link building outreach model?” Well, it boils down to three steps:

Step 1:

Create a big-ass list that includes anyone even marginally relevant to your content.

big list image


Step 2:

Hammer the living shit out of this list with a lightly personalized, poorly constructed email that focuses on what you want them to do for you.

 horrible outreach email


Step 3:

Hope like hell that you get responses.

 fingers crossed

Why the Old Outreach Model = #fail

So why does this model need to go away? Well, even if you ignore the fact that there’s not enough anti-depressants in the world to make you feel good about your life’s work, you still have to deal with this…


You’re fighting against two factors that make this old outreach model ineffective, and this is only going to get more problematic in the future.

The first factor is that Google is getting smarter. If you want to bet on anything, bet on Google getting better and better about understanding what real online advocacy looks like. Penguin marked the beginning of the end of link gaming as a way to build authority…but that was only the beginning. They have rooms full of PhDs who are completely focused on developing algorithms to improve this. If you’re playing the cat-and-mouse game with Google, your life is going to get harder and harder.

The second factor you’re fighting against is the fact that the people you’re reaching out to have caught on to the game….that’s why so many people are sending emails out and getting back an “I’ve attached my advertising rates” response from the site owner. I talked to one old-school link builder who I consider to be one of the most highly skilled outreach pros in the industry and he’s getting a 1% response rate on broken link building campaigns.

How Outreach and Promotion is Changing…and How it Isn’t

So, given this, what should outreach look like?

Well, if you look at what the best SEOs and outreach professionals are doing now, it’s pretty simple to summarize…they’re focusing  outreach and promotion efforts on the needs of real people. The ROI of the spammier approaches is dropping like a rock (thankfully)…outreach needs to be personalized and value-oriented.

If you’re about to send an email and you can’t convincingly answer the “what’s in it for them” question, start over.

One thing that I think a lot of people are still struggling with though…you’re likely going to be reaching out to bloggers and people on twitter. Given this, relationships matter. I cringe a little when I write this because usually when I see posts written about “relationship-based outreach,” the definition of “relationship” is way overstated (and I also realize it doesn’t make sense for some markets). I’m not suggesting that you need to know the name and birthday of the blogger’s Lhasa Apso so you can send the homemade, gluten-free dog biscuits he loves so much.(1)  I am suggesting, however, that if you take a “give before you ask” approach to your content promotion efforts, you’re going to be much more successful.

The other thing to note about relationship-based outreach is that many of you (or your clients) are already engaged with your content communities. Often these relationships aren’t being utilized. Many times, someone is already tweeting, liking, sharing and linking to content produced by people in the community, and the community is already promoting your content back. Yet, when it comes to conducting an outreach campaign, those existing relationships are ignored.

It’s as though you’ve done all this work to provide value to the community, but when you finally actually need something in return, all that work just scatters to the wind. Focusing on this when you’re structuring your outreach efforts will have a big impact on performance. 

So that’s how things are changing…here’s the challenge though. What’s not changing is the value of volume. Whether it’s in the form of a link, a share, a comment, or a like, the more people that are promoting your content, the better

And here-in lies the rub. How do promote your content in a way that’s personalized and relationship-based…but still scales?  

So How Do You Do This?

The people that I’ve seen have the most consistent success with their outreach in this changing environment all have something in common.

They’ve Taken a Disciplined, Systematic Approach to Content Promotion

Just as they’ve developed detailed processes for activities like keyword selection and site audits, they’ve done the same thing when it comes to outreach and content promotion.

The processes vary from organization to organization (based on the team, the organizational structure, the type of site, etc.), but, from what I’ve seen, the processes for the most successful companies all includes these six characteristics.:

Outreach Specialists are Included in the Content Ideation Process. 

The most successful organizations don’t toss content ‘over the transom’ to the people responsible for outreach when it’s finished and say, “Go get those links!” They involve the influencer engagement and outreach professionals in the content development and strategy process from the get go – they often know best what certain blogs cover, where gaps are, and what topics have been covered to death.

Additionally, by doing this, outreach professionals have an opportunity to socialize the idea with key influencers with a high ‘multiplier effect’, and see if it’s even worth the time to create in the first place.

They Segment Their “Content Market” and Plan Outreach Accordingly

Typically, content is most valuable to one or two core segments, but also has value to a set of adjacent markets. By mapping out your content market, you can craft outreach messages that are uniquely suited to each segment.

The outreach to the markets that aren’t directly in your sweet spot won’t result in as many links (and the traffic coming directly from those sites won’t convert as well), but they will help your overall authority.  

They Leverage Easy-to-Acquire Links to Get the Great Links

In Matt’s post about structuring a link building campaign, he made note of the fact that some types of links involve “harvesting” (e.g., unlinked mentions) while others require “demand generation” (e.g., “big content” outreach).

harvesting vs demand gen

Often the people that you reach out to for the harvesting opportunities will also be well-suited for you outreach supporting your content pieces. The most successful companies leverage their harvesting outreach to strengthen relationships. This bears fruit when they reach out later.   

They Time the Research, Relationship Building and Outreach Steps to Optimize Performance

 Because outreach in support of content requires more research and relationship building than “harvesting” outreach, they time their efforts to account for this. 

 outreach planning

While they’re reaching out to harvesting opportunities, they’re simultaneously researching prospects for their content pieces and looking for opportunities to promote them. 

They Automate Low-Value Tasks

There are some tasks that simply can’t be automated. For example, I’ve yet to see one great SEO that doesn’t visually inspect a site before reaching out to them. Similarly, when I talk to the people that I think most highly of, they don’t send mass mails.

However, there are a set of repetitive tasks that can be done by a computer…things like collecting contact information, keeping track of the emails you send to prospects and collecting metrics. The time saved by automating this provides these people more time for personalizing their outreach. 

They Continuously Measure and Refine

The really great companies view this as an ever-evolving process. They’re continuously watching to see which content and which messages work, and then adjusting accordingly.

You can learn more about content promotion best practices in these slides from the Content Marketing Show:


The idea that you can simply write great material and post it on your website – without really socializing and promoting it to the people who have the audience you need to attract – is silly.  You can build it, but that doesn’t  mean they’ll come.

Bad promotion – the spammy, “Hey Bro, Nice Site, Link Me, K?” – is bad.  Good promotion – intelligent, relationship-driven engagement with influential people who that content piece appeals to – is necessary for content marketing to succeed.



1 If, however, you’re actually looking to send these dog biscuits to a blogger, here’s a recipe…unbelievable how easy this was to find. 🙂  


  • Great great article with lots of thruth in it! I think it’s saved to say that even with great content there’s no such thing as free lunch, as content needs to be promoted like a product. Never heard the “Don’t Promote/Outreach” Advice and so wouldn’t give it.

  • Hi Paul, I wrote a guest post over here explaining why your understanding of how attention and thus content works on the web does not scale:

    If you have publicly verifiable data that supports your view I’d love for you to share it as I believe the premise on which ‘outreach’ is based will not generate a viable return for any business that tries it.

  • Hey Mark,
    Matt from BuzzStream here. (Paul’s in the middle of something so he’ll get back to this when he gets the chance.)

    I read your article back when it was first published, and I thought it was interesting. Anything that questions the status quo (especially the general conversation in marketing) I like. However, I felt like it made a lot of bold statements without backing them up with data. For instance, saying publishing things on the internet is a bad strategy because big media companies are having trouble seems like a weak argument to me. Lots of web native publishing operations (most notably BuzzFeed) that have a deep understanding of the traffic economy and aren’t burdened by legacy ideas or cost structures are incredibly successful. (Reference –

    Regarding your initial question, I would encourage you to check out this case study from our friends at Fractl who found that with a combination of outreach and really excellent content, they could get tons of traffic and links which really moved the needle for their client – I can also speak to some of the things we’ve done here at BuzzStream that have combined content with outreach have very successfully driven traffic, links, and sign-ups for us in a way that paid advertising hasn’t.

    Personally I think content + outreach on the web can scale to most of the places it needs to go. We wouldn’t suggest that it should be the sole aspect of your strategy – but content that serves user needs, moves potential customers further along the purchase journey, and is promoted across an appropriate mix of earned, owned, and paid media scales quite well.

    Happy to discuss further,

  • Paul,

    I have to say that I am grateful that someone other than myself FINALLY recognizes that it takes old-fashioned elbow grease in order to promote a website or blog, not just quality content. If you listen to Google’s SEO-expert Matt Cutts, all one needs to do to get a links or online citations is to follow the “content is King” concept, something I realized was complete nonsense several years ago but that so many online marketers still labor under.

  • Thanks Murray. Elbow grease is right…like it or not, it take work.

  • Thought this was a great post and agree with a lot of it.

    I find it interesting that this is a conversation that we as marketers even have to have. The idea of effectively placing marketing creative into a distribution channel has always been a fundamental aspect of marketing. Obviously creating exceptional content that hits on marketing goals is important, but getting that content in front of people is key.

    For some companies, they have established marketing channels, like fans, followers, a customer base, subscribers, relationships, and brand recognition. Other companies, at different sizes and different stages of growth, don’t have these yet and need to build them. Outreach is one of many ways of doing this. Advice that requires a 5 to 10 year advantage isn’t useful to a lot of organizations.

    With an example like Moz, I don’t think it’s accurate for us to think they don’t do outreach. They have a substantial community and events program, spending significant time and money to reach out to their potential audience in person. I think they set themselves apart by being long-term greedy instead of short-term greedy. Reaching out to community members for webinars, guest posting, and speaking is all a type of outreach. They’re often not making the direct pitch at that moment. However, these actions build equity in those relationships. The publish button is just spending that equity. There is a huge machine in place that’s making the publish button so effective.

    I also feel that strong outreach is a competitive advantage. It can bridge the gap between a small/new company and the large distribution channels of stronger brands.

  • Thanks Justin. Yeah, I find it surprising that this conversation is still going on…Aaron Bradley wrote a great post about this four years ago that I just found, and it’s every bit as relevant today. You’d think we’d have gotten past this, but I think the “content marketing” and “inbound marketing” messages are actually amplifying the “build it and they will come” message.

    I agree completely that excellent outreach is a competitive advantage. In some ways, I think it’s a more sustainable advantage. Because it’s usually hidden to competitors, it’s difficult to reverse engineer.

  • This is a great article, Paul, and a serious component of the overall strategy in content marketing that is often overlooked. Many times, the “set-it-and-forget-it” mentality sets in after an article has been published, with the erroneous belief that “if you build it, they will come.” It’s an easy trap to fall into, but the content still needs proper distribution for smaller brands and SMBs who need to capture the attention of consumers that are trapped in the allure of big-name brands. Even the simplest strategies- such as including a link to the article in your email signature- are foregone. But those who see the bigger picture and really need to track the impact of the content will see the value in promotion.

    Great article brother.



  • Thanks Adria. Love the point about the need for getting buy-in among the team….that was one of the first hard lessons I learned when I made the move from an individual contributor to a manager, but I hadn’t thought of it in this context.

  • Hey Will – Thanks for your comment. Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but when I wrote that wise-ass line and then found the recipe with one search and one click, I was taken aback just a bit. 🙂

  • Hey Jason,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think you’re right about the need for personalization and relationships…I hope that doesn’t push out the smaller guy. My hope is that it will result in more specialization, which could be an opportunity for smaller agencies.

  • Will Stevens

    Great post, Paul. I think the idea that great content spreads naturally is actually harmful to the content marketing industry. If you’re a small firm plowing resources into great content and it does nothing, you’re just going to give up.

    Presenting a more realistic picture of things – that content marketing involves a lot of work on promotion – helps dispel unrealistic expectations.

    And those gluten free dog treats look worrying good…

  • You are dead right Paul. Spray and pray link building is virtually dead in the water but outreach is still a necessity.

    The reality is that the dependency gap between great content and successful outreach has narrowed to a point where outreach has virtually become old school PR. To get the real choice content placements the 100% personal approach is a must as this leads to further content placement opportunities.

    There is still a need for volume though and scaling up outreach successfully, especially for smaller budgets is the tough one. We’ve found that testing and refining templates for different verticals works well to achieve this but we expect as the market gets even more saturated the personal approach will be the only option making costs rise. Couple this with the need for excellent content and this progression is squeezing the little guy/client/seo companies out of the picture I’m afraid… but the gold rush had to end some day…

  • Great post! You absolutely nailed it 🙂

  • Really like your perspective on this, Paul, and have to say I agree. I have one additional perspective/more of an add on to the discussion regarding using your outreach team to seed your content.

    I think Hannah said it well and agree with you here, Paul – your content NEEDS to be outreached so people will see it, as the “make it and they will come” philosophy doesn’t always fly. However, I think it’s also important to note that content marketing should be a brand philosophy – integrating into every aspect of your content development (on AND offline). That being said, you won’t outreach all the content you develop, and trying to do so will only result in wasted money. As you mentioned, outreach teams need to pitch in the context of why the publisher should care – well no one cares about your on-page copy that you spent a butt load on perfecting. Outreach teams are only meant to be used to get coverage for your more top of the funnel, and in some instances retention, content.

    Also, completely agree with your reasoning of why to include outreach team members into content development. However, there is another reason to do it besides the fact that they are the eyes and ears on the ground of the internet – they know if anyone will care about your content. If you don’t involve them, they won’t care. And if they don’t care or feel invested, your project won’t see the results it could. I cannot emphasize this enough: do not underestimate how much basic human behavior plays into a successful outreach campaign. No one likes being dictated to above – you need your outreachers to believe in the content in order for it to fly.

  • Awesome post, Paul.

    I’ve actually noticed an SEO and link building Renaissance this last year.

    Lots of small businesses and bloggers that tried the “just publish great content” approach — and failed — are flocking back to SEO.

    I’ve also found that mass outreach tactics (like broken link building) don’t work as well anymore.

    To me, it comes down to whether or not you can provide VALUE to the person that you’re emailing. For example, I know an agency with an unlimited PRWeb press release package. They offer a guest post AND a free press release submission to their targets. Needless to say, they do a bit better than 1% 🙂

    Thanks again for this.

  • “To me, it comes down to whether or not you can provide VALUE to the person that you’re emailing.”

    Bingo. It’s a value exchange.

    Thanks Brian.

  • Thanks for sharing it, Anthony. Totally agree with your comment…the WBF was one of the things that led me to post this. 🙂

  • Hey Paul-

    Truly a great piece. The 90% time spent on content and relying on the publish button is a great way to build links for an established brand like Moz in a link happy niche, like web marketing.

    I work with a lot of smaller sized businesses who have almost no content or brand following. On top of that, they are often in what is described as a boring niche. There is no field of dreams style link building going on for these clients.

    These types of clients see almost no success from publishing a piece of content. The calculated outreach is key for them. This ties in nicely with the Flywheel concept in Rand’s last WBF. As your site gets more popular, you can spend more on content and less on outreach.

    Even for an established brand, hitting publish may bring you some links, but you might only be reaching 50-80% of the potential value. I think outreach will always be a hugely valuable part of the equation.

    This post got an extra 10 minutes of my day, a tweet and this comment, because of a simple outreach message you sent to me. Without it, it likely would’ve slipped past my radar as today is not a good day for me to be on Twitter, Inbound, etc.

  • Thanks Ross. Agreed….there’s more value in the Beginner’s Guide. That said, the design of the Harvest piece is excellent and, as you mentioned, they should have been able to drive links based on their brand and the content style alone.

  • Greg, you really think you were going to make it to the end of the day without getting an email from me. 😉

  • My only piece of feedback on the Harvest tool is that it doesn’t necessarily solve a pain point. While helpful and awesome, it’s a little ambiguous and as someone who uses the tool, and has to choose between those problems, it doesn’t do much in that regard. Moz completely solves that “newbie SEO” problem with their guide, and for that reason, it is oft referred to.

    It is also worth noting that it is something you “refer people to” with great frequency also makes for an incredibly potent link building piece. For that reason I think the Moz guide is far better than Harvest’s, and not necessarily comparable.

    That said, it’s also the kind of guide that can attract links with simple outreach – some guides/resources only require an ask, and because they simply *look* epic, they get linked to. This definitely would benefit from that.

  • Incredible post Paul, the 1% reply rate for broken link building rings so true. I spent around 5 hours last week on a mini broken link building campaign, got a couple of replies and no link backs. I basically became a good Samaritan for those 5 hours during work hours!

    I took a step back last week looking out my outreach process, turns out that my value offer was poor…so poor it was non-existent!

    Heaps of ideas are flowing now thanks to this post! Gracias 🙂

  • Hi Paul,

    Thank you for writing this post. It needed to be said.

    The idea that we should just create content for the sake of content and get links for the sake of links is a huge problem in the industry. We might be data driven, but SEOs for the most part, aren’t business minded. At times, we blindly follow the advice of thought leaders even when it isn’t relevant or practical.

    Hopefully this post will help set some people in the right mindset and clear up some content marketing fallacies.

  • If you practiced what you preached, I would have been on the short-list of people to promote this piece to 😉

    Great write-up Paul, some companies like Moz that have huge audiences in topics with high social-currency have seemingly forgotten what it’s like to get traction for a piece in the real world.

  • Hey Greg!
    I tell you what, I’ll send you an email today 😉

  • >> They’ve Taken a Disciplined, Systematic Approach to Content Promotion

    This is absolutely the truth. Set up your process. Put it in motion. Then refine based on results.

  • Exactly. Takes effort to think through your process, but once you have it in place, it provides big competitive advantage.

    Thanks James.

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