Copywriting

The ‘Complete-Nobody’ Guide to Guest Posting Fame and Fortune (By the Guy Who Built a Career Out of It)

Once upon a time, I was a nobody…

A little over five years ago, I found myself unemployed and unemployable.

That’s not hyperbole.

Before launching into guest posting and content marketing, my first dream – if you can believe it – was to be a pastor. I earned my undergraduate degree in English and went on to graduate school for a Masters in Divinity.

Then, my life imploded. 

It started with a wrecking-ball event out of my control and culminated in a bomb I assembled with my own two hands – made of resentment, anger and entitlement. 

I won’t belabor the details. Suffice to say, there I was: 31 years young, standing amidst the burnt rubble of a life torn down.

The one thing I had going for me was that my previous life had taught me all communication is sales: getting what’s inside my heart and mind into someone else’s in a way that makes them say, “Yes.”

The only other thing I had going? Desperation.

“Aaron,” I thought, “you’ve got to do something to eat. You can communicate pretty well. Maybe there are people out there selling things to other people who can’t communicate well. Maybe they would pay you to help.”

And thus, a marketer was born.

I hit the ground running with the speed and tenacity only one part desperation and two parts ignorance can provide. (Thank God for the latter!)

As I began devouring the likes of Copyblogger, Neil Patel, MarketingProfs and – yes, not to suck up – Copyhackers, I noticed a unifying ingredient on their sites: logos.

Logos depicting where they’d published and clients they’d worked for. Logos that screamed social proof: “These companies and people trust me. They gave me money. You should too.”

Logo envy, the desire to look like somebody even though I was nobody, took over my heart.

After grinding out the first few months as a newbie online writer, I began researching a select handful of sites. It started with niche marketing publications – like MarketingProfs, Copyblogger, Content Marketing Institute and Unbounce. 

When the approach I’ll detail below worked, I then sent off a completed article to multiple mainstream sites. Low and behold, Entrepreneur picked it up.

Entrepreneur even told me I could continue to submit to them. 

The lights came on. That was the a-ha, holy shit moment!

If all I did was study what publications already loved, layer on something trending (either from search or social) and craft an entire article just for them… the doors would open.

And open they did – even for a nobody like me:

Just a few of the over 40 publishers I’ve guest blogged for over the last five years

Guest blogging was the primary sales funnel that grew my freelance writing business from nothing to six figures in a year and a half. 

It gave me authority and social proof (when – to put it bluntly – I didn’t deserve either).

Eventually, guest blogging landed me a job as editor in chief of Shopify Plus – the enterprise arm of the world’s fastest-growing and most-valuable non-Amazon ecommerce brand.

The key to my success was guest posting – an all-out blitz across mainstream and niche publications despite starting out with zero credibility and zero connections.

Over the last four months, I’ve damn near killed myself putting together Master of Guest Blogging – the inaugural course in Copyhackers Content School. It contains everything I learned on both sides of the divide: as a guest blogger and as an editor in chief.

The more time I spent working on the course, the more thankful I became for my original two parts ignorance.

Why?

Because had I known and adhered to what gets passed off as guest-blogging guidance, I never would have made it.

If you’re a would-be guest blogger, three myths stand in your way. Three lies that will condemn you before you even begin.

So, let’s name the demons and demolish them!


Pst… in the third myth I’m going to introduce you to a few people who aren’t writers but have used guest blogging to grow their businesses by leaps and bounds.

Within the course, there are actually 35 original contributions from leaders across a host of professions: SaaS developers, founders, growth strategists, ad buyers, ecommerce owners and (yes) content creators as well as lowly writers.

I asked Joanna real nice and she said we could give away that entire BONUS PDF. Discover how guest blogging helped fuel their businesses along with the one thing they wish they knew before they started…

Download the BONUS: Authority & the Benefits of Guest Blogging (PDF)

Guest posting myth 1: You have to be special, creative and talented

Confession: I’m probably the least original dude you’ll ever meet. The fact that I wear the title “creator” is nonsense.

However, in the world of guest blogging, my lack of originality is far from a detriment. It’s probably the leading characteristic of my success.

What do I mean?

No matter how journalistic a site or publication may appear, editors care about one thing: popular content

Popular content equals traffic. And traffic equals ad revenue, subscribers or (in some cases) customers.

Editors want articles that align with what’s currently working for their site, without overlapping or cannibalizing existing content.

While popular content looks different publication to publication, within a publication – and even within a publication niche – it changes very little. 

The secret is…

Popular content isn’t invented. It’s discovered.

Unfortunately, most writers don’t put in the work upfront to figure out exactly what already works. 

Good news: if you do put in that work, you’ll be lightyears ahead of the competition. Not to mention, more than halfway toward the goal of seeing your words come to life.

I do tons of research before I ever write a word. (What’s more, when I was editor in chief at Shopify Plus, I salivated over submissions that showed that same level of preparation.)

For example, in addition to that first post on Entrepreneur when Mindy Kaling was trending, my research process landed me on Success Magazine when Jimmy Fallon was hot and again when Stephen Colbert took over the Late Show.

Aaron Orendorff's guest posts in Success Magazine

It served me at Unbounce when Straight Outta Compton dropped and made me an official top-performing blogger at Content Marketing Institute multiple times over.

Aaron Orendorff's guest posts for Unbounce and the Content Marketing Institute

It even got me into places like Mashable and The Next Web, which – because I don’t have any technical expertise – I have no real business writing for.

Aaron Orendorff's guest posts for Mashable and The Next Web

Maybe you’ve already noticed a pattern. But ‘celebrities-plus-pop-culture-equal-editorial-hallelujahs’ is just the tip of the iceberg.

What began as (1) collecting 10 of a publisher’s most-popular articles via Buzzsumo, (2) noting their topics and headline patterns and merging that with (3) whatever celebrity was currently ranking on Google Trends

…eventually became a 10-step template; a (dare I say it) scientific process for the pitch-perfect guest post.

Let me break it down for you…

Start by creating a Google Sheet. 

First, enter 1-20 in Column A and then use the 10 steps above to label the rest of the columns:

Preview of the Reverse Engineering “Yes” Template within Master of Guest Blogging

1. Popular

Collect 10 to 20 of your target publisher’s most popular existing articles using (1) onsite lists – normally on their homepages or within specific sections – (2) “best of” round-up articles or (3) social media counters (e.g. Buzzsumo).

Drop those URLs into column B.

2. Headlines

Copy and paste all the headlines from those articles (one by one or by exporting them from Buzzsumo) into column C.

3. Headline characters

Enter the formula =len(C2) into the next column – where C is the column and 2 is the row. That will automatically calculate the number of characters in the selected cell. Drag that cell down to the end of your list and run the AVERAGE formula at the bottom.

Behold, the power of math – the perfect length for your headline.

4. Headline patterns

Examine each headline like a popularity bloodhound.

Do they use numbers, names, scientific words, questions, trends, “how-to” phrases, contrarian perspectives, the promise of intrigue and surprise or any other dominant patterns?

A sampling of additional headline questions from inside Master of Guest Blogging - plus, there’s WAY more!
A sampling of additional headline questions from inside Master of Guest Blogging – plus, there’s WAY more!

5. Word count

Use Bulk Web Page Word Count Checker to drop in batches of 10 URLs at a time, download the Excel file, paste the corrected word count into your Google Doc and then… AVERAGE.

6. Formality Score

Skim each article – paying special attention to the introduction (lede) and conclusion. Then, give each one a formality score of 1 to 3:

  1. Weekend Cookout (Hella informal)
  2. Casual Friday (Formal)
  3. Gala (Most formal)

7. Subheadings

Roll through the articles again, this time noting their subheadings:

  • How many?
  • Use of numbers?
  • Title case or sentence case?
  • One or multiple lines?
  • Punctuation?

8. Links

Hover over each of the links in the articles and note whether they’re onsite or offsite. Also, count the total number of links. (Links are SEO currency. Editors know this and treat them accordingly.)

9. Data Points

Tabulate the total number of data points contained within each article. Data is how a pub shows proof. This will immediately tell you how much evidence you’ll need for your guest post.

10. Media

Media is a catchall term that identifies five elements… 

  • Images: Number and kinds
  • Gifs: Number and yes or no
  • Videos: Number and sources
  • Custom visualizations: Yes or no
  • Copyrighted media: Yes or no

In the end, what you’ll come away with is a comprehensive checklist to guide you into the perfect article.

Your comprehensive checklist to guide you into the perfect guest post
Your comprehensive checklist to guide you into the perfect guest post
Even better, by following this process you’ll be in the trenches over and over with your target publication’s most-popular pieces!

Time spent marinating inside those articles is invaluable.

Of course, the question is: Why spend all that time researching a single pitch?

Guest posting myth 2: Pitch first, ask questions send articles later

Pitch is a terrible word. Why? Because pitch implies sending an idea or a listicle of ideas.

The problem with that is…

Online publications feed the beast; they’re hungry for content. Ravenous.

As a result, editors are busy AF.

Editors don’t have time to look at a portfolio of previous articles or to cook up a topic and angle. Nor do they want to wade through a 10- or 20-point list of “article ideas and headlines.”

That’s homework. Never give an editor homework. Instead, make it as easy as possible for an editor to say, “Yes.”

A pitch doesn’t do that (except for top-tier print magazines). Most only add effort to an editor’s already crowded plate.

Having lived on both sides of the divide – as a guest blogger and as Shopify Plus’ editor in chief – I know this all too well.

What I longed for at Shopify was a guest post I could hit “Publish” on as quickly as possible with as little back-and-forth as possible.

As a guest blogger, instead of sending pitches, I sent completed articles customized for each publication. All but one of my breakthrough guest posts came from sending a fully researched, custom-tailored, completed article with a short email that basically said:

“Here’s a finished article. I wrote it just for you.” 

Followed by a link to a Google Doc or an attached Word document.

Inside the full Master of Guest Blogging course, I walk through a host of real emails I have sent to editors – some successful, some not.

Those hard-won lessons culminated in three short email templates and two journalistic templates. Here’s one of the three short versions:

Short email template for guest posting pitch to editors

Seriously. That’s it!

I used that template as a cold email to kick down the doors at pretty much all the mainstream sites shown below:

Huffington Post was the outlet that truly taught me the value of less is more when it comes to pitching…

I literally tried to crack Huffington Post for years. Here’s a mere sampling of the emails I sent to various editors:

Various guest posting pitch emails sent to the editors at the Huffington Post

Each time I would load the emails with more and more places I’d written for or stats on my articles’ performances – all evidence designed to make someone say, “Ah, Aaron Orendorff is somebody. We should publish his article on our site.”

Guest posting pitch email sent to an editor at the Huffington Post

Alas, each and every one of those pitches were either rejected or (by and large) ignored.

Ironically, the email that finally worked was one line sent straight to Arianna Huffington herself…
Successful guest posting pitch email sent to Arianna Huffington

Finally, success:

Response from Arianna Huffington to Aaron Orendorff's guest posting pitch email

Not only is that the most successful template I’ve ever used, but the illustrious Andy Crestodina also immortalized its ethos in his book, Content Chemistry, as well as blowing up my social accounts every few months by including it in a number of his conference presentations:

Image via Kelvin Claveria (Twitter)

But, what if you’re not a writer?

Guest posting myth 3: Guest posts only work for ‘content creators’

There are plenty of objections to adopting guest posting as a growth strategy for your business. Most of them – to be honest – are excuses to shield us from the risk of rejection.

The most-plausible sounding protest goes like this:

“Sure, guest blogging worked for you, Aaron. But you’re a writer. I’m not. It won’t work for me.”

Lies! But don’t take my word for it.

Rather than try to convince you that guest posting can add fuel to any career path or service… instead, I asked 35 influencer-status leaders in a variety of industries three questions:

  1. Has guest blogging helped you grow your business?
  2. How has guest blogging helped grow your business?
  3. What’s the one thing you wish you knew when you started?

Here’s the best part…

20 of the 35 were not writers or content creators!

Using an incredibly scientific scale, here’s how their answers to the first question about “has” guest blogging helped shook out…

  • Hell yeah! 63%
  • Yes: 26%
  • Sorta: 11%
  • No: 0%

You can grab all 35 answers to the second two questions, so – for now – I simply want to highlight three of my favorite responses from two non-writers and one content creator.

First up: Savannah Sanchez, a paid media manager at the Facebook agency Common Thread Collective. Earlier this year, Savannah published her first guest post. The result?

Savannah Sanchez on guest blogging
Savannah Sanchez, Common Thread Collective

“After guest blogging on Sumo, I was able to generate a significant increase in leads and traffic to my website, social following and Common Thread Collective.

“It was a huge win all around – and it never hurts to have your boss see business come in from your offsite efforts.

“From there, I’ve often referenced my guest blogging when submitting to speaking opportunities. Plus, it’s been a great bonus to include the article on my personal website to add more validation of my expertise.

“Last, my guest blog is also ranking highly for the “Facebook Metrics” keyword, which is an awesome spot to be in (especially heading into the holiday’s peak campaign season).”

Her advice to would-be (and soon-to-be!) guest bloggers is equally illuminating:

“Keep engaged with the comments! It’s easy to forget to comment moderate when the blog doesn’t live on your own website.

“However, there could be valuable potential clients that are asking questions in the comments of your guest blog.”

Second, Ross Simmonds – CEO of Foundation Marketing. You may know Ross from his top-rated conference appearances, his prolific Twitter output or his writing.

But, Ross is not a writer by trade. Instead, he’s essentially a CMO (chief marketing officer) for hire who majors on strategy, ecommerce operations and video marketing:

Ross Simmonds, Foundation Marketing, on guest posting
Ross Simmonds, Foundation Marketing

“Guest blogging was the fastest way for me early on in my career to build relationships with some of the best in the industry, build an audience, establish authority and drive more traffic to my site.

“As I began writing for bigger publications, more opportunities unlocked and with every opportunity came the chance to connect with a new audience. It’s one of the most effective ways to reach an already engaged and targeted audience.”

His tip on how to “drive additional eyeballs to existing content that you have developed” stopped me in my tracks:

“One of the key drivers of our agency’s early success on Slideshare was the act of embedding our decks into guest posts.

“This resulted in generating more than 1M views on Slideshare and generating thousands of emails.”

Third, Josh Steimle – our token writer. 😉

Josh is the author of The 7 Systems of Influence and Founder of MWI International Digital Agency. Pay special attention to his careful selection of sites to publish on and how that correlates with results:

Josh Steimle, MWI International Digital Agency, on guest posting
Josh Steimle, MWI International Digital Agency

“I’ve written 300+ articles for more than two dozen top-tier publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur and Mashable. But – when it comes to building a personal brand – guest blogging for smaller, niche sites has been a necessary ingredient to give me ‘street cred.’

“That enhanced credibility has led to more revenue for my companies, speaking gigs and a book deal.

“For example, when I went to launch my masterclass on how to become a contributor, guest blogging on ProBlogger allowed me to get in front of my ideal audience where they were hanging out and in a more credible way than if the same post had been in Time or Inc.”

What did he wish he knew before he got started?

“Don’t use impersonal templates for your pitches with a cluttered list of ideas! Any website worth guest blogging on gets hundreds if not thousands of pitches per month and they can spot a template pitch a mile away.

“The worst offender I see starts with: ‘I see you post about [topic]. I really liked your post [post title]. I would like to contribute a guest post on this topic at no cost to you, just include a link to our website.’

“Instead of doing what everyone else is doing, playing the guest blog lottery and hoping you win by sending out a lot of emails, send fewer emails but increase the quality.”

“First, verify that they accept guest blog posts… Second, if they do accept guest posts, write a paragraph or two that don’t merely prove you know what they’ve already published but show you know where they’re going and what they want to publish in the future.

“Think of a blog owner as a collector of rare animals and find what’s missing from their collection. 

“If someone came to me and said, ‘I see you’re focusing a lot these days on your 7 Systems, but you haven’t published a lot about System #3 and I have some ideas for guest posts that could give you more content focused on that,’ then that would be pretty compelling.

“It would prove to me they’ve gone further than a temple and they really know the content on my site. Who knows, perhaps someone could even convince me to start accepting guest posts with a pitch like that.”


Want even more guidance and inspiration? Then grab all 35 of the original contributions here…

PDF download from Aaron Orendorrf 'Authority & the Benefits of Guest Blogging'.
Authority & the Benefits of Guest Blogging (PDF)

One last (BONUS!) guest posting myth: The truth is #LetsGetRejected

Finally, the last and perhaps most dangerous myth about guest posting is: “No means it’s over.”

Let me assure you of two things.

Number one: rejection is coming. Number two: rejection is just the beginning.

I’d wager 75% of all my published articles were rejected by at least one outlet (often more than one).

The keyword in that last sentence? Published.

Within the course, I pull back the curtain on the reality of rejection and share how those same articles – with slight tweaks – got almost immediately approved by a different site.

In fact, to show I’m serious, this is what the true behind-the-scenes history of my first mainstream article – the one about Mindy Kaling – looked like:

Email history of guest post pitches by Aaron Orendorff

I’d sent that exact same email not only to seven different addresses at Entrepreneur… but a week prior I’d also sent it to multiple addresses at:

  • Huffington Post
  • Mashable
  • Forbes
  • Inc.
Each of those pubs either rejected it or didn’t respond to the same f****** article. Seventeen nos. But, it only takes one yes.

With every article I wrote, every pitch I sent, every pitch I resent… and resent – as my finger hovered over the trackpad… my cursor atop the scariest button you’ll ever see in your life – “Send” – every time, I told myself:

“Let’s get rejected.”

Why?

Because I knew that fear was going to be the thing that stopped me. Fear of hearing no. Fear of hearing nothing. Fear of being told, “This isn’t good enough. You’re not good enough.”

And so, I embraced the fear. I rigged my heart and mind – I steeled myself against the terror – in the only way I knew how.

I made rejection the goal.

I wanted to be the kind of person who does shit. Fear was and is the only thing that stops me – that stops any of us – from doing really, really, really great shit.

Embracing the oncoming failure inverts it. It turns fear on itself.

If you’d like to join me on the journey, you can sign up for the course here. Just remember: #LetsGetRejected.

Please, tell me when you do.

And… when you don’t.

About the author

Aaron Orendorff

Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent, a strategic agency “saving the world from bad content,” and previously the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus. Named by Forbes as one of the top 10 B2B content marketers, his work has appeared on Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, Inc., Success Magazine, The Next Web, Content Marketing Institute, Copyblogger, and more.

  • Robert Laghill

    Hey Aaron, great article, really apreciate the detail you went into here. May I ask though, how do you decide on content topics? Do you try and stay relevant to your niche, or go broad and pick up kudos along the way?

  • Paweł Kazienko

    Very good article – I would definately use the tips on my blog which will start hopefully soon 🙂

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Outstanding, Pawel. Be sure to let me know here or via social how it goes. I’m rooting for you!

  • SusiCB

    Thanks, Aaron, for sharing such valuable advice. I have a question: back in the (pre-digital) day, writers offering their work simultaneously to multiple publishers risked being effectively blacklisted. Is that no longer the case?

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Great question! Probably misleading with the way I showed the screenshots.

      I only did that RIGHT at the start.

      I immediately learned exactly what you’re talking about.

      So … do NOT pitch the same article to multiple pubs simultaneously!

      🙏🙏🏿🙏🙏🏿

      • SusiCB

        Thanks, Aaron – that’s good to know.

  • Bilal Ahmed

    Awesome post Aaron. I “chase” you on Twitter. And your success as a content writer baffles me. More power to you.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Thanks so much, Bilal! If I don’t already follow you … drop your Twitter link — or your handle — and I shall immediately right my wrong 😉

  • Aaron, you’ve been my “writing bromance crush” for years, and this post proves exactly why. Incredible insight, as always.

    • Aaron Orendorff

      😘😘😘

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