Have you ever considered running an awards showas a way to build links? One awards program my company ran in 2013 netted links from 124 unique domains.
Let’s go more in-depth on how to execute on an awards program to earn high-quality links and a whole lot more, like:
- Brand engagement signals
- User engagement signals
- Social engagement signals
All of which are either directly or indirectly influential in helping your site perform well in Google.
Handing out awards can also help you generate a ton of traffic that you can monetize, assuming you create the right offer.
But beyond links, ranking signals, and soaring traffic, giving back and celebrating people in your industry who have done something notable just feels good.
You see, link building doesn’t have to be entirely self-serving all the time. In fact, when you focus less on links and more on benevolence, that’s when you build the best links.
The Impetus of Awards
We originally got the idea for industry recognition awards from Matt McGee’s SEMMY Awards. If you don’t know, the SEMMYs was an annual awards event that recognized the best articles and authors from the search marketing industry.
McGee eventually stopped running The SEMMYs, presumably because running an awards event is a ton of work. In fact, having run a few myself now, I’d say it’s probably the most time-intensive “link building” project I’ve ever been a part of. However, it can be the most successful and personally rewarding.
Even though the SEMMYs are extinct, the industry awards concept is still a viable one that can be mapped to any niche really. Because no matter how boring your industry, someone out there is writing about it with passion and purpose, and producing some really valuable content.
How to Format the Awards
Like the SEMMYs, we wanted to honor the best articles from our site’s industry from the previous calendar year. From a timeline and task perspective we:
- Started the process of curating the content in mid-December 2012
- Launched the awards in late January 2013
- Did a bunch of outreach and promotion to get the word out
- Let voting run for three weeks (yes, there was a voting component)
- Announced the winners and runners-up in the second week of February
So start to finish, the entire project ran about two months, took approximately 40 man hours and cost us around $2,500 all-in (including man-hours, design and promotion). Here’s how we did it.
We have a writer/editor who runs the blog for the site we hosted the awards on. The editor handled the process of finding industry publications, blogs, and articles to nominate for the awards. However, you could easily do this sort of content discovery yourself or hire someone.
To find the best content in the industry, our editor leveraged a range of content discovery toolsand used a range of merit-based criteria like:
- How well-written and informative the content was
- How engaging it was (social shares, comments)
- Popularity (page views, “popular posts” lists, IBLs)
With the nominations, we wanted to cast a pretty wide net, since the more pubs and authors we recognized, the more we could generate (and scale) interest and coverage for the awards.
We nominated roughly 10 articles from 10 different categories, which ranged from general, all-purpose topics (like “our niche” technology-oriented articles) to categorical subsets in the niche (like how PPC is a subset of Internet marketing).
In sum, we nominated about 100 different articles for an award. And those articles were written by 100 different authors and published on about 70 different blogs and pubs. That’s a lot of built-in distribution and promotion opportunities. I mean, our goal was to feature the best content, but we also wanted to amplify exposure as much as possible.
Hosting the Awards
The awards were an entirely separate entity from the main site, so we felt they should have its own section. Where the main site was more commercially-focused and built for lead gen, the awards were about engagement, distribution, branding, awareness, etc.
We hosted the awards section as a sort of micro-site, with:
- A new and different design template. Note: don’t cheap out here since design helps convey credibility.
- Microbranding: We gave the awards its own unique, catchy name to help establish it as a separate entity and distinguish it from the main site.
- A dedicated, soft offer to monetize traffic. The lead gen offer on the main site wasn’t a fit here. In fact we were concerned it could turn people off and hurt distribution. So we created a free guide download as the sidebar offer.
- Trust symbols: we included “as seen in” logos and badges for industry organizations we belong to.
From a structural standpoint, we included:
- A main index page that explained what we were doing and why.
- A page on criteria used to select the nominees.
- 10 article category pages and on each we:
- Listed and linked out to each post we nominated.
- Included a snippet of original, overview text for each post for engines to grab onto.
- Enabled a voting component, using WP Polls.
- Share buttons
Worth noting here is these article category pages rank well and still drive a continuous stream of passive traffic for queries like:
- [“industry topic” + “articles”]
- [“industry topic” + “blogs”]
Which was intentional from the outset.
Outreach and Promotion
Once we had our list of nominees, we shot each a personalized email to let them know they’d been nominated for an award. We also emailed their editors (if they were contributors to a blog or publication) and/or their employers (many contributed to a corporate blog).
In the email we included:
- Why their article was chosen.
- Where they could vote.
- The voting deadline and when we planned to announce winners.
- Links to nominee badges (we created custom award nominee badges as part of the link building/branding campaign).
We also encouraged everyone to help spread the word, share it with their audience and social followers, and to vote for their favorite articles.
The positive response we got was overwhelming and a little unexpected. A majority of nominees thanked us for the honor and for helping promote their work. They were genuinely appreciative and grateful, which felt good.
Now, given the number of article authors involved, the pubs and blogs they wrote for along with their audience base, we already had some fantastic “built-in” distribution. But we also needed to get the word out to other outlets in the industry. So we promoted the heck out of the awards to:
- Industry journals
- Trade pubs
- Industry bloggers
- Related organizations and national associations
We fired off a few press releases as well when we launched the awards and when we announced the winners. In sum, the awards were extremely well received and we got a ton of media coverage.
I think one of the main keys to success here with outreach and promotion was the level of effort we put into making this a legitimate event. I think it showed we cared and were invested in this.
On the flipside, if we’d strung this all together with spammy shortcuts and tricks and with a sole goal of “building links,” we never would have generated this level of coverage, distribution and participation.
How Things Shook Out
During the three weeks the awards ran, we generated close to 30,000 unique visits. You’ll see in the chart below that traffic spiked when we announced the awards, there was some retracement in week two, but then it was off to the races again during the final week of voting.
As for other KPIs, we generated the following:
Links (and Tons of Them)
The awards earned links from 124 unique domains. Having spent a total $2,500 on the project, that’s $20 per link which is ridiculously good ROI.
We earned links from a range of different sources/tactics including:
- Editorial links: The article authors and the organizations/pubs they work for published posts announcing the nominations and encouraging their audience to vote for them. Post awards, they ran congratulatory posts for the winners and runners up.
- Badges: We created custom, branded badges with HTML embeds for the nominees, as well as badges for the winners and runner ups. Roughly 40 percent of nominees added badges on their sites.
- Social links: There was a healthy amount of self-promotion and vote solicitation on Google+ from the article authors and their organizations/pubs.
- Coverage links: The awards also earned coverage on a host of high-profile industry pubs, blogs, and a few major industry associations ran pieces when we announced the awards and also when we released the winners three weeks later.
All-in-all, it was like a tidal wave of links. What’s more, since these links came almost exclusively from industry-related sites, they were highly-relevant to our site and about as natural as you can get.
The links we earned are also highly defensible, since I doubt any of competitors would try to replicate this sort of link campaign given the level of time and effort. Most in the space are consummate spammers who are still relying on manipulative link practices.
Social Engagement Signals
These came predominantly from Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Many nominees and the organizations they work for actively solicited votes on their Facebook pages, and Facebook traffic was our top referrer. Twitter sent the second most referrals, and we created a Twitter hashtag that was actively used by nominees.
Brand Engagement Signals
The awards and our main brand earned mentions in some prominent industry pubs. We also saw a rise in branded/navigational searches (both for the main site and the awards), strong user satisfaction activity, repeat visits, etc.
Brand Equity and Goodwill
We also built some really valuable relationships in the industry and even earned some brand evangelists as well. Again, people really appreciated that someone in the niche was celebrating their work, helping promote their content, and generating exposure for their sites. So it was in their best interest to help us promote the awards. The more people who learned about the awards, the more that would see their work.
Everybody came out a winner with this project. And it’s not too many marketing campaigns that turn out like that. But when they do, it feels pretty damn good.