Why Your Creative Will Fail Without the Right Distribution Strategy

When Ian Cohen, the president of content creation and innovation at Weber Shandwick, talks to his clients these days, the most difficult conversations often come down to making room in their budgets for paid distribution.

One of the biggest mistakes today’s marketers make is focusing entirely on content creation without giving proper thought—or an appropriate budget—to distributing that content. In a way, you can’t really fault them. The initial promise of social media marketing was how inexpensive it was, with social media evangelists selling brands on the idea that if you took a little bit of time to put together a piece of content that struck a nerve with the public, you too could have an “Oreo moment” and reach a massive worldwide audience for next to nothing.

But in the last few years, the landscape has changed dramatically. Social feeds are so saturated with content that it’s almost impossible to break through without paid distribution, and Facebook’s algorithm changes have put huge hurdles in the way of any brand that wants to go viral organically.

At last week’s Contently Summit in New York City, Cohen—who was joined on the “Building Your Content Studio” panel by Luke Sherwin, Casper’s co-founder and chief creative officer, and Josh Golden, Xerox’s vice president of global digital marketing and communications—explained that it’s not effective for brands to create great content unless they have already developed a plan for how that content will be distributed and earmarked money for paid promotion.

“We have clients tell us, ‘Well, Beyoncé’s going to tweet it.’ Congratulations, you just got three views,” Cohen said. “I think you have to realize that the way the algorithms are built, you can’t be that naive to think it’s just going to work.”

At Weber Shandwick, Cohen runs a team of more than 100 people, a group that includes producers, storytellers, editors, camera operators, animators, and distribution experts. Before his content creators shoot a single frame of video, they first convene with the media relations team and paid distribution specialists to discuss how the content will reach its audience.

In some cases, the distribution strategy will even dictate the details of the creative. For one campaign, a Weber strategist who used to be a mommy blogger explained that having a little girl take a specific action in the first 30 seconds of a video will help that video gain an additional 100,000 views due to increased blogger coverage.

In an ideal world, Weber Shandwick’s paid and media distribution strategy will get its work in front of a large, targeted group of consumers, who will then be compelled by the quality of the content to share it with their friends. In fact, Cohen mentioned one scenario in which his company’s distribution partner returned half of Weber’s $200,000 distribution budget because it was able to hit its target reach faster than expected.

“The goal right off the bat is paid,” Cohen said. “And then hopefully, you won’t have to spend your whole paid budget because it works and then all the shares start happening.”

Even if you don’t have a big paid budget, it’s still important to think about where and how people will find your content. Luke Sherwin, cofounder and creative director at the mattress startup Casper, which publishes the sleep-focused culture site Van Winkle’s, uses a small paid media budget mostly as a gauge of which content is working. If a story starts performing well on its own, he will double down on it by putting a small amount of paid promotion behind it.

Van Winkle’s distribution strategy is typically geared toward getting its stories syndicated by mainstream sites like The New York Times, the Huffington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, with roughly 80 percent of its impressions coming from off-site engagements. As such, Van Winkle’s works to produce in-depth journalism that will catch the eye of editors at established publications.

“We want the credibility and the thoughtfulness to come through, and it’s liberating because you can focus on doing features on PTSD that may cost a few thousand dollars to make,” Sherwin said. “Yes, you worry about eyeballs, but the real hope is that by doing the right things, we’ll eventually get [syndicated or picked up by blogs].”

All three members on the panel seemed to agree that no matter where your content winds up, everything you produce should reflect your company’s core principles, which Xerox’s Josh Golden called his “North Star.” He suggested that even before a content or distribution strategy can be created, brands need to settle on a single value that everyone working for the company and its agencies can rally around.

Indeed, even if you have great content and a brilliant distribution plan, the resulting eyeballs and social shares won’t do much to help your bottom line if no one knows what exactly your brand is supposed to stand for.

“At Xerox, we worked with six different agencies together to get them all on the same page,” Golden said. “And once we had that North Star, we aim endlessly for that North Star. So when we put the work on the wall, whether it’s an ad, or a social post, or a piece of content, it all reflects our singular brand platform promise.”

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