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Collaborative Link Building: Tips and Tools for Working Better with Clients

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Recently Linkdex’s Jono Alderson (@jonoalderson) wrote an excellent piece about how SEO agencies should better serve clients. Here are a few snapshot takeaways from the post:

  • “Brands should consider why they’re outsourcing, rather than what.” (Original emphasis)
  • “For the most part, [outsourcing to agencies] worked, because in-house teams tend to be short of executional resource, and the agency model is designed to support these teams in a way which has worked well, for a long time.”
  • “…[But] the increasing interconnectedness of SEO – into branding, proposition, price, reputation, location, etc. – [now] makes it impossible to ‘outsource’ in its entirety.”
  • “Rather than a sweatshop for tactical outreach and campaign creation, the agency could be a strategic partner, equally invested in the brand it services. This requires both sides to change only a little and to meet in the middle.” (Emphasis added)
  • “Commercially, this makes sense for both sides, too. Brands can begin to invest in their own success and capabilities, which will generate returns over the long-term. Agencies can re-tool and re-model – often with much more flexibility than brands – to service the needs of those brands, on-demand. Both parties are doing what they do best, and maximising their impact on the bottom line.”
  • “A more collaborative approach, with tailored agreements and commercials, breaks us out of the ‘vendor-client’ trap.”

It’s a topic close to my heart, as it’s the way that I try to work with clients and an approach that I’ve taken since going self-employed as a freelance consultant 3+ years ago. I stress to clients that if they want SEO to work in the best way possible then they may have to get involved, do their bit and pull their weight – it’s not something you can successfully outsource 100%. I’ll be the first to say that this approach doesn’t always work perfectly, so it’s certainly not foolproof, but in the years that I’ve practiced and preached this philosophy, I’ve seen more and more the benefits of such an approach (on both sides) and definitely feel that it’s the direction that we should be heading in as an industry.

I’m a strong believer that SEO tasks (or any tasks) will be done best by the brand itself, in-house – after all, they know their business and their industry better than anyone. And while some SEO tasks can be outsourced to an extent (keyword research, on-site/technical SEO, Google My Business optimisation, etc.), inbound link building – as Jono talks about in his post – is certainly the most challenging piece of the SEO puzzle.

Whether you’re working with a small business and reporting directly to the business owner, or working with a larger company with a dedicated marketing department, there are different tools and tips that can be utilised to make the arrangement as smooth as possible, and therefore look towards getting better results for your clients.

Selling the idea in the first place

Ironically this can be the trickiest part – getting them on-board with the idea in the first place. As Jono suggests in his post, you might “risk losing a few (bad?) clients and pitches in the process” in doing so, with some prospects who don’t like the idea at all – but if that’s how it has to be then so be it. No one likes losing or outright turning away work, but you have to take on the right type of work and clients – for your own sanity.

The thing I’ve found over the years is that most of the clients I’ve worked with love the idea of a collaborative approach – but getting them on-board with actually following-through and ‘doing their bit’ once the work starts can be really challenging. That’s where educating them at this stage is absolutely crucial for a good working relationship.

  • Explain the approach as clearly as possible – You don’t want the client thinking that you’re simply selling them some Sexy New Way™ of doing SEO, as agencies are sometimes wont to do. They need to understand that this is a different process to traditional agency outsourcing and perhaps the way that they’ve worked with external parties in the past. It might mean a completely different way of doing SEO for them. …Ok, that sounds a bit extreme, but it’s important that they know it nonetheless, so that they can prepare for it accordingly once the work begins.
  • Give examples of successful case studies – This can be harder in the early days of selling this approach, as you may not have many case studies to back you up initially, but I now have a few nice case studies of clients who have taken the approach fully on-board and have seen fantastic results because of it. Your prospect is going to be much more motivated – and on-board with the approach – if you tell them stories of people who have previously been-there-and-done-it and who are doing really well as a result… They will also want a piece of that action.
  • Find out their internal resources – If you’re dealing with a larger company with a dedicated team, find out who is responsible for what, and how they do it. Can what you do slot in with the way that they work, to complement and improve the SEO value of what they are already working on on a day-to-day basis? Similarly, look for ‘gaps’ where what you can do will fit in really well. See yourself as an addition to the team more than an outsider.
  • Be upfront about responsibilities – Tying in with the above, it’s important very early on to understand who is responsible for what, to set the precedent. What is the client going to do? What are you (the agency/freelancer) going to do? It doesn’t necessarily have to be set in stone, especially if you have a very flexible relationship with the client – and you could even put something in place that says you’ll review how the process is going every 3 or 6 months so that you can adapt it as you go. But what you want to avoid is any assumptions that they had to do stuff that they didn’t realise, and vice versa. Getting things in writing helps, so that you/they have something to refer back to and back you up if there’s confusion or disagreements.
  • Sell the wider benefits – Not only does collaborating often lead to better SEO results, there are also other, wider benefits – such as the fact that a collaborative approach is a more transparent approach. I’ve worked with clients who have been annoyed at previous SEO agencies who haven’t told them what they’re actually doing for them, and therefore have no idea what they’re actually paying for on a monthly basis – just getting a simplistic Google Analytics PDF report at the end of every month instead. By collaborating you have no choice but to be transparent, as they are directly related in the work (and its success).

Tips & tools for collaborating

You’ve got them sold on the idea – but now you (and they) have to commit. Here are a few tips and tools that have served me well and continue to do so. Even if you don’t adopt this approach in its entirely (or even at all), some of the below tips/tools may be useful for you anyway.

Start with small victories

Sometimes, the trickiest part can be getting over that first hurdle. As soon as you start getting results through this process – and the clients sees the difference for themselves, whether through more enquiries/sales, stronger rankings, etc. – then they’ll only want to pursue it more and more.

Start off with ‘easier’ tactics initially – the ‘quick win’ stuff. If the client is investing their own time and resources into this, you need to make sure that it’s paying off and that they see it as a worthwhile way of working. If you’re working with a larger team, see if there’s one person who’s particularly ‘involved’. For example, a few years ago we tried to get a client on-board with guest blogging (pre-2014, back in its glory days…) but only one out of about 6 of the team was interested. However as soon as that solitary guest blogger got a post published on a big industry blog, the other 5 noticed… and wanted in on the action. We went from having only one guest blogger client-side to 6, meaning that we had roughly 6x more content to disperse.

Get the client working to their strengths & passions

I’ve blogged before about getting clients excited about SEO and working to their strengths and passions – to reiterate an example from that post, a client hated writing (meaning guest blogging was pretty much out of the question) but loved making videos, so we crafted a link building strategy that made use of producing and publishing videos as a link building tactic.

Beyond their strengthens/skills, go with clients’ preferences as well. Another client of mine loves guest blogging, as he loves to share expertise and wants to be seen as his industry’s authority. Yes, it is a harder tactic these days, but he loves it so much that he’s a) willing to go for it nonetheless, and b) put the extra effort in to make sure that every post is a killer post. For that reason we’ve had a very decent level of success from it, even these days.

Use a project management tool for collaborative working

Trello is my weapon of choice, but there are so many alternatives out there. Go with what you’re comfortable with, or – better yet – find out if the client has a preference…. They’re going to be much more on-board if they’re using something they’re already familiar with than starting from scratch with something new (which they might see as yet another thing being dropped on their already-busy workload)…

Trello board screenshot
Don’t make the mistake of over-doing it though – I worked with a web designer who got me and my client on Slack, Asana and Basecamp. Did we really need all three tools at once? Probably not. The additional risk here is that communications were spread across multiple platforms and channels (including email as well), resulting in messages getting missed, etc.

Bonus tip – Colour-code the heck out of it, for easier at-a-glance browsing. For the Trello example above, we use red for AdWords, light blue for guest blogging, dark blue for PR requests (e.g. HARO), pink for blog posts, yellow for social media stuff, and so on.

Find out the best day/times & places to work together

Where this approach tends to struggle is when you’re reliant on the client to do something, but they’re a very busy individual. One of my clients takes this to extreme – he makes headless chickens look chill. However I soon found out that Fridays were his quietest (read: least chaotic) days, so I tend to have a catch-up with him, fire him emails, chase him on stuff, etc. on Fridays, keeping comminucation Mon-Thu to an absolute minimum. Straight away I noticed a difference in how often he got back to me on various things.

Similarly, unless you only have the option to work purely remotely, try and meet up and work together whenever possible. With the client above, we meet at their premises – you’ve guessed it – on Fridays. For the most part it makes sense to do so at the client’s offices, but you’d be surprised… One client admitted to me that she preferred to get out of the office (away from the distractions, etc.) and meet up and work with me at my premises (a coworking space) instead.

The onus is on you to coach them

If you proceed with this approach, and your client is on-board with it as well, then it’s your responsibility to help them see it through. It’s important that you keep them motivated and involved. In this post I’ve talked a lot about the possibility that they may not pull their weight – but you also need to pull yours. Otherwise it’ll be even worse than if you didn’t do this approach in the first place.

I refer to it as a sort of link building ‘coaching’ role. You’re not quite an agency/freelancer (doing it all yourself), but you’re not quite a consultant (only advising) – you’re somewhere in the middle. Make sure that you fit the role, helping them to do their bit by doing yours.

Realise that sometimes it won’t work (and have a plan in place if so)

While Jono and I think it’s the way to go, this type of approach is still in its infancy. And as I mentioned earlier, some clients will say “yes” to it during the sales stage, but struggle to actually get involved and implement their parts of it. The problem here is that results may not happen (or they won’t be as good as forecast), and – ultimately – as the freelancer/agency, you may still get the blame…

If you notice that they’re struggling, try to address it ASAP. If they’re struggling to create content internally for example, suggest an outsourced copywriter and/or have the posts ‘ghost-written’ for them. It’s not something I like doing, but something is better than nothing – they also have to realise that a) the quality may suffer as a result (and therefore SEO results may suffer in turn), and b) they may still have to be involved anyway (e.g. checking the copywriter’s work for factuality) – so does it make sense for them to just go ahead and do it anyway…? There might be an in-between, e.g. getting the copywriter to whip their notes into shape, so it’s not 100% ghost-written, just ‘tidied up’ instead.

As a worst case scenario, if you’re really struggling to get them on-board, you may have to have the difficult conversation of terminating the contract, and recommending that they work with another agency that has another approach instead (e.g. an agency that doesn’t collaborate as heavily and does most of it at their end). Nobody likes turning away work and firing clients, but trust me – the last thing you’ll want to do is draw it out and flog a dead horse, only for the client to turn around 6-12 months later and say “so this isn’t working… why didn’t we end things earlier?”

But when it does work…

Ok, so it doesn’t work for everyone. But when it does work, it’s beautiful.

For a start, if the client gets to a point where they can do certain tasks themselves internally, it’ll ‘free up’ your time to work on other SEO areas instead. Rather than doing the same tasks over and over when the client could do them themselves, you could look into and assess new avenues and opportunities, which is really exciting.

It may even get to a point where they won’t need you as much any more, or at all… In fact, to quote an old success story:

“…It was good to see a client learning how to do link building themselves, so that they could carry it on without my involvement. In fact, I no longer provide SEO for them – mainly because they’re happy to maintain it themselves on an on-going basis. While this would be a shame for some SEOs (a paying client calling it a day), I was chuffed, as it’d shown that my consulting had worked and we left things on very good terms. It left me with a warm feeling inside, saying “my work here is done” while I rode off into the sunset…”

No one likes to lose a client. But when it’s in those circumstances, I really don’t mind… 🙂

Riding off into the sunset image
I was delighted to read Jono’s post – it’s an approach that I haven’t seen many people talk about, so seeing someone so highly regarded in the industry talking about it is an exciting sign that I’m not entirely mad… 😉 In all seriousness though, it will be interesting to see in 3/6/12/24 months’ time the blog posts being written on the subject. I genuinely, hand-on-heart feel that this is where we need to go as an industry. So… Will you join me?

If you also adopt this type of approach already and have additional tips and tools to share then please do so in the comments below, or tweet me: @steviephil.

[Images credits – collaborative team: my own creation, using Prisma (a big thank you to various coworkers up at Welsh ICE for being my ‘models’); Trello board screenshot: my own creation; riding into the sunset: Andy Smith]



CIM-qualified Online Marketing & SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) Consultant with 8 years of online marketing experience: 4 years' agency experience; around 6 months' experience working in-house for a national household name in the insurance industry; now freelancing full-time.
  • Hi Steve,

    Thanks for sharing. Your post is very informative

  • Zia

    Hi Steve, you just shared a great source of information. Thanks for the tips and tools, these really a big help to deal with the client/s. I’ll be looking forward to more of these.

    Zia | AdWords Audit