046 How to (Rapidly) Build an Audience with Content Syndication

Content syndication is sort of like guest posting on steroids. You get all the benefits of guest posting without the work because you are using one article to show up on on different websites.

But which websites you publish on matters. Which is why I asked Belle Beth Cooper to come on today’s special interview edition of Rough Draft.

Belle’s articles have been syndicated on Business Insider, Fast Company, and Lifehacker. On average, her articles were generating tens of thousands of views, several thousand social shares, and driving a ridiculous amount of traffic back to her website.

She’s my textbook example of someone who’s grown an audience through content syndication. So naturally, she’s a great resource on the topic. Full of tips and wisdom and useful warnings on what not to do.

In this 20-minute episode you’ll discover:

  • One thing you MUST do when a big site re-publishes your article
  • The trick to driving traffic back to your site from syndicated content (your byline won’t do it)
  • Why content syndication won’t ruin your Google rankings
  • How to keep your syndication relationship alive with a big publisher
  • What never to do with syndicated content

The Show Notes

How to (Rapidly) Build an Audience with Content Syndication

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free, 14-day trial at RainmakerPlatform.com.

Demian Farnworth: Welcome to Rough Draft, your daily dose of essential web writing advice. I am your host, Demian Farnworth, and I am the Chief Content Writer for Copyblogger Media. Thank you for sharing the next few minutes of your life with me.

Today’s our last day of interview week here at Rough Draft. Since Monday, instead of a monologue, I broke out the dialogue about overcoming obscurity, finding your own voice, choosing the right words, and today it’s all about building your audience rapidly through content syndication.

Content syndication is kind of like guest posting on steroids. You get all the benefits of guest posting without the work because you are using one article to show up on different websites. But which websites you publish on matters, which is why I tapped Belle Beth Cooper for today’s interview. Belle’s articles have been syndicated on Business Insider, Fast Company and Lifehacker. On average, her articles were generating tens of thousands of views, several thousand social shares, and driving a ridiculous amount of traffic back to her website.

She’s my textbook example of someone who’s grown an audience through content syndication. Naturally, she’s a great resource on the topic — full of tips, and wisdom, and useful warnings and what not to do.

Enough with the introduction. On to the show …

Demian Farnworth: Okay, state your name.

Belle Beth Cooper: Belle Beth Cooper.

Demian Farnworth: Which is a beautiful name, by the way.

Belle Beth Cooper: Thank you.

Demian Farnworth: Now, tell our listeners what you do.

Belle Beth Cooper: I’m a content marketer, essentially. I co-founded a startup in Melbourne called Hello Code. We make product called Exist, which is a personal analytics platform. I do all the marketing and business for that company, and then I also work as a content marketer on a freelance basis for various companies.

Demian Farnworth: The reason I wanted to bring you on the show was for two reasons. One, you are a great writer and deserve the respect and attention. And, I’ve been a fan of yours for a very long time, so I just wanted the opportunity to talk to you. I remember when you were back with Buffer, you wrote some doozies. When I say “doozies,” I mean extraordinarily popular among the social circuit. For example, “Five More Unusual Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder, Backed by Science,” that was 3,000 + just on Twitter alone. There’s a really good one called, “The Secret to Creativity, Intelligence, and Scientific Thinking,” which stands at 6,200 Twitter shares alone. Then “Ten Simple Things You Can Do” — and you can correct me on this — was one of your most popular ones —

Belle Beth Cooper: — It was absolutely the most popular one ever!

Demian Farnworth: Yeah. That one — just Twitter alone — was 7,400. This is off the Buffer site, correct?

Belle Beth Cooper: Yeah.

Demian Farnworth: I remember just coming across … When you have that sort of traction in social media, you notice people. I was attracted to you and started following you. Started reading what you had and became a big fan. One thing that really intrigued me about your headlines, though, was this idea about “backed by science.” It added an element of credibility. Was that your idea, or where did that idea come from?

Belle Beth Cooper: I’m pretty sure that was Leo’s idea. I was lucky to work with Leo — one of the co-founders of Buffer — who had spent a lot of time with trial and error trying different things in content marketing working out what works best. I was able to take a lot of his ideas and a lot the things he’d worked out and just run with them and implement them.

Demian Farnworth: Nice.

Belle Beth Cooper: I was really lucky in that way. That’s a good example of where he said, “that would work well,” and it did, so we kept doing it.

Demian Farnworth: Yeah, I loved it. Organically I started following you, but then our CFO, probably about a year later, emailed an article to me and said, “This girl is good.” It was an article, I think, on Business Insider. He was basically telling me, “Pay attention to this girl.” It was from you, and I was like, “I already am doing that.” I naturally went to go read the article that was on Business Insider, but I had this feeling as I was reading it that I’d read it before. Then I searched your name and the headline of the article and Buffer and it came up — there it was. I think it was just an article that had been on Buffer too.

That was my introduction to this idea of syndication. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. Because whenever I think of syndication, you’re sort of my classic example. Why don’t you tell us what syndication is?

Belle Beth Cooper: Sure. What happened with Buffer is we would write a new post for the Buffer blog, publish it on the Buffer blog so it was original content and it was always originally published on our own blog.

Then the syndication part was when other websites like Business Insider would take that exact same content — basically copy-and-paste it with our permission — and they would usually add one line near the top or near the bottom of the post that said, “This was originally published on the Buffer blog,” and it would have a linkback to the original page. It was, essentially, just a complete copy-and-paste. It was original content that we had published on our own blog.

Demian Farnworth: Did that just come across organically? They found the content, said, “We want to do this?” Or did Leo or you approach them and say, “Hey, are you interested in this content?”

Belle Beth Cooper: It was a bit of a mixture. When I first started at Buffer Leo had already set up a couple of relationships with people who did that kind of thing. Then we noticed that as we started getting more traffic and people were paying more attention to us because our content was becoming more and more popular, we would have people reaching out to us and saying, “Can we syndicate this content?” Then, the third way it happened is, occasionally we would notice that a big site would take our content and syndicate it without contacting us first.

Demian Farnworth: How did you guys feel about that?

One Thing You MUST Do When a Big Site Re-Publishes Your Article

Belle Beth Cooper: It was actually really great for us because it would be … One time, Time.com did that, and we thought we would never get anything on Time.com so it was really exciting that they had taken it. And they were always very careful about taking the entire piece of content.

Demian Farnworth: Right.

Belle Beth Cooper: There was no kind of passing it off as their own or cutting bits out of it. Whenever that happened, our response would be to reach out to them and thank them for doing that and say, “Let’s set up a partnership. We can send you more content like this. If we write more in the future would you like us to send you more?” Of course they always did, because the reason they were syndicating it in the first place was they wanted that content on their site.

Demian Farnworth: Tell me about what you guys thought about the track that you got from those sites?

The Trick to Driving Traffic Back to Your Site from Syndicated Content (Your Byline Won’t Do It)

Belle Beth Cooper: One of the interesting things about that is that the little extra sentence I mentioned where it would say, “This was originally published on the Buffer Blog,” and linkback to the original post. The idea of putting that there was so that we got credit for the original work and that it would send people back to the original post. That hardly ever happened, which isn’t too surprising, I guess, if you think about actually reading a syndicated piece of content. As the reader, there’s no need to go back to the original and read the same thing again.

Demian Farnworth: Right.

Belle Beth Cooper: Nobody clicked on that. What they did click on was the inline links a lot. Something we did just naturally is when I wrote content for the Buffer Blog, I would often write about similar topics or kind of similar areas within a topic. I would link to other pieces on the Buffer Blog to back up what I was saying where we’d already researched something. Then, those links would stay in the content when it was syndicated, and those were the links where we would get traffic from those other sites.

Demian Farnworth: Did you find certain sites sent you good traffic, bad traffic, so-so traffic?

Belle Beth Cooper: Mostly for our syndication we found that the content that got syndicated the most and was the most popular was around psychology, science, and life-hacking topics. Those were the topics I focused on the most when I was at Buffer. What we found was that, although they were the most popular, sent us the most traffic, and got the most shares, that traffic wasn’t great for conversions. It was fine because that was what we were focusing on. We wanted to just build up our audience, but …

Demian Farnworth: Right.

Belle Beth Cooper: Just before I left Buffer, we made the decision to start pivoting towards focusing on conversions more. You’ll see, if you go to the Buffer Blog now, the whole Buffer Blog is about social media and marketing because they want that targeted traffic. It definitely wasn’t targeted traffic that was great for conversions, but it was the type of traffic we were trying to attract anyway.

Demian Farnworth: It helps to build an audience, get exposure, right?

Belle Beth Cooper: Definitely, yeah.

Demian Farnworth: I can imagine, too, some sort of SEO effect as well?

Why Content Syndication Won’t Ruin Your Google Rankings

Belle Beth Cooper: Yeah, one of the interesting things was we had other people sometimes say to us, “Why are you doing that? That’s crazy. You’re going to ruin your rankings in Google because you’re re-publishing the same thing.”

Google’s kind of hard to understand sometimes, but as far as we could tell, it seemed like so long as you’re publishing the content on other sites where Google thinks they’re high quality — so if we’re publishing on Business Insider, or Inc., or Time.com, or Lifehacker — Google respects those sites, and what it will do is just ignore the syndications rather than dropping your ranking because it knows that those are good, quality sites. And it can see that the original content was published earlier because it picked that up in the search rankings earlier. It would just ignore the syndicated pieces, as far as we could tell.

Demian Farnworth: Right. So lesson is: don’t go down the scale if you’re trying to syndicate. Meaning, don’t go to lower quality. Always go up the ladder.

Belle Beth Cooper: Right, definitely.

Demian Farnworth: Do you think syndication is a practice … Who should syndicate articles?

Belle Beth Cooper: It’s a bit tricky because it can be good and bad. On the one hand, I don’t love the idea of the Internet being covered with the same content being published over and over. I think we’re starting to see a lot of that kind of situation in social media, and I don’t think it makes anyone’s lives better to see the same thing all the time.

On the other hand, as a writer, the cool thing about syndication is that if you get a relationship with someone — especially an ongoing situation where they keep syndicating most of your work — what you get out of that is you get to reach their audience. You get to build your own audience up. And you get to associate yourself with the brand of the site who’s syndicating you. But you don’t have to put in the work to write original content for them.

Unlike guest posting, it’s actually a lot less work because you write content that works for your audience on your blog and then you just give it to other people and you get to publish it first. You get to work out how long you want to leave it before you give it to anyone else to publish.

Demian Farnworth: Right.

Belle Beth Cooper: Then you also get the benefits that come with the guest post of being on those other, more established sites and reaching their audiences.

Demian Farnworth: One of the questions I wanted to ask was do you prepare an article any differently for syndication? But it sounds like you don’t have to.

Belle Beth Cooper: No. You definitely don’t have to. The only differences would be if you’re writing something super-specific for your audience. Say it’s quite heavily focused on your product and how that work ties into whatever topic you’re writing about, that’s the kind of thing where it’s probably not general enough to be syndicated. But we quite often found at Buffer if we had ongoing relationships with someone, every couple of weeks, we would send them an email and say, “Here are a couple of posts that we’ve published on the Buffer Blog recently that we’ve hand-picked because we think they suit your audience.” We wouldn’t just send them everything.

Demian Farnworth: Okay.

Belle Beth Cooper: We usually wouldn’t wait for them to choose. We would send them pieces that we believe fit their audience best. Once we worked out that the inline links were where we were getting traffic from, we always made sure that any appropriate places where we should be linking to our content we were. You can obviously overdo that, so I wouldn’t do that everywhere you can. But we always made sure that there were one or two links where appropriate within the content so that we could get some of that traffic coming back to our blog.

Demian Farnworth: Besides tailoring it towards the audience, did you guys have any other criteria based upon what should be syndicated and what shouldn’t be syndicated?

Belle Beth Cooper: No. Once we got heavily into syndication, the plan was really to syndicate anything that we could. The question was more about for each piece, which of our syndication partners would it suit the best?

Once we brought on Courtney — who still works at Buffer now — she took over that role. She would go through all of the articles and she would plan for each syndication partner which ones she would send them. Sometimes the same piece would get syndicated on various places. That one about happiness that you mentioned before was syndicated all over the place.

If it’s really popular, a lot of places will want to pick it up. Sometimes part of what we did was also measuring those out. We would offer it to one syndication partner first if it was a really good fit. And then sometimes, a week or two later, we would offer it to someone else so that there was a gap in between and that they weren’t all running the same thing on the same day.

Demian Farnworth: Got it. Clearly, you did not get paid. These places that pick these articles up did not pay you for these articles, right?

Belle Beth Cooper: Right, that’s right.

Demian Farnworth: The advantage was the exposure to a bigger audience.

Belle Beth Cooper: Yeah, definitely. Which is why it’s so great compared to guest posting because you’re not putting in much extra effort. So you’re getting that benefit and it doesn’t matter that you’re not getting paid for that time because it’s only a little bit of extra time on top of writing content for your own blog anyway.

Demian Farnworth: Clearly, if you have a small site, go up the ladder to the bigger sites. I know you, in our email exchange, you said that you didn’t handle the relationships, but do you have any tips on building that relationship? Anything you sort of picked up from working with Leo that could help people say, “Okay, I need to build a relationship with those people?”

How to Keep Your Syndication Relationship Alive with a Big Publisher

Belle Beth Cooper: Yeah, I think paying attention to who their audience is, is really key. I mentioned that already, but I think it’s really important to focus on that and make it clear to them that you care about their audience and you’re paying attention. And that you’re putting in the effort to select pieces for them that you think will work for their audience. Sometimes we would even say, “Here’s why we think it would work,” or sometimes what Leo would do is, he would suggest a different title. We might have picked a title that worked really well for the Buffer Blog, but wasn’t quite the right angle to use somewhere else, even though the content was great. He would send them a piece and say, “Here are a couple of headline options that I think would work better if you publish this piece on your blog. Maybe you want to do one of these.”

It really showed how much care and effort he was putting in to make sure that this content worked for them. It also gave them an easier way to understand why it would be useful to them and what their audience would get out of it because if he just sent it with the initial headline and that didn’t fit, they might just discount it.

Demian Farnworth: Great. That’s good advice. So final question, because I know you’re just getting wound up at 9 a.m. in Melbourne. Does this work in reverse? Should someone consider taking syndicated articles? If someone else says, “Hey, I want to swap with you, would you mind publishing this on my site?” Is there any reason … We’re not talking about a Huffington Post. Say someone approaches me and says, “Hey, can I do …” Is there any reason why someone should do that? Does that make sense?

What Never to Do with Syndicated Content

Belle Beth Cooper: Yeah, definitely. It probably sounds a little hypocritical for me to be on the other side and say, “No, I wouldn’t do it.” I probably wouldn’t because I think the reason it works for these really big sites like Huffington Post and Fast Company is that firstly, they have such broad audiences and they have all these kind of niches within what they publish. There are various topics that they publish on, so they’re trying to approach a very wide audience. They need a lot of content because there’s such a big audience and so many different niches that they publish in that they want to fill up with content. So they really have this need for the content.

I don’t think it matters so much on a big site like that who wrote the piece and whether it’s original or not. Whereas if you’re a single writer or maybe just a couple of you running some kind of content site, I think it makes such a big difference for people who are smaller — as big as us — rather than a big conglomerate. It makes such a big difference to your brand that people know that you’ve got original work on your blog and that they’re going to make the effort to come back to you over and over. Whereas maybe you don’t go back to Fast Company or Huffington Post everyday and read all the content, but if you see a link to them on Twitter, you click on it because you know those sites and you know that they have good content.

For a one- or two-person blog, you’re going to go back to them over and over, maybe subscribe to their RSS feed or you follow them on Twitter because you care about everything they write. I think you’re really putting yourself on the line if you’re syndicating other people’s content. If it were me on the other side, I think I would request original guest posts rather than syndicating articles that have published elsewhere.

Demian Farnworth: That’s a great way to distinguish between when you should do a guest post and when it’s okay to do a syndicated article. That’s awesome. Hey, thank you so much for your time, Belle. I really, really appreciate it.

Belle Beth Cooper: No problem.

Demian Farnworth: Why don’t you tell the people how to get a hold of you?

Belle Beth Cooper: Yeah, sure. You can find me on Twitter @BelleBCooper and you can find my website at bellebethcooper.com.

Demian Farnworth: Okay, awesome. I will, in the show notes, link to Belle’s Buffer, but also to her Buffer author page. And I recommend in my listing to go pillage her author page. That will keep you busy for a long time, and will be a graduate level course in creating great content.

Thanks again, Belle. I really appreciate it. Have fun today, okay?

Belle Beth Cooper: Thanks for having me.

Demian Farnworth: You bet.

So that’s it for our little week of interviews. If you don’t mind, jump in the comments on the blog and let me know what you think. Let me know if you liked the interviews. They were longer than the normal monologue. Let me know what you liked, let me know what you didn’t like. I’d love to hear from you.

Naturally, thank you for listening to Rough Draft. I value your time and I value your support and I value your attention, all those things mean so much to me. I do not take them for granted. It just makes me want to work harder. If you haven’t left a rating or review, jump over to iTunes today.

Until next time, take care.