As a content marketer who frequently hangs out with non-content marketers (most people outside my work life), I’m often asked, “What is content marketing?” It’s a good question, and one that’s simply explained without jargon. But in 2016, a more appropriate question may be: what isn’t content marketing?
To get a sense of how vast the content marketing industry has become, take a look at Scott Brinker’s 2016 edition of his marketing technology landscape supergraphic. Of course, this is just a sample of companies and lines of business across marketing and technology. There are many others.
When I first looked at Brinker’s graphic earlier this year, I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know where Skyword was, even when I had determined we’d fall in the content marketing section. As I tapped Command+Plus on my Mac, zooming in to find for Skyword’s logo, the pixels on my screen blurred. Finally, I found it.
As vast as the industry may be, in my time as a content marketer I’ve realized that one of the biggest myths is that you have to be good at everything. It’s much more useful to be excellent at a few things, have a genuine curiosity to learn about the other things, and then surround yourself with people who have complementary skill sets.
But no matter where your expertise may lie and where your brand falls in the ever-expanding content marketing industry, you do need to know what to prioritize. The time to plan your budget for next year is fast approaching, and no one’s budget is unlimited, no one’s time endless.
To that end, I spoke with some very knowledgeable people about the top content marketing trends to watch in 2017 that will help you plan your budget.
Last year, we also detailed the top trends to help plan your budget. They were:
While those trends continue to grow in importance, this year’s roundup offers new, related trends.
Why invest in it?
Short answer: Today, companies need 24-7 online presences, and people demand content that feels authentic. Live video is the perfect solution to transform your company into a news outlet.
We know video marketing in general is highly effective in engaging and converting customers. According to last year’s B2B Video Content Marketing Survey Results by the Web Video Marketing Council, “73 percent [of the marketing, agency and management professionals surveyed] confirm that video has positively impacted marketing results.” Now, as technology improves year over year, digital video has taken on many formats: webinars, testimonials, videos made specifically for Instagram, silent videos, 360-degree videos, and live video, to name just a few.
But when Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, includes live stream video as one of his five priorities to shareholders to turn around the sluggish ad sales and user growth, you know it must be important. Otherwise, he wouldn’t bet his company on it.
Like Twitter, major social media channels are developing live stream capabilities to get ahead of the curve—some by integrating niche live stream apps such as Twitch and Periscope, and others by making it a focal point of their platforms. YouTube Live, Facebook Live, Tumblr, and of course, Snapchat, are all making live video part of their core offerings. Facebook is even testing advertising during live video broadcasts as well as live video filters a la Snapchat. Live video is quickly going from content novelty to mainstay.
Brands with social presences on channels that offer live video should start thinking about how they can reach audiences that increasingly want content delivered in the moment. I spoke with Brooks Thomas, social business advisor at Southwest Airlines, who offered valuable insight into why live video is becoming popular, what channels to use, and what we can expect for its future in content marketing.
Why is live video becoming popular?
“It’s becoming popular because of its low barrier for entry, and its ability to provide an unfiltered, unedited look (for both brands and people). Just like the appeal of Instagram in the beginning was its inability to upload edited content, I think live also has an appeal because of its innate authenticity. I also think the platforms are pushing it pretty hard, and Facebook, Twitter, et al. can drive behavior based on what they allow to be prominently featured in a user’s feed. That fact shouldn’t be discounted—brands are always going to go the low-cost route, especially when it is innovative. It just so happens that, outside of beta launch partners, the most innovative, progressive stuff usually comes free, because the platforms want to encourage popularity, and it usually works. Facebook Live is obviously best for live video right now for this very reason, because your audience isn’t currently gated by viewing restrictions like other content.”
What channels are best for live video, and why?
“One of the reasons journalists are so successful is they already understand the live medium, and I think brands will have to understand it, too. You really have to think about your company as a 24-hour multimedia news operation nowadays. Southwest Airlines has gone live to unveil new planes, showcase our culture, and keep customers informed during crises—all of these things are inherently different, strategically, but all are necessary.”
Can live video become a cornerstone of brands’ content strategies?
“As far as the future, I think the production value and on-the-fly editing will mirror TV a bit more (teleprompters, lighting, better a/v tech, etc.). It’s already become that way for the companies who already had to do that well.”
Why invest in them?
Short answer: Newsletters are crucial for media to reach a wide audience and for brands to prove content marketing ROI.
You’re probably aware that digital newsletters are essential to media companies’ marketing strategies. Their content is their product, so a wide distribution isn’t nice to have—it’s critical to the business.
Campaign Monitor’s CMO, Kraig Swensrud, said earlier this year in a press release that newsletters are one of Buzzfeed’s top five traffic drivers. Even for a company that averages over 10 million visitors per day, this is significant traffic. Meanwhile, The Washington Post saw a 145 percent growth in newsletter subscribers year-over-year, and Digiday recently proclaimed newsletter editors the most important person in newsrooms. But while you might think that email newsletters are only appropriate for media companies, they’re actually a very effective lead generation channel for B2B and B2C companies, too.
Here at the Content Standard, newsletter subscriptions are our number-one way of passing leads on to the Skyword sales team, driving new business, proving ROI, and in the end, hopefully getting a bigger budget next year. We’re not alone in this marketing model—many companies are also starting to prioritize newsletters as both a separate publishing destination and lead generator.
I connected with Swensrud about the importance of newsletters for media and brands.
What makes a good newsletter?
“Good newsletters need to look great in every inbox and on every device, they need to be filled with content that’s relevant to the recipient, and always include a compelling call-to-action that drives further engagement. One of our customers, Dan Oshinsky at Buzzfeed, generates more than 20 percent of total site traffic using highly engaging and relevant newsletters.”
How can brands best prove ROI from their newsletters?
“Email marketing is the single most effective way to drive customers to buy, and newsletters are an easy way to engage your audience. For B2C companies, every business should have email marketing and automation technology that effortlessly syncs with e-commerce systems, which will show you exactly how much revenue every message drives.”
What is the future of digital newsletters? Should every brand that does content marketing have one?
“Newsletters continue to be the most popular email campaign that marketers send. It’s an easy way to engage with people that have asked to hear from you. Brands that don’t send newsletters are leaving money on the table.”
Why invest in it?
Short answer: Interrupt advertising is no longer effective, and most branded content comprises boring product pitches. A well-told story has the best chance at hooking and holding your audience’s attention.
There was a time only a few years ago when content marketing was so new as a form a digital marketing that brands could successfully reach, engage, and convert audiences by focusing on inbound techniques without storytelling elements. Cliches like “content is king” littered marketing blogs across the web because it was true: content was king. People were sick of being interrupted by ads and hearing the same product-oriented pitches from brands, and so pageviews poured in, conversions racked up, and content marketers were happy because they could prove the worth of their work to senior leadership.
Of course, much of this narrative still holds true today, but now, the best marketers are starting to sound like storytellers, and for good reason. As Skyword CEO Tom Gerace recently wrote:
Story form is powerful in business for two reasons. First, it focuses conversations on dynamic change, instead of reporting on the steady trends that often mask change until it is too late for an organization to respond. Second, it requires leaders to consider not just the opportunities that certain decisions might represent, but also all potential forces of antagonism—the things inside or outside the organization that might prevent a given decision from leading to success. Using story form to strategize requires leaders to spend as much time understanding potential threats or shortfalls as they do reporting on successes.
Gerace will be partnering with Robert McKee this fall to present Storynomics, a seminar in which he and McKee, the world’s foremost educator on story form, will teach business leaders how storytelling can transform their marketing.
I recently spoke with McKee on why story form is so powerful for marketers, and why brands must invest in teaching their organizations how to tell great stories. We talked about the mechanics of story form, how “boring” brands can tell entertaining stories, and if there’s room for story craft in short-form content. If you want to read the full Content Standard interview with Robert McKee, subscribe to our Newsletter and we’ll send it to you this Sunday (or, stay tuned and read it when it goes live on the Content Standard this Thursday). For now, here’s a preview of our conversation:
Today, storytelling is being talked about more and more in the marketing industry as a brand strategy. How can brands do it well?
“This strategy has grown enormously. What do they do well? First, they stop bragging. They stop promising, and they tell story.
“The classic advertising technique, that goes back to Benjamin Franklin, literally, has been bragging and promising. What [brands] have smartly done is realized that the Millennial generation and Generation Z coming up behind them have an adverse reaction to bragging. And they have an adverse reaction to promises. They’re annoyed by ‘we’re the biggest, we’re the best, we’re the shiniest, we’re the newest, we’re better than the competition.’ They find those claims doubtful at best, and they also believe that the promises brands make may or may not be kept. If they’re going to purchase the project or hire the service, they’d rather wait to see the performance of it. Then they’ll go online and they will rate it. They’re not going to let marketers tell them something they don’t necessarily believe.
“The way to persuade the buyer is to get their attention with a story, and that is very difficult in this day and age of distraction. Story is the most effective way to get attention because what attracts human attention is change. As long as things are going on in an even keel, you pay attention to whatever you’re doing. But if something around you changes—if the temperature around you changes, if the phone rings—if something changes, that gets your attention.”
Why invest in it?
Short answer: Ad block use is still rising, users want natural user experiences, and native video is much more cost effective than “push” video.
If there’s one major shift in marketing that the media world has latched onto most in the past year, it might well be native advertising. What is it? Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, offers a concise definition that I often refer to: “Native advertising doesn’t disrupt the user experience and offers helpful information in a format similar to the other content on the site so users engage with it more than they would with, say, a banner ad.”
And because of its smooth integration into its host environment, native advertising has been extremely successful over the past few years, and it will continue to be successful into the future. The New York Times has cited it as a huge reason for surviving in an ad-block-heavy digital environment, companies like Buzzfeed are built on native advertising, and The Atlantic has projected around 75 percent of its revenue will come from native in 2016. Clearly, media companies are embracing this new ad format to keep the lights on in a radically new business environment.
Yet we’ve created a ton of terms around one very simple concept—native ads, native content, sponsored content, contextual advertising—and it seems like brands are spending more trying to figure out what the heck native is rather than integrating it into their marketing strategies. As IAB recently wrote, “This lack of agreement has caused confusion in the marketplace, leading the industry to exert considerable time and energy debating whether or not various ad units are native rather than focusing on higher level discussions such as effectiveness and disclosure.”
So why should brands make native advertising a part of their budgets for 2017? I spoke with Melanie Deziel, branded content consultant and author of the highly successful The New York Times-featured native content, “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work” (a native ad for Netflix’s series Orange Is the New Black).
Why should brands make native advertising a part of their budgets for 2017?
“Native advertising allows brands to tap into the storytelling skills, tools, and experience of some of the best publishers in the media industry, and to use that quality content to connect with a new audience in the most authentic way possible. While it certainly shouldn’t replace other effective means of marketing and communicating with consumers, it should definitely be included in any diverse content strategy.”
Is there a difference in how B2B and B2C brands should think about using native ads in their content strategies? How does this differ from media companies?
“It’s easy to think that B2B companies should be more branded or in some way less personal in their content than B2C companies. But at the end of the day, even B2B companies are hoping to connect with and appeal to individual people—decision makers—with their content. By telling authentic stories or focusing on providing value and utility, B2B companies can create deeper connections with the individuals who can help them move their business forward. What may differ for B2B companies is the publications they choose to partner with, and therefore the format that their storytelling must take to be presented in context; if prospects and decision makers are reading industry publications that have different tones, voices, or formats than the lifestyle publications that individual customers of a B2C company are, then those advertisers must make sure their content is presented with a different tone, voice, and format as well.”
What types of native ads and native content are worth investing in? Are there some that are more valuable than others?
“The type of native advertising worth investing in differs by the goals of the advertisers and the publishing partner they choose. It’s important not to make native advertising content just for the sake of making it, as you would with any element of your strategy. Choose carefully the formats and publishing partners that deliver best on your objectives, measure carefully, and use those insights to inform and improve the effectiveness of future campaigns.”
Any other content marketing trends you’re watching this year and into next?
“I’m loving the creativity that I’m seeing from brands with 360-degree video and virtual reality. These formats give brands a really unique opportunity to take consumers behind the scenes and give them access to processes, people, and experiences that they might not otherwise get to see. In using these tools, brands can create deeper connections with their audience and make them feel like they’re insiders.”
Why invest in it?
Short answer: It’s highly engaging and a key differentiator from your competition.
No doubt, you’ve read the media hype in the past year surrounding branded virtual reality. From test-driving Volvos to going behind the scenes with Patron, and most recently, virtual-reality films courtesy of Google, VR as a marketing tool is widely covered. The Content Standard is included among publications excited by this tech innovation:
VR is not the fully formed marketing strategy and amplification tool that social media or email might be, but that presents a huge opportunity for differentiation. If your competitors are not moving into the VR space and offering experiences for their audiences, you ought to try—especially if you’re marketing to Millennials or Generation Z, who much prefer experiential marketing. A recent study by the Harris Group found that “72 percent say they would like to increase their spending on experiences rather than physical things.”
I spoke with Paula Elias, Director of Strategic Partnerships at StoryUP Studios, a VR native media company, about why marketers should make VR a part of their 2017 budgets.
Many marketers hear “virtual reality” and think it’s either A) too expensive, B) too new to invest in, or C) both. Are they wrong? Why should marketers invest part of their budget in VR?
“There is an obvious benefit to being a part of leading edge technology like virtual reality, especially before your competitors, in that it automatically positions your company as fresh and forward thinking to your audience. According to GreenLight VR, 71 percent of consumers see brands that use VR as forward thinking. This opportunity will not always be there as more and more people begin to use VR, so from this perspective there is definitely some urgency, but I don’t think this is any where near the most valuable thing about VR.
“Virtual reality is often called ‘the empathy machine‘ because it lets your customers experience your brand, rather than just listening to you talk about it. As marketers, we no longer have to talk ‘at’ our customers, hoping we can figure out how to yell louder than everyone else. With virtual reality, we can teleport our customers anywhere we want and put them inside the story. VR takes the power of story and feeds it rocket fuel.
“According to GreenLight VR, 62 percent of respondents say VR increases brand engagement and more than half of consumers say they would be more likely to purchase from a brand that uses VR. One study within the Miami Children’s Health System showed that students trained using VR retained 80 percent of the information they learned, while those trained in a traditional setting retained a mere 20 percent. According to study done by IM in a comparison between fixed frame and VR, time spent watching VR is 5x greater, viewing frequency is 6x greater, and the likelihood of sharing is 7.5x. VR allows marketers better engagement and better retention of your message. Your audience will view your message more often, for longer periods of time and they will share your message more. This power to engage and persuade customers is unprecedented and means that figuring out how to use VR is crucial for any advertiser.
“VR costs more than fixed-frame video and this can be a hurdle for some marketers. It can seem expensive if you think about it in comparison to traditional media. But VR is so much more. It is a social media campaign, an event, a viral campaign as well as a very personal experience and VR has proven to be more effective with higher engagement and retention than a traditional campaign. In one case study that we did on the same content in both 360 and fixed frame, viewership was 28.8 percent higher for the 360 video and twice the number of viewers watched the video all the way through. This means when including it in a marketing budget, we need to rethink the way we budget.
“I think the biggest challenge in VR is understanding that, as in every effective marketing campaign, it all comes down to story. It can be tempting to rely on the spectacle of VR in a campaign because the technology is so very cool. But in the end, the way we truly connect with people is through good storytelling and this has never been more true than in VR, where people can actually step inside the story. It’s not about being bedazzled by the technology, but about using it to tell a story that resonates about your brand with your audience.
“Before embarking on your VR journey, find someone who has figured out how to use it to tell story well. In the end, the same rules hold true for any marketing campaign. Find a partner that understands your brand and can tell your story well.”