Link building. As a search marketer, there’s no way around it. You must build links for your clients. But that doesn’t mean link building is as simple or clear-cut as we’d like it to be. It’s not, nor has it ever been.

I was recently reading a post by Jill Whalen on deceptive practices in link building and she made a lot of great points; so much that I found myself thinking about my own link building tactics.

  • Where is the line when we’re pitching sites on behalf of clients?
  • Are we really being deceptive when we use personae?
  • What about if we create full family trees for the personae we create?

At Outspoken Media, our team has given a lot of thought to how we use personae and where the line is when we’re pitching clients. Though we don’t create fake relatives, we do use persona as part of our link building efforts. Below are some of the approaches available for marketers, as well as the benefits and risks associated with each.

First, Why Use A Persona At All?

Many of us who work in client services are bound by heavy NDAs, which take away the ability for us to pitch websites as our true selves – as marketing/consulting companies. If we did, it would “out” our clients to the bloggers and website owners that we’re reaching out to. Not every business wants to broadcast to their competitors that they’ve hired an SEO or ORM company to assist them. In these cases, discretion is key. And that’s where personae come into play. It allows us to gain exposure for the client, without infringing on their privacy.

But there are varying degrees of personae and the key is finding the right method for your link building goals and making sure both you and the client are comfortable with what’s taking place.

Type of Personae

1. The Client

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In this scenario, the link builder is effectively reaching out to other sites in the client’s name. Here the client has no qualms about reaching out for links, but doesn’t have the time (or interest) in doing it themselves. So they hire an SEO company to help them. It’s less creating a persona and more simply taking on the role of “ghostwriter”.

Ghostwriting can work well, but only if the company hired becomes familiar with the brand and is able to speak intelligently in the brand’s voice. It does not work when there are many people with different voices doing the ghostwriting. In fact, if you do this, Lisa might show up and slap you.

[There’s no “might” about it. I will. – Lisa]

When to Use This Strategy

Marketers should take advantage of this strategy when your client has a strong reputation, strong community and is well-networked in their industry. Make sure that the client is aware of what you’re doing, comfortable with it and is highly involved. A client who is responsive to your questions and open about their practices is ideal for this scenario since communication is integral through this link building strategy.

How to Start

Start strategizing with your client by gaining comprehensive and intimate knowledge of their networks, business, and practices. Once your objectives are clear and you’ve discussed goals, detail how their e-mail address and reputation will be used. Here at Outspoken Media, we not only get approval from the client on our objectives, but also sign an E-mail Usage Agreement that dictates how, where and when we will, and won’t, use their account.

How to Manage

Since you’re using a real person’s reputation and e-mail, we’d recommend letting them know whom you are pitching before you send pitches out. We’ve sent clients a pitch list for approval to ensure that we catch any relationships that already exist with those on the list. It would be embarrassing and potentially damaging for your client if an already established contact or friend gets sent an introduction e-mail.

In order to ensure you’re capturing the correct voice send them a few sample pitches so they may edit to match their own voice. Allow them to list a few tips on their communication style to make your representation of their voice more authentic.

Benefits:

  • Taking advantage of the client’s network and helping expand it
  • Using a real person’s identity and reputation to build trust and authenticity
  • Being able to put a name with a face when necessary

Risks:

  • Inaccurately representing the client to those that know better
  • Inconsistent tone of voice
  • Bloggers may ask that you pay for sponsored articles or links

2. Company Representative

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A company representative is a persona created within the client’s company that you use for link building purposes. This is less transparent than using a real person within the company, but still offers truthfulness from a link building perspective since you’re obtaining links for the client by using their own brand.

When to Use This Strategy

Employ this strategy when your client isn’t comfortable with you using their personal accounts or name, but where there is still a strong network and brand that you can take advantage of. Also, if they are looking to build up their brand and it’s presence, building links from a branded account will help you expand their network and achieve that goal.

How to Start

Have your client set up an e-mail account as a persona (NedFlanders@companyname.com) or as a generic account (info@companyname.com). Make sure you have a conversation with the client beforehand about how the account will be used to prevent any confusion down the line. You don’t need as much working knowledge of the company’s practices as you would if you were representing a specific person, but setting up goals for this account with the client will help communicate its purpose. That E-mail Usage Agreement mentioned earlier should also be used here, as well.

How to Manage

Even though you’re using a company e-mail address and the people you’re pitching are aware of the brand they’re building a link to, this is still not a real person. Refrain from making up any credentials and highlight as little personal information as possible in case your client has multiple people using this account over its lifetime. It’s one thing to create a persona that can be used to represent the company, but it’s a much sketchier thing to create an entire family for that “person”.

Benefits:

  • Minimal amount of management and involvement for the client
  • Builds up brand awareness and utilizes the brand’s already-established network
  • Client can still use the account should you part ways or they decide to go in-house.

Risks:

  • Inaccurately representing the company and its voice
  • Bloggers may require that you pay for sponsored articles or links
  • Difficulty securing links without using personal information or details

3. Made Up Person

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This is where it gets hairy…

This persona is a completely fictional person with no company association who exists only to create content with strategically placed backlinks. At Outspoken Media we employ some pretty strict guidelines for how to manage these accounts, not just to protect our clients but also to make the content we send out as useful for bloggers as possible. The objective may not be as transparent with this tactic, but it produces results. In most cases we find that bloggers are ok with giving a couple backlinks in return for a quality piece of content. The key word here is “quality”.

When to Use This Strategy

Completely fictional personae are ideal when you’re working with a client who has a struggling brand and reputation, and where it will be difficult to get backlinks for them with a branded account.

An integral part of using this strategy is dedicating the time to content creation. In this case, it’s the quality content and strategic pitching that will get you the links, not the brand. Let’s be clear about that – you are providing value to both the brand (they get the link) and the site (they get free quality content), and are simply using an alias to do that.

As an example, I recently did some pitching for a client with a struggling reputation. I pitched both from a branded account and an unbranded account and received very different results. Over the short span of three days, I received zero positive responses from the pitches I sent through the branded account, and had a 62% positive response rate from the unbranded account. That’s the power of made up persona.

How to Manage

Your client must be aware and comfortable with youbuilding links using this method. The challenge with this kind approach is it forces you to obtain links while giving minimal personal details and covering any traces you may leave. One thing we stress is keeping the pitches as clean and simple as possible. If you go into many fictional personal details you’re not only being more deceptive, but also creating a greater responsibility to remember these details. If for some reason you falter in doing so, the easier it is for a blogger to call you out on it.

Tips to keep these accounts secure:

  • Be cautious of author information on the documents you’re sending. Most times, word processing software will automatically include it.
  • Be aware of the e-mail client you’re using and if your IP address is attached to it. The IP address will give away your location if someone looks it up.
  • Don’t have signatures enabled. If you use a signature management add-on or have signatures enabled there is a greater chance for a discrepancy in the name you’re trying to use.
  • Don’t use stock photos as headshots. There’s a handy reverse image search engine out there called TinEye. This site allows you to upload a photo and find where on the web it’s being used.

Benefits:

  • No management requirements from the client
  • Allows you to build links without bloggers asking for sponsored posts or links
  • Can create many different kinds of content and pitch any kind of website

Risks:

  • Someone figuring out what client you’re working for and announcing it
  • Leaving traces and being called out

4. Company Mascot

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When to Use This Strategy

When you or your client aren’t comfortable using any of the other above personae.
A character is an animated entity with a name and personality, just like a baseball team’s mascot. There’s no denying the success of some big brand characters like Ronald McDonald and Tony the Tiger.

How to Manage

Company characters tend to have amped up personalities and encompass qualities the brand would like to emulate. Talk with your client about what characteristics you want their representative to have and create a one-sheet about them. This way, anyone assuming the personality will know what their voice is and how to portray them. Make sure that the character is still a person, although animated and anonymous it makes it easier for people to connect with during the link building process.

Benefits:

  • Simple way to assume a personality that multiple people can step into and manage over time
  • Can be tailored to fit any voice the client chooses and gives them that control
  • Complete transparency since everyone knows it’s made up

Risks:

  • Difficulties pitching to those who may want to speak to someone real

As much as many of us would like to pretend we don’t need devices like personae to help scout links and build awareness to sites, in most cases we do. What are your thoughts on the implications of personae? Do you use them? Have you used them?


About the Author

Sabre Sarnataro

When Sabre Angelique Sarnataro's not loudly stating her opinion while quoting a movie, she's polishing her halo on Twitter.


16 thoughts on “The Ethics of Creating & Using Personae


  • Danika Atkins on said:

    Sabre, I love this post. Yes, I could tell you that in person since you sit right in front of me, but I just had to commend you. This is the icky stuff most link builders don’t like to talk about.

    Picking the right persona can be the difference between landing or blowing a valuable link. In many cases, link builders do not have the flexibility to choose our ideal persona type, but I think your post demonstrates how you can make the best out of any situation.

    My personal favorite will always be pitching as the client. Even though it can be a disadvantage if you’re representing a big brand, there is something about that level of transparency that feels comfortable when I’m pitching.

    Thanks for sharing :)


    • Sabre on said:

      Thanks Danika! :)
      I completely agree with you about the difficulty of sometimes not having the flexibility to choose. A lot of what dictates this is what the client believes is best. It’s nice to know there are choices though and different ways of looking at this.


  • Nick LeRoy on said:

    I stand by everything I wrote and the responses I gave to not only my original post by Jill Whalen’s as well. You gotta do what works. Not everyone has the privilege of cherry picking their clients and not all clients take an active role in their SEO.

    As you mentioned there are different ‘levels’ of persona’s but its amazing how many people equate a “white lie” with being completely unethical and ultimately a horrible person that would spit on their clients for an extra $. I once again state that you have to do what works.


    • Sabre on said:

      Thanks Nick. I think there are always going to be differing opinions on topics such as these. People are naturally going to have varying ideas about what is ethical.

      My goal with this post was to highlight that we do have choices and that “what works” is more than just transparency with people you’re reaching out to. Transparency with the client and finding the right fit for how to approach outreach is also a large part of making it work.


  • Don Rhoades on said:

    This is brilliant! I use (2) Company Representative more often than anything else. It seems to be the most effective. I’ve not thought to use (4) the Company Mascot, there seems to be less risk involved. Awesome post thanks for continuing this discussion.


  • Kaila S | Vertical Measures on said:

    Great post Sabre. Always like reading what you gals write over there at Outspoken Media.

    I’ve been of the mindset that personae work, and can’t agree more with what Nick said – you have to use what works. At the end of the day clients are paying you for results, and you have to work with what you have. Many clients do indeed play a passive role in their SEO campaigns so one must take the bull by the horns to get RESULTS. While ethics do come into play here, it’s hard to argue when you have awesome-tastic results.


    • Nick LeRoy on said:

      Last time I checked delivering results paid the bills and put food on the table. Its amazing how many people quickly attacked me after telling a white lie in my post (which Jill wrote her post in response to) .

      Ethics does play a role in marketing but anyone who tells you they are 100% ethical, “White hat”, or whatever else you want to call it is full of crap. Too many “SEOs” are just afraid to come out and say it.


      • Lisa Barone on said:

        I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement, Nick. We’re not in the habit of making up family trees just because it makes US feel comfortable and it’s more baggage you have to remember when you go to reuse the persona, but I don’t think it’s unethical to do so. You were hired to get results. You’re getting them.


  • @WebMAOhist on said:

    “Link building. As a search marketer, there’s no way around it.”
    Honestly speaking after reading so misleading and blatantly incorrect 1st phrase I did bot continue reading anything further.

    Clients are not interested in their sites appearing in top of search results that nobody probably even click.

    They are are interested in promoting their service or product , i.e. brand name.

    When I was promoting such a service my aim was to launch of writing of others about brand. on their own 3d-party or 4th party resource.
    Would their post be with links or not was completely unimportant – it is a matter of half-a-second to find a site bya keyword (brand name).

    And after launching a viral wave I was fired but the wave continues spreading by itself.

    SEO, link-building is time- and money- consuming senseless oxymoron by closed always-changing Google’s rules by which the latter infected business all over the world.


    • Sabre on said:

      I would disagree that link building isn’t part of a search marketers job. Whether you do it directly or indirectly, it should be happening as a result of marketing your client.

      I would also disagree that clients aren’t interested in their sites appearing at the top of the SERPs. We’ve spoken to many companies who want that very thing. Perhaps your client base and experience is different, but I would venture to guess that most SEOs have had many clients ask about rankings.


  • Abe Bellini on said:

    There is no way to avoid link building if you want to improve your rankings. Submitting to a thousand crappy directories will only raise red flags, and you never want to do this, especially for a client account.

    Stick to creating good, linkable content, and continue reaching out media sources.


  • Mat Morrison on said:

    Tom Coates wrote memorably (well, it was a long time ago, and I still remember it) about his experience with a brand mascot using an inappropriate opportunity to build links. While I don’t think that it invalidates the approach, it’s nevertheless worth reading as a cautionary tale.


  • Michael on said:

    Great post. I’ve found the number one personae ‘The Client’ most effective, but as you say, you need to be so well versed in your client’s business/brand voice and your client already has to be extremely receptive to your ideas and involved with issues that arise as you work. It’s definitely one size fits all.


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