How To Vet External Content Sources

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They’ve been in my life for over 10 years.

For most of that time, they gave me what I wanted. It wasn’t perfect, but no relationship ever is.

Then, those imperfections cropped up more often.

The community of sources on HARO no longer gave me what I needed. I wondered if it was me. Was I requesting something that wasn’t possible? I adjusted my queries. Lowering my expectations helped. It wasn’t the best, but it worked well enough.

Then, I got an unsolicited note on LinkedIn. He said he represented a source quoted in a recent article and wanted me to link to the source’s website. When I explained the Content Marketing Institute policy allows links to the source’s LinkedIn profile, not their website, his response astounded me:

If that is the case can you change the credentials then? I’ll send you the crendentials (sic) of my clients who would like a link back on their LinkedIn instead. And remove my clients who would not like a link to their LinkedIn.

Yes, he wanted me to substitute one client’s name for another. (Even funnier – or sadder – is that the article was about people’s favorite blogs, podcasts, and video series.)

I played along and asked for their names. He listed three.

I removed “their” contributions from the article, not because he asked but because he’d revealed that the opinions offered weren’t theirs. (Unfortunately, he never sent me the alternative names. I wanted to know so I could add them to my do-not-quote list.)

When I searched for his clients’ names in my inbox, I realized all three sources had come from HARO – the free service that distributes writers’ queries to potential sources.

That unbelievable note from the LinkedIn guy was the final straw (well, kinda, stay tuned). I switched my HARO relationship status to “on a break.”

External sources require due diligence

Using external sources can be a valuable strategy for content marketing. They bring an independent perspective and fresh voice to your content. That can increase the value of your content because it isn’t filled with only internal sources whose contributions could be perceived as having a slant or bias since they work for the company.

Using external sources can be a valuable strategy for #ContentMarketing, says @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Third-party sources also bring different credibility to your content – they indicate other people think your content is worth their time to contribute. Finally, their inclusion may prompt them to promote your content to their audiences.

It can be a win-win situation, but that doesn’t mean you should just accept their information as presented. Think about why sources take their time to contribute. Sure, some are just genuinely interested in sharing their knowledge. But most see it (rightly) as a good public relations opportunity. By connecting their name with a third-party publisher, they gain or strengthen their credibility in their industry. They also may gain a backlink or two to help their SEO efforts.

Given those self-interest benefits in mind, a few sources might be tempted to do anything it takes to get quoted. They don’t care about your audience. But you do, and that demands an extra level (or two) of scrutiny.

External sources can be valuable to a brand’s #content. But they also demand an extra level of scrutiny, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

I’d long ago learned to validate my sources, whether they came through HARO or were crowdsourced elsewhere. If I don’t have a familiarity or direct connection with the source, I research them by asking the following:

  • What does a Google search for their name turn up? Does it confirm what I already learned about them? (If their name is more common, I add their company and location to the search.)
  • Does the Google search reveal that other sites have used them as a source? In some cases, I’ve found a source quoted on many unrelated topics – often that’s because they respond to many HARO queries. If they haven’t positioned themselves as an expert on my article topic, then I don’t use them.
  • Does their LinkedIn profile reflect the title and company they gave me? If not, I will reach out to the source to inquire. If the explanation seems reasonable or can be double-checked, I keep them as a source.
  • Does their email address contain the company’s domain name? Does that domain have a live website? If not, I’ll go without their comment or do more due diligence.

Also, when a public relations person sends a source’s comment through a HARO or other crowdsource request, I research to make sure the PR person really works as a public relations professional using the same questions I use to vet sources. Once I’ve verified them, I ask to communicate directly with the source to verify their contribution.

Since my experience with that HARO link broker on LinkedIn, I now sometimes take an old-fashioned step. In his case, the three names identified as his clients sent individual replies that appeared to come directly from them and included their “personal” email addresses and company domains.

Now, when I have a source I really want to use but whom I haven’t vetted to my satisfaction, I search for the company’s phone number and have a real-life conversation with someone to verify the person’s role.

Alternative crowdsourcing sources

Remember I said there was more to the story of going on a “break” in my HARO relationship? Well, six months later, I went back to the source-finding platform. This time, I brought along a stronger shield to protect my content against bad sources. And guess what? That guy from LinkedIn reappeared. He had totally forgotten about our previous interactions on LinkedIn.

This time, he used his name as the source. The funny thing is, he used it twice – two emails (one sent under his name and one sent under another name) with two different answers and two different companies attributed to him.

So in 2023, I broke up with HARO permanently. Link brokers, like my LinkedIn guy, take up too much space in my inbox. And even the authentic sources seemed to have given up on replying to the specific questions I asked and opt for quicker-to-create and more general responses.

I realized it wasn’t me. My relationship with HARO had simply run its course. What I got in the beginning was no longer possible.

Now, I’m back in the market for expert crowdsourcing opportunities. I dabbled with Qwoted last month and liked it. The sources and public relations representatives answered the question asked, seemed to have substantive backgrounds on the topic, and were easy to vet through my normal channels.

Never have a single source for finding external sources for your #ContentMarketing, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Even before my run with HARO, I never had a single relationship for sources, and I still won’t. I continue to ask questions on Twitter and post queries on LinkedIn (through my channel and in groups). I also go old (journalism) school for new sources – researching on my own to identify potential sources and reaching out to them.

After all, the only relationship in content marketing that requires singular commitment is the one with your audience. And that’s why it’s important to play the field for sources in a way that brings validity, credibility, and value to your content.

All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you’d like to suggest a tool, please add it in the comments.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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