The Anatomy of Poorly Targeted Outreach

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Ladies and gentleman, let me introduce you to BuzzStream co-founder Paul May.

Whether you’re familiar with our company or not, you should expect to be hearing his name everywhere soon. With a diversity of expertise rivalling many of the Renaissance masters, Paul is a real life Most Interesting Man in the World.

Or at least, that’s what his inbox would lead you to believe.

See, just within the past few weeks Paul has been contacted for help hosting guest posts from fishing “experts”:

Promoting resources about pet adoption:

And for the piece de resistance: straight up being asked to promote some of BuzzStream’s direct competition…BY THE DIRECT COMPETITION!

Clearly these represent uniquely horrible attempts at outreach.

It may seem unlikely that there’s much to learn from this collective shitshow. However, we’ve seen many otherwise talented outreachers make some of the same mistakes.


Lots of reasons, but I see two more often than any others:

  1. Poorly structured prospecting searches
  2. Not taking the time to understand targeted sites

I’ll show you what I mean.

1. Poorly Structured Prospecting

Let’s use one of the resources our friends were trying to get the Golden God named Paul May to promote: a pet adoption resource.

At first glance I assumed that this outreach was just due to terrible prospecting searches leading to an irrelevant list. But the truth is, the person sending the outreach started off doing some things right.

For instance, it is likely that one of the ways the person promoting the pet adoption resource was sourcing link opportunities was by finding people who had written about and linked to other nonprofits.

One of those was almost certainly Goodwill (they’re pretty popular ya know).

From there, it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that they targeted people who had blogs that mentioned their local goodwill (perhaps taken as an indicator of strong community interest). At that point they’ve got a decent “root and stem” prospecting opportunity, as detailed in this older but still highly relevant guide to link building queries from Garrett French.

The specific prospecting search would be something like: “local goodwill inurl:blog”

So, let’s run it.


The first 28 results are all relevant, although admittedly if I was doing this for real I’d probably pull anything that Goodwill has written about themselves. However, sitting pretty in spot number 29 is our good ol’ completely irrelevant for this search term guide to building relationships nationwide.

The deal is, this would be tough to miss given the relevance of the earlier results. However, the irrelevant ones mean that sending to everyone on that list would make you look like a spammer.

Big time.

This problem can be partially fixed via a better structured prospecting search. In this case, adding another stem to make the search for “local ‘goodwill’ ‘guest post’ inurl:blog” improves the relevance of the results.

Advanced operators are a powerful tool (I’d recommend you check out Brian Harnish’s guide to advanced operators for SEO), but I’d argue that they are rarely sufficient for building a targeted list.

Enter the second major problem area.

2. Not taking the time to understand targeted sites

I’ll get this out of the way right out front: I believe there are cases where scraping a list and just spot checking the sites to make sure they are relevant will work ok.

I’m not saying that authentic personalization won’t help improve responses (it can and will). I’m just saying that in some types of campaigns people are at least ok with getting an email out of the blue with no context aside from the ask. An example would be when pitching an article to sites that specifically allow it.

That said, for most content-based campaigns, doing outreach without understanding and communicating site context will kill your results.

As Shane Barker mentioned in his post on connecting with influencers, “if you plan on building strong relationships with influencers, you need to do so with influencers who are relevant to your brand.”

Unfortunately, many marketers hear words like “relevance”, “personalization”, and “context” and file it away as another checkbox they need to fill in the fastest way possible. That misses the point, and more importantly…


Seriously, I’ve done the research (and will be publishing it soon).

The reason is, fake personalization is immediately recognizable. Influencers are absolutely inundated with emails that follow the nefarious template of:

“Hey [FNAME], loved your article on [X]. Great stuff! I just wrote a piece on [SOMETHING TANGENTIALLY RELATED BUT MAYBE NOT RELATED AT ALL].

When someone receives an email like that, they feel like they are being gamed. And because link building is not going anywhere, this problem of junk outreach will keep getting worse.

The trick is to reach out to sites that are contextually relevant – meaning that your ask is tied directly to site context and any personalization you include in your email.

Put another way by our pal Gisele Navarro over at NeoMam:

“Only email people you’re 90% confident will want to share your content.”

The only way you’re going to have that confidence is by actually reviewing the sites you’re prospecting.

Just for example, I’ll look at a modified SERP for “local pets goodwill inurl:pet” I’d search for if I was the person promoting the benefits of pet adoption I mentioned earlier.

In about three seconds you can easily screen out sites that are not relevant. For example, I highly doubt that the pub doing an expose on the lack of a pet in the Trump White House is going to be a great fit.

Whereas with just a minute of reviewing sites, I found one that I am very confident would be a 90% fit for the resource I’m providing because it’s positioned in the same niche and to the same audience, and has also demonstrated willingness to link out to other resources:

I certainly won’t claim that this method is faster than scraping a SERP or using a list building tool. However, I can tell you that taking the time to understand the context of the sites you’re reaching out to is:

  1. Going to dramatically improve the results of your campaigns
  2. Not nearly as complicated as some would have you believe

In the next few weeks I’ll publish a guide showing you an efficient process for building your lists through Google search queries, but for now I want to hear from you. How are you currently building your outreach lists? Are you vetting target sites? Why or why not?

By the way, we put together a guide on 21 hacks you can use to determine how to personalize your emails by campaign type. I’d recommend checking it out so you can see what sort of info you need to be looking for in the SERPs.


Stephen Panico

Stephen Panico

Stephen manages growth at BuzzStream and also ponders and writes about outreach strategies that he hopes are occasionally helpful. When he's not doing all of that you can find him trying to level up his home cooking or playing games of strategy and chance.


  • I get these all the time too. Sometimes I write back with a prospecting email, offering to help with their email campaigns. No takers yet, but they represent a potential customer base…

  • Some excellent points here. Always makes me cringe when I see examples like this, doesn’t help our cause as link builders. I spend a disproportionate amount of time on a prospect list as it is so important to get it right. If it is outsourced to someone that maybe does not have English as their first language then the subtlety of English can be lost and they miss the context (as we can see in the examples above).
    Looking forward to your next piece Stephen!

  • Hey Jason. Stephen is on vacation this week, so I’ll jump in for him. I agree that it doesn’t help link builders, but I think it also provides an opportunity for people who are doing it right to stand out. Sounds like you’re doing the hard work required to make that happen.

  • Ann

    This is spot on! I agree that the key to conversion is in fact taking time to understand the context of the websites being reached out to. Assuming the first list of prospects is clean with at least 90% confidence in terms of relevance, it would also help to thresh out disinterested contacts by asking a 1-liner probing question first and wait for their reply before pitching anything at all. This pulls a curated list of relevant+interested contacts.

  • Thanks Ann!

    That’s an interesting approach. What sort of probing question would you ask? Something generally related to the topic or more closely targeted towards the pitch?

  • Love this! I totally agree with your point on not taking enough time to understand targeted sites. It takes way more than a just a quick keyword search on a journalist or media directory, and ridding lazy outreach habits is the only way forward.

    I must say that I have personally fallen victim to being lazy when getting to know every single recipient, but it’s clear that when you actually take the time, you really do see a better return for results!

    Excuse the rambling haha! But I find it so ironic how list building tools actually take away the substance behind building real human connections through outreach.

  • Glad you liked it! It’s understandable that you’ve been “lazy” about understanding recipients, especially when starting out. It can be intimidating when you’re looking at a large list, and the temptation to just send to everyone at once is real.

    Unfortunately, it can mess up your reputation and won’t be effective. Quality outreach really does get dramatically better results.

    I’d add just one thing to your point: I actually think there are lots of great tools you can use to build an outreach list. The issue isn’t using the tools, but rather relying on them 100% when you really need to build context. The ideal tool will let you get a lot of the “necessary but not sufficient” information about a site so you can quickly weed out the ones that won’t be helpful for you. That way, when you do start visiting the sites to build context, your list will be smaller and more targeted than just running a broad search and scraping everything.

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