How distributed content cascades beyond journalism to e-commerce, advertisers

By Xavier van Leeuwe

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands


It is a delight to work in media in this day and age.

Why? Because for the first time in years, we can see media is at the root of an innovation that is spreading across multiple industries and disciplines. And this novelty is called distributed content.

Distributed content has a trickle-down effect to many different parties.
Distributed content has a trickle-down effect to many different parties.

A party called distributed content

Let us pretend.

Let us pretend for a moment that distributed content is one big blast of a party. A tower of champagne glasses is stacked on a round table draped with elegant linen. The maître d’ is wearing soft white gloves. He starts pouring champagne into the glass on the very top of the tower. Ignore the possible hangover; that’s for tomorrow. You are here, at this party called distributed content.

Everybody is here. Look at Google AMP. He looks so impressive — super tall and fast like Michael Phelps. He is standing next to another giant in a blue shirt, Facebook Instant Articles. It’s hard to make out whose arms are bigger.

And the blond over there: Snapchat Discover. Most of the guests are insecure, not knowing how to interact with her, but she sure is popular with the youths. “Ah,” she cries to a cute Dutch boy in a hoodie, “you look so cool.” Their eyes meet. They stare at each other, alone in space. “You always look so cool,” she repeats. Blendle chuckles, looked upon by the jealous eyes of Twitter Moments and Apple News.

And we, yes we the news media, are the guests of honour. And we have every right to be proud. Because this is the first time in years that the origin of a new technological feat is found in news. Our readers and we are the very top of this tower of glass.

Let me explain how the champagne is trickling down to the ever-broadening base.


Thanks to these many distributed content inventions, readers enjoy a faster mobile experience with news. In many cases, the real profit is that readers are no longer hindered by the transition between app and Web, where the browser takes ages to get started. It is all taking place within the app, like Facebook and Snapchat. As the articles launch lightning fast, reader engagement is usually up.


Following the needs of readers is a good thing. And the way it can be measured is unprecedented in journalism.

Where old-school journalism was all about writing your piece and leaving the selling to somebody else, the distributed content platforms show the way. Journalists are thinking about the delivery before starting to write.

Journalism can no longer be mediocre, adding a little piece to the bigger machinery we call the bundle. It’s the performance of the individual article in the individual channel that measures journalistic success. In journalism, this is separating the boys from the men.


The champagne is trickling down to advertisers, too. The AMP product team at Google quickly realised it might be pointless to invest substantial resources in building a system that would load contents at a much higher speed if problems with ads were not also addressed. Enter <amp-ad>.

Google is also announcing AMP Landing Pages. Marketers can ensure people will have a similarly smooth experience after they click on the ad, rather than being driven away immediately by a slow-loading page. This means users are gaining viewability. And viewability should be the new metric to measure ads’ performance for agencies and advertisers alike.

Facebook started Canvas, an Instant Articles for ads. Facebook realised that mobile sites have tripled in size since 2011, leading to five- to 10-second load times users don’t want to sit through to see an ad. The types of rich media marketing experiences that people actually remember load far too slow on mobile. So Facebook built a pre-loaded ad experience into its own app. And it works. It’s great for telling a story and gives deeper engagement.


We have a paywall on our Web site. I quickly realised we had to up our game when it comes to the performance of our subscription Web shop. Compared to the ever-faster articles, my Web shop was too fat and too slow.

Online retailers figured out the same, and Ebay has now “AMP-ed” 8 million pages. Unfortunately, the Instant Articles team at Facebook does not want to talk about an experiment to build a shop inside the Facebook app. I am thinking along the lines of finishing the transaction inside the app first, and checking it later with the Web shop back end. The e-mail confirmation will ultimately handle the customer experience afterwards. But it is in the moment of inspiration on Facebook that we need to close that deal.


Journalists aren’t the only ones who have to think about multiple platforms to deliver their stories. Customer requests can come from many platforms, too, since distributed content is the ultimate tool for customer interaction.

I love the way The Information uses Slack to connect to readers and has them connect with each other. Instead of only optimising calls and e-mail, service departments will have to monitor more channels, developing new processes with faster response times and channel-specific tones of voice. Exciting!

There are many threats here, too. What about our dependency on their traffic? And what about our journalistic autonomy? Just look at the removal of the iconic Vietnam war photo on Facebook. And as one UK publisher put it, the money made here is “pennies not pounds.”

But remember that we are making the Web better. We are at the start of a revolution pushing into other categories, and not merely following what is happening elsewhere. We are shaping our own future, and that is powerful.

Distributed content has several benefits that owned media do not have.
Distributed content has several benefits that owned media do not have.

Thank you for visiting the party. Don’t forget the goodie bag with a comprehensive table on the way out.

About Xavier van Leeuwe

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