Content Marketing
10 Things You Can Learn About Content Marketing from Backlinko

10 Things You Can Learn About Content Marketing from Backlinko

May 13, 2020
11 min read

Backlinko is one of the world’s top websites for SEO tips, advice, and training.

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And the man behind it, Brian Dean, is among the very best in the business.



This is despite being a relative latecomer to the party – he “discovered” the industry in 2010, while trying to promote a nutrition site, and only launched Backlinko in December 2012.

Since then, Brian has taught himself – and the rest of us in the industry – a hell of a lot about SEO, and more specifically, content marketing and link building.

He’s the kind of man that doesn’t sit back and take Google’s word as gospel, or blindly follow the lessons taught by others. He goes all out to find out what actually works.


You should be.

Stick with me and we’ll take a look at 10 things you can learn about content marketing from Brian Dean, the man behind Backlinko.

1. Forget everything you learned in English classes – short sentences win the web

Brian Dean is the master of short sentences to create highly readable articles.

“Here’s something you may or may not know about the email marketing industry:

It’s INSANELY competitive.

But get this:

The entire Vero team is only 5 guys (including Jimmy).

5 guys!” – Brian Dean, rocking short sentences

But he doesn’t write this way just for fun.

He writes in such short sentences because they boost readability – especially on the web.


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But this technique existed long before the internet came along.

Ernest Hemingway was (and is) held in high regard for his clear and concise style of writing:

“Hemingway was famous for a terse minimalist style of writing that dispensed with flowery adjectives and got straight to the point. In short, Hemingway wrote with simple genius.” – Brian Clark, Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips for Writing Well

His “minimalist style” helped to support the “vigorous” and “forceful” nature of his work:

“It’s muscular, forceful. Vigorous English comes from passion, focus and intention. It’s the difference between putting in a good effort and TRYING to move a boulder… and actually sweating, grunting, straining your muscles to the point of exhaustion… and MOVING the freaking thing!” – David Garfinkel, World Copywriting Blog

There’s even an app named after him that’s designed to help writers identify long and complex sentences: The Hemingway App.

The fact is that short sentences work. They help to illustrate a point, and they make it easier for an audience to read and understand it.

Try it.

You’ll see what I mean.

Key takeaway: Short sentences boost readability by 58%. Run your content through The Hemingway App at proofing stage and try to simplify long sentences that may be hard to read.

2. We crave original research

This epic post from Backlinko exists thanks to the hard work of Brian Dean and a team of experts and data partners including ClickStream, SEMRush, Ahrefs, MarketMuse, and SimilarWeb.

It’s proven to be such a successful post in part because the information and insights it provides are awesome.

But there’s more to it than that.

It’s also because the insights are original.

Now, I’ve got nothing against citing other people’s research to prove a point. If you’re a regular visitor here you’ll know that I do it myself all the time. It’s critical that if you make a bold statement, you use evidence to back it up -– whether that evidence is something you’ve gathered yourself or found from someone (or somewhere) else.

“If you want to increase user engagement on your blog, generate more social shares, drive sales, and acquire more customers, try switching content strategies to the data-driven blog post.” Neil Patel, The Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Data-Driven Post

However… if you want to create content that’s going to grab people’s attention, get them talking about you, and have them referencing you, performing your own research is key.

Don’t believe me?

The post in question is Backlinko’s second most shared post from the last 12 months (outdone only by this one) and has gained links from 347 domains.

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Key takeaway: If you really want to grab people’s attention, stop simply citing data other people have gathered and carry out your own research, instead.

3. Old content can be revived with an update

Did you notice how at the top of the post we were just talking about, it says, “Last updated”?

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This is because Backlinko understands how much value lies in old content. It knows that if you’ve created something that’s resonated with your audience, the last thing you should do is forget about it.

Freshness has played a part in Google’s algorithm, but you shouldn’t take this to mean new content is the only content that matters. Old content can rank well too, and drive significant traffic to the sites it lives on.

“76% of our blog’s monthly page views is of old posts. If your focus is primarily on creating new content every month, that 76% stat may seem startling. But when you think about why marketers create content in the first place, it makes perfect sense.

New content becomes old content, and old content is perfect for SEO. Over time, it gets shared, linked to, and clicked on, boosting its search engine rankings and thus continuing to generate traffic long after it was originally published. And, whaddya know? Digging deeper into that 76% of traffic, I realized that search is exactly where the traffic to our old posts is coming from.” – Pamela Vaughan, principal marketing manager of optimization at HubSpot

Best of all, content updates don’t need to be significant. I’m not implying that you need to rewrite two thirds of each post you want to revive. A lot of content can be given a new lease of life with a quick refresher that updates dated advice or adds new findings.

Key takeaway: Don’t ignore your old content – especially content that’s performed well. Put a regular slot in your schedule for revisiting old content and taking the time to update it.

4. Epic content isn’t enough

We’ve all heard that if we want to succeed in Google we need to be creating “great content.” Most of us will have heard this many, many times. That’s because, despite being downright obvious, it does, on paper, sound like good advice.

But what does “great content” really mean? And is “great content” really enough?

“Content is like an arms race right now. Even publishing REALLY epic stuff isn’t enough. To stand out you need to give your content that extra “umpph” that makes it spread like Nutella. Content like this.” – Brian Dean

Backlinko’s approach to content creation is to find content that’s performed well in their niche (which primarily means it’s attracted lots of links and shares) and to create something that goes one better. They’ve even given this approach a name: The Skyscraper Technique.

So what’s the problem? Isn’t “the skyscraper” technique just the “create great content” technique in fancier clothing?

Not exactly…

The issue with the term “great content” is that it doesn’t give us anything tangible to work with.


Because “great content” means different things to different people. It also changes as the web evolves and particular techniques gain traction (once upon a time, a simple infographic was probably considered “great content” but today, an infographic has to be something really special to stand out).

What is tangible is finding the best possible piece of content on a particular topic and going one better.

There are a number of tactics you can use for finding that “best” content. You can read about them in detail in The Skyscraper Technique, but in short you can…

  1. Use Ahrefs Top Pages tool to identify the most successful content on a popular domain.
  2. Use Buzzsumo to find the most shared content on your topic of choice.
  3. Search Google for an industry or subject matter, put the top 10 URLs into a link analysis tool, and check out the pages that have the most backlinks.

Key takeaway: Forget great content. Forget epic content. To stand out, you need to be finding the very best examples of content on your chosen subject matter and making something even better.

5. Appealing to influencers in your niche is more important than appealing to your target market

Now, before I get into this lesson, let’s get one thing clear…

There is nothing wrong with creating content for your target market.

Content designed to sell, and long-form content created to capture search traffic, is very valuable.

However… if you’re creating content in the hopes that it will be shared and linked to, it needs to do more than appeal to your target market. It needs to appeal to influencers.

Take this example from Brian Dean himself.

Before Backlinko, Brian ran a nutrition site targeted at people who wanted to lose weight.

That was fine, except for one small problem…

No one was sharing his content, and consequently, traffic to the site was stagnant.

Can you guess what he was doing wrong?

Brian was creating content that his target audience loved. He published regularly, and followed a set schedule. And he was promoting the heck out of it.

Unfortunately, while his target market was lapping the content up, the people with the power to make it go viral – influencers in his niche – were less responsive.

“The influencers in my niche — like health and fitness bloggers — thought my content was way too basic and ‘rapid fire.’ These influential people share in-depth articles.” – Brian Dean

This led Brian to look at what the leaders in the health, diet, and fitness industries were doing that he wasn’t. One blogger that really stood out was Steve Kamb, the man behind Nerd Fitness.

Steve’s content was attracting links from influential names in his niche and bagging thousands of shares.

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So what was it about Steve’s content that Brian’s lacked?

Steve was writing long-form articles that explored topics influencers in his niche were talking about, rather than simply pandering to the interests of his target audience.

In other words: Steve was publishing in-depth content that pushed past the status quo and captured the interest not only of people who wanted to read about it, but of people who were likely to share it and write about it, too.

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Key takeaway: Don’t just cover themes your target audience cares about; look deeper to identify topics that are likely to resonate with influencers in your niche, too.

6. Even the very best content doesn’t sell itself

Few sites are in a position where they can hit publish, sit back, and let nature take its course.

Most of us have to work damn hard to get traction for our content, something Backlinko knows very well.

Remember how in the intro to this article I mentioned that Backlinko was only launched in 2012? Did you wonder how Dean gained so much success in such a short space of time?

Granted, he’s a talented man and a great writer with some brilliant insights to share, but none of that matters in the slightest if no one’s paying him (or his content) any attention.

So how did he ensure his content got the attention it so very much deserved?

By promoting it, of course.

In The Skyscraper Technique, Brian called outreach its “linchpin” – in other words, he stated that outreach is vital to the technique’s success.

And of course it is – the best content in the world is a waste if no one ever sees it, and that won’t happen unless we take the time totell people about it.

The long and short of it is that if you want results from your content marketing you need to promote, promote, and promote some more.

Key takeaway: Even the very best content is a waste unless you also have (and are following) a strategy for promoting it.

7. There’s a really easy way to turn visitors in subscribers

If you write for your blog regularly, chances are you have goals above and beyond getting people to read your content. I’m imagining you’d quite like them to subscribe to your email list, too.

What if I could tell you that there was a really easy way to make that happen?

That with one simple change to how you present your content you could increase your visitor-to-subscriber conversions by 785%?

This is exactly what Backlinko did, using a content upgrade.

A content upgrade is an additional, unique, and contextual piece of content that you offer to your readers in exchange for something you want – usually an email address.

If you have ever read the Backlinko blog, you will most likely have come across this strategy in action.

Take this post for example. Right after the intro you’ll see this:

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Sounds enticing, doesn’t it?

If you click on “Click here to get access,” you will be prompted to enter your email address, like so:

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And if you don’t, Brian will try to persuade you again when you’ve finished reading the post.

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So what is it that makes this strategy so effective?

For starters, it’s offering the right thing, in the right place, at the right time.

If you’re reading a post about the skyscraper technique, it goes without saying that you would be interested in a receiving a strategy for implementing it.

You’ve come so far, you wouldn’t want to miss out on the last piece of the puzzle, would you?

What’s more, they’re asking for so little in exchange for the upgrade. They don’t ask for a job title or phone number. They certainly aren’t asking for any money. They don’t even ask for your name.

They ask for the one thing they need most (to be able to market to you again, at least): your email address.

Key takeaway: Hold back a part of each piece of content you create and offer your readers access in exchange for an email address.

8. Being in a “boring” niche isn’t an excuse

Pretty much anyone who’s ever worked in marketing will have heard people complain about being forced to market a “boring” industry.

I get that.

You certainly have to step a little further outside the box to find interesting ways to market air conditioning units, than say, a safari park.

But in the words of Brian Dean…

“There are no boring topics. Only boring marketers.”

Great marketers won’t let industry be a barrier to results. They know that there is always some way to get an audience to engage with a brand.

The trick, as explained by Backlinko, is to find a “shoulder niche.”


This entails identifying a niche that is closely related to your own – a niche that your own target market has an interest in.

To illustrate how this works, Backlinko provided an example from a company in a very unsexy niche: pest control.

Not only is pest control boring, it’s something most of us would prefer not to think about.

Creepy crawlies are plotting an invasion and subsequent takeover of my house?

Don’t tell me about it.

Just stop them.

This presented a problem for Leadsmasher, the agency tasked with creating engaging content for FCE Pest Control…

Who would want to share content about pest control?

“Coming up with content for this client was a big challenge. Their niche is incredibly boring and has little tradition of content distribution, community or linking. Bugs? Who cares, just get rid of them! I thought to myself, ‘If we’re going to make this a success, we have to put a spin on it and make something different.’” – Mike Bonadio, Leadsmasher

Their solution was to find this “shoulder niche.” To do that, Leadsmasher identified and researched niches closely related to pest control.



This led to an interesting discovery: that gardening bloggers loveto write about preventing and eliminating garden pests.

From there, they found their topic:

Natural pest control for gardeners.

The result was “DIY Pest Control for The Savvy Gardener”.

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The infographic went on to gain links from highly-relevant domains including Inhabitat, Mother Earth News, and Greenpal.

Key takeaway: If you’re tasked with promoting a classically “uninteresting” industry, find a similar niche that people are actually talking about and design content around that, instead.

9. Guest blogging is still more than okay

In January 2014, Matt Cutts said, “So stick a fork in it. Guest blogging is done.”

He really couldn’t have been any clearer: us internet-type folk were to cease all guest blogging activities and if we didn’t stop willingly, we’d be strung up and forced to.

It’s because, for all the fear that Google has tried to place in us…

Guest blogging is actually okay.

More than okay, in fact.

When Google “took down” guest blogging, it had a very particular target in mind: low-quality websites that were publishing equally low-quality articles.

In short: spam.

At no point has Google had any issue with people writing great content for sites other than their own. That would be a shortsighted and frankly senseless way of looking at the web.

Google’s “problem” was with the intention behind so many guest bloggers and the content they were creating: they were doing it for the link, and nothing more.

When done properly, guest blogging should be about so much more than a backlink. It’s about reaching and sharing knowledge with new audiences. It’s about exposure.

“The benefits of guest blogging are clear:

  1. You land backlinks from authority sites.

  2. People look up to you as an expert.

  3. Targeted referral traffic floods to your site.” – Brian Dean

So if you ever find yourself undecided about whether guest blogging for a site is a wise move, you just need to ask yourself one question:

Would I write for this site if a link wasn’t part of the deal?

Key takeaway: Guest blogging is still a valuable form of content marketing, you just need to make sure to maintain the same standard you apply to your own site, and contribute only to quality sites that offer benefits that go beyond a backlink.

10. Taking the legwork out of sharing your content boosts results

Ever received an email from someone promoting an infographic but ignored it, simply because doing anything about it was more work than it was worth?

Have you ever thought that when promoting your own content, the same problem might be working against you?

It makes sense that the easier it is for someone to use your content, the more likely they are to respond to your pitches favorably.

This is something Backlinko has found to be true. So true, in fact, that it’s designed a whole strategy around pandering to it: the Guestographic Method.

The Guestographic Method follows the same strategy that we’d employ to promote any infographic:

  1. Build list of potential contacts that might be interested in your infographic
  1. Send email to contacts in list about your infographic.

However, the Guestographic Method plays host to one key difference.

You offer to write a unique introduction to accompany your infographic.

This small change to what you say in your outreach emails can boost response rates because it removes the effort needed to use your infographic.

But there’s another bonus to this technique.

It also allows you to link contextually – from within the introduction – rather than beneath the infographic where a credit link will commonly sit.

Key takeaway: Don’t just offer webmasters the chance to use your infographic on their site – make it really easy for them to use it by offering to write a short introduction, too.

Are you a fan of Backlinko? Have you learned any lessons that I’ve missed? As usual, please take a minute to let me know in the comments below.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.

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