Whenever someone asks me (or asks all of Quora) what they should do to drive traffic/build their blog/grow an audience as a beginner in content marketing, I suggest guest posting. I often suggest other things too, but guest posting is one that I can't stop coming back to.
Guest posting is something lots of bloggers do, but I still think it's underestimated. It's an achievable way to tap into an audience already created by someone else. If you can find an audience that overlaps heavily with your own target market, and you can reach them without putting in the time and effort to gather them around your own brand first, why wouldn't you?
Guest posting: leveraging an audience someone else has built
Guest posting usually means you're creating original content for someone else's blog. You might be paid for it, or you might not. Guest posting can refer to either situation, so make sure you check your assumptions before getting started!
While guest posting kind of means you're doing someone else's job for them, you get a lot in return. Even if you don't get paid, posting on a blog with an established audience of people you want to reach is priceless.
It takes a long time to build a blog. Guest posting can speed that process up somewhat, since some of the readers from each guest post will become part of your own audience.
Groove CEO Alex Turnbull used guest posting when he wanted to grow the Groove blog audience. He made the same argument as I've just done—guest posting let him reach a far larger audience than he'd built so far himself:
We have just over 10,000 subscribers to the Groove blog.
In sum, our partners have more than 1 million subscribers.
And reaching those subscribers costs no more than the resources it takes to write a great blog post.
The results of guest posting have been so powerful for Groove that Alex recommends it as a strategy as much as I do:
I’d encourage everyone to do this. It’s easily one of the best and fastest ways to build an audience for your content (and leads for your business).
I've done this to help build up my own company's audience, too. Each time I choose a topic that's focused on what works best for that blog's audience, but I also make sure it's relevant to me as a writer.
Guest blogging on various sites has helped me identify which audiences are a good match for my product. Some sites drove very little traffic back to my product's site, even though the guest post was received well. Others have been surprisingly helpful in sending high-quality traffic. This helps me improve the efficiency of my guest posting efforts in the future by focusing on the blogs that provide the biggest returns.
As Alex said, "Your audience is almost certainly different than ours, and the blogs that are best for you are probably different, too." But tailoring your approach can make guest posting work for you just as well as it has for others.
Putting it into action
When you're starting out, it can be hard to get press or lots of attention. Try reaching out to blogs in your niche that have already built a following. The more guest posts you do, the better you'll get at writing and pitching them, and the more you'll grow your own audience.
Pitching guest posts: understand the audience and give them something useful
Starting out with guest posting can seem overwhelming. Take it easy by starting small.
The best starting point is people you already know. Anyone who's writing a successful blog in your niche is a good target. If you don't have many of these contacts, try asking people you do know if they have contacts who write blogs for your target audience. Getting a warm intro is almost as good as knowing someone already.
If you've exhausted this supply, or you don't know anyone who can give you a warm intro, start with some research before reaching out cold. Many blogs talk about guest posting on their site and even include submission details. For instance, here are guest posting guidelines for HubSpot, VentureBeat, and KISSmetrics.
You'll often have better luck guest posting on a blog that includes multiple authors than a solo personal blog, but double check anyway if there's a solo blog that fits your needs perfectly. Jeff Goins, for instance, runs a popular writing blog on his own that often features guest posts.
Once you've done your homework to see if guest posting is feasible (if it's not mentioned, don't be afraid to ask—just don't ask questions that have already been answered), start working on your pitch.
The best guest post submissions I've created have always included a specific pitch aimed at the blog I'm reaching out to. You should know the blog well already if it's in your niche, but if you don't, get reading. Take in as much as you can of what they write. Get a feel for the topics they cover, the style and structure of the content, and the tone they use. Is it friendly, personable, and informal? Is it full of technical tutorials? Your pitch should reflect what the blog already publishes.
Len Markidan, who runs marketing at Groove, has a clever suggestion for figuring out what topics work best for a particular blog. Len uses Buzzsumo to see which posts are the most shared on each blog he guest posts for. This helps him craft a pitch that he knows will resonate well with the blog's readers.
When you've got a handle on the style of content that would suit the blog best, come up with a few topics. I like to pitch one, but keep a couple as backups in case the first pitch doesn't receive a warm reception. You might find more luck with pitching multiple options at once—especially if you're new to the game and haven't proven yourself yet.
When sending your pitch, include dot points of what you'll cover. Dot points are usually easier and faster to read than a paragraph or two. I always add a couple of sentences to explain the topic idea and why it's a good fit for this blog's readers, too.
Depending on how big a risk you are, you might need to add more detail to your pitch. If you're reaching out to someone you know, for instance, or you're already known for creating high-quality content around the topic you're pitching, a few dot points might be enough to get the go-ahead. If you're completely unknown, however, you might need to go into more detail about what you'll cover. If you're unsure, try adding subheadings and more dot points about what each section of your post will cover and what the takeaways will be for the reader.
On the Groove blog Alex shared an email pitch he used, which covers the topic he's writing about briefly, and some social proof of his previous content efforts:
For a guest post I wrote on the Groove support blog a few months ago, my pitch was much more detailed. I started by reaching out to Alex on Twitter. Once I'd established that he was familiar with my work and would be happy to have me guest post on the Groove support blog, I only needed to focus my pitch on the post itself. I sent Len, Groove's marketing manager, an outline of what I'd write, including the takeaways for Groove's readers.
That email turned into this post.
Here's another pitch I sent, where I shared four different ideas I'd been thinking about:
Putting it into action
Spend time on your pitch. Don't knock it together in five minutes and hope for the best. This is your first, and perhaps only, chance to impress someone who holds the keys to an audience you want to reach. Show them you've thought through the pitch and crafted it to match their blog.
Know the audience. A popular blogger will protect their audience. They've worked hard for a long time to build up that audience and form a respectful relationship with them. Remember this. They'll want to see that you understand the audience and you're offering something they'll get value out of.
Start with people you know. If you don't know someone whose blog you can guest post on, try to get a warm intro to a friend of a friend.
Pre-guest posting: what to do if you're just not ready
So what do you do if you're not having any luck with guest posting? Or maybe you haven't even tried yet, but you're worried because you don't know anyone to reach out to for help, and nobody knows who you are yet.
One of the biggest reasons you might pose a risk to bloggers (and therefore be turned down) when offering guest posts is that you're unproven. If you don't have much work to point to, they have no way to judge whether your writing is high quality. They don't want to risk wasting their time and letting down their audience by accepting a guest post that's low quality or irrelevant to their blog.
Luckily, this is fixable.
Let me explain with an example. When Buffer was still brand new, co-founder Leo Widrich was having trouble finding anyone who would write about Buffer. He couldn't get the press to accept his pitches, and he couldn't get popular blogs to write about his product. So he wrote about it himself.
Pitch after pitch I emailed got no reply or a short "no". Not a single tech blog was interested in covering us. And I couldn’t blame them.
It led to a simple conclusion in my head: If no one wants to write about us, at least we can write ourselves.
The start of Buffer's journey to becoming famous for content marketing was Leo deciding to write about tips for Twitter users (and using Buffer itself) on the Buffer blog because nobody else would.
Eventually, Leo had enough content that he could point to it as examples of the style and quality of his work. This helped Leo land guest posts on more and more popular blogs, and more people started hearing about Buffer. Soon the press started to write about his product. And still Leo wrote more.
Eventually, the Buffer team stopped writing guest posts to focus on their own blog. These days, other sites republish Buffer content, which helps them get more traffic without putting in the extra work to create original guest posts.
But this all started with Leo writing more and more for his own blog.
Putting it into action
Write for your own blog first. This will help you get better at writing, learn from your mistakes, and build up an archive of top-quality work you can point to. Use your best pieces as examples of your work when pitching guest posts.
Get involved in the community. While you're building up your archive of published work, get to know other bloggers. Once you're ready to guest post, you'll have both examples of your work and connections to help you get started.
Start small. When you start guest posting, aim for blogs that are a bit more popular than yours. As your audience grows and more people get to know who you are, aim a little higher. Start small and work your way up, and you'll have more luck getting to the top-tier blogs.
I hope I've convinced you by now that guest posting is worthwhile. Not just that, but it's also completely achievable. This is why I recommend it to everyone starting out with content marketing.
You can start from nothing and use a mixture of blogging on your own site and guest posting to grow a sizable audience—if you do it right.
Image credits: Email screenshot via Groove.