I won’t be mysterious about it — it’s links. Links make the web go around. They’re why it’s called a web in the first place.
When good websites link to you, those links are votes of confidence. Get enough votes and you win.
The hard part of this sensible SEO tactic? Getting enough of the right links, from the right people. To do that, you need two things:
- Great stuff to link to
- Relationships with solid web publishers
We hammer you endlessly with advice on #1. Today, I’m going to talk a little bit about #2.
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Relationship building: The most valuable asset you have
When you’re online, publishing content and interacting with your fellow humans, you develop a collection of what we can call assets.
But there’s one asset that’s more valuable than any of those — your reputation.
Do people know who you are? And if they do, do they want to spend more time with you?
If the answer to either question is largely No, you have a relationship-building problem.
Reputations are built with content, but maintained with relationships. If you publish good work and you are a good, honorable, and trustworthy human being, your reputation will grow.
But before you can build relationships, you have to get connected in the first place.
Who are your content crushes?
There is only one reason you should be thinking about relationship building with a publisher — you genuinely enjoy their content ideas.
Don’t try to connect with web publishers because they have giant audiences or massive influence. Connect with the ones you have a “content crush” on — the ones building something you find exciting and juicy.
Some of these folks will probably have large audiences, because exciting marketing stories tend to attract crowds. Others will have tiny audiences. Some have sites that are growing. Some have sites that are more active or less active.
You’re not going to try to become these folks. That would be weird and insulting. But you might try to find a place for yourself in their ecosystem.
What is it about their work that turns you on? Is it their values? Their approach to the topic? Their voice? Some combination of all of those?
When you take in a lot of exciting work, your own work becomes more exciting. Not because you’re copying, but because you’re inspired by different approaches to your subject.
Don’t suck up to build relationships — just be nice
If your content crushes are decent human beings, they’re going to be a bit weirded out if you immediately head over to their site and start “squeeing all over your shoes,” to use Pace Smith’s fine phrase.
People who make content share all of the insecurities, preoccupations, and problems we all have. Good people don’t like to be treated like deities.
So instead of making your content crushes into gods, geek out with them over your topic.
The subjects we write about make dandy subjects for good conversations and relationship building. Talk about their post structure, the visual detail of those YouTube tutorials, or the epic over-the-topness of that last rant.
When you talk about the work, it’s interesting. Talking about the topic is engaging. When you talk about how awesome and amazing and godlike the person is, it’s just awkward.
We’ve all done the awkward squee thing. I certainly have. Try not to be embarrassed about what you might have done in the past — just move forward with a different approach in mind.
Find teachers while building relationships
One thing about our content crushes is that a lot of them teach, either part-time or full-time.
Maybe they’re running a workshop or speaking at a conference. You won’t be able to make every one, but I bet you can make one or two a year. Meeting people in real life makes an impression that can’t be duplicated online, as much as I might love my cozy digital reality.
But we’re digital denizens, and online connections are an important part of how we connect. See if your content crush offers online classes somewhere. If they do, try to attend.
You’ll get a much closer look at why their work looks like it does … and it can be a great place to share your own experiences, polish your craft, and maybe even show off your own online business ideas a little.
Seek social playgrounds
As a writer, I admire the evocative, nimble, and hilarious writing of Gary Shteyngart.
I also admire Salman Rushdie’s multilayered verbal embroidery.
And one memorable afternoon on Twitter, I got to watch the pair of them play a game of writing handball, tossing tweets back and forth in a dizzying rush, playing with language at a sublime level.
Oh yeah, I fangirled. (Quietly.)
Social media sites make marvelous playgrounds for creative folks.
Lots of writers love the compression and immediacy of Twitter. Visual artists naturally make homes on Pinterest and Instagram, but don’t overlook a more niche playground like Sktchy.
And good old Facebook has thriving groups for nearly any endeavor you can think of, from Activism to Zentangle.
Where do your content crushes go to play?
You can go there, too. Often, you can even play in the same sandbox. Maybe you’ll make a connection with your content crush, and maybe you won’t. Either way, you’ll expand your ecosystem and strengthen your relationship-building skills.
Which brings us to an important point …
An ecosystem is not made of two people
“Be kind to everyone on the way up; you’ll meet the same people on the way down.” – playwright Wilson Mizner
If you have a secret fantasy of you and your content crush sailing off into the sunset together, I won’t judge you. We’ve all been there.
But trying to connect only with that person, and ignoring everyone else in the room, is obnoxious.
As you work on building relationships with your content crushes, you’re also building relationships with all of the other folks in the ecosystem — and that’s often where you find the greatest value.
- You’re connecting with their support teams. (Do not underestimate the value of this.)
- You’re connecting with other students.
- You’re connecting with the other writers or experts they work with.
Maybe you aren’t a brilliant expert in your own right … yet. That’s fine. Writing better content is a matter of lots of deliberate practice.
Working (and playing) within a creative ecosystem makes that relationship-building practice a lot more deliberate, and a lot more inspired.
And as you grow, you’ll meet other folks to share your obsessions with. The relationships with those folks are part of your wealth.
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Avoid these relationship killers
I would think all of these would go without saying, but … I have to tell you, people surprise me every day.
Relationships take time to build, but they can collapse in an instant. Wise relationship habits will help you keep the friendships that you form.
- If someone in your ecosystem does something that bugs you, bring it up with them privately rather than bitching about it on Twitter.
- Also avoid “Vaguebooking” — complaining on Facebook without naming names.
- When you do get the chance to work with folks, meet your deadlines and keep your promises.
- Don’t offer other sites second-rate work. Publish excellent material, everywhere you publish your blog post ideas.
- Don’t gossip. Trust me: It always, always gets back to the person you’re trashing.
- If you do or say something that isn’t great (it happens), be brave, own up to it, and do what you can to make it right. Hiding from your mistakes just makes them worse.
You already know all of these relationship-building pointers, I’m sure, but reminders can be useful. Let’s look at an example of how these ideas play out in practice.
How to build relationships
Polly Professional has a lot going on today. She has a YouTube video due, storyselling copy to write, an employee review to conduct, and two client Zoom calls.
And then it comes. Ding.
An email from Steve Stranger.
Maybe he’s a sales pro trying to set up a “quick meeting to discuss his company’s solutions,” but it’s clear he has no idea what her company does or what Polly’s role is.
Or maybe he needs a job, and he figures that being her second-cousin’s college roommate has got to qualify him for something. Or he wants to write for her company’s blog, since he’s learning how to become a freelance writer, even though he doesn’t understand the audience or the topic.
Worst of all: Maybe he wants to pick her brain.
Whose time is more valuable?
Polly grits her teeth and counts to 10, then deletes the message. She considers marking it as spam, but she’s feeling kind-hearted today.
But she is never, ever going to answer Steve’s email.
Why? Because Steve failed to respect her time with his personal writing. He didn’t do his homework.
When you approach someone without doing your homework, you send a clear message: You think your time is more valuable than theirs.
It’s annoying for Polly — but it’s murder on poor Steve. Let’s face it … sometimes we need to ask folks for stuff when relationship building. There’s nothing wrong with that. Helping one another out is an important part of business.
Steve could have spent a few minutes preparing for that request — and Polly would have been a lot more likely to consider it.
Here’s how to do your homework, so you don’t end up like Steve.
Homework tip #1: Know their work
I can’t tell you how many cold sales emails I get from people who demonstrate that they have no idea — at all — what I do.
Unlike kind Polly, I often do mark them as spam.
When you’re approaching a person or an organization, take the time to understand their work. It’s a critical step when you’re learning how to build trust in relationships.
If they have a blog … read it. Not just a week’s worth of posts — really look at it. Have they identified their most popular posts? Read those. Yes, all of them.
Look over their website, their podcast, their YouTube videos, their digital products — any content they’re putting out. If it’s an individual, take a look at what they post on LinkedIn or the other social platforms.
What recurring themes do they address? If their content tells stories … what’s the moral? Do they have a unique winning difference? What kind of language do they use to talk about that?
How does what they do make money? Who are their customers? How do they serve those customers?
“You can observe a lot by just watching.” – Yogi Berra
And that brings us to the second point …
Homework tip #2: Know their audience
Taking some time to look through a company’s website and content is pretty common-sense, even if people often don’t do it.
But smart networkers know that it’s just the beginning.
Whether you’re trying to reach a person or an organization, take a look at who their audience is.
These are readers if you’re approaching a blogger, viewers if you want to connect with a popular YouTuber, and customers if you’re approaching a business.
Influence comes from an audience. The audience is the battery of the system.
This used to be somewhat hard to do, but social media has made it much simpler.
Do they have blog comments? Read them.
Do they have a Facebook or LinkedIn presence? Tune in to the audience conversations there, not just what the influencer is saying.
And when I say “tune in,” realize I’m talking more about listening than I am about weighing in.
You can socialize later — it’s often a good idea. But first, understand who you’re socializing with.
You’re looking for what’s energizing this audience. What are their worries and struggles? What problem do they turn to this influencer or company to solve? How’s that going?
If you understand the audience, you understand the influencer. If you understand the customers, you understand the company.
Homework tip #3: Play along
You won’t always have this option available to you, but if you do, take it.
What’s your influencer or organization spending a lot of time thinking about these days?
Do they have a new product launching or a big promotion running? Do they have a book out? Maybe there’s a challenge or a community event going on. Maybe they have a charity they’re doing a lot of work with.
If you can connect what you have to offer with something they care about, it’s a lot easier for them to hear what you have to say.
Please stick with what you can readily find that’s been publicly posted online, though. Homework is good for relationship building … stalking is not.
Do your research to stand out
If all of this seems like it would take a lot of time … it probably takes about as much time to approach five people intelligently with marketing ethics as it does to approach 100 like a monkey throwing paintballs.
Those five people will be far more likely to actually stop and listen to you, because you’ve respected their time (and your own) with relevant, pertinent communication.
And you’ll stand out … because most of what’s in our inboxes is paintball after paintball.
Building relationships: one side of the equation
So — now that you have a rich ecosystem of friends, acquaintances, and professional writers who publish content about your subject, you’ll just email them 10 or 15 times a week asking for links, right?
Yeah, you know that’s not the answer.
I don’t think you have to wait around hoping your content masterpiece will get noticed. But not everything you create is a masterpiece, either.
It’s fine to let your ecosystem know what you’re working on. It’s fine to point people to your content, as long as that isn’t all you do.
You don’t want to be a self-promotional boor, but you also don’t want to be so polite that no one has the faintest idea what you do. Keep it balanced.
Remember, relationships are wonderful, but they’re just one side of the equation.
If you don’t have something on your own site that’s truly worth linking to, you won’t reap any rewards from relationship building because you won’t get good links.