SaaS Content Marketing: 5 Proven Strategies to Earn Links

SaaS Content Marketing: 5 Proven Strategies to Earn Links

Links to blog posts or long-form resources increase their search visibility and build awareness. They also help sites rank for bottom-of-funnel terms—a rising tide lifts all boats.

Some content marketers have it “easy,” working in highly visual industries (e.g. food, fashion) with wide appeal. That simplifies content creation and link building compared to, say, trying to promote niche B2B software.

Given the potential benefits and challenges in SaaS, who’s doing it well? To find out, I ran a study to benchmark content marketing performance for 500 SaaS companies.

While the initial research covered many elements—and focused mostly on numbers—this article reveals the strategies that led to successful link building.

Data and methodology

My initial research found that, on average, the top-performing articles by major SaaS companies generated backlinks from just 9 referring domains.

In this post, I focus on a subset of that data—55 articles that significantly outperformed the rest of the field. These articles generated three times the average number of backlinks (at least 27 referring domains).

I also filtered posts to include only those that contributed at least 5% of the total links to the site for pages other than the homepage.

  • This filtering helps control for site size—a post on NYTimes.com that earns 100 links isn’t noteworthy, whereas one on a personal blog that earns 20 may be exceptional.
  • Excluding the homepage is a quick way to remove a major, non-content outlier that would otherwise skew the total link count.

By assessing the strategies behind those 55 articles, I’ve identified five shared features. If you’re creating content for your SaaS company, these are the themes and practical ideas to add to your content calendar.

5 ways that SaaS content earns links

1. Become a point of reference.

Eight of the articles in this list (15%) are original research. There’s a mix of infographics and in-depth studies, all of which generate lots of inbound links.

According to a 2017 study, research is the most efficient type of content for earning backlinks. A 2018 study found that 74% of marketers who conducted original research saw increased website traffic as a result (though only 49% reported generating backlinks).

Example 1

What the Most Common Passwords of 2016 List Reveals [Research Study]” by Keeper

Word countBacklinksReferring domainsDate of publication
4833,100815 (39% of all RDs)2017
 
original research on passwords.

This hybrid blog post and infographic presents the results of Keeper’s study that assessed the most common passwords in 2016. (They sourced their data from recent data breaches.) The post now accounts for 39% of all referring domains to pages other than the homepage.

Why did it succeed?
  • Smartly sourced, hard-to-find data. Passwords, of course, are usually private. The study reveals rarely unearthed data that people are naturally curious about. Using data from a data breach as a source was also a clever way to conduct research quickly and cheaply.
  • Ranked answers. Humans love rankings. A random list of “common passwords” wouldn’t have had the same impact as the rank-order version. Does it matter which is fourth versus sixth? Nope. But it’s a more engaging way to frame the content. 
What could they have done better?
  • The visual presentation isn’t impressive. The main report is a clickable link to a PDF, which doesn’t make much sense. For one, many links and visits may go to the PDF version (rather than the HTML version, which includes more company info, navigation, calls to action, etc.). Second, a PNG would’ve made the pseudo-infographic embeddable on other sites to help earn even more links and referral traffic.
  • There’s no segmentation of data. In all likelihood, the data breach contained more than just passwords—it probably contained emails and, perhaps, addresses, too. Additional variables would enable additional reports (i.e. more pages to link to) or more targeted versions to increase the content’s appeal (e.g. “What are the most common passwords in Canada?”).

Example 2

New Study: 2018 PROMO Online Video Statistics and Trends” by PROMO

Word countBacklinksReferring domainsDate of publication
1,79226375 (10% of all RDs)2018
highly linked original research on video viewing habits.

This is another example of a hybrid blog post and infographic. It presents the results of PROMO’s study looking at the video habits of 500 people across all age ranges, and the post now accounts for 10% of all referring domains to pages other than the homepage.

Why did it succeed?
  • Visuals for each statistic. In addition to the large infographic at the start of the article, PROMO created visuals for each statistic that can easily be embedded on other sites. This means there’s three different ways to link to this article: quoting statistics; embedding the infographic; and embedding images for certain statistics.
  • Video is a hot topic. For marketers, video is having its moment. This Google Trends chart shows how searches for video marketing have increased over the past five years, and the arrow indicates when this article was published—right before peak interest.
google trends chart for interest in video marketing.
What could they have done better?
  • There’s no segmentation of data. This article looked at video viewing habits of people globally, from teenagers to seniors. Breaking down this data into smaller subsets might reveal additional insights (e.g. how video habits vary by age, gender, or region).
  • No extra statistics. All of the stats in the article are covered in the infographic, which is shown at the start of the post. While the article goes into more detail about each statistic, everything’s been covered before you get to the bulk of the copy. For users, there’s little motivation to spend time reading the article.

Takeaway: You can scale your research project to your budget.

The research studies I looked at varied in scope: PROMO assessed 500 people’s video habits; Keeper analysed 10 million passwords. As another example, Gong used AI to analyse 519,000 discovery calls to understand what drives success. All of these projects generated backlinks.

You don’t need an expansive study to generate links. Even small studies can build credibility for your company as an authoritative source on a topic.

The main drawback of research studies? They age. Over time, statistics become less relevant; the links you earn in 2019 could go to another, more recent study in 2020. If you invest in original research, consider a topic that:

  • Has enduring interest;
  • Is feasible to update annually.

2. Share others’ research.

An additional seven articles (13%) share other people’s research as infographics, statistical roundups, or text commentary.

You might assume that most people would link directly to the original research, but this shows that, for the purpose of earning links, aggregating research from multiple sources may be just as effective as doing your own.

Example 1

22 Mind-Blowing Mobile Payment Statistics” by BlueSnap

Word countBacklinksReferring domainsDate of publication
9045235 (7% of all RDs)2017
collection of original research studies on mobile payments.

This article collates 22 statistics about mobile payments from 13 sources, covering security, users, market share, and global statistics. It accounts for 7% of all referring domains pointing to pages other than the homepage.

Why did it succeed?
  • Built credibility by referencing multiple studies. By bringing together relevant statistics from a number of sites, BlueSnap delivered a more credible resource—you don’t need to scour the web to find out if a single research study is corroborated (or debunked) by other studies. 
  • Took advantage of human laziness. If you’re writing about this topic, it’s much easier to link straight to this list three or four times than click through to each original source. For example, articles by ConversionFanatics and Fourth Source both reference statistics collated by BlueSnap, linking to this article instead of the original sources.
What could they have done better?
  • Visual presentation is uninspiring. This article is all text. There are no visual elements to add interest. Illustrating statistics would make them more shareable and be an additional incentive to link to their article instead of the original sources.

Example 2

10 Year-End Giving Statistics Every Fundraiser Should Know” by Neon

Word countBacklinksReferring domainsDate of publication
798196111 (17% of all RDs)2016
example of highly linked post on donation statistics.

Similar to the article above, this one collates 10 statistics about year-end donations from various sources. It accounts for 17% of all referring domains aside from the homepage.

Why did it succeed?
  • Visuals for each statistic. With a custom image for each statistic, this article looks more like a piece of original research than a list of stats. These visuals can be embedded on other sites, providing another way of linking to this article beyond simple text.
  • Looks like the original source. Many websites cite Neon not just with a link but in the anchor text as well. Some go so far as to credit Neon (erroneously) as the source of the research:
example of link to aggregator of statistics, not original source.
What could they have done better?
  • More data. Ten statistics is a good starting point—it delivered lots of links for Neon, but it’s still a small number, and the data is growing older by the minute. (It was originally published in 2016.) Updated, expanded statistics could justify another round of promotion and keep the post current.

Takeaway: No research? No problem.

If you don’t have the resources to conduct original research, aggregating a list of reputable industry statistics might be the next best thing. You can reap all the benefits of original research—without actually doing any.

Statistical roundups are valued resources that build credibility, sometimes at the expense of those who ran the original research studies.

3. Make the news—for better or worse.

My SaaS content marketing study found that PR-style content received twice as much organic traffic as blogs that focused on educational content. That statistic won’t hold true for mom-and-pop shops. But it does work for big companies whose fortunes qualify as newsworthy events.

Some events that earned links were intentional—acquisitions and funding announcements, for example. Others, like security incidents, were less desirable but nonetheless impactful.

Example 1

Salesforce Signs Definitive Agreement to Acquire Datorama” by Datorama

Word countBacklinksReferring domainsDate of publication
2728951 (21% of all RDs)2018

A couple of acquisitions showed up in this data set, attracting coverage in tech press and the wider business press. For example, this article is Datorama’s announcement of their acquisition by Salesforce, and it accounts for 21% of referring domains to their site.

Why did it succeed?
  • Big name acquirer. With Salesforce as your acquirer, it automatically becomes big news in the world of sales and marketing, at least for a while. It helped that Salesforce linked to Datorama’s page in their article announcing the deal, bringing this piece to the attention of their wider audience.
  • Direct message from the CEO. Make no mistake: This “article” is a press release. But it’s authored and signed by Ran Sarig, Datorama CEO and co-founder, which makes it more interesting and engaging than a dry, anonymous press release. It almost comes off as an “opinion” piece, embedding the CEO’s take on the acquisition within the page and, thus, turning it into a source for journalists reporting on the acquisition.
What could they have done better?
  • Logos! This is another all-text article, with no featured image in the post or header. A visual that featured both the Datorama and Salesforce logos could have provided a visual way of communicating the acquisition—ideal for sharing on social media or earning image links.

Example 2

May 31, 2017 Security Incident (UPDATED June 8, 2017)” by OneLogin

Word countBacklinksReferring domainsDate of publication
646941395 (36% of all RDs)2017

“There’s no such thing as bad press.” Probably not. But, as far as earning links go, maybe so.

This article details a major security incident, covering the scale of the incident and the impact on customers and their data. This was big news and widely linked to—it accounts for more than one third (36%) of all referring domains, other than those pointing to the homepage.

Even if OneLogin wished they didn’t have to publish such an article, doing so gave them some control over the narrative—and earned plenty of links. (It was a good day for their SEO team, at least.) 

Why did it “succeed”?
  • It was national news. This incident made it onto the BBC website. For many companies, a data breach (hopefully) won’t make it into national news.
  • Ongoing updates kept it relevant. This security incident was reported on May 31, 2017, with updates shared on June 1 and finally on June 8. This meant affected customers (and news outlets) had one page to refer to for up-to-date information, as the incident was resolved.
What could they have done better?
  • Customize the design of the page. The audience for this page is unique—customers and news readers concerned about the incident. If they wanted to make the most of a bad situation, they could’ve devoted more page space and copy to talking about the company (in a positive light) and offered a more relevant call to action than “Sign up to receive a newsletter.” 

Takeaway: Self-promotional content can work.

Not all links come from educational content. It’s okay to write about your company, and a self-promotional focus can bring in tons of links if your company qualifies as newsworthy—or is acquired or connected to someone who is.

It’s tough to argue that “bad news” is an opportunity. But it does earn links. Quite often, those links come from powerful news outlets.

Whether the news is good (funding, acquisitions) or bad (data breach), here are 10 sites with decent domain ratings (60+) that linked back to articles in this subcategory:

  • B&T Magazine
  • Ad Exchanger
  • CIO Dive
  • CMSWire
  • Diginomica
  • MarTech Series
  • Mobile Marketing
  • The Drum
  • TechCrunch
  • CFO.com

Put these sites on your outreach list if you’re making news.

4. Go bigger or better.

The skyscraper technique is a popular strategy for building links. You find popular content about an important (read: high-volume) subject and create a better version.

There are four key ways to improve upon existing content:

  1. Length. If someone shares a list of 20 must-use tools, make a list of 25.
  2. Newness. Has someone published a roundup of top tips for 2018? Update it for 2019.
  3. Design. Is great information languishing on an ugly blog? Share the same information with stronger visuals or make the post easier to skim/navigate, especially on mobile.
  4. Depth. Go into more detail than the original post—turn a brief paragraph into a full section, substantiate claims with expert opinions or stats, etc.

The examples below focus on two methods: length and depth.

Example 1

100+ Best Software Testing Tools Reviewed (Research Done for You!)” by QA Symphony

Word countBacklinksReferring domainsDate of publication
14,29557080 (14% of all RDs)2016

This article is a great example of how to generate backlinks with a longer article. Totaling over 14,000 words, QA Symphony collates a list of more than 100 software testing tools. It accounts for 14% of all referring domains to their site.

Why did it succeed?
  • Clear, valuable comprehensiveness. This article is by far the most comprehensive list on the first three pages of search results for “best software testing tools.” It covers 100+ tools—more than twice as many as the next-longest list. Longer doesn’t always mean better, but it works for this topic.
What could they have done better?
  • Keep it updated. This article occupies the third organic spot for “best software testing tools.” Since its 2016 publication, it’s been beaten out by two newer (or at least more recently updated) articles—both of which reference 2019 in their page titles. Updating the title and adding a few new tools could push it to the top of the rankings and generate even more links.
example of comprehensive resource being outranked by more recent but lesser versions.

Example 2

What Is Account-Based Marketing? An ABM Definition” by Terminus

Word countBacklinksReferring domainsDate of publication
121324779 (25% of all RDs)2016

This article from Terminus was published in November 2016 and has generated 247 backlinks from 79 referring domains. Even though it’s a few years old, it still ranks on the first page of Google for “what is abm.”

Why did it succeed?
  • Subheadings with related keywords. The subheadings in this article all contain other relevant keywords, helping this piece rank for lots of ABM-related searches, as well as making it easier for readers to scan and navigate. That pleases users and earns more “passive” links—citations that accumulate gradually from top rankings, not outreach. 
  • More in-depth than similar articles. I looked at other articles ranking for the same search term that were published between 2014 and 2016. For example, this article by Salesforce is shorter than the Terminus article (762 words vs. 1,213) and focuses almost entirely on what you do in account-based marketing, rather than how and why you’d do it. 
What could they have done better?
  • Keep it updated. One of the newer articles out-ranking the Terminus post is this article by HubSpot. Published in 2019, it also goes more in-depth, covering the same ground while adding a closing section that includes steps to launch an ABM campaign. 

Takeaway: The skyscraper technique works—if you have a plan.

If you’re looking to “steal” links from existing content, it’s not enough simply to create a post that’s longer/newer/better. To generate links for your new content, you need to invest time and effort in the outreach. To quote Ahrefs:

The key to successful execution of the Skyscraper Technique is email outreach. But instead of spamming every blogger you know, you reach out to those who have already linked to the specific content you improved upon. The idea is this: since they’ve already linked to a similar article, they are more likely to link to one that is better.

Something else to keep in mind: The initial bump you might get from outdoing others will only continue if you keep your content up to date. If you choose a topic (like software tools) that requires annual updates to maintain user interest and organic rankings, make sure your strategy includes time to keep the content fresh.

5. Choose high-volume topics—and be patient. 

This last option is a blend of easy (“do your keyword research”) and hard (“win buy-in for a years-long strategy”).

Keyword research ensures that your posts have a chance to earn passive links. Once your post rises to the top of search results, it becomes the easiest source for others’ to grab as they write their articles. However, that strategy works only if your stakeholders buy into the “long play.”

Among the 55 articles that made the cut for this article, the majority were published in 2017 and 2018:

chart showing the publish date of posts that earned the most links.

With more than half the articles between 1 and 2 years old, the data suggests that it takes time for articles to rank well in search, be recognised as a reputable source, and earn backlinks. (At the same time, the link opportunities may diminish after a couple years as content decays.)

This was especially true for original research. For example, in July 2017, Gong published “The 7 Best Discovery Call Tips For Sales You’ll Ever Read.” But it wasn’t until 2019 that it was referenced in HubSpot’s Sales Statistics roundup. Will your higher-ups wait two years for a payoff?

Conclusion

My research found a strong correlation between the number of referring domains and the amount of organic traffic an article receives:

scatterplot showing the correlation between links and organic ranking for saas content marketing.

If you’re trying to increase organic acquisition—to content or bottom-of-funnel sales pages—links are a vital component of that effort.

If you’re trying to generate links with your SaaS content marketing, the biggest takeaway I can share is this: Not one of the 55 articles on this list are run-of-the-mill 500-word blog posts. All required more editorial resources for research, design, and/or writing. Further, all require ongoing editorial support to maintain and expand upon their initial success.

Nonetheless, as a starting point, focus on these five strategies:

  1. Become a reference point.
  2. Share others’ research.
  3. Make the news—for better or worse.
  4. Go bigger or better.
  5. Choose high-volume topics—and be patient. 

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SaaS Content Marketing: 5 Proven Strategies to Earn Links