How I Built 167 Links With A Single Image


A few years back I created a graphic during my lunch break, the graphic was a simple wireframe mocking the state of web design at the time. It took me around 30 minutes from start to finish.

167 Backlinks

Over time that graphic brought in 167 links from unique domains including the likes of Shopify, Smashing Magazine, Webflow, CSS Tricks, Invision and more. It didn’t end there though, it also went on to be referenced in presentations at a number of global industry events.

All of the above was done with any attempt to outreach or promote it. I never sent a single email asking anyone to cover it.

So the question is, why was it so successful?

I should start by saying that the success wasn’t intentional, obviously I wanted the post to do well but I didn’t plan out a path to success. There wasn’t any deliberate research, I was purely stating what was on my mind at the time.

All Websites Look The Same

The post which held the graphic was titled All Websites Look The Same, this wasn’t an original thought. I’d talked about the state of web design with friends and I’d seen people saying similar things on Twitter.

What I did was take that idea, simplify it, reformat it and added a little humour.

Made To Stick

Made To Stick Those that have read Chip & Dan Heath’s book Made To Stick will spot that I tapped into elements of the framework that Chip and Dan’s research suggests help an idea to really stick. The framework uses the acronym SUCCES (sic) which I’ve broken down below…

  • S – Simple
  • U – Unexpected
  • C – Concrete
  • C – Credible
  • E – Emotion
  • S – Story

I won’t detail exactly how it taps into various parts of the SUCCES framework, I think some of that is obvious enough, but I will hold my hands up and say that I actually read Made To Stick long after I created the graphic. Any correlation to the framework is a completely natural occurrence.

If you haven’t read Made To Stick and you work in a creative industry, I’d highly recommend it. I’ve now read it twice and would like to go back a third time at some point in the future.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Without doubt I think that simplicity is too often overlooked when it comes to ideas. We live in a complex world and attention is at a premium, you have very little time to make an impact and if your idea isn’t immediately understandable, it will get lost in the ether.

The fact that the concept behind the graphic was a little controversial really helped too. Having an opinion, whether people agree with it or disagree tends to spark interest and debate. If you are posting something that is a little controversial, you have to be prepared to defend your stance. You’ll see from the comments on the original post that I had to continue the conversation a number of times.

A Zeitgeist Moment

What I believe, is that I tapped into a zeitgeist subject. My knowledge of the industry allowed me to tap into something that was on a lot of people’s minds, yet wasn’t being widely talked about. Was there an element of luck to this? Absolutely, but to a certain extent, you make your own luck (if you want another book recommendation try The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman a go).

The graphic itself very nearly wasn’t successful. After launching the article which featured the image, a few friends and acquaintances commented but it didn’t go much beyond that. It wasn’t until someone lifted the graphic and posted it on Tumblr that it really took off. There’s definitely a lesson in that. There are so many places now where you can promote your work, posts, and ideas. You can’t possibly cover all of them and do it well, so it’s important to select the right platforms and use them to your advantage.

I’m of the opinion that the web is so limitless in scale that you’ll never cover it all. This is why the graphic still gets attention and has people talking about it years after I originally created it. For some people out there, it’s still completely fresh and the concept holds true. If I were wanting to outreach this further, I still think the scope would be there to do this.

Is It Repeatable For Your Clients?

Although I’ve already detailed some of the reasons why I think the graphic went on to be successful, I wanted to look at whether there’s anything that can be learned when it comes to creating campaigns for your clients. Is there anything in this story that is repeatable?

Firstly I think it’s really important to get to know your client’s industry well. It’s incredibly difficult to create a piece of content that resonates with an audience if you don’t know who that audience is in the first place.

You can find key talking points around the industry in question by reading forums and blogs, following social media hashtags and accounts, there are so many options on this front. A little time up front will pay dividends down the line.

This will lead naturally to finding out the platforms that work for the audience and the formats that they best respond to. I never considered Tumblr when I first created my graphic but luck was on my side. With better planning at the start, you can give your campaign an even better chance of success.

Speaking of success, I think the SUCCES framework is really useful for keeping your ideas on track and helping shape them. Even when you start with a good idea, it’s easy to go off track and confuse things. I’m a big believer in Chip and Dan Heath’s work and the framework makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve found it to be a really good guide.

Continuing The Conversation

And finally, something that the framework doesn’t cover but I think was highly important in this case study: The idea wasn’t the end of the story, it sparked debate and the conversation continued. Those that wanted to were adding their own opinion and thoughts. This was happening directly on my blog, on Reddit, Twitter and everywhere else the graphic was picking up traction.

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