Is Owned Media Obsolete? Content Strategy Shifts Toward Syndication

 

I sat down this week to review the best marketing pieces I read last month, only to get sidetracked by a year-old piece worthy of discussion on its own.

Despite being published on only Jan. 4th of 2015, I believe Mark Schaefer’s short post “Beyond Content Shock: The Defining Trend of 2015 is Content Ignition” was one of the best pieces on content marketing last year.

Disclaimers:

  • Mark Schaefer’s probably the first professional blogger I followed in the marketing space.
  • He also wrote the first book on blogging I ever read, Born to Blog.

Still, even if neither of these things were true, a year later, his article remains worthy of in-depth consideration.

The thrust of his short piece is simple:

For years content marketers and digital strategists were taught to prioritize owned content channels like their personal or business websites.

That model may now be obsolete, as syndication across multiple channels is fast becoming not just the norm but table stakes in order to be found in the ever-expanding digital landscape (or, as Schaefer noted in a previous post, our new state of “Content Shock”).

This idea is profound and could have far-reaching effects for digital marketers and corporate brands of all stripes.

Conventional wisdom long held that it was more valuable to publish a blog post on your own site rather than on external channels like LinkedIn Pulse, Social Media Examiner or Medium.

“Don’t build our house on rented land,” the saying went, because with a few algorithm changes or a bad quarter for its stock, those channels could go away, taking your audience – and earned intellectual capital – with them.

Think this is unbelievable? See all of the long-erased user content from early social media sites Friendster and Myspace.

More recently, Facebook changed its algorithm two years ago such that followers now see only 10-15% of updates. Thus, the value of a Facebook business page immediately plummeted.

Most importantly, if the primary job of social media and/or publishing to multiple platforms is to build your audience by driving traffic to your website, one needs to ensure the audience is transferrable.

Case Study # 1 – LinkedIn Pulse

An example where this is not necessarily true is LinkedIn Pulse.

Over the last two years we’ve seen the evolution of LinkedIn from mere online public resume database to a content platform that acts like an aspiring Forbes competitor.

On the face of it, opening the Pulse platform to everyone (rather than just known “influencers”) in February 2014 was a stroke of genius. This was a great leveler, theoretically enabling amazing but unknown writers to submit high quality articles to the conversation that could break through the noise.

Thus, ordinary people – mere civilians – could see their work be recognized alongside such business luminaries as Richard Branson, Sally Krawcheck and Gary Vaynerchuk.

Through my participation in the Publishers and Bloggers LinkedIn group I saw rumblings of just that – a legion of new writers committing themselves to blogging on the LinkedIn platform when it was new enough that a catchy title alone could virtually ensure explosive reach via LinkedIn Pulse.

Early adopters could—and did—build large followings quickly through a combination of consistent blogging on LinkedIn and LION-type tactics of using public email lists to quickly gather thousands of first-degree LinkedIn connections.

Meanwhile, active participation in a few notable LinkedIn groups enabled an echo chamber of both encouragement and cross promotion reminiscent of the insular blogging landscape of a few years ago.

There is nothing wrong with this – in fact, I made several new friends and now follow several new voices in marketing through the advent of LinkedIn Pulse (check out the writings of John White and Neil Hughes, to start).

Then the inevitable happened last summer:

First, everyone started publishing on LinkedIn. In the vast ocean of new content, it became exponentially harder to rise above the waves.

Second, LinkedIn (predictably) changed its algorithm so that users were no longer automatically alerted to new posts by their full slate of first-degree connections, let alone authors they followed.

The result was profound – authors who a year ago garnered thousands of views and solid engagement via dozens of shares and comments have since seen their views fall by 50-80%, even as their subscriber base grew.

The secret was out—the platform had matured – causing views to stagnate, if not fall off a clff.

Case Study # 2 — Medium

A different case study, which illustrates how content ignition/syndication could indeed expand your reach exponentially beyond that of your brand’s website alone, is Medium.

I like Medium as a publishing platform for a lot of reasons, but the primary ones are:

1) In an era of ever-increasing content volume and shortened attention spans, Medium emphasizes and encourages high-quality long-form writing.

2) As a platform, it’s still new enough to be a relative meritocracy – that is, great writing gets pushed to the top.

The case that publishing to Medium can drive not just brand awareness but also subscriber growth back at your home website was made this week by Benjamin Hardy in his brilliant piece How I Used Medium To Get My First 20,000 Subscribers In 6 Months.

The Questions

The questions raised by these two conflicting case studies are these:

Is it worth building huge followings for your corporate or personal brand on a platform like Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook if that time could be better spent building a fan base directly for your own website?

And what’s the point of mastering one particular social media channel if the audience doesn’t actually convert to traffic on your site?

As a public relations consultant, I am supposed to ignore the second question and pivot on the first – advising clients and prospects that corporate brands should, nay must establish themselves on every channel from YouTube to Periscope to Medium. After all, that ensures my job security and justifies larger retainer fees for my firm’s work.

The reality is different:

  • 2016 has already seen massive bad news for virtually every social media channel not named Facebook.
  • Even with the return of co-founder Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s user growth was non-existent in 2015.
  • LinkedIn’s stock has plunged 50% since Jan. 1, primarily on quarterly earnings that missed Wall Street estimates.

Takeaways

The immediate takeaways here are two-fold:

  • Social media is maturing.

More than a decade into “Web 2.0,” we are seeing the final contours of the potential total active user base.

The reality is that there may not ever be more than 300 million active users for Twitter and we have reached that apex.

That doesn’t make the platform any less useful to those users, but it will spook Wall Street investors who demand quarterly growth for their investment dollars.

  • Facing huge declines in their stock price, platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn now have every incentive to change their algorithms to try to maximize profits.

This means we can expect changes that further restrict the reach of free posts – in other words, exactly what we saw Facebook do two years ago.

Conclusion

Here’s where Schaefer’s point is critical:

If the reach on even such widespread platforms as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter continues to shrink as those outlets continue to incentivize paid social and brands everywhere continue to up their content marketing game in the quest for eyeballs, trying to build your brand via owned media alone could be catastrophic.

The new content strategy paradigm for 2016 and beyond is rather to create quality content but then distribute it via syndication as broadly as possible.

Thus, we would all be wise to follow Mark Schaefer’s “ignition” strategy:

Sure…publish that blog post to your website.

But then follow brands like James Altucher and Edelman by republishing the content a few days later to LinkedIn, to Medium, to the forthcoming post-140-character limit Twitter, etc.

Ignite your content through syndication.

Because it’s far better for your content to be seen at all, at the expense of a Google SEO penalty due to duplication, than for it to die unseen on the Vine (hah hah! – or your site, or LinkedIn Pulse, etc.)

Your Thoughts

What do you think? Should content marketers (and brands of all stripes) continue to prioritize their owned platforms or shift to a maximum syndication/ignition strategy?

I welcome your thoughts on this via comments below.

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