Distribution 101: the differences between owned, earned, and paid distribution

Distribution has come a long way since the early days of the printing press. With the invention of new mediums like radio, television, film, the internet—and now more and more social channels and avenues to reach audiences—content distribution is constantly evolving. So, what is it exactly?

When we refer to content distribution, we are mostly referring to the practice of disseminating content on key channels to get it in front of the right audiences. This can be broken down further into three types of distribution channels: owned, earned, and paid. Like with anything else, you need to know the basics before you can develop sophisticated strategies. Knowing the difference between these three distribution channels is the first step you need to take when creating a content distribution plan for your company.

Owned distribution

Ask yourself this: what content do you have 100 percent control over? If you have control over how it’s read, consumed, produced, and published, it is considered owned media. Owned media is anything under a brand’s direct control that is not subject to the changing rules of third-party channels. The most common example would be your company or brand’s own website or blog.

Owned distribution refers to publishing your content in a designated space or channel your brand has complete control over. This can include:

  • Your website
  • Your blog
  • Your email newsletter
  • Your case studies
  • Your videos
  • Your PDFs, e-books, and additional resources
  • Your e-commerce store
  • Organic social media content, such as your written updates, videos, or images
  • Your company’s apps
  • Your social media posts

With owned distribution, you have complete control over when, how, and where your content appears. You do not have to pitch your content to a publication or pay lots of money for your content to appear on a given channel—it’s yours to do with what you want.

Of course, while these channels give you an immense amount of control over when and what you post, you may not get the same amount of reach or engagement on your content as you would through third-party sites. It takes time to build up audiences for these owned channels and to use them to extend your brand presence.

Furthermore, you may have to rely on other distribution channels (earned, paid) to promote your owned media. (More on that in a minute).

There is a small grey area when it comes to owned media and channels, namely with social media. Technically, you do not have complete control over these channels; you have to sign up for a social media account, modify your content to each website’s liking, and abide by certain terms and conditions. However, for all intents and purposes, since you’re the one creating the content and choosing when to publish, edit, or delete it, social media is considered an “owned” distribution channel.

It’s important to note that the traffic you gain on these channels can also be earned or paid, depending on whether or not people organically share your posts with their own social networks (earned), or if you need to put paid promotion dollars behind social posts to reach the right viewers (paid).

Earned distribution

Earned distribution involves having others share your content. Much like the tree-falling-in-the-forest conundrum, if no one sees your content, is there really a point in perfecting a campaign or message? That’s where earned distribution comes in. Earned distribution refers to when others do the work of sharing your content for you. Perhaps these people are social media influencers with a huge following, or users that are retweeting or reposting your content on social channels because they find it valuable—either way, they’re giving you the online word-of-mouth you need to gain both traffic and credibility. The following counts as earned distribution:

  • Social media shares, comments, mentions, tweets, reposts, and recommendations by others
  • Product reviews
  • Non-sponsored blog posts or media coverage from third-party sites
  • Strong organic rankings on search engines

Earned distribution is considered highly credible because it comes from external, unpaid sources. Success with earned distribution can often validate the quality or effort for a piece of content. That’s why so many brands seek “virality” as a goal for their content—because the earned traffic will help them reach a wide audience without having to use paid distribution.

Strong search engine rankings also help improve your earned distribution, as your content will be in a better position on search result pages to be seen and engaged with. This will ultimately create a virtuous cycle as your content becomes the “authority” on whatever topic you’re posting on and continues to bring in higher volumes of organic traffic.

However, because earned distribution relies on strangers engaging with your content, you really have no control over the word-of-mouth conversation. Good, bad, in between—earned distribution leaves it to others to create commentary around your content and brand for you.

Paid distribution

Paid distribution is the most straightforward to define: it refers to paying third-party channels to help your content reach your desired audiences. While owned and earned distribution rely on organic reach, paid distribution is obviously paid for with ad dollars. There’s an ever-growing number of ways you can do this, including:

  • Social media advertising, like LinkedIn Sponsored Updates or Pinterest’s Promoted Pins
  • Sponsored content on third-party publications or promoted posts on Facebook
  • Content discovery tools, such as StumbleUpon or Curiosity
  • Native advertising tools, like Outbrain and Taboola
  • Display advertising and paid search
  • Influencers on third-party channels

Paid distribution is a good way to promote content in order to drive traffic to other distribution channels, like owned and earned. With paid distribution, there is a good level of control over the budget, the third-party channel, and the specifications you choose to ensure you get some bang for your buck.

However, paying for content distribution can get expensive quickly without proper knowledge of where to best direct your efforts. It can also have less credibility than something like earned distribution because it is not organic. You want to be careful about when and where you pay to distribute your content, and make sure you’re distributing pieces that viewers will find valuable once they’re in their news feeds or search results. An ad specialist or a content marketing partner can carefully promote and spend this money to advertise your content wisely.

Content distribution relies on a combination of traditional, owned, earned, third-party, and paid channels to maximize your brand’s content marketing impact. Not sure how to maximize your content’s reach? Quietly can help. Get in touch today.

Image: Aerial-motion/Shutterstock

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