The Ultimate Guide to Outreach Link Building

how to build backlinks via outreach

Welcome back to Smash Digital’s weekly content series, where we give you actionable SEO strategies and tips that you can implement today and start seeing results.

If you’ve read some of our previous newsletters from this series, I reckon you can already call yourself a link building expert at this stage – as long as you’ve put in some practice.

Don’t think you’re quite there yet? Today’s lesson takes a bunch of what you’ve already learned in the last few weeks and ties it all together with key principles.

Time to learn: 10 minutes

Impact (1-10): 10

Tools required: None

Tools suggested: Ahrefs, MailShake

Now, let’s get to it…

What Is Outreach and Why Do I Need It?

“Build it and they will come” has got to be one of the biggest lies in business.

It doesn’t work for products, it doesn’t work for services, it doesn’t work for content marketing, and it DEFINITELY does not work for link building.

You could have the most kick-ass, unicorn-filled linkable asset on the planet but if you’re not able to get it in front of website owners who have the ability to link to it… Absolutely nothing will happen.

That’s the exact problem outreach solves.

Outreach is the process of reaching out (wow!) to website owners to let them know about a resource (linkable asset) that you’ve created.

It’s the most important part of the majority of link building strategies out there.

Whether you’re doing broken link building, guest posting, or promoting an infographic – each of them involve getting in touch with a website owner.

Roughly, they all follow the same formula:

  1. Identify reasons webmasters link out to websites in your industry
  2. Choose a proven topic and type of linkable asset
  3. Make your content asset better than what is out there
  4. Get in touch with website owners who have covered the same or similar topics
  5. Let them know about your content (aka ask for a link)

We’ve already covered the majority of these in our previous pieces.

Most recently, we talked about why people link out to other websites and the most common linkable asset types.

Right before that, we taught you how to find anyone’s email address.

What’s the missing step? Actually reaching out and going through whatever negotiation necessary for getting your link placed.

That’s exactly what we’re going to cover today – everything you need to know about crafting the templates, sending the emails, and negotiating the links.

Let’s get started.

Prospecting

The results of your outreach campaigns are massively dependent on the quality of your prospecting.

It makes sense – if you reach out to unrelated companies or even the wrong people at a company, they either won’t care about your link request or won’t be able to do anything about it.

There are four main ways we do prospecting for outreach campaigns.

  • Reverse engineer competitors backlinks

This is the simplest and most effective way to go about things.

You should be choosing a linkable asset topic and type because you’ve seen other people get good results with that.

If you’ve followed our advice, you’ve also made your asset better than theirs.

This means you can simply use Ahrefs’ Site Explorer to see who has linked to their piece and export the list.

Want to take it a step further? Find other assets on the same topic and repeat the process.

  • Ahrefs Content Explorer

Done stealing your competitors’ links? Good.

If that wasn’t enough, we can use Ahrefs to find prospects they’ve yet to hit.

Ahrefs Content Explorer is basically Google but for SEOs.

They have a huge index of web pages but unlike Google, they also give you access to a ton of useful data and filters.

Simply type in a keyword that’s related to your linkable asset and you’ll see an insane amount of related articles.

Let’s pretend our linkable asset is a “packing checklist” for travel.

I’d do a search for all pages that have “travel tips” in the title and set some basic filters:

  • Page must be in English
  • One page per domain
  • Live pages only
  • Minimum Domain Rating of 27 (feel free to adjust this)

ahrefs content explorer for link prospecting

In just a few seconds, we’re presented with over 5,000 live, English articles that have a decent Domain Rating and might be a fit to link to our packing checklist.

It’s not overly tough to convince someone talking about travel tips to add an extra paragraph to the end of the post, reminding them to double-check everything before heading to the airport.

That’s where your checklist comes in.

This is as easy as link building is going to get beyond buying links. If you’re going to be relying on this for your results, reading some sales books and sharpening your skills on that side will definitely come in handy.

  • Google for “Best X Blogs

If you don’t have access to Ahrefs or simply want to extend your list even further, you could just do a search for “best travel blogs” and go through the results.

For most industries, you’ll see a bunch of listicle posts and by going through those, can end up with 150-300 of the best blogs in your industry.

Pro tip: Put each of these blogs into Ahrefs Site Explorer and click on “Competing Domains” to find even more similar sites.

using competing domains to find competitors

Boom! One domain turns into 50 new ones. Rinse and repeat.

  • Use Advanced Search Operators

You don’t have to use our “travel tips” angle for your outreach campaign.

There are literally thousands of different types of pages that might be willing to link to a packing checklist – ranging from backpack companies and passport covers to travel agents and hotels.

If content explorer isn’t doing the trick, Google has a huge selection of “advanced search operators” that you can use to make your queries more specific.

Not only do they make SEO easier, they’ll probably raise your IQ by at least 5 points in the next year. ?

These include: 

  • Using quotes around your search query to make it “exact match”. You’ll only see queries that feature these words exactly as they are.
  • OR let’s you search for two keywords at once. Show results if the page mentions “packing” OR “travel” tips.
  • Intitle: shows pages that contain your query in the title of the page

There’s a myriad of these and by combining them, you can do some pretty amazing things.

Check out this guide by Ahrefs’ on 42 different search operators.

Research and Prospect Preparation

We are way more likely to respond (and link) to people and websites that we’re familiar with or even feel like we’re familiar with.

One of the best ways to get on someone’s right side is to show them that you know them and what they’re about.

Read some of their most popular as well as most recent articles, understand what they’re about and what they’re against.

Look at the type of content they usually link to and share on their social media and look for themes on that side of things.

Anything personal goes a long way as well – whether it’s knowing about their most recent product, a vacation they took, a conference they addended, or a tool they’ve been raving about.

You need to demonstrate that you care and know them.

Another tip is to try and get them familiar with your name and business.

For high value prospects, our team will do this at least a week before starting the actual link building campaign. There are a lot of strategies you could use to do this, just be creative.

Some of the most common ones we use are:

  • Sending an email – this should be non-promotional. Could be a suggestion to improve their site, a compliment on an article, recommendation for a tool, an interesting thought about the industry, etc.
  • Follows, likes, and engagement on social media – most people actively check who follows their accounts, whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or elsewhere. Ensure you follow them, leave a few thoughtful comments if possible, like posts, retweet, etc.
  • Subscribe to their email list – again, if they ask a question at the end of their autoresponders asking a question or for suggestions, make sure to reply and have a proper email signature.
  • Buy products – now this is a bit extreme but if it’s a high-end site, it may be worth it. Some SEOs would pay thousands of dollars for the highest quality links. What if you could get a step closer to connecting with these people by buying a $9 eBook?

Crafting Your Outreach Template

Before we get into tips regarding the template itself…

The quality of your linkable assets will still make or break these campaigns.

You could have the greatest template in the world, use the right software, and follow all the best-practices… But if the page people are supposed to link to is mediocre, low-quality, or untrustworthy – it’ll all go to waste.

Start with a page that is actually link-worthy and all of these other tips will have a 10x multiplier attached to them.

The Perfect Outreach Email Subject Line

We’ve done an insane amount of split-testing around subject lines and the truth is, there’s no one magic formula that works for all outreach emails.

What works in one industry, might flop completely in another one so you’ll want to try several approaches and split-test them.

Here are a few general principles that we like to follow and see good results with:

Keep it simple – Some of the best (and most consistent) subject lines we’ve seen get good open and success rates are super simple. Some examples would be “Quick question?” or “Travel checklist?..”

Create curiosity – This is one of the reasons that the simple subject line “Quick question?” works so well. It makes you wonder whether it’s a potential customer, partner or something else important – not just another ask.

Get creative here – this is one of the most powerful factors here.

Mix it up – This one will depend on whether you’re focusing on quality or quantity. If you’re sending out thousands of emails every week, you’ll want to mix up your subject lines regularly to help avoid the spam folders.

Keep them short – I don’t really have a theory for why this works but numerous case studies as well as our own (anecdotal) data show that shorter subject lines tend to work better.

Let’s blame it on the modern attention deficit disorders…

Study spam triggers – While email service providers are getting smarter and smarter with their spam algorithms, the basics will go a long way when it comes to increasing your deliverability.

Start with this list of email spam triggers which includes words like:

  • Earn extra cash
  • Make money
  • Opportunity
  • Incredible deal
  • Dear
  • Click
  • Score with babes (wait what?…)

Don’t be TOO specific – It’s amazing what you can do with modern outreach tools, web scrapers, and spreadsheets. While it may be tempting to put their most recent article or the exact page you’re reaching out for… Avoid this.

Being too specific with things, perfect capitalization of titles and other details like that simply scream “automation” and will guarantee you ending up in the trash folder.

Avoid fake conversations – I’m sure you’ve received emails that start with “Re:” and opened them up in panic, thinking you’ve missed something important…

Yeah, don’t do that.

Writing The Email Itself

Once you’ve warmed up the people you’re going to reach out to and spent time crafting an effective subject line… It’s time to get to the meat and potatoes.

Similarly to titles, if I just give you an exact email template to follow, it’s not going to last very long.

  1. It’ll get ineffective as webmasters keep getting the same email
  2. Service providers will start putting it in spam, fast

So we’re going to focus on key principles and rules you can follow to create your own templates.

Use their name – Keep in mind that you’re dealing with real people who are taking time out of their day to work, clear out their inboxes, and do productive things.

Make sure to use their actual name to grab their attention and try to connect with them as a human – not just another item on their to-do list.

What if you can’t find a real person or their actual name? You should still reach out but just keep it generic. “Hey there” or just “Hey” both work fine.

Avoid any kind of spammy titles and stupid jokes – these almost never work:

  • Webmaster
  • Admin
  • Website owner
  • Dear Sir/Madam (cmon)
  • Fellow growth hacker
  • Bro (seriously, bro?)

Keep your email short – People are busy and no one enjoys dealing with email. Your email should be as short as possible, while still providing all of the necessary information (i.e. the other rules from this section).

One trick here is to break your email into two separate emails.

See the thing is, once people have responded to your initial email, they’ll be quite likely to answer again in the future instead of leaving you hanging.

With this in mind, you can shift the focus of your first email to simply creating some trust and getting a reply indicating they’re open to hearing you out and then do your pitch later.

Whether your emails are short or on the longer side, you have to make them skimmable. Use bolds, headings, and bullet points to emphasize your key points.

Use social proof and familiarity – The sooner in your email you can convince me that we’re in the same circles, on the same level, or that you’re a valuable member in the industry… The more likely I am to do what you want.

Those are the exact things you can use to establish social proof. Show me places you’ve been featured in that I would recognize, tell me you’re friends with someone I know, or that you’ve accomplished X in our field.

For super valuable prospects, you can even go the extra mile and get this social proof. Befriend someone who could make a direct introduction to the person, for example.

Give them a reason to link to you – You wrote an article about X and I also wrote an article about X, would you please link to me?” is not a very compelling pitch, yet we get these on the daily.

Whatever link building strategy you’re following, it should incorporate a solid reason for linking to you.

Some examples:

  • A statistic on your page is outdated and thus links to an outdated resource. I have new data that’d make your content better.
  • You can embed my useful infographic/calculator/widget to make your page more useful for your readers.
  • My page provides significantly more value for your readers than what you’re currently linking to.
  • I’ll promote your article on our social media and to our email list.
  • I’ll return the favor by linking to you from another site
  • I’ll give you… green papers. 🙂

Having a stupid reason is way better than having no reason at all. People are way more likely to comply when you use the word because. Check this Harvard study out and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Provide a specific outcome – It’s hard enough for me to figure out who you are and whether I should try and help you out… Don’t make me wonder what’s supposed to happen next.

Let’s say you’re trying to get a guest post. Finish off your email with a clear call to action.

“Just let me know if you’d like me to write something epic up for your audience too. As soon as you confirm it, I can get to work and have the draft in your inbox within 3 days or so.”

Have a professional email signature – Not only does a good looking email signature make people take you way more seriously, it’ll usually also establish more credibility and social proof.

We generally don’t add photos in there (seems to affect deliverability), but having your full name, job title, and links to social profiles are a great way to prove you’re real.

Create more than one template – As mentioned before, while there are general best practices to follow, it’s quite tough to predict which outreach emails will have the best success. Even after thousands of different campaigns, we see surprising results on a regular basis.

Experiment between a one-step and two-step approach – getting a reply first and then going for your pitch or doing it all in the same example. Try using different types of introductions as to who you are and why you’re emailing them. And of course, play around with various reasons and incentives for actually getting your link.

Triple check everything – This is probably the most important step. The amount of emails we get in with failed merge tags, wrong names, missing links, or simply unfinished content is astounding.

Before you send out an email, do several test campaigns with different names and websites, go through your grammar again, and test every single link.

Configure Your Email and Warm Up!

None of the above is relevant if your email accounts get flagged and everything ends up in the spam folder, promotions tab, or even bounce back to you.

Do the tech voodoo – There’s a bunch of tech stuff that basically makes your domain more trustworthy and tells email service providers, which emails are actually coming from you (instead of potential hackers or spammers).

This is one of the most important steps in improving your deliverability rates. Do a quick Google search on:

  • Configuring HTTPS on your domain
  • Setting up DKIM and DMARC for email
  • Setting up SPF records

Avoid free email providers – It probably won’t surprise you that the vast majority of email spam comes from @gmail.com and @outlook.com style emails – because they’re free for anyone to sign up for and the account creation can easily be automated.

This means you’re way more likely to end up in the spam folder when sending out cold emails.

You’ll want to use your own domain and again, set up all the tech voodoo we covered in the previous point.

Verify your outreach list – The worst things that could happen to you when doing email outreach include getting too many bounce backs/failed emails and hitting spam traps.

These are a fast track to getting blacklisted and permanently ending up in the spam folders.

Use a service such as NeverBounce to verify all the emails you’re reaching out to before actually sending the campaign. It’s super affordable, filters out all the garbage, and helps keep your sender reputation high.

Start small – When you first start out with outreach, your domain likely has no credibility in the eyes of email service providers.

This makes the success of your campaigns especially important. Each bounced email or someone marking the email as spam is going to have a huge impact on your long-term success.

You’ll want to start off small (30-50 emails the first week, scaling up 20-30% weekly) and focus on quality first.

We always start with highly personalized, high value prospects, and once the domain is trusted, go for a more scattered approach.

What Software to Use?

Most digital marketing gurus love doing product reviews and comparing all of these different tools.

Well, I don’t. 

The truth is that the vast majority of outreach and sales tools will get the job done so choose whatever appeals the most to you personally, fits within your budget, and has all the features that you need.

Here are some tools I’ve experimented with in the past and have been happy with, in no particular order:

Choose your poison.

Hell, if you’re only doing highly personalized emails at low volumes, you could even send them with Apple Mail or your usual email client.

How Many Emails Should I Be Sending and When?

The only time you should be worried about sending too many emails is when you’re just getting started – as mentioned previously, you’ll want to warm up your domain and work on your reputation before sending out hundreds of emails every week.

Beyond that, it truly is a numbers game – the more emails you’re going to send, the more links you’re going to acquire in the long-term.

In terms of sending times, your prospect lists are likely to be so diverse it doesn’t even matter.

They’ll range from 9-5 employees in the US, to side-hustlers working nights and weekends, and people on the other side of the planet.

Although it doesn’t make a huge difference, we generally stick to sending our email campaigns between 12 – 7:30 PM US time from Monday to Thursday.

Minor differences in sending times but I’d say Monday to Thursday, afternoon US time works best.

Send. More. Follow Ups.

While this is a sound rule to follow for outreach, it’ll also carry over to business, sales, negotiating your dream house, or scoring your dream date.

Sending more follow-up emails is the number one thing we’ve ever done to build more links.

While in any other case I would encourage you to keep following up until you hear a straight “no” come out of the other side’s mouth…

We’re going to be conservative and say you should be sending at least three follow-up emails for each campaign. You’ll just need to make 100% sure they haven’t already replied to you (duh).

The amount of people who will get upset over this will be minuscule but the amount of extra links you’ll get will make it worth it.

I’ll give you a business example to back that up… We once had a potential lead who filled out the form on our site but never actually answered our email afterwards.

Fast forward 16 follow-ups and 8 months – he replied back with “oh, sorry, I totally missed your email! Let’s move forward”. He signed up for our services and stayed with us for over a year.

That’s a pretty solid return on investment for sending out a few emails saying:

“Hey Mike,

Hope all is well!

Just wanted to check in to see if you got my last email? I know these things can get buried easily.

Best regards,

Travis”

Now, whether you follow up or not, you’re going to get a few angry emails at some point.

I mean like… Really bad stuff…

When you inevitably stumble upon someone like this, there’s a solid 50/50 chance that they are actually crazy. It’s best to reply once, apologize and say you won’t bother them again.

Then actually add them to your blacklist and never contact them again.

You could also choose to ignore them but we’ve seen quite a few people get vindictive when you follow-up and then don’t answer their angry, threatening letters.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What Happens if They Say No?

As mentioned previously, outreach truly is a numbers game. For most link building strategies involving outreach, you’ll be looking at a “success rate” in the single digits (except for guest post pitches).

The vast majority of people will not open your email, a good chunk of those who do, will not respond… and a few will reply back and say no, they will not link to you.

While it may seem counterintuitive, getting told no is actually better than not getting a reply at all because this means we can negotiate.

The number one thing you’re going to try and figure out is why they said no. Sometimes they’ll give you a reason right away, other times you’ll have to message them back and get some feedback.

You could send something along the lines of:
“Hey Mike,

Thanks for getting back to me!

Sorry to hear you’re not willing to mention our guide. We’ve put a ton of work into this and treat our content with pride so I’d love to get any feedback from you on how we could make this mention-worthy in your eyes.

Looking forward to hearing back!

Best regards,

Travis”

There’s a ton of reasons why people might say no and more often than not, you’re going to be able to counter them with a little bit of work.

In fact, oftentimes when I send back the email above, they’ll see that I’m real and “take things seriously” and link to me without any changes at all.

In the beginning you’re going to have to answer each of these emails manually and think through how to negotiate the link placement. Over time you’ll see that almost everyone who says no does so for the same reasons and this means you can write up an email template that can be reused.

For example, every time someone responds back saying they’ll link to us if we link back to them, it’ll take me 30 seconds to reply to them with a prewritten template.

I’ll tell them that reciprocal links (I link to you, you link to me) hold little to no value and could result in a Google penalty. Include some links to give them additional confidence and then propose an alternative:

“How about you link to me and I return the favor in a future guest post?”

Do this for 100ish replies for your outreach email and you’ll likely end up with 7-8 templates you can use in the click of a button.

Don’t lecture them. You can’t reason a person out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.

You’re going to get a whole lot of people who will give you a really stupid reason for not linking to you. You’ll feel that you’re correct, they’re wrong, and keep pursuing this…

That’s fine but do it in a super kind and peaceful way and if they don’t get the message in one or two emails, let it go.

Provide a better reason or incentive. If they say no to your original proposal you can find a way to make it more appealing to them.

Let’s say you’d originally proposed a guest post – now tell them that you’ve already done the keyword research and see traffic potential in the topic. Perhaps you’d also be able to include an infographic for them or commit to a large word count.

There’s always room for negotiation in these scenarios, you just have to figure out what would motivate this specific site owner and help them achieve that.

Have a plan B. This is another strategy that gets us a ton of extra backlinks with little to no effort. If everything else has failed for your negotiations, switch directions and go with a different approach.

They won’t link to your checklist in an existing article? Well, what if you propose a guest post or infographic for their site instead?

Still a no-go? Perhaps you could come up with some sort of (green?!) incentive that has been proven to motivate humans to do things throughout history…

Lastly…

Don’t beg.

It just doesn’t work – trust me, I’ve tried 🙂

That’s about all there is to know about outreach link building.

Let me know if you have any questions about this and I’ll be back with you next week with another actionable SEO tip.

Let’s Smash it!

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Karl Kangur

Karl Kangur

When being a chess prodigy turned out to be too demanding, Karl converted to being a marketing nerd. He loves to theorycraft and when he starts talking about SEO, he can't stop.
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