To SaaS or not to SaaS… that is the question
Or is it?
Much has been written over the last decade about retaining control of content. I remember a time when the NFL sent letters to fans running booster club sites (the first viral, community-building enthusiast of the digital era), warning them to take down from their fan sites any trademarks belonging to the NFL and its teams. Never mind the perpetual content creation, algorithm inspiring re-directs, cheap cross-promotion and ticket/properties selling opportunities (the red meat) — the league wanted all roads to lead strictly to NFL.com. Today, a Google search spits out more than 18 million links for NFL content in less than two seconds, with few linking to NFL.com.
The pendulum has swung so far the other way that the backlash debate rages. There are those favoring totally decentralized content where battle-tested social / SaaS channels drive your brand. On the other side, are those who consider such practices digital “sharecropping” — effectively building value for the digital landowner but not for the content providers plowing the e-fields. Missing in the debate is a vital component: the purpose of each channel for the business.
According to Copyblogger, you lose four vital components of your digital strategy by sharecropping: security, availability, control and profit. Let’s break it out. Inevitably, technology providers spend a much greater deal of time thinking about and developing security and availability than virtually any brand/business owner. They have to, because their success depends on it. Smarter guys than me can rage about internal firewalls versus 3rd party services, but as a marketer, they all net out about the same. And while any 3rd party provider does retain a certain amount of control over the presentation of your content within their channel, there are literally thousands of channels available for getting your content published. And most importantly, the people absorbing your content are very comfortable with the user experience of the channel they’re using – it’s kind of why they picked that particular channel. Moreover, the 3rd party services are creating more and more ways for the user to control and customize content within their channel.
From my perspective, all three arguments related to security, availability and control are a wash. That leaves profit. Copyblogger’s argument assumes that most businesses need the channel itself to be profitable — or, more transparently, that we’re angry because it’s profitable for Zuckerberg, Williams/Stone, et al. But most businesses don’t need publishing revenue models to succeed, so the profit argument is the weakest.
Let’s refocus the debate on “purpose.” What is the purpose of sharecropping? There are two clear advantages: the platforms already exist and they have audiences. The metrics are pretty clear for our clients — and a good deal of other companies — that less than 10% of your owned web properties get much traffic at all. (Eg. spirits and wines sites get high traffic on three pages: coupons, store locators and sexy activities.) The era of everyone coming to your house to look through your closet is over — even the NFL gets it now. So slim down those sites on the front end and sharecrop where the people are. You get the duel benefit of increasing your overall digital footprint, while divesting in your own technology expenses. The purpose of creating content is to have it seen, so till the soil and sharecrop in earnest; get the message out.
However, before you dump your entire IT team, ask the other question: what is the purpose of ownership and getting customers to your digital properties? Again, there are two clear advantages: commerce and alignment. Retaining some front-end control of your IP, and a great deal of back-end control means that you can transact with customers online. Sharecropping and ownership must then work in tandem to help engage and transact in a pretty obvious dance that requires little additional commentary here. But there is also a second purpose for this dance: message alignment. The purpose of a good back-end hub for your IP is that you can disseminate IP into all emerging digital channels in a branded, consistent, and meaningful way. Technology has grown up, providing sophisticated APIs that allow a single entry of brand IP to pass through your hub and populate externally to thousands of channels — both internal and external, at all levels of your business. You can control identity and permission-based access, as well as metrics and analytics. If you outsource control of your hub you make it much more difficult to drive alignment across all of your touchpoints — and that is a business and brand nightmare.
Compromise is hard to come by in our political climate, but it should be the central thesis of this debate. Focus on the purpose of your IP dissemination, optimize the channel(s) that makes the most sense, and find some harmony between external opportunities (access and costs) and internal needs (commerce and alignment) to drive forward a digital strategy that will propel your business.