At the recent Code Conference, venture capitalist Mary Meeker published her 2017 internet trends deck. It’s like Christmas for the tech community: Meeker’s 355-slide deck provides insights on everything from the rise of voice search to the growing saturation of the smartphone market. It’s well worth a read, and this year marketers are paying extra attention to the insights that underscore key content trends, including the rise of user-generated content and the importance of images and enhanced content for search and engagement.
What are the key takeaways for content marketers to keep in mind?
“Mary Meeker has been tracking the state of the Internet—and really, the global connections to innovation—for a while. While some of these trends represent what’s already happened, others showcase the catalysts for evolving activities, best practices, and psychology,” says Ian Gertler. Ian is on the board of the Internet of Things Community, and has held marketing and strategy leadership roles at organizations ranging from large enterprise organizations to venture-funded startups.
One of those major catalysts is the plunging efficacy of advertising, paired with the growing popularity of ad blockers. As Skyword CEO Tom Gerace notes, there are a number of trends driving this year’s focus on content. “The first is the massive growth of ad blocking and the fact that we are really seeing people reject the kind of core interruption that you see with advertising. Despite that, there’s $73 billion spent a year on online advertising. What you’re seeing is tens of billions of dollars in advertising shifting in that direction every year. And yet, those ads are less effective every day at reaching audiences, so there’s a direct business tension between those two steps.”
Gerace continues, “That money is pouring into online advertising, and yet hundreds of millions of consumers are blocking them, and of course, there’s some news out this year that Google is going to install ad blocking by default in their next major Chrome release that will affect both desktop and mobile devices. So I suspect that that tension is causing folks like Mary to recognize the size and the shift that’s coming in advertising—that advertising will not work like it has for the last two centuries. And so, naturally, the next question is what do you do in place of that?”
Content, in its myriad forms, naturally comes to the forefront, and one of the interesting insights from Meeker’s report examines its new direction.
Image attribution: Gustavo Spindula
As brands continue to develop content, the ecosystem becomes more complex. Simply publishing an anonymous company blog or dozens of white papers isn’t enough. “Brands and companies are no longer the sole creators of content. It requires a connected community, set of interactions, and feedback loop. Similar to product and services road maps, listening and learning is how to determine where an investment of time, resources, and budget should be directed. Don’t spend these things on features or functionalities that don’t address the needs, wants, and pain points of your customers, partners, and team members. The same is true for content. Use social media, in-person discussions, events, and other sources of interaction to identify sources of value. Craft content around those priorities, and then engage with your constituents to include them in the process,” says Gertler.
Whether brands are co-creating content with audiences by integrating deeper customer feedback or investing in user-generated content (UGC) and influencer marketing campaigns, a wider range of voices is shaping the digital experience.
As Gerace notes, partnerships with key industry influencers play an important role in the evolving content strategy. “Brands need to differentiate that they’re creating outstanding experiences for their customers in a sustained way. They need to get the thought leaders that are in any domain space to help create their content and tell stories on their behalf. I think it is hard to do that consistently with UGC outside of a couple of fields. That said, there are influencers who are domain experts, who do that every day for brands.”
Yet for the CMO or marketing strategist who’s vetting Meeker’s report, there are no one-size-fits-all recommendations. With significant shifts in the process of content creation, Gerace advises not habitually defaulting to a single approach and instead evaluating what’s best for your company. “I wouldn’t look quite so much at the source. Is it a user-generated copy of the content? Is it a freelancer piece of content? Is it an expert inside the company that’s creating content? If I were the CMO, the question I would ask is, ‘Who will create the most outstanding experience for my customers if I need to write on this topic?’ Once I understand the limited pool of creatives that will create a truly outstanding experience, I’d say, ‘Great. Will any of them bring audience?’”
The question of audience is nuanced. It’s not about buying audience exposure, it’s about amplifying the right experiences. “This is where we then layer in influencers. Brands that go out and buy influencers, that try to buy their reach of influencers for influence’s sake, end up amplifying mediocre experiences. The first focus has to be on understanding the experience your customers want or need, and then creating that experience that they want or need in a way that surpasses what’s available to them otherwise in the market,” says Gerace.
Image attribution: Matt Palmer
Meeker predicted that pictures will play an increasingly important role in search. It’s clear, with the explosion of platforms like Instagram and Pinterest and emerging technology classes like virtual and augmented reality, that immersion and strong storytelling are winning.
“Video today offers a terrific way to give a rich experience, and augmented reality and virtual reality will provide even richer experiences in the future. As for the medium, I think marketers need to focus first on the story. You can tell a great story in written form, in a photograph, in a video, in a game. You can hook, hold, and reward an audience regardless of the medium. But the more immersive the experience, the more effective you can be at giving a completely rich story experience to your customers,” says Gerace.
It all begins with fluent storytelling and seamless immersion. “The first things brands need to do is again master the art of storytelling. And the second thing they need to do is then pick the immersive experiences that leverage all of our senses: sound and the visual cortex. I believe that ten out of eleven of the neural impulses hitting our brain are visual. When you think about the opportunity with video or with virtual reality, you can really capture their attention when you’re giving them some kind of visual stimulation.”
The content opportunities have exciting potential. Skyword has begun to develop relationships with video producers and film companies to support its brand partners. “The reason we created those relationships is because we believe brands will be producing television shows and distributing them through a variety of different channels in the next year or two. There is no reason that financial services companies should feed the content space in investing to CNBC and Wall Street Journal. They could be producing equally compelling content and building relationships with their customers and nurturing relationships with their customers every single morning. And we certainly believe that’s what brands will be doing a couple years from now, and we are gearing up at Skyword to make sure that we can create good partners when they’re ready to do that.”
Meeker’s report shows the shifts in the market, from a slowing down in internet adoption to the saturation of smartphones. Our digital connectedness and the way that we consume content is helping to create a new environment for brands, which makes it easier—and more cost effective—to deploy larger content campaigns.
“The economics of content marketing has shifted radically when it moved from offline to online. And that is largely because the distribution and the amplification costs—which in the old world were printing and distributing your content—have vanished. Brands used to spend most of their money not on the production of the content they were using in the content marketing, but on printing it or putting it on a DVD and distributing it,” says Gerace.
“Today we have a much greater opportunity for brands to be creative and to invest in extraordinary creatives because we have the discovery infrastructures of search and social. And if you tell a great story, that story will cascade across the social infrastructure. And if you tell a great story that people link into, of course it will rise and be discovered on search. With the natural-born discovery infrastructure of search and social and the global distribution infrastructure of the internet itself, brands can be far more effective and drive a far higher ROI on the content than ever before. This is another major business driver for why this moment in time makes a lot of sense to focus on content.”
Ultimately, this shift in content economics opens up three key possibilities for marketers:
Image attribution: Tim Gouw
One takeaway that really underscores this message is the idea that with more channels than ever before, content creates opportunities to reach your ideal audience, on the channel they want, at exactly the right moment, with an experience that blows them away. Better analytics and personalization technology—along with more channels than ever to choose from—are making this easier.
“Content marketing used to be seen as promotional-based ‘editorials,’ usually driven by a ‘marketing-to’ mentality with a call-to-action for purchasing something. As content channels progressed and became accessible to mainstream audiences, these practices needed to change. Social media. Blogs. Video. Visuals. Mobile. Influencer marketing on both macro (celebrity) and micro (subject matter experts) levels. This is all about delivering the proverbial value, relevance, and experiences that your audiences expect—including their participation in the content development process. Authenticity has been a hyped-up way of thinking, but most people want to understand, associate, find value, and gain positive experiences. Content marketing now reinforces those objectives and will continue to do so across channels, formats, and audiences,” says Gertler.
Brands are increasingly finding that to maximize their investments in content, it’s crucial to ensure that they have the right systems in place “under the hood.” Some areas to consider include:
For content marketers, Meeker’s report signals three takeaways to keep in mind:
As Gertler sums up, “Why did Mary Meeker include content marketing in the 2017 Internet Trends report? Simple: It’s part of everything, whether you’re visiting a brand’s site or social channels, attending an event, interacting with people about the products and services that create your experiences, or revealing why you select one offering over another. As Brian Solis notes, we’re in a state of ‘Digital Darwinism,’ and that impacts every single organization. Traditional, older, start-up, and those that haven’t even been born yet. Exciting (and challenging) days ahead for all! From the Internet of Things (IoT) to AI (what I refer to as augmented versus artificial intelligence), we need to learn and improve each day to drive the customer experience and bottom-line results. Content is an integral part of the bigger puzzle.”
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Featured image attribution: Mikaela Shannon