Outreach in Difficult Niches

Link-building for sites in certain fields is inherently tricky. Any seasoned SEO will be intimately familiar with this. You can have identical outreach email templates for two completely different sites, send speculative enquiries to identical targets and invariably find that the return for sites in one niche will be higher than the other.

But why is this? What are the difficult niches and what differentia do they share to cause trepidation and fear in the minds of the reluctant email responder.

The Difficult Niches:

Following a quick brainstorm in the Distilled kitchen, here is a list of what we consider to be the main bulk of the "Difficult Niches"
  • Insurance
  • Banking and Finance
  • Debt
  • Gambling
  • Lawyers
  • Pharmaceuticals & Medical Technology
  • White Label Products
  • Affiliate Ecommerce for Utilitarian Products
  • SEO

What makes the "Difficult Niches"...Difficult?

It's quite easy to make a reductive judgement on this matter along the lines of "they're all boring" or "Its hard to get people excited about them", but neither of these appraisals help illuminate the principles behind the difficulty or inform actions to help solve the problem. Following a period of sustained beard-stroking, pipe-smoking and organic muffin fueled discourse, here are my prognostications...

Reluctant expenses

People love spending money on technology products because they feel the reciprocal value gained is worth much more to them emotionally than the money the spent. The same is true of clothes, food, furniture and software. This attitude is not true in the world of debt management, insurance or pharmaceuticals. These products are only bought out of necessity, rather than choice and do not return emotional value. Debt management only helps in difficult circumstances, insurance is there to prevent financial ruin, lawyers are sought mostly to aid with litigation and medical products are generally only purchased when you’re sick.

Egoistic Framing

An altruistic ethic permeates contemporary culture, holding that the unfettered pursuit of profit is in some way negative, evil or at best, morally ambivalent. Even in the space of the broadest abstract political discourse, very few people argue the case for capitalism and profiteering on moral grounds, instead supporting the cause of private business using derivatives of Adam Smith’s argument that individual self-interest improves collective well-being. As such, organisations appearing to see their own financial gain as the sole purpose of their existence generally struggle to win over support for their cause from individuals without offering reciprocal financial incentives. Even though news websites, software companies and other private enterprises are still fundamentally self-interested ventures for whom profit is the primary concern at board meetings; they can frame their online activities as having the primary aim of offering valuable content/information/services rather than simply attracting individuals to their site in order to make money from them.

Bereft of tangible value

Affiliate sales, online gambling services, lawyers, financial services and many other “difficult niches” operate in modern service sector spaces where the value provided escapes the realm of material creations. They all offer somewhat ineffable, complex systems of information management broadly unintelligible to the average consumer, which makes it difficult for web users to connect positively with the product or company.

Density of Spam

Many of these niches are awash with fraudulent low quality spammers, out to make fast money through black hat tactics. Web users are therefore inherently suspicious of companies in these fields, who need to go the extra mile in order to prove their non-spammy credentials.

How Can I Improve My Outreach ROI?

The TL:DR answer to this question is to ensure that the companies online activities are framed as “providing value” rather than “making money”. You need to ensure that the target of your outreach efforts sees you as a moral, personable business with whom they would be proud to associate themselves.

The basic principles you need to apply to achieve this are: honesty, integrity and an understanding of an audience.

Below, I  cover two practical areas which can affect the way an audience perceives your company:

  1. Quality of Outreach Emails
  2. On-page Content & Design

Quality of Outreach Emails

Anyone who owns a website has at some point been on the receiving end of an email which I received last week.

Clearly, this outreach email fails on numerous accounts (not just that the writer emailed someone at Distilled asking if they wanted SEO) . But is it so far away from many of the outreach emails some of us send on a daily basis? If we put ourselves into the shoes of the writer of this email, we can make a guess as to why they thought this would be an effective approach.

The intentions of this email are fairly clear, yet the subtext it's author had attempted to imbue it with did not match my own understanding of the truth behind the words. The black text below surmises the meaning my cognitive faculty has inferred from the communication.

I’ve looked at this email and without knowing anything about the company or individual in question, immediately dismissed them as dishonest, selfish and bereft of value. This is almost entirely caused by a disparity in my reading of the text and subtext.

Because I am reading a hidden negative meaning behind the words of the email, I think they are lying. This suggests they are not a company providing legitimate value and fall into the frame of all the negative connotations associated with companies in the "difficult niche" bracket.

Disparity in text and subtext is a major killer for difficult niche outreach. Despite being a generally negative trait in an email, it is not such a major issue for charity websites or ad-funded blogs. This is because these sites have no clear incentive to be dishonest.

Lets look at how the email could have looked, had it been written honestly, with consideration for my context as a potentially receptive audience.

Reading this email, I now have a totally different reaction. While I may still not acquiesce to their request, I see the sender as an honest, approachable person. I understand the intentions of their company in a positive light and critically and would be willing to take a look at the sender's website to explore what they are all about.

On Page Content & Design

Assuming you’ve managed to convince your target to read your email far enough to have a look at your site, you are then set with the battle of proving your value through the design and structure of your website. Will the target feel comfortable linking out to you? Can they be sure that linking to you will not have adverse consequences for their own reputation?

Don’t Buy Links (or at least hide them properly...I mean, don't buy links)

Most webmasters worth their salt will have a confident grasp of back-link discovery tools and noticing that some of your links are lurking in potentially dark territories will be great big warning light, sending potential link-targets away. No webmaster will want to associate themselves with someone who faces the prospect of penalties later down the line.

Have a Friendly Domain

While this might not be something you can realistically change, the brand and domain name of the company appears to have a big effect upon the rate of return for outreach emails. If you have a an exact-match domain, and URLs looking a little bit like http://www.keyword-Keyword.com/Keyword-keyword-keyword.html then it’s a pretty clear indicator your site exists purely for SEO and lacks any genuine value underneath the surface. For anyone in the affiliate marketing space, pay particularly close attention to this. While keyword focussed domains might help you to rank for some competitive keywords, it’s never going to look good at the bottom of an outreach email.

The type of words used in your company are also incredibly important. It’s ideal, especially in difficult and morally questionable niches, to have names featuring words that inspire emotions of confidence, friendliness and trust. Avoid words associated with problems, negative situations or explicitly mentioning the services offered by those on the difficult niche list. For example, were i starting a debt consolidation company, I would sooner choose an appealing, friendly name like “Productive Money” rather than the depressing “Direct Debt Solutions”, which just reeks of unfortunate situations, problems and affiliate spam.

Spend on an Awesome Site Design

Good site design is difficult to quantify and yet you know it when you see it. It's still the first thing we notice when clicking onto a page and the immediate indicator of high quality content. For companies operating in a sensitive and difficult space, such as debt or insurance, the use of colours is particularly important to show a consistent and sensitive approach to the work. Jarring bright colours may be acceptable for sites in an entertainment space, but for serious products or services, subtlety and flow help to show legitimacy and care. For companies offering complex services, its best to keep it simple. Copy font should always be legible and professional looking, with clear non-clashing background colours. Be constantly receptive to feedback on the sites appearance and get the best designer you can afford.  If your site is built on wordpress, scrape together the cash to pay for a premium theme, rather than a free common-place template.

Maintain a High Quality Blog

I don’t just mean having a page called www.domain.com/blog but rather proving that you take time to write good content, engage with your audience and are comfortable associating your name with the content you put out. Especially if you are outreaching with a view to guest post opportunities, quality content on your own site will show you put time and effort into the content you create for others.

Show Names and Faces

A quick way to spot dodgy sites is the lack of human presence. If you’re not willing to put your name, contact details and face next to your product, then it shows you're not proud of what you have created. If you’re not proud of it, why not? Is it dishonest, morally bereft or lacking integrity? Take Distilled’s site as an example. We go far beyond the norm of most sites in our openness and personality – with unique pages for each staff member featuring a bespoke and comically written biography. This is one of the great ways we, working in a competitive niche flooded with shady spam, distinguish ourselves as legitimate and honest. If you get an email from a member of Distilled, you can easily find out who they are, a bit about their life and see a picture of their beautiful face.

Keep it Easy on the Marketing Speak

Companies with integrity and value don’t need to convince people that they are valuable, the value is self-evident. There is no hard and fast rule to hitting the balance between emotional promotional speak – such as “fix your annoying and frustrating problems with our incredibly awesome brilliant product” and factual information “our company provide this service which does this thing”, but if in doubt and in a tough environment, err on the side of conservative self-promotion.

Be Sensible with Ads

Web users are savvy to the cost of running a site and are not going to begrudge a small-time blogger their adsense pennies. If, however, you're running a global insurance brand, questions will be asked about your competency if you appear to be selling masses of advertising space to pack-out your revenue stream.  With an uphill battle to prove value and worth from the outset; unrelated ads, adult content or flashing banners are going to be prompting a fairly fast mouse click in the direction of the red X.

Thus ends my selection of tips for improving your outreach in difficult niches. If you're interested in learning about how to scale your outreach effectively, check out Martin Macdonald's fantastic post on SEOmoz this week.

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