Using Viral Email To Build Links


If you’ve been doing business online for any length of time chances are you have a database of opt-in email addresses from customers, vendors, newsletter signups etc.  Here’s a way to use those email addresses to increase your inbound links and spark a viral marketing campaign.

The Set Up.

I get a copy of the Washington Post delivered to the house every Sunday.  I’ve been getting it for many years and renew my subscription via their website each January to ensure uninterrupted service.

Recently they sent  an email asking me to become a  Facebook Fan so I could connect with the Post no matter where I was.  I  like the Washington Post but not enough to take the time  to become a Facebook Fan so I ignored the message and went back to work.  Too bad for them, not only did they lose an opportunity to gain a new Fan but they also missed the opportunity to use the ad as a viral magnet for links and traffic.

Strike One.  A Fan I Am – Not.

Keep in mind I’m a long-time subscriber to the paper which means they have my full contact information on file as well as my subscription history.   If that email had been incentivized with an extension on my subscription or discount on classifieds I probably would have taken the time to become a Facebook Fan.  But, the incentive  to “connect to the Washington  Post by becoming a Facebook Fan” wasn’t enough motivation since I’m already connected through my subscription.  They should have come up with something better for current customers.  So, no new fan, strike one.

Strike Two.  Just Bad Links For You.

If I had designed the ad, I would have included an incentive to link as a way to stimulate the Facebook sign ups and increase my inbound links.  I doubt the Washington Post is concerned with their inbound link counts but since this is a link marketing blog  I’ll add this lesson to the mix:  if you’re going to email your customer base for any reason, look for ways to tie in a link building campaign. 

People link when there’s something in it for them so think about what you can offer in exchange for a link.  The Washington Post could have easily given me a 60 day extension on my subscription or a discount on classifieds in return for a link.   Granted, they may be targeting a small percentage of customers since not everyone has a website (gasp!) but  I’m betting there are a good number that do.   To add a simple link request and small incentive to an opt-in mailing list  takes no time or money and turns a simple email into a link marketing opportunity.  If you don’t ask you don’t recieve, strike two.

Viral Opportunity Lost

Of the three strikes, I think this was their biggest.  The Washington Post  lost an opportunity to attract links, build brand and drive traffic  when they didn’t add a viral element to the email.   Adding a simple line like “pass this along to friends and family”  and including  a small incentive is often all the encouragement people need.  Everything  needs a little push to get started, no push no links.  Strike three.

Use What You Have To Build Links

If you search on the term “email flyers” you’ll see a number of companies offering tools to create email ads, it’s not hard or expensive.   But unlike the Washington Post,  consider following some old tried and true sales and marketing points:

  • Include a  benefit statement.  Tell your prospects what’s in it for them if they execute what you’re asking
  • Offer an incentive.  Give them something special for going through the trouble of linking
  • Ask for the sale.  Ask for the link and suggest they pass the ad along
  • Take advantage of loyalty.  Use your email list or partner with another company in your niche and use theirs.

Keep the ad short, dangle an incentive to link and ask people to pass along the offer.   If you do, the links will come leaving you more time to read the paper.  Now that is a home run!


  1. says

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  2. Craig says

    Hi Debra, Great blog/article and I completely agree with the strategy. I have the same question as “Seo”… How do you confirm who has posted created link and who hasn’t and how do you apply that link to the visitor/individual? Do you create a form that the linker must fill out with the URL that they added a link to? What is to prevent someone from creating a link and deleting it after they get the discount or special offer? Thanks!

  3. Jawad from get ex back help says

    I am really trying to learn these days about email marketing and your advice. I think incentive is the most important thing if someone want to generate sale.

  4. SEO Studio says

    The lesson learned for me from your post is, sweetening a deal is important to answer the always lingering question in your mind what’s in it for me?

  5. Alva says

    Hello Debra,
    Thanks for your valuable post.

    [quote]The Post, like a lot of other businesses we work with doesn’t seem to realize the valuable commodity they have in an opt-in email list.[/quote]

    do you mean use the commodity as incentive to drive them pass along?

    [quote]Granted, a lot of their customers don’t have websites but I’m betting there are a good number that do. To add a simple link request line and a small incentive to an opt-in mailing list just makes sense and is smart marketing. [/quote]

    How to check if they place an link? To get discount code, they must send an email attach the site they place an link and you will review manually? if so, customers will take the time to do the thing? is there any better way?

  6. says

    “People link when there’s something in it for them so think about what you can offer in exchange for a link. It would have been nothing for the Post to give me a 60 day extension on my subscription or a discount on classifieds in return for a link.”

    Against the background of Google profiling SEOs as almost criminals and considering any incentive for a link as link buying wouldn’t the links you get this way considered paid ones? Now I know we shouldn’t become paranoid thinking that the big G knows everything but still the storys of well-known SEOs getting hit by Google for ‘indirect’ link purchases suggest you should think twice when planning your linking scheme.

  7. says

    This is an awesome post. Not because of any technically, technical techniques (had to :) I’ve just flat out never thought about it. As a B2B business this makes complete sense being that 70% + of my opt in mailing list is a business and has a website. You are a rockstar!

  8. says

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said:

    But, the “incentive” to “connect to Washington” wasn’t enough to motivate me since I’m already connected through my subscription. They should have come up with something better for current customers

    To many new (bigger) businesses are missing this point (along with others) with SM and marketing with these social sites in general. When we have done campaigns for Twitter followers, or FB friends there has always been two things – 1. Reason for them to sign up … 2. a link in somewhere for us. It really is that simple!

    Great post Debra!

  9. Debra says

    @Don @JonathanBentz Thanks for the comments:)

    No matter what incentive they dangle the discount will affect their bottom line, the cost of doing business doesn’t discriminate between types of promotions, just their effectiveness.

    I think they missed an opportunity by not adding a simple line of text: “Pass this along”. The Post, like a lot of other businesses we work with doesn’t seem to realize the valuable commodity they have in an opt-in email list.


  10. says

    I would venture a guess that when it comes to the incentives you mention (extended subscription, reduced classified $) that the Washington Post probably passed on those options due to the fact that, like most newspapers, they are probably struggling with subscriber reduction and reduced revenue in classifieds.

    If they had a new paid online subscription service, however, that might be worth offering a free trial to check out.

    I’m not saying the idea of “incentivizing” a customer to act is a bad practice. I am saying that those two marketing ideas are probably in direct conflict with the guys who run the Post’s accounting department.

    And in most cases, the guys who run accounting win over the guys who run marketing (unfortunately).

  11. says

    Solid Post. I run a community site and I got a few solid ideas for a future marketing drive. Thank You.

    Lets hope Old School Media, keep repeating these type of mistakes…lol

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