Over the course of the last 3 years, we sent out over 600,000 link building emails and reached out to 150,000 websites.
As you know backlinks matter a lot when it comes to SEO.
In fact, they’re paramount.
Our outreach campaigns played a big role in building up AuthorityHacker and our websites, including one we recently sold for mid six figures in less than 18 months since its founding.
In the process, we tracked both our campaigns and the results, so in this article, we’ll share what we learned.
This won’t be another “email success” guide that deals with subject lines, replies and open rates.
We looked at the actual results i.e. the won backlinks and how did we earn them. So right on the money.
For the impatient ones, here’s a quick summary of the results:
- We sent out > 600,000 emails, reached out to 150,000 website owners and that translated to 4,300 referring domains. It is a numbers game but it pays off.
- You should always pay attention to metrics that matter, such as sales, conversions, links. We found that some campaigns with high open rates and many replies translated into poor conversions.
- You can see quick results. It takes about 8 days on average for an email to convert into a backlink. For opens it’s one day for the reply it’s 6 days.
- We’ve sent out 3 follow-up emails. That strategy has at least doubled our results. Without follow-up emails, most of our efforts could go to waste.
- Most of these results came from a regular shotgun approach. Shotgun outreach has therefore proved to be a lowest-cost, high-return approach.
- Using the recipient’s first name in the initial outreach has shown to have little impact on opens and reply rates but increased the final result by about 50%.
- Domain rating (Ahrefs metric) seems to play a role. Most results came from 30 – 50 DR websites. Our success rates started to plummet with higher-rated recipients.
- The best days to reach out turned out to be Mondays and Fridays. Thursdays and Sundays have shown the worst results.
- 5.7% of earned backlinks came from the websites that linked to us before.
- We sent out 78 campaigns, 2 campaigns had the best open rates and 3 scored the highest in getting links. Read on to see the subject lines and email templates we used. You can also check here for more email templates.
- 2017 was our best year in terms of results. 2018 was our best year in terms of output. This year our output was little and campaigns were less effective too.
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Now, onto the charts and details.
Our Campaigns And App Stack
In short, we reached out to a number of websites with cold emails asking them to link to one of our articles.
We followed a shotgun approach most of the time, in some campaigns we offered a guest post.
We used Ahrefs -> Content Explorer to compile a list of domains we’d like to reach out to, and we used hunter.io to find direct emails.
Finally, we uploaded the lists into a cold email tool Mailshake, with templates and follow-up emails to reach out.
Here’s how it all played out.
Takeaway #1: It’s A Numbers Game
We sent out over 630,000 emails to 152,000 website owners, over the course of three years in 78 campaigns.
As a result, we earned 4,306 backlinks from 4,244 referring domains.
I would say that’s a great result, but you have to be prepared to do a lot of work.
And likewise, you’ll need patience as firing out so many emails in a short period of time is more likely to get you blacklisted than earn you those backlinks.
Luckily, there are some decent tools out there to help you automate things.
See our app stack or this post on our favorite automation tools.
Takeaway #2: Don’t Get Blinded By Vanity Metrics
I read a lot of outreach studies to get better results. I gained a lot of value but oftentimes, they’re all about open rates and replies.
You’ll rarely read about actual conversions. While open rates matter when it comes to measuring the effectiveness of your subject lines, beyond that these metrics are useless.
Oftentimes, they can even be damaging as they make you feel good about your efforts prompting you to do more of it.
But as you saw in the chart above, there’s a big difference in reply rates and getting the actual link. I also looked at individual campaigns and was surprised to find disparity.
Have a look:
This is a nice example. The campaign A gets fantastic open rates, yet at the end of the day, it’s more of a waste of time as results that matter i.e. earned links are abysmal.
If we didn’t carefully track the earned links, we could have ended up earning a lot less links by focusing on open rates.
Takeaway #3: Most links are earned within 8 days
SEO is a long term game but there are ways to accelerate your progress. Sending out cold email campaigns is one of them.
While we sent 3 follow-up emails to each of the contacts, it took on average 8 days for them to give us a backlink. More precisely 8.2 days, with the median being 8.
The average open rate is within one day range while you can expect a reply in 6 days.
This is quite a quick turnaround. It can take you years to rank well while hoping your content get found organically (which may not happen too) or you can put extra effort in.
In other words, promoting your content is important. If you produce epic content, promoting it the right way can give you solid momentum.
Takeaway #4: Follow Up, Follow Up, Follow Up
Altogether we’ve sent 3 followup emails for most campaigns. I always thought this is kind of spammy.
But then, looking at the stats, it doesn’t help just a bit. You will get 40% more links if you follow up which a MASSIVE increase.
We’ve sent each follow-up email in 5 day increments and the average link took 8 days to earn. That means it’s very likely a lot of the first 2 follow-ups were for the already won links.
Takeaway #5: Shotgun Outreach Still Works
In 2019, we popularized the Shotgun skyscraper outreach which essentially automated a lot of the tedious tasks that come with contacting other sites to get links.
And it worked like gangbusters when we started it.
Obviously it became more popular, the success rate went down a bit.
But still, in the past 18 months, most of the links we built were built using shotgun, and even many of the guest posts we secured are a result of initial shotgun outreach.
Takeaway #6: People Love The Sound Of Their Own Name
Namely using the first name of the recipient eg. “Hey John,” seems to yield higher than average results.
Using the name in the email seemed to have no significant impact on open and reply rates. But it yields more than 50% higher total conversions than the average.
We started with less than 10% contacts knowing their name and those represent more than 15% share of the final conversions.
We used the recipient’s name in the further communication for 95% of all the converted links. That’s because most people sign the reply so you learn the name.
I am pretty sure that had a positive impact as well because I can’t imagine someone being eager to do you a favor if you don’t bother to address them in the subsequent conversations.
It’s just good manners so not much statistics or experimenting here.
Takeaway #7: Mid DR Sites Are more Likely To Link To You
We mainly targeted websites with 20 – 80 domain rating (DR), a metric created by Ahrefs to estimate the overall strength and authority of the domain.
For 80+ DR domains we used a more sniper like, personalized approach.
We were curious how does domain rating relate to success rates in our outreach campaign. Are high DR sites less likely to link to us?
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the DR of all the contacts, we only tracked the success rates.
So I took 150k random domains and pulled out DR from Ahrefs to see what the distribution so I can compare how we did in relation to that.
It turned out the overall distribution was more or less even. Here’s the performance:
As you can see the sweet spot is 30 – 50 domain rating. These are solid authority domains.
As we go higher up, the success rate goes down quite dramatically. Very low authority domains also show negative results, probably because their owners aren’t too involved.
It makes sense to start doing more personalized outreach for the domains above 50 DR and shotgun outreach for 30 – 50, based on these results.
Takeaway #8: Monday & Friday Are The Best Outreach Days
With this particular study, we can only look at the open rates and we can give a quick glance at reply rates too.
That’s because most opens happen on the same day. But replies and conversion come days and follow-ups later so it’s hard to determine the relevant day of the week.
These are the two strongest days in terms of both opens and replies.
One explanation is that people like to catch up after the weekend on Monday and kill time browsing through emails on Friday while waiting for the week to end.
Takeaway #9: Get more than one link from those who say Yes
Over the course of our 78 campaigns, 5.7% of earned backlinks came from the same website owner who linked to us before.
That’s because we use Shotgun as a way to identify the people who are willing to talk to us and consider a link.
Usually the shotgun skyscraper link points to an informational resource.
We then go back to these people and pitch them links to commercial pages.
This gives us much more valuable links that help us to compete is difficult SERP’s.
It’s really powerful and a low resource cost way to identify potential link partners.
Takeaway #10: Our Top Campaign Templates
We looked at all of our 78 campaigns and compared the open rates, reply rates and actual conversion rate i.e. earned backlinks.
Campaign A, B and C scored the highest open rates of all 78 campaigns. Campaigns C, D and E scored the three highest conversion rates.
This is obviously a very useful way to analyze your campaigns as you might be having a winning email that gets no opens because the subject line sucks.
And vice versa.
Interestingly all three campaigns with the highest open rates used the same subject line – a quite simple ”Question?”
For the follow-up, we used “RE: Question?.”
The other two campaigns used Quick question and Question for you?
The best performing email campaign in terms of highest reply rates and the second-highest final conversion rate was Campaign E.
Check out our 71 Link Building Statistics And Trends To Prove You Still Need Links In 2023.
Summary And Conclusion
Cold outreach provides an excellent way to accelerate your SEO, sales and marketing efforts. It also provides a great way to test new product ideas cheaply and rapidly.
The study shows you can even build up a business on the back of such campaigns.
In terms of what moves the needle the most, the biggest one I would say is follow-up emails as that proved to be the best campaign performance enhancer.
Using the name of your recipients informally can give you an additional boost.
Repeat business is also interesting. If you’ve done a deal or a business with someone in the past they will be more likely to do it again.
That’s no news, but it’s nice to see it work in a campaign such as this one.
In terms of the best days to send out your emails, I would say the most important thing is to send them. If you’re doing volume outreach it shouldn’t matter much.
Finally, yes it is a numbers game but there are more tools and various kinds of API services that can turn this process into a matter of minutes while allowing you to send out credible, highly-personalized cold emails.
Many people feel resistance to cold outreach link building, but pros know it works even though the landscape is indeed getting more competitive.