Link building is one of the hardest parts of SEO, and scoring really high authority links from major media outlets is like figuring out a system to repeatedly win the state lottery. So I’m sure you’re going to be fascinated to hear what my guest, John Hall, has to say about this matter.
John is an author, keynote speaker, and serial entrepreneur. His bestselling book “Top of Mind” is published by McGraw-Hill. John is the co-founder of Influence & Co., which he sold in 2019. Currently, he is Chief Strategist at Relevance, a growth marketing agency and incubator that he co-founded. Two of Relevance’s big investments are Calendar.com and Gabb Wireless. John was a recipient of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Best Emerging Company and was recognized as one of the Business Journals’ Top 100 Visionaries.
In this episode, John and I talk about influencer programs, realistic budgets and timeframes for link building, managing expectations, skyscraper content, and much more.
And now, on with the show!
In This Episode
- [00:20] – Stephan introduces John Hall, the co-founder of Influence & Co. and the author of the best-selling book Top of Mind.
- [02:09] – John shares some of his book’s key insights, including examples of a campaign or content piece.
- [05:07] – John explains how to create skyscraper content and how he got a writing gig for Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and other big-name media outlets.
- [10:00] – What is the importance of having consistent content?
- [14:40] – What is a touch-and-go strategy?
- [17:11] – John describes the problems between organic and paid media.
- [19:20] – How to be credible in your industry?
- [22:15] – John emphasizes the importance of showing value in your content to get rankings on Google.
- [32:06] – What influencer programs does John build for his clients?
- [37:32] – John discusses the importance of having naturally earned links.
- [40:19] – Does John do cold outreach?
- [43:33] – John emphasizes the importance of finding a good agency or creating your own internal marketing team.
- [45:41] – John elaborates his stand on AI-based writing and how it can differentiate you as a trusted source of information.
John, it’s so great to have you on the show.
It’s great seeing you, man. Good catching up.
We’ve known each other for a while now. I think very highly of you. I’m surprised that we haven’t had this episode already.
It’s okay. We’re here now; that’s all that matters.
Don’t tell him that. I know he’s cooler, but I don’t like saying it.
You’re both equally cool and awesome. If you could give a little bit of the highlights from Top of Mind. Why another book about influence, authority building, content marketing, or whatever? There are so many books out on these different topics. Why another one? What makes this one special and different? What are some of the key insights?
If you’ve read the book, there’s a combination of relationships and engaging people one-on-one when communicating with them in these moments, but the second half focuses on the content side. When I wrote that four or five years ago, or whenever it was, trust was starting to be a massive issue, like in the media politically.
That’s on the relationship side, so you see trust issues with relationships, but then also content when you look where Google was going with useful content, how they wanted things to be earned, and not hacked anymore as much. Top of Mind, this idea is engaging people and contexts consistently in the right way, at the right moments, and earning it so that they are drawn to you, whether in person or with your content. That’s what sparked it.
Track back to good things that happened to you and how they align.
I’m a big relationship person. I love content and content marketing, SEO, PR, thought leadership, and things like that. It was a way of one overall idea of Top of Mind engagement and marketing, withdrawing people to you naturally so they want to deal with you and buy from you, on both of those sides. Hopefully, that makes sense.
What would be a counterintuitive or surprising insight, case study, or data point from the book?
For me, when you track back to good things that happened to you and how they align around this strategy of Top of Mind. For example, we partnered with LinkedIn and got very involved in them with their influencer program and content side of things. When you went back, the beginning was just engaging someone with what we were doing with them on a content project.
That’s the non-content, just the human side of engaging and looking out for someone. They valued it. Then when the time came for a LinkedIn partnership, they thought of us at the time. But then, on this side of the content, we were creating really good content for a time, where we could stay top of mind with that person, so then at the right moment, the right thing happened, and it created a big opportunity.
I would say, for me, I love reverse engineering success or things. A lot of times, you’re like, “That happened because of this guy, this person, or this woman.” In reality, when you track many things, you’ll find similarities in your marketing tactics and relationships. What I found, and I talked about in the book, is that when I reverse-engineered a lot of the best things that happened to my companies, it had to do with this way of doing content and engaging people at the same time. It resulted in creating you as a magnet of opportunity.
What would be an example of a campaign or content piece that stands out for you that was either your own or perhaps a client’s example that you’d created for them, something that old school SEOs might refer to as skyscraper content, highly linkable asset, or something truly remarkable?
Thought leadership is educating people on how you can help them.
I think some of the good ones. I was doing this just to help people. I started speaking at a lot of events, and some of the organizers were so nice. I tried to draw attention to what they were doing, so I started making the conference list. It was unbelievable when I started doing those, and they were ranking. If you type in leadership conferences, I think you’ll still see one of my articles showing up or even entrepreneurship conferences.
I was simply trying to help people by educating them since I was traveling at the time. For us, thought leadership is educating people on how you can help them. We wanted to produce content, so we did a campaign specifically on those. It worked out so well that it was like I was getting in, but we were getting invited to every single conference and event, mainly probably because people wanted to be on the list.
That campaign was uniquely valuable because it created this like, “Hey, you helped out some people you thought were doing good, resulting in everybody wanting you at their event. I think that was cool”.
By the way, I just googled leadership conferences, and your article on forbes.com is number three. That’s pretty good.
We got to get some placements for it. We got to get it somewhere more. It needs to be number one.
That’s pretty good, though. That’s still pretty good out of 2,100,000,000 results, roughly.
That’s an example of one. I love stuff like that because, once again, you’re helping people in the industry position themselves as thought leaders by helping people get the right resources. I love that. That was a big win just because it helped relationships out, helped even my publication because it gets good traffic and stuff like that, in addition to positioning yourself as an industry expert.
How did you end up writing a gig for Forbes? That wasn’t just a one-off. You write to them weekly, right?
Yeah, I have for almost 11 years.
Yeah. I sold Influence & Co. in 2018, but part of that job was we were one of the largest providers of expert content and media. I was able to form some really solid relationships. I think people will ask me a lot of times immediately. They’re like, “Have you been able to form that many relationships?” It’s not rocket science and reality.
I’m from the Midwest. I was raised by two parents who are always about giving and looking out for others. When I went to New York and LA, everybody goes into the editor’s office, and they’re like, “This is how you can help me. Can you do this?” I would always go in and just be like, “Hey, what can I do to look out for you guys? What’s valuable to you?” And truly trying to help them.
I started getting a brand around those people who said, “Look, this guy writes consistent content, easy to deal with, but he’ll also look out for you.” As funny as it is, I’ve been the reference for many managing editors when they look for opportunities when their pubs go under.
One of the major sites got tanked search about, or their SEO value tanked. I called in a friend who specializes in technical SEO. He went up there and consulted them for free, helped them out, and boosted their traffic. They returned, like, “Hey, what do we owe you for this?” They’re like, “Nothing, I’m just here to help you guys.”
I love reverse engineering success or things.
I think there’s no secret. I went strong at it for 5-10 years after truly helping the media people out. It forms some unique connections, where I’m able to write in different places.
Writing for a place like HBR, or Harvard Business Review, is especially difficult because they have very stringent guidelines, they don’t take guest contributions, or there’s no slush pile you can even submit to, I don’t think.
You can, and it’s just very challenging. It’s one of those things. I think one of my last ones was 30 back-and-forth edits. It’s a little challenging.
That’s a lot.
They’re good people. I love my friends that have worked there and still do, but it’s just different publications. They’ve got different things that they look at. The more you truly try to get to know them, the more you can do that. But no matter what, when you go to some of the hardest publications to get in, it will be challenging no matter how well you know them or how good the content is. They have particular needs and goals with their content. You need to be a chameleon with that.
You’ve gotten clients and Harvard Business Review, and you’ve submitted articles and gotten those accepted. Is that right?
Yeah. There are not many at this point. The media outlets we haven’t dealt with. That’s been one of them.
Amazing. What’s a prestigious, really game-changing publication or submission that you got a client and maybe changed the course of their business even?
The non-content side of a partnership you can build is the human side of engaging and looking out for someone.
There’s been a lot of them. Even early on, I mentioned this to him the other day because I just ran into him. Wade, who started Zapier early on, got a dumblittleman.com. I remember being upset at the placement. This was early Zapier, but it ended up doing well now.
Zapier was already on a great track, but I remember looking at the results. I’m not saying that’s the pub to get into right now, but it was just a good niche product site for what they were doing at the time. It’s something that I’m always surprised by. That’s why it’s involved in relevance.com because the relevancy and sometimes these other factors can be game changers.
I would say that content marketing is one that we got a client in there years ago, and it was a game-changer for them. They were a little smaller and getting in the site there, but it was just the right topic and angle, and I ended up doing well. We’ve almost seen a big win in every publication, but it’s different. One client will not get that big win. Other clients will get a massive win. That’s why being thoughtful about your strategy is so important.
We talked about intuition earlier on. Trust guts on like, “Hey, this is what we’re trying to do.” Have faith in that and then focus on it. We had one today that gave notice that is legitimately going back and forth, back and forth, and you got to figure out what you want to do and own it.
That’s a lot of the problem. Companies just don’t own things these days. They want to jump from this to this.
When it comes to publication choice, I’m like, “Guys, quit being overly particular about every single pub you get in and be okay with getting consistent content that’s here.” I’m not saying content shots can do crazy content things, but don’t be so particular because if you are crazy particular and waiting for that big win, it’s surprisingly not going to be in the one.
I remember my first time getting TechCrunch, I thought the world would change, but it didn’t. I think it’s funny when people ask me, “What are the best pubs?” I’m like, “What are your goals?” I’m like, “No, what do you see the most results? It depends on the company.” That was a long way of saying it. Each one has some really good ones, but I’ve seen big wins and some of the ones I’ve mentioned, but a lot of them are search wins.Every single thing can be reverse-engineered. Whenever we reverse engineer an issue, it tells us a story backward and works back in our heads. Click To Tweet
I got one on CNBC that got 2 million views. I can’t even think of what actual business value that brought to me. It was cool from an ego standpoint, but I would say that when you get a solid search win, even if you are saying, “Wow, it’s still showing up in position three, after a while, I got more value out of that article than the one that got 2 million views on CNBC.”
Got you. What about Product Hunt? Because that could be a game-changer for a SaaS company? That’s not a traditional link that you would get. It would be more of an influence campaign to get on the radar of whoever’s influential to their product hunt to get the ball rolling, then you’d have to get a bunch of other people to upload it, and then maybe it takes off. Once you’re featured on Product Hunt and get enough visibility, that can be a game-changer for a SaaS business.
I think it’s funny that you mentioned that. I don’t know if you got me bugged here, but I suggested it with Calendar. We haven’t done product hunting in forever. And we need to get another one because that was four or five years ago. I said exactly that. I’m a fan of naturally earning.
People will be like, “That’s user generation.” I’m like, “Well, not.” I get it, but from the standpoint of the SaaS product. If you have a successful one, you don’t think that Google and Bing can look across and be like, “Oh, this is a company that did decently well on Product Hunt. We won’t value this because there’s an aspect of user generation.” No, I think that they look at that.
Be thoughtful about your strategy.
Once again, it’s like the trick. It’s not the trick, and it’s the, “Do I feel like a fast-growing SaaS company would do well like a credible one would do well on Product Hunt?” Yeah. AI, crawling, and things like that can figure that out just as I could. I think that it’s hilarious that you brought that up because I just mentioned that this morning.
I’m a psychic.
You are, dude. That’s creepy. It’s good, not in a bad way. It’s cool that you mentioned that.
It’s awesome. Speaking of bad ways, what would be a bad example of doing skyscraper content or a linkbait campaign that you would not recommend folks do? Maybe a competitor’s campaign example. If you want, even one of your own went sideways. I don’t know. Whatever pops into your mind.
There are a lot of caution flags these days. The most common caution flag is the touch-and-go content strategy. What I mean by that is that people will get all excited. They go for one month, two or three months, and then stop. I would rather be like, don’t invest. Legitimately, a really good friend was selling his company right now, which just naturally happened. That way, I wasn’t selling a friend.
It was one of those things. Part of me wants to be annoyed by how long the sales process is going to be. But actually, I respect it because they’re saying, “Once we decide on this, we’re in.” We’re not committing to a month or two, and we’re committing to a year or two. We’re going to be a little pain in the ass in the sales process. But when we do commit, we’re committing.
I respect that because, too often, we see people get excited. They’re like, “Okay, let’s do this.” We just had to come up the other day. We’re 45 days into a relationship, and they’re like, “We’re just not seeing the results.” We’re like, “What did you think was going to happen in the first 45 days?”
Companies just don’t own things these days. They want to jump from one thing to another.
What did you think was going to happen? They’re just like, “And I thought that these rankings were here.” I’m like, “But what showed you that?” They’re like, “And we were just hoping about this stuff.” I’m like, “And you just migrated your site and things like that.” I would say expectations and the touch and go the number one thing that destroys ROI in my area.
We deal primarily with people who want to own an industry and want to lead an industry. Commonly, I just mentioned Zapier. What they did there is that they identified, we’re going to be a leader here, and we’re going to go and create good content, earn it. We won’t do this touch and go, maybe try this, maybe try that. You see how influential Zapier’s content is. That’s a good example of how to do it as opposed to the touch-and-go because it’s just number one. I can tell you some hacks, and I can tell you things that get you penalized, but that’s the number one thing that screws people over in investment in this area.
When you talk about anything organic or earned media related, it’s much harder to track versus paid media. The budget tends to go toward Google Ads and not so much toward SEO, link building, and influencer marketing. I would have gotten that traffic anyway, or I think that probably came from our Sirius XM radio ads. It’s very frustrating.
It is, but at the same time, I just tell people why. I think you mentioned this. Those people are people that we’ve just stopped dealing with. That’s why right off the bat, we want you to be committed because people like you and others in the industry they’re going to find a way to make money. If you’re smart, you work hard, and you’re always trying to learn. In our area, you will find a way to make money.
It kills me when you spend time on a brand or an investment. Everything looks really good, but then it’s that touch-and-go thing like I said. I don’t even want to waste time with that. I’d rather say, “Hey, guys, let’s save you the money.” If you truly believe in paid, focus on paid, and do your paid thing. I tend to like the people who are like, “Look, I like paid or something like this, but I also believe that organic and paid to interact together in this harmonious way, where if I do them both well, they’re going to play to each other.”
I was talking to the same friend that I mentioned earlier. What’s the amount you’re paid that is going to increase? I’m like, “Okay, do you need me to give you data?” Because I can make up some BS data and say, “Hey, there’s 50% of this, whatever.” But when you search, how often do you see the paid, and then you look in the first three organic results—and what do you do when you see the paid in one of the first two positions?
Do you think they’re more credible? They’re like, yeah. I’m like, and there’s your answer there. I could give you all the data that I made up or that I got from a friend who made that data. But in reality, it is very straightforward that if these two things play together well, and you believe in that, then you should say, “Hey, it’s going to help us. I know it will help us, so it makes sense for this to work together in this way.”
That’s where if somebody has been on the paid side, they’re like, I want to apply everything that goes to paid into organic. I think this won’t work because they’re almost two different languages. They work well together when you put them together in the right way.
How do you deal with expectation setting with a new client or prospect in terms of timeframe, budgets, and the kinds of links, mentions, and PR hits that they get? What’s your spiel? What’re your expectations look like?
I told you I like reverse engineering. Always starts with, “What does success look like? What is true success?” If somebody’s like, “Oh, success looks like getting this publication.” I’m like, “Wrong answer because that’s a means to getting somewhere.” I’m great, and I love that you said that because we can make that happen. But at the same time, when you’re truly trying to do what I just said with the commitment to industry leadership, it’s not just about getting a publication or something.
You say, okay, what is success? Let’s say they said credibility with getting in those. I’m like, okay, great, so you want to be credible in the industry. Why? They’re like, okay, I want to be credible because when we’re selling people, a lot of times they’re looking at us, and they compare us to this. Great. We should get an article out there that is published that explains the differences, which will help your sales team convert in that case.
You’re going to be a leader, and you’re going to go and create good content and earn it.
That would be an example of reverse engineering. You’re saying, why are we doing this? We’re doing this PR placement. How many do you need? Each month, you’re going to be having your sales team nurture. We’re at least going to get one PR hit a month consistently. You have sales assets to engage people throughout that.
The next thing they might say is we also want to start showing up for these terms. They’ll say it’s tough, and their competitive terms are great. These people are straight-up link-building. We can look at that and say, okay. They’ll be like, “We can’t, there’s no way we can get that many links.” That’s when I’m like, “Okay, that’s where I differ.”
In the old days, somebody could have a thousand links. But if you have the right placements and naturally earned stuff, you can outrank them these days or the right setup. We say, great, let’s not be scared of that, but here are the things we can put in place to go after those competitive terms.
Every single thing is a reverse engineering thing to me. If you can do that, it almost tells them a story backward and works back in their head. They’re like, oh, this is how we get to what I want. Because if you don’t do that, people just say, I want this. Whether you do that or not, you’ve accomplished it for them, and they don’t get the result they want because you didn’t talk through that, or you get exactly what they want, or you struggle because they don’t understand the process, and they just want it to show up. Those are the two challenges that you got to work through.
Reverse engineering, walking through the steps to get there, setting expectations on a timeline for those steps, and then saying on both sides, here’s why you and I are on our side, here’s what we need to do. In reality, every great team has a reciprocal relationship. I think that once you have those things in place, you can have a healthy relationship,
On the unrealistic side of things, if the expectation is to start seeing some results from link building and influencer marketing in three months or less, or to have only a budget of, let’s say, $5000 a month. What do you tell people, then?
A couple of things. We just did this. This has worked out pretty well. We separated it and created a sister company for budgets specifically in that realm.
The realm where the three to seven, where somebody’s like, I want to be an industry leader, and you’re like, okay, that’s our signal first to tell people like, look, for this budget, you are not going to be an industry leader in this. However, we have a sister company that does this. They focus on these types of budgets, know how to maximize the value of these budgets, and they know how to set expectations.
Every single thing is a reverse engineering thing. If you can do that, it tells us a story backward and works back in our heads.
That’s a nice step we take because a lot of times, if you’re with your salespeople, they’re trying to just get a sale, and they’ll try to fit that company in just because they need it. In reality, as soon as that happens, you have a company that trains salespeople to set expectations. When they come in from this route, they know that when you’re in this budget, these people need to be talking to them because it’s a different thing.
If you keep them in the same company, here’s what happens. You start on a $20,000 budget, land on $5000, and no matter what was happening between this $20,000 and $5000, they forget totally and think they should be getting the $20,000 results for the $5,000 budget. That’s why we made that change because it’s almost a reset.
Let’s say that in the first three months, you can’t show value from the standpoint of immediate search rate. Occasionally, you can. Let’s say you’re trying to get them on a speaking list. Sometimes we’re getting people to show up for this speaker. You could get that to show up if it’s in a third-party publication in the first couple of months. You could get them in an authority pub that’s a top speaker, and then you build some links to it. That’s something that could happen.
Those are rare campaigns where you can immediately be like, look, here’s value or search value. If I’m being honest, when those people are like, I want to see something sooner, it’s almost like a trust thing. You have to do something that earns their trust so that they give you the time that you have runway to do the value that you want for them.
I’ll give you an example. One person we were working with they were finding the sales process. But in reality, as soon as you sign on, they’re like, what’s going on in the first two weeks? We haven’t seen any rankings go up in the first two weeks. You’re just like, okay. You could tell that was coming from the CEO, who was not on any calls and wasn’t involved in the sales process, and they’re putting a lot of pressure on that person.
I’m not mad at that person. I’m not saying they’re crazy. It’s a common thing where somebody not on the call comes in. Then we find out that that CEO legitimately had a crush on this publication that he’d always wanted to get in. We just said, look, let’s get them in here. Even though we don’t think this is valuable on ROI metrics, and there are better points to get out there, let’s do this.
It’s funny that we were able to get him in there, and the CEO was so thrilled. He was like, oh, I love these guys, they’re doing great work. You’re like, okay, even though it doesn’t align with the actual. But, it bought you the trust and the respect from the right person over there that trust barriers were down, and they were more committed to the right moves, and we were able to get that form. Then you see good results when you get on the right path, but that was an example.
I thought that publication was a game-changer for them, but no. It was an ego play to make the CEO feel better so that we could earn the trust. Once trust barriers are decreased, then you can do a ton of stuff. In the PR realm and the SEO realm, there are so many trust bearers because there are so many shady players out there. We’re going to run into that a lot, and we have to walk into that knowing that.
In the PR realm and the SEO realm, there are so many trust bearers because there are so many shady players out there.
How much runway do you typically need? Are we talking 12 months, 18 months, or two years?
It depends on the goal. If you are trying to show up for Calendar because we show up in the top three or four for the term calendar on the internet, yeah, that’s not going to be something in four months, six months, or eight months. We’re good at what we do, and it took us about 14 months, maybe 12, I don’t know. In reality, there are two to four million searches a month on there. That’s different.
If you’re trying to show up for something more specific, you can do something between three and six. Typically, I tell people if they’re just doing a one to two-month campaign, it’s not worth it unless it’s like that, speaking examples. If you type in keynote sales speakers into Google, keynote sales speakers with a pearl, that’s one that was a placement that showed up naturally earned PR, but then once it showed up, we built some placements to it. It shows up in the top three.
It’s a marketing insider group article. That would be an example. To get that ranking, it was just a couple of months, and it brings in thousands of dollars in revenue because I get a lot of books speaking of it that way. That would be an example of some, where you could do that depending on the word and the keywords in less than three.
I would say a minimum of three to six for some things are easy. Six to twelve that starts being medium. If it’s competitive, you got to do your type of things. If it’s something super competitive, two years. I know that’s a scary number to say, but I’m just being honest.
It’s important to know that what you’re getting into is a long game. If the client is not on the same wavelength or singing off the same hymnal, you’re not going to have good results, and you’re not going to have a good relationship.
That’s why I like a little bit of the topical authority metrics that are coming into play, like the idea that Google grants. I’m sure someone knows about topical authority. But to dumb it down, the idea that Google being an AI and all these crawlers, are identifying trusted sources for specific topics, I believe, and I think you should. It will allow you to dominate things quicker once you build that up.
I’ll give you an example, Relevance in particular. I just did this as a test. Once again, I told you, Stephan, we A/B test all the time. Everybody tries to say, well, I know what Google is, I know what Bing is, I know what they’re all doing. I’m like, no, you don’t. I’ve been in this world for a while.
We have ideas. You’re one of the people that I trust, but there are a lot of people that come out with crazy ideas. I’m like, and I’m going to A/B test that. This is one where when we acquired Relevance. They had topical authority in certain areas. We did not create any content about specific publications, but we got a publication list. If you type in technology publications into Google, see what comes up. Is the Relevance article show up?
That’s weird. It shows up even in incognito and then in ahrefs.
It was the featured snippet, and I looked below it.
Did you miss the snippet? Come on, Stephan. There you go. That’s an example. It was like that in the first month or two. That’s where the topical authority is. We’ve earned that from the previous work on Relevance into the topical authority that was created, where the idea that we can show up on something like that within 60 days and stick just shows you that it’s worth the investment to build it up. Because when you do want to target something, that’s extremely valuable that we can do that and get something a lot quicker.
If we were a new site doing that, it would take six months or two years. Not that crazy competitive term, but it’s something that if you don’t have topical authority, you’re not going to show up immediately for.
Yeah, that’s good. That’s a great example.
I was almost going to eat my words there.
I’m sorry to stress you out.
I need those. We all need those points. If that had happened, I’d be like, you better believe I want to know why. I’d be looking into the data behind that.
That’s funny. How many pages does relevance.com have indexed?
I’d have to double-check. We’re doing a bunch of stuff right now to hone in. What we just did, we had so much traffic from all these different places. When we acquired it, it was all over the place. Now with useful content and what we’re doing, we’re trying to hone in.
We just got rid of about a thousand pages. It’s crazy that you got rid of that many. We’re going to take a traffic hit for that because they were showing up number one for Dogpile, or not number one, but in the top search for things like that. It was bringing so much traffic.
I also think that when you only care about traffic, it prevents you from using tools well. For example, there are great tools like MarketMuse, DemandJump, and those out there that it’s almost impossible to use certain features when you have such a messy and full site. Honing in a little more, being a little more relevant as we hope we are. I can double-check again, but we were decreasing them because we’re getting rid of a lot of the clutter, some that are indexed and almost confusing in doing what we do.If you're smart, hard-working, and always trying to learn, you will find a way to make money. Click To Tweet
You’re honing in topically and removing stuff that’s obsolete or is not bringing in the right target audience from Google searches. It’s content printing. Awesome. What influence programs do you build for your clients or your agency?
Sorry, I just missed that. What type of influence programs do we do?
What influence programs would you, perhaps, build for a client or that you’ve maybe done for your agency to woo influencers, to maybe offer rewards or incentives for them to work with you, or to try out your products or services, your client’s products or services, that sort of stuff?
A common thing that I tell people that is a good way—and this is different than what we do, but it’s just ex-client advice, and I think this is pretty valuable is that, when you do hire a firm in PR or SEO, let them know who the influencers are that you engage with, that you want to add value for. For example, we’re always advocating PR to other influencers to contribute to writers. If we know the clients’ relationships and who they want to help out, we can absolutely, almost get free work in a way.
For example, let’s say it’s you. You’re like, hey, by the way, I want to form good relationships with these people in SEO, and there are these 5, 10 people when we’re going and representing you and getting you out there, we’re going to try and highlight those people as well because it’s going to be content that you need other sources. If you make a list, you’ll need to include other people.
That’s a great way to communicate to firms and say, these are other friends I want to help out with. Because when those articles go live, those links go live, then you go back, and you say, hey, Rampton, I got you this placement, we’re doing some strategies, I just wanted to look out for you, it’s unbelievable how that helpfulness will go so far in your industry. When you’re looking out for other people, you care about that. I’m not saying competitors, but people you want to look out for.
I think that’s a good client hack to say, anytime you hire or do a strategy, you say, how are we helping the other people that can amplify our messages, that can help our business, that we just like its people and individuals? I think that’s on the client’s side.
On our side, I guess when we’re reaching out, I think you just got to understand what is valuable to the influencer. If you’re going and getting placements on someone who writes for Wired, they’re under certain things where traffic probably matters to them. If their article doesn’t do well, they might get deemed. It’s one of those things. Understand what that influencer views as a metric.
Anytime we deal with influencers or people that have influence, what is truly motivating to you and that if we help make this happen, you’re going to love us to death? It’s not just about money or this. Sometimes it’s simple.
I’m not joking. One person said I needed Taylor Swift concert tickets for my daughter. I was like, okay, we’ll make that happen. Screw it, and we’ll make it happen. I think then, on our end, it’s the relationship with people that truly looks at what’s valuable to them because if you try and do the numbers game with them where it’s transactional, then that’s where influencer marketing doesn’t get affordable.
We don’t dive in deep. We’re not going to the Kardashians and stuff like that because it’s really hard. When we have tried major influencers, it’s hard to justify the campaign because of how much money you’re spending has to pass on from clients. We do a little more like, hey, contributors, micro-influencers, people that are like you and me, no offense, we’re not the Kardashians, but from the standpoint of, like, we go at it from more of how do you align the right content with the people that are at that kind of micro-influencer level, it blends well with journalistic, editorial content, and you want it to be natural.
That’s something that comes up with clients. They’re like, why only one editor links? I’m like, you only want links that just say, editor, that’s all? They’re just like, yes. I’m like, if that does happen, do you not think that’s going to look weird that only editors? In reality, in natural placements, there’s going to be an editor, there’s going to be a contributor, there’s going to be staff, and there are going to be different things because no company only gets picked up by one type of influential body. It’s just natural flow.
That’s a great point because to look natural as far as your linking profile, you need to have a diversity of types of links, diversity in the anchor text, and diversity in the top-level domains that are linking to you. Whether some of those links are followed or nofollowed, if they’re every single time followed, that doesn’t look natural.
Yeah. When people say, I only want to do follow links, and then they say, because Google only values those, I just go, okay, do you think that Google decided to say, you know what, I’m just going to let authority be decided by these publications, these blogs, and they can pick and choose what we look at? No, there’s no now granted. Is it a signal? Yes, there are some data there, and there are some metrics there.
We A/B tested this. I did a nofollow campaign, only nofollow links, to rank something, and it ranked. Granted, when I looked at what was compared, it was not very hard. There’s a value to nofollow, but consistently the best when you’re up against something super competitive it’s a blend. Now granted, we focus primarily, try to do more follow and things like that, and try to do the things we feel are the hardest or the most valuable, but we also want to make sure that we mix in across the board. I think the key thing is natural and truly earned. I think that diversity is key.
What’s your position on paid links?
I was wrong about this. I thought paid links would get so deemed two or three years ago, where I was like, no. I was like, do I think that Google is going to send the message that we want things earned, and Bing wants that? Then you see things like I’m a part of the YC, Youth Council, and there’s a lot of those articles going, and that’s a paid program. It’s fee-based, it says it at the top, and you’re starting to see those things show up well.
I think that it goes back to what I just said. If you only have paid links, I don’t know your major problem there. Once again, I think Google and Bing look at things, and they say, what’s in that? There should be an element of pay because if it’s a legit company, they will pay something for things like that.
I’m not saying buying links on the market, like going international and being like, hey, let’s just pay for links there. That’s a different book. I’m talking about sponsored posts a little more. If it’s the sponsored posts, which one were you asking?
The more sponsored posts, not the sketchy stuff where you pay $100 for 50 links.
I was assuming because it’s you. I just want to make sure I didn’t miss it. Surprisingly has done better for the testing that we’ve done than I thought it was going to. Do we say, hey, let’s do a bunch of sponsored content? No, but we are also almost part of fast companies’ exec board, and my content shows up there. I know that Google values some of those things and is a paid program. It says it at the top.
I was surprised. I think that the direction we go with those things, as we say, once again, is that for things like that, does it look reasonably credible? It’s okay if it’s paid. If it’s credible, the content is good, and things like that. I think that in that case, then it passes the test, and Google just assumes that.
It should be a part of a diversified link portfolio. You shouldn’t go crazy about it. It’s still really good content. I also think that if you get too fluffy with it, where it’s a paid link and it’s like, John Hall is the sexiest man on earth, Google knows that’s not true.
I think they will look at a paid sponsor thing like that and say, okay, we’re not going to credit that. I think it’s smart enough to be like if it’s still thought leadership, good stuff, and there’s an element of a fee-based system, I think they’re still rewarded.
Does your team do a lot of cold outreach to journalists, webmasters, and bloggers you’ve never contacted? Or is it going back to the same stable of journalists, TV producers, conference organizers, and that sort of thing you’ve dealt with on numerous occasions?Consistent effort is the key to forming unique connections that bring you to various places. Click To Tweet
We don’t do much TV because it’s hard to scale, to be honest with you. We’re very big on consistency. If we have a partner that we can go through, obviously going back to the diversified links, you want just different things going on there. I want to say it’s our strength, so I don’t want to give you advice on how to get TV placements if I’m not good at it.
The other stuff, I would say that we have so many different relationships. As I said, we focus on truly adding value for these people and their long-term relationships. It puts us in a position where we don’t have to do as much outbound. However, on the outbound stuff, I’ll give you an example of what we look at. For most clients, we know we can have the placements and the relationships to knock it out of the park for them.
Two weeks ago, there was a client that came in though and was like, look, and I want the Wall Street Journal. I’m like, “Okay.” It’s very hard to deal with the Wall Street Journal from the standpoint of getting consistent placements, to be honest with you. I’ve met people over the years, and I’ve been tight with different editors over the past 15 years. It doesn’t matter. You won’t get into Wall Street Journal all the time there.
I love when people are like, and I have a relationship there. I’m like, okay. I’ll bet you this you won’t get a placement or five placements there this year. I’ll always win it. That’s a case where we say, okay, for that client, we’re going to allocate a certain amount of cold pitching hours because you can get placements there, but it needs to be aligned with their news calendar. If something happens and it’s aligned, for example, when ChatGPT came out, one of our clients who is a ChatGPT expert in there, not hard at all because you pitch them, they have advertisers going after that, and they need that, you can get in there.
We have to separate that and say there are publications we can consistently hit, these types of sites here, here’s the publication plan. We can have an add-on of cold pitching that is basically, we’re going to cold pitch. You’re likely going to get picked up, but it’s not going to be every two weeks or every three weeks. You got to keep on pitching these groups.
Let’s say Wired and WSJ because they publish much less content than other sites in those areas. I would say that we separate it in those ways, where there are the publications that we can target consistently, strong relationships, good people, they’re easier to deal with, here’s one that’s a little harder, but we know the chances are pretty high, and then there is an area we almost have to have it as an add-on. That’s the only retainer-type stuff we do because it’s hard to guarantee deliverables. After all, you don’t know when it will align with the news cycle.
Right. When you’re doing the outbound cold outreach, are you getting pushback from some of the folks you contact, or let’s say they want to cash to publish something? What we’re finding is more and more of the time. Even just a few years ago, bloggers and webmasters were like, yeah, you got to pay to play. If you want a link, a mention, a feature, or to contribute to our blog, you must pay for that.
AI is an innovation that can be helpful and a catalyst, but you have to combine it with human interaction.
Yeah, and you’re going to run into that when it doesn’t align with the news, especially the big companies when it doesn’t align with it. Granted that they have a high level or they’re taking money behind the scenes, I’m sure they are, and I’m sure that does happen, but in reality…
That would be sketchy and against that. I’m talking about the smaller outlets, the blogs, and so forth.
Yeah, that clarifies that. I don’t see that at the upper tier and high authority pubs just because that’s why they’re there. I would say that yes, when you look at smaller and niche, honestly, you have to survive at this point. I don’t even blame them at this point. Granted reasonable disclosures on the side, I think you still want to make sure that you’re not making a list on paid top 10 lists, everybody’s paying on that list, and you have no disclosure of affiliates. You don’t want to do something like that. I think that you see that a ton.
Once again, I think it’s good to find a good agency or internal team that is consistently out there because you can pay for those. You can do, like I said, some of the examples I gave where it’s fee-based, but it was disclosed. You look at that, and that’s fine if you have other ones that are getting out there that are natural placements. You’re going to run into that, and we’re going to keep running into that.
That’s why it’s important to have enough budget and resources so that you can even that out. There are going to be some placements that you can get in places because they still do need the good content, and they still do need the expertise in different things. I would just say, yup, it’s going to keep happening, but that’s why you need to have a good strategy in place and good connections so that you can get the other placements to even out the diversity of links.
Last question. It relates to what you mentioned a few minutes ago with ChatGPT. You have a client who’s an expert in that area, but I’m sure you guys are playing with ChatGPT and other AI-based writing tools, ideation tools, editing tools, etc. What’s your position on AI writing the article that you then pitch? Is that something that you think is going to be an inevitability? Are we already almost there yet? What’s your take on that?
My philosophy is to differentiate myself from others as a trusted source of information. It does use AI. I have an aspect to that in the future. Yeah, absolutely, because AI is an innovation that can be helpful and a catalyst, but you have to combine it with human interaction.
I’ll give an example. What we’re testing out right now with one of the clients is doing an overlay. You have an overlay of data that is unique, that only that brand has. You’re combining it with AI’s ability to create content using that data overlay. I think Google will look at that and be like, and this is still unique data. Yes, AI is a component of it, but it’s an aspect of filling in gaps with good data that isn’t accessible.
I think right now, you’re fine with that. I think that people who are pumping out ChatGPT content are going to be just nailed. It goes back to if you’re just doing that, you will have a problem. I guess that both Google, Bing, search engines and Discovery, whatever comes up in the future, will have an aspect of AI that plays in that they know.
Even Sports Illustrated, many people are coming out and saying they’re using ChatGPT. They’re publicly saying it. I was reading an article about that. I think it’s Arena who was involved or whatever the company was. Don’t take my word for it. Search and find that article.
You’re starting to see people disclose it a little more and saying, look, we’re using it. I think that right now, we’re being very cautious. We’re not using it honestly on any of our clients just because you don’t want to get somebody dinged. It’s too big of a risk until we have the data to back it up, but we are testing it on others.
We are involved in some media companies we just test this stuff out to see how it works for clients. To summarize, I would say the only safe way to do it now is to create enough good human content, and then you’re using an overlay, in my opinion. With that data and unique stuff, that is the only thing where I feel like the tests we’ve done have been okay. I would say that anytime we have tested a majority of ChatGPT content, even running it through filters, the AI or the detectors, we’re still a little cautious.
I would say proceed cautiously but be okay with integrating into different ways. We do use it for content briefs. We do use it when you’re creating outlines and different things like that to get ideas. It cuts down on time in the content creation process and different things, but to rely on it, I think that, will be a problem.
I agree. All right. Thank you so much, John. This was great insightful commentary and insight. Thought leadership appreciates you were sharing all that stuff. If our listener or viewer wants to work with your company and hire you guys for PR, link building, and influence stuff, how do they get in touch?
I would just check out relevance.com or reach out to me directly. I’m on LinkedIn. If anybody listens and they say we follow Stephan, I’ll always connect. If it’s friends, that’s a friend’s audience, and they say, I would say that those are the two ways. Just relevance.com.
Also, check out calendar.com. That’s a similar way to help me out. Right now, the tool is taking off pretty well. We just released a bunch of new features. It’s one of our bigger investments.
Check out calendar.com. Let me know what you think of it, then relevance.com, and then just reach out directly via LinkedIn. Just mention your name, and I’ll connect.
Awesome. Thanks, John. Thank you, listener. We’ll catch you in the next episode. In the meantime, have a fantastic week. I’m your host, Stephan Spencer, signing off.
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For more insights or to work with John Hall, message him through his LinkedIn or visit relevance.com.
About John Hall
John Hall authored the best-selling book “Top of Mind,” published by McGraw-Hill. He has been called a top “sales speaker,” “virtual keynote speaker,“ and “motivational guest speaker” that people should pay attention to. When you combine his experience, he’s one of the best speakers to increase your revenue and employee productivity. John’s also an advisor to innovative growth companies like Relevance and Calendar.