By the end of this paragraph, almost 40 percent of you will have bounced. Six out of ten of you will share this article without reading it. And with over two million blog posts produced each day, there’s an endless parade of content streaming into your feeds. We are reaching content overload.
With all this “samey” content, perhaps I should be asking not what the future of content marketing will be but rather if content marketing even has a future. The short answer is that it does have a future—but only for those who are willing to embrace the coming revolution.
What does this revolution look like? Based on the lessons I picked up from speakers at Content Marketing World 2017, I argue that the revolution involves three main strands: a back to basics approach or “return to humanity,” an acceptance of machines, and new valuation of audiences.
Joe Pulizzi—the “Godfather of Content Marketing”—in his opening session said that the innovators of content marketing are working on building “loyal and trusting audiences.” But as podcaster Jay Acunzo said at the close of his subsequent keynote, too many of us “obsess over gaming systems. We agonize over squeezing every last drop of value out of annoyed audiences with tired tactics.”
I touched on Jay Acunzo’s keynote on my CMW day one round up, but it’s worth reemphasizing the importance of intuition. “What does it take to be exceptional?” asked Jay. “It’s not the ability to follow someone else’s answers—it’s the willingness to find our own. It’s the willingness to trust our intuition.” To the artists among you, this may seem obvious. The opposite of being an exceptional artist is copying the competition, or tailoring your work to suit everyone else’s tastes. The result of this approach will be bland at best. Most likely it will be garbage of the American Idol variety—instantly forgettable with a synthetic, corporate gloss.
At a time when so many are boasting their expertise, it turns out that being an “expert” or a “thought leader” is decidedly average. In her session, CEO and talent advocate Caroline Nuttall talked about an “overpopulation of experts.” She pointed out that there are “on LinkedIn alone three and half million content marketing experts.”
Content, according to Caroline, can be plotted on a matrix along two axes: from widely accepted to challenging the norm and from “how-to” to “how to think.” Most content produced, she argued, falls into the quadrant of “Expertville”—that is, adhering to conventional wisdom and describing how to do something. In fact, she found that 90 percent of the sessions at CMW 2017 fell into this quadrant, and were “detailed, practical advice about generally recognized and believed things.”
While not criticizing this type of content, she emphasized that Expertville is crowded. However, in Visionary Town, “the quadrant that actively forms a new approach by challenging conventional wisdom,” she placed Jay Acunzo’s and Robert Rose’s sessions. The fact that they were both keynotes is not a coincidence. Why? Because if you live in Visionary Town, no one else has your vision, and your audience “knows they need you because you’ve got them rethinking their strategy.”
According to Cor Hospes, creative director of Merkjournalisten, companies think only about “gaining more traffic, more sales, more leads, more views, and so forth.” They are right to set business goals, of course, but they must not forget the most important thing: love—love for telling and sharing stories and love for the business. He told the Content Standard: “How can you tell stories if you don’t like telling stories? How can you inspire your audience if you are not inspired yourself?”
“Love makes everything sexy. Loves makes even the most boring brand shine. If you love your business, you’ll also talk about it with love.” Content is too often just “an exercise of the marketing department. A must-do because the competition does it.” So Cor implores us to “make love, not content.”
But too often marketers don’t love what their brands do.
In his session at CMW, Cor told us how he challenged the communication department at ProRail—an organization that maintains railway infrastructure in Europe—to write a personal ad (not a Tinder thing) for their own brand. The exercise revealed that the department had a rather dull, typical conception of the brand persona—all except one, who described the brand in the personal ad as a man wishing to be romantically involved with another man. Cor seized this as a breakthrough moment. B2B brands need to “come out of the closet” and embrace who they are and be proud of the amazing work they do.
“Maybe you should look at what you’re doing with the eyes of a child,” he said—an idea encapsulated by ProRail’s child-friendly YouTube channel.
The inundation of average content has two effects, said super vlogger Casey Neistat in his keynote session.
So marketers need to cut through the bullshit.
Take the following short film Casey did for Nike. Instead of making the film as he had pitched it to Nike, he instead spent the money traveling around the world with his friend until the money ran out.
In case you are thinking he’s a no-good crook, check out the result of his radical but authentic and passionate approach below.
Honesty matters more than ever. In his session, Skyword CEO Tom Gerace said that the first thing marketers trying to build genuine connections must do is “commit to the truth” and “talk to our customers in a way that acknowledges the real world in which they live.” But this can seem hard. “We’re taught to go out say ‘we’re the best’ . . . and it’s positive after positive after positive.”
Tom suggested that maybe your marketing looks a little like the video below.
We all had a good laugh as we recognized the clichés used by many brands. But our customers find it laughable too. No one believes it’s real.
Only by being honest can we really begin to connect with an audience.
In her tremendous session at CMW, Julie Fleischer, vice president of product marketing at Neustar, asked us, “What’s the biggest trend over the next decade?” Her answer was simple: “It is connected everything.” It’s the idea of “plugging things into the Internet so they speak to other things.” According to Gartner, there are more “things”—from refrigerators, to smartphones—connected to the Internet than there are people on earth, up 31 percent from last year.
Says Julie, “The world is becoming connected and the interesting thing about connection is it fundamentally changes not just the object but the opportunity . . . Think about the difference between a bed and a bed that is connected. What do you get? Airbnb.” What if you connect a car? Uber. Connect your glasses and you get Google Glass.
Now what else can we connect? What about our bodies? GoPro cameras have allowed thrill seekers to “connect their eyes” and share their experiences, creating an incredible amount of user generate content.
Some of us are connecting other parts of our bodies.
AI is everywhere. It is used in simulators, financial tools, autonomous vehicles, data mining, image recognition, predictive email responses, customer service, and healthcare. So the question is not if, but when you need to start looking at AI in your marketing.
But there’s no need to panic. Paul gave us three bits of good news:
Paul also shared his new framework, which “enables you to start understating how you can be using AI in very specific, narrow, use-cases.”
Planning: This relates to predicting behaviors, defining strategies, and determining how to allocate resources. Crayon, for example, is an intelligence tool that helps you monitor the digital footprint of your competitors. IBM Watson Analytics actually recommends questions to ask of a data set.
Production: This is about creating, curating, and optimizing content. The AP uses Automated Insights’ Wordsmith to write corporate earnings stories and game recaps. But the AI can’t do it alone. It relies on templates. So there is “a whole career path right now for writers who can take a data set and know how to teach a machine to write that at an infinite scale.”
Personalization: This category involves automated emails and content recommendations. This is where most of the money has gone. Here at the Content Standard, for example, we are recommending content using AI.
Promotion: This is managing cross-channel and cross-device promotions. An interesting example is that of the lingerie brand Cosabella who replaced its digital agency with an AI platform called Albert.
Performance: This is turning data into intelligence, and using that to improve performance. Paul said PR 20/20 implemented natural language generation (NLG) with Google Analytics reports, cutting analysis and production time by 80 percent.
Previously, Paul told the Content Standard that “Artificial intelligence (AI) is getting smarter, faster, and cheaper, bringing the disruptive power of machine learning, natural language generation, natural language processing, image recognition, and deep learning to the marketing industry. Many tasks commonly performed by marketers are already being augmented by AI.”
Will AI take our jobs? Not yet. “In the near term, AI will largely enhance human knowledge and capabilities. But, beyond that, we just don’t know what the impact will be.” In the meantime, Paul recommended that we focus on one or two use cases for things that are time-consuming. “It can be your competitive advantage.”
“Take the New York Times. It’s a corporation and sells a product. The product is audiences [. . . ] They actually lose money when you buy the newspaper. But the audience is the product. You have to sell a product to a market, and the market is, of course, advertisers (that is, other businesses). Whether it is television or newspapers, or whatever, they are selling audiences. Corporations sell audiences to other corporations.”
However, the traditional business models are falling apart. Robert Rose—whose informative keynote I covered here—told the Content Standard that in the past, “The value of ‘renting audiences’ through advertising or ‘earned media coverage’ was that there was a certain amount of difficulty and cost in reaching target audiences—and it was more effective to actually rent them through the media companies that had spent years building up the audience en masse.”
Companies like Netflix, who hold a proprietary relationship with their audience, are changing the game. “And for brand marketers,” Robert told us, “it’s the same. We have historically valued our advertising by the ratings associated with the show or magazine it was placed on. We valued our web sites by the traffic they generate. But today, we must take a new approach and actually create content to build audiences that we can reach—independent of third party media companies. Because, frankly, they aren’t in any better place to reach them than we are. We have just as much chance engaging them ourselves, as any media company does.”
These days, Robert says, “audiences have fragmented over so many devices, channels, and platforms that the opportunity is for us to actually join in. The cost equation is now such that it can make more sense to acquire our own audiences to engage, than it does to solely depend on renting the audiences of others.”
In his session, describing the classical valuation of audiences, Robert said that “we have an anticipated audience we’re trying to reach with our advertising, and thus an actual audience of something smaller than what we anticipated which gets increasingly smaller as it goes though our funnel and ultimately turns into a small number of customers who we persuade to buy our product or solution.” But in content marketing, it’s different. We have to take advantage of the entire audience that we’re building—not just the buyers—“audiences have value beyond buying things.” Audiences can share our content, tell us what we should be building, help us target better, take polls, and deliver data.
As Joe Pulizzi told us in his opening keynote, “you need a loyal and trusting audience.” But can we quantify this trust? “Well,” Robert told us, “trust is an emotion, so accurately measuring it is like saying ‘can you quantify how much you love your wife?’” However, you can “continually work to deepen the emotion. You can quantify ‘reaction’ from trust—like who and how much our content is shared, or through surveying the audience. But the funny thing is—we actually do equate content consumption with engagement or trust right now—when it’s likely not correlated at all.”
So there we have it. The revolution will not be televized. It will be brought to you by content marketers who understand the three strands—the human qualities of intuition, love, and honesty; the connected world and AI; and the new model of audiences.
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