If you build it, they will come -- maybe

If you build it, they will come. Maybe. If they don't, you'd better figure out the distribution part of your content strategy.

Digital content marketing is undergoing a new wave of evolution. Initially, marketers felt all they had to do was build: a blog, a website, whatever. Throw in a little SEO and getting it "out there" was a done deal, more or less.

Social media only sweetened the deal. The ability to share and discover content on social networks far exceeds clunky, old fashioned mechanisms such as email and blog rings. (Anyone still remember blog rings?) Distribution of owned content got better and traveled farther. It was good.

If you build it, they will come -- maybe

Social distribution is rapidly becoming the next old(er) thing, while at the same time owned marketing content is proliferating exponentially. The distribution question has suddenly become a very real one for organizations investing in content creation.

The most innovative publishers are sitting up, taking notice, and helping content marketers come up with solutions to get brand content "out there." Of course, they've long done this in print channels with advertorial and sponsored sections. Digital adds some new twists and opportunities for marketers and publishers alike.

Take the Huffington Post, for example. The publication recently announced a partnership with Goldman Sachs to launch a new (and upbeat) section on economic opportunity, "What Is Working." Arianna's been talking up the model over the past couple of weeks, but aside from that and a bylined column announcing the joint venture, there's no disclosure -- or even mention -- of the sponsorship on the section. The initiative is based on Goldman Sach's 10,000 Women program. This corporate good-works initiative has itself generated a ton of content, all of it hosted on the firm's own dot-com.

Another digital native publication, Mashable, has begun preaching the content marketing gospel. Founder and CEO Pete Cashmore waxes evangelical on the topic, and his points are valid ones. Content in the news stream is seen. (Right, Facebook?) Content is shared, while ads aren't. It's searchable. Content can be distributed as media. And if advertorial content isn't visible enough on its own, it can be amplified with ads.

Not just a publisher's pipe dream

Publishers, of course, seek monetization opportunities. Of course they're going to be interested in new types of deals with brands. That is, after all, what they do.

Courtship-wise, it appears this is a two-way street. In conversation this week with the global content strategist at a Fortune 100 company, I asked about partnerships. What types of agencies is he working with? PR? Advertising? Social media?

The reply wasn't what I expected. Originally, the brand's distribution strategy was tied to influencers -- getting its message pushed out by people with large social media and industry followings. That emphasis has shifted to a quest for distribution partners -- getting the right message onto the right editorial platform at the right time. Rather than agencies, this brand is looking at "real" editorial partners.

This should serve as a wake-up call to digital media companies. Brands that were competitive, at least to an extent, on the content front just months ago are now eager to find ways to get that content into "real" editorial properties. There's already a surge in native adverting. What's next? Advertorial, sponsored sections, bylines, "Voices" derivatives, and more along the lines of what Forbes offers. The possibilities are almost infinite.

At the same time, it will be necessary to work out issues around transparency and disclosure. Publishers must develop new ways to work with brands and their agencies, not just around written-word material but also to help them with visuals and audio-visual content.

The winners in content marketing will create not just quality content, but distribution strategies that will get that content "out there." And now, they're looking to media companies for help.

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.

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