Hoping for social media shares isn't a content distribution plan

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed August 24, 2017
A new podcast deconstructing social media as a content platform caught my ear. Here's why I think it matters to B2B - and how distribution and attention connect.

18 months ago, I conceded a big point in the content marketing debate (Content strategy takes a big shift - why I was wrong). Since then, I've rebuilt my B2B content strategy from the rubble of my concession.

What did I concede? "If you build it, they will come" is no longer viable content approach. Yep, even for the brilliant thinker with something smart to say. My statement from 2013 doesn't hold up:

I believe memorable content does get shared – without that much effort.

As I conceded:

Nope – no longer true. Back then, if you wrote a brilliant/provocative missive on your personal blog, it would get shared widely – as long as you had enough industry contacts to jump start. Now we see a massive migration to bigger platforms. Sadly, most are walled social gardens.

Yes, I still believe brands are falling short of the kinds of content they need to reach buyers, at least in B2b. The problem of attention now looms large.

A brilliant blog is no longer enough

Scratch that. The problem is no longer gaining attention. The problem is gaining and sustaining attention. Content marketing is no longer about content consumers, it's about subscribers - or, if you like, opt-in communities. B2C brands would much rather have consumers scour their content shelves every month like Netflix, than produce a viral video that spikes and flickers.

B2B companies would much rather have a large daily email audience like Hugh MacLeod than a bunch of Facebook fans who aren't paying attention to their organic posts, which Facebook kindly buries.

The reason a brilliant blog post is not enough is because B2B content requires four components:

  1. quality/relevance – quality still beats quantity most of the time.
  2. distribution/platform – content on a popular platform (or fueled by a subscription audience) has a huge head start.
  3. user experience (UX) – ease of content consumption, particularly on mobile devices, is becoming a content dealbreaker. Google now punishes sites that don't make the UX cut.
  4. engagement – true engagement – meaning interactions and action steps provoked by the content. And no, "likes" and retweets don't count. A heated debate does. So does a sign up.

Quality used to have a direct, causal relationship with distribution and engagement. That’s no longer the case. Quality/relevance only sparks engagement if it’s supported by the proper distribution and user experience.

The misunderstood role of social media - a new debate

The role of social media in this rugged new content world is misunderstood - and sometimes abused - by marketers. That's why I devoured a recent podcast by Mitch Joel, Robert Wynne Says Social Media Is Worthless. It's a worthwhile clash between Joel, who tends to be bullish on the power of social media marketing, with Wynne, who takes a cynical view on the value of social media for brand building.

Wynne isn't entirely dismissive of social media. He sees social media as an "accelerator," not an originator.  Wynne happily deconstructs Joel's examples of social media brand building, arguing that digital launches such as Funny or Die would not become huge without the backing of celebs with brand power like Will Farrell. Ergo, you didn't build your brand on social - you leveraged it.

Following Wynne's theory, if your brand gets coverage in the Wall Street Journal, then social media is an engine to drive further exposure - far more powerful than if you pushed a social campaign without traditional media coverage. Wynne makes a big distinction we must consider. He believes broadcasters have an advantage. If you have a big brand, then you are a broadcaster, even on social media. Wynne kicks off the podcast by saying:

Mitch, you know, you are closer to the broadcast model than the social media model, and that's something I think all of us have known for a while. That's the million to one model rather than the one to one to one model... If you're Lebron James, or Katy Perry, or Mitch, someone like you, who has a lot of followers and has a podcast, you are going from one person to a mass audience. That's very similar to the broadcast model.

Wynne thinks virality-as-equalizer is a myth:

The social media model and the myth of going viral, or the myth that one person can compete against General Electric, or John Deere, or Michelin, or Lebron James, or Katy Perry, it's actually very difficult to do that. If you have a broadcast outlet, such as your podcast, if you're very popular on Twitter, if you're on TV - that model is still much more powerful. And then, in a sense, social media can work well as an accelerator rather than an originator.

Noise versus fame versus relevance

Wynne says it's far noisier than it was when social brands like Mitch Joel or Guy Kawasaki bootstrapped into visibility. Thus, it's even harder to become the exception that proves the rule. Wynne compares starting a blog in 2002 versus 2015:

Starting in 2015, or 16, or 17, when there are 5 billion pieces of content posted on Facebook every day, and there's more than 500 million tweets to go out daily, and that's not even including President Trump, and there's 500 million people on LinkedIn. It's a lot more competitive.

Joel counters: you can have visibility and limited influence:

I could write for a huge publication, a Huff Po, Harvard Business Review as I've done in the past, and it's what I would call digital crickets and virtual tumbleweeds, like nobody cares. You could write and be under Forbes and just have an audience that doesn't care. What's working isn't necessarily that you're on Forbes, it's that your content had something that resonates.

Wynne also contends that many don't have the writing skills to accomplish what Joel did. Joel counters by arguing that multiple forms of content work now. If writing isn't your thing, then video, or podcasts, and so on. He recalls examples where a story originated on social, and only later got picked up by bigger outlets like the Wall Street Journal.

Comedy is a potent example of social disruption cited by Joel, where late night shows are literally diced up into social video chunks the next day. Wynne would argue the broadcaster still wins the exposure game (whether their monetization model can remain intact is the issue there).

In my view, Wynn has the upper hand for a good chunk of the podcast. But then Joel hits home with a critique of fame as a metric that brings us closer to B2B. The guys are debating a medical school example when Joel says:

The vast majority of press releases are ignored, the vast majority of articles are ignored, the vast majority TV shows are ignored. I mean, it's the same across every media... [Go back to the medical school example]... To me, I hear a story like that and I'm like, "Oh my God, social digital is a panacea for that." You have the ability to target specific segments and markets on places like Facebook, LinkedIn and Google, you shorten how you want to market your message.

You can have it pop up and have it be content-driven. You could then drive to a sign up for people in those [fields]. You can just do so much more than hoping that somebody writes an article that lasts with a half-life of couple of hours, typically. That's the struggle that I have with this.

My take

I've truncated the argument so check the whole podcast. The debate doesn't fully translate to B2B but we can extrapolate. Wynne is fundamentally correct that social media works best as an accelerator, but not necessarily because of prior broadcast coverage. In the ice bucket challenge, video was the "social object," to borrow again from MacLeod, that drove the social uptick.

Social objects are still powerful. In the tech space, Mary Meeker's annual Internet trends report might be the ultimate social object. Joel is right that even a distribution platform falls short if you have nothing to say, but he answers his own objection with the hospital example. The Internet has always excelled for narrowcasting to a community.

The big changes are: that community can now be a customer base. And: you are less likely to draw them to your web site as their home base. You'll have to build "content outposts" wherever they congregate. If your brand is compelling enough, they may create a lot of the content around your brand for you. If not, back to the content factory for you.

B2B content doesn't have to be great, and you can improve your craft as you go. What it does need to be is relevant, expert and/or helpful. With plenty of lures to get folks to opt-in for more. Just how you get those sign ups without annoying the living hell out of everyone with interruption marketing and exit pop-ups is another matter entirely, and one that most marketers should be fretting over.

Distribution platforms matter. I hear from countless enterprise bloggers who have given up their personal blogs in favor of the traction they get blogging on LinkedIn. Brands have different considerations, such as SEO. Drawing a smaller audience onto a platform you control, with opt-ins you can track, is sometimes the winner. What we do know is that content needs a distribution plan.

Neither Joel or Wynne discussed the merits of engagement. Engagement is one of the wankiest phrases you can possibly use. Call it what you want; consumers like interacting with content producers. No, maybe not brands, but certainly individuals they respect. Social brings the chance for a jugular connection between creators and their audiences. Brands that free up their employees to interact can win loyalty.

Attention in the consumer space might be about entertainment, but in the B2B space, it's about relevancy and trust. Topic authority outside of a network of relationships isn't very useful. Social media isn't always the best distribution channel, but despite the noise/herd problem, it's still a good channel for turning content into relationships. And yes, that matters for B2B buyers.

I enjoyed Wynne's social media deconstruction, but find myself leaning towards Joel's advocacy of reaching your audience with stuff that matters to them - regardless of whether Kim Kardashian retweets it.