types of content distribution

The two main types of content distribution

In Content distribution by Rob Johnson1 Comment

I’ve read lots of similar articles about types of content distribution. They generally talked about owned, earned and paid media. The consensus is you have to do a bit of each of those things for marketing to be effective. So you try everything, then test and measure to see which one works for the particular type of content you’re producing.

I don’t think that’s wrong. But I don’t think it’s useful, either. I think it’s a cop-out.

Applying terms like owned, earned or paid to your content distribution is just a description. It’s not even a description of the content itself. It describes how your content ended up sitting where it is. You can hit on the perfect mix of owned, earned and paid media and still fail because the content is crap.

For your distribution to be effective, it has to work in concert with the actual content itself. So talking about whether you own it, or earn it or pay for it is kinda beside the point. There are really two types of content distribution worth paying attention to: sought and found.

Content distribution is too important to get wrong

I learned early on in my media career that whoever owns the trucks owns the media. When I was at school I thought you had to own a printing press. But that’s a 19th-century idea, owning the means of production.

All the biggest publishers had their own distribution networks. Senior executives often came up through the distribution side of the business. They were highly valued for their ability to get the right number of titles into the right newsagents with the right promotion at the right time.

That was when the only way to get a piece of content in front of people was to print it on a bit of paper, then either post it or put it in a newsagent. Or film it and pay a fortune for a TV network to broadcast it to whoever happened to be watching.

For a brief, lovely period between 2008 and today, distribution became either free or very cheap, at least for digital content. As a result, marketers discovering the power of owned media didn’t give it a lot of thought. Get it up on Facebook! Make sure you’ve nailed the on-page SEO! Then just get it out there as widely as possible.

Shouldn’t you distribute content everywhere?

It doesn’t hurt to distribute your content everywhere, but it takes a lot of time (even with good scheduling tools) and can cost a lot of money. Particularly because the main social media sites are pay-to-play now.

If you rely on customers finding you through organic search, you have to accept that it will take time. It takes time to index your content, and for other signals to be processed by search engines for them to work out where they should rank you.

It’s easier to pay for native advertising in existing media nowadays, but again, it’s expensive. You know you have to prove some ROI for the native ad, so you tend to put very product-focussed content in your native ads, hoping to be able to snare some sales. But product-focussed content, or branded content, has the same effectiveness as an ad. Which is to say, not much.

Matching types of content distribution to types of content

A more efficient approach to distributing your content could involve looking at what the content is about. Then you can match the subject matter to the distribution method where it will get the best results.

So your starting point may be to look at what you want an individual piece of content to achieve. Do you want it to generate leads and start to build trust in you? Or do you want it to encourage a few of those leads a bit further through your sales funnel?

If you want your content to result in an immediate sale, for example, there’s not a lot of reward in spending time and money optimising it for search. By the time search engines have found and indexed it, and read the various signals needed for it to rank, your campaign may be over. In that situation, you may be better placed optimising your product pages.

What is ‘found’ media?

Found media is where someone discovers your content when they’re looking at something else. Native advertising is a good example of found media. Boosting a post on Facebook is another. Influencer marketing is another. Found media is rarely owned by you. Note, I’m not talking about display advertising here. Just your content being found by other people.

The only way to stop your found media being intrusive and annoying is for it to be really carefully targetted. If you address your content to the problems and concerns of a defined audience in the place where that audience is, you will get good results from it. But if you haven’t developed detailed marketing personas, you are setting yourself up for someone to take your money and deliver no results.

There are ways you can control distribution costs with found media. Often they’re just putting in a little extra work to ensure your targetting matches those personas, such as building a custom audience in Facebook rather than letting their algorithm choose the audience for you.

Although it’s not exclusively the case, it makes sense that found media would be most effective with mid-funnel content. The people you are targetting with it, if they are responding immediately by identifying themselves as a lead, are most likely further down your sales funnel than your average prospect.

What is ‘sought’ media?

Sought media is where someone actively searches for your content. With sought media, you still have to know who your audience is. You just don’t need to know where they are.

Google and YouTube are the two biggest search engines. Combining on-page SEO with carefully monitored ad campaigns seems to get the best and most cost-effective results for sought media.

Sought media is really most effective if it’s owned by you, or at least leads to a platform owned by you. And it can be an effective distribution approach for your top-of-the-funnel content because you know who is meant to be reading it. You’re relying on those people finding that content, rather than you finding them.

In conclusion

Generally, when people talk about types of content distribution, they focus on a description of where that content is found. They identify it as owned, paid or earned. But the usefulness of those categories is limited.

All of your content is owned by you. The quality of that content should earn attention. And nearly all of your media will be paid in some way or another. Mostly in cash, and also in your time.

A more useful and measurable way of approaching content distribution is to look at whether your content is designed to be found when people are looking at something else, or whether it’s a topic that people actually search for.

For example, if your content is not something that many people would actively search for, you are better off spending time and money buying native ads or building a custom audience for Facebook or Linkedin.

Matching your content to your distribution plan is the best way to get the best result from each.


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  1. I wish I’d read this before submitting a recent pitch to provide a tech business with comms services. You nailed ideas that I struggled to convey. Thanks for articulating so clearly the importance of analysing channels based on audience and business aims then developing content accordingly. Have bookmarked.

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