Content Distribution: Context. Identity. Piracy.

[March 6, 2011] 

For a few years now, a theory of distributed content has made the rounds of digital marketing and PR firms. Typically, the discussion revolves around one of two scenarios: Doomsday, as in “The End of the Website” or Millennial, a vision of a hyper, mega, enriched website based on a distributed content model.

Either way, the idea involves treating digital content like a surreal mash-up of a cinderblock and a fashion accessory. One moment a chunk of text, a video, a still image or interactive-widgety-thing is a structural module, unfolding the brand narrative. The next, these same digital nuggets are mere baubles, added value to create the illusion that so-and-so’s home page really delivers.

Like so much confetti, marketing theorists are eager to toss content this way and that, shuffling it back and forth, dissociated from its original context. In fact, what this poorly conceived free-exchange of digital content ultimately points to is the USA TODAY-ization of digital space:

• Here’s an item!
• And here’s another!
• Watch this!
• Share that!
• “Like” them all!

Much as I admire such forward-thinking zeal, it’s clear no brand can ever hope to influence what consumers will share. Marketers who believe they can make a video “go viral” are only a quarter-inch away from believing they can dial-up sunny weather for Memorial day. Get it through your head: The mere reposting of existing content adds absolutely nothing to its potential appeal.

Popularity is subjective. Deal with it.
That’s because the sharing and tagging habits of our emerging cyber species are subject only to subjective forces. Clicks can’t be bought, sold, or coerced; they can only be earned. And if there’s one thing the digital revolution hasn’t changed, it’s that audience interest is fickle, elusive and beyond calculation.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying the distribution mavens are wrong. I agree: a better distribution strategy is a vital part of the future. It’s just that the majority of chatter on this topic suffers from a confusion of cause and effect. The brands who snag the golden fleece of digital marketing will not be the ones with the biggest tree-graphs.

They will be the brands who create a defining context around their content—a meaningful array of culturally, intellectually and emotionally compelling symbols that help consumers map branded content to relevant experiences in their own lives.

No frame of reference? No meaning.
It’s context, after all, that creates empathy, shock, surprise, elation or any of 1000 other adrenaline-inducing sensations that make content memorable. From that perspective it’s clear that, far from ringing the death knell for our Web sites, we should be inventing ways to strengthen them. As home environments for our branded content, we must make our Web sites more vital, more impactful and as rich in meaning as possible.

Only by endowing our content with a distinct, inimitable voice, a voice growing organically from such a home environment, will our content be recognizably ours when it pops up here and there across a distributive network.

Wolf in new media clothing.
Otherwise, branding, as such, will disappear. Any content we distribute will be subsumed into whatever environment it lands in. While this may appeal to the “death to copyright” crowd, anyone with an ounce of brains knows better. Content with no obvious branded source is ripe for intellectual property theft. And make no mistake, the repackaging of stolen content is manipulative thuggery, perpetrated by a cynical lot, eager to prey on our better natures.

Sure, copyright laws need to be revised and updated. But the fundamental principal behind them need no revision: Content created in any medium is the result of skilled work with a defined value. If you take my music, my novel, my painting, my stage play, screenplay, choreography, my… whatever…and repackage it without compensation and my express permission, don’t you dare pose as an advocate for “free access.” You’re no different from the criminals who stole my wife’s jewelry 15 years ago. In fact, you’re worse.

At least those thugs didn’t leave me a haughty TED video about the ways my “possessiveness” was choking their creativity. And by the way, I’m still waiting for my share of Larry Lessig’s residuals for his public lectures. What? He owns them…? So old media.

To the extent that content distribution helps brands spin their narratives to a wider audience, it’s a good thing. To the extent that it erases brand identity, denies intellectual property or otherwise rewrites the history of ideas, it’s destructive.

All the more reason to give every bit of content you post the deepest possible roots in a branded home environment. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself enslaved to a cartel of media hypocrites—whose defining mantra reads “Theft is Freedom®.”


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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