It seems like nothing has gone according to plan in 2020, and Content Marketing World 2020 (CMW) was no exception. The annual event was supposed to bring together leading brands, innovative content creators, and marketing experts for a week of learning and networking in Cleveland, Ohio—like it has for the past nine years. The 10th anniversary of the world's largest content marketing event should have been a week to celebrate the still-young craft, share content strategy best practices, and discuss marketing trends with peers, reinforcing relationships with in-person meetings, shared meals, hugs, and handshakes.
But, while CMW was yet another reminder that it's been a bad year for hugs and handshakes, it's been a good time for creative thinking. As much of life has taken place inside (Zoom) boxes, we've been forced to think outside the box for just about everything, from conserving toilet paper to entertainment—and yes, content marketing.
How should your brand think about content strategy differently in a post-COVID world? What are the most important trends and opportunities to tap into? And how can you reach audiences in meaningful and authentic ways during a time when people need information but don't always trust traditional sources?
Content Marketing World 2020 presenters addressed these questions and more during the three-day virtual event, which featured approximately 100 keynote speeches and live breakout sessions. Below are just a few of the takeaways they shared with marketing professionals all over the world.
1. Content Is in High Demand, but the Bar for Quality Is Higher
Remember when, at the beginning of the pandemic, people watched the show Tiger King more than once because they were so starved for entertainment and something new to talk about? Even as television and film production shut down, studios found ways to create as much new content as possible—because content is monetizable.
"We don't consume content at random anymore," Skyword CEO Andrew Wheeler explained during his CMW presentation, Content (R)evolution: Four Forces Transforming Content Creation. "We pay for it; we subscribe to it. We seek it out, and the channels available to us are exploding faster than social networks did in the early 2000s. Now, we have Hulu, Disney+, Apple TV, Fubu, Quibi—I mean, just about anything with a plus behind it, or a made-up word with two consonants and two vowels, is the new bespoke content subscription service."
The takeaway for marketers, he said, is that "content is more monetizable than ever before, but the bar for quality is also much higher."
Robert Rose, chief strategy officer for the Content Marketing Institute, agreed during his keynote speech, Architecting Desire: A New Strategy for Content Marketing for the Next Ten Years. He said it's no longer good enough to simply satisfy a need for a customer or answer a question. Instead, you need to "actually create more connected experiences that create further desire as a new operational strategy for making content marketing truly work across the enterprise."
2. Marketing Can't Go It Alone Anymore
Content marketing teams can't effectively engage and retain audiences if they work in a silo. This was a key theme across CMW presentations, but as Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi reminded the audience, it's also not a new theme. Pulizzi quoted Don Shultz's 2013 CMW keynote speech:
"CM is siloed inside the org. What they have to do is break out. The entire marketing org is made up of tiny little pieces and parts. No one knows that brand story entirely. Content marketing is the group that can bring it all together."
Rose echoed these sentiments in his keynote: "Being able to architect desire assumes you can measure [when audience members become customers] and serve up the 'best next' desired experience. It's an organizational capability; it's not just you alone making blog posts or infographics. We have to make this a company muscle, a connected experience, a set of connected experiences . . . that [move audiences to] take action. That's the key. That's what differentiates us and creates a remarkable experience."
3. Good Content Is Not Hard for Brands to Find
Reaching across departments can help content marketers find new opportunities, tell better brand stories, and develop a strategy that supports a seamless, holistic customer journey. But when it comes to content creation, external resources might be more helpful than internal ones.
Sixty-five percent of brands rely on in-house teams for all their content creation needs, according to Skyword's 2020 Content Marketing Trends Report. This unnecessarily limits the expertise and experience in their talent pools, Wheeler told CMW audiences. Fortunately, brands can now find talent on-demand via freelancer marketplaces.
"This has massively increased our access to creative professionals and experts across disciplines," said Wheeler. "It's also given us structure to that access. We can hire, pay, and communicate with freelancers almost as easily as I can go on an app and order a pepperoni pizza. With all this creative potential at our fingertips, we're now challenged to become more adept at using all the talent. We need to think about how we can give these creatives a seat at the table that is both equitable and beyond the scope of traditional full-time employment thinking."
Pulizzi suggested another way to buy content in the post-COVID era would be to purchase one of the many media companies that are folding under the weight of the current recession.
"Media purchases by brands have been rare, but it's a big opportunity right now," Pulizzi explained. "Stop thinking you need to create every little content marketing project yourself and start thinking like a media professional. There is a blue light asset sale going on right now, right in front of you, and most of us don't even know it."
4. Peer-to-Peer Content Helps Brands Earn Trust in a Skeptical World
Public trust—in media, government, and business leaders—has been rapidly declining for years. In early 2020, before the pandemic and when the economy was still strong, the Edelman Trust Barometer showed public trust at record lows. Since then, coronavirus misinformation and a growing sense of racial inequity have made people even more skeptical of information.
That, Wheeler told CMW audiences, is why brands need trust creators, not just content creators. Trust creators lend your content credibility and help your brand make more meaningful connections with your audience. Trust creators include:
Topic specialists: journalists, former professionals, and/or industry consultants
Practitioners: active professionals with first-hand knowledge of the fields they cover
Internal subject matter experts: brand employees or execs who are experts on your industry, market, or product
Ann Handley, chief content officer at MarketingProfs, also discussed the importance of building trust through peer-driven content in her CMW session, Precedented: 5 Principles of the Last Chaotic 10 Months That Are the Very Key to Content Marketing Success in the Next 10 Years. She explained that community matters more than ever, and deepening relationships with one another and customers is key in the age of COVID-19.
"You need to communicate peer to peer, to not just say we're all in this together, but to actually live it, to walk it—to say we're all in this together with you, and show it," she explained. "Your relatable peer-to-peer tone of voice has never been more critical than it is right now."
A relatable tone of voice is a good start, she said, but a relatable face is even better. "In these COVID times, and in this political environment as well, it matters who the content comes from. Attach your content to a person. Attach your brand to actual human faces."
5. You Can Minimize Marketing Risks by Diversifying Your Content Portfolio
You might not expect to learn about investment and finance at a content marketing event, but Pulizzi's keynote—Where Do We Go from Here? Disney, Diversification & The New Marketing Business Model—provided a summary of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT). An economic theory developed by Harry Markowitz in the 1950s, MPT posits that it's possible to design an ideal portfolio that provides maximum returns by taking on an optimal amount of risk through diversification.
MPT also applies to modern marketing, Pulizzi explained, because the essence of content marketing is "building assets through the distribution of content, attracting a target audience, and increasing the value of the asset over time. The content itself has no innate value . . . all the value comes from the audience you attract and keep."
If your audience is your most valuable asset, you can't afford to lose touch with that audience, and since you have very little control over most communication channels, you can't afford for your content strategy to overly rely on one of them. Otherwise, you might find yourself cut off from your audience.
"Do you have the proper portfolio, risk to reward, in your content marketing?" Pulizzi asked. "Let's say you've built a large following on YouTube. What happens to your strategy if YT changes its algorithm and you can't communicate with your subscribers? Let's say you unlock the mystery of TikTok and have millions of downloads in a short period of time. What happens if the TikTok deal does not go through? Your podcast takes off and you've built a massive following. What if Apple and Spotify decide to wall off their podcast gardens? What happens to your plan?"
6. Multicultural Marketing Is Marketing
The pandemic and politics aren't the only major forces shaping 2020. Social justice reform is also in the headlines and on the ballot this year, and it's been a major theme for content strategy, as well. But as Sydni Craig-Hart of Smart Simple Marketing reminded audiences, multicultural marketing isn't just a hot topic; it's also a business imperative as American consumers become increasingly diverse.
More than half (52 percent) of consumers will dump brands if they don't see themselves reflected in those brands' advertising, Craig-Hart pointed out in her presentation, Tiny Actions Taken Over Time: How You Can Make a Difference with Diversity. Yet, brands keep missing opportunities to grow their audience with more inclusive content and imagery.
"As a marketing community, we do not respect and we do not own and we do not do right by our responsibility to always put our customers and our target audience first, to actually be customer-centric," she said. "We have the opportunity to create content that inspires, content that sparks productivity and positive constraint, content that helps people to see the world from a different perspective. If we're not actually focusing on customer-centricity like we should, we will fall into the habit of creating content that is biased, that may cause division, and that reinforces stereotypes and barriers."
7. Everything (and Nothing) Has Changed
A common refrain throughout CMW keynotes and breakout sessions was the idea that COVID-19 hasn't started digital marketing trends—it has accelerated them. Audiences are hungry for connections, community, and quality content. Brands that fulfill one or more of those desires are best positioned to engage and grow their audiences and to build a loyal following that helps grow the business, even in these tough economic times.
As Handley so perfectly put it, "The new normal might just be normal. We're seeing it with new eyes, a new perspective."