Category Archives: marketing

It’s OK not to have a social media strategy (really)

I have heard various product owners beating themselves up about how they don’t have enough of a social media presence. Well, I have been running a profitable one-man software company for the last 12 years and I am here to tell you that neither of my products have a social strategy worthy of the name – and that’s OK.

My seating planner software, PerfectTablePlan, has a Facebook page and a Google+ page. Whenever I publish a newsletter for PerfectTablePlan I publish a link to the newsletter on these sites (which is a few times per year). That’s pretty much it. My visual planning software, Hyper Plan, has an even smaller social media presence than PerfectTablePlan. To be honest the small amount I do on social media is intended mostly for the benefit of the mighty Google.

My forays into social media have not been encouraging:

  • I once sent out a newsletter to over 3000 opted-in subscribers and encouraged them to follow a newly created PerfectTablePlan Twitter page. Exactly 0 of them did.
  • I created a Pinterest page for PerfectTablePlan and paid someone to post to it for a few weeks. It generated a bit of traffic of questionable quality, but the traffic dried up as soon as they stopped posting.
  • I have tried paid ads on Facebook and Twitter and the results were miserable.
  • The PerfectTablePlan Google+ page has just 14 followers.
  • The PerfectTablePlan Facebook page got a miserable 4 views last week.

The question isn’t whether social media can bring you traffic, but whether that traffic will convert to sales and is social media the best use of your limited time? Social media is a productivity black hole and the opportunity costs of noodling around on Twitter should not be underestimated. Also various studies show that email still out-performs social media by quite a margin.

“E-mail remains a significantly more effective way to acquire customers than social media—nearly 40 times that of Facebook and Twitter combined.” McKinsey

People go on social media to chat to their friends and look at cat videos. Not to buy things. They use search, Amazon and Ebay for that. When is the last time you even looked at an ad in the Facebook sidebar? Or clicked on a sponsored post in Twitter? Exactly.

Making an impact on social media is hard. 90% of tweets are not retweeted. And even the followers that are real humans may only be interested in discounts:

“The IBM Institute for Business Value found that 60-65% of business leaders who believe that consumers follow their brands on social media sites because they want to be a part of a community. Only 25-30% of consumers agree. The top reason consumers follow a brand? To get discounts – not exactly ideal for a company’s bottom line.” Forbes

A lot of the ‘engagement’ on social media is fake. You can buy 1000 Twitter followers for less than £10. The BBC advertised a fake business with “no products and no interesting content” as an experiment on Facebook and got 1,600 highly suspicious ‘likes’ within 24 hoursCopyblogger deleted their facebook page due to the amount of fake followers and the low level of engagement.

A thread I started on the Business of Software forum showed that many other small software product companies had tried and failed with social media. Why do you think you will fare better? Most software products just aren’t inherently social. There is a limit to how much you can usefully say, day after day, about seating planning. I could try and create a social media presence talking about the latest wedding and catering trends and try to sneak in some references to seating plans. But I would rather commit suicide with a cheese grater.

As a rule of thumb it might be worth putting serious effort into social media if yours is the sort of product people are likely to talk to their friends about down the pub. In that case social media may be able to usefully enhance your visibility and reach. But for the vast majority of software that doesn’t fit this description, you are trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. At the time of writing the pop star Taylor Swift has 74,638,154 Facebook likes. While Intuit, one of the world’s largest software companies, has 221,130 likes.

Next time somebody tells you that you must have a social media campaign ask yourself:

  • Is your product a good fit for social media?
  • Do they have an agenda, e.g. a social media tool, ebook or consultancy to push? Or an article quota to fill?
  • Have they produced any real evidence that a social media campaign translated into actual sales?
  • Is social media the best thing you could be doing with your valuable time?

Ignore any vague waffling about ‘engagement’. Nobody ever paid their mortgage with engagement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing a market for your software

The efficient market hypothesis states that “asset prices fully reflect all available information”. If the efficient market hypothesis is true, then you would expect actively managed funds (where fund managers pick the stocks) to do no better than index funds. That does seem to be the case:

“Numerous studies have shown that index funds, with their low costs and ability to closely mimic the returns of markets both broad and narrow, steadily outperform the returns of most actively managed funds.” Wall Street Journal

Unless you have some sort of insider knowledge (which it might be illegal to exploit), you might as well invest in index funds or get your cat to pick your stocks as pay someone else to do it.

But I am interested in a different sort of market efficiency. If you have to pick a vertical market to start a software business in, does it matter which vertical market you pick? If the market is perfectly efficient for businesses, then each vertical will have a level of competition proportional to the size of the market. In that case you should have an equal chance of success whether you decide to write a game, a developer tool, an anti-virus product or a CRM system.

From lots of reading and talking to other software business owners I have come to the conclusion that the market is highly inefficient for businesses. The market vertical you pick has a big effect on your chances of success. It seems to me that the three worst verticals are: games, developer tools and consumer mobile apps.

Games are fun! Writing a game sounds like a blast. Much more exciting than writing software for boring businesses. It has also been getting easier to write games due to the ever improving tools. Consequently, the market for games is totally saturated. The outlook for independent games developers looks grim. Today on the Steam platform there are 12,971 games listed. Even some of the big and famous games developers only seem to survive by forcing their staff to work vast amounts of unpaid overtime.

Pretty much every software entrepreneur has considered creating a software development tool at some point. I know I have. It is a market that we all understand (or think we do). But consequently it is saturated. Software developers are also pretty horrible customers. They are used to using lots of free software. And that tool you spent years developing? They think they can write something better over a weekend.

“Thousands of people used RethinkDB, often in business contexts, but most were willing to pay less for the lifetime of usage than the price of a single Starbucks coffee (which is to say, they weren’t willing to pay anything at all). … Developers love building developer tools, often for free. So while there is massive demand, the supply vastly outstrips it. This drives the number of alternatives up, and the prices down to zero.” Why RethinkDB failed

I wrote back in 2010 what a horrible market the iPhone app store is for developers. Since then the number of apps has increased tenfold to 2.2 million, the average paid app price is a measly $1.01 ($0.48 for games) and some 90%+ of apps are free or freemium.

You should be wary of markets with no competition. But the really high levels of competition in these three markets drives down prices and makes it very hard to get noticed. Obviously not everyone in these 3 markets is failing. It is possible to create a product in one of these markets and be wildly successful (Indie game developer Notch of Minecraft fame springs to mind). But I think the odds are very much stacked against you.

So what market should you pick to maximize your chances of commercial success? Aside from the obvious factors (e.g. something you are interested in and knowledgeable about, something that solves a real problem etc) I suggest avoiding anything considered ‘sexy’ by other developers.

Here is a radical idea – create a software product aimed at women. The vast majority of software is written by men and consequently it tends to cater for men. 50% of the world’s population are women and they buy software too!

Just because a product is not in a ‘sexy’ market doesn’t mean that it has to be boring to create. I have found plenty of interesting usability, optimization and visualization problems to solve while developing my own seating planning and visual planning software products.

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine you are talking to another software guy at a conference and explaining what you product does. If your imaginary software guy says “that sounds cool”, then it’s probably a tough market to create a commercial product in. But if they look a bit surprised or their eyes glaze over, then you might be on to something.

Promoting your software through 1-day sales and bundles

Hyper Plan, my visual planning software for Windows and Mac, has now been for sale for a bit less than 2 years. Given that I am (by choice) doing all the development, marketing and support for both Hyper Plan and my other product, PerfectTablePlan, I have had a limited amount of time to promote Hyper Plan. But Hyper Plan is in a  competitive market, where it is hard to get noticed using traditional promotional techniques such as SEO and PPC. So I have been experimenting with promotion via 1-day sales sites and bundles.

I did several promotions through both bitsdujour.com and macupdate.com promo. These were 50%-off sales for 1 day (sometimes extended for another day). The site takes 50% commission on the sale, so I only got $10 of my normal $40 ticket price. But I also got exposure to a whole new audience I wouldn’t normally reach.

I also included Hyper Plan in bundlehunt.com and macupdate.com software bundles. In these bundles customers purchased some 10 items of software at a big discount. The promotions lasted for a few weeks each. I am not at liberty to divulge how much I got for each licence, but a quick calculation based on the price of the bundles and the number of items in the bundle tells you that it was a lot less than $10!

My hopes related to sales sites and bundles were:

  1. A worthwhile amount additional sales revenue.
  2. Increased feedback, giving me more insight for improving the product.
  3. Making money further down the line from major upgrades (e.g. v1 to v2).
  4. That I wouldn’t be swamped in support emails from people who were paying me a lot less than the standard price.
  5. More word-of-mouth sales after the discount has finished.

On analysing the results, the first 4 turned out to be true.

I had previously tried promoting my PerfectTablePlan table planning software on bitsdujour.com, but the results were disappointing. It just wasn’t a good match for their audience. However Hyper Plan is a more general tool and it did a lot better. The bundles also sold in impressive volumes. The source of Hyper Plan sales revenues to date after commission (but not including upgrades) is show below.

sales-revenue-source

So the extra sales were certainly significant from a revenue point of view, bearing in mind that Hyper Plan is a relatively young and unknown product.

I also got some very useful feedback from the bitsdujour comments section.

I released v2 of Hyper Plan in March 2016. I have crunched the numbers to see how many v1 customers to date have paid for upgrades to v2.

percentage upgrades

I expected that the 1-day sale customers who had paid $20 for the initial licence would be less likely to pay $16 to upgrade to v2 than those who had hadn’t purchased at a heavy discount. I was surprised that the opposite turned out to be true. I don’t have a good theory why.

I don’t have any figures for bundle customer upgrades, as the bundles happened after v2 was released. Given that bundle purchasers probably only wanted a subset of the software in the bundle, I expect the upgrade percentages to be a lot lower than above.

I wasn’t swamped in support emails. In fact things were surprisingly quiet during the bundles, which makes me wonder how many people who purchased the bundle were interested in Hyper Plan.

There were no sustained jumps in traffic or sales after the 1-day sales or bundles ended.

Best of all, the 1-day sales and bundles don’t cost anything, apart from a modest amount of time to set-up.

I know some vendors promote these 1-day sales and bundles to existing customers. But I don’t understand why you would do that. The whole point of these channels is to reach new audiences. Also you risk annoying customers who have paid list price. If you already have an audience you can promote a sale to, then you don’t need 1-day sales sites or bundles. Just email them a discount voucher.

I had one complaint from an existing customer on a forum who had paid full price and then saw Hyper Plan in a 1-day sale. I offered to refund the difference back to them, but they didn’t take me up on it.

In conclusion, the sales and bundle sites brought in useful spikes of additional sales (especially when you include upgrades later on) and feedback, without a big jump in support burden. But they didn’t lead to a noticeable long-term increase in traffic or sales. Obviously every product is different. But if you have a product that needs exposure, isn’t too niche and doesn’t require a lot of support, it may be worth giving 1-day sales and bundles a try.

Google CPA bidding goes wild

I have been using Google’s AdWords Cost Per Action (CPA) bidding for a number of years. I set the maximum I was prepared to pay for a conversion  (e.g. a successful install of my software). AdWords then set the bid price to try and get me conversions at that price or less. It worked pretty well for a number years and it saved me a lot of time tweaking bid prices. But Google recently phased out Maximum CPA bidding and forced me to switch to Target CPA bidding. From this point I could only specify the average price I was prepared to pay per conversion. This is where it all started to go wrong.

AdWords started to bid crazy prices. Check out the screenshot below. You can see that in each case the average Cost Per Click (CPC) is more than the CPA price. For example, in the first row I have set £0.50 as the price I am prepared to pay for conversions from the ‘seating charts’ ad group. Typically about 10% of people who click on one of my Adwords ads will install the software and trigger a conversion (which is fairly standard). So a £0.50 CPA means that AdWords should be bidding somewhere around £0.05 per click. Google knows this, because they have vast amounts of data from my AdWords account (11 years worth). But the average price for the last 3 clicks was £1.17 per click. WTF Google – that’s my money!

Given that the base version of my software costs £19.95 (one time fee) there is no way I can make a profit at £1.17 per click. Not all the bids are this crazy. But there are enough crazy bids to put my whole AdWords campaign into a tailspin. So I have been forced to switch back to manual CPC bidding. If you have also been forced to switch from Maximum CPA to Target CPA bidding, then I suggest you keep a careful eye on your cost per click.

Updating the PerfectTablePlan website

I created the website for PerfectTablePlan back in 2005, using a dreadfully buggy piece of software called NetObjects Fusion (NOF). The sorry story of why I ended up using NOF is told here.

Until recently the front page looked like this.

old-website-design

I had done a fair amount of A/B test tweaking and it converted visitors to downloads and sales relatively well compared to other downloadable product websites. But it had that ‘designed by a programmer’ look and it wasn’t responsive, so it didn’t work on well on mobile devices. My software only runs on Windows and Mac, but I still want to appear in mobile searches. The HTML generated by NOF was also pretty horrible. Frankly, I was a bit embarrassed by it when I looked at websites for other products. I kept on meaning to update it, but there was always something more urgent or (to be honest) more interesting to do. I finally bit the bullet and had it redesigned in 2015. The front page now looks like this:

new-website-design

The process was:

  1. I wrote a specification for the new design.
  2. I ran a 99Designs.com competition to design a new home page based on the spec.
  3. I selected the winning designer and paid them to design 3 additional pages in the same style.
  4. I paid pixelcrayons.com to code up the 4 pages in responsive CSS/HTML.
  5. I poured all the old content into the new design. Being careful to maintain the existing page names, titles, text and images etc, so as not to lose existing organic traffic.

The whole process didn’t cost a great deal (somewhere around $2k), but it took quite a lot of my time, spread over 5 months. Especially the final step. This wasn’t helped by the size (some 128 pages were converted) and general cruftiness of the old website, and my lack of knowledge of CSS and responsive design.

I didn’t want to be locked in to a CMS, so I used Mac static website generator Hammer4Mac to generate the HTML. It goes without saying that I wrote a program to help me pull all the content out of the old website and into Hammer4Mac! While Hammer4Mac isn’t without flaws, I found it a vast improvement over NOF and the new website is now much easier to update and maintain than the old one.

The new website went live on 16-Dec-2015.

So how much difference did the redesign make? Here are the changes based on comparing 25 weeks of data before the change and 25 weeks of data after the change:

bounce rate +1.5%
time on page +16.0%
traffic +6.5%
        desktop traffic -2.2%
        mobile & tablet traffic +40.0%
completed installs +1.4%
sales transactions +11.4%
total sales value +21.8%
visit to sale conversion ratio +4.6%
average order value +9.4%

The increase in mobile traffic as a proportion of total traffic is pretty clear from analytics (the dip in December is seasonal):

traffic

I believe  a 21.8% improvement in sales is a lot more than I would have got by spending the same amount of time and money improving the product itself, which is pretty mature after 11 years of work.

Overall it looks pretty positive. But, as analytics data is fairly dirty (e.g. due to analytics spam) and I didn’t run a split test, I can’t definitely say that the changes above were due to the website changes. I wasn’t able to compare all the above data with the same time period for the previous year due to some missing analytics data. But the sales data for 25 weeks before and after 16-Dec in the previous year was:

sales transactions -9.9%
total sales value -2.7%
average order value +8.1%

Which implies that the sales changes are unlikely to be due to seasonal factors.

Best of all, I never have to use NetObjects Fusion again!

Things you don’t need for v1.0

Few people launch software products expecting them to fail. But many products do fail. I don’t have any figures, but I think I can fairly confidently state that more commercial software products fail than succeed. You think your product isn’t going to be one of the failures. But so does everyone else. The only way to find out for sure is to launch. The sooner you launch, the sooner you will find out. I have banged the drum for releasing early before, so I won’t labour it here. But it begs the question – how do I launch fast? What do I leave out? Based on my experiences of launching 3 software products, this is what I would leave out.

Polish

As developers we (hopefully) all want to do great work that we can feel proud of. But, as entrepreneurs, we need to be careful not to spend lots of time polishing something that might be a turd. So ship v1.0 before it is polished. Early adopters tend to be fairly forgiving of a few rough edges, if they are interested in the direction you are taking. I spent 6 months (part-time) working on the first version of my AdWords keyword tool. It flopped. So I shipped the first version of my visual planning software within a few weeks of writing the first line of code. It was pretty bare-bones and a bit slow for plans with hundreds of cards, but it was enough to demonstrate the basic concept.

Designer website

You don’t need a beautiful, state-of-the-art website to launch your product. My own table planner software had a pretty ropey website  (designed by me) for the first 10 years and it did fine. Just make sure the website clearly conveys what your product does.

Logo

You don’t need a professional logo for v1.0. The product name in coloured text using a font other than Arial will probably be fine. I did the initial logo for Hyper Plan in Microsoft Word Art in 10 minutes. Here it is in all it’s glory:

old Hyper Plan logo

I only paid a designer to come up with something better once I was sure it was worth my while.

DRM/Payment processing

I shipped the first version of Hyper Plan without even setting up licensing or payment processing. Every time you ran it, it just put up a window saying that it would expire on a certain date and that a new release would be available by that date. After that date it just stopped working.

Hyper Plan expired window

I only added licensing and payment processing once I had proved enough people were interested in the concept to make it worth my while. If you are going to take this approach, make sure you let people know that they will be expected to pay at some point.

Sophisticated pricing model

Ideally you want to segment your customers so you can charge more for the people who are prepared to pay more. But you probably don’t understand your market well enough to do this when you are starting out. So just pick a single price. I introduced segmented pricing for PerfectTablePlan in v4. Hyper Plan still has a single price.

Feature parity with your competitors

Trying to achieve feature parity with established competitors in v1.0 is a fool’s errand. Just pick one pain point that you think is not being well addressed and try to solve that. Make your lack of features a selling point by emphasizing how simple your product is to use.

Multi Platform

If it is going to take significant additional effort to release multi-platform, then just pick one platform to launch v1.0 on.

Extensive documentation

The first version of your product should be simple enough and well enough designed that it doesn’t need extensive documentation. My Hyper Plan software has been out for a year and it still only has a one page quick start guide.

Mailing list

Many people advocate building up a mailing list of interested people before you launch. It obviously helps a lot if you already have an audience in the market you are launching into. But, if you don’t, it takes significant time and effort to build that audience. I would rather put in that effort once I have something to show them.

Trademark

Why bother to spend time and money trademarking something if you don’t even know if anyone wants it?

Patent

I’m not a fan of software patents and I don’t have any patents after nearly 11 years in business. So I certainly wouldn’t waste time and money on a patent for v1.0.

Lawyers

If a bug in your software could kill someone or destroy their business, you should probably talk to a lawyer. Otherwise a boiler-plate end user licence agreement is probably fine for v1.0.

Company

I did create a limited company before I launched my first product to get a bit of extra legal protection. But its not strictly necessary (in the UK at least).

Trade-offs

It’s all a tradeoff. Obviously it is better to have a beautiful website than an ugly one. But is it worth spending lots of time and money on designing a beautiful website for an unproven product?

The best approach depends very much on your market and circumstances. If you are a big player with lots of money and reputation, then much of the above may not apply. If you are selling web design products, you had better have a pretty slick looking website for v1.0. If you are selling aircraft avionics systems then I hope v1.0 of your product is pretty polished.

A Few Good Links – Why you need them and how to get them

link buildingIn this guest post Christoph Engelhardt talks about why link building is an important part of online marketing and the most effective ways to do it.

When you are promoting your product online, there is a myriad of different ways to do it: Display Ads, Google Adwords, Facebook Ads, Social Media, Email Marketing, Online PR, and SEO – to just name a few.

Deciding on the right method for your business can be tricky. They are all so different. Some of those methods can be turned on and off like a faucet; others are more like a flywheel that need a lot of pushing to get going, but will keep delivering results after you’ve stopped.

Hopefully you’re in it for the long haul, so I’m going to talk about a strategy that is more of a flywheel: link building. Building links on the internet is a long-term strategy that factors into multiple traction channels.

Inside this article you will learn:

  • How to supercharge your PR, SEO, and Content Marketing with outreach marketing.
  • How you can get more links to your website without angering the Google gods.
  • At least 3 different ways to find high-quality outreach and link building opportunities.
  • The secret to drafting the perfect outreach email.

I’ve been in online business for more than a decade now. I’ve been struggling with moonlighting multiple products to profitability, online marketing and SEO long enough to call myself “somewhat of an expert” on those topics. ;-)

I want to share with you what I have learned in those years to help you avoid making the same mistakes I made.

Let’s get started.

SEO and link building in particular are often seen as scammy online marketing tactics and I won’t deny that there is some merit to that argument. SEO for the first 10 years has been a lot like the Wild West – minus the random killings. There was no one to effectively enforce the “law of the land” and spammers thrived.

Yes, you could cheat your way to the top of Google’s search results in the past. BUT, it is getting harder and harder with every passing day. Getting to #1 on Google today means you have to “dot the i’s and cross the t’s” in technical SEO (more on what this is later) and get some buzz going for your product – i.e. build some links.

“Link building” as a term is loathed by white-hat SEOs, as it implies spamming comment sections on random blogs and free web directories. They would much rather talk about “earning links” through “Content Marketing” and “Social Amplification”. That’s fine by me, but make no mistake: Having a rich and diverse link profile for your website is still THE major ranking factor for Google’s search results.

Spreading your links around the world wide web isn’t a problem per se. Links are what make the world wide web a WEB in the first place. But the way you do it makes all the difference: If you’re leaving useless comments on unrelated blogs, you’ll do more harm than good. If you get your product reviewed (without paying for it) on a major website where your target audience hangs out, the value gained can hardly be put into words.

Fundamentally, whenever you do any sort of online marketing you are building links. Sharing your content on social media? You’re sharing a link back to your content, because you want people to click that link. Buying Adwords? You’re buying links right on Google’s website. Sharing your news release in a PR campaign? You’re spreading your links.

This means that, if you have a website, you’ve probably started building links without thinking too much about it. All you need to do is be more intentional and active in your efforts.

Why you should include outreach marketing in your marketing mix

Building links helps you in two distinct ways: a) you’re getting referral traffic directly via the links you get, b) the links you get improve your rankings in the search engines, bringing you additional organic SEO traffic.

In the long term, the SEO benefits will often have a greater effect on your traffic than the referral traffic you receive through the links. This is because a great link profile will lift your website to the top of Google across 100’s or 1000’s of keywords (all other things being equal)! That is why link building is related to SEO in most people’s minds. Traditionally it was done almost exclusively to get that sweet #1 spot on Google.

However, you should not neglect the sheer amount of traffic you can get from a well-placed link. Depending on where you get that link from (and we will talk about this in a minute) a single link can send you 1000’s of visitors.

In fact, I advise everyone to completely neglect the SEO benefits when they think about where to get a link from. When you try to get a link from another website, here are the questions you should ask yourself:

  • Is this a trusted website in your niche?
  • Does that website have a big enough audience to send you meaningful traffic?
  • Is that website’s audience interested in your product at all?

You don’t want to get a link from a website outside your niche – especially not from a 3P-website (porn, poker, pay-day loans), no matter how good their SEO metrics are. Similarly, getting a link from Joan Doe’s blog that has two readers (her mom and her dog). Finally, you shouldn’t chase after getting featured on TechCrunch, even if they are a big ass website and you’re doing something in tech, because their readers are most likely not interested in what you have to offer. They are killing their time with their butts firmly planted in an office chair and are not looking to buy stuff.

See how I don’t even mention SEO in there? Focus on getting your links in front of your target audience. If you focus your outreach marketing on having a direct ROI from the referral traffic you get, you will be taking good care of the SEO-side of things automatically.

Calculating the ROI of outreach marketing

I hope that I have convinced you by now that outreach marketing is not a scam and you can do it without causing harm to your website or your brand (assuming you do it right).

But before you rush off to get your outreach marketing going, we need to talk ROI. You’d be ill-advised jumping into anything without at least computing the possible ROI before you do it. After all, you might have other (more valuable) options to spend what limited time you have.

First you need to know how much you’re going to invest into getting one link. Say you’re investing two hours to write a guest post and an additional half-hour for outreach and administrative work related to getting that link and you value your time at $50 per hour. This means you’re investing (roughly) $125 into getting this single link.

This number obviously depends on the website we’re talking about: Some websites like directories or profile pages won’t take you more than 10 minutes to get a link from (and links from them are worth less to you), while getting featured on a popular website in your niche might costs you an arm and a leg (but it might be worth it).

Now we know the costs, but how do we calculate (well… guesstimate) the value of one link?

There are two ways you can do so, let’s explore them – assuming we want to get a link from this blog: www.successfulsoftware.net .

  1. Go to www.opensiteexplorer.org
  2. Enter the URL of the website you’re trying to get a link from into the box (i.e. www.successfulsoftware.net) and hit RETURN.
  3. Search for the “Domain Authority” value (45).
  4. Multiply that value by $2.5 (Read my full research here).

03_checking-da-with-opensiteexplorer

03a_highlighted-domain-authority-in-opensiteexplorer

This gives you a rough guesstimate of the dollar value of any link on the web – in the case of Andy’s website that’s roughly $110. It’s a great rule of thumb for small and medium sized websites. The problem with this method is, that Domain Authority is capped at 100 – so no link can be worth more than $250 with this method. But clearly, getting featured on the White house website or Google’s blog will have a slightly (!) higher value than that.

The second approach is more complicated, but it takes into account the specifics of your business. We are going to work our way backwards from the sale for this one.

  1. We need your customer lifetime value (LTV – say $200) and your conversion rate from visitor to sale (CR – say 1%)
  2. Multiplying LTV * CR we get the average value per visitor (VPV – that’s 0.01 * $200 = $2) for your business
  3. Dividing the cost for the link by the value per visitor (cost / VPV) we get: $125 / $2 = 62.5

This tells you, that you need to get at least 63 visitors from the link to break even on your time investment. That isn’t too big a number and it can be even lower, if you have a higher LTV or when you get the link in front of just the right audience (which will increase the conversion rate for that cohort).

The only question that remains – and that I sadly can’t answer for you – is this: Will you get 63 people to click on that link on that website? If you can answer this question with a “Yes”, I think you should chase that link down.

Lastly, remember that we don’t take SEO into account here at all. It is hard to measure the effect of a single link, so consider it gravy on top.

Now that we’ve covered the fundamentals, it is time to talk a bit more in-depth about where to get links from and which websites you should definitely avoid.

As mentioned before, you don’t want to get any links from websites in dubious niches like poker, porn and payday loans. These are not good company for a respectable website. You also don’t want to have too many incoming links from the 1000’s of free web directories (startup directories anyone?) out there as it may harm your standing with the SEO gods. Having a few (high-quality, say ProductHunt) directories link to you isn’t a problem, but having 100’s or 1000’s certainly is.

The same goes for comment spamming random blogs around the internet, creating dozens of free blogs on WordPress.com or Tumblr, and poorly written, mass-produced guest posts all across the web. Just don’t. That’s not to say that blog comments or guest posts don’t have value. You just need to do it right. If it can be automated (or outsourced for $0.50/hour to developing countries), you’re doing it wrong. The rule of thumb is to get links that take significant work to acquire. This will keep you in good standing with the SEO gods.

The way to go about link building/link earning/outreach marketing today is to find suitable websites, find a contact there, develop a relationship and eventually you will get a link from it. Case in point: Andy and I go back well over a year. We’ve been to conferences, chatted a lot, he gave me advice on discuss.bootstrapped.fm, we even had lunch together when I visited his home town. NB: I wasn’t after getting a link from Andy – in this case it just happened – but building a relationship always comes before building a link. [Editor’s note: I approached Christoph to write an article for this blog]

Here are some ideas where you can get your links placed:

Website content (blog posts, news articles, etc) usually results in a spike of traffic and then it slows down to a crawl. Lists and partner directories on the other hand will give you a more constant flow of traffic.

Just look at these two images below: One is from LinksSpy getting published on ProductHunt – and the other is the traffic from when someone included LinksSpy on their ProductHunt list (with a small spike in the middle when that list was itself mentioned on a newsletter).

01_traffic-spike-producthunt

02_constant-flow-producthunt

Finding Outreach Opportunities

But how does one find these websites? I’m quite sure you could name a few websites in your niche off the top of your head, but that will ultimately give you maybe one or two links – which won’t turn you into an overnight success. You need more; you want more.

Option A is to just Google for it. Use terms like “best $PRODUCT_NICHE in 2015” or “$NICHE blog”. If you want to get really smart(-y) you can use one of the tips from Ann Smarty and search for “blog for us $PRODUCT_NICHE”. You can also use blog directories like AllTop and look for opportunities there. Here’s a quick link you can use: Google search for blogging opportunities (Replace “NICHE” with your own niche after the page loads)

Option B is to use MyBlogU, where people are constantly searching for industry experts to do interview round-ups. Just search through the list and see if you can make a meaningful contribution to any of the interviews. You’ll usually get a nice mention in the process. (Bonus for content marketers: You can post your own interview questions and convert the answers into a blog post with built-in content promotion – all the experts will want to share it)

Option C is a bit more involved. Using OpenSiteExplorer and the URLs of your competitors you can find the places where they get their links from. Knowing where they got their links from allows you to contact the very same websites and get the same links.

This list isn’t complete – there are way more ways to find outreach opportunities. But these three will allow you to find the first few, get your feet wet and experience the success that comes with building links. You can always go deeper later on.

Options A and B are pretty much straight-forward, but you’re likely wondering by now “why would I want to get the same links my competitors already have?”

Well, there’s a reason your competitors are ranking ahead of you in Google’s search results. Aside from them nailing technical/on-site SEO (Read my blog post on bare minimum SEO for designers where I describe the basics), they have more and better links than you have. A little spying on your competition to see what works can’t hurt.

Secondly, getting links from the same websites as your competition will (theoretically) put you on par with them. In reality you won’t be able to replicate the link profile of another website and you wouldn’t want to either, as they might have a bunch of dodgy links. What you can do is combine the best links from a number of competitors, effectively giving you a better link profile than any of your competitors.

When I say “competitor” I use that term loosely. It can be either an actual competitor, another website that ranks ahead of you in the search results, a website in your industry or any number of things. You can use all of them to find valuable link opportunities.

How to Find Websites Linking to your Competition

There is a number of websites that show you the backlink profile of any given website. There is Moz’s OpenSiteExplorer (Which I have mentioned above), then there is MajesticSEO, OpenLinkProfiler, and Ahrefs. They all give you information which websites link to the website (your competitor’s website) under scrutiny, but with varying levels of detail. I generally found Ahrefs to be most accurate, but OpenLinkProfiler and Moz are free(-mium), so we will just use those for now.

Here are the steps you need to take in OpenSiteExplorer to get the valuable links for your competitors:

  1. Open OpenSiteExplorer in your browser
  2. Enter your competitor URL in the form field. e.g.: “www.softwarebyrob.com
  3. Set the following parameters:
    • Target: this root domain
    • Link Source: only external
    • Link Type: link equity
    • select “Group by subdomain & show social/contact links”
  4. This will give you the following search results

04_competitive-analysis-settings-for-opensiteexplorerThis list groups the incoming, external links by the domain they originate from. Additionally links that do not pass SEO juice are filtered out.

Looking through this list you will find some interesting websites you can ask for links. You can also see where the links were published (e.g. blog posts, partner lists). Repeat the process for as many competitors as you like.

When you examine multiple competitors make a special note for each website that links to more than one competitor. For example rachelandrew.co.uk links to the following “competitors” for Andy’s website:

These websites (the ones that link to many competitors) are often a good selection for your first batch of outreach targets. They have given links freely in the past and they have talked about your competition, which suggests they will be open to a cooperation with you. Incidentally, LinksSpy was built to find these websites.

Caveat: You still need to apply sound judgement whether you want a link from a given website or not. Some websites might be ‘dodgy’ and you would risk getting slapped by Google if you get a link from them. Or maybe they are really great websites and you would love to get a link from them, but you know that you won’t get a link from the New York Times a week after launching with six active users.

Putting the “Outreach” into “Outreach Marketing”

By now you should have a list of at least a hundred outreach targets. There are two more steps remaining on your way to making millions of dollars, getting world-famous, and saving the planet. That’s your plan – right?

As a first step you need to find contact details (i.e. the email address) of an author on that website. A few ways to find the right email address:

  • Look around for a “Contact Us” page.
  • Check if the author’s name is a link (if so check that page for his email address).
  • Check the author’s social media profiles.
  • Try to guess the right email address (e.g. firstname@mydomain.com will often work – Rapportive works great for this!).

If all else fails, you can always try your luck with “contact@mydomain.com” or “support@mydomain.com“.

Drafting the Perfect Outreach Email

Lastly, you (just) need to send the actual outreach email. If you’re cold emailing someone, it is best to not ask for favours/links right in the first email. What I recommend instead is to ask for their expert’s opinion on an article you have written. Everyone likes to be seen as an expert and to be asked for their opinion – as long as the topic interests them. Five out of ten times they will – at least – share your article. At this point you’ll be off to a good start: You’ve already got some value (social media mention!) and started to built a relationship that might end in a link for you.

So here are a few tips on how to write a great first outreach email:

  • Include the person’s name in the salutation (“Hi Andy” beats the hell out of “Hi/Hi there/Hiya!”).
  • Keep it short.
  • Do some research. It is really annoying to get emails from people who obviously haven’t bothered to find out what your blog/website is about and who the audience is.
  • Find something you genuinely appreciate about them/their work and mention it.
  • Be sincere. Don’t write something if you don’t mean it.
  • Don’t ask for a link. Repeat: DO NOT ASK FOR A LINK.
  • Keep. It. Short.

Motivational tip: When doing outreach marketing, always set your goal as “send X emails per day”. Don’t focus on “get X positive replies per day” as this is demotivating. “Send X emails per day” makes every email sent a small success, whereas with “get X positive replies” every email sent (without a reply) is a small defeat.

Get started with Outreach Marketing now

Wow. That certainly was a LOT to swallow. So here’s a short recap for you:

  1. Link building/outreach marketing is a long-term strategy that boosts your SEO and PR efforts.
  2. You can do it in an ethical way without spamming blogs/people.
  3. Searching for “$NICHE write for us” on Google and competitive link analysis as described above are excellent ways to find outreach opportunities.
  4. Drafting a good outreach email involves research and the email should be focused around the person you’re contacting.
  5. The immediate goal of outreach marketing is not to get a link, it is to build a relationship. Links and social shares will follow.

You’ve got all the information you need:

  • You have a big list of outreach opportunities now.
  • You have the contact details for each opportunity.
  • You know how to craft an outreach email.

All that is left now, is for you to go out and hit those contacts. Build relationships and you’ll get links.

Christoph Engelhardt is the founder of LinksSpy.com – a SaaS application built to help SEO and PR agencies dig up the most valuable outreach opportunities for their clients’ websites.