Outbrain Or Outbane: How To Distribute Your Content For Free

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

By Neil St. Clair

This article was originally published on Forbes.com (March, 2016)

Oliver Twist was less an orphan than some of the content created by marketers nowadays. Tens of thousands of dollars, and scores of man hours, spent to create a beautiful piece of thought leadership, and the result: A few hundred views. I've seen it happen again and again across all media. YouTube and Vimeo are especially littered with the abandoned. So, what's happened? Simply put, content creators, to use another movie-book metaphor, are often under the delusion that if they build it, people will come. But in an era where content creation and distribution has been democratized, that's no longer the case. There is now simply too much content out there.

When we had three channels, a few radio stations and a handful of periodicals, we could capture an audience and be certain that they would show up regularly--there wasn't much of an alternative if you desired information or entertainment. As time marched on, there still only remained 24 hours in a day, but in contrast to the 1950s, there was now simply too much content to be consumed and too little time in which to do it. Modern content consumers also have shorter attention spans and a surfeit of alternatives. As proof, we're creating in excess of 5 exabytes of content per day. Between the beginning of time and 2003, we'd only created 5 exabytes of content--ever.

And yet, even though we, as marketers and humans, are consumers of this modern content explosion, we still forget how it is that we consume. And so, we produce elegant content that we believe will rise like cream to the top by dint of its beauty. Yet, it is under this misapprehension that we continue to create content that no one ever sees. We hope it goes viral, and sometimes it does, but that's too stochastic to be scientific. It is this cognitive dissonance that I believe has given rise to the phenomena of "Orphan Content" (i.e. content created, but without anyone to watch it as it's been left unattended by its creator).

What's perhaps worse than leaving your expensively made content on the metaphorical firehouse steps is allowing it to be adopted by its rich uncle--the content distribution platform. Instead of nurturing your content to its full potential, it's then sent off to a Swiss boarding school with hopes of a vice-free return. So here, we'll briefly explore some alternatives to ensure your content finds a happy, freer home. Glibly put, we're going to show you how to put the "marketing" in "content marketing."

The Problem With Rich Uncles

Content distribution platforms are the automated systems that put those ubiquitous "Around the Web" pieces at the bottom of Mashable articles you actually intended to read. Sometimes they're marked as "Sponsored Content" and sometimes not, but it's pretty easy to tell from the ever-so-subtle headlines and mildly associated stock images. These systems (e.g. Outbrain, Taboola or Nativo) serve a purpose: They help content sites like Mashable, brand publishers and CPC/CPM-based sites make money. They help create useful backlinks for SEO and drive traffic to the content creator's site. I understand their existence. But, just like my rich uncle, I may not want them in my living room.

These platforms destroy the customer experience by ugly-ing up the bottom of legitimate content creators' websites--and to an extent eviscerate that legitimacy. Why? Because these below-the-bel0w-the-fold content boxes are often a mash of silly articles about celebrities, male potency and dubious financial secrets. Just bad brand association. A little curation goes a long way.

But again, I get why they exist.

More acutely, I also remain dubious of these platforms' value. Outbrain, for example, has a CPC around $.30 according to Content.ly research. It's got solid distribution partners such as Time and CNN, but I remain unconvinced that for $300,000 (the cost of 1 million clicks), my firm will be able to see a justifiable RoI. Now, if I'm an e-commerce shop that relies purely on the volume of web "hits" with a fixed conversion-of-visitors-to-customers ratio, this could work. And, if I'm a content curator that charges a CPC greater than $0.30 to those posting on my site, there's an interesting arbitrage opportunity. But, for any legitimate non-e-commerce business that desires short-term sales and not merely expensive exposure, I remain a skeptic.

As anyone who's a regular reader knows, I'm generally mildly critical of any pay-to-play opportunity: cf. How Digital Marketing is Destroying Your Business. This includes social media, paid SEO, retargeting, radio/tv/OOH and other forms of dollar-down digital marketing, all of which work great at scale, but fall short without a high level of investment. The audience is generally too broad and untargeted, and, even when you find the right group, the conversion rates are so small (often less than .001%) from visitor to client that there doesn't seem to be much upside.

But wait, what about native advertising? A pox on native advertising. It's simply an advertorial dressed up in different clothing with a premium sticker. It may have slightly higher clickthrough rates because the "Sponsored Post" label is in smaller text than traditional advertising and it looks a touch more "on brand" than the crud Outbrain services at the bottom of the page. But still, can you, in your own life, tell me the last time you meant to click on a native ad? Why is it that we feel other intelligent individuals will act differently than ourselves?

As with most modern marketing, our laziness has allowed us to buy into the idea that automation means optimization--we've become Ron Popeil. We simply set-it-and-forget it, and watch the hits roll in while our bank accounts remain drained. This is particularly frustrating when several costless alternatives exist that, admittedly, require a bit more effort than pushing a button, but which have an enormous cost-benefit upside.

So, how should you be distributing your content?

Strategy Is Where It All Starts

Well, not so fast, let's not get to distribution just yet (audible groans).

Distribution means nothing if you have not taken the time to prioritize, plan and execute your content marketing with consistency and quality. You must know your audience, have clear goals in mind, and check all the necessary boxes creatively to engage, optimize and iterate. Failure to do this precludes the point of distribution.

Most importantly, your content marketing strategy must be part of a larger business plan that leads to bottom-line conversion. Distribution can help increase the top of your funnel, but you must have a plan in place to turn look-e-loos into clients. I think of content marketing as the lead to a story--a way of communicating your brand to an audience as a first touchpoint. It's part of a larger "Business Enhancement System" that ties into other ideas about brand, marketing in general (i.e. content, events, collateral, etc.), PR/media and business development/lead generation. The goal must always be to use content as part of this System to drive bottom-line results.

If you head content platform provider Percolate's site, you'll see another way to think about the content continuum:

1) It starts with an understanding of your brand, your audience and having objectives and specific channels in mind

2) Planning & Briefing: use the information in Step 1 to begin the planning phase and brief key stakeholders to get feedback

3) Production: Now that you've planned, you need to produce your content

4) Distribution: Now that you've created your content, you're ready to distribute

5) Monitor: After sending your content on its way, how's it doing?

6) Analysis: If it's doing well, can it do better? If it's doing poorly, how can you refine and revisit

Once complete, rinse and repeat, and the cycle starts again.

As you can see in my example, and using Percolate's model, "Distribution" is essentially the middle-child of the content marketing game--and content marketing itself must be viewed as a keystone within, but not the totality of, the marketing structure. But assuming you have the people, plan and presence of mind in place, let's move on to some of the key steps to specifically improve your content distribution.

N.B. For some businesses giving mindshare and dollars to content marketing distribution can be a fraught effort from the start. If your business is purely referral based or your clients are in a very niche segmentation, it makes sense to create content more as a point of validation or follow up for your sales team rather than as an inbound tool. In short, make sure you're properly segmenting and targeting your audience or you will find content distribution a waste of money and time with both a low-volume and low-quality of leads.

Owned Media

The 101: Your Primary Properties

Your current distribution assets are already your best friends. You have a website, I assume it's search engine optimized. Use it. Post your content. Research the proper keywords where you can own some open space, and get it out there. But then, don't forget about it. Make sure you update your content, and put an editorial plan in place to refresh old content and make it new again on a regular basis. Ensure your content is linked to other relevant content and just get it out there. Do not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

The same, of course, holds true for any other media property you own--including social media and mobile-first content. Each piece of content you have, has another version hiding inside it that, with minor manipulation, can be just right across all of your channels. Know where your audience exists and consumes content, and emphasize that property first, but don't ignore others.

Let Your Audience Know You've Published

Engage your current audience and let them know you have new content. This is most commonly done through social or email newsletters. They're your audience, and however you reach them, just make certain they're aware you posted. These are already people with an interest in what you have to say, and so they're likely to want to hear more.

Also Think About...

Of course, there are certain unpaid tips and tricks to ensure that you properly optimize your content (e.g. audience targeting, mobile optimization, subject line length, metadata, launch timing, etc.). And there are things to avoid (e.g. tag clouds, redundant content, etc.)--don't try to trick Google.

Even though this seems highly basic (hence why it's called The 101), you'd be amazed at how much content sits in non-public repositories or folds to the bottom of the queue over time. Most of it is simply inactivity or ignorance on the part of the content creator, while some of it is a result of not knowing where to get started.

The 201: Creating Your Own Linked Distribution Network

Let's imagine that you've mastered this intro class. Now you're ready for the graduate seminar.

Firstly, use your own employees (yourself included) to distribute your content through their networks. Whether these are purpose-made profiles and distribution lists for work or their own personal network. You have paid evangelists on-staff each with different reach--use them.

The same holds true for your current audience. If it's large enough, you can engage them in not only distributing your owned content, but in perhaps creating content of their own (user-generated content). You can turn your audience into an echo chamber, though it does take some time and effort to pull this off effectively.

When it comes to owned media one of the most important low-cost "tricks" is to create standalone sub- and personal brand sites to further distribute content and create white hat SEO links. If one web, mobile or social property is effective, won't two be just doubly effective? It's not as simple as all that, of course, but say you're an investment firm and you pile all of your content into your main site and social channels. Good. Now imagine that you have two audiences: individuals and institutions. Is there any reason to not create a sub-brand that focuses on just the institutions with more specific keywords and content to further draw in that segmentation?

In the same scenario imagine that your Chief Investment Officer also creates a professional branded blog on behalf of the company. Building up a cult of personality around an individual can be just as effective in distributing company content. Think if Steve Jobs were still alive today--would you rather follow him or Apple? If they were both posting the same content, you might be more inclined to see it through Jobs' blog, but the benefit/brand lift still flows to Apple itself.

The key here is not thinking just in terms of omni-channel distribution, but also omni-dimensional distribution. Using your employees, key staffers, and niche sub/breakout brands to link and distribute content develops your own exponential network with nary an increased cost to you.

Earned Media

The 101: The Media is Your Friend

Once you've started creating content, there's no more cost-effective way to distribute it than through the media. No matter what field you're in, you've got a friendly journalist that wants to tell your story. The trick is making sure that getting that story to their audience is a costless transaction: Why You Should Almost Never Pay for PR.

And remember to count among the media trade/industry associations, news aggregator sites (e.g. Google News) as well as platforms that allow for guest posts.

As noted in my "PR" article, there are innumerable ways to freely and effectively engage the media and to have them help you in spreading the word. But the greatest "trick" is to ensure that you are creating content consistently. You want yourself and/or your brand to become a go-to expert that is a constant source of good information. Otherwise, the media will provide you merely a brief engagement "bump" followed by a "crash" back to low-engagement Earth. What you want from any media engagement is long-term lift.

The 201: Influencers and Partners are Your Better Friends

Partnership content (or content sharing) is sometimes hard to develop, but it is extremely effective once that channel is established. If you're sharing content, not only can you now exponentially increase the volume of your output, but also the audience which is engaged with that content. In rare cases, you may not even need a quid pro quo, and another outside-the-industry player may simply repost your content as a benefit to their audience. Think of a lawyer posting content from an accountant--non-competitive entities that benefit from cross-referencing content to each other’s client base.

The goal with any content share or partnership is to ensure that the treatment of your content remains on-brand, and that it's being distributed to the proper audience. Beyond that, it's also crucial that the content remains linked back to your primary properties or your specific call to action--in that way you can received the SEO, brand and conversion benefits.

And remember, content needn't just be shared through traditional "news" media partnerships. All brands are now publishers, and if you've got good foodie content that's appetizing to OpenTable they can be just as meaningful a channel as Gourmet depending on your business model.

When it comes to influencer content, I will contradict myself in one small way. Here, I do believe that a well-placed payment to a brand or individual can potentially lock-in RoI. In that way, it becomes a risk-free transaction, which is just a thread below totally-free in the "good things to do" marketing budget hierarchy. What I mean here is that influencers, what we used to call celebrity endorsers, in certain instances can be a virtual guarantee of audience interest/growth and sales--there's a reason the Kardashians get six figures for a single Instagram post.

Now, that's not to say you can't get absolutely free influencer interaction. But still, there are moments when an influencer's audience is so wide, and so perfectly mapped to your goal audience, that it simply makes sense to cut out any wasted time by ponying up. This requires a great deal of research and negotiation and there are only so many influencer "unicorns" that exist.

The higher path, of course, is to ultimately make yourself the influencer as you build up your audience and credibility through time.

Costless Efforts

Similar to our discussion around high-value, risk-free influencer payments, there is a narrow set of paid content distribution that may make sense. These are what I call "costless" transactions. They are paid only in the same sense that there is a cost to building a website or to creating content--necessary startup costs, to get things going, that in return provide predictable, risk-free RoI.

The main example here is direct monetization on platforms like YouTube. If having an ad or two pre-roll your video content will do no brand reputation harm, it can make the cost of creating that content de minimus or even profitable. In this narrow scenario, paying for keywords or promoting the video may make sense if you notice it is beginning to gain traction after posting. But do the math, and make sure that your investment will get your content beyond equilibrium and provide guaranteed benefit to you once you hit a certain threshold of views. The reason investment in direct monetization like this is acceptable is the removal of risk--YouTube has the audience and will pay you for views generated on your content. Other types of paid media still rely on a client-side conversion factor that puts an unacceptable element of risk into this investment (e.g. paid SEO or display ads).

N.B. There is, of course, an assumption here, that you have cash-on-hand to engage in these types of costless transactions.

Less content distribution and more pure "marketing" are conference speaking and event marketing built around a specific piece of content. There are basic costs here, but ultimately high RoI as you're able to sell your content directly to decision makers and engage in meaningful human interaction around your content in real-time. Typically, most conference and event marketing (including webinars) are slightly less "mass" ways to raise awareness, but they are an effective vehicle for capturing interest. Opportunities like TedTalks not only draw a mass audience, but in doing them, a new piece of meaningful content is created that you can market on your own--TedTalk videos have a high-rate of native virality.

I tend to find that conference and event marketing is great for selling the larger idea of you or your brand rather than a specific piece of content in and of itself. But, if that larger idea is a philosophy or way of doing things (or if the content is the product, e.g. a book) that's expressed singularly in a piece of content, then they go hand-in-glove.

Generally speaking, "getting out there" into the real world is always an effective marketing strategy for growing your business, if not a purist's definition of content distribution.


And so all this brings us back to our original, if somewhat circular, point: however you choose to tackle content distribution, you must in fact distribute your content. Put another way, you must "market" your content marketing in order for it to find success. This is the only way to avoid the bane of Orphan Content--unwatched and unloved.

To sidestep the "rich uncle" trap of paid distribution, you must focus on the free and costless efforts with your owned media, earned media and certain risk-free efforts. We have put a lot on the table here, and, to an extent there's a cost-benefit to trying to do it all at once. So, start small, test, iterate and find which of these methodologies works best for you.

It's important to note that, generally speaking, our discussion throughout applies to all kinds of content--written, social, video, etc. But it may be less effective for just-in-time content on social media--so lean towards evergreen material that can live in perpetuity and be repurposed over time.

As a final word, I'll post a challenge to anyone out there looking to become a billionaire: Please, figure out an effective, all-in-one, software-based method to solving content distribution. It must eliminate risk and prove RoI. And, as a media entrepreneur, I'll admit my selfish benefit in this platform's success. As our favorite orphan Oliver said, "Please sir, I want some more." Clever lad.

Email me directly at neil@neilstclair.com


Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation.

Follow him on IG @neilstclair

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N.B. Regarding certain quotations used on this site: I recognize the modern controversy following some of the quoted figures. I further recognize the potentially harmful beliefs these figures held in their time. In quoting them, it is not my intention to glorify or demonize. Rather, I cite their discrete thoughts, which represent a moment of interesting thinking, as separate from their total biography.

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