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Rented or Owned: Where To Focus Your Brand Content

We take an in-depth look at how to think about blogs, websites and social media, and the question of where the best place is to publish your content.

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Written by on January 4, 2013

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Avinash Kaushik

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In the wake of the social backlash against Instagram and their changed TOS (which they were later forced to change), people are once again asking if it is really such a good idea to focus all efforts on media channels we have no control over.

(Via the always excellent xkcd)

Avinash Kaushik summed it up nicely in a recent article. He wrote:

When all you have is a presence on Google+ or Facebook (ignore Twitter for now, it is a unique animal), you are renting an audience. Sure, people may circle/like you on those platforms. But everything there is controlled by the platform owner.
Google+/Facebook determine who will see your posts (how much to choke you with EdgeRank). They determine what you can do on the platform today, what you can do today that you can't do tomorrow, and the pace at which they innovate. For the most part, they also own the data about your circlers/likers, and in many ways the relationship too.
You do get to engage. You get to bring your creativity within the confines of the newsfeed system on either platform. You get to determine if you want to reply to comments, or allow x or y or z.
But you are simply renting. [...]
So what do you have? Do you rent or own? You want to have both. But if you can only have one, choose own.

That's a nice way to put it and I do agree, and this is true for all the social channels that are based on free access, monetized by advertising.

We will always have the conflict that, ultimately, these companies are valued based on how effectively they can use the content, the connections, and the metadata they collect about us.

This was why Instagram was sold to Facebook for one billion dollars. Not because is was a nice mobile app, but because of the data and content that it had about you.

It wasn't really surprising when Instagram decided to change their TOS and basically say they now wanted free range to use all this data however they wanted. We all knew this would happen.

And it's the same story with all the other channels. Facebook EdgeRank, promoted posts, and the constant changes to optimize their advertising business, is the result of the same problem. Same with Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr (maybe), and many others.

As long as the social services are based on free access in exchange for data to sell advertising, you will never be in control of your own data, nor your own connections.

Many people are considering going back to Flickr. As you might know, Flickr recently came out with a brilliant new iPhone app, that is better than the one from Instagram. But more so, Flickr is an owned service.

You buy a subscription for Flickr Pro, which means that their business model is not to use your data however they see fit. Instead their business model is to provide you with the best platform (because that's what you are paying for).

But is that a good idea?

On a personal level you should use whatever you feel is best for you. I, for instance, am seriously considering going to back to Flickr, because I'm fed up with losing control over my content. Over the past 3 years, I have used 5 different social photo services. There was Twitpic, who violated our rights, then yFrog, while good, decided it wanted everything for themselves, two more that I cannot even remember, and now we are going through the same with Instagram (although much of it is exaggerated and misunderstood).

And from a trend perspective, this social mess is starting to have an effect. People are getting upset about not being able to trust these services, not getting what was originally promised (although we should have known better), the constant violations of privacy, and the middlemen (the services) who are increasingly deciding how we can connect and communicate with each other.

Should we be the ones who decide that?

On top of that we have the trend of the increasing level of social fatigue, in which the noise of the social world outshines the value.

In 2013, this is going to be a big trend as more and more people reevaluate their social presence.

Part of the problem is also caused by misguided and misleading beliefs, like when people said Instagram wanted to sell your photos (they didn't), or that Facebook will allow advertisers to see your private messages (they won't).

But the real problem is not a social one. It's a problem with the business models behind the free-access services that we use. Business models that are designed to generate as much data and social connections as possible, lock it in, and then monetize the resulting data via advertising.

This leads us back to the question of owned versus rented. What should you choose as a brand? And is that even the right question to ask?

As a brand, it's not up to you to decide where you should be. If your customers are on Instagram, then you also need to be on Instagram. Same with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Google+, Pinterest, and so forth.

As a brand, you have to make yourself relevant where people are.

That said, there is no question that owning your presence is better than renting it. But the question of what to do is far more complicated than that. You have to balance four critical elements to any successful communication strategy. These are:

  • Value
  • Convenience
  • People
  • Sharing

Optimally, if you can get 100% of each on an owned service, you have a real winner. But no such service exists today. In the real world we have to combine these in the best way possible.

Let me give you a couple of examples to put this into perspective.

Videos

Everyone who works with marketing knows the power of video. Videos generate the highest level of engagement of all forms of media, and as such they are an important element for any marketing strategy.

So where should you post them? Should you host them yourself, on your site (owned media), and focus on getting people to come to you?

Should you post them on Vimeo Plus (owned service)? Or should you post them on YouTube (rented service)?

Obviously hosting the videos yourself and putting them on your own site is a really bad idea. While it does give you full control and it allows you to design their appearance exactly the way you want (higher perceived brand value), you don't get any of the other elements.

By default, you are not where people are. Videos posted on your own site don't include useful ways of sharing (no embedding), and because it's away from where people are, it's inconvenient both for people to visit and follow your videos.

So while you do get a higher level of perceived brand value, all the other factors are non-existent.

And the thing about brands is that your product is not the video itself (which might justify the greater focus on the higher value). Instead the very purpose of the videos is to create awareness that facilitates a lasting connection to your customers. Meaning, the purpose of the video is to create a social effect.

So what about Vimeo Plus? Now you are, kind of, in a place where people are, but by paying Vimeo you also get the experience of an owned service. To many that seems like the best of both worlds.

But it's not. Again, the purpose of the video is to create a social effect. And YouTube, at least for now, basically provides the same service - just for free.

Sure, you sometimes have the problem of advertising on YouTube, not to mention your video being displayed next to 'related' content that you don't feel is appropriate for your brand. But those minor inconveniences are nothing compared to the massively higher social effect.

For instance, if a blogger embeds your Vimeo video on her blog, there is no way for that person to connect back to you. It's just a video.

While if the same person embeds the video from YouTube, you can add all kinds of extra calls to action to facilitate that extremely important connection - like for instance, encouraging people to subscribe to your channel.

So if we compare the three, the result is what you see here. YouTube, while being a rented service that you don't control, outranks all the others because of the much higher social effect. And since the purpose of the video is to create that social effect, that is more important than where it's hosted.

Avinash's blog

Another example is Avinash's blog. Avinash is unique because once per month he writes one really good, high-value article about marketing and analytics strategy (worth reading).

So the question is, which is best?

  • Should he create and host his own blog (owned media)?
  • Should he use one of the many free blog services (owned service)?
  • Or should he just post it on a social channel like Facebook or Google+ (rented service)?

Well, in this case, the value of the articles themselves actually determine the strategy. He can't post them on the social channels, because they can't provide the depth and content richness he needs to tell the story in a useful way.

On Google+ we are limited to a picture below the post itself, and only bold and italic formatting. That's great for shorter snack-like content, but for longer and more in-depth articles it's simply not good enough.

So for Avinash to provide that level of value, he has to publish his articles on an owned service that provides him with the right tools. The goal for his articles is to provide value.

Another thing to consider, is that posts on social channels have a very short lifespan. For instance, when was the last time you went to someone's Facebook page to read something they posted 3 months ago?

Longevity is key to the success of Avinash's content, and you can only create that on channels that you can control and design for that kind of thing. So publishing his articles on a social channel is not an option. It simply doesn't provide the value or the tools needed.

It's the same problem with the free services. While they do technically provide the tools needed, they don't provide the longevity. When creating long term content, you have to be able to rely on the platform. That means owning the platform (and the domain).

It's the same reason why this article is posted here on Baekdal.com, instead of on Google+ (or on Blogger).

Of course, by posting the articles on his own platform, Avinash misses out on the social effect from social channels, which he tries to make up for by sharing links to his blog on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

But because his 'product' in this case is the value of his articles, that value outranks the shortcomings of the other three factors.

And, as you can read in "Reverse Engineering Facebook EdgeRank", Avinash also creates more social optimized content for his social channels, that provide him with the best of both worlds.

Brand blogs

So what about the blog you have for your brand. Should you focus on the same as Avinash?

Maybe, but it depends on the value that you create and the purpose of your posts. If you are creating a blog with the same purpose as Adidas for instance (which is designed to provide people with quick chunks of 'inspiration' about their products), the purpose of each individual article is really much more about creating a social effect, than providing valuable content.

So, it is far more important to make sure this content is as close to where people are as possible, which also means this would perform far better on the social channels.

Adidas is, of course, doing both. The above screenshot is from their Tumblr blog, which is the most social blog platform of them all (because people can follow other blogs directly on Tumblr), but Adidas is also on all the other channels.

The point is that your strategy of where you should be depends on what you create, and the purpose of that content. If the purpose is to bring people long term value, you would be better off focusing it on channels that you can work with over the long term (owned platforms). While if you are looking for a social connection, you are much better off being where people are (despite the fact you might lose control of it and have to start over).

Posts like the ones from Adidas Originals are not designed to last. They are designed to create excitement for a very short period of time. Nobody will go to Adidas' blog to see what they posted 6 months ago, while people will do that for blogs where the content in itself is what brings the value.

Blog comments

Another example is comments. Long time readers of this site, might have noticed that I dropped Disqus earlier this year. The reason was that Disqus, as a rented service, started to change the platform to be monetized by advertising.

First they introduced 'promoted discovery', where part of the commenting box would show promoted posts from other blogs inside the comment box on this site. I was not at all happy about that.

Then they came up with the idea of adding their own associate ecommerce code to link to what I or other people had posted. Turning for instance a link to Amazon on my site into an affiliate link for Disqus. I wrote about this over at Google+.

Disqus was starting to behave like Facebook and Instagram. First giving us everything for free, only to later assume control over something they have no right to control in the first place (my site).

Again, this is the problem with rented versus owned.

So I promptly removed Disqus from my site. I can't have a 3rd party rented service interfering with that (especially not since Disqus only took value away from my site, they didn't add anything in return that I didn't already have). But I didn't remove Disqus because I didn't want people to comment.

I want people to comment, and I had to come up with a new plan.

I could build my own commenting system (which I actually already have, because that's what I used before I started using Disqus), but we have to remember the four elements.

What is the purpose of a comment? Is it the comment itself, or the social relationship that it creates? The answer, of course, is that each comment means very little without the social interaction. The purpose of a comment is not the words, but how it creates a tighter connection between you as a reader and me as a writer. Meaning that the social aspects are far more important than anything else.

Disqus was great for that. Yes, it was a rented service, but it actually scores very high on all other counts. While hosting the comments myself, only focuses on the element of value. But Disqus crossed the line when they introduced elements that had nothing to do with commenting into my page, without my consent.

So I can't host the comment myself, nor can I use Disqus. What else can I do?

I can use Facebook comments, which has all the social elements but almost none of the value. And with Facebook's focus on promoted posts, I think it's only a matter of time before they will do the same as Disqus.

Instead, I opted to move my comments to G+. So today, instead of commenting here on this site. Each article ends with "Head over to G+ to comment or discuss this report.

This is not perfect in any way. There are about a million things I want to see improved. For one it limits my commenters to those with a G+ account. But think about the social effect of this.

I'm focusing the value of my content on a platform that I can control and own (here), while focusing my social interaction where people are and where it's far more convenient to connect and establish a long term relationship.

As I said, it's far from perfect. But I do like the concept of designing your interaction based on where it makes the most sense to engage with it.

Instagram versus Flickr

So let's talk Instagram, and whether you should drop it like many are currently considering. National Geographic almost did but after talking it over with Instagram they came back.

It's tempting to just move back to Flickr, which is an owned service that you pay for. And one that does have many of the same social elements.

But again, you have to think about this in relation to the four critical elements: Value, people, sharing and convenience compared with the purpose of what you are trying to do.

For a brand like National Geographic, the purpose and focus on what they do is largely defined by the images they bring. Which means that for them, the perceived value of the pictures, and the protection of such, may outrank the social effects.

National Geographic is a long term experience, and cannot associate itself with a platform who might jeopardize that. I don't think it's a good idea to completely drop a social service, but I certainly do understand why they were the first ones to consider it. To them their pictures are their product, and they can't allow Instagram to use these pictures as part of a promotion for other brands.

However, if you are a brand like Audi, it's a completely different thing. Audi's product isn't the photos, it's the cars. And as such, Instagram to them is far more about the social effect than anything else

It would be insane if Audi stopped using Instagram and instead opted to post all their photos on an owned blog. For Audi, Instagram is all about social reach. That's the whole point of why they are there.

  • National Geographic uses Instagram as an extension of their product.
  • Audi uses instagram as a social advertising platform.

Big difference!

Volpin Props

Finally, let's end this with a great example of a person who is balancing owned versus rented, value, people, sharing and convenience extremely well. It's Harrison Krix from Volpin Props.

He is using YouTube (rented), Facebook (rented), Blog (owned), and a webshop (owned) to their maximum capabilities. They are optimizing each channel for what they do best, and the value it contains.

Harrison is a prop maker, and his business and brand are about making props either for companies (to be used at fairs or at special events, like TV commercials), or for dedicated fans who just can't live without a real-life replica of something used in a game. Just take a look at this:

Let's start off with how he uses Facebook. On his Facebook page, you will find that it's about the day to day process of creating the things he creates. It's all about making people feel a part of his work, in snack sized social chunks that you can follow, share and enjoy every day.

Just head over to his page and look through all the posts. There is the occasional announcement here and there, but overall it's all about relationship building. It's very honest, very transparent, and because he is brilliant at what he does, it's also extremely inspiring.

And he doesn't just tell people what he makes. He helps people understand how it was done, as well.

On YouTube, we see a slightly different focus. While he is still posting videos of his day to day work (which work great in combination with his focus on Facebook), he is also creating videos that sums up the build and give the bigger perspective. Like this one (which is amazing):

Both YouTube and Facebook are rented services, and as such are both focused on the social element over the long term value. So what about his owned services, his blog and website?

First, if we look at his blog, you will notice that it has an entirely different focus. A blog isn't social, so instead of focusing on people, he focuses his attention on creating value. Each blog post is designed to be a highly detailed story about each one of his projects.

One example is the blog post for the build of the Skyrim Helmet (same one as in the video above). It's a 28 page article, detailing every single step of the build, with descriptions, suggestions, and videos.

It's 100% about creating as much value as possible, leaving the social interaction to happen on Facebook and Youtube.

His Facebook posts are designed to create a relationship through daily social snacks. His blog is designed to give people the bigger picture, at immense depth. Something that people can go back to over the long term.

He is also using Flickr, where he posts collections of the images of each build (even more than on the blog). Again, opting to use Flickr, because as an owned service it has long term value.

He couldn't do that on Instagram or Pinterest, because they are far too short term, designed for people rather than the value of the product.

And the beauty of his blog is that while all the social interaction is important, the blog provides a level of insight that you cannot create on a social service. When you follow him on Facebook, you see all this amazing work, but you never truly realize just how massive the job is.

The blog tells that story.

This is an important lesson. If he just used Facebook, he would never be able to show people the real level of value. Social interactions are great, but it's also very short term and tends to hide the bigger picture.

If he only used his blog, he would not have been able to build up enough social interaction to reach enough people (because a blog isn't social). For instance, the video above has been seen almost 130,000 times on YouTube. That would never had happened if he had hosted that video on his website.

The trick is to balance the four elements: Value, People, Sharing and Convenience, in relation to the purpose of what you are trying to do in each case.

The magic is in the mix!

Head over to G+ to comment or discuss this report.

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Avinash Kaushik

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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