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How to Get Earned Media and Inbound Links with HARO – Greg Heilers
The Agents of Change

How to Get Earned Media and Inbound Links with HARO - Greg Heilers

If you fancy yourself a bit of an expert in your field and are looking for yet another opportunity to get your name out there and build brand awareness, consider leveraging the power of sites such as HARO to exert your expertise and knowledge on a given topic.

Greg Heilers, earned media guru and pitching machine from Jolly, reminds us that media pitching to sites such as HARO offers a multitude of benefits aside form just getting free publicity. Think about the benefits of finding potential collaborators, reaching your target market with you poised as an industry expert, being featured in high profile publications like The New York Times, as well as driving more traffic to your website.


Rich: Today’s guest ghost wrote 3,000 media pitches between 2018 and 2019. In May of 2019, he and his partner at Jolly revamped their content agency into a media pitching machine. As of September 2020, the team of 35+ writers and coaches sends 3,000 media pitches each month, or about 150 pitches a day.

He’s happy to answer any and every question about pitching or earned media, ghost writing, working with ghost writers, and the free platform that brings so much exposure and high quality backlinks to his clients, HARO. So let’s dive into earned media and leveraging HARO with Greg Heilers. Greg, how are you doing?

Greg: I am awesome, Rich. Thank you so much for having me. And that’s a great intro.

Rich: Well, I’m looking forward to diving into this. My earlier conversation with you was what got me back into using HARO. But before we get to that, what was the tipping point that moved you or Jolly from a content agency to media pitching machine? Was there an incident where you’re like, I think we’re in the wrong business or there’s a better opportunity somewhere else?

Greg: Oh, that is such a great question. Anyone running a mid-tier content agency, as I described what we had, would know the pain points; slim margins, begging for client projects, and then all then all the [inaudible] in the world on you when you don’t control on page anything, so CRO or any offsite funnels. And then I was personally ghostwriting long form, you know, thought leadership articles for various execs and had the opportunity to do this. And I realized content skills were all to the short form – myself as a short form writer -but it’s very transferable. If you can research and you know your subject, this is a great avenue to really build your brand, get recognition, and like we talk about the backlinks.

Rich: Absolutely. And I definitely want to dive into that. So let’s start with some of the basics. For those who don’t know, what is HARO?

Greg: Yeah, HARO stands for Help a Reporter Out. And what this is in its simplest form, three times a day you’re going to get an email newsletter. You definitely want to filter it to a special folder in your inbox because there is fluff in there. If you can sift through that, you can find golden opportunities. These reporters, these marketers, they’re looking for your expertise to put in their articles and satisfy that Google algorithm. Now you give them what they want, you get in their websites and you get what you want.

Rich: All right. So Help a Reporter Out, a thrice daily email newsletter comes into us. So explain to us though, what are the benefits and why should we sign up?

Greg: Yeah. Well first of all, sign up because it’s free. It’s amazing that this is still free. There’s a premium version you can pay for, but we’ve never found it worth our time. And so that’s one, but the benefits are threefold. And depending on who you are, you’re going to value one of them over the other. Most of our clients, because we’re a niche SEO service provider, care about the backlinks. We’re talking articles that you can’t buy your way into. And also because of that, there’s longevity to these. You didn’t pay for it. There’s no incentive for them to take it down. That’s common in SEO, they’ll blackmail you to re-up your subscription, so to speak.

But the other two anyone in marketing can appreciate, there’s brand awareness. And you’re getting into household name publications, Business Insider, Readers Digest, these big guys. And then the other one is if you do this right, you’re building your executive authority. So whoever you’re pumping up here, you’re making them look good where they want to look good. So those are the top three we valued it for.

Rich: You mentioned a couple of times that HARO was free. So how exactly is this possible? There are no risks. There are no fees for responding to a story pitch.

Greg: Well, in an ideal world, no. You’re going to find that people have found opportunities, let’s call it, to make money on the side. Freelancers try to sell placements in their articles. We don’t do those pay to play, that doesn’t work out in everyone’s best interest, in our opinion. But Cision, the parent company, they’re making their money at the top of every newsletter. There’s a small ad and they get their money rest assured. But I do think, I’m no consultant to Cision, I do think they could monetize that a little bit better.

But the real view are providing, and I know that it’s a cliché phrase in our industry, the value add, you’re saving these freelancers time. Big time. They need you, they need your input. And we’ll dive into the nuts and bolts, but rest assured, you’re sought after. It really is help a reporter out.

Rich: Alright, so we’ve signed up and we’re receiving these three a day emails from HARO after we’ve rescued it from Gmail spam filter. That is, I still find that a lot of these get caught in my spam filter or don’t even show up to my spam filter, but that’s another story. So we’ve got the email, we open it up. What do you recommend we do next? How do you go through these long HARO emails?

Greg: Okay. So let’s just talk like one, two, and three. Never bother with anything where the deadline has elapsed or you won’t be able to hit it within deadline. As you’ll see right away, these goes through HARO’s system, they just won’t go through if it’s past deadline. So don’t waste any of your time. So look at deadline first.

Then second, you’ll see in parentheses it will say the publication name. If you care about SEO, you should be on Ahrefs looking up that publications value. Google the publication, find the URL, sock it into your SEO tool and see if it’s worth your time. If it’s anonymous, we don’t ever pitch those. That’s my personal standpoint.

But your third step is head to the requirements. So every HARO query, as they’re called, is broken down into sections. The bottom is where the requirements are. Just make sure you’re not disqualified right off the bat. There’s occasional ones where they really do want a certified professional in that field. And so you should look at that and not bother spending your time thinking about it if they want an MD and you’re just not one.

Rich: And for those of you who haven’t seen a HARO email before, so basically at the top there’s a – let’s call it a table of contents – it’s split up into categories like business and finance, personal responsibilities, whatever it is, all these different sections. And then you can click on it, go further down, and sometimes it’ll tell you, this is from the Wall Street Journal,  Inc. Magazine, or somebody’s blog. And other times it’ll just say ‘anonymous’. And what you’re suggesting Greg, is we don’t waste our time with anonymous. There’s probably no value there, either from a visibility standpoint or from that SEO backlink standpoint. Correct?

Greg: That’s my opinion. They need you to have a certain Alexa ranking to list your pub. And so you’ll find there is occasionally from a legitimate public location someone goes anonymous because they don’t want to get flooded. But most of the time it’s because the publication is a mommy blog – and nothing wrong with those – but that’s usually the case.

Rich: Some of those mommy blogs are incredibly powerful. I guess it depends on your business. If you’re doing something that mommy bloggers and their readers love, then that’s definitely something you should follow up on.

Greg: Yeah. Yeah. But they’ll usually list it loud and proud, too. Right? Because they have a right to be proud of what they’ve achieved.  

Rich: True. Absolutely. And then as you were saying, Greg, you can click on that link and it’ll take you further down and it will give you exactly what they’re looking for in the story. And that’ll save you time. It’ll save the reporter time too, because you don’t want to waste their time either.

Greg: Yeah. Thank you. That’s right.

Rich: Now with so many people likely responding to the journalist requests on HARO, how do we stand out? What are some of the best practices that you recommend so that the reporter might call us first or at least call us when they’re getting 10, 20, a hundred responses to a single inquiry?

Greg: So just like your email marketing 101, your subject line better be on point. And you know, my style when I did those thousands personally was to insert my title and my relevancy to this pitch in the subject line. So, “CEO weighs in on”. Now my head coach today – because you know, we’re in the 30+ freelancers – we’ve got coaches, and he advocates literally copy and paste the query subject into your email subject line. Because he’s had direct feedback from journalists saying I searched my inbox for my query title to filter through the hundreds of responses I get every day to find them. So that’s a good tip, I think.

Rich: Yeah. Makes a lot of sense.

Greg: It really does doesn’t it, from someone who would get flooded by things, and you get flooded by guest inquiries. So you’ve probably done something like that.

Absolutely. Yeah.

Rich: And so is there anything beyond the subject line, is there anything in the body that you will often put in there to kind of help you stand out? Or do you just basically say, “Hey, I saw your question on HARO and I feel that I’m qualified based on XYZ. Reach out.”?

Greg: Here’s where we get into the art and science. There’s a bit of science. Remember when you open your inbox, you see some preview text. So in the very beginning of your pitch you want to state your relevancy within the first 10 words or so. Let’s say the article is on how to get free media exposure for your digital marketing company. You want to say, “Hey, I’m the VP of Marketing at a digital marketing agency. And here’s what [inaudible].” That should show you texts for the person looking at your email.

Now the pitch itself, it needs [inaudible]. You’re never going to say, “I’d love to comment. Let me know.” It’s like a job applicant emailing you saying, “Hey, I think I have some skills useful to you. Let me know if you want to hear more.” You actually want the full on proposal. You want the beauty cover letter that actually threw three valuable tips to you when they dove into your website and thought about what’s going on at your business. Right? So if they’re asking for these tips to get earned media, you want bullet points one, two, three. And we can talk more tips, I’ve got plenty more. But there’s definite ways to optimize. That’s the science of it. And the art goes into a little bit of recognizing there’s a human on the other end of these pitches and kind of playing with your formats over time. So we don’t take a templated approach. I don’t teach my writers that for that reason, because I don’t think it is a one size fits all. But there are a few, like, I’d say six or seven points you want to hit.

Rich: All right. Now going through HARO each time, sometimes feels like jumping back into a shark infested tank. Do you have any tips and developing relationships with the reporters so maybe they’ll come back to us first in the future?

Greg: Yeah. I always ask my writers, please, please, please when a journalist or marketer says, “Thanks so much”, you better be replying with an equally as long or longer “thank you”. Right? They’re taking the time to thank you, you better be doing that.

We do keep a list of those people and their direct contact. I’ll be honest, we have not monetized that in any way whatsoever. We haven’t proactively reached out to these people ala muck rack style, cold outreach, so we ought to consider that. But I just want to be honest with you, we’re jumping into those waters basically every time. We’ve just developed one guardrail [inaudible] keep track over time of the publications that always know follow, that never give out links. And then the individual writers who we call’ bait and switch’. They’ll say they’re writing for Forbes, but actually the article appears somewhere else. Or you know, you asked earlier, what do these people get out of it? There are people on there who say, “I’d love to include your contribution. If you could forward $100 to this PayPal inbox.”

Rich: That’s some serious pay to play.

Greg: Yeah, I’m not sure of the vocabulary allowed on here, but keep a list.

Rich: Sounds good. You mentioned links, and I’ve always got SEO on the brain, so it’s nice to get this earned media, there’s no doubt about it. And sometimes in and of itself, that’s good enough. But for those of us who do constantly think about search engine optimization and getting inbound links back to our website, what are some tips that you have to get journalists to link to our websites in their articles?

Greg: Yeah. So I do want to start with a caveat. HARO is a great go to for branded anchor text going to your homepage. So what that means is, this it’s going to be top flight meaty, right? You’re not going to be able to do some custom anchor texts, like digital marketing specialist. And you’re not going to be pointing to your resource pages or your money pages for sure. You’re going to be going straight to your homepage.

So, that rolls into my top tip, is never beg for links upfront. You’ve got to remember the people on the receiving end of this aren’t thinking of this as an SEO play. They’re thinking of this as you want to be an expert in their article. So come at it a little innocently, sweetly from that angle as like, “I want to be the expert in your article.”

Now we format our email signatures to have that branded anchor text to homepage, pre-prepared. You know, “CEO at this company”. And then off to the side, I’d drop a hyphen and then the naked URL, just to be sure they see it. And that’s to be quite honest, as far as we go. Other people might have more sophisticated models. We certainly had a writer join our team who felt the best way to go is ask upfront, first sentence in the pitch, as kind of leverage, “If you use my quote, you must link to me”. But to be quite honest, their conversion ratio sucked.

Rich: Yeah, I can’t imagine that. I could see after you’ve given some value, you might ask for it after you’ve already done something for the reporter. But to make that a point of contention, I won’t give you a quote otherwise. When they’re getting all of these other pitches, I can’t imagine that was too successful.

Greg: Yeah. Yeah, no, not at all. And so I hope that answered your question. I can keep going.  

Rich: No, that’s great. But it definitely leads into, I mean, to me, that one writer you had that seems to me to be a critical mistake. Are there other mistakes that you see owners and marketers making in this realm?

Greg: Yeah. So the ask, for sure. The lack of pitch. So going back to what we said earlier, you’re going in with, “I’d like to help, let me know.” These are freelancers receiving your pitches, they don’t get paid for their time. They get paid for their completed work. They’re looking for copy/pasteable, we call it ‘copy/pasteable’. They just want to take your quote, drop it in their article and move on.

The thing you might make mistakes on are, you shouldn’t do it in a requirement, but really give them what they need. They want to verify that you are who you say you are. So in your signature, have a link to your LinkedIn, have a link to your social, have a link. They ask for this all the time, they rarely use it, but it’s a real requirement. Have a link to your headshot. And they just want to know that these are real people, not just spun personas for someone’s affiliate empire out there.

So, you know, give them what they need. Because remember, you’re helping reporters out, they do have to do a little fact checking.  

Rich: That makes a lot of sense. We hope they’re doing their fact checking, at least that’s, you know, that is the bare minimum of what they should be doing.

Greg: Yeah, it’s a better world for all of us.

Rich: Right. Besides HARO, are there any HARO alternatives that you use or that you recommend, or other approaches outside of HARO?

Greg: So there’s a couple. Cision and also owns Profnet. I’m not sure how you pronounce that one either, P R O F N E T. Now that’s a hefty option and it’s basically like the premium queries out there. You know, it’s the big publications and they don’t want HARO because they don’t want all the trash. And I got to respect that.

There’s a couple others. I’ll say them but it’s more to recommend to not bother; Source Bottle, it’s more Australian focused if I recall. There’s a couple of others that people recommend that are more your cold outreaching, like Prowly. And I mentioned Muck Rack, which is database. And then some people hang out on Twitter going for these PR request hashtags or journal request hashtag. But this is just one experience, we like HARO the best. It’s what works for us.

Rich: Understood. You know, you’ve given us a lot of tactics in terms of what we can do on our own, but if somebody just doesn’t have the bandwidth or interest or passion around this, what is it like to work with an agency like yours, ghost writing and doing media pitches on their behalf? What does that look like if somebody wants to hire you?

Greg: Yeah. And, you know, I’ll try to keep it broad because we don’t have to just talk about us. I first make sure that they have a qualified ghost writer on their team. You’ve got to remember part of this is your brand awareness and building you up as an authority. So make sure they’re representing you well.

What we do is have an onboarding survey for new clients to fill out, things like what’s your philosophy on work/life balance or internal company marketing data, what are your top lead gen channels? Or now that COVID is a hot topic for the past month, what’s remote work like in your company? Things that a ghost writer would use to assimilate your personality and when we get down to how it works functionally. Because there’s such a delay between pitching and publication when you’re talking about earned media, wins can show up in 24 hours or five months later.

Where we’ve had a lot of success with our business model is, we only build for live wins. It puts the risk on us, but unlike an SEO agency that says give me $2k a month and I’ll try to get you these results. I don’t really think that model would work for HARO. And I would suggest if you’re vetting an outsourced solution, to see if you can find something like what we offer. I’ll be honest and toot our own horn here at the same time, most people ask for the money up front and don’t take the risk like we do. But it’s a calculated risk on our part and we want to make it as risk-free as we can for our prospects.

Rich: That’s awesome. This has been very helpful, Greg. And if people want to learn more about your company, learn more about you, where can we send them online?

Greg: Hey, thanks so much. Yeah. jollyseo.co. We’re not a.com. So, dot co. And if you do want to do it yourself, if I can stretch one more plug Rich, we’re launching our SaaS tool, which is the tool we use to vet all these HARO queries. So we have humans vet them so we filter out all the garbage tag that do follow vs no follow, known history on them, things like that. And that’s launching soon called Sorcery, but I’m happy to share more at online, LinkedIn, you know, wherever you guys like. Happy to answer questions, we’re a pretty open book.

Rich: Sounds great. And will that, what was it called, Sorcery? Will, sorcery be available through your website as well, or is that going to be on a different URL?

Greg: Oh, that’s going to be sorcery.expert for now.

Rich: Excellent. Awesome. Greg, thank you so much. Really appreciate all your insights today and good luck with the launch of Sorcery.

Greg: Hey, thank you, Rich. Thanks for having me.

Show Notes:

Greg Heilers, co-founder of Jolly, helps his clients drive traffic and sales while also building authority and brand awareness for them.  Connect with him on LinkedIn to stay up to date on all that he and his team are working on.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.

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