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At carwow we recently raised series-B funding, so although it’s fair to say we have a little bit more money to experiment with these days, this certainly hasn’t always been the case.
We also know that we didn’t get to where we are by spending money unnecessarily.
No matter how big you get, it always pays to keep a hustler mindset.
Just like every other startup, historically we’ve been forced to be creative to make up for the reality of having a limited marketing budget.
In most circumstances this creativity involves scaling back initially grandiose content ideas into as simple (and financially viable) a form as possible.
We are always striving to do things better at carwow, but what follows is the general process we go through, from coming up with ideas in the first place, the content formats that have worked well for us so far, and how we go about getting the content out in the right places to maximise ‘virality’.
There are many other reasons to ‘do content marketing’ besides acquiring links for SEO purposes. For example, raising brand awareness with specific audiences and directly driving conversions. That is not what we’re discussing here.
There are also other means of acquiring links that aren’t traditionally thought of as content marketing - reactive PR, real-world PR stunts, brand partnerships etc.
However, none of these consistently offer as high an ROI in terms of links gained.
For the purposes of this article I am talking about creating, seeding and amplifying individual pieces of content that:
- Are fairly low cost to produce (under £1,000).
- Typically involve static imagery or very basic levels of interactivity.
- Are primarily designed to acquire unique linking root domains.
If your content is pointless, so will your promotion efforts be
Before we start to dive into the details, it is important to clarify:
- The content itself is always the most important thing.
Every other stage of the process outlined below is secondary to the elemental idea or message of your content and the underlying psychological / emotional trigger it pulls.
It doesn’t matter how many thousands of sites you send a friendly outreach email to, or what you spend on paid promotion - if the content itself isn’t truly ‘ooh’ or ‘aah’ worthy, it will not get shared. It’s as simple as that.
However, you don’t have to spend tens of thousands to create something share-worthy.
Again, if the concept itself has no legs, it doesn’t matter if it’s delivered in a single static graphic, or an elaborate, animated, interactive, augmented-virtual-reality-data-visualization.
I would also argue that in this ad-averse generation people are often turned off by something that appears too slick and over-produced. Look at your Facebook feed - people are sharing stick-figure ‘Be like Bill’ memes more than... well, all that other stuff they aren’t.
Another key rule is to not talk about your brand in this kind of content at all. Even if you believe your product is the best thing since sliced bread, no other website is going to host your content for free if it is clearly just an advert.
Always remember that nobody else cares about your company as much as you do.
What kind of content does get shared then?
For your content to find the most viral success it needs to:
- Act as social currency: Your content needs to help your target influencers and readers look good to their own peers. People share content that they feel makes them look cooler, smarter, funnier, more worldly, more virtuous, more knowledgeable, or simply just part of something new or exclusive.
- Tell a compelling story: Particularly if part of a broader social / political narrative; one that the sharer feels represents them.
- Trigger high-arousal emotions: awe, righteous anger, anxiety, fear, joy, lust, nostalgia or surprise. Many studies also show that positive, heart-warming content gets shared more than negative.
BuzzFeed sums it up well:
The things people like to share the most are things about themselves.
Okay, but where do we get the ideas to put through the above filters in the first place?
Coming up with ideas
1. Be your target audience
Quite often the advice dished out is to ‘know your audience’. I think you need to go one step further with this, and make sure you have people in your organisation who are your audience.
Take advantage of people within your company who exactly fit the profile of your target customers, and actively have them contribute ideas.
What kind of thing would they really love to see that they’ve not seen done before (or at least done well)? What sort of content have they stumbled across online that blew them away and simply demanded to be shared?
Taking this one step further: What content related to your niche or brand have they actually shared or ‘liked’ recently? (The proof of the pudding is in the eating!)
Even as SEO Manager of a new-car buying website, I’m the first to admit that I am far from being an authority on cars.
Like most people I can appreciate a nice looking ride when I see one, and as long as it goes from A to B without breaking down, that’s generally as much as I care to know.
Before joining carwow I couldn’t have told you an MPV from an SUV.
However, our CEO James Hind is an avid car enthusiast himself, and has made a point of building a content team who are self-ascribed car geeks who really know their stuff.
These are the people who come up with the best ideas, as these are the people who live and breathe this stuff.
Find those people in your organisation and get them involved.
2. Anonymous idea boards > structured brainstorming sessions
This is something we’re still working on at carwow, but I personally find that people come up with their best ideas when they are completely relaxed and free from pressure.
For this reason, structured brainstorming sessions often yield very little by the way of useable ideas.
Consider using an anonymous Trello board or Google Doc and encourage your most brilliant people to contribute their most outlandish and wackiest ideas wherever inspiration hits.
Make SEO & Content Marketing a company-wide initiative, and encourage employees to add at least one idea a week.
Hold in-person meetings only to prune this list down and decide which specific ideas you will run with, and when, over the next few months.
3. Target passionate and ‘exclusive’ communities at key moments
Instead of trying to make content that appeals to everyone and their mother, we’ve had our best successes when we’ve started our brainstorming sessions by first identifying passionate communities of people who congregate and interact online.
By so doing, you start with a self-identifying market of potential sharers who see themselves as part of an exclusive group.
Within that group every individual is trying to show off their knowledge and passion for whatever it is that connects them, and the easiest way for them to do that is by being first to ‘claim’ whatever they stumble across online, e.g. your content.
The key then is to find points where your product / service / brand, or at least the topics and issues associated with it, crossover with this passionate community you’ve identified.
We’re lucky in the sense that ‘car nerds’ are a passionate group all of their own, but if we only ever make content exclusively for car lovers we only ever get coverage and links from the same car sites.
On the other hand, it is important to avoid trying to shoehorn in a connection to any old trending topic as people will also see right through it.
We managed to toe this line quite well with one of our most successful pieces of content (in terms of links and shares), which was a collection of Star Wars themed car concept designs.
In the buildup to the release of The Force Awakens - key moment! - we commissioned an artist to imagine what real-life cars the characters of the films would drive, and how they would personalise them.
The results were fun, and looked fantastic, but they also took advantage of the fact that many of the same people who love cars also love Star Wars.
Because of this duality, we were able to get links from just as many generalist media sites (capitalising on the broader public Star Wars mania), as well as sites that write exclusively about cars.
Darth Vader’s mean looking Z4 - One of eight Star War’s influenced designs we commissioned
Of course, the launch of the first Star Wars film in ten years was the perfect opportunity to release this content.
However, on top of this we also made a strategic decision to launch the content well over a month before the film came out so we weren’t unnecessarily competing with all the other Star Wars noise.
1. Make it visual!
This is absolutely critical. You should always be trying to find a way to make your content more visual, even if that’s not how the idea first starts out.
People, generally speaking, do not like to read. This is particularly true when they are scanning their Facebook feeds on their commute to the office, and just want something quick to look at.
We also know that our target audience love to lust after images of cars, and then go on to discuss them in meticulous detail, which is why this format works particularly well for us.
The other benefit of visual content is that it crosses language barriers. If people are able to “get” your content without having to read an explainer, you’ll find links popping up in the most obscure places, and often this will start a new wave of coverage from sites in other parts of the world.
Don’t just whip up any old thing though
This has to be the kind of visual content that causes a “wow” reaction with your audience.
Work with truly talented people with plenty of previous examples of high-quality work. These artists don’t have to cost the world either - especially if you unearth a budding talent of the future.
Finding these artists takes effort, but by immersing yourself in design communities like deviantart or behance it is possible to find genuine artists whose work complements your brand and doesn’t swallow your entire budget.
Alfa Romeo Giulia in iconic Martini livery - one of the concept rally cars we’d love to see
A few other pointers:
- Brief the designers in detail. If you find someone really exceptional it is sometimes possible to give them a loose concept, let them run with it, and end up with great results. However, if you know your audience as well as you should, you will have your own very specific and valuable ideas, and will also be able to see it through the lens of a marketer.
- Make your pictures BIG! This gives your target sites the most flexibility to use them how they wish.
- NEVER use watermarks. People don’t want to share images with your brand name plastered all over them. Any sites worth their salt will always give you credit for your work anyway, including that all important link.
There is no doubt that creating content with interactive elements can help make it stand out and improve shareability.
Big brands with deep pockets can produce huge, data-rich, complex apps and platforms with unbelievable levels of interactivity. As a small company or startup, these kinds of things just aren’t a possibility.
A basic interactive content type that has worked well for us in the past is the almighty quiz.
People love proving to themselves how much they know about their passions, and even more importantly than that, they love to make sure everyone else knows it too.
Hint: It has nothing to do with one of them being red
This type of content spreads through social networks like wildfire. We’ve created a few different iterations of the ‘World’s Hardest Car Quiz’ which altogether have been taken around 400,000 times.
By framing these as the ‘hardest’ car quiz, we were able to add an extra layer of challenge and a stronger call-to-action, while also maximising shareability for those proud car geeks who want their peers to know just how well they did.
You can easily create quizzes for your site visitors using free platforms like qzzr, but you’ll see better results if you present it in a unique way that matches your brand with basic custom visuals.
There are hundreds of different content types out there besides images and quizzes of course, but the key things are:
- Is the point of the content easy to grasp almost immediately without the need for explanation?
- Is it easy for target sites to use and repurpose it? (The less work they have to do, the more likely they are to host it. This is why visual content works so well.)
- Does it provoke an emotional reaction? (Even if that’s just awe - “Wow, that looks really cool!”)
- Will it make the people who share it (socially, or by linking from their site) look good to their peers / readership?
Now, how do we make it go viral?
As an early stage startup you probably don’t already have a massive following of people eagerly awaiting your next piece of content with their itchy index fingers hovering over the share button.
You’ve already put a lot of effort into making something really awesome, but now you have to make sure people actually find it.
1. Email Outreach
This is the most basic approach, and one we all know well, but it is still the most effective way of getting your content in front of the right people.
Essentially, this is as simple as compiling separate outreach lists of target sites that are related to the community your content caters to, and then emailing them with a link to the content on your site alongside an invitation to share it with their readers.
This is still a fairly laborious process if done properly, however Buzzstream is a great tool that can make the process much easier.
Buzzstream allows you to easily maintain a database of contact details, track all historical correspondence, and create personalised email templates that automatically insert the contact / website name etc.
One downside of Buzzstream though is that it doesn’t allow you to embed images into the emails you send through the platform (*ahem* feature request).
Ideally you should also include at least one of the images, or a screenshot of your content header, within your initial email to help grab their attention without them having to click on a separate link.
Keep the email short and direct
There doesn’t need to be any pretence here. These websites need great content to keep up with relentless demand, and you need to give it to them.
Everyone in media, especially if they run a popular website, understands that this is a mutual exchange of value.
Be pleasant of course, but you don’t need to pretend to be their new best friend and follow some done-to-death prescribed outreach template “I really enjoyed reading your *insert random post* here.” Excessive arse-kissing will not work in your favour.
Your content should be great enough on its own. Let it sell itself.
Something that can work well is to offer your content to a handful of top-tier target sites as an exclusive for a short period of time (two or three days).
This can be an extra incentive for a site to share it as they will benefit from being first to the party.
Offer to send embed codes / hi-res images / a customised description
This is a great way to offer extra value and also make it as easy as possible for the target site to create something good with your content.
By not including these added extras in your initial email you’ll also increase the likelihood of getting a response from an actual person (with a personal email address you can then contact directly in future!).
Never pay for links
Even in 2016, you might get an email back from some of the sites you reach out to saying something along the lines of “if you want to do a sponsored post it’ll cost you £x”.
Any site that needs to scrape a few pounds on top of the free content you’re providing them isn’t worth your time anyway. If they’re asking you for money they’re probably also selling links to all kinds of other sites you don’t want to be associated with.
Google is smart, and the risks far outweigh any potential reward. Just ignore the email, delete the site from your outreach list and move on.
If your content is good enough (remember - nothing else matters!) you should start to see some links start rolling in at this point.
However, content promotion doesn’t end here.
2. Paid promotion
This is still a vastly underutilized tactic in my opinion. People still have the mindset that ‘non-paid’ traffic should be free. However, to see truly great results with SEO, you will need to be prepared to spend a little money.
The point of paid promotion is simply to help get your content in front of an audience that might then link to it, or at least share it with others who might.
No matter how much time you spend trawling through blogrolls or ‘best X blog’ lists, there will always be powerful and influential sites out there that you’ll never find on your own.
This is particularly true of sites in other languages to whom you cannot realistically compose an outreach email, even if you manage to find them in the first place. This again highlights why visual content works so well.
It’s always difficult to know exactly where relevant site owners and journalists might stumble across your content. For that reason it pays to push your content on as many platforms as possible.
Twitter and Facebook are the obvious ones for their massive audiences - but every platform has its strengths, depending on your goals and the kind of content you’re creating.
Overall, Facebook has been the most successful platform for us. It displays visual content really well in the News Feed, and of course offers highly specific targeting and massive numbers of highly engaged users.
Reddit is also often overlooked. Their users are very passionate and savvy - and if you deliver great content in a non-patronising way, without overselling it, you can see some truly great results.
Crucially, Reddit is also a place where website owners and journalists go to find breaking stories and new memes. If your content is good enough, and you pick a great headline, you might not even need to spend a penny on promotion.
A few extra tips:
- Keep your headline very off-the-cuff - do not overthink / oversell it.
- Tease at something unique & interesting, but don’t go describing it - let it speak for itself.
- Make it relatable for your audience, and make sure you put it in the right subreddit.
- We generally put a tiny bit of budget into paid promotion on each of these sites, and let the campaigns run for a week or so.
If your content is good enough, you’ll notice a lot more links start coming in on top of those already gained through your direct email outreach.
Our Star Wars cars content managed to acquire links from 91 separate linking domains with an average DA of 50, including Engadget.com, NYDailyNews.com, Designboom.com, Vice.com, Hypebeast.com & Highsnobiety.com, and was by far the most linked thing we’d ever done.
We eventually lost count of social shares (which admittedly is a nice problem to have), but until that point it had been shared over 70,000 times across various sources.
We also did a similar concept car design piece just a couple of weeks ago on ‘Modern Day Rally Cars We’d Love to See’, which is already our second ever most linked piece of content.
Super-passionate community: Rally car fans
Key moment: Build up to WRC (World Rally Championship)
In less than two weeks this content has earned 40+ linking root domains, again with an average DA of 50.
Of course, being specifically about cars, these linking sites are also highly relevant, and include many of the biggest automotive sites on the planet (and even some of our closest organic competitors!)
Backlinks are but one piece of a much larger SEO puzzle, so it is difficult to attribute visibility improvements directly to this strategy, but we’ve continued to see great improvements over the past year and a half:
Carwow.co.uk SEO Visibility taken from SearchMetrics
And that’s it!
Unfortunately there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to earning links through content marketing, but hopefully the above can inspire some ideas and help you form your own effective strategy that’s suitable for your brand / niche.