Buying Awareness to Build Links

It’s a common dilemma. You work hard to publish a great piece of content, but no one notices it. How can you build an audience when you don’t have one? One solution is to buy the initial traction, which I explored in a recent presentation at a meetup in Seattle.

I apologize for the poor sound quality... and my pauses. I wanted to share some additional details on why I’m talking about this, how I did it, and what the results looked like.

Traditional Paid Advertising vs. Content Advertising

In paid advertising, we worry a lot about the cost of paid advertising per sale (or lead). Accordingly, category and product pages are by far the most common landing page. While a novel, interesting, or remarkably superior product might get some natural links, they almost never go viral. Building links is not what category and product pages are designed to do; they’re built to convert.

But what about using paid channels to build links? What happens when we design a paid advertising campaign to get links by pointing ads to content that is more likely to go viral? In the video above, I tried to make the point that you can turn two knobs to increase user interest. First, you can make sure that your content is interesting to the places you want to advertise to. Second, you tweak and adjust your ad targeting to bring in those who would be most interested.

With this in mind, we can begin to use channels that have traditionally been used for sales to build links, branding, and overall awareness.

Which Ads Worked Best?

It’s usually impossible to know which channel to attribute a link to. To really know which advertising channel builds the most value - meaning links, sales, awareness, email subscribers, etc. - we would have to repeatedly test advertising the same piece of content through various channels. Even then, inconsistent variables like a share from a large blog can skew the data.  Most of us have neither the time nor the budget to run a test that would be considered statistically valid.

That said, it would be foolish to simply throw our money to the wind and hope that links come back. Instead, we can run a test like the one I ran above, and then analyze user metrics to determine the degree to which the audience was engaged. More interest (insofar as we can determine it) is more likely to lead to more sharing and thus more profit. Here are my findings for this particular campaign:

  • Advertising the page on Facebook was one of my favorite campaigns, and I didn’t even target interests like I should have.
    Facebook ad results for PPC SEOThat CPC might look high, but I ultimately ended up with about 1600 Facebook visits and around 150 new followers. Given that 90% of the Facebook traffic happened while this was the only campaign running, I’m fairly confident this is a result of the ad. 
  • This post did best on industry-specific display ads, with an average time on site of 2 minutes and CPC under 10 cents. Availability, demographic interest, and pricing will vary wildly here.
  • Reddit provided the lowest CPC by far (less than a penny), but also the lowest time on site with a pathetic average of just 8 seconds - perhaps just long enough to see that there weren’t any cats. Then again, the high bounce rate means this number is probably artificially low.
  • Adwords was by far the worst channel for the money. I bid on low-competition keywords with an “estimated CPC” of $.10, but only received impressions at higher rates. With a final average CPC of $.40 - $.70 average CPC for purely informational phrase-match keywords, I feel like Google doesn’t have room for ads that aren’t focused on leads or sales.

Using Ad Targeting to Influence Content Targeting

I also tried StumbleUpon paid discovery, as Ian Lurie’s suggested. These weren’t included in my original figures.

What I love about StumbleUpon is that you can easily see whether you’re actually appealing to the people you thought you were appealing to. My post clearly appealed to the philosophy crowd, while also connecting with people following health-related topics. If I thought this was a great piece for science blogs (hint: I did), I might not be right on target.

Alas, the organic stumbles never amounted to much, and I didn’t see many new links. That may be a result of the post now being a little dated. Still, the figures here tell me that lots of people were engaged for longer periods of time. So how can I use that data?

This is a fantastic process to follow when deciding what a blog or other content hub should be about, and what topics they should cover. Clients often have questions about what they should do to make a blog more interesting. While, “you need to write more shareable content” is almost always true, it’s not very useful advice. Instead, can we get people to think, “where would I advertise this content?” If you’re coming up empty, you might need to think about writing a less narrow blog.

A blog about birds is probably too narrow. Can we talk about all pets and animals, including more popular topics like dogs and cats? If you were to actually run this campaign, you’d come out with some decent evidence that a given piece of content was or was not working with your target audience. 

Who Should Run Content Ads?

We really can’t be sure whether my paid advertising campaign was more effective at building links than a similarly-priced pure outreach campaign. I also can’t say (yet) whether my paid campaign was abnormally effective or ineffective for the topic. What we do know is this:

  1. Using ads to build links can work. I built links from about 140 legitimate linking root domains for under $300, plus a handful with the StumbleUpon ads. That doesn’t include the many hours invested in creating the content, of course.
  2. Targeted ads can help you test content and audience interest in a unique way. You can make sure you’re on track before investing in months worth of content that doesn’t interest your audience.
  3. Ads take very little time. For campaigns where time is more limiting than budget, or where outreach targets are limited, there may be value in selective content advertising.

Most companies aren’t writing just for the joy of writing. Thinking about outreach and content generation from a cost/benefit perspective creates goal and return-oriented content generation. In other words, paying for visitors helps you create more shareable content. Companies who already have shareable content may be able to use paid advertising to increase the profit it generates, both directly and indirectly.

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  1. Richard W.

    This is a great post, Carson. I've been using the PPC strategy for SEO over the past few years and while it can be a hit-or-miss, when it works, it works really well. The key is to be smart about how you spend the money (targeted and low CPC ideally) and do smaller increments to test the waters on each campaign first rather than use your whole budget on something that you're unsure of how it will perform.

    reply >
    • Carson Ward

      Thanks, Richard! I'm definitely still in the learning process, but I see a lot of potential for the right audience and content.

      Do you have any experience with selective display advertising? My guess is that there's a lot of potential there, but I wasn't able to do much this time around.

  2. Carson-

    So would you say the 140 new inbound LRD's are attributed mostly to the facebook advertising?


    reply >
    • Carson Ward

      My guess is that Facebook and the niche-specific display ads helped the most.

      Reddit sent so many visitors that I'd be surprised if it didn't build some links. The "real" time on site was definitely higher - it's just that many readers only hit one page, and thus were counted as 0 seconds.

      I've recently emailed the authors who first picked it up and started chain reactions in hopes of learning more.

  3. Perfect timing! Yesterday I started to consider working with paid advertising for increasing the exposure of some of my articles, while driving some sweet traffic. I thought about possible links that could be built but didn't know there was such potential. Thank you for this post, Carson :)

    reply >
  4. Carson,

    Great article. Using PPC for SEO is a good strategy to use and refine. One of the biggest things I've learned over the years is to look for micro conversions. While your goal may not be sales, you can set up event tracking for things like time on site or social sharing. That way you can look back and say the content that did really well had an average of X time on site, or Y Facebook likes. That way you can track ROI a little bit better, and have some clearer goals. Anyway just my 2¢. Thanks again for the article.

    reply >
  5. Hi Carson, I really want to thank for this idea. I will use it for setting up an themed website but can you be more specific with you mean buy niche-specific display ads. Where I can I buy these

    Best regards,


    reply >
    • Carson Ward

      Hi Peter,

      In this case I just went directly to sites in my niche and choose where to advertise. I then looked into what type of ads they were using. Had they been using Adsense, I could have worked out placement on display through Adwords. In this instance, I emailed them directly and we negotiated an ad. It took more time, but in this case it was worth it.

  6. Have you been tempted to try the Reddit custom campaigns, Digg advertising, and Tumblr Sponsors? They usually require a quite a commitment (around 20K per campaign)!

    reply >
  7. i am newbie tech blogger, i need around 1000 visitors a day, i can spend around $100 for that traffic, and i wish to ear more than i pay for traffic.

    Any ideas?

    reply >
    • Carson Ward

      Hi Joshua,

      I'd advise against purely targeting a number of visitors. You could easily buy 1000 paid visitors, but it's pointless unless those visitors do something. You have to get them from awareness - visiting the site - to interest.

      Let's start with the content. What do other tech bloggers link to? In my experience, it's either something new and interesting in technology, or a new analysis on something people care about.

      Can you break some sort of tech news? If not, your primary function will be to analyze the news in-depth, pointing out connections and implications that the original news-breakers didn't get. Sometimes imagination and creativity will be enough, but more often you'll need to be aware of things happening in tech that you can connect stories to: trends, data, other companies, etc. In this way, it resembles a sort of expert technical curation.

      Quite honestly there are tons of tech blogs. Breaking through the noise is a really high bar - you actually have to give people a reason to link to you rather than your source.

      AFTER that, it's just a matter of finding where your content's target audience lives. $100 is not enough to explore every avenue and find the best, but use your best judgement. Is your piece going to go viral with people who own iPhones? Are these people who like "Apple" or a specific iPhone app on Facebook, perhaps? Or would they be more likely to hang out on similar tech blogs where you could buy some display ads? Don't forget the unpaid channels, either. Hope that helps. :)

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