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Are your marketing channels really yours? A fresh look at channel ownership

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Marketers like to distinguish between three types of marketing channels:

  • Owned channels
  • Earned channels and
  • Paid channels

Owned channels are channels over which you (allegedly) have full control, while earned and paid channels are owned by others. Earned channels are third-party channels that you have earned the right and ability to use for your marketing activities, while paid channels are those that you pay someone else to use.

Based on this distinction, owned channels would include your website and social media presence as well as flyers, signage and other business collateral. Earned channels, by definition, would include all platforms that you can contribute to free of charge – such as magazines, blogs, speaking events and so on. Meanwhile, paid channels could include search engine advertising, advertorials and commercials and all other forms of paid promotion.

But if we compare owned and earned channels, things get murky. Arguably – you contribute to social media free of charge – just like you do to another person’s blog or event. And while social media may have lower access barriers (in that almost anyone can use it) than a guest post, both are owned by another company, i.e. a third-party.

It may seem as though social media should just be considered an earned channel then – but what about your website? Do you only control the content – or can you fully choose how you use this channel? Do you have a hosting company who can block you at will – or restrict your account, if it violates their terms of service?

If yes, then who owns this channel? You may own the data – but do you have the ability to control how and when this channel is available?

I would posit that whenever you give another person or company the right to control your ability to use a marketing channel – it isn’t truly yours.

For example, if a social media platform is set up to block users or companies at will, then they can – in theory – take down or restrict your account at any time. So ultimately, they are in control. Or suppose a web hosting provide writes in the terms and conditions that he can ban you for publishing “fake news”, that certain types of content are forbidden and that he reserves the right to delete any content that does not comply with the terms, then – by using that hosting provider – you give up full ownership of that channel.

The two sides of ownership: control and responsibility

The illusion of ownership

If you believe that what you create or what your business shares online is truly yours, then that illusion shatters when other people:

  • Copy and steal your work
  • Impersonate you
  • take down, block or restrict what you have created
  • attack or destroy your work (e.g. through hacks and exploits)
  • or sell your work to others – without your permission

That’s when you learn that just because something was yours when you created it, it won’t be yours forever.

It’s just like a house. What happens to that house when its’ not looked after by its owner? It rots and crumbles to pieces, it wastes away, or it is used by others who invest in its protection and upkeep.

Real ownership – of a house, a marketing channel, anything else – comes with responsibility. Let me repeat that: real ownership comes with responsibility.

 If you don’t look after your marketing channels, you cannot expect your ownership to last.

How much responsibility does it take to own your marketing channels?

If you decide that you want to fully manage your own marketing channels, you are then responsible not only for the communications but all activities required in maintain and improving those channels.

Just to give you an idea of the scope of work, for a website full ownership could include looking after:

  • Data storage: hardware and electricity supply
  • IT security: backups, protection against malware and malicious actors, etc.
  • Communications: creating and organising text, images, videos
  • Legal compliance: meeting all mandatory standards and rules in your jurisdiction
  • Availability: suitable up-time
  • Functionality and user experience: ensuring the site works as intended for you and your visitors

To effectively take responsibility for a full website, you can see that you need certain skills, resources and/or budget, which is why it can be more convenient to pay someone who already has the skills and resources to provide a marketing channel to you.

The value equation: When you do not need marketing channel ownership

You do not necessarily need to own every single marketing channel that you use. Where the value is more in the use of the channel, you can happily pay others to handle the upkeep and maintenance for you – so long as you acknowledge, that just like a person who rents a house, you may need to pivot and remain flexible, if the house owner decides they want to make use of their full ownership rights.

When the benefits of ‘renting’ a channel outweigh the sacrifices made in terms of ownership – it’s worth renting. For example, the unparalleled reach of advertising networks (such as Google Ads and others) makes it more attractive for many independent businesses to choose a third-party network on which to advertise their product or service. These businesses would have neither the resources, nor the experience to run their own advertising network.

Meanwhile, for an independent news site with a focus on investigative research, the benefits of owning a dedicated membership and subscription portal including payment system may outweigh the burden of responsibility – because it brings them peace of mind when they know that their decentralised set-up cannot easily be turned off or censored by a powerful authority.

How to minimise the risks that come with third-party owned marketing channels

Maintain ownership over your data

For example, your business website, often a core asset, is usually hosted by a third-party. This means your hosting provider has access to (and responsibility for) your data.

However, even if you trust your hosting provider, and are confident that they will not wilfully do harm to your website, they may not be able to guarantee protection against takedown requests from governments, cybercriminals and people with malicious intent. Or simple system failures, such as fires in data warehouse, and other vulnerabilities.

Therefore, having good backups of your website – and any resources used in your marketing channels – can save you a lot of stress and help you feel in control.

Decentralise and diversify to minimise dependency on any one channel

When you constantly focus on one marketing channel, you’re essentially placing a bet. You’re putting money and time on the table in the hopes of disproportionate returns.

And for a while, you may be playing your cards right and seeing outlandish returns. But what happens when the rules of the game change and you no longer have the upper hand?

Then suddenly you need to find a different place to play. But you don’t have to limit yourself to one game from the outset.

Instead of only promoting content in Twitter, you can choose to spread your message on platforms with a similar set-up. And you can share your videos on multiple channels – like Odysee, Rumble, Dailymotion and PeerTube, in addition to your main YouTube channel.

You can also bet on decentralised, small scale messaging platforms such as Mastodon to ensure availability. Or explore alternatives like Nostr – that don’t have a single authority or owner.

If you have the time and resources, and fancy a challenge, play the marketing game across different platforms.

Develop a contingency plan for ‘vulnerable’ channels

Marketing channels can fail your business for a number of reasons – from server outages and hacks, to government restrictions and a lack of value from new features.

Channels that are particularly vulnerable to failure for your business include those that:  

  • Consistently generate a high proportion of new, qualified leads and/or high-value customers for your business
  • Are owned by third-parties who are a near-monopoly or clear leader in the market (with few, comparable alternatives available)
  • Are owned by third-parties where there is a strong power asymmetry (meaning they have substantially more resources, money, and resilience than you, so they don’t have much to lose, if they lose you as a customer)
  • Have a history of sanctioning, restricting or otherwise diminishing the value offered to existing customers
  • Empower themselves to reject you as a customer without or with little notice, and without having to provide reasons for their decision.

For these channels, it can be worth having a contingency plan. Not to follow it the letter (chances are you won’t foresee the exact failure anyone), but to stop you from panicking in the moment, but to give you emotional stability when making choices in that moment.

Develop the mental ability to pivot

When you see problems coming up (or are already in the deep) with a particular marketing channel, don’t be afraid to try something new.

It’s easy to get so attached to what has always worked – that you desperately try to do more of that, even when the numbers (and your gut) clearly tell you not to.

But as they say “more isn’t always better.” So be open to experiment, with new channels and new ways of using existing channels along the path to your marketing objectives.

And at last, a spiritual perspective on ownership

When you become attached to your marketing channels, they own you. They tell you when write or film, and constantly track performance. They can force you to adopt an insane schedule and the pressure to “deliver” can destroy your creativity.

But when you detach yourself from expectation, hope and fear, you can use your channels freely – as a vehicle for sharing marketing experiences. Know exactly how, why and when they serve – and you can move closer to your business goals with a sense of ease, not a focus on the numbers.

And if you do lose control or give up a marketing channel – remember that ownership is merely a temporary state. It passes from one person to another, like the Olympic flame is carried from runner to runner. And not least with death, but on many more occasions too, the loss of ownership of one is the start of another opportunity.

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