The war over content distribution is heating up, and venture capitalists are rushing to provide ammo.

A few weeks ago, ad tech company Keywee raised $9.1 million from the likes of Google’s Eric Schmidt and The New York Times Company to help brands and publishers distribute their content to the people most likely to read it, about a month after Taboola raised a staggering $117 million in its bid to accomplish the same goal.

In the year or so prior, similar companies like Sharethrough, TripleLift, and SimpleReach all raised millions of dollars with the intention of using some algorithmic sorcery to put a brand’s content in front of the highest number of consumers likely to purchase one of its products, at the lowest possible cost to the marketer.

During that same time period, Yahoo, AOL, and Google all either developed, acquired, or were reported to be working on a content recommendation platform of their own.

Are you sensing a trend?

Simply put, Keywee’s round of funding is the latest indicator content marketing has reached a tipping point: Major brands are all generally in agreement that creating stories people enjoy is a big part of any successful marketing plan. And in such a crowded marketplace, it’s not enough for brands to merely create great content and stick it on their owned media properties. The winners and losers in the space are also being determined by how well they can build an audience for that content by acquiring new readers from other sites across the Internet.

Unsurprisingly, venture capital firms, startups, and the tech industry’s biggest players are lining up to help brands find their next loyal customer and woo them with the stories they’ve spent hours perfecting.

“I think it’s very easy to see that distribution is one of the big challenges today—it’s not an afterthought,” said Keywee co-founder and CEO Yaniv Makover. “You have to pay for distribution, and if you’re paying for distribution, you might as well get it right.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Keywee, the tech platform uses a text-scanning technology to determine the characteristics of a piece of content and then distributes that content to the members of an advertiser’s target demographic who are most likely to be interested in it. Right now, the platform purchases space across Facebook, Yahoo, and Reddit, and uses information about prospective readers to customize the headline and image that will be used to get their attention in the feed.

In a sense, Keywee and platforms like it are doing for sponsored content what the first demand-side platforms did for display advertising. They give marketers a chance to automatically tap into inventory across numerous websites while using data to reach the most desirable users.

Graham Hunter, head of growth marketing at the startup training program Tradecraft, said these platforms have emerged because as display advertising lost its effectiveness due to cookie clearing, private browsing, ad-blocking, and banner blindness, marketers started to see the value in branded content.

The ascendance of the Taboolas, Outbrains, Sharethroughs, and Keywees of the world has no doubt also been hastened by the rise of Facebook and the mobile web, which changed the way people consume content. Where users once actively sought out entertainment on their own by visiting their favorite websites, they are now content to stay on Facebook or Twitter and wait for whatever pops into their newsfeeds. In fact, a recent report from Shareholic found that Facebook’s share of web referral traffic has grown more than 275 percent since December 2011. The social network is now the referral source for about one quarter of all web traffic.

That means brands need to be proactive about pushing their stories directly to consumers.

When I spoke with Intel content strategist Luke Kintigh for a story I wrote last month, he told me that, over the years, his team has shifted from spending 90 percent of its time creating content and only 10 percent for distribution to allocating equal time for the two tasks.

“People are looking for a new way to find marketing performance in the digital age,” Hunter said. “You’re seeing the same exact technologies that drove programmatic display now being applied to content marketing.”

The importance of developing a multi-pronged approach to content distribution heightened when Facebook started limiting organic reach for brands toward the end of 2013. According to Colin Nagy, The Barbarian Group’s executive director of media and distribution, Facebook’s changing policies have made it expensive to get good reach on the social network, pushing marketers to experiment more with content recommendation platforms like Outbrain and Taboola.

Ultimately, Nagy sees a world where brands and agencies will be able to use a single platform to create, measure, and distribute their content across the Internet, a future you can see foreshadowed by the growing number of partnerships between companies that help brands create bcontent and social distribution platforms. Contently, for instance, are official partners with Outbrain and LinkedIn, and Percolate is a partner with Socialcode.

“Rigorous analytics are essential, but also, I think it is important to stretch and try new platforms and not expect the world right off the bat,” Nagy said. “I like brands that are willing to experiment with new platforms and publishers without over-committing … There’s a fine balance to be struck.”

So where does all this leave the platforms vying for brands’ advertising budgets?

Contently VP of Marketing Raymond Cheng believes the content distribution war will be won by the companies with the best algorithms, those that can bring in lots of data and accurately predict what content will resonate with consumers.

“Generally speaking, you want to go with somebody that’s a little more established because it means their models have had time to get better,” Cheng said. “You also want to go with a vendor that has extremely awesome account management support, because getting started is really hard and you don’t want to blow a lot of money and figure everything out on your own. You want to have an account manager who will sit next to you and help you iterate and hold your hand and help you get better.”

As for Keywee, the company will be looking to improve its product over the next several quarters by expanding its platform to offer placements on LinkedIn and Twitter. The company is also planning a subscription service through which customers will be able to use its performance analytics in the content creation process.

“A lot of the technology [around content distribution] needs to be rebuilt, and it creates a very big opportunity that’s relatively untapped,” Makover said. “I think it’s very, very early in the way amplification is being done.”

In the meantime, Keywee and its competitors will be hard at work trying to do whatever they can to capitalize on that opportunity.

As for who will come out on top in the end? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see, but ammo and alliances seem destined to play a big role.

Written by Aaron Taube | Contently

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