Your distribution plan, or lack thereof, is the fundamental decider of whether your content strategy creates wins or wastes. Product marketers abide by an 80/20 rule where 20 percent of the time is spent creating the product and 80 percent is used promoting it. Without a doubt, content marketers fail to apply this decree.
Here's what you need to know to implement a distribution plan into your content creation process.
My neighbor (I’ll refer to him as Frank because that’s his first name) goes to the movie theater every Friday night. Frank just shows up. He doesn’t know what he’ll pick to see, or even what’s playing, before he steps in line at the box office. Frank reliably plops down $21 for a general admission ticket and large popcorn Friday after Friday after Friday to watch a movie he was totally unaware of just minutes prior.
I don’t go to movies with Frank. Because when I go to movies, I want to know what is playing. I want to choose from a genre I typically like. I need to know who the actors are; they represent, to me, the quality of the movie. I want to know that I’ll have a seat! So, I usually buy tickets online, a few days in advance.
Frank does none of these things. Frank accepts a risk to his time and money most of us are unwilling to chance. Typical moviegoers research, plan and consider before acting.
Frank is an unusual dude. Yet, your content marketing strategy probably treats your audience like they are all Franks.
Where Your Content Team Falls Short
Most content creation processes resemble something like the illustration below. The first phase is generating the idea. That might be through singular inspiration, brainstorming, pitch sessions, and so on. The process moves from research to framing (drafting outlines, storyboards or wireframes) before the real production begins. After a review and editing process, creators are ready to hit the button and put their handiwork out on public display.
If only it were this easy to find success with every piece of content.
Success of your projects relies on your audience knowing the content is coming and where to look for it! There’s a critical stage absent, and it occurs before you publish. It’s a distribution plan.
Content creation teams fail to recognize distribution as a unique stage because they all too often are charged only with populating their owned channels. Therefore, distribution is simply publishing to the website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and maybe a couple other places managed by the organization. This is self-defeating when you really think about it. Imagine Pepsi only selling its soft drinks from the vending machines it owns. RC Cola would instantly become Coke's main rival.
Here’s a look at a content creation process with a distribution stage. Distribution is the process of making a product available to the consumer who needs it. This can be achieved by the creator of the product, but is typically done in concert with indirect channels of distributors and intermediaries.
(I’ve also added the “refine” stage where the data collected from the measurement stage is used to refine the content creation process and complete the loop. It’s counterproductive to consider refinements to your content creation process each time you produce and publish content but be sure it’s a checkpoint for your team at regular intervals throughout campaigns.)
Developing a coherent distribution plan is a central component of strategic planning. There are three approaches to distribution – mass, selective or exclusive. The type of distribution and channels used should add value to the audience.
3 Types of Distribution
Mass Distribution: Your content is blasted to your mass email distribution list. It goes to every third party that will take it: newspapers, television news broadcasters, radio stations, bloggers, etc.
Selective Distribution: Your content is appropriate for a particular audience and you are providing it to distribution channels that reach those targets. For example, you have a new sponsorship agreement, which is distributed to business news agencies in your area.
Exclusive Distribution: Your content is targeted at a unique audience or you have crafted a mutually beneficial partnership based on channel. A major sports league’s live game broadcast rights are an exclusive distribution.
Distribution needs to be considered well before your content reaches the distribution stage. Distribution is its own marketing plan, with another set of ideas, structure and creativity that takes shape co-dependently with content.
Why Content Teams Fall Short
Why do teams disregard distribution planning? The simple answer is that because it’s so easy to reach any audience, content creators rarely consider who is in the audience (The Critical Flaw in Your Content Marketing Strategy, Part 1: Creating for Your Best Customers). The more insidious answer is that most content teams aren’t held to a standard that requires a distribution plan. Most executives don’t set goals or inquire about outcomes that aren’t predetermined by the content creators themselves. Quite a few content creation teams have been (or are) fashioned from traditional PR and marketing units and are expected to build earned media around internally created content. They aren’t doing so.
While brands want to shape a favorable message, tailor awareness and specify calls to action, “owning” content doesn’t mean monopolizing your story. It means curating the path in which it gets to the target audience. That’s where the third parties and intermediaries come in to play. Unfavorable things happen when you ignore them.
I learned this the hard way at the University of Oklahoma in my formative years as social media channels blossomed and our athletics department ventured into cable and OTT broadcasting partnerships. We saved our best stories for our own channels and media partners who paid for content. So what did the traditional outlets covering us do when they couldn’t be first to a ‘good’ story? Naturally, they concentrated on the ‘bad’ ones. Not the ideal result when their reach and frequency was far superior to ours.
Devising a distribution strategy for the third-party players is a necessity because they already have established and (hopefully) trustworthy channels that reach a greater audience than your brand channels will ever manage.
Even today, the owned channels of the Sooners, which dominate the headlines in their media market, can only reliably reach between a weekly unique audience between 60,000 to 120,000 people. That’s a solid figure, but more than 4 million people, including 1.7 million wage earners, live within three hours driving distance of the campus (a prime geographic limit for home football attendance). Who’s shaping the story for those people?
If your only content distribution goals are reaching the audience you “own,” you are reaching far too low.
Taking a Lesson From Hollywood
Despite what my neighbor, Frank, recognizes, motion picture distribution and marketing plans are expertly crafted to maximize attention and profit on their best products. We know for months, sometimes years, which projects our favorite stars will be participating in and the dates we must mark on our calendar to skip work to be among the first to watch.
Coming August 2020: Bill & Ted Face the Music
The releases that studio executives expect to have an exceptional return on investment reach the big screen. The others are sold to streaming services or go directly to DVD. On behalf of the studios, actors participate in media junkets, promotional appearances, talk show interviews and may even attract commercial sponsorship opportunities. Teasers and trailers are created, promoted and released in windows when a mass audience is easiest to reach (think about how many movie teasers you see during NBA Playoff games). When it fits, gimmicky promotional items are created for specific markets to create even more mass media interest.
While these strategies come with large budgets, any PR, marketing or content creation team can appropriately scale a distribution plan to fit their limitations and needs.
There’s a balance in crafting content that will be unique to one’s owned channel and provide usefulness for other distributors.
Consider distribution of a tangible product. You can’t produce a soft drink, sell it from the warehouse, and expect to sustain a business. You must build awareness of the soft drink and appeal to consumer emotions through advertising on billboards, television, radio, print and the internet. You must deliver the soft drink through an array of wholesalers and retailers to get it on the shelves at Target, Kroger and 7-Eleven.
While the distribution stage occurs after content has been created, distribution planning begins in concert with (and, theoretically, before) ideation.
There are an infinite number of places your internally produced content could go before it appears on an owned channel. You must research and decide which channels are best suited to the audience the content is designed to reach.
Download Blinder's Comprehensive Content Distribution Channel Checklist PDF
Your distribution plan scales in relation to the quality of work and expectation of the audience. Hopefully, you aren’t spending a bunch of time making crap. You don’t send “Mac and Me” through your distribution network--its sent straight to the landfill.
Applying distribution plan tasks within the overall content marketing strategy inherently forces your team to work together with their individual strengths. The PR people can focus on earned media; the marketing staff schedules promotional awareness initiatives; and the content producers have less to worry about regarding their return on investment.
Keying on the correct target audience and crafting a distribution plan to reach it is vital, but those steps are often overlooked or misunderstood in most content marketing strategies. Having the wherewithal to consider them will improve your brand loyalty and maximize the impact your communications team makes on behalf of the brand.
Now that you’ve read Parts 1 and 2, you’ve hopefully discovered some useful tips to apply to your content marketing strategy that create achievable (and affordable) gains.
Let me know what you’ve taken away and what you’ll aim to implement! Email Jared or comment below.
Jared Thompson is the customer success and business development lead at Blinder and formerly an SID at the University of Oklahoma, and digital media director at the NCAA and Purdue University. Connect with Jared to learn how Blinder can help you improve the ROI on your content strategy.