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.

Phil  Nottingham

Phil Nottingham

Phil is the in-house video marketing expert and chief meme generator at Distilled. He joined Distilled in April 2011, after impressing Will and Duncan with his ability to look like a serviceable pirate following minimal costume changes and has since...   read more

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  1. David Sottimano

    I felt like I just read something I should have paid 50 quid for. Great post Phil, and next time can you add some definition links (for me) next time? Ex:

    "An altruistic ethic permeates contemporary culture, holding that the unfettered pursuit..."


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  2. Contacting sites in a competitive market is definitely difficult. I really like your breakdown of the original message and how you would have them approach it differently. I have some experience working in competitive markets from when we used to do services.

    In a competitive market, money usually gets a person's attention, and asking for a link doesn't. Working with a monthly spend supplied by your client, try approaching sites about sponsorship or advertising only. Buy advertising for about three months, and then hit them up for editorial (guest blog, review, etc...) later on, like after the first month of advertising. That way you aren't buying a link, you're getting editorial, and it's the advertising that enabled you to create a relationship with the site. If you don't get editorial from them, no worries...don't advertise with them anymore and be happy with the brief exposure you got from the sponsorship or advertising.

    Another benefit you'll get from this strategy is that you'll discover sites that convert well from advertising. And since the ultimate goal should never be ranking – it should be increased exposure, targeted traffic, completed goals and ecommerce – everyone wins.

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  3. phil-nottingham

    Hi Jon,

    Cheers for the feedback. I think your suggestion about building a relationship prior to outreach is a really good one, but potentially faces the problem of requiring considerable speculative financial outlay without guaranteed return. Have you found a pretty good ROI using this method so far? Have you also found that the target sites you've gone for link-wise have been valuable advertising spaces in their own right?

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    • This was last done awhile ago for a site competing in a tough financial space, and yes, you have to have a serious monthly spend provided by your client. If you can't get your client to provide the spend, then you're back to pulling teeth and using other strategies ;)

      ROI was good, which is why the client stayed with us and actually increased the spend over time. That is, up to the point where we discontinued all services to do Raven full-time. However, I believe the agency we transferred the account to continued the practice with good success.

      Regarding valuable advertising spaces, some were and some weren't. We mainly focused on relevancy from a link building perspective. Advertising was just our in. Most of the time we were actually surprised at what performed well and what didn't from an advertising perspective. The Internet, and how people use it, is a funny thing.

  4. Wow,

    Did you pull those email samples directly from my inbox? I get those everyday. I love your comments and interpretations. Entertaining and informative. Thank you. - Ken

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  5. No, Ken. It was from my Inbox. There was one of those emails that I actually replied to because the sender claimed it was from a huge SEO in UK only to my surprise upon receiving the next reply on ENGRISH words and grammar which I can no longer understand.

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  6. Another excellent post! It's such a great experience about SEO. As a SEO consultant I know that how link building is effective for the site ranks. Keep up the good tips!

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  7. I get those emails daily and I completely agree. If they would take the extra time and add a personal touch, the sale would probably go a lot further!

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  8. Very nice post! The words "difficult niches" caught me immediately as I'm in one that you didn't list - baby sleep. Seriously, can you imagine two less sexy words? And while my site is not commercial I still work towards traffic and backlinks because frankly traffic & comments is very motivating.

    My category is not difficult for the reasons you mentioned (although I completely agree with your list and the reasons why they're typically so "yicky") but because it's typically sort of dull, the target market is too tired to really pay attention, and as soon as your kids ARE sleeping decently you want to put that period of your life as far behind you as possible. The few other people who write about kids and sleep are super spammy (trying to sell ebooks and such).

    Definitely taking your advice to heart. And even if I'm (for now) stuck in a difficult niche, at least it's nice to know I'm not alone ;)

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    • phil-nottingham

      Hey Alexis, thanks for the kind words and for sharing your experiences.

      I've never worked on a site in the baby-sleep niche before so really can't talk from experience, but i have to say, it sounds like there would be loads of fun link-building strategies you could apply with it. While traditional outreach might be a bit tough, i would have thought you could create some fantastic video content, articles and graphical content that would really appeal to the page-rank rich Mom-blogger community. Have you tried this sort of stuff out? If so, has there been much pick-up for the content you've outreached?


  9. Jane

    Truly excellent work! However, I should point out that another way to inspire emotions of confidence and trust is by ensuring that your written content is grammatically correct. In your 'Spend on an Awesome Site Design' paragraph on the penultimate line, it should read 'if your site is built on...' rather than 'if you're site is built on...'.

    Sorry, I couldn't help myself. I'm one of those Grammar Nazis! ;-)

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  10. Class post. Particuarly enjoyed the Adam Smith reference.

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  11. Class post. Particularly enjoyed the Adam Smith reference.

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  12. A good post overall. I am in one of these sectors and find that getting link is tedious and painful. But it has to be done.
    I have to say I disagree with this comment though:
    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.

    Why does this have to be true. I agree that it can be true in some cases but disagree that using well constructed domains means that the site is of no value.
    Here is a good example of a page that provides value and is not at all spammy.

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  13. phil-nottingham

    Hey Simon, I think you make a good point. There can be some keyword targeted domains which don't appear to be Spammy.

    That said, i think your URL here is pretty friendly, clearly showing the purpose of the page and the content within. While you do have a keyword focused domain, it's not multi-hyphenated or targeted towards multiple different single term keywords. If you had, for example, chosen to call your site
    http://www.family-lawyers-solicitors-harrogate.co.uk/child-custody-contact-residence.html I think users would get a different initial impression

    Perhaps it would be better if i had gone into more detail and drilled down into where keyword focused domains can work.

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  14. definitily a valuable article. First I got those emails then I started to have phone calls offering me SEO services, when that's my job

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  15. I have found with one of the property groups I do the seo for that it is best approaching the seo and targetting the somewhat less obvious search terms. Having worked also from the data in google analytics also, they have been getting a lot more traffic in recent weeks and they have also begun to get new leads.

    On the whole, when developing the seo in the early stages, going in at a niche angle is an effective idea!

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  16. Thanks for the post, it`s really hard to find niches today. Thanks again for the explaining.

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  17. It's interesting that you pointed out this. I too find it difficult to believe that people would spam their way into and out of business. I am so tired of the spamming that it just gets automatically trashed. People want to buy but not to be sold.

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  18. In the "hollywood" terms it's very difficult to get top 10 without doing some black hat . I don't say that is the right thing to do , but everybody's there does it. Good article Phil. Cheers

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  19. Some great points Phil. Having worked in a few of the 'tougher' niches to build links, I can say the approach you outlined above is much more effective. The only issue we have run into is scalability. Even when using emails like your example above, you are not always guaranteed a response. There have been instances where the spray and pay generic email shave had a higher rate of return due to the amount of people we are able to touch in one effort.

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  20. The challenge with outreach for things such as law boils down to understanding compliance and law...which is something that most SEO's don't understand. I have a client who is in HR (a field that is very similar to law) and the hoops that have to be jumped through to get/accept links OR even have an article posted are extraordinary.

    Trust is paramount and it is very difficult to gain credibility unless you are already a recognized figure within that community.

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