16 November 2021 |

Content vs. Distribution

By Adam Ryan

Content is King 

In 1996, Bill Gates wrote an essay called “Content is King”. It was published during the announcement of Microsoft and NBC’s partnership to create MSNBC. 

Gates’ essay spoke to what the future of the internet would become.

He talked about the content being all-encompassing — from software and gaming to news.
He talked about how anyone with a PC and a modem can publish whatever they want.
He talked about creating content for specific communities.
He called the internet the multimedia equivalent of the photocopier

Gates wrote only 32 words about distribution in his 1,039-word essay. 

“The Internet also allows information to be distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher. Opportunities are remarkable, and many companies are laying plans to create content for the Internet.”

In short, he knew that distribution was going to be the internet’s special sauce — but all he could wrap his brain around was replacing newspaper delivery boys.

Distribution is Queen

In 2013, Forbes published a piece “Content is King, Distribution is Queen and she wears the pants.” 

What made this shift to bring the queen into the picture? New moments of attention were unlocked on mobile. 

It’s rare when a new opportunity to capture people’s attention is created. Our 24-hour clock has remained the same since the Babylonians created it, but the amount of activities we can invest our attention in has increased exponentially in the last 75 years. 

The creation of new opportunities to capture our attention is monumental, and are driven by 2 things:

  • Enabling efficiencies in people’s lifestyles (read: self-driving cars)
  • Development of new products (read: app store)

Here’s the rub: As new opportunities for capturing attention have become available, brands and publishers have focused primarily on capturing attention faster — which means lowering their standards for content quality. 

This decrease in quality, fueled by a more quantitative approach, often diminishes the value of each dollar invested per piece of content.

It’s created the era of the unpaid social media interns, clickbait headlines and, more recently, the era of “fake news”. 

The Connection is What Counts

The reality is that, by themselves, content and distribution don’t matter much. Nowadays, content can be created by AI, and distribution can be bought. 

The “Content is King, Distribution is Queen” era hailed by Gates and Forbes is nearing the end of its life — not because content and distribution aren’t important, but because they’re no longer the leading indicator of a media company’s success.

What is? Connection.

I believe media companies that will succeed in the future will prioritize connection to their audience above content and distribution. (If that’s new information for you, that’s a bit concerning.)

Connection is more than just revenue. Here’s a handful of the qualitative and quantitative measurements I use:

  • Ratio of total to unique newsletter opens (if it’s more than 2X, then the content is thriving) 
  • Number of replies to a newsletter (the more people who write in, the stronger the connection with the audience)
  • How fast people like a post on Twitter or Insta
  • Brand merch bought
  • Pop-up events and attendance 

Put it this way: I’d rather see one picture of a die-hard fan with a Workweek tattoo than have thousands of subscribers with a 10% open rate. You’re not seeing me write ARPU or anything related to revenue for a reason — you can hide a crap audience behind a great monetization team for a long time.  

The problem? A true, industry-wide mindset shift still seems far off. 

Many media operators I speak with today speak about distribution as the holy grail, and many of the editorial and content creators I speak with talk about content being the most important aspect of a media co.

Intention vs. Attention

The other way I define connection with an audience is by differentiating attention vs. intention. 

  • Attention is when your audience takes notice of you
  • Intention is when your audience is willing to take action for you 

We now have plenty of case studies with MeatEater, Food52, Glossier, and more where content and distribution were never the factors in their success — it was the connection they cultivated with their audience and their intention to take action.