Case Study: Using Contests To Build Links

It’s common knowledge certain markets are harder to build links for than others. For the most, part highly competitive industries are tough because they are highly competitive (and they’ve been worked to death), but less competitive markets can also be difficult because of the demographic behind them.

Such was the case for a client we took on awhile back in the financial services industry. He sold a very niche product in a very competitive industry known to be populated by busy corporate executives. He came to us with a new website which needed back links to support ongoing SEO, build his company brand and drive traffic to the site. No small feat considering the market he was in.

(Added:  This article was originally written  in 2009,  Every now and then I inject an updated comment in red but overall, the original post is intact.) ~Debra

After hours researching the industry and finding it filled with “good content”, I knew a standard campaign wouldn’t do. Unless I had President Obama or Alan Greenspan writing my content, no one was going to pay attention to another article or white paper in this market. I needed to create a different and unique splash to attract the attention and links I needed, so I came up with the idea of launching a contest.

My column today is a basic case study of that contest campaign. This was one of the most difficult websites I’ve worked on -not because the site was new or the market competitive, but because the people we needed to target were busy corporate executives. I knew if I went after these decision makers, I’d probably fail so I changed my angle of entry and created a promotion that appealed not only to the executive, but to the employees of his/her company as well.   And it worked. Here’s what we did:

The Research

When you’re building links, it’s natural to use tactics you’re comfortable with, so we started our research looking at topically relevant link bait and white papers written in the last year. The idea was to find a trendy topic, hire an industry authority to write a three part series and pimp the content from the client’s site. It’s a good strategy and usually works, so off we went culling Digg, Delicious and industry media sites like OpenForum and SlingShot for hot topics and ideas we could use.

Added:  Both Digg and Delicious have fallen far,  I would not use them in a post today or suggest anyone use them to cull trending information.  SlingShot is no longer online but  The Open Forum  is and continues to provide information on the business world  although I wouldn’t use it to research.  Instead, I’d use sites like Yahoo! Finance or Linkedin Today (you can follow industries).

And boy, did we find them. There is a virtual goldmine of content in the financial service space written by celebrities, experts, academics, bloggers – you name it. Initially, I was excited to find the content and track trending terms, but after a while my excitement waned as I realized what it would take to make waves in this very crowded and very status-conscious crowd. Like I said before, unless I could convince President Obama to write my article series, it was doubtful anything we wrote would be an editorial and viral success. So we abandoned the content angle, took note of what was not being done, our economic climate and the fact everyone loves something for free and developed the contest campaign instead.

The Process

Since we had a mountain of research data to draw from, developing the contest was fairly easy. We outlined the contest and added a no-strings-attached giveaway to help the program go viral. From there, we focused on buying memberships into industry associations where our promotion would be targeted to a community of like-minded people.

While these people are like-minded, they are also (for the most part) my client’s competitors, so I knew I had to approach with caution. I worried about how my client would be perceived, so I staggered the execution of the program and removed any link requirements to participate.

Yes that’s right, they didn’t have to provide the link in order to receive the giveaway or participate in the contest, linking to us was optional. Why? Because building trust with new partners is paramount for future linking opportunities. If no one trusts my brand, no one will link regardless of the incentive offered. I couldn’t afford the risk and decided our first impression was too important to screw up so I suggested they link rather than make it a requirement to receive the freebies.

Here’s an outline of what we implemented:

  • January 15 – Joined a well known industry Association with membership of 900.
  • February 1 – Sent first email introducing company to fellow members. No sales pitch.
  • March 1 – Sent second email with humorous spring season promotion, offered modest discount coupon. No sales pitch.
  • April 5 – Third email sent, this one outlined the contest, had an opt-out. In addition to showcasing the contest, the email included a substantial discount toward any product my client sold. We made it clear anyone in the company could use the discount and encouraged people to send it to friends and family. There was a six-month expiration date on the discount.
  • May 1 – The contest closed, a winner was picked, prizes awarded. We issued a press release announcing the winner.

The results? 107 people used the discount, 262 people registered for the contest, 52 links from Association members showed up in our back link counts. The membership fee was $575.00 so if do you the math, you’ll see the promotion paid for itself and then some.

Added:  Three months after we finished the campaign and closed the account, we found out 11 of the 52 links were no longer pointing to the client’s webpage.  Since the contest was closed and the coupon expired, people pulled their links.  We redirected the coupon page to the client’s blog and sent notices to the 52  companies who linked telling them new promotions would be announced on the blog.  Only one of the 11 who dropped the link added it back.  

The lesson I learned was simple:  contests are short-term marketing tactics which means the links and traffic they generate may be short-term links.  You need long-term links for consistent rankings so find a way to redirect the contest (or coupon)  page to a new promotion or a different information source such as a company blog.   Keep your visitors engaged and give them a reason to return.

The Bottom Line

If you think 52 one-way inbound links isn’t a huge number, keep in mind the goals we set and what this promotion touched on:

  • We secured one-way links from topically relevant sites
  • The promotion went viral
  • Sales were made
  • My client’s brand was exposed to authority leaders in his community
  • The client’s brand made a positive impression within a short time period in a very competitive niche

This contest and the principle behind it will work for any industry, as long as you target a specific group and understand what motivates them. If you’re looking for a new twist or a fresh link building idea, consider hosting a contest. Everyone’s a winner if you do.

Image from the Save The Frog Contest site.