+ Why Startups Need SEO Link Building
+ Phase 1. Build a Foundation
+ Phase 2. Collaborate with Journalists & Editors (Or Become the Journalist)
+ Phase 3. Create a Media Kit
+ Phase 4. Ongoing Relationship Management
+ Other Ways to Build Links for a New Startup
You’re in a startup. Your idea is solid. You’ve got products or services ready to go. You have a feeling that if people only knew what you were offering, they’d be all over your company.
Your biggest problem now is exposure, and the solution is marketing. More specifically, your solution is media exposure, a cost-effective and universally practical shortcut to get more visibility for your startup, and fast.
Throughout this guide, we’ll introduce you to the ins and outs of media exposure, why it’s important, how to get it, and most importantly, how to be effective with it. Along the way, we’ll be seeing examples from our good friend SMB Sam, and his small startup, Red Diamond Coffee.
As always, be sure to scope out our table of contents and skip ahead to the sections that are most relevant for you and your brand.
The full PDF version of this guide is available for download here.
I should also note that most of the advice in this guide isn’t strictly limited to startups, though this is the intended audience. Almost any company, at any stage of development and in any industry, can gain from media exposure—just in different ways, with different keys to success.
The Internet has fueled an almost exponential growth in startups. Industries worldwide see a total of about 50 million new startups per year. Now, the only question is:
How am I going to make visibility to my startup?
From biotechnology to social media, each year sees a staggering number of new businesses. Each one struggles to get its operations off the ground to profitability. A few get lucky by landing a generous venture capitalist who is willing to shell out millions of dollars for their growth.
Not all startups get lucky, obviously. Some fold after months of fighting to break even. Others pump thousands, even millions, of dollars of their own funds into the new venture.
But a few startups quietly rake in profits from the get-go. Even without the help of angel investors, these winners often take advantage of a factor the others fail to fully utilize: Search Engine Optimization.
Experts disagree about whether startups need SEO or not. Some contend that all a startup needs are brilliant ideas and access to VC funding, which is what happened in the case of Facebook and Twitter.
But if luck isn’t on your side, and no investor is buying your story, SEO can be a solid bet, for several great reasons.
#1: Most online experiences begin with a search
About 93% of all online experiences start with a search. That’s an astounding figure, given the fact that, at any moment in time, hundreds of millions of people are online. Most rely on search engines more than social media recommendations when they look for products or services. The subjects of searches range from plumbing to roofing to health care and cosmetic surgery.
If your startup isn’t optimized for search, chances are your customers will end up finding your competitors instead.
#2 SEO provides proof of sustainability
If you are running a startup and looking for a significant amount of funds to expand your business, it’s just not enough to have brilliant ideas on your side. One of the first things investors look for are proofs of sustainability.
How visible is your site during searches? How much traffic does your business attract on a monthly basis? How many of your visitors convert into leads? What amount of link building have you engaged in? Has your link building been white-hat?
While investors may not ask you these questions directly, when you can show them the numbers, you will start from a position of tremendous confidence and impress your audience.
Proper SEO helps ensure that a significant number of highly targeted people will visit your site on a monthly basis and many of them will likely be converted into paying customers.
#3 Marketing intelligence
Marketing intelligence used to be a highly expensive proposition. Mega-corporations spend billions of dollars a year to find out what the market wants. With SEO, you will have an extremely affordable method of sussing out the market.
You will gain access to what your target audience is specifically searching for, how many people are looking for the products you are offering, and what language they use to find your business.
You may also gain information on factors driving people toward your business that you might not even have considered.
#4 Cost-effective lead generation
Developing leads to whom you can steadily market your products and services can also be extremely costly. With the advent of SEO, however, getting your products right into the faces of your target customers has become remarkably cheap. The rise of Social SEO has made it even easier to get the word out about your business, at an even faster rate.
#5 SEO lets startups build a solid search engine reputation
SEO can not only push startups to the top of searches; it also provides them with an effective way to build a solid reputation online. In the cut-throat world of Internet marketing, competitors sometimes generate damaging reviews about a business.
With proper SEO strategies, you can dominate the search engines with your own content, and direct your target audience to favorable reviews when they search for you or your business.
#6 SEO helps you expand your niches
By properly researching your market using SEO tools and strategies, you could identify niches related to your business that no other companies have yet explored. You can also dominate your local market by identifying your business with local attributes.
Before you go off trying to get media exposure for your company, you need to build a solid foundation—meaning you have to develop your brand and your online presence to a sufficient degree in order to support your media efforts.
Why? For starters, media outlets need a reason to feature you. If you don’t even have a website, or a fleshed-out brand, they’ll be unlikely to cover your story. Even if they did, where would all your newfound visitors and brand enthusiasts go? There would be no website or base of operations to which you could funnel them.
The strength of your foundation will dictate your ease of entry in the media world, and help you realize the benefits of your efforts.
First, you need to have a grasp of your brand story, which many media sources will use to judge the strength of your potential coverage. Journalists are incentivized to write stories that people want to read—so is your brand exciting? Is it relevant? Is it different?
These are the qualities that will let them know:
(Image Source: Nestle)
(Image Source: Wall Street Journal)
Once your brand “story” is developed, your next biggest concern should be where your readers are going to go once they’ve read about you in a media piece. Surely, you’ll receive some referral traffic, but how you handle that referral traffic can make or break its value.
For most startups, this will be your main website, but you might also create specific landing pages as destinations (or target specific internal pages).
In any case, your design and copy need to be tight. They need to accurately portray your brand for an unfamiliar public, and appeal to them with new angles and extended descriptions. Remember that your media coverage will likely only skim the surface of who you are and what you do.
You’ll also need to focus on your conversion strategy, which is going to help you turn these barely-familiar web visitors into leads or customers.
For this, you’ll either need to point your visitors in the direction of your products or services pages through use of your web design, or else present them with signup opportunities throughout the site.
Run some AB tests to optimize your conversion efforts before you start seeking media coverage; otherwise, that traffic could go to waste.
It’s also worth noting that a dedicated website isn’t the only place you can funnel media traffic, especially as a new startup. For example, let’s say SMB Sam is working on a new type of beverage to bring his usual coffee drinkers, but he needs capital to be able to fund it. He creates a page on Kickstarter to attract donations. Clearly, there’s an incentive to get people to his website, but for the moment, what he really needs is more donors; this makes his crowdfunding campaign page a higher priority.
Crowdfunding pages aren’t the only alternative destinations you can consider. For example, you might also funnel people from your media outlets to your social media profiles, or an example of your work somewhere else.
Before you get involved in any media interactions, you should have a blog in place on your website, complete with many posts that show off your thought leadership and expertise. There are three main reasons for this:
Starting a blog demands a heavy upfront investment, as it’s not something you can gloss over, but it’s worth it if you want your media campaign to make a bigger impact. For help starting or feeding a blog, see our article outlining how to promote your online content for maximum impact.
You’ll also want to consider creating or utilizing a personal brand, rather than just a corporate brand, when trying to promote your business. Essentially, a personal brand works just like a corporate brand, except for you as an entrepreneur; you’ll create an identity standard for yourself, build recognition and popularity, then reap the benefits by using your personal brand to also promote your company.
There are a handful of advantages here for media relations. First, people tend to like stories about other people more than stories about brands or companies. As the leader of your startup, you’ll serve as a figurehead for your company, representing both the business and the personal side of things. You’ll have an easier time working with journalists, since you’ll be able to form a more personal connection, and you’ll seem less self-promotional since the corporate branding takes on a secondary role.
It’s also worth noting that any media exposure you get as a personal brand will last longer than your startup, extending beyond the context of any one business. If you plan on starting multiple businesses (including perhaps starting your own SEO business), this is crucial.
Take a look at how Elon Musk has developed his own personal brand—he has his own section on Popular Mechanics as well as Entrepreneur.com, and his name is recognized more than any of his individual companies.
(Image Source: Popular Mechanics)
You probably won’t achieve this level of fame, but your benefits will be similar.
For both your corporate brand and your personal brand, you’ll want to start building a bigger social media following. You can do this by promoting your on-site content, sharing the work of others, engaging in conversations relevant to your industry, and reaching out to individuals who might be interested in your work.
A bigger, more relevant social following will help you in the following ways:
Here’s a perfect example of how a strong social media campaign generated media exposure on its own:
(Image Source: ABC News)
Early on, while you’re still building your foundation, it’s a good idea to strike up relationships with journalists you feel might be relevant to your brand. A major factor for success in the media exposure world is the strength and reach of your connections, so the sooner you initiate these connections, the better.
There are many places to look for journalists, some of which are more obvious than others. You can generally find their contact information on their respective publishers’ sites, but a better way to find them is to meet them through social networking sites or in-person networking events. You can even find them in journalist-specific meetups. They likely receive an overwhelming number of queries through their professional emails, so you’ll stand out more if you meet them in person.
You don’t have to do anything special when starting a connection. Simply introduce yourself, ask them about their position and about their work, and leave the door open for future interactions. If you really want to stick in their memory, help them out in some way or take them out for lunch or coffee in the near future.
In addition to hunting down some journalists, you’ll also want to create a kind of “watch list” for news sources and publishers who may wish to publish content related to your brand in the future. This will make things much easier when it comes time to shop around a potential story.
You don’t need anything fancy here; a simple spreadsheet will do. There are four things you’ll want to record, in addition to any special notes you might have.
(Image Source: Adam Sherk)
Finally, you’ll want to start tapping into the power of influencers, if you can. Influencer marketing is the process of engaging with noteworthy, high-authority individuals (usually strong personal brands or other thought leaders in your industry) to gain exposure or authority for your brand. The best way to do this is through ongoing relationships with key influencers, such as regular conversations, content collaborations, or other exchanges of value. The earlier you scout for and build these relationships, the more power you’ll be able to tap, especially later on.
Influencers will help your content and social media campaigns grow, multiplying the benefits of these foundational elements (which I’ve already covered above). They may also be able to help you find new journalists and new publishers, as they tend to be well-connected in their respective industries.
With all these aspects in place, your foundation will be more or less complete. From there, you’ll be able to start doing the work of attracting and creating media exposure opportunities.
Once you’ve got your foundation in place, you’re ready to start communicating with journalists and publishers.
Start by identifying which publishers to target. I covered seven essential quality metrics for evaluating publishers in my article at Search Engine Land. One of those, Google PageRank, has since been discontinued. Here are the other six:
You may already have an idea of which media outlets you want to get covered in. If not, Alexa.com has a fantastic list of publishers, listed in order of the amount of traffic they get, and you can break them down by category. If you don’t know where to start, start here!
There are many different types of news outlets, and many different ways you can approach your delivery of news content related to your company. These include writing and submitting your own press release, pitching a story, and collaborating with others for a joint project. I’ll be exploring each of these in turn.
Your first option is the easiest (and the most approachable for entrepreneurs unfamiliar with garnering media exposure). In this process, you’ll use a newsworthy event related to your company and distribute it to a host of potential news sources using a service like PRWeb, Cision, or just about any PR firm. Those sources may reject, edit, or publish your piece directly on their sites, giving you potential exposure across the web.
If this process seems easy, it’s because it is. Just don’t count on every publisher you encounter to run with your piece.
Collaborations and exclusives are different types of news stories, and they don’t rely on the manual submission of articles to be published. Oftentimes, this is the joint work of a journalist and a personal brand/entrepreneur/individual, so you’ll need either a pre-existing relationship with a journalist, or a strong enough reputation to earn these pieces on your own.
You’ll get varying degrees of exposure and reputation boosts depending on the type of collaboration you choose. These are just a few:
One fantastic way to do so is to sign up for HARO (Help a Reporter Out), which will put you on an email list that will send you opportunities that may be of interest to you. Basically, reporters who need sources for their stories can solicit them via HARO, and if you find a story for which you think you could be a good source, you can contact the journalist and offer your assistance. It’s free, and it’s a great way to connect with journalists who write about your industry.
(Image Source: HARO)
Press release submission demands that you create your own material. Collaborations require that you have either something important, valuable, or knowledgeable to say, or have a pre-existing reputation.
Pitching, on the other hand, mandates neither of these requirements; you don’t have to do the writing (unless you want to), you don’t have to have a newsworthy event in mind, and you don’t need to have a pre-existing reputation.
The idea here is to come up with a story that news readers would want to see. It could be an industry profile, a review of local businesses, or (depending on the source) something more niche along content marketing lines, like business strategies or economic tips. Then, contact a journalist and pitch your story. It could either be a story idea, or the full written story itself. If the journalist likes what you pitched, they’ll reply.
As always, the stronger your relationship with the journalist you’re pitching to, the better chances you’ll have of seeing your story written and/or published. And no matter who you’re pitching to, or what you’re pitching, there are a handful of strategies that will help you be successful:
***Self promotion alert!***
At SEO.co, our core business model is to help our clients get media exposure by building relationships with journalists, editors, and media publications so that we can pitch them stories that are beneficial for their audiences as well as our clients. When these stories are published, our clients get media exposure, mentions, and SEO benefits, while our media partners get awesome content for their audiences. If you think we could help you get media exposure, don’t hesitate to contact us!
My favorite way to get media coverage is simple in theory, but difficult in practice – become the journalist. You can do so by becoming a guest contributor, or even a regular columnist at your publication(s) of choice.
The general idea of SEO guest blogging is to use your personal brand as a way to post your content on external publications, building exposure, reaching new audiences, earning links, and earning a more authoritative reputation in the process.
Guest blogging is how I became a contributor at dozens of online media publications, including Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, The Huffington Post, Search Engine Land, and more. It’s a phenomenal tool for markers and shouldn’t be ignored.
Most of my tips in this section have been focused on online publishers, which are the most prominent, and generally the easiest to access. However, be aware that most of the strategies here—including pitching ideas and helping reporters with one-off contributions—can be applied to television and radio as well.
These mediums are more appropriate for some brands (such as retail and traditional industries) than others (like startups and tech companies).
Once you’ve started building a foundational reputation through media collaboration, and you’ve established a reputation for yourself online, you’ll start receiving press inquiries from journalists.
That’s when a media kit comes in handy. A media kit doesn’t have any formal requirements. Instead, it serves a simple purpose; giving potential journalists and publishers all the information and assets they need in order to represent your brand appropriately in their material.
Some brands have a .zip file of this information, while others simply consolidate it onto a single page of their website.
Your media kit needs to tell your “brand story,” which I touched on a bit earlier. Here, you’ll need to present this information with a bit more formality, so it’s clear to the average user where you stand.
Journalists love to cite facts and figures, so the more objective data points you can include about your brand, the better. This also further incentivizes them to link back to your site, as they’ll need a citation for the statistical data meaning it can help your SEO campaign.
To give you some ideas for what types of data to post, here are some suggestions:
It wouldn’t be a media kit without media, right? But the media I’m referring to here is different from the “media” as it describes news sources and publications. This is the visual sense of the word “media,” referring to tangible elements that a publisher may use to enhance or supplement their coverage of your brand:
It’s also a good idea to include instructions and policies about how, exactly, people are allowed to use this information. You could hire a lawyer and draft up a formal agreement that digs into detail about how your assets and statistics are to be used, but this is generally more trouble than it’s worth.
For most brands, an informal, or even conversational request is more than enough to make sure your information is used appropriately. Besides, all your brand assets are protected under general intellectual property laws, so you don’t need to worry about plagiarism or theft.
As a great example, check out MailChimp’s brand assets page. They take some time to show exactly how not to use their brand, clarifying some common misconceptions, then make a few simple statements about when you can and can’t use their information. It’s simple, to-the-point, easy to follow, and doesn’t demand that your external publishers get legal representation before giving you free media exposure.
There are some ongoing considerations you’ll need to bear in mind as your reputation grows, and you start striving for higher goals. Media relations aren’t something that can be initiated or executed as one-time events; they demand management and refinement over time.
You’ll need to manage your relationships with journalists, influencers, editors, and publishers on a regular basis. If you lose contact for too long, you could lose them from your network entirely; here’s how to keep your contacts happy and engaged:
You’ll also want to take advantage of any cross-promotional opportunities you can find. Usually, this involves supporting a press release or coverage article on an external publisher by using your own marketing campaigns.
For example, you might share a positive press piece on your personal brand’s social media channel, or email it out to your subscribers. Refer to my introductory section on media coverage’s “relationship to other marketing strategies” for more ideas.
Finally, don’t forget to take ownership of your latest publication opportunities by showcasing your affiliation with major publication brands. On your website, you should have a rotating list of publishers, or a collage of different logos of those publishers, to demonstrate social proof and make your reputation known.
Similarly, you’ll want to reference your partnerships and previous coverage in every new pitch or every new relationship you create; this will help you land even bigger and better opportunities in the future.
Next up, we’ll look at how to successfully build links for a startup.
If done properly you can get tons of new users to your website with a small marketing budget. The basic equation to SEO is simple: find useful keywords to target + ensure your website is optimized + build links.
I won’t be going over the first two parts of the equation, so here are some SEO tutorials to get you going.
The section of SEO that newcomers find daunting is link building. It can be tough to build high quality, white hat links to a new website. Also building links to a startup can be very different than to backlink building for an ecommerce website.
Lucky for you, I’m here to help!
I’m going to walk you through five link building strategies that will get your startup ranking in no time. To demonstrate clear examples, let’s pretend we have a SAAS company that sells an appointment booking calendar app named Calendar Pro. Click here if you want the complete list of link building strategies (totaling 77).
1. Run a PR Campaign
Good old PR is still one of the best ways to build links to a website. You can get links from massive publications with a little bit of work. Coverage on these publications can also drive lots of new users to your website, regardless of links.
The most important part of any public relations campaigns is that you have something to talk about. When reaching out to reporters, make sure you tell them why your company is different and why what you’re doing is special. What does your app do different? What service are you providing that nobody else is?
Another important aspect is picking the right reporter and getting their personal email. In most cases, pitching to a general support email will go unnoticed. Make sure they’ve covered a similar topic before and what you’re saying interests them. For example, Samantha Kelly at Mashable has written an article about the Google Calendar app.
She’s a perfect person to pitch to! Now you need her personal email. Go to Find Any Email, toss in her First Name, Last Name, and Email and get it.
Once you have her email, shoot her an email saying:
Now that you know the basic process, who do you pitch to? There should be two levels to your public relations campaign for link building:
Find relevant local publications that may be interested in covering your story. Local newspapers and blogs love covering things going on in their hometown. For example, if Calendar Pro was based in Toronto, I might send emails to the Globe and Mail, BlogTO, and CBC.
No matter what your startup does, there are most likely a number of blogs which write about it. In my mind, Calendar Pro falls into two main categories: SAAS and business organization. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of websites which cover these topics. Think Tech.co, Entrepreneur, and Forbes.
2. Sign up for Startup Lister
Startup Lister is a service which submits your startup to over 70+ directories for a single price of $89. I know, I know; people worry about building links from directories, but these are high quality listings that will benefit your website.
Personally, aside from links, I’ve seen these listings drive a number of sign ups to new startups.
I believe this is a no brainer for startups that will give your website a little kick in the butt and get you going. The websites they send to include: Venture Beat, G2Crowd, The Verge, and Forbes Technology.
They also have higher priced packages where they will do the PR and link building outreach for you to relevant industry blogs. While this isn’t a complete replacement for doing PR yourself, if you’re funded and have some cash to spare, it may be well worth it.
**I am not affiliated with Startup Lister at all. Just a happy customer.
3. Competitive Link Building
The premise of competitive link building is pretty simple: get a list of your competitors, find their backlinks, and try and replicate them. Calendar Pro would have a number of competitors, but for this example we’ll use Calendly.
To find a website’s links, you’ll have to get a subscription to either Ahrefs or Majestic. These programs will give you a list of any website’s backlinks. Ahrefs has a free trial you can use, but I’ll be using Majestic, as they work very similarly.
Enter your competitor’s domain and press “backlinks”.
Then find relevant resource pages or articles where you can ask for a link.
For example, this article from Business2Community is about tools that help with B2B sales management. You can email the author and ask that you be included.
Or this list of scheduling apps on Zapier: https://zapier.com/blog/best-meeting-scheduler-apps/ is another perfect opportunity.
You can replicate this across all of your competitors to get a massive list of link opportunities.
4. Reclaim Brand Mentions
This link building tactic is more passive than the rest, but important nonetheless. It helps you pick up mentions of your startup across the web that may not have linked to the website. Those are golden opportunities for links!
The premise is simple: they’ll send you a notification if your startup is mentioned (ex. Calendar Pro). If there’s no link, simply email the website or author and ask them to add your link. If you tell them you’re starting out and it’ll greatly benefit your business, chances are they’ll add it.
And there’s more! You can also add in your competitors to track them online as well. Similar to the competitive link building method, you can chime in and possibly get your link added as well.
5. Create a Free Tool
For this tactic, you can either create a new tool from scratch or offer a freemium version of your software. If you’re a startup company, chances are you have developers who can create a small tool with ease.
A free tool is considered a “linkable asset” and gives you a good reason to reach out to blogs.
For Calendar Pro, an example would be to develop a free program where people can input their phone numbers to get text alerts before a meeting. A simple page with meeting time, number of alerts, and phone number.
When the tool is developed, you can do another small PR campaign and reach out to relevant sources who would be interested. You can also search for “free calendar tools” on Google to find websites who may be interested in linking to the tool.
People are more likely to link to a free product than paid. Also, the tool will get shared organically if it’s useful!
Media exposure manifests in so many different forms, it almost can’t be categorized in a coherent, singular way. Press releases and guest posts are very different strategies, but they can be leveraged together as part of the same path to greater brand exposure.
For a startup in the early stages of development, with few customers and not much to build on other than a central idea, the approachability, cost-effectiveness, and scalability of media relations makes it one of the most effective marketing strategies you can pursue.
Its power is multiplied even further when you use it in conjunction with other powerful online marketing strategies, provided you’re following best practices throughout.
There’s no single list of takeaways I can leave you with here, other than to keep in mind that everything in brand exposure and external publications boils down to your relationships. The better you build and maintain relationships with your customers, journalists, editors, and even the general public, the better you’re going to fare.
Media exposure is very much connected in a self-perpetuating feedback loop, so the more visibility you earn, the easier it will be to obtain future visibility—but the only way to gain that initial visibility is by instilling trust in your earliest relationships. Maintain a brand and a strategy with integrity, remain passionate, and stay committed; the rest will come in time.