The Power of the Byline: How to Create Guest Posts That Build Trust and Thought Leadership, Not Just Backlinks

March 3, 2021 3:30 pm Published by
By Scott Baradell

The journalism term “byline” first appeared in print in 1926 with the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway spelled it “by-line,” which makes sense;  it denotes the line atop a newspaper or magazine article stating who the piece is “by” — the author.

Today, having your byline published is important not only to journalists, but also to brands. Digital marketing gurus like Neil Patel, among others, have called contributed articles — more popularly known as “guest posts” — the single best inbound marketing strategy. 

Done well, bylines establish thought leadership, provide third-party validation and improve search presence — all of which can increase trust in your brand

The problem is, the great majority of guest posts aren’t very good — and for this reason, they have little impact, or even a negative impact. A recent Edelman study showed that while nearly 90% of B2B decision-makers said thought leadership content affects their perception of a brand, only 15% said they believed the content they consume to be of high quality.

There are three reasons for this:

  • Most executives don’t have the time or ability to write compelling content, so they delegate it to ghostwriters who lack relevant experience or insight;
  • Most companies focus so much on pushing product messages or avoiding saying the wrong thing that they forget to write something that is actually enjoyable — rather than painful — to read.
  • Most guest posts are written with SEO keywords and objectives, rather than true thought leadership, in mind;

To help you unleash the power of the byline for your business, let me first provide a little history — followed by some practical steps to start doing better.

The Byline as Sacred Commodity

Originally used to ensure accountability for mistakes in reporting, the byline over time has become one of the most sought-after status symbols among journalists — turning columnists into celebrities and investigative reporters into trusted community watchdogs. Since the 70s, virtually every newspaper article longer than 150 words has included the writer’s byline.

I was a journalist for six years, so let me provide some context. I was an honors student at the University of Virginia and editor of the college newsweekly — but after graduation, I took a job working 3 p.m. to midnight writing for a newspaper in the small town of Lynchburg, Virginia. The position paid $6 per hour — a couple bucks above the minimum wage at the time. I had friends who went to Wall Street after graduation to start jobs at five times my salary. 

And yet, I felt lucky to have the job. I got a chance to write, and because of the byline, I got all the credit for the writing I did. My bylines earned me praise from my colleagues. My bylines earned me awards from the Virginia Press Association and other organizations. Finally, my byline allowed me to showcase my work to earn a job at a much bigger newspaper in Dallas.

That’s why bylines became such a valued — even sacred — commodity among journalists. And today, with more journalists than ever losing their staff positions and having to cobble together careers as freelancers, a writer’s bylines are the credentials that help them earn their next assignment. With more publications rewarding writers based on clicks and other web metrics, each byline can have a direct impact on the writer’s paycheck as well.

The byline, in other words, is serious business. It has a long, storied history. When you treat it as just another PR or SEO tactic, you are doing yourself a disservice.

Doing Bylines Right

Here are three ways to do right by bylines, by doing bylines right.

  1. Include the Executive’s Voice — and Brain.
    Too many brand bylines fail because they have nothing interesting to say. Executives simply ask their agency or staff to “come up with something”—to blindly ghostwrite content. And usually it’s something that even the executive doesn’t care to read after it’s published. That’s a brain-dead—not to mention inauthentic—approach to thought leadership.

    It’s also an insult to all of us journalists and former journalists who put their heart and souls into their bylines — who believe bylines mean something. If you honestly don’t care about the quality or originality of the content your organization creates, do everyone a favor and don’t produce any. Seriously.

    But if you do care, here’s what you should do: the executive must take ownership over their byline. That doesn’t mean they should write it themselves—many executives simply aren’t good writers or can’t fit writing into their busy schedules. But what they can do is work with a ghostwriter to communicate their very best ideas. At my agency, Idea Grove, we like to conduct in-depth, challenging interviews with executives, so we can produce content that taps into both their voice and their brain. That’s the kind of byline that cuts through the noise.

  2. Put Yourself in the Audience’s Place.
    Considering how often this advice is given to brands and their agencies, it’s truly shocking how seldom it is put to use. Brands fail on two fronts here; let me describe each.

    They try to sell, not help. If you can’t separate helping from selling in your mind when creating content, don’t bother creating it. Sharing interesting and useful information with those who come across your brand online is one of the best ways to build trust. It shows that you have more to offer the world than a widget to sell. For top-of-the-funnel audiences, talking about your ideas more and your products less is the way to impress.

    They are overly cautious. Everybody in journalism knows that the best stories are about controversy and change. The best bylines make bold statements, identify big issues, suggest solutions you hadn’t thought to consider. They are not timid. They have not been reviewed by 17 corporate lawyers. Don’t give your audience a “redacted” version of what you want to say; put yourself out there and give them something that might actually make them think.

  3. Don’t Fall into the SEO Trap.
    Until relatively recently, my agency’s PR team, like that of many other firms, has used the terms “bylines” or “contributed articles,” rather than “guest posts,” to describe contributed content. They do this even though the terms are basically interchangeable today, and even though “guest post” is the most widely used and understood term of the three.

    Search Google for “guest post,” for example, and you’ll find more than 30 million results. “Contributed article,” by contrast, delivers fewer than 200,000 results and “bylined article” fewer than 25,000. So why on earth would so many PR agencies choose to use a term that they often have to then explain to their clients?

    Mostly because SEO practitioners were the ones who coined the term “guest post” in the early days of social media — before quickly proceeding to give the practice a bad name by publishing poor-quality content, often in paid or reciprocal linking schemes, in order to accumulate backlinks. The articles were often conceived and written on the cheap by people untrained in journalism, or even marketing.

    In 2014, Google raised a red flag about guest posting, when its search quality spokesman, Matt Cutts, wrote a post titled, “The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO.” Cutts writes:

    Back in the day, guest blogging used to be a respectable thing, much like getting a coveted, respected author to write the introduction of your book … (but) if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice …

    Google later clarified that not all guest posting is bad — but to this day, the search giant says it frowns on it as a link-building strategy and devalues guest-post links it considers “unnatural.” This means that you should not let the tail wag the dog when it comes to your contributed article program. Focus on creating great content first, and let the links fall where they may.

Publications need brand bylines more than ever today. Just make sure you’re creating quality guest posts and placing them for the right reasons — because you have something valuable to contribute to a conversation that’s of interest to a relevant audience.

Scott Baradell is founder and CEO of Idea Grove, a unified PR and marketing agency based in Dallas that helps its clients “Grow With Trust,” its service offering for building trusting relationships between brands and their audiences.