I've been trying to come up with a formula for success in creating link bait for our clients. The best thing to do for me has been to read the book "Buzz Marketing" by Mark Hughes. Mark was the former Marketing Director at Half.com, who had the town of Halfway Oregon rename itself to "Half.com" as part of the buzz marketing/link bait campaign.
Although Mark didn't set out with creating a "link bait formula" when he wrote his book, the principles involved can be used very easily to create link bait.
Principle 1: Be Outrageous
Remember when Al Gore invented the Internet? That's probably as much as I need to say on that principle. But I'm a small to medium sized business, you say, and I can't think of anything outrageous about my sock puppets; you're wrong. You just have to be willing to put up with the negative effects that might ride on the coat tails of some outrageous story.
Principle 2: Use a Celebrity
Britney Spears is a prime example of using celebrity status to further your agenda. But you are a small business, and you're not famous. What if that sock puppet you make was used by Kid Rock's nanny when he was growing up? Or maybe that fax service you provide was used to facilitate the negotiations between Russia and Germany in World War 2? (a stretch I know, but you get the idea)
Principle 3: Be Funny
This is the hardest but most profitable as far as risk vs. reward is concerned. The idea is to create a story that is so funny, people will just automatically start telling the story at the water cooler at work, or in the lunch room or on breaks. Like I said, this one is hard, but if you can pull it off, it's pure gold. Sometimes making fun of yourself is the easiest way to be the funniest.
Principle 4: Do Something No One Else Has Done
This is where you've got the most leeway, because there are always lists, widgets, contests, prizes, and much more that no one else has done quite like you could. However, this principle doesn't pack as much of a punch as you might expect from the other principles, just because you may have created a super de duper list of some kind, but there are already millions of lists, so yours has really got to stand out. I know you can do it though!
Principle 5: Be Controversial
Did TuPac really die, or is he holed up in his L.A. studio creating records still? Does Area 51 really exist? Does Scrapbooking paper really cure Alzheimer's? (No it doesn't by the way) Having a good team of lawyers will increase your likelihood of being safe with this one. That guerilla marketing campaign in Boston with the electronic bomb looking thing flipping the bird; Controversial. Your latest product release with New and Improved flavor; Not Controversial.
Principle 6: Be The Underdog
ClearPlay wins the award for best Underdog. The DGA and studios filed a lawsuit in 2002 against ClearPlay and a Colorado video rental store, CleanFlicks, which uses its own software to decode a DVD, alter it for content, then burn a new, edited version, back onto a DVD for rental.
The lawsuit is still pending. ClearPlay contends its software is not illegal because it does not alter the original DVD. But the amount of press that ClearPlay got from that lawsuit couldn't have been bought in 100 years. They took on one of the biggest entities in their industry and stuck it out and got huge publicity.
Overall, you'll be the most successful with a linkbait idea that genuinely entertains, inspires, offers something brand new, or gets people talking. If you can combine one or more of the major principles above into your campaign, you are on the road to a successful link bait strategy.