To Be Clear: Do Not Build Your Brand House On Land You Don’t Own

Too07(image) I took a rigorous walk early this morning, a new habit I’m trying to adopt – today was Day Two. Long walks force a certain meditative awareness. You’re not moving so fast that you miss the world’s details passing by  – in fact, you can stop to inspect something that might catch your eye. Today I explored an abandoned log cabin set beside a lake, for example. I’ve sped by that cabin at least a thousand times on my mountain bike, but when you’re walking, discovery is far more of an affordance.

Besides the cabin, the most remarkable quality of today’s walk was the water – it’s (finally) been raining hard here in Northern California, and the hills and forests of Marin are again alive with the rush of water coursing its inevitable path toward the sea. White twisting ribbons cut through each topographic wrinkle, joining forces to form great streams at the base of any given canyon. The gathering roar of a swollen stream, rich with foam and brown earth – well, it’s certainly  good for the soul.

I can’t say the same of my daily “walks” through the Internet. Each day I spend an hour or more reading industry news. I’m pretty sure you do too – that’s probably the impetus for your visit here – chances are you clicked on a link on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, or in email. Someone you know said “check this out,” or – and bless you if this is the case – you actually follow my musings and visit on a regular basis.

But the truth is, we now mostly find content via aggregated streams. Streams are the new distribution. We dip in and out of streams, we curate and search our streams, we abandon barren streams and pick up new streams, hoping they might prove more nourishing. Back before streams ruled the world, of course, we had a habit of visiting actual “pools” – sites that we found worthy because they did a good job of creating content that we valued. (Before that, I think we read actual publications. But that was a long, long time ago…)

Which got me thinking. What makes a stream? In the real world, streams are made from water, terrain, and gravity. To belabor the metaphor to the media business, content is the water, publishers are the terrain, and our thirst for good content is the gravity.

As publishers – and I include all marketing brands in this category – the question then becomes: “What terrain do we claim as ours?”

Deciding where to lay down roots as a publisher is an existential choice. Continuing the physical metaphor a bit further, it’s the equivalent of deciding what land to buy (or lease). If your intention is to build something permanent and lasting on that land, it’s generally a good idea to *own* the soil beneath your feet.

This is why I wrote Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web two years ago. If you’re going to build something, don’t build on land someone else already owns. You want your own land, your own domain, your own sovereignty.

Trouble is, so much of the choice land – the land where all the *people* are – is already owned by someone else: By Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and Apple (in apps, anyway). These platforms are where are the people are, after all. It’s where the headwaters form for most of the powerful streams on the Internet.  It’s tempting to build your brand on those lands – but my counsel is simple: Don’t. There’s plenty of land out there on the Rest of The Internet. In fact, there’s as much land as you want, and what you make of it is up to you as a publisher.

Quick: Name one successful publisher that built its brand on the back of a social platform? Can’t do it? Neither can I, unless you count sites like UpWorthy. And those flying near the social network sun risk getting seriously burned. There’s a reason publishers don’t build on top of social platforms: publishers are an independent lot, and they naturally understand the value of owning your own domain. Publishers don’t want to be beholden to the shifting sands of inscrutable platform policies. So why on earth would a brand?

Despite the fact that my once-revolutionary bromide “all brands are publishers” is now commonplace, most brands still don’t quite understand how to act like a publisher.

Which takes me to this piece, Facebook is not making friends on Madison Avenue (Digiday). Besides the quippy headline and the rather obvious storyline (a burgeoning Internet company failing to satisfy agencies? Pretty much Dog-Bites-Man), the thing that got me to perk up was this:

One point of frustration is Facebook’s ongoing squeezing of traffic to organic brand content. A digital agency exec described a recent meeting with Facebook that turned contentious. In what was meant to be a routine meeting, the exec said the Facebook rep told him the brands the agency works with would now have to pay Facebook for the same amount of reach they once enjoyed automatically. That position and Facebook’s perceived attitude have led to some disillusionment on Madison Avenue, where many bought into the dream peddled by Facebook that brands could set up shop on the platform as “publishers” and amass big audiences on their own….

…The cruel irony in all of this is that brands themselves greatly helped Facebook by giving it free advertising in their TV commercials and sites, urging their customers to “like” the brand — and paying Facebook to pile up likes. Facebook has returned the favor by choking off  brands’ access to those communities. That’s one expensive and frustrating lesson that it’s better to own than rent.

Put another way: “Wait, I did what you asked, Facebook, and set up a big content site on your platform that drew a fair number of visitors organically. Now you’ve changed the rules of the game, and you want me to pay to get their attention?!”

Yup. You leased your land, Mr. Brand Marketer, and the rent’s going up. If I were you, I’d get back to your own domain. Spend your money building something worthy, then spend to drive people there. Your agencies have entire creative and media departments that are good at just such practices. They might even spend a fair amount carefully purchasing distribution through Facebook’s streams. I’m guessing Facebook will be happy to take your money. But there’s no point in paying them twice.


24 thoughts on “To Be Clear: Do Not Build Your Brand House On Land You Don’t Own”

  1. Thankful you are walking and thinking so incisively. Did you forecast a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii in your predictions for this year?

  2. Great metaphor, well written insight here, a candid and acute critique, and like Strawberry Creek, shall endure like a landmark in my mind.

  3. Finding your place has gotten painful but I have to completely agree with you John – it’s better to own than rent. Platforms (such as Facebook) have now re-calibrated the power curve, and that’s a key indicator that a users ability to self-promote will either cost more or begin to narrow effective reach.

  4. Digital sharecropping, as I like to call it, is a tenuous source of income/customers/influence at best. And the same could be said of selling/promoting affiliate products- they’re not really your products, so proceed with caution.

  5. Good read John, thank you. The sales enablement and influencer engagement programs that we run with our clients/brands ultimately help drive people back to our clients’ owned land. The challenge is ensuring the investment in social pays off – getting the right message to the right person, at the right time.
    Tony Hollingsworth – Head of Community, DIGIVIZER

  6. Excellent! I often write about creative business owners needing their own “homes” online – branded websites – separate from social media, Etsy and all the disparate platforms on which bits their brands are hosted. By marketing from owned real estate, a company’s branding, messaging (and intellectual property) is consistent. From there, content can be shared everywhere. It makes the shifting landscape of each social platform easier to manage. It’s a simpler process and companies can reap the benefits of creating its own destination.

  7. I *love* this post and agree that brands should look at social channels as a distribution channel, not a channel to build a settlement on.

    I use the analogy of your brand as a person sitting inside a boat, trying to catch fish (customers). It’s okay to create content (bait) that you share on social channels (the water around the boat) in order to attract fish, but ultimately, you are trying to bring the fish back to you in the boat.

    When someone comes to your website, sending them away to social channels off your site is not a good idea. Instead, do the reverse – pull in a feed of your social content onto your website.

    We do this ourselves at Pressly, if you look at the embedded social content on our home page.

    I’m curious what you think of this option, John as it’s popular in the publishing world and now starting to catch on with brands.

    1. Thanks Amrita, I think you can do both. I think social is great for spreading bread on the waters, as well as showing content on your own site.

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