The Ultimate Guide to Phone-Based Outreach for Link Building

By: Stephanie St. Martin, Citation Labs Contributor

Still doing mail merges to over a thousand contacts for links? Emailing webmasters with the blind hope that they’ll email you back? Think this is how you’ll build links in 2013? Think again.

In a world where our inboxes fill up faster than a Justin Bieber concert (yea, I went there), email has become a less effective form of communication. I can’t tell you how many emails I delete daily –and these are pings I signed up for! We get backed up, our inbox becomes clogged and things get lost.

That’s why I’m proposing a radical way of link building: Pick up the damn phone.

From the type of employee you’ll need to hire to what you’ll need to know before you dial, to how to get someone to post the link, here’s the ultimate guide to phone link building.

The Who:

Introverted people need not apply. Phone link builders are people who can carry a conversation with anyone –because they are going to need to!

I keep up with the news and I always check it before I get on the phone. I’d look for something that could give me a glimpse into what’s going on in their neck of the woods. Maybe a sports team won a big game against a rival. A heat wave. A snowstorm. I’d always mention the story while on the phone with a prospect –anything to help strengthen our new connection further.

Ultimately, business owners need to hire someone who’s extroverted also needs to have passion. You need someone who will be the biggest cheerleader for your team. Passion and enthusiasm can be understood by the sound of a voice, so to “hear” passion about what’s being promoted goes a long way.

For employees, you want the prospect to be excited about what you are showing them. If you sound like the Clear Eyes guy on the phone, you aren’t going to get anywhere. Make sure your voice is upbeat and not monotone. Enter into cold calls relaxed and unhurried. Remind yourself to focus on starting a relationship with the prospect, not necessarily getting a link today.

Want to make sure you sound lovely on the phone? Put a small mirror next to your computer screen. When you talk on the phone, make sure you are smiling. Continue to check the mirror (by the way, you look terrific today!) to remind yourself to smile. Just like passion, people can “hear” a smile on the phone.

So let me address the elephant in the article – does a phone link builder need to be a woman? In my experience, the answer is no. Having a woman call is helpful, but she needs to have the right personality. I have trained both men and women in the role and both have been successful in building links for the site.

Other traits to look for:

Highly organized. With thousands of people who will be communicated with, an organized person goes a long way.

Strong Sales Communicator. Phone link building is a “soft sale” – there’s no money exchanged; we are White Hat here, people! If you have someone with a sales background that doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a used car lot, consider giving them a chance. You need a good communicator.

Detail-orientated. They might have to recall the names of those they have spoken to (sometimes including the names of their pets).

Provides great customer service. When someone has you on the phone, questions can flow. (How excited do you get when you actually talk to a live person?) While at a start-up, I would be on campaigns for one vertical and get countless questions about another.

My job as a phone-based link builder was simple: answer their questions as pleasantly as possible. I showed them how to navigate the site. I offered a promotion code if they asked for one. A five minute phone call sometimes turned into a twenty minute call, but I’d have a customer and a fan of the site for life. On the flipside, not being able to answer your prospect’s questions can be unsettling and gives the impression that you are unprepared. Trust is quickly gone.

The result: phone link builders have to know their sites (or their clients’ sites) better than anyone else. Be prepared for all questions. Don’t appear rushed, and clearly answer all of their questions and concerns.

The What

Great links come from great stuff. Good content. A cool infographic. A helpful widget.

>>Check out Search Engine Watch’s article about how to create a good and cheap infographic.

But what would your prospect want?

Ladies and gentleman, it’s time to play the game of Jeopardy. Mr. Trebek gives you the clue, what’s the question? Or, in other words, your content is the answer. You just have to figure out who is asking this question and seeking your answer to it.

Write down a list of all the answers that your content provide. Then, figure out who would be interested those answers. Doctors. Hospitals. Schools. Gamers. That’s who you have to reach out to.

Do some search queries and gather information on your targets. Once you have compiled your list, it’s time to start calling.

And if you don’t have the content, but you have a target, fear not. Write the content (or hire someone to write the content) and then reach out. Customizing content for a group of targets can work wonders.

>>HubSpot has some great Ebooks and articles on the topic of content creation. Check out this article on how to create content that resonates with readers.

You can also investigate what your competitors are doing ( is a great resource for this) and what content was successfully linked and shared. Have your team create a similar piece – find your angle as they say in PR! Once the content is developed, call those sites where your competitors got links. Hey, if they linked to them, they’ll link to you, right?

Broken link building also works wonders on the phone. You can still give the pitch about your content, but mentioning that you noticed a broken link can shift the conversation even more in your favor. Imagine talking to a helpful person on the phone? They noticed something wrong with your site and they wanted you to know? It’s a miracle!

>>Citation Labs is leading the way with broken link building. Check out their round up on broken link building or contact them to learn more.

Other tips:

Know your prospect. Link builders may be limited in the information we have access to in regard to a cold call, but do your best to know as much as you can before entering the door. Visit the website (find something to compliment while on the phone with them), Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles and their Twitter feed. As Wil Reynolds would say, become a really good stalker.

Don’t get discouraged with a “No.”. If you have a large number of contacts that are trying to get put a link up for you, a “no” is just like dirt on your shoulder. Dust it off like Jay-Z and move on to the next name. There is no time to waste on people who aren’t interested. Always thank the prospect for their time. Ending on a positive should be the goal of every phone call.

The How

It’s all about how you ask. And your pitch is going to have to become second nature. Practice makes perfect.

Before I would let anyone on the phone, I would have them go through “extensive” phone training. Mainly, I’d set up role playing calls with the Sales team. I even gave the Sales team characters, and some of them got really into it. There was a “mean guy who had no time” for you and a “person who asks a question about everything”.

The message was simple to the trainees: they would never have a phone call as difficult as the ones from training. Immediately, morale was boosted.

When reaching out via phone, you may have a person’s name that you’ll need to contact. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the keepers of the website. The name means nothing.

For example, I always apologize to the recipient of the call because I’m not sure who I’m supposed to talk to.

Why do this? Well first, it’s the truth. I have no clue who I’m supposed to talk to. Who is supposed to review the material? Who gives the okay for new links to put on the site? Who has the power? I have no freaking idea. So I apologize outright hoping for some sympathy.

And that’s the second thing it does. It creates empathy for me. People love helping others and immediately the person on the other line is going to try to help me solve my problem. Now I have an ally working with me.

My pitch usually goes like this:

Hi. My name is Stephanie and I just have a quick question for you. [OK] I apologize I’m not sure who I’m supposed to be asking, but do you know who would review articles for the music program? [Oh that’s Meg. Let me give you there extension.] Thanks so much. What’s your name? [Peggy] Thanks, Peggy. I really appreciate the help.

Always befriend the Receptionist. They usually are the most helpful people in the office. They know schedules, they know teammates. They know who makes decision. If you get a voicemail on the first try, you can always call back and ask your new friend if there’s someone else you can talk to.

Once you are on the phone with the actual prospect, it’s similar to any pitch you have written in an email.

Hi, Meg. I’m Stephanie and I just have a quick question for you. Peggy suggested I talk to you about this. [Ok.] I work for an organization and we have some great articles about the importance of music education. I saw on your website that you have a lot of stories about this and I thought you would be interested in reviewing them to see if it would be useful for your school or community? [Oh that sounds nice. Are they free?] Yup, they are absolutely free. I just wanted to make sure I talked to you before I sent them along. [Oh great. I’d love to see them. Do you need my email?] Oh, that’d be great. What is it? [] Ok, I will send them over for you to review. Feel free to let me know what you think. [Will do. Have a great day and thank you.] You too, Meg. Bye.

My reason for calling is simple. I want to make sure I get permission for sending the over the content, because I’m trying to ensure that it won’t be immediately deleted from their inbox. They know it’s coming; they’ll be looking for it and they’ll open it. The limbo of the inbox has been avoided.

If they say yes, great; if not, I always make sure to thank them for their time. As I said, ending on a positive is extremely important. They may not be interested in this piece, but if you end on a positive, you can always check back about a future piece.

In any follow up communication, be sure to send the content along. Remind your contact where you saw the other content i.e. your target page. You should also gather feedback about the content. It will help you create future content and if people do offer positive feedback, they might be more apt to link to additional pieces.

Other tips:

Introduction. The first lines out of your mouth are as important as the first line in a novel. We all know the first lines of Moby Dick. We should all know the first lines to our own pitch, too. They should be smooth and carefully thought out. They should easily communicate who you are (you work at this company) and your purpose for wanting to talk with them (we have some good resources we think you’d like to see).

Ask questions. Remember that you are beginning a relationship. You need to get to know this prospect and their business. Have questions prepared that will assist you in understanding your prospect’s needs. Investigating the website before hand can help you find interesting things to comment on as well.

Listen to the prospect. Listening involves more than simply hearing what your prospect has to say. Be an engaged listener. Don’t be afraid to clarify your understanding of what they have communicated to you.

Provide value. If you’ve asked the right questions and properly interpreted the prospect’s responses, you should be able to add value back into the conversation. This can be as simple as acknowledging and supporting the positions they’ve shared with you, or it may be offering them a service, resource or product that could meet a need.

>> Justin Briggs has a great article on his blog, 33 Links and How to Get Them. My personal favorite: provide value by offering to sponsor an event. Call up a local organization, start the relationship via phone and get some links.

Be confident. I always cringe a bit when I catch myself saying “I didn’t know if you be interested…” Didn’t know? Then why are you calling that person! People like to be thought of and if you let them know that you thought they may like an article, it goes farther than you saying you didn’t know if they would like it.

Respect the relationship. Don’t be pushy. Don’t take more of their time than you need to. Ask when you should check back and what method of contact they’d prefer—always get a phone number or email when possible.

Keep a record. Take as many notes as you can. Details about the person you spoke to, what their position in the company was and any comments they may have made during your discussion. Being able to mention those details during your next meeting can be an important part of building your relationship with a new prospect.

Keep in touch. Never write off a prospect completely. A lack of interest one day may quickly change into a real need a few weeks down the road. If you believe in what you have to offer, then you owe it to your prospect, to keep the communication open.

The more you know about a prospect, the better. I have had conversations with people about things other than the content. And this isn’t a bad thing. One time, a prospect casually mentioned to me that they were going on working on a project to re-do their kitchen in the next month. Weeks after the call, I came across a DIY Kitchen Update guide on Pinterest. I emailed it to prospect letting them know that I thought of them when I saw this article. Needless to say, the prospect was happy to receive the email and wanted to help me out. They called me back thanking me and asked me how they could expose the articles better. Not only did I get links, I got social shares on multiple social media networks.

Keeping your approach relaxed, open and honest is the best attitude to have when it comes to cold calls. You aren’t asking for money. You are just sharing useful information. Keep the pressure off yourself and above all, be yourself.

The Cost

Business owners should take note: you will have to pay more for this type of work.

Why? Anyone can send off thousands of emails. What response rate are you looking at? And how many links are returned? It may be faster, but faster doesn’t mean it’s more effective.

You want people to see your content. You want links.

Then, invest in the phone.

Your link builder will be able to move away from the mystery of an odd email to a welcomed piece of EXPECTED mail in an inbox.

Think about what most sales associates make. Phone link builders should be considered in that category or at least have some extra incentive tied to links. You could do it by page rank, new domains, number of links – your choice. Perhaps create mathematical formula to grade each link. If you have a driven employee, the incentive will push them even more.

The call also speeds the process up. I once did a mail merge in early February and a woman got back to me in late October. Yes, I got the link, but time was ticking away. Link builders have to be patient people due to the nature of the work. If a call is made and the process is kicked off sooner, those quarterly goals can be within reach that much faster. My typical call to link timeline was on average three weeks. In the world of link building, that’s light speed!

And when all else fails…

Focus on Your Successes:  Every link, even if it’s from a page rank 0, is a victory. Every time you get one, keep track of it. And if you are ever having a bad day, talk to the prospects who have linked to you before: They are your FANS and may link another page if you ask them.

Every Day Brings a Clean Slate: There is nothing as refreshing as that thought.  No matter how bad yesterday was, tomorrow is brand new.  Tomorrow we can make more calls, talk with more prospects, and get more links.  Focusing on what has already happened does no good; focus on what you can get done TODAY.

Link building is still as vital as it has ever been to SEO. With all the spammers and requests out there, it’s up to you to do it different and do it better.

The only question now: Who you gonna call?

Bio: Stephanie St. Martin is writer, SEO Content Strategist and an Inbound Marketer. You can connect with her on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn . A published philosophy author (someone had to do it), she’s been featured three times in the series Popular Culture and Philosophy. Be sure to check out her love for animals in her blog – Pet Chatter.

10 Responses to “The Ultimate Guide to Phone-Based Outreach for Link Building”

  1. Matt Morgan says:

    Wow, awesome post Stephanie. Jon Cooper turned me on to your blog and I’m glad I checked it out. Very creative link building strategy.

    My company has been looking for a better way to track our contacts + conversations with each. Can you elaborate? Do you have a cloud based tool, magical Excel sheet, or a really good memory?


  2. Rank Watch says:

    Wow, great one tactic if goes well. Would be a better tool for building links for local businesses with the surge of mobile communication nowadays. And certainly coming back to the olden days of tring-tring technology.

  3. Julie Joyce says:

    As much as I despise talking on the phone, I agree with you…I don’t think any of our link builders has ever spoken to a prospect on the phone and NOT closed the deal. It’s been an incredibly effective method for us. We’ve mostly used it in conjunction with an initial email request or contact form though, so maybe we’ll try a few initial phone calls and see. Sometimes old school methods work really, really well.

  4. Victor Pan says:


    This has been something that has been on my mind as I build out outreach lists – I always wondered if creating a phone number field would be worth it. You’ve just answered my question.

    It works if there’s someone in your team that’s great on the phone. I’m not the smoothest talker on the phone, so it’s time to try out that smiling technique.

    Great insights and thank you! Two quick questions:
    1. What’s the most calls you’ve ever done in a day?
    2. What was the success rate for that day?

  5. Jenny Lynn says:

    I hated this part of my job, actually picking up the phone. But you know what – there was 33% of companies and contacts that preferred the old fashion approach and it worked! Great article, thanks!

  6. Ben Shaver says:

    I really think that this is a great tactic that would more than likely have an incredibly higher conversion rate like Julie discussed but I have a few questions. First off is this feasible for smaller companies who are more than likely going to get links from blogs, directories, and things of a smaller nature? These websites (to my knowledge) never list their phone number so I feel that while this is a great technique, it may be harder for smaller companies who are dealing with smaller sites to execute. I am curious if this could be a viable technique for smaller companies?

  7. Shane Jones says:

    Great post Stephanie! I too came here form Jon Cooper’s little email, but I’m always keeping an eye on the citation labs blog :)

    But really I agree with you 100%. Email link building is an extremely effective method when you are doing it to scale! I think it still provides a great enough return when you can automate a large majority of the processes. But if you’re going for the big wins, you HAVE to utilize both email and phone! Link Building is becoming more about PR. And I don’t know if you’ll ever meet a PR who doesn’t use the phone to get in touch with people! :)

    Great job again!

  8. JC hat tip

    Good to know the next generation is figuring out how we have been communicating with our fellow humans for a very long time. On the phone, chatting in person at youth sports games, helping out at church, taking 10 neighbor kids to the circus, taking 10 neighbor kids to Monster Truck events, joining civic clubs… generally living by way of sincerity and good will. There is a world out there on the other side of the computer screen. Thanks for the nice reminder. The future does not belong to punk SEO’s.

  9. Stephanie St. Martin says:

    Hi Everyone – thank you so much for the kind words about my article. First go at writing anything industry-based so I really appreciate the feedback from my peers.

    To answer some of your questions:
    @MattMorgan – I don’t use anything fancy. Just plain old Excel. I keep a column entitled “Notes” and write down who I talked with, the tone, and any other juciy tidbits that will help me. I always put the date too and when I should follow up. I know my note style so it’s easy to find what I’m looking for (FUB – follow up by, IN – interested, TPG – target page given) Once you have a language developed you can easily find what you need with basic filters. That being said, if I gave this list to an intern to do follow-up, they would need the notes “translated”. Not a perfect system but it worked for me.

    And yes, my memory helps me a lot. But when someone calls me out of the blue, I have less than a minute to figure out what we talked about! The area code, the organization, the voice. Memory helps. It’s hard, but sometimes I have to ask what content I gave to them to know what campaign they are calling about. There’s no way I’d ask “Who are you again?”

    @RankWatch – I completely agree. We all hate automation so I think the phone is the way to go. It’s welcomed. We could be link building via text one day (though I’m old fashion. I always prefer to call)

    @JulieJoyce – We have done an email first and then a follow-up via phone but I feel like the tone can be annoyed with that. With email, people can get back to you when they have time. When you follow-up via phone, they feel you are impatient.

    With phone first, they feel like that have more control and are more accepting of your information. They are giving the “ok” that you can email the content. They are giving you feedback. They are putting it up if it works for them.Though we don’t think it’s ideal for them to have “control” over us, it makes the relationship stronger.

    @VictorPan – I pace myself but I did hit 67 in a day. I got a lot of voicemails that day, though.

    Metrics were never done by day with my team, but by campaign. The most successful campaign on record. 1000 contacts, 258 responses – over 300 links.

    @JennyLynn – thank you for the feedback. :o)

    @BenShaver – smaller companies should go for it. You may not find the phone number right away so try the email to phone tactic. Email them how much you like the blog and that you’d like to talk to them about a piece of content you have. That might work better for you – the ask is the phone call. Blogs are great – but I’m not a fan of directories. You can do better than those.

    @ShaneJones – Jon Cooper is my hero. I may have to send him a handwritten thank you card (see, old-fashinoned). We had an amazing PR team, but I was the one reading the HARO leads daily. I would email the team with the content they could pitch to the reporter. As a link builder, I had to know the content better than anyone. I got guest blog opportunities from that too. But while on the phone I was a “PR cheerleader” and happy to answer questions about how awesome we were! People told their friends and I would get random calls from someone who needed help with our product. Motto: Always be willing to help anyone.

    @KyleWhitford – Seriously, love Jon Cooper. I’m talkative. Extroverted. I think I’m ENTJ or something like that on the Myers-Briggs scale. But yes, I always would pitch our content if I could. If I overheard a conversation in line for Dunkin Donuts, I’d give people my card and tell them to email me. EVERY LINK BUILDER should have business cards. Practice talking to people wherever you are. Go on dates (if you are single), chat someone up in a movie line. Be nice to your waitress. All of this will aid you on the phone.

    Thanks again, everyone. Please keep the questions coming!


  10. Wow, this article hit home. In a not to past life, I was a telemarketer, and hated the job all the way. We were selling things, mainly pitching things to c-level executives that they didn’t really want. I had a passion against the job, and I didn’t do very well at it.

    I think that your approach to this is dead on, and your response rate will be very good. From a short-term strategy it is really hard to measure the success of a telephone outreach campaign, but in the long term, I think it is the way to go.

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