Earning Links With Journalists, What Do You Need to Know?
Content Marketing

Earning Links With Journalists, What Do You Need to Know?

22nd January 2019

Link building is tough.

Gaining links from media publications through content-led outreach is proving to be more and more difficult for two main reasons. The first is that traditional PR agencies are coming to the realisation that digital is the way forward and adopting more digital services. In the past decade, PR has muscled into the SEO space by taking some ownership of link building. Traditional PRs are now battling against SEO agencies looking to acquire links for their clients.

The second reason is that the rise of digital has also had a profound impact on journalism. In the highly competitive world of online news, the battle to attract audiences is harder than ever. They are also more digital marketing ‘savvy’ and now monetising what was previously editorially-driven decision making – turning content, or more specifically backlinks, into a commercial decision. Over the past few years, the lines between editorial and advertorial are beginning to blur, and I’ve found there seems to be a rise in sponsored content. We now have to pay for traditional press releases? This is from a business news site…

I have some frustrations with this, as outlined in another State of Digital blog.

In theory, the two industries should go happily hand in hand. However, when SEOs and PRs get lazy, real tensions and frustrations arise. Link building is a perfectly legitimate process that has been tainted by bad practice, which leads to a bad reputation. A recent debate was sparked on whether companies should expect links to be included in articles, from an editor from The Times, Deirdre Hipwell.

I have had two PRs emailing me Today asking for a hyperlink to their company’s website in articles I have written.I wish this intensely annoying trend in [generally consumer] pr would STOP.Isnt it enough the company is mentioned without trying to wangle free advertising too.Grrr

— Deirdre Hipwell (@DeirdreHipwell) November 6, 2018

This came from a link reclamation request.

FYI please ensure link reclamation requests are timely and appropriate. Use Google alerts or Ahrefs alert brand mentions, so you can jump on it. But please assess whether asking for a link fits in with the editorial context. It needs to add value and be relevant.

This had SEOs coming out in force. Responding with questions and statements such as

  • Is this free advertising?
  • Should they charge for the link even if it is a natural and relevant placement?
  • Does it devalue the journalist if an external link is included?
  • Adding the link is adding context, it is mutually beneficial. If you can help out a source that’s helped you, why wouldn’t you do that?
  • The web was built to cross reference pages.

As you can see, it is certainly a healthy debate. I think both journalists and SEOs need more understanding of each other’s industries.

The tension between PRs and journos is nothing new, as you can see from the journalists’ frustrations in Smug Journo. But in reality, the majority of the content has been supplied by PRs and communication professionals, whether it’s a full-blown article or just comment or opinion. There are even tools which fuel this such as HARO and Response Source which enable journalists to get content from PRs.

From my perspective, coverage and links are earned, they aren’t an entitlement. Whilst I have frustrations with monetising editorial content, I understand that the worlds of journalism and digital marketing are increasingly intertwined.

Journalists aren’t the enemy; they’re a vital part of a successful content-led link building campaign. But many need to get clued up quick. Links offer credibility and more information for readers. In recent years, part of that request to journalists has been to include a link, something that is more important than ever because links are a currency of SEO and are increasingly becoming a deliverable of brand teams.

Earning Links

SEO professionals, and now PRs, need to earn links for their clients. It’s as simple as that in many ways.

As Google states: “An express link, e.g. a hyperlink, is a link that is included in a source resource that a user can follow to navigate to a target resource. An implied link is a reference to a target resource, e.g. a citation to the target resource, which is included in a source resource but is not an express link to the target resource. Thus, a resource in the group can be the target of an implied link without a user being able to navigate to the resource by following the implied link.”

In other words, Google can see a brand mention as a ranking signal for the website with which it is associated, even if there is no link. So just create good, useful, and relevant content. SEO is becoming more and more about earned media and editorial quality.

For the relationship between SEOs and PRs to improve, it is important that each respects the others’ areas of expertise – which if done correctly and respectfully, includes asking for a link if relevant.

What do journalists want? (How do we earn the link?)

The most important factor is to get the hook or angle of the content right. What kind of story will their audience share? This is a huge KPI for journalists. Journalists say they feel pressure to think about their story’s potential for sharing on social media. So we need to ask ourselves what story or headline is a journalist going to be interested in, and therefore their audience is going to read?

What works:

  • Human connection – People share things that relate to them. Give your content a human connection and it’s likely to get picked up.
  • Is what you’re offering unique? – Is it the first? The only? The longest? What is different or surprising?
  • Teaching – DIY/Behind the Scenes/How-to style content. Always works.
  • Reputable – Experience/diverse sources/data add credibility. More opinions add more value.
  • Move and align the content away from your brand – Don’t give journalists the excuse to take your content for an advertorial.

Another starting point is to understand exactly what the journalist writes about, and therefore what they will be interested in sharing. Review what the journalist is writing about and what other sources they are citing in their articles. There is no substitute for doing your research and source journalists that are specifically relevant to you.

For the PRs out there, it’s important to remember that online audiences digest content in a different way to readers of printed media. They tend to digest shorter, punchier pieces that they can retweet or post on social channels. Don’t forget to tailor your content for a web-based audience.

For the SEOs out there, please write for people, not search engines. Please create content that adds value and has a purpose, rather than trying to optimise it for SEO. People, and also Google, are only really interested in truly engaging content that reads naturally.

It is common knowledge that branded links are easiest to acquire, but to encourage journalists to link out, you need to give them a tangible link target. Rather than simply linking to a brand’s website, you should include a link to a page on the website that offers further information or other incentives to link away. Original data and research are superb for this. Perhaps stick a white paper here, or present the content in a graph? Or even make it interactive?

Outreach Tips

Plan your schedule around theirs. Avoid outreaching and pitching on Mondays and Fridays.

Offer an exclusive to your high priority media targets. Make them feel special and stroke their ego.

Open and honest communications are needed.

Don’t forget to personalise it, and get the subject line right. The person reading your subject line should immediately understand why you are contacting them and the nature of your inquiry.

Be nice and informal. Keep it simple!


Explain the value.

Make it as easy as possible for the journalists. Include everything they need.

Don’t forget to do follow-ups. A journalist’s inbox is crazy. Give the journalist FOMO, and in the follow-up, let them know you’ll offer it elsewhere if they won’t use it.

Pitches are missed all the time, even if relevant to the media, and often they’ll pick it up the second time around.

“Yes please Becky!”

It’s not over here though, build that rapport as you may have content in the future you can throw over to Becky.

Why not share the coverage?

And don’t forget to get it right first time. Journalists are time poor. They don’t want to have to go back into articles and amend them. It keeps your credibility intact too.

If the journalist wants money for the content like Janet…

That’s no worries, just move on. We don’t pay for links around here.

But in all seriousness, there is a big need to stay ethical and keep on top of the industry.

Put simply, encouraging writers to link to related articles within the same site can have beneficial effects for both reader and site. Journalists should love to receive pitches filled with hard quotes, punchy stats and thoughtful insights with or without links. If it’s relevant, then there is no harm.

But they should not simply place a link somewhere in the paragraph with little or no context, and don’t force readers to click elsewhere. BUT they should cite correctly, and if that includes a link, then link.

Finally, it’s important to educate clients and stakeholders on link building best practice and also reassure them that gaining links is not the be all and end all.

The landscape will continue to change, so it’s vital for all of us to keep on top of any developments and trends. And as a matter of priority, we must all make sure we do business ethically.


Written By
Alex is PR Director at Motive PR. He has specialist expertise in digital PR and content marketing. With extensive offline and online experience, Alex currently helps clients increase their visibility through PR, at the same time as building on their search engine marketing efforts.
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