I’ve been turning this question over practically in the last year through running my own publishing startup, but the answer remains strangely elusive: if you invest in content, the answer to that content doing well seems to be in its distribution to the largest audience possible.

If you invest in forming distribution networks, you need good content to make those networks effective.

This is a catch 22 situation. You need both, but not every company will want to invest in both simultaneously. So how can we best tackle this problem?

Viral video distribution

Video virals give us a useful starting point. The success of a viral is almost always inferred on the content, as something we can see, rather than the network which we can only see as a quantified mass of viewing figures.

Without powerful analysis tools (Google+ ripples a basic example) we can’t see which influencers really made the difference between the video going viral or not.

So it’s often claimed that the content is the crucial element (e.g ‘Content is King’) – but this isn’t particularly helpful for marketers. 

The distribution lottery

Even if you are certain of the quality of your content, expecting it to go ‘viral’ or be distributed by the masses is like entering the lottery and expecting a jackpot.

Amongst the ocean of cute baby videos, we have to say the reasons for success of something like Charlie Bit My Finger are largely blind luck.

One of the most successful virals of all time: Charlie Bit My Finger.

People record a particularly shareable moment with no plan of distribution, which subsequently gets shared like wildfire. Given 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, you can see that the likelihood of going viral is clouded by the sheer volume of competition.

Meanwhile, we can only expect a tiny proportion of this content to meet the right criteria and wider context to go viral.

The content creator has only a small hunch that this content could go viral. The rest of the process is down to many unplanned variables coming together at the right moment. For marketers, lotteries cannot be relied on.

We can take risks, but we need to calculate them better than a fire and hope for the best. Content alone then cannot be relied on.

Content and distribution are married

I was once watching a video of Gary Vaynerchuck promoting his book, Crush It! he said some words that stuck: ‘Content is King, but marketing is Queen, and she runs the household.’

Image: CMS Panda

I also came across this quote from the New York Times report on digital innovation:

At The New York Times, far too often for writers and editors the story is done when you hit publish,’ said Paul Berry, who helped found The Huffington Post. ‘At Huffington Post, the article begins its life when you hit publish.

Again, we might consider that the content comes first in both of these cases. After all, at the Huffington Post, it is made clear that the editor published content, then distributed.

But Vaynerchuck’s quote suggests that the two are wedded,  you cannot have one without the other. Successful content distribution does not come through pushing it out as an afterthought.

There should be a pre-existing network of relationships that can distribute the content, or the distribution needs to be built into the content.

The viral trend of media

One of the most fascinating trends in digital publishing in recent years is the explosion of viral publishers, which have been able to make colossal audience gains for seemingly small investments in a matter of months.

BuzzFeed took a while to get going, but it tipped around 2012 and became one of the largest content sites in the world.

Upworthy reached 80m monthly unique users in 18 months, Lad Bible gained an audience of 40m unique users and a Facebook reach of over 10m likes (significantly more than BuzzFeed’s and Upworthy’s main accounts).

Facebook sharing and the infamous newsfeed algorithm are really the key distribution factors in their success. These sites essentially look for populist content that matches their brand positioning, and remix that to be shared with a large audience.

That in itself is a sound formula, but if they had no audience in the first place, how could they make such rapid gains?

The answer is in first investing in enough social connections, often through paid acquisition (short term) and regular updating (long term).

Once this audience has grown sufficiently large, they then find shareable content to feed the audiences – this has a snowballing effect: share shareable content to large audiences, and you will be shared more.

The LAD Bible: Big on Facebook

Earning media through third party content

Many brands have acquired similar large reaches on earned media over time, but there are many more businesses who do not have that luxury. What is most striking about the above examples is that you actually need to create very little content yourself to become really big.

You can curate from elsewhere, and the only content effort you make is in the selection of content and how it is framed in small social headlines descriptions.

Thus the content strategy is framed around selection rather than creation, and the selection itself framed around how shareable that content is to the audience.

This shareability then builds the social distribution platforms. In this scenario content creation actually takes no part – so we could argue that it is a distribution first approach.

Content with no pre-made distribution network

Unless you have substantial finances, creating a large social following takes a long time to achieve, although there is nothing to stop you starting this long term project today.

But what if you are already in the motions of building large content pieces that you want to be shared and have no distribution network?

Again, the content cannot be disconnected from the distribution. You could include the views of influencers within your content – with a vested interest in the piece, they are likely to share it with people who follow them in turn.

Alternatively, you could use a SEO/content distribution agency agency or a paid for network. But like attempting to outsource your content marketing production, I would only say these can be short term solutions compared to building your own relationships.

Conclusion: content marketers should spend 50% of their resources on distribution

Content can exist without distribution, but there would be no point to that content unless it was for personal use only.

What we see throughout this post is that successful content does not exist without distribution, and distribution cannot exist without content. That said, building distribution networks can exist without creating any content of your own.

For marketing purposes, the two are simply forged together, like in Gary Vaynerchuck’s metaphor of marriage.

So the answer to my opening question is that neither actually comes first, but that we must always attempt to form a content strategy where content and distribution are tied together and invested in equally.