Content Is No Longer King

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Content Is No Longer King

May 7, 2012 at 2:14 pm PT

“Content is king” has been a long-lived mantra of media. And in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was true.

But over the last several years, the Internet has upheaved the aphorism.

It used to be that media was linear. And in that world, content and distribution were married. The HBO channel had HBO content. A New York Times subscription bought you New York Times content. And Vogue and Cosmopolitan each month delivered exclusive and proprietary content from … Vogue and Cosmopolitan.

Until the Internet came along. In every single one of the varied businesses the Internet has touched — from commerce to media to communications to payments — there has been one common impact: disaggregation.

Content and distribution have parted

In the case of the hundreds-of-years-old media business, the Internet has fundamentally separated content from distribution.

Today I can watch hundreds of South Park and Jon Stewart clips, all without a cable box — on my Apple TV, my Android phone, or YouTube on my desktop.

But wait, South Park and Jon Stewart? Content is king, you say. It’s now even more free to reign, unfettered by distribution channels!

No; because content is no longer enough. Content has always been a means to an end. And the end has always been audience.

Content isn’t the goal. Audience is.

When it comes to the business of media, there’s no question: advertisers don’t pay to reach content. They pay to reach an audience.

What’s the first item in every brief from every advertiser? It’s not Target Content, it’s Target Audience.

Media has been slow to adjust to this new dynamic. Companies have sunk billions into content management systems — using CMS as the cornerstone of their modernization — under the impression that they traffic in content.

But they don’t. They traffic in audience. And how much have they spent on audience development systems? Not much, if any at all.

Now that distribution of content to audience is no longer linear, distribution decisions are suddenly more complicated. And, at the same time, they are immensely more important — and more dynamic — to create the impact media companies are looking for: drawing an audience! Social distribution can outperform search, if you use it wisely. Day-parting your postings can boost post performance by 100 percent or more. Packaging can triple the effectiveness of content in reaching an audience.

And yet, few in media have even begun to optimize these decisions.

Who’s your Chief Audience Officer?

Distribution decisions are just as important as content decisions in building and serving an audience, and yet they are being largely ignored. Everyone has an Editor-In-Chief or a Chief Creative Officer. But how many have a Distributor-In-Chief? Or a Chief Audience Officer? A Head of Digital Programming?

The myopic focus on content over distribution is widespread, and it’s a bad business decision. It ignores a critical access of leverage, and one of competitive advantage.

The smartest media companies will do three things to take control of their digital opportunity:

Put someone in charge of audience development.

Give them latitude to think about the interplay between distribution and content, so that they can marry the two. Like a head of programming for a cable network, they should be tasked to realize the full potential of your digital channels. They should support the delivery of your content, and they should also provide back pressure to your content creators. Don’t merge it into your editorial jobs — that’s too precarious. Make it its own discipline.

Adopt an audience development strategy.

There are three basic components you have to master: insights (know your audience segments, and what each one will like); channel selection (identify the highest value distribution outlets for your brand, whether it’s search, social, YouTube, Hulu, or your own channels); and optimization (use data to create a feedback loop and tune your content, packaging, and timing to what works for your audience).

Systematize it.

You have sunk millions into content management systems. But how much have you spent on your most monetizable asset, your audience? You should be as systematic in audience development as you are in content creation, if not more so. Whether it’s with established processes or dedicated algorithms, make audience development a competitive advantage. Get so good at it that you truly know how to maximize every piece of content you create — and multiply your ROI. Use technology for what it does best: Systematize your advantages over your competitors.

With the rise of new distribution platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Hulu, there’s no question that the next generation of digital media is as much about distribution as it is about content. Media companies that orient their organizations to prize audience development above all (with distribution as a key component) will catch the upside of these tectonic shifts. And they will be the ones that survive and thrive in the digital age. After all, audience is the ruler of media companies’ fortunes.

This article by Ben Elowitz (@elowitz) is an exclusive selection from his Media Success newsletter for digital media leaders. Elowitz is the co-founder and CEO of next-generation media company Wetpaint and the author of the Digital Quarters blog about the future of digital media. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile (NILE).


The smartest media companies have not only done this, but most of the average ones have as well.  Many think about ARPU and have audience valuation models to boot. Perhaps Elowitz is preaching to the laggards. Laurențiu Roman

But i find that News Corp’s content (mostly Fox TV and 20th) is the most constrained, compaired to other distributors. Has that translated into more of an audience? If Audience is the key, how has aquiring a moderatley big audience (Myspace) faired for News Corp? NC are not the only ones troubled by this, but for the most part, except ALLD, they are not practicing what they preach, they don’t eat their dog food, they call the kettle black and all that. Louis House

great read! thanks Ben! so true, distribution and engagement are central pillars. Cheers! Ian Lurie

Really? Seriously? Content always required an audience. That hasn’t changed. But crappy content still can’t succeed, no matter how huge your audience.

You don’t get distribution, or engagement, if there’s nothing worth distributing, or if your content is so lame that no one engages.


Semantics. Manav Kapoor

Worst article I have ever read in a while!  Content and distribution work in tandem with each other. Content creates the audience, not vica versa. And a Chief Distribution Officer? Seriously…… Eddie Bongo

What a confusing and self indulgent article.  Once you have got bored of coming up with a new online mantra, you will realise you have wasted a lot of time and money when suddenly the penny drops.  Content is king, always will be and for all types of medium.  Content will ultimately deliver your audience, the type of audience which matters (£££).  Fail to deliver content and engaging content and your audience will go to where the content is.



Time, Hearst, Conde Nast, ABC, Fox, and many others are fine companies but they’re not the kings of the media space.  That would be Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft.  I agree with  @Reykjavik:disqus that many media companies do have audience development positions, but it doesn’t change the fact that the power right now has shifted to those who own the content pipelines, not the people produce the content that flows through it. Greg Ivanov

Surely the focus has to be on digital distribution, as one very important aspect that disrupted traditional media models. As others have noted, audiences have always been important, online hasn’t changed that. And again, content brings audience – that’s why the CMS example is misleading – CMSs are ultimately tools that help drive and engage the audience. Eric Killorin

The author is spot on. Look around you. Content is ubiquotous and increasingly user-generated. Call it amateur journalism lacking the scholarly touch of professionally educated writers, but no business lost money underestimating the taste of the American public. Pinterest is a good example of empowering users to aggregate content and serving up at no cost. I track the automotive publishing market and hear all too often publishers’ clinging to the twisted belief their precious content will save their obsolete business models. What was once an essential component of magazines and books is now a free commodity. Forget Web 3.0, we’re talking Audience 10XX. (Ben: I posted your article at my blog 


Wow. What utter crap.

I’ve heard similar drivel come from marketers who think they know everything EXCEPT why people pick up a magazine, turn on a TV show or tune in to a radio program.

Content brings the audience together and THEN advertisers come in because they have a momentarily captive audience in which to hock something.

Content is the ONLY thing that creates an audience and without one, there are no advertisers.


Try gathering an audience with crap content. Those blogs you speak of? The writer and their mom read them.

Free content usually blows because it looks cheap, acts cheap and is of little value to the consumer and consumers don’t want content that looks and acts like that.

Content is a free commodity if you start lumping the loads of crap out there with real content that is valued by the consumer. .0001% of blogs matter to the average consumer and to worry about them stealing away an audience is absurd.

However, quality content still KILLS the crap that attempts to clog the bandwidth and that crap should even be mentioned in the same sentence as professionally produced images, reporting or a combination of the two.

Pinterest gets 99% of their content from sites with quality editorial, not other blogs or small sites. They’re not creating content, they’re repeating quality content. People are pinning vetted material that often appears on magazine or professionally run sites, not some craft project from a high school craft class. Pinterest is actually reinforcing how important content is because users choose quality content to pin over and over and over again.

User generated material only goes so far unless it’s of a high enough quality to matter to the masses and 99% of amateur content doesn’t come close to professionally produced content which looks like and actually is, a value.

Anonymous Paul Carmody

I think the point that’s being missed is that most of the content being viewed is reposted from something else.  Reddit, Pinterest, Digg, Twitter, Facebook, Fark, Yahoo, Bing … and those are just the frivolous ones!  These sites bring millions of eyeballs, and they NEED content (someone else’s content, to be precise) to keep those viewers coming back.

The issue at hand is how can media companies get paid for (or control) the original content once it’s been plastered all over 10,000 other websites, gathering eyeballs? Patrick

 I’d have to agree. Much of the content is a repost of a repost of a repost.. who gets paid when someone posts a picture from Imgur that they found on Reddit to their Pinterest board? Content does create an audience, but when an audience continuously gorges itself upon repackaged, rehashed, unoriginal content, where are the profits to be had in content creation?

Andrew Rohman

This seems pretty short-sighted, or at least fails to fully comprehend the concept of content. Audience is hugely important, but content includes consumer-generated content, which is hugely important.

The content production process may not be linear anymore, but that doesn’t mean content is dead, it just means we need to rethink how we approach content and how it’s used… joshcarlson

Maybe I read a different article? If the goal of content is to create audience, shouldn’t you invest in strategy

to maximize your return on content you create.

Gregory Shumchenia

Simple solution: Would you rather produce GREAT content to a small audience, or absolute crap content to millons of people? If your content is really, truly amazing the small audience will share it with millions. The crap content will just fail. D.T. Pennington

Nay, Crappy content can succeed! 

Just take a look at any pop-music act in the last 20 some odd years. D.T. Pennington


If you don’t have excellent content, you don’t have much of anything. You might be able to buy an audience, but they probably aren’t going to stick around unless there is something worthwhile to stick around for. 

Content is still king. Period. 


doesn’t matter. advertising and content parted long ago. 3rd party ad networks don’t sell brands or content, they drop cookies on people. and publishers are sharecroppers for the networks. Dr. Nellie Deutsch

Content is still KING and will remain so, but going beyond your intended audience and reaching new populations will bring in the numbers that you need. Joe Ferreira

I’m never sure why everyone feels compelled to anoint a KING? This is not an either/or ecosystem. It’s a fluid system of publishing to an audience (and often vice versa these days) and courting advertisers to include their message in some context around the content. CONTENT is vital…without strong content there is no way to attract a sustainable audience in which to sell to advertisers (either live or during the next content iteration like a weekly show or web series or whatever). The TYPE OF AUDIENCE (demographics, psychographics, etc.) the content attracts is also vital. And, to the point of this article, the ability of a publisher to continually cultivate, respond to and serve that audience to entice content sharing and create an enhanced content experience that leads to audience growth and publisher prosperity is what it’s all about. Dr. Nellie Deutsch

Form (images & videos) not the quality of the content or the audience rules. François Kermoal Dr. Nellie Deutsch

 Yes, content is free, but this blog won’t let us share links with the content. Bill Gwaltney

This is clearly an article to try to get a rise, but I’ll humor you. It’s a given that audience is the main goal. Everyone knows that. The variable is that content determines how that audience is engaged, which is why content is king. In other words, content is king for reaching the right audience. Bill Gwaltney

Completely agree Ian. See my post. People think this is revolutionary? No, this has always been a given. Robert J. Bee


Your statement is a bit misleading. Long before the internet was invented, advertising agencies, at least the really good ones developed campaign ideas and what you call content based on best possible consumer insight. But the quality of your content continues to be paramount in engaging and expanding your audience. bee4brands LLC Taylor Trask

These foolish mantras “content is king,” “audience is king,” etc have to stop.  Content, audience and distribution are all 3 equal parts of the same economic “triforce.”  No one is more important than the others and you can’t have two without the third.  

I’d really like to see a more well-reasoned approach to this discussion and LESS linkbaiting with these foolish titles. Carlos del Rio

Every generation “new business” learns the same old lesson. The Internet has not changed any rules of business, it only changed perspectives. 


Agreed. I also think that on this article and his Digital Quarters blog the author comes off as a bit arrogant. Does he have some good points? Absolutely, but that doesn’t justify this sort of black and white thinking. Kevin Nakao

The internet has not created disaggregation, but shifted the players involved in distribution from physical to online.  Content & Distribution were never one and the same.  HBO negotiated cable and satellite deals, distributed DVD’s of their original programming to Blockbuster and Best Buy.  The New York Times was distributed through 3rd party magazine and news stands.  Content creator’s like film studios, music companies, and publishers staffed huge distribution organizations.  Outside of print, the internet hasn’t really married content and distribution for the major players in music/tv/film, but it has made direct distribution possible for independent artists.  That said, the only thing I know for sure is that both content and distribution are critical, and it’s just link bait to claim anything less. Vanessa Tran

Content would be nothing without an audience. True. However, there’s good, great and crap content, so you’d rather generate great content to a small audience, rather than crap content to a huge audience, true? I agree with other readers here, that content is still king. Audience is the queen, so they go hand in hand. Chris Huston

Actually, you’re both right, because you each mean different things with “crappy”. You’re talking about it in a qualitative/subjective sense; Ian means it not in a qualitative sense, but a measurable one, which he defines, viz. “crappy” content is that which “no one engages [with]“. By his definition there is lots of high-quality content (e.g. many foreign and indie films on Netflix streaming that “no one” wants (except, apparently, me and a few others)) that is “crappy”. Ian is right because you’re right, D.T., unfortunately. Brandin

If you are a media outlet, and you are not selling the audience, you’ve been doing it wrong the whole time.

The author fails to see that some localized media outlets (like alternative weekly newspapers) have been churning out great content for years, know how to package it, and continue to engage their audience.  Hell, that’s the main reason they became so prominent, starting in the 70s!  Some of us can point to news organizations who present relevant local content–news, listings, reviews, culture & events–in a manner that includes print, online, social media and events.Larger companies have always had trouble shifting their business models and spending money to change their practices.  But, when you’re on the ground floor, and have an editorial staff of 10 or less, you can do that much more easily.  Some nice points, but not exactly breaking news.  Your marketing director is your audience director, your distributing director and your digital programming director. Justin James

What a load of garbage! Content requires audience, television licence to Hulu, it’s all just a delivery system.  Best delivery options in the world will (generally) fail if they can’t deliver an audience what they want.

Forget the vested interests in any camp and use logic! solomon_rex

It’s a brilliant article ~golf clap~

And I’ll add another sterling example: Amazon.  Their kindle and Prime are great examples of building a loyal audience through value creation, and advertising to that audience to best secondary effect.  Of course, it helps if you’re the client as well as the advertiser.

As Microsoft clearly waffles on how to grow their xbox 360 audience, I hope they heed this message.  Seems to me they’re fleecing the flock too early. rpt2112

uh yeah…content for the sake of content wa snot the mantra content rather than bells and whistles was what drove ‘audiences’ to the property then the sponsors (advertisers etc.)…any firm worth it weight in spit should have already developed client (audeince) centric practice as part of its business model…just like the old days..then came the hiccups of bottom line mentality and now..well a return tot he here good people…. rpt2112

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