Shouldn’t We All Be Doing Business Development Instead of Link Building?




At The Next Web we like to find different ways to approach every aspect of our business, including our marketing. Since we’re a technology blog focused on bringing you the latest news in international technology, design, business and creativity, it’s key that we use the knowledge that we get from writing about other companies to improve our own work. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve changed how we do link building.

When it comes to our link building strategy, there are some common questions we usually get asked:

  • How do you connect with your potential link partners?
  • What do you send them?
  • What criteria do you use to select your potential link partners?

Truth is, our current strategy has little to do with link building. As one of the biggest tech publishers in the world, we have tens of thousands of referring root domains and a backlink profile that is very unlikely to see any big changes in terms of referring root domains all of a sudden.

We could still focus on manual link building, reaching for opportunities to get a link, but doing that one by one wouldn’t make much of a difference compared to the additional thousands of links we already get organically every month.

Instead, here’s how we are tackling this issue to make sure that we still benefit from getting more links, but don’t have to do outreach manually to get links.

Ever heard of business development?

With over 300,000 referring domains (according to Majestic, as of August 2016), we have to make sure that our links are the highest quality possible. As of now, link cleaning is still part of our strategy and we invest a lot of effort in disavowing links that might prove harmful to our backlink quality in general, but it’s just one part of our overall strategy. To raise the quality, something else is even more important: business development.

Our main business objective is to increase our reach so people can get to know our company, our brand, and eventually attend one of our conferences or shop from one of our websites (Deals or Academy). Instead of focusing only on SEO, our link building strategy has to coincide with and support our business goal.

So why not start focusing on getting the quality from the traffic or the opportunity itself, instead of the quality of a link? We all like having mentions from the New York Times, but what if such links aren’t relevant to your business or industry? Believe us, a referral from a leading publisher within your specific industry will give much more credibility to your links.

On average, we publish around 30 to 40 articles per day, and our editors always strive to deliver quality content along with the freshest tech news. That by itself attracts high quality links from other top publishers. Publishing quality content and tech news has not only become our top priority, but is also the very core of our business. We make a conscious effort to hold our articles to high quality standards, curate the best content to our website, and bring only the most relevant and accurate news to our audience. In doing so, we ensure that our posts are link worthy.

Needless to say, we also owe much of our success to the insightful perspectives our writers offer, the incredible speed with which editors deliver the hottest tech scoops out there, and– last but not least– the invaluable loyalty of our audience, who choose to inform themselves about the latest tech news from us and not from one of our competitors.

How does that make it business development?

“Business development (BD) comprises a number of tasks and processes generally aiming at developing and implementing growth opportunities within and between organizations.” Although this is a quote from Wikipedia, it perfectly captures the fact business development focuses on growth opportunities that might not always be focused on a financial goal.

So when you focus on getting the monetary value out of links (traffic, conversions), it will eventually contribute back to the company’s goals (revenue/profit, or donations if you’re a non-profit. Something that your C-level is more passionate about compared to the number of referring root domains, I guess.) Because influencing the company’s end goals should always be the end goal as SEO and is often forgotten, you’re trying to move the needle for the company in general not only for SEO!

Process, processes, learnings, etc.

For everything you do, you need a process at some point. Without a process you’re blindly running around achieving nothing in the end. So once we found out what worked for us, we created a couple of steps to make sure that we know best what we’re going after:

1. Research (AKA What is the opportunity? Who could be interesting partners to work with?)

It’s relatively easy to go for the small blogs in a particular industry to see if they would be interested in putting a link somewhere to our project. But why not go for bigger publishers in a certain industry and see what kind of opportunities we have around our data/content to work with them more long term? We can provide great, mostly unbranded content, and they get great pieces with a lot of research behind them for their site.

Here’s how we start doing our research:

  1. We use our own network of people that we know and ask, “What industry blogs do they have connections with?”
  2. Based on these industry blogs, we find some top x lists that include these sites, then check out the rest of the list to catch websites we don’t know yet
  3. We use tools like Buzzstream Discovery to find blogs industry sites that are linked to certain keywords, for example: tech investments, tech IPO, etc.

2. Reach out to the right person

Sending a highly targeted outreach email to an email address like info@example.com is not really the way we want to try to start a partnership. Instead, we find the highest person in the organisation responsible for either the content/editorial direction, or other the marketing/partnerships person.

The ideal is find this information on the Contact or About page on their site. When this is not the case, we usually go with LinkedIn search. Try to find the people at the organization and by using their title + description hope they’ll be the best person to reach out to. But also be honest in reaching out to them that you don’t know if they’re the right person to talk to. My favourite line still is: “I’m not sure if you’re the right person to help us, if not please let me know who would be best to contact instead.” This provides some sort of clarity to the person that you’re at least a real human being and don’t want to waste their time (or your own).

3. Analyse + Learnings

After we establish a relationship with a partner, we try to work on getting some great content / data their way to see what we can leverage for a great blog post. Afterwards, looking at the traffic data + shares, we get some good insights into what worked and what didn’t. In working with them over time we can then adjust the content for future releases and improve the results.

For example, if we see that a certain post did only a couple of hundred page views, that usually isn’t enough for a data driven + resource driven post like this. So we’ll be looking into ways to make it more clear what the content is about but also think about the traffic strategy. Did we help enough in promoting the post from our own network and what did the partner do? Usually by asking questions like this you come up with a lot of good new ideas that can help you drive more traffic and improve the quality of the content.

4. Keep creating content, especially for partners

Since these relationships are partnerships, and not a one-time thing, we like to work more often with our partners to get eyeballs on the content that we’ve created. That’s why we keep creating content for our partners with insights that we we gather every quarter. One partnership may not earn us a link, but multiple partnerships in very good places can bring a lot of eyeballs on content that we’ve produced.

In our case that means we’ll be working with them at least on a quarterly basis to provide them with interesting content that we gathered during that timeframe. The other end is that the content + data we have available will be used by our own projects like The Next Web as well. Internally creating better partnerships is for large organizations also a way to go.

TNW’s process in action

Index.co is one of the projects that we launched recently. Index follows thousands of tech companies and startups on a daily basis to track their coverage and the metadata. Such information can come in handy to media folks, early adopters as well as prospective investors.

So looking at it from an old perspective, we would focus on bringing in all the links from other tech startups, do a bit of badges to bring in the ego bait for the link building campaign and that’s it. But honestly, you really don’t think that still works in 2016, do you? Why not focus instead of creating (big) content that would also leverage the data from the startups that we gather? Content like overviews of the biggest trends in startup world, what industries companies are investing in or the highest growth rates in certain regions.

Another question we asked: What kind of events in a year would be interesting enough to share data for from all that we have on Index.co? Every bigger public company is required to present quarterly results. So it feels like a good excuse to lift on that news.

What we did is released quarterly overviews of investment data for countries + regions. We didn’t even have to turn it into an infographic (luckily) to make the data interesting for the outreach we did. By getting in touch with tech blogs/publishers all around the world, we made sure that they would get insights and interesting numbers about the investment trends in that quarter. As mentioned before, our goal wasn’t to get links, but to get exposure to people who are interested in our project, hoping they’d click through and eventually, hopefully, sign up. And that’s what it looks like to prioritize relevant traffic instead of link juice.