Improving Link Building Response Rates With Persuasive Psychology

One of the most frustrating parts about link development is low success & response rates. While this has many causes – including poor prospecting methods, low quality sites, bad timing, and more – it is often due to poor outreach email construction.

Most people don’t send persuasive emails. They just ask for a link.

This is a particularly extreme example from Rand Fishkin, but this is about how persuasive the average link building email really is:

bad link building emails

From Rand’s Presentation at LinkLove 2012 Boston

Persuasive, personalized messages get dramatically better response rates than the standard, “I see you have a website. I’d like a link – can you hook it up?”

Better Link Building through Science

Fortunately, persuasion has been studied for years, and many experiments have been done.

The 10,000 pound Gorilla of persuasion studies is a book called “Influence: Science and Practice”, written by Professor Robert Cialdini, the Regents’ Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.

In ‘Influence’, Dr. Cialdini writes about 6 persuasive triggers:
• Reciprocation
• Commitment and Consistency
• Social Proof
• Liking
• Authority
• Scarcity

Let’s look at these principles one at time and see how we can leverage them to improve our link development effectiveness:

Reciprocation: Give Before You Get

What is It?

Reciprocation is our collective human tendency to feel a debt towards people that give us things. We then reciprocate once someone has done something good by use.

The Proof:

Dr. Jenifer Kunz (of West Texas A&M) did an interesting study in 1994: Send Christmas Cards to strangers. And she discovered that strangers will send Christmas cards back, even if they’ve never met the sender. This is reciprocation at work.

(Interestingly, she found the greatest response rate was between senders called ‘Dr.’ and blue collar receivers.)

By contra-example, Sam Walton (founder of Walmart), famously never let a purchasing agenct take so much as a handkerchief from a purchasing agent, ensuring reciprocative tendencies never drove up his prices.

How Link Builders Can Use It:

Give your prospect something before you ask for anything – preferably multiple times.

For example, if you’re going to launch an ebook about flyfishing at the end of the month, include all of the blogs you’ll eventually reach out to in a ’20 Best Flyfishing Blogs’ post, your ebook promotion request will go much further.


What is It?

People are more likely to agree to requests from people they like. There are many ways to increase likability – physical attractiveness, similarity, repeated contact, and association with other liked objects.

The Proof:

Researchers have shown that attractive people are thought to be talented, kind, honest, and intelligent – often without basis. Attractiveness has a ‘halo effect’ that extends to other areas.

Similarity also creates liking. This is known as ‘intergroup bias’ in psychology, and creates increased success rates in direct marketing and other persuasive situations.

How Link Builders Can Use It:

Highlight things you have in common with the author or site owner. (Don’t do this in a fake way, “Funny you have a website. I also have a website!”, but rather dig in, and find complex opinions or preferences you have in common.

Engage with influencers through comments, through Twitter, through email, and any other way they might respond (and not find creepy) to create familarity. Then ask for a link as a friend or peer – not a stranger.

Commitment & Consistency

What is It?

Once people have agreed to do something, or agreed to some principle, they’ll perform to it, even when they would be disinclined to do so otherwise.

After people have made a decision, in retrospect, they think it was a better idea.

Cognitively, we see things we’ve agreed to as good choices, even if there is obvious evidence otherwise.

The Proof:

One study, originally conducted in 1975 and repeated in 2009, presented a familiar scenario: someone sitting on a beach blanket left their radio (later, ipod) and walked away, and another researcher came along and ‘stole’ it.

In one test set, the radio’s owner said nothing to their beach neighbors – none of them intervened. In the other test set, the radio’s owner asked their new beach neighbors to “watch my things” – this one change produced a 95% intervention rate, often chasing the ‘thief’ down the beach.

How Link Builders Can Use It:

Before you have a piece of content, ask influencers what they think of it. If they like it, ask them to share it with their audience.

Follow blogger’s ‘Guest Blog for us’ or ‘Write for Us’ rules. They’ve already agreed to have you – and you’ve complied with their rules. Mention this.

Social Proof: Everybody’s Doing It

What is It?

We use other people doing something as a heuristic for whether doing something is valuable. When we see “Over 1 Million Served” in front of a McDonald’s, we’re persuaded that McDonald’s is great.

According to Cialdini, “We view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.”

The Proof:

Studies have found that simply showing shy, introverted pre-schoolers videos of other children interacting normally with crowds can radically change behavior.

Furthermore, Milgram, Bickman, & Berkowitz experimented with having a single person on a sidewalk in a busy street look upward. More than 80% of passerby lifted their gaze to the same empty spot.

Social proof can even help people overcome and ignore physical pain: a study from 1978 showed people who would otherwise find electric shocks painful did not when there was someone else in the same room receiving the shocks and finding them bearable.

How Link Builders Can Use It:

If you’re guest blogging, mention the number of social shares your last guest post got. If 1500 people shared it, it couldn’t be too bad.

If your site gets lots of traffic or does lots of business, let the link prospect know. Share positive metrics about your site and increase your credibility.


What is It?

We believe what authorities tell us. Doctors, CEOs, Presidents, celebrities, and more, all have undue influence over us. Titles, clothing, social status, and other factors can all create this feeling of authority.

The Proof:

Many studies, the most famous the Milgram Experiment, have verified this.

One of the most interesting concerns peer-reviewed medical journal papers. 12 papers that were previously published by professors from prestigious universities in a medical journal were copied and resubmitted, but with the professional affiliation changed to the “Tri-Valley Center for Human Potential.” Nine were accepted for review, and only one was accepted for publication.

How Link Builders Can Use It:

If your site has been blessed by authorities in your space – on the consumer web it might be Martha Stewart, while in the IT world it might be Gartner – mention that in your link request.

If other prominent blogs (like Mashable or TechCrunch in technology) have mentioned your product or your site, let your link prospect know you’ve been covered there.

If an executive in your company is well known and famous in her field, ask her to use “rel=author” markup on her posts, so her picture will appear in Google’s search results, making your site’s content even more authoritative.


What is It?

We disproportionately value scarce things – even when they have little or no value.

The Proof:

Stephen Worchel and his team conducted an experiment about the psychology of scarcity: they asked consumers to try two cookies and rate them for taste and quality. However, in one test, their bag had ten cookies, and in the other, it held only two.

Consumers rated the scarcer cookies more desirable, more costly, and a better value.

For a more modern example, consider reality television programs like the Bachelor, the Bachelorette, and (my personal favorite) Flavor of Love. Otherwise normal people become incredible objects of desire after being made scarce and competed over.

How Link Builders Can Use It:

PR professionals have been offering exclusives to influential publications for years. Link builders can do the same thing – offering exclusive samples, interviews, and other content to choice publications.

If you’re giving bloggers samples or inviting them into a blogger program, you can limit the number of seats available, creating scarcity and exclusivity.

Stacking Persuasive Principles

While these principles used invidually are persuasive, when they get stacked together, they can become something incredibly powerful.

For example, think of a Tupperware party with a limited supply of an incredible piece of Tupperware. Everyone wants it, and the hostess has graciously provided you with wine and hors d’oeuvres. Now your friends are buying the items, and there’s only two left… Can anyone say no in this situation?

Charlie Munger (Warren Buffet’s lawyer and investment partner) called situations like this – where multiple cognitive biases intersect – “the lollapalooza effect.”

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Using these triggers, especially together, can create great influence. However, keep in mind that many people, especially marketers, are very familiar with these concepts and do not necessarily appreciate their use.

Do not use them irresponsibly – they can cause resentment and major PR backlash, resulting in not only you not getting your link, but damage to the brand you’re working for. Make sure you always use these concepts truthfully.



Matt works on customer acquisition at BuzzStream. Before BuzzStream, he worked as an SEO Strategist at Portent and a Marketing Manager at AppCentral (acquired by Good Technology). You can follow Matt on Twitter or Google Plus.
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  • Hi,

    Great post Matt!

    Here’s a list of my favourite reciprocation techniques:

    – Add the bloggers on Twitter and G+ before contacting them
    – Ask the blogger to drop you a line if
    — they participate to any blogger awards
    — they have interesting content to share
    — they are looking for any help with your website
    – Spot an error in their blog or a broken link in their site
    – Review one of their Ebooks

  • Thanks for sharing, Carlo!

  • Hi Matt.

    Great post. I really liked that you also provided the links to the original studies, as i wanted to read up on some of them.


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