Academics have a distribution problem. But how can academics (and academic institutions) go about solving this problem? One helpful framework to draw on is the business model of media companies, whose existence depends on their ability to cut through the noise and keep their audiences reading, watching, listening, and buying.

Media companies develop scalable mechanisms through which a large audience can discover content, share it, and be reminded to come back for more. They are able to monetize their audience because they develop a relationship of trust with them.

Let’s take a closer look at the components of a successful media business that can be applied to public scholarship.

1. Scalability

The Gutenberg press and subsequent printing and broadcasting technology made the distribution of information scalable; once content is produced, it can be reproduced in large quantities at little additional cost. The lower cost enables the content to make their way to the masses, allowing ideas to spread at an exponential rate.

Today, the internet makes it possible to make infinite copies of any piece of content. The supply of content can reach a virtually limitless number of audience members without the need for additional labor or resources.

You should operate your public scholarship in such a way that you are able to sustain the same quality of content and audience engagement, whether you have 100 subscribers or 10,000.

2. Discoverability and Shareability

Since the media company’s ability to distribute content and exert influence directly correlates with the size of their audience, much of their efforts are concentrated on finding and maintaining this audience. Media companies make it as easy as possible for people to discover and share their content by posting on multiple platforms, using various forms of media (text, audio, video), sharing micro content, and offering email subscriptions.

It is easy to think that quality work will bring an audience on its own accord, but this is just not true. A considerable portion of your efforts as a public intellectual should be directed towards growing your audience. (Check out this article about how academics can make the most out of social media.)

3. Reliability and Reminders

What makes modern media companies like Netflix and Disney powerful is their ability to compel people come to their platform over and over again. These companies have places (their website and social media outposts) where people know they will reliably find great content. They also have mechanisms in place, usually in the form of social media campaigns and email newsletters, to remind them to come back.

Your platform has to compete for the attention of your audience. To make the most impact possible, you need systems to publish content consistently and regularly remind your audience to return to your platform to see what you publish or share.

4. Trust and Monetization

A relationship of familiarity and trust between brand and audience makes the brand even more powerful. It is because consumers trust them to provide value that companies are able to charge for streaming services or a subscription to a newspaper.

As a public intellectual, you should be generous with your expertise, and it will pay off in the long run. If you consistently provide valuable content for free, you can cultivate a relationship with your audience that is beyond transactional. When your audience gets to know you and be invested in the things you talk about, they are more likely to be interested in buying your book or going to your event, on top of regularly engaging with your free content.


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