We Screwed Up! How We Still Managed 25% Success

It seems that every week there is a new blog post or social media conversation that crops up calling out an SEO firm for improper linkbuilding techniques, specifically pertaining to outreach.  Whether in the “Corruption” section of a popular news site or the Google+ account of a highly-respected Google Evangelist, these types of posts generate a lot of controversy in our industry.

Let’s face it, as much as we hate to admit it we all make mistakes.  While some examples are certainly more egregious than others, even the most detail-oriented are bound to slip up once or twice.  In fact, a lot of the time we as SEOs actually build our strategies around other people’s mistakes (anyone who has ever bought an expired domain, rebuilt an outdated competitor asset or used a broken link strategy knows what I’m talking about).  However, one of the biggest struggles in professional life is figuring out how to acknowledge and address mistakes that you made, especially public-facing mistakes.  Let me set a scene for you real quick…

The Situation

We’re in full-on linkbuilding mode.  We’ve got our strategy fleshed out, our opportunities researched, and our red bull in hand.  We’ve put together  a template email that includes our major points (who are we, what do we want, and what’s in it for you) but left it open-ended enough so that we can connect with the bloggers on a personal level.  All that remains is adding in our personal details and we’re off and running.

After a few hours we decide to call it for the day, intending to pick up tomorrow and keep plugging along.  That’s when we looked back over our outreach to realize that we started every email with the following:

How did we forget to remove “[blog name]” from our outreach?!?  The rest of the message was tailored perfectly for each site, with pertinent and relevant references and a strong incentive to participate.  But no one wants to work with us if we can’t even remember to adjust the very first sentence of our template.  As you might imagine, our response rate was pretty poor:

  • 1 out of 28 responded that they would still like to participate, despite the oversight
  • 1 out of 28 called us out on it, asking “Is this a joke?”
  • 26 out of 28 ignored the message.

What We Did About It

Don’t cry over spilled milk. You can’t unring the bell.  However you want to look at it, sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves about the error or trying to assign blame for it would get us nowhere, so we didn’t even waste time doing it.   What we wanted to figure out was:

  • How can we do damage control and salvage this?
  • What can we learn to prevent this from happening again?

To address this, the following email went out to each and every website we incorrectly messaged (even the one that responded critically):

What Came of This

After this second round of outreach, we actually got an astonishingly positive success rate for our giveaway and link placement!

  • 2 polite “no thank you” responses
  • 1 maybe
  • 6 yes responses

Even after our oversight, we were able to close this round of outreach with a 25% success rate!  People seemed to appreciate the honesty, transparency, and accountability to our mistake and respected us for it, as evidenced by some excerpts from the responses:

Yes I am still interested! I do mass emails too for pitches so no worries!

No worries at all, you would probably be very surprised at how often it happens to us bloggers, I learned a long time ago not to take offense to it!

How to Prevent This from Happening

There are several things we have learned from this situation that we hope will prevent this type of error from happening in the future:

Canned Responses

Available in Google Labs for Gmail, the canned responses allows you to inject a pre-scripted block of text into your email without having to re-write it every time.  By using different colors (red, for example) for any variable element, it makes it very easy to see where we need to inject our details before we send the email out.

If I was doing outreach for SEER this canned response might look like this:

Contextual Gadgets

Many people are already familiar with the Google script that will check to see if you have included the word “attach(ed, ment)” in your message and alert you if there is no attachment in the email.  With Contextual Gadgets in Gmail, this same concept can be applied to Subject lines and email messages.  While this takes a coding knowledge well beyond my own, but if you have a strong in-house developer or contractor you might consider writing a script to catch these errors before you send.

For example, in any template messages I write I always use “[” and “]” to identify any variable element.  My contextual gadget would therefore look for “[” or “]” in an email and alert me prior to sending that message out.


The main takeaway here is simple: If you screw something up…take ownership of it!  Remember that the bloggers and website owners you’re contacting are people too and, as our second blogger response shows us, they are not naive as to the goals of our outreach.  The bloggers on the receiving end of our outreach can and will have compassion for an honest mistake, provided you offer a genuine acknowledgment and apology.  Yea, you’ll probably run into someone now and again that will blow you up for it, but assuming the rest of your message is honest and legitimate people will understand.

Don’t waste time kicking yourself for a mistake when there’s still time to fix it.  Like a good cornerback in the NFL, have a short memory for the negatives and an open mind for alternatives.

At the same time, once you’ve done your damage control you should investigate how this happened and determine how it can be prevented in the future.  Despite the fact that (for the most part) things worked out for the best, a mistake not used as a learning experience is still a mistake.  In both professional and personal life, we’d do well to remember:

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. ~ Winston Churchill.

Do you know of any tools that could be used to prevent these issues, such as a Gmail plugin or extension?  Have you had similar experiences with turning a mistake into a success?  Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.