Brands on Rented Land

Why you should build your brand on rented land

In Ideas by Mark Schaefer

Putting content on your website isn’t enough these days, writes Mark Schaefer. To succeed, your content needs to be set free.

One of the most-repeated mantras in the social media/content bubble – and it is a bubble! – is “don’t build your house on rented land”. It means you should build your content house on a property you own, like a website. This adage has been going around the business for at least 10 years and reinforced by stalwarts such as Copyblogger and the Content Marketing Institute (CMI).

But there are few, if any, “rules of thumb” that work in social media marketing for 10 years, including this one. The whole “rented land” thing makes a nice soundbite, but we’re at the point in our industry where we’re repeating these phrases without thinking about their business truths any more.

I was prompted to write about this after reading a post from one of my favourite thought leaders, Christopher S. Penn. I rarely disagree with Chris, but we disagree on this, at least a little. This is what he wrote:

“The final, most important lesson is one I’ve personally reiterated for over a decade: don’t build on rented land. We don’t own our social media accounts, and services like Facebook are under no obligation to give us a free lunch, or to keep things consistent. Build on what you own. Invest in your website. Invest in your email list, in your mobile list, in your mobile app, in the things you control. In the long run, investing the most in yourself (rather than a social network) always pays the biggest dividends.”

I agree with my very smart friend that you absolutely need to invest in your content “home room”. But a difference is, today we also must invest in building content platforms in other places … on rented land. Not only is rented land important, it’s essential for content marketing success today.

Go to the audience

The “rented land” theory focuses on the nature of your audience and has been articulated by people such as CMI’s Robert Rose, who said on a podcast:

“Do you chase your audience or do you build something that ultimately your audience will rally around? I think it’s the latter because ultimately, the value to the business is in the relationship to the audience. If you have an intermediary between you and the audience like Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn etc, you do not have a relationship with your audience. You’re building someone else’s business, not your own.”

Theoretically, I agree with him. That’s how content works in an ideal world. Maybe it even worked that way 10 years ago. But we no longer live in an ideal world and it hasn’t worked that way for some time now.

As you peer into the future, trying to drag people to your website to view your blog post or video seems increasingly fruitless. We need to adapt our strategies to this new world of content flow.

Facebook, Google, Apple, Snapchat and others want our content. Not a link … the content. Should we play by Facebook’s rules? Yes! We should! We should publish our content where they want us to publish, and more importantly, where our customers want it. Rose asks: should we chase our customers? Absolutely, we should chase our customers, rather than expect them to chase us.

The economics of content today

It’s fine to populate your website and mailing lists with content. But the economic value of content that isn’t seen and shared is zero.

The focus 10 years ago was on a vibrant and legitimate “inbound” model that preached content as a magical magnet that would attract high potential leads to your site. But the world has changed and even the poster child for inbound, Hubspot, admits it doesn’t work like it used to. Content is no longer a novelty. There is so much competition that you simply can’t rely on pulling people to your “house.”

A content strategy must involve much more than content on your home base. It involves a complex cocktail of promotion, distribution and paid components.

Research shows that consumers want the convenience of having all of their information in one place, like it is in a news stream.

Corporate “apps” are in decline. Most people only use nine apps a day. How many companies have a content app so great that people will click on it as part of their daily routine?

The main idea is that there is zero value in the content sitting on your website. It must be unleashed! We need to put that content everywhere we have a chance of people seeing it and sharing it. And that means embracing “rented land”.

The rented-land imperative

Content is no longer the finish line. It’s the starting line. We have an urgent responsibility as marketers to push that content out into the world in every place our audience can see it.

For the past two years I’ve been publishing on my website, but also away from my site on Facebook, LinkedIn, Medium and other rented lands. I’m now getting many more views and much more engagement on rented land than inside my site on “owned” land.

On one Facebook post, a friend commented: “I saw your blog post in my email inbox but had not decided to read it. When I saw it on Facebook, I read it.” This was a powerful insight.

The bad news, of course, is that she didn’t read it on my website where I have lots of other amazing things to see, but that’s life. Instead of “inbound” content that brings people to our site, we need to also focus on “outbound” content that builds our brands (in the hope they will eventually visit our site).

Driving the most important metric

The most compelling reason to have a rented-land strategy is social sharing. I regard social sharing as the most important digital marketing metric after sales and leads.

When people share your content, they’re saying: “I believe in this, I want you to believe in this, too.” Social sharing is advocacy.

The content that moves is the content that truly drives the economic benefits of your marketing (this is the entire premise behind my book, The Content Code: Six Essential Strategies to Ignite Your Content, Your Marketing, and Your Business).

To succeed in this new world of content shock, you need to break away from this outdated rented-land idea. A marketer today must employ every tactic humanly possible to get your content to move.

Of course, building your own site and mailing list is vital and always will be. But that isn’t enough … it’s not nearly enough. Set your content free by any means possible.

Links & references

Mark Schaefer on playing the best content strategy card in Brand Tales

About the Author
Mark Schaefer

Mark Schaefer

Mark Schaefer is executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, educator, keynote speaker, business consultant and podcast host. He is also author of several best-selling digital marketing books. His latest book is KNOWN: The Handbook for Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age. This story, published with permission, first appeared at

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