Thought leadership marketing and link building are in natural tension with one another.
On one hand, thought leadership marketing communicates that your company is on the cutting edge and has valuable insights that no one else does. It makes readers feel, “If I want to know what’s really going on, I need to keep track of this company.”
Thought leadership articles — usually as guest posts — lay out fully-developed arguments and complex ideas. Which usually takes more time than just putting together something quickly without much research or adding much value to the reader experience.
On the other hand, you want to scale your guest posting activities to get a lot of links fast.
So how do you balance the two to create highly valuable content while developing a system to get your guest posts featured on several blogs?
Maybe you can churn out a lot of guest posts, but creating truly valuable insights doesn’t scale so easily.
You can use this natural tension to your advantage and outperform your KW competition over the long run, if you are patient, can commit to real thought leadership (well researched content that adds value to the reader’s experience), and learn to work well with editors. The reward is links with much higher domain authority (DA), and eventually, you’re going to get over a hump where you can accelerate the pace at which you build these links.
So the effort you put in is going to be well worth it!
The general approach — which I provide a lot of detail on below — has five main principles behind it:
- Make yourself develop big ideas.
- Don’t go for scale. Go for efficiency.
- Have more patience than your competitors and get more rewards.
- Provoke conversations with prospects in the short term. Get high DA links over the long term.
- Aim to collect editor relationships. The measure of progress will be a slowly growing list of editors who recognize your name and open your emails.
The process below is what my team has worked on with our clients. As I’ve discussed elsewhere (on a high DA site, naturally), we’re often ghostwriting articles for them and establishing relationships with a growing list of blog editors.
For example, on my list is one tech blog with a DA of 90. Between myself and clients we’ve ghostwritten for, we’ve placed six articles there. The editor there has probably declined another 10 articles I’ve sent her.
But she always reads my drafts and she always answers promptly. And all those articles she declined have then been placed elsewhere.
More importantly, the articles that do appear, have produced immediate inquiries from prospects.
Bear in mind that this is going to be a process of several months requiring consistent effort. But the payoff is that the links you’re building will be very high DA.
Prep work — Developing Your Big Ideas
Before you start, you’re going to need four or five big ideas.
What counts as a big idea? At a minimum, it should meet the criteria that your first-year composition instructor in college gave you for a good thesis. It should make a strong claim, and it should be “arguable.” It must be something that somebody could reasonably disagree with. And the more surprising, the better.
The goal of a big idea piece is to publish something so amazing that a link is almost irrelevant, because some readers — the people who you want to be doing business with — are going to sit up straight in their chair and say, “I like how this person thinks. Where can I find them?” They are going to scroll immediately to bottom of the article to find your author bio and figure out how to reach out to you personally.
Question – What’s More Valuable To Me?
Think about it. Here I am writing this article. Once it has been published and you are reading it, what’s more valuable to me?
That my business page gets a little more link juice on a valuable keyword term so that I improve my chances of getting a share of that search traffic?
That I make a powerful impression right now on the highly motivated and well-informed readers of this blog that already has a lot of traffic?
In other words, your articles should inspire conversations. Think of links as a natural byproduct.
Aim high for the challenge of attracting people into conversation with you, and you are more likely to get high DA links.
Another rule-of-thumb for this kind of thought leadership content is that it should be something that you (or the CEO of your company) will proudly and eagerly email with a personal note to prospective customers.
More On Big Ideas
Where do you get big ideas? That’s enough for an article itself, but for now, remember this: During the hard work of developing your product or service, you have already formed some observations or strong opinions about your industry or market.
With my clients, we often start with the research they most likely had to complete in order to develop their product. That often prompts original insights or arguments of their own.
Why four or five big ideas? You want enough ideas ready to develop so you can keep the momentum going after your first article is pitched.
And if you have more than that, you are probably kidding yourself about how big the ideas actually are. If you have a list of ten ideas you are in love with, ask yourself what is the underlying big idea that connects several of them.
Once my team and our clients have the big ideas in mind, this is the process we use to start getting high DA links.
1. Start your guest post spreadsheet.
Give it two tabs labeled “Targets” and “Tracking.”
2. Organize your spreadsheet
On each tab, add these rows:
- Site name
- Contact name
- Contact info
3. Build out the Targets tab
I start by finding as many sites as possible in the field we’re writing about or in related fields. Some I’ll know just by reputation.
In other cases, I’ll search for target keywords. The sites where the best articles are already showing up are sites I can add to the Targets list.
The competition analysis results in LTP is useful here. For example, one of the KW targets we’re building links for on Nation1099 is “gig economy.” LTP gives this a KW competition metric of 58. That’s high for this project and so is going to require a lot of patience to rank for.
Here is what LTP tells me is on page one of Google for the term “gig economy” now.
Some of those sites may be very unlikely places for us to get an article published. A thought leadership piece in The Harvard Business Review would be like winning the Academy Award for my clients.
But I still put them all on the Targets list for now to investigate further.
Now pull up the same results for all the long tail results in your keyword research until you have 50-100 different sites.
Oftentimes you’ll find some high DA niche industry sites that you aren’t familiar with but that are familiar to your colleagues in engineering, design, HR, and so on. Great. Add those, too.
If I come across a site organically, I often add an example article from that site to remind myself later why I thought we would be a good fit as a guest there. In many instances, I will mention that article specifically in my personalized letter to the editor.
In the angle/ask section of my spreadsheet, I’ll make a note to myself or colleagues about which of the big ideas to pitch first at this publication.
I generally try to to confirm for myself at this point that the publication, in fact, uses guest posts, which is not always the case. Even if it doesn’t, leave it on the list and make a note, so your team knows not to research it again later.
Lastly, do you already have an existing relationship with any of these publications? If so, that gives you a running head start. Note that relationship in the progress column and add in the contact information.
When I have 50-100 publications spotted, I turn it over to my virtual assistant to find the other info we’ll need, such as contact info, contributor’s guidelines, and DA.
DA is a moving target. Every software tool has their own way of measuring that. You might choose to use the domain trust flow metric from Majestic SEO that’s built into LTP. The point is to stick with one so you have a consistent metric. Many tools have browser plugins, so you can see the DA when you land on the site.
4. Write your thought leadership articles
At this point, turn your four or five big ideas into actual solid articles that you would be proud to have out there with your name on it.
Aim for 800-1,000 word articles, since that’s the range for most places that take guest posts.
If your drafts keep growing over that limit, think of the excess as variations that you can use to express your big idea differently on different sites. But try to have one tight clear go-to expression of your argument.
Write these articles without thinking about the audience of a particular publication too much. We’re going to hone in on the audience a little later.
This stage is super time intensive, right? Remember, we’re aiming to do much better than most of the clickbait out there. We’ll find some efficiencies elsewhere.
But avoid diluting your big ideas with scaleable content production. The editors we’re going for don’t want anything repetitive and obvious.
5. Plant your links . . . if any
Your rule of thumb for thought leadership should be “links come last.” The article must stand on its own and be valuable to the reader if you never mention your company or what you do or are selling.
The surest way to avoid “being salesy” — and to actually have real thought leadership — is to forbid yourself from putting links in the article until it’s good enough to stand on its own.
Once the article is that good, then go back through it and look for natural ways to reference your company’s work.
If you can’t make an internal link fit naturally, don’t worry about it too much. It’s going to be in your author bio. And, remember, your article will be so great — and on a site with a lot of traffic and sharing — that people will want to find out who wrote it and talk to you directly.
6. Match an article with a target
Whew! Now that the bulk of the writing is done, you can go back to the process stuff.
From your target list, select a likely publication that makes sense for one of your big ideas.
If your patience level — or confidence — is very high, you might even go for that dream publication like HBR (Harvard Business Review).
Copy the relevant row from the Target tab and paste it in the first empty row of the Tracking tab. In the post column, note which big idea or variation of it that you’re going to pitch.
7. Revise your article
Now take a hard look at the original version of this article. Does it fit perfectly with this publication and audience?
- Maybe it needs more action steps in it.
- Maybe this audience is a little bit different and you want to revise the tone.
- Maybe you can refer to some of that publication’s previous articles on your topic.
- Maybe in the intervening week, your ideas about your big idea have gotten bigger or more nuanced.
- Maybe now that you are picturing your article in this particular context, it reminds you of other examples you’d like to include.
These aren’t a setback. These are opportunities to give your original article more reach. After all, you want to be able to use this idea in more than one place.
So do a Save As on your original article, customize version 2.0 for this publication, and give it a smokin’ new headline.
Make sure to note that new headline in the Post column of the spreadsheet.
Now you have two versions of one of your articles. Awesome.
8. Pitch the editor
Write your short, unique, to-the-point pitch email.
In most cases, you are never going to hear back from this publication, which sucks.
But remember, we’re playing the long game. Your goal here is to have more patience than your competitors and to get some momentum started.
Think of it as sales.
- A “No, thanks” really means “Not this time.” Now you have a relationship you can build on.
- When you finally get the first sale, it can be turned into recurring sales.
- Several sales act as social proof to help you start getting more sales.
It’s the same with thought leadership marketing. There will be a lot of unanswered messages, but the person who perseveres through that is eventually going to get the flywheel going.
The pitch itself needs careful attention, but the main point to remember for now is to personalize your pitch. Take the time to research this publication.
9. Revise the status column
Make a note of when you pitched an article so you know when to follow up and when to move on.
I usually go by a two-week/one-week reminder pattern. I send a follow up to a no response after two weeks. Then one week later, I mark it as a dud and go on to the next publication.
At that point, find another publication for this article, copy that info over from the Targets tab to the first empty row of the Tracking tab and look at the article again to see if it needs to be revised.
If so, you now have three versions of your first article. Awesome! As long as they are different enough that the editors genuinely are getting exclusive work, keep them all in circulation. Immediately go back to your Targets tab and find another publication to try.
I also start some color coding on my tracking tab at this point:
- White/no highlight = pitched and waiting for the first response.
- Yellow = answered and considering
- Green = accepted or scheduled
- Blue = live
- Red = rejected
- Orange = no answer
Because a rejection is really the start of a relationship, red doesn’t mean stop. It’s a red flag encouraging me to charge ahead. When my next big idea is ready, this is the first editor I’m going to email it to. And I’m going to customize it especially with this editor and their audience in mind.
With orange — no answer — I usually wait a couple months before trying again with a new idea entirely to that editor. It’s discouraging to keep trying places that haven’t answered, but I have gotten through on later tries in those scenarios.
Once your first big idea is out there and under consideration, match your second big idea with a Target, revise the article as needed, and get that into circulation.
11. Build off your first win
Eventually you are going to get an email saying your article has been accepted. Nice!
And the editor will probably say they have it scheduled for some distant date weeks or months away. Bummer!
But that’s just the way they work, and it can’t be helped. Say “Thank you,” update your spreadsheet, take that article out of circulation, mark your calendar, and keep the momentum going.
In the meantime, be a good citizen and share other articles from that publication on social media.
When your article does go live, promote it like crazy, @ing the publication on social media so that they see you are working hard on behalf of your article.
Add the article to your email sig line.
Make sure to mention the article in any pitch letters you send out going forward; i.e., “You can see my previous writing on this subject here . . .”
Where relevant, add in links to that article in the drafts you have in progress that haven’t been placed yet; i.e., “As I discuss elsewhere . . .”
Send the article to colleagues and prospects in personalized emails. Because this is real thought leadership, right? They are really going to get value out of this, so it’s worth adding it to their reading list.
Lastly, wait a week or two to let that publication see how much traffic your awesome article is getting them. Then hit ‘em again with the next big idea.
12. Reuse and recycle
Earlier I harped on how trying to scale up your guest posting efforts can lead to junk. I really believe it’s important to have a bias toward very high quality and fully developed original ideas, even if that limits how much you can scale your thought leadership marketing effort.
But eventually you can use some familiar recycling tactics to wring some of the last value out of your original articles.
Once you feel like you’ve exhausted your big idea and you’re not going to get any more high DA publications to take another article from you on it, go back to your list of Targets and find the publications with lower DA. For those, pull together some quick summary style listicles and pitch those to grab a few more links.
Now is also a good time to pitch yourself as a guest on podcasts, which usually have a low DA but lots of listeners and engagement. And you should think about conference presentations, slideshows, infographics, video, syndication, and the many other ways you can get your big ideas out there, some of which will get additional lower DA links.
13. Do you have any other big ideas?
The last step is to remember that the people in your organization continue to develop interesting new perspectives as they work in your industry and perfect your product.
So, without rushing it, you want to mine your conversations with colleagues for that sixth big idea and the seventh and so on. You want to keep feeding the pipeline with ideas worthy of the term “thought leadership.”
Because, if you are consistent with this pitch process, eventually you’re going to have publications that want your articles.
That is the real measure of success for this effort — a growing list of editors who will open your emails and websites where you can reasonably expect to publish any of your articles.
About the Author
Robert McGuire owns McGuire Editorial content marketing agency and is the publisher of Nation1099, a forum for professional freelancers working to grow their gig economy businesses.
Interested in doing a guest post for Long Tail Pro?
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I think when you are taking your guest post out of circulation after it is posted somewhere, it can go in many different ways. You risk burning some bridges if more than two sites accept your article and you go for the one you prefer, usually the one with a higher DA.
You can always offer them another article in the near future as that is the only way to maintain a relationship at that time.
This is why I always prefer to send different posts to different places. No need to navigate an uncomfortable situation if it can be avoided.
If you’re ever wondering how you can possibly get one over on your competitors – things like this are how. Almost nobody does things like this, and they’re insanely effective if you can pull them off.