4. The Hub-and-Spoke Model of Content
What's in this Section
Now that you saw the elements of content marketing in the last section, let's step back and look at the Big Picture. How do these pieces fit together? What is the relation between your website, the content, the distribution sites, and your audience?
Hub-and-Spoke as a Model for Your Website and Content
A widely-used idea in content marketing is the hub-and-spoke concept. Tike a bicycle wheel with a hub in the center and spokes which radiate outwards, the website is the hub in the center, where the content originates. The content is then pushed out to the spokes, which are the distribution sites (such as YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on). People discover the content at those sites which leads them back to the website at the hub. The company's website is the center of their strategy.
Figure 8: In the hub-and-spoke model for content marketing, the website is at the center. The spokes point out to the distribution sites where the content is placed.
The hub-and-spoke model comes from the transportation and distribution industry. Delta Airlines started using a hub-and-spoke model in 1955. They chose Atlanta as the center (the hub) and all flights radiated as spokes to and from the hub. It's also used by Wal-Mart, which has a hub in Arkansas. The FedEx hub is in Memphis, Tennessee and UPS has a hub in Louisville, Kentucky. (Why these cities? They're in the center of the population of North America.)
The idea of a website or blog as the hub and distribution of content to the spokes is a key concept in books such as Content Rules, by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman, Inbound Marketing, by Brian Halli-gan and Dharmesh Shah, Valuable Content Marketing, by Sonja Jefferson and Sharon Tanton, Content Strategy, by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach, and Optimize, by Lee Odden. Many more blogs and articles use the hub-and-spoke model for content marketing. This idea has been widely adopted by websites. I've built hundreds of websites since 1995 and I also used this idea.
After much discussion with the book's advisory team and delivering many presentations on content marketing, I began to realize something was wrong.
Twenty years ago, websites started as brochureware, which means they presented the organization from the organization's point of view. "We have a big office building; we have a CEO; we have a dog." Remember those?
The problem with those sites was that visitors didn't really care about the building, the CEO, or the dog. Visitors wanted to solve their problems. If the website didn't offer the solution, visitors just pressed backspace, returned to the search engine, and looked for another site.
Not much has changed. Today, most websites are basically interactive brochureware, which means they added features such as comments, downloads, registration forms, shopping carts, and so on, but the organization is still at the center. Marketers, web designers, and SEO focus on the organization's website as if the rest of the web doesn't exist. Amazon, for example, is all about Amazon. Facebook would be happy if the rest of the web got deleted.
Now, why is that wrong?
The model is wrong because it doesn't match what's really going on.
You've heard the story of the hardware store and the hammer, right? Nobody goes to a hardware store just to walk around in a hardware store. Nobody really wants a hammer either. Michelle buys a hammer because she wants to put in a nail to hang up a photo of her family. Her desire is to see the photo on the wall; the hammer is just part of the solution. She doesn't care about the hardware store, its CEO, or the dog.
Some of you may wonder what this has to do with a website. Ronda has a website, so she puts her content on her website. So isn't her website at the center? That's where Ronda is making a mistake. If she thinks of her website as the central point of her marketing, then she'll pay attention to her site and she won't think much about other sites. She may add some content to YouTube, Facebook, and a few more, but not much more.
And that's what's going on at nearly every website. Ask Ronda how many items of content she created. Many sites consider themselves to be big if they have 100-200 items on their site.
Next, ask her how many sites she uses for distribution. Probably not more than six.
How should this be different? Ronghua, who has a tea export company in Sichuan, wants to reach as many customers as possible, so she sees her website as just another distribution site. Ronghua will also create as much content as possible. Her 500 articles and videos may end up on 2,000 sites, because she wants to get the maximum distribution for her content. That gives her more exposure to her audience.
See? You need to think of distributing your content, not controlling it. So what should be at the center of your strategy?
Your customers should be in the center. The content should be written for them.
- The central issue is your customers' concerns and their problems, not your organization.
- Content is information that you create/or your audience and customers.
- Distribution is how you distribute that content to your audience. You place your customer-centric content on many websites, including YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and, along with all of these websites, your content is also on your website. Your website or blog is just another distribution point. When you're successful at content distribution, your 5,000 items may appear on 50,000 pages, and most of those sites aren't yours.
Figure 9: An improved hub-and-spoke model for content marketing. The audience is in the center. The spokes point to distribution sites where content is placed. Your website is just another distribution site for your content.
It's actually against your interests to keep your content only on your site. It reduces your exposure to your audience. You want your content to be distributed as widely as possible. You want your ebook not just on your one web page. You want your ebook on 20,000 web pages. Are people copying it and making it available on their websites? Great! The more they share, the greater your presence, which also means greater share of presence over your competitors.
I'm not being flippant. A number of people downloaded my KPI ebook and hand it out to their visitors. Some people uploaded it to various ebook distribution sites. People had uploaded it to six different accounts at one book distribution site. Over 25,000 people had read it. I didn't get a penny in royalties. Was it piracy? Yes. Did I mind? Yes, of course. But the point of my ebook was to show people how to calculate KPIs, so that worked. I wrote the ebook several years ago, when I didn't know about content marketing, so the ebook wasn't trackable. I've fixed that now. If people want to distribute it, that's good.
Widespread distribution isn't just an idea for websites. In Silicon Valley, there's the Red Rock Cafe. It's a great local coffee house where musicians play music, they show movies, groups meet there, and artists display their work on the walls. But Red Rock is just one cafe. And then there's Starbucks. Their coffee is available in tens of thousands of supermarkets, millions of hotel rooms, on thousands of passenger airplanes, and many more locations. What's the difference between Red Rock Cafe and Starbucks? Most websites are like the Red Rock Cafe: they offer lots of things and interaction... at their website. They haven't moved to the Starbucks model where the customer's desire is the center. Starbucks solves this by ubiquitous distribution. Starbucks' goal is to be wherever people want to drink coffee.
This isn't a new idea. Companies have known for decades that a key factor of success in sales is a large number of distribution points. The more distribution, the greater the sales. Build as much distribution as possible so your content shows up wherever people have the needs that your products and services can solve.
Put the Audience at the Center of the Hub and Spoke
The audience at the center is a major shift in how to understand web distribution. Just as Copernicus changed the world from a geocentric to a heliocentric model of the universe, we move from a focus on the website as the center to a view where the customer is the center and our website is just another page.
This breaks the search engine model of the web. When Megan uses a search engine, she gets a search results page. The search engine shows only ten websites. She won't see all of the other websites for that search.
If your organization has several pages with the same content, the search engine won't show those pages. Megan won't be able to see your additional pages.
This is good for people who are searching in a search engine.
But this hurts your content distribution. Search engines aren't good for your organization's outreach. The search engines have become, for better or worse, the gate to the web. As we all know, the lucky two or three at the top of page one in a search engine get 90% of all the traffic to that topic. Everyone else gets nothing.
You want your content to be available on as many sites and pages as possible. People will discover you on those sites; they will pass your links and content to each other; they will talk about your content among themselves. Search engines don't matter to any of this.
As you'll see in the section on SEO, Google isn't the main resource for people to research your topics. You need an SEO strategy that gets around search engines, which we'll cover in that section.
Figure 10: With the audience is at the center, content is pushed out to the distribution sites. Those content items can be in four different categories: text, images, video, and audio.
For example, you find that your audience wants to know how tea should be brewed (it's not as easy as you think). You reply by writing an article about brewing tea; you make a video; you take a series of photos and so on.
Next, you push the content items to the various distribution sites. For example, the photo essays are placed on Flickr, Picasa, and Pinterest. The videos go to YouTube, Vimeo, and so on. And yes, the articles, videos, and photos also go on your website. Your website is just another distribution point (okay, okay, you can call it your favorite distribution point).
Figure 11: Each of the four categories (text, images, video, and audio) has formats. Images for example can be infographics, photographs, drawings, and cartoons. Each of these is placed on their appropriate distribution platform.
This doesn't mean you must use every format and distribution point. Some formats may not be relevant to you, so you can ignore those. Many distribution sites won't be relevant either, so don't bother with those.
Some of the spokes are sub-spokes. For example, text is the category which leads to the formats of social posting, such as tweets, Facebook, and so on.
Some spokes are longer than others. The ones that are important to you should be closer to your hub. Blogs and Twitter should be close to the center. If you're not doing much video, put it further away.
There are also new formats. QR codes (those funny little dotted squares) and NFC tags may become big. Or not. For some of you, these could be very useful. For others, not at all.
As I've said before, don't ignore a format or distribution site just because you don't like it. Test it and use data to make a decision. If the data shows it doesn't work, you'll be happy because you were right. If it works, you'll be happy too, because you're getting good results.
The Content Engine as a Flow Diagram
While making more than three dozen presentations on content marketing, I realized the hub-and-spoke metaphor wasn't the best way to explain content marketing. In fact, it just raised questions and created more confusion.
It made more sense to explain content production as a linear process that develops ideas into content. The process moves from left to right. The starting point is your audience. The end point is also your audience.
This is really important, so I'll repeat it: you start with your audience and you end with your audience.
Here is the editorial calendar as an illustration:
Figure 12: An overview of the content production process as an engine.
Here's an overview of the process as a table:
Do you see? The audience is the focus. We start with the audience. In the end, we're back to the audience. The content is built for the audience. It's customer-centric content.
Summary of this Section
We start out with an idea that everyone knows to be true, but it turns out that doesn't really work. We flip it around and put the customer at the center. Remember your customers; The reason your organization exists;
When you put your customers at the center, the search engine game is changed. Instead of doing whatever possible just to be one link at the top of a search engine, you switch to a world where you put your content wherever your customers are looking. That changes your distribution strategy.