I was chatting with a friend yesterday. I realized that, despite being at the cutting edge, he seemed to misunderstand what I was working on. The good old “forest for the trees” problem. I was talking to him about setting him up on the RapOuts platform (RapOuts is a client I work for) to promote a documentary he is producing.

He kept referencing one aspect of his event as being “where RapOuts could help” – namely spreading the word about the selection and user voting process of his event. He didn’t seem to see much long-term benefit past helping him spread this idea – in short, he was thinking like a marketer. I wanted him to use this push to create a communications channel that he could use indefinitely to talk directly to the people who care about his message, to make sure that the next time he wanted to push an idea, he didn’t have to recreate all the legwork. I wanted him to think of himself as building a distribution channel for his own needs.

In trying to bridge our disconnect, I made a distinction between thinking like a marketer and thinking like a distributor. Heads up, I’m going to use a very narrow definition of distributor in this article – a definition coined by European culture – ‘Any natural or legal person, including a retailer, who only stores and places on the market for third parties.’

What’s the difference between distribution and marketing? Marketers take an idea and spread it far and wide. Distributors build a channel that they control and that is used to connect things to people. That’s pretty esoteric, so here’s an example. Joe dons his distributor hat and builds a series of billboards up and down highway 280 from San Jose to San Francisco. He wants to sell a service, namely advertising on the billboards, so he switches his role from distributor to marketer and designs a message to sell his service. He uses his own billboards (distribution channel) to advertise his service by putting up an “advertise here, Call Joe @ 415.555.5555? ad (marketing). The companies that call Joe and eventually rent his billboards to promote their goods and services are all marketers.

It seems like a mundane distinction, but it’s an important one for the independents. The current technological revolution, mixed with ample competition, is forcing people to get out of specialization and take responsibility for their success in many avenues. Here are some examples in classic ‘Willis Quick List” fashion:

Willis Quick List #1 – So you don’t agree that specialization is dying?

Tim Ferriss wrote “The 4-hour Work Week” and despite his status as a first time author secured an awesome publishing house. He also took a very active role in supporting the book after he wrote it, and thanks in part to his marketing ability the book became a #1 New York Times Best-Seller. Don’t take my word for it, read his post which says all his success came from “learning how to spread a meme.”
Wallstrip, an internet video show about the stock market, sold to CBS 9 months after it was created for 5 million dollars. I’ve heard Howard Lindzon (the creator) say that the interesting thing was how agile his team had to be. It wasn’t like a television studio with very rigidly defined jobs, with only 3 staff members – everyone was responsible for doing whatever was necessary. CBS has said they acquired Wallstrip because they understood how to make an internet show popular – not because of the content.
Movies like Four-Eye Monsters, are pioneering digital marketing in hopes of standing out from the crowd. And they are succeeding.
So in this day in age, let me tell you what’s become easier than ever: building a distribution channel. Your website is a distribution channel. Your blog, Facebook Group, Youtube Channel, Myspace Page, Email List, Tumbler page, and Twitter account are all small distribution channels. At it’s core, a distribution channel is an communications connection. Now, my point is, the little guy used to have to don a marketer hat and convince one of the bouncers guarding the distribution channel that he should be allowed in. We are now seeing great empowerment for the little guy to learn about these distribution channels and go create them. Would you rather own your distribution channel, a direct line to people you know care about you and what you have to say, or rent another person’s channel?

Let’s try and sit in my friend’s shoes. He’s going to be putting on an event, promoting the heck out of it, selecting winners, making a film of the behind the scenes experience and finally trying to get his film picked up (either by a big distribution house or self-distributed). There are at least 4 very large marketing pushes he’s going to have to do for this (getting contestants, selecting winners, profiling the winner, marketing his film). By using RapOuts to get people engaged around the first goal, he gets awareness around getting contestants. When the time comes around to select winners, odds are that most of the people who cared about selecting the contestants will also care about who wins. Having established the distribution channel to these individuals once before – he can simply change the messaging without having to rebuild the platform or start from scratch. In RapOuts, that means he changes his video and the actions he’d like people to take. To go back to my simplistic analogy, it’s like taking down an ad from a billboard and putting up a new image.

Think like a distributor and you avoid the high costs (time and/or $) of using another’s distribution channel.

This is a working idea, and may include imperfect or wrong information because of my bias, incomplete thinking, or mental drudgery. I welcome any and all comments both affirming and challenging these ideas.