How to Win a Zero-Sum Game: What to Do if Competitors Won’t Link to You

image of two chess pieces

This is the third post in the “Content Connections” series

Because Copyblogger is a company that was born in this strange virtual place we call the worldwide web, partnerships and cooperation have always been central to what we do.

One of the most important of these is the ecosystem of voices that share our content.

We work hard to keep engaging your interest and teaching you valuable things. And we rely on other web publishers to share what we create, so we can find new people to talk to.

We believe in cooperation … but we know perfectly well that business is also a competition. And sometimes, competitors don’t much want to play.

I’ll borrow a term from Robert Wright and call mutually beneficial cooperation a nonzero game. That’s in contrast to a zero-sum game — the kind of game (like chess, or football) where there is one and only one winner.

A lot of businesses operate in a nonzero environment.

  • Just because I love my personal trainer doesn’t mean I won’t buy another trainer’s eBook of kettlebell workouts.
  • Just because I love Ibex hoodies doesn’t mean I won’t buy a warmup jacket from the Gap.
  • I have a favorite restaurant, but I don’t eat there every time I want to get dinner out.

But you might very well be playing a zero-sum game

I remember one of our Third Tribe members who was having a tough time finding guest posting opportunities.

She’s a beauty blogger — she writes about cosmetics, hairstyles, that kind of thing. And she didn’t feel too welcome when she approached her fellow beauty bloggers about sharing a guest post with them.

The other bloggers she was finding hadn’t gotten the news that working with your rivals can be the key to greater success for everyone.

If you sell insurance, if your prospect buys from someone else, he won’t buy from you. Real estate agents, car salesmen, and actors are in a zero-sum competition. One winner, multiple losers.

You win the business or you lose it.

And if those competitors are using content as part of their marketing strategy, getting links from them — either with guest posting or just writing killer content — probably ain’t gonna happen.

So as much as we like to promote “co-opetition,” is that even possible if you’re in a zero-sum business?

It is, and we’re going to talk about how.

Find related audiences

The answer for our beauty blogger was pretty simple.

If there isn’t a single blogger in your topic who would be open to a guest post, the next step is to ask yourself,

Who else has the audience I want?

Do parenting bloggers ever run posts about hair or makeup? Would a career-building blog consider running something on how to look more professional and polished? Is it possible a fitness blog would have room for a post on how not to scare people with your appearance as you’re leaving the gym?

Yes, yes they would.

Jon Morrow likes to tell the story about how he hit a major home run by writing a guest post for Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist blog that benefited the blog Jon was writing at that time, called On Moneymaking.

You would think that a blog called On Moneymaking would focus on blogs about … making money. And looking for content publishers in that topic would have been a smart strategy.

But Jon found even more return — a lot more, in fact — by landing posts on blogs speaking to the same audience, but not precisely the same topic. He scored serious traffic — not to mention some great SEO benefits — from blogs about careers, and personal productivity.

Jon didn’t feel hemmed in by finding guest posting opportunities on sites that covered the exact topic he did. Instead, he asked himself who else had his audience — then pitched and wrote some excellent guest posts to woo that audience.

If the door is closed, go through the window

The short answer to all of this is: Don’t agree to play by rules that don’t suit you. You define your own game — that’s why you started a business.

Figure out how to create a new niche that’s never been seen before. Serve an audience in a way that hasn’t been done yet. Make allies where no one expects you to.

If your outright competitors aren’t into sharing your content, go a little sideways until you find the people who will.

Figure out the win-wins. They’re there, but you have to look for them.

This is part three of the Content Connections series

This post is part of a series on making connections with other web publishers — the kinds of connections that will serve your business.

It’s the other half of content marketing — what happens after you’ve created something worth reading.

To get the full series, just stay tuned here at Copyblogger. If you haven’t already, why not subscribe by email so you’ll be sure you don’t miss any of the posts.

You can read the first two posts here:

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Reader Comments (21)

  1. says

    I’ve encountered this very same problem in my own ventures, and that one simple question “who else has the audience I want” is worth its weight in gold!

    Time to step back, take a look at what’s happening in the bigger picture in my industry, and look for the outlying elements who also serve my target audience. Sometimes, we get so bogged down in the details and trying to claw our way through our small corner of the jungle that we forget there are other parts to it.

    Excellent post, as always, Sonia!

    • says

      If you can’t find other bloggers who would accept your blog post then by all means have the great people in the industry guest in yours. As for me I run a podcast and I always invite people from varied niches who can be good examples for online businesses. This is my connection to those other people.

  2. says


    It’s all about being determined enough to keep asking how you can get in front of more people. If people keep turning you down, you just keep going, because eventually you’ll find that window to sneak in through, and there’ll be cake.

    Lots of cake.

  3. says

    I don’t find this as insightful than the last post. The concept of second customer isn’t something I have seen before, while I have read plenty of posts that talk about the zero-sum game and how important it is to not think of fellow bloggers as competitors.

    However, the advice on trying other topics seem interesting.

    • says

      They all work together, IMO. And since I see enough people bump up against “but none of the other [name your topic] bloggers will link to me,” I thought it was probably worth addressing.

  4. says

    Very true Sonia. “Co-opetition” is definitely the way to get ahead in this information economy. But when even that fails (as it sometimes does in more old-fashioned industries – for example I have a client in printing), I’ve found great success in just changing the game. For example, in an environment full of business coaches and consultants, I’m in the Business Rehab industry.

    • says

      Redefining and/or specialization is a great tactic. My massage therapist focuses on headaches, for example. It’s not what I go to her for, but it gives her a speciality that lets her stand out in the sea of massage therapists in my town.

      My business coach is the “Traction Coach,” and for awhile there I was the marketer for people who hate marketing. :)

  5. says

    Another great post, Sonia. The mindset you’re talking about reminds me a lot of the kind you need for joint ventures. Really loving this series. Thanks for the time you’re putting into it!

  6. says

    I am slowly getting on the bandwagon when it comes to the importance of guest posting, now that I’m taking my crochet blog more seriously (started out as a hobby blog). Cooperation or “coopetition” (cute) is the name of the game in the information age. People don’t often realize that helping others is a great way to help yourself, and guest posting is one way to achieve this. Thanks for sharing the tip on moving out of one’s area of expertise to find places to do it.

  7. says

    Sonia – Did I detect a little Phineas and Ferb influence in the “Yes, yes they would” line above? I seem to remember that you are a fan, too. I find opportunities to go all P&F on people all the time, and it never ceases to amuse me.

    Great post, btw. :)

  8. Louie says

    Thanks for putting this together. I appreciate your work.

    Louie, “the giddy twelve year old” 😃

  9. says

    Hi Sonia! Excellent post and great knowledge you have shared.. Really feel worthy reading this post.

    Thanks for sharing great information… :-)

  10. says

    Again great post about working on laterals instead of straight ahead. Many of us get stuck on going forward and sideways can often get us furhter.


  11. says

    The biggest takeaway from this for me was “Don’t agree to play by rules that don’t suit you.” That’s a concept that simply cannot be reinforced enough.

  12. says

    Yeah, i totally agree with you Sonia.

    It’s really in vain if we are targeting websites that accept guest posts but are not related with the topic we’re covering on our blog. Eventually, if our post gets published, the readers will not likely be interested to check out our blog because they simply don’t have the same interest with our blog’s topic. And that would be such a huge loss whereas we have worked our butt off on that guest post.

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