How to Become a Columnist: The Ultimate Blueprint for Guest Blogging and Syndication

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typewriterBeing a columnist means something a bit different to me than it did growing up. When I started down my writing path, I adored magazines and newspapers and the superheroes who wrote weekly or monthly columns in the op-eds or the back pages.

Now, I adore those who write at my favorite blogs and websites. The back page of Sports Illustrated has become, for me, the featured spot on Huffington Post.

And the most amazing news of all is that being a columnist online is a dream that anyone—you, me, your team—can have come true. It just takes a little hard work and a helpful blueprint.

Buffer’s path to syndication on Huffington Post, Fast Company, Inc, and more

We are so very fortunate at Buffer to have republishing connections with some truly amazing sites: Huffington Post, Fast Company, Inc, Lifehacker, The Next Web, and more. How did these relationships come about? There was a lot of hard work and simply stellar writing by our co-founder Leo and our first content crafter Belle.

The first step toward our syndication was guest blogging. And lots of it! Leo wrote around 150 guest posts in a nine-month period. The process was huge for spreading awareness about Buffer, building a relationship with influencers and a portfolio of quality writing, and establishing the Buffer blog as an authority on lifehacking and social media.

Writing such a high volume of content helped us refine and improve the content that appeared on our own site, too. We ended up having a couple of huge hits:

10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science – This post has received nearly 125,000 likes on Facebook.

Why Facebook Is Blue: The Science of Colors in Marketing – This post has received over 14,000 shares on Twitter.

When we chose to pitch a few sites on republishing our content, having huge hits like these gave us instant credibility. We shared our best stuff. In turn, the sites we pitched to received built-in validation that our posts would resonate with readers.

Awesomely, a number of sites found our content worth sharing with their audience. We built relationships with Huffington Post, Fast Company, and others, and we’ve now shifted focus completely from guest blogging to syndication. Our republishing efforts nowadays include Courtney emailing our top stories of the week to our contacts at these sites or the sites themselves coming straight to us with posts they want to grab.

It’s an incredible advantage to have content that drives traffic from multiple places—especially when you only have to write it once.

Buffers-Path-to-Syndication

Hard work, top-notch writing, plus a touch of bravery to put yourself out there—these are qualities that are by no means unique to us. You have them, too. Here’s a bit more on how to combine them all into a columnist opportunity.

3 huge advantages to being a columnist

1. Greater awareness for your brand and content

The more places you can spread your name and your brand, the more likely you are to reach a new audience. If we were to post only to the Buffer blog, it’s possible we’d miss out on visitors from HuffPo or Fast Company who read stories in one place but not the other. In fact, when I was first learning about Buffer, I tracked back to the Buffer blog from a syndicated post.

For proof of this boost in awareness, you can track a couple different metrics. You can check your referral traffic and make note of the incoming links from the sites where you’re published. In Google Analytics, this report is found under Acquisition > All Referrals.
repub-sources

Additionally, you can look at the share counts of posts to gauge how much more awareness you’ve earned with your column. Fast Company republished our story on the ideal length of all online content, and it resulted in 6,000 additional shares on social media.

Fast Company article

2. Greater authority in your niche or industry

The second benefit of being a columnist is that it helps you establish yourself as an authority on a subject. The more places you write quality content, the more readers who will see you, and the more likely you are to be considered an expert in your field.

We’ve talked a lot about persuasion before, so you might be familiar with some of the psychological theories at play here. One of them is the Yale Attitude Change Approach, which suggests that credibility is an important element of persuasive speech. If people believe you’re credible, they’re more likely to believe your message. One way to gain credibility is to have a bio with links to all the places you’ve been published.

3. An opportunity to share your best resources 

Put another way: You get to include links to your best stuff.

At Buffer, we choose to look at these inbound links in terms of happiness. We republish and syndicate because we feel it is the right thing to do to share our content with as many people as possible who might find it useful. Rebecca Churt of Hubspot has a lovely term to describe the way we all should write: content altruism. Essentially, this means adding value to the web without worrying about what you might gain.

It’s also worth noting that guest posting as a means of link building has become a favorite practice of spammers, which is why Google’s Matt Cutts publicly denounced the practice. The takeaway from Cutts’ post is that guest blogging done well is still viable and that linking to helpful resources is absolutely encouraged. Cutts even went so far as to elaborate on his post with this disclaimer:

There are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging (exposure, branding, increased reach, community, etc.). Those reasons existed way before Google and they’ll continue into the future. And there are absolutely some fantastic, high-quality guest bloggers out there.

The great debate: Guest posts vs. syndication

Before we get too deep, it’s probably going to be helpful to discuss the differences, benefits, and drawbacks to two main kinds of columnist content. Generally speaking, columnists fall into two categories: writing guest posts for a different blog or reposting your content somewhere else.

Guest posting is submitting original content to publish one time on someone else’s site.

Syndication is the republishing of an original piece of content at another site.

Each method has its pros and cons. In general, here is the good and bad about each:

Guest posts vs syndication

Guest posts:

  • Good: Unique, high value content that isn’t seen anywhere else
  • Bad: Takes a lot of time to create
  • Good: Strong relationship-building with other sites, good links back
  • Bad: If the post and approach aren’t top notch, Google might penalize you

Syndication:

  • Good: Huge time-saver and efficiency hack; press publish once and reap the rewards from many different sites
  • Bad: Possible SEO drawbacks (see below)
  • Good: Proven, validated content to pitch to big sites
  • Bad: Potential loss of authority—Folks might not see your site as the go-to spot on a topic if you’re expertise is everywhere

I mentioned above that our focus is now on syndication. Every month on our open marketing reports, we list the sites we are privileged to republish at, and those sites bring us a fair amount of conversions. In republishing efforts from our top four sites last month, we had 949 new conversions to Buffer.

In our case, we feel that the benefits of syndication outweigh the downsides. Your situation may be quite different than ours, so it’s important to take a close look at your numbers and your goals and then decide from there. It should also be mentioned that part of our joy with syndication is in getting to share our content with anyone who might find value in it. In some ways, we feel that keeping content only at Buffer is a rather selfish act. If others can use it, then we don’t want to stand in the way.

A compromise: Guest posting, THEN syndication

Another option is to combine the two types of columnists. Begin with guest posts and transition to syndication later.

That’s the route we went with our content strategy at Buffer. Once we became established with guest posting, we moved to syndication.

It’s interesting to note, too, how certain blogs may include both guest posting and syndication. We have been fortunate to have some really incredible writers guest post for us here at the Buffer blog. James Clear and Gregory Ciotti each come at it from a different perspective. James has been syndication from Day One. He approached us with a pitch to republish a well-performing article from his site. Gregory always writes original content. He puts great thought and effort into coming up with something new every time.

It’s also fun to look back at how we first connected with Gregory. Here’s his initial pitch:

Buffer Ciotti pitch

5 techniques from the experts on how to spread your content far and wide

Write a lot, and do so in your niche

Neil Patel’s advice on guest blogging starts with a call to write, on your own site, before even entertaining the idea of guest blogging. His advice comes in four parts:

  1. Write content in your niche
  2. Write content under your own name
  3. Write content that is publicly accessible
  4. Link to influential writers and sites

Put another way, you are approaching guest blogging from the perspective of the site that is hearing your pitch. Can they find your work online? Will what they find be relevant to the topic you’re pitching?

Many people write on hobby topics that interest them. This is perfectly fine (and a lot of fun!), but it may not be helpful in landing a guest blog spot. Find your niche, write for your niche, then begin your outreach.

Remix “de-risked” content

Walter Chen of iDoneThis uses de-risked content to map out his successful guest blog posts. What is de-risked content? It’s basically finding content that has worked before (and hence has less risk in terms of whether or not it will resonate) and borrowing elements to make a new post.

Walter uses an example of a post he hacked together with de-risked content from a pair of popular Hacker News pieces. The results: tens of thousands of reads and shares and some huge exposure for his app.

A great way to get started with de-risked content is to find some leading blogs in your niche and take note of what they do well—headlines, topics, formatting, style.

Pitch only your best work

This strategy from Larry Kim at Wordstream resonates a lot with us here at Buffer. We took a similar route with our guest posting and syndication. Kim counts Hubspot, Moz, Inc, and Marketing Profs among his many columnist spots, and he maintains that columnist spots like his really are something anyone can achieve.

This can happen for anyone. I started out a nobody, pitching writers at industry publications in hopes of getting picked up.

I was careful to only pitch them great stuff, so they would come to appreciate my contributions and ask me to contribute as a columnist. At that point, I’ve come full circle. I no longer have to pitch anyone since I’m a columnist there. See how that works?

The fine art of the pitch: Appreciation, brevity, and validation

Our co-founder Leo has some incredible intuition on how to best pitch a story to a potential publisher. His emails include several key ingredients: specific appreciation for the site you’re contacting, a one- or two-sentence overview of your post, and a reference to the other spots you’ve been published. Here is an actual email that he used to get a guest post spot.

Hi guys,

As a guy just starting out with a few basic web design lessons, I found onextrapixel extremely helpful, so just a quick thank you on that note.

I wanted to ask if you are interested in a guest post that I have drafted, which I titled “10 Tools To Make The Most of Twitter”. It covers a few of the latest Twitter Tools, which help me a lot to stay productive.

I hope you can let me know if you think the post could be interesting for you.

For reference of my writing style, I published recently on Six Revisions and SocialMediaExaminer.

Best,
Leo

(You might also notice that Leo references that the post is in draft. This is a neat writing hack—use validation from a positive response as motivation for completing the article. He calls this influencing your behavior, not your intentions.)

Since we don’t guest post as much anymore at Buffer, our outreach pitches look slightly different than the above example. You might notice some similarities to our guest post pitch, specifically with brevity and validation. (And notice the specific callout that we’re sharing our best content.)

Contribution Pitch

Give away your content to anyone

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits openly encourages people to use his content—in part or in full with no need to ask permission.

Babauta calls this uncopyright. He explicitly states that all his content is in the public domain and that he’s released all copyright on his work. Everything he’s written at Zen Habits is freely available.

What’s the result of doing something so uncommon? As you might have guessed, taking copyright off your work removes a barrier for having your content spread to new places. So long as republished work is attributed, Babauta will receive the benefits that columnists receive: greater exposure, greater authority.

If someone feels like sharing my content on their blog, or in any other form for that matter, that’s a good thing for me. If someone wanted to share my ebook with 100 friends, I don’t see how that hurts me. My work is being spread to many more people than I could do myself. That’s something to celebrate, as I see it.

Miscellaneous considerations

What are the SEO implications of syndication and duplicate content?

When the same story appears in multiple places, search engines have to decide which one to display in results and which one deserves the link juice. The best tip here is to make sure that your syndicated content includes a link back to the original. Search engines can typically figure things out from there.

How can I find the right person to contact at a website?

Along with sending a solid pitch, you’ll also want to be pitching the right person. We’ve found success by contacting the features editor or contributions editor at large sites.

Which sites are best for outreach and media partnerships?

As you browse the web, take note of articles that include a reference along the lines of “This story originally appeared…” This is a sure sign that the site allows republished content. With guest posting, an article might explicitly state that it was written as a guest post or you may need to read the author’s bio to see whether they are employed by the website or not.

Specifically, a couple places we started out with at Buffer were Business Insider, Search Engine Journal, and Social Media Today.

What has been your experience with guest posting and syndication? 

I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered along the road to becoming a columnist. Were these tips helpful? Do you have some tips to share from your own experience? I’d love to share more with you in the comments.

P.S. If you like this post, you might also like The Ultimate Guide to Repurposing Content: How to Extend the Life of Every Article You Write and 8 Important Actions for Making the Most of Your Guest Post Opportunity.

Image credit: 500CPM

  • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

    Woah, throwback! :)

    Great writeup, I think an evolving off-site strategy typically will end up with syndication being a dominant strategy — it just scales so well, and allows the company’s writers to spend most of their bandwidth creating top notch original work, instead of being spread thin with guest posts.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks, Gregory! That was a fun email of yours to share. :)

      I love what you’ve added here about syndication and strategy. We’re really seeing the benefits of scale, and it’s truly amazing to see your content paying dividends in other places when you’ve only had to write it once.

      • http://hubskills.com/ Partha Bhattacharya

        Kevan, I read your and Gregory’s comment with a bit of trepidation. And I get confused. Can I syndicate articles I’ve written in my blog? I mean, won’t the big websites refuse to publish article that is already published elsewhere?

        • Courtney Seiter

          Hi Partha! Not all websites work with syndicated content, but many do. It couldn’t hurt to ask! Our method has been to “prove “our content on our own blog and then offer really outstanding pieces to syndication partners.

          • http://hubskills.com/ Partha Bhattacharya

            Thanks Courtney for clarifying :)

  • http://collegeinfogeek.com/ Thomas Frank

    It’s getting to the point where every article on Buffer is now an auto-bookmark :)

    Leo wrote a guest post for my site waaaayyyy back in July 2011, and looking back I noticed another thing he did really well from the start:

    He didn’t just write about Buffer. A lot of his posts would link to tons of different Twitter tools and give them all good exposure. I’m guessing the bet was that Buffer would end up being the best option for what it does (in hindsight, I’d say that’s true).

    This is a marked difference from the other bloggers and PR people who just come out of the blue and pitch their thing as if I just want to advertise it for free.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      That’s so awesome to hear, Thomas! Glad we’re giving your bookmark button a workout. :)

      Leo has a great approach to things, and you’ve highlighted an amazing part of his outreach! Doing the right thing for others—not just yourself—is an absolutely key ingredient. Thanks for bringing this one up!

  • http://www.brianhonigman.com/ Brian Honigman

    Great article, couldn’t agree more on your points as someone who syndicates and guest blogs frequently.

    Love to hear your thoughts Kevan or Leo on if you’ve seen any issues with duplicate content concerns, since this is one of the areas Google looks upon as occasionally negative. I haven’t encountered any issues myself, but would love to hear your thoughts! Thanks.

    • LeoWid

      Great point Brian – we’ve not seen any issues at all either, our SEO traffic has been rising steadily over the past 12 months! If you ever learn anything, let me know!

      • http://www.brianhonigman.com/ Brian Honigman

        Happy to hear it! I will definitely let you know if I uncover anything, please do the same. :)

    • http://mysocialgameplan.com/about Jonathan Payne

      I could be wrong, but as I understand it, Google is more interested in duplicate content as an internal problem than they are as an external problem. That is, they’re typically good about determining which article is “the original” if it’s posted on two separate websites and, of course, they’re the best on the planet at determining which content and website is more authoritative (and should theoretically get a higher ranking).

      Duplicate content internally, however, is where a problem sits and it can be troublesome when dealing with a CMS due to author archives, tag/category archives, etc. The bots simply get confused about what to index.

      With all that said, I recall Matt Cutts stating in the past in no uncertain terms that websites are not penalized for duplicate content unless the behavior is clearly spammy, so I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. If your content is quality and legitimate, even if it’s syndicated there shouldn’t be SEO penalties. It doesn’t necessarily help, but penalties are unlikely if you’re not trying to game the system.

      • http://www.brianhonigman.com/ Brian Honigman

        Excellent point Jonathan, I definitely agree on the point that there’s most likely no penalties if you aren’t trying to game the system. Thanks for the input!

        • lisi

          It may not apply to the publications Kevan listed, but if any of them function the way Social Media Today does, there’s an input for the original page that the content is featured on if it’s syndicated. I’d imagine that would be helpful if there were any SEO conflict concerns :)

          • http://www.brianhonigman.com/ Brian Honigman

            Thanks for the heads up. I’ll have to check that out on Social Media Today!

      • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

        Great distinction between internal vs. external duplication! That makes complete sense, Jonathan. Thanks. :)

  • http://frankapicella.com/ Frank Apicella

    This all started with 150 guest posts. Thats a huge investment for a small business. Thats a post every 2 days over the 9 months. Assuming the average was 500 words and at a $1/word thats $75,000, not to mention all the logistics. It’s a hard pitch to a company trying to branch into media. But I love the post and I completely agree with it. It’s just a whole heck of a lot of work! The long term investment is def. there.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Oh wow, seeing those numbers is incredible. It’s definitely an investment—time, money, resources, etc. Glad to hear you think the long-term payoff is worth it. :)

  • julie

    Excellent post, Kevan! I was so worried about the duplicate content thing that I just got in the habit of writing all original work and only doing guest posts. Thanks for showing me there’s an alternative to try after I’ve totally burned myself out. :)

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hope you get a second wind, Julie! Syndication is definitely easier on your time, that’s for sure. :)

  • Julie

    Please change the author photo on your blogs! Your articles are great but the picture is off putting.

  • Caroline

    Another awesome Buffer post! We have guest blogging agreements with SCORE and syndication with Business2Community. While I was worried about the SEO implications, the consistent traffic we get from these sites outweigh that concern.

  • http://hughculver.com Hugh Culver

    Awesome post Kevan. I’m just starting to reach out for guest post opportunities and this is just what I needed to read. Great clarification on guest posts vs. syndication. Nicely done!

  • Yolanda A. Facio

    Another epic post Kevan that had to go to Pocket first! I’m really loving all of your posts, this one is particularly transparent. I appreciate your honesty in laying out exactly how Buffer moved from guest posts to syndication. It a great reminder that yes, anyone can do it, just takes effort. Thanks!

  • AndreaLeyden

    Really love this post, I’ve already implemented your advice on outreach emails! Like others commenting below, I’m still confused about duplicate content and the negative affects. By syndicating on another site, do you mean the content is exactly the same or re-written but with the same basic points?

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Andrea! Great question. In our experience, syndication means an exact copy of our original appearing on another site. The only difference might be a paragraph at the bottom or the top explaining where the post originated. Also, if there’s a link to our original, the search engines typically know which one deserves to rank and appear for all the search terms. :)

      • AndreaLeyden

        I think this is a great idea and will definitely try it. The only thing that worries me apart from the duplicate content issue is relying on Google to rank our post before the other site when you would look to syndicate on sites with a higher domain authority.

  • Michael Feeley

    Fantastic article Kevan! I learned a great deal from you, and it’s important because I have just been approved to write for Huffington Post. It happened from building a solid relationship and I find that to be key. I’m excited because I have an opportunity to meet a new audience as I write and express myself. Thank you.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Congrats, Michael! That’s an awesome achievement. Looking forward to seeing you on there. :)

  • Ahmed Medien

    I really want to read this article, but it’s really and I’m almost sure that I will have to spend more time on the side to understand one new concept or two.

  • Storewars News

    Really informative. I just read this article: Heineken plans
    to invest $690 million in Africa. Read it here http://bit.ly/1uSDMzg.

  • philhill

    Why don’t more sites “open source” their blog content?

    Surely, the primary purpose for blogging is to build a relationship with an audience and having others repurpose your content for their audience creates a nice leveraged distribution model.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Agree 100%! I like the way you worded this: “leveraged distribution model.” :)

      • philhill

        I emailed Courtney yesterday about potentially using one of you emails to send as a long form email newsletter to my user base of 25k small business people. You’ll get full attribution and it should send you good traffic. Are you ok with me doing this?

  • http://WhyMenLeave.net/ Elizabeth Stone

    Thanks so much for this piece. I’ve done a lot of guest blogging lately but I would like to gain more leverage from work I’m already creating. Thanks for explaining syndication better.

  • Kate bourland

    Love this post. I have a question that I can’t seem to find an answer to. What is best practice for “curating” your own guest post back to your own blog with a comment. In other words, can you create a new blog post on your own blog, that tells a story about why you wrote the guest post and then insert the link to the guest post? What are best practices rules on this? Any thoughts?

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Kate! That’s such a great angle to think of. I don’t know that there would be any “wrong” way to do this. I love your idea to add a storytelling element to the post. A couple other ways that I’ve seen it done:

      Your guest post included in a weekly roundup of favorite links that you’ve found.

      Your guest post included as a link-type post, which some sites and WordPress themes have styled to appear differently on the blog.

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  • http://terakristen.com/ Tera Kristen

    So, so timely. I think this might be the way to make the biggest splash if you are starting a blog for a company. Anyone who wants to build a blog community from the ground up will set themselves apart with this strategy. Kudos to Buffer and @kevanlee:disqus who have battle-tested this method – thanks for sharing your secrets with us :)

  • Allie A.

    This was so great– this post reaffirmed some of my practices and introduced me to knew ones. I started out as being the only writer for our blog and it was exhausting. But I was pushing out good posts. Soon I got requests from bloggers in my field to write for us. I wasn’t picky– too much so– but with time I’ve learned what will work with our audience and what won’t. Now the majority of our writers are guest bloggers and it really enhances our community. I’ve also stopped being so afraid to reach out to authors of great content and say “Hey, I love this! Can I republish?” and, conversely, contact great blogs and say “Look what story we just published that’s doing so well– thought you might want to post it too.” Thanks always Buffer!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Sounds like you’ve got a really great system in place, Allie! I love it!

  • http://www.magentaemedia.com Tracy Stonard

    Kevin this is great post. Thanks for sharing Buffer’s journey and including the written examples of how to approach other sites. Explaining the pros and cons of syndication was super useful too. Many thanks.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      So glad you found this helpful, Tracy! Cheers!

  • http://millennialinthemiddle.wordpress.com/ Millennial in the Middle

    Awesome article. Great insights for someone like me who is just starting out.

  • Prerna Malik

    Excellent post, Kevan!! Really in-depth and tons of value.. I’d never even considered syndication.. Thank you!! Can’t wait to try your tips and ideas:)

  • rogercparker

    Refreshing post; fresh perspective, actionable tips, and summary of pros and cons. Great details. Brought back memories of a similar strategy i employed with “old media” many years ago.

    Newly married, mortgaged, leased, and with a 6 month old child, 3,000 miles from home, I suddenly needed a new job. Fairly panicked. No luck with ad agencies, etc.

    Went to the leading trade publication in my field, made an agreement to provide a two-page content & design marketing advice column for definite placement in the center spread of their publication. In exchange, I’d get a 2/3′s page, vertical rectangle ad in each issue.

    Within 2 months, I was making more money on my own….and didn’t have to show up for work! Probably saved my marriage.

  • Sherma Felix

    Wow ….GREAT article! Especially for someone like me who is just starting out and learning about guest posting. I really appreciate you sharing this info with us.