Not long ago, in the spirit of celebrating a long summer that was dwindling to a close, I visited Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH—which is where I met Pappy.
Pappy, for those unfamiliar, is the nightmarish visage of a bearded man clutching a bag of gold coins. Like Zoltar’s long-lost cosmic twin, Pappy exists with the purpose of predicting the future for anyone who can spare him a quick $1. I’ve never satisfied my curiosity by actually doling out the dough (I mean really, a dollar?), but I’d guess that if I asked Pappy about marketing trends, or anything, really, he’d instead have given me something fortune-cookie-like in its nature. A real vague piece of advice, something like: “Deciding to make a move is the best next move to make.”
Here’s the thing though: as absurd as Pappy and other fortune-telling booths and objects like him may seem, there’s a deep-seeded reason they exist. It’s because universally, people want any hints they can get about the future. As humans, it might stem from an early need to beat out our competition for food or shelter, or have to do with planning a future and knowing where to expend our energy so nothing goes to waste. But as content marketers, it manifests in a different way: a strong desire to know what’s coming next, so we can recognize the next twitch in the industry that will quickly become a hot marketing trend. And with so many reputable and credible firms constantly tracking and reporting on trends and data, we’re in a unique situation of being both well-armed for the future and totally spread thin when it comes to figuring out where to look next.
I’m no fortune teller, but I have some tips that might help. Here are six (fairly easy) ways to predict the future of content marketing.
In an article for Huffington Post, Geoffrey Colon, Sr. Product Marketing Manager, Microsoft for Bing Ads, claims that the secret to trend-spotting—content marketing trends or otherwise—lies not just in search engines, but in asking search engines the right questions where your industry or particular area of curiosity is concerned. Said Colon, “the value of search isn’t in simply the advertising we can deploy using platforms…but the many tools that come with them or that can be used as a result of their existence and human behavior’s reliance on them.”
In his experience authoring Disruptive Marketing, which covered the 10 trends he predicts will shape the future of marketing, there are three key questions to consider:
Following that path of questioning, and using the right platforms to collect data around those questions (Colon cites Google Adwords and other keyword tools for the first and second, and a combination of trends reports and first-person conversation for the third) creates a natural flow through which marketers can start painting a picture of the industry and trends beyond what you might read in Google News. For storytellers and content creators, this information can be invaluable in creating an editorial calendar that sets your brand apart.
According to Andy Crestodina, cofounder and strategic director of Orbit Media, original research doesn’t have to be nearly as daunting as it sounds at first pass. It can come from a number of places: observation—that is, choosing a set of data that you wish to explore, analyzing that data, and repackaging it into useful content you can evaluate and potentially produce; aggregation, or collecting pre-existing data you already have found and recycling it to answer a question or solve a need; and surveys. Not only will this information help you extrapolate on the future of your industry, but it will help position you as a primary source and authority for that information within your industry.
This can come from observation (choosing a data set and analyzing/repackaging it), aggregation (bringing existing data points together into one central place to answer a question or solve a need), and surveys (ask yourself what people in your industry often say, but rarely support—then find that missing stat and report on it. As Crestodina said, that will make you “the primary source for an important piece of data in your industry”).
As Colon hinted at, past human behavior, combined with a basic knowledge of the functions of the brain, can tell us a lot about what the future might look like. Some of the proof of that can be found by reverse-tracking technological evolutions. For example, search engines: once, they were awkward, confusing websites driven by rigid algorithms that required you to speak their language; today, algorithms are fluid and are rapidly learning to speak human. And they’ve evolved past the website stage and into the voice-recognition era. (Hey Siri, what is Dogpile.com?)
So in addition to following data and trends reports, you’ll want to people-watch. And I don’t just mean holing up in a coffee shop whimsically with a notebook and a mocha latte—although that’s not a bad start. Get deep into psychology news. Find stories that rest on the fusion between consumer psychology and content marketing. Learn what makes people tick. Then, augment your content strategy with those findings. If you notice people frequently getting frustrated with their voice-recognition software, no matter the brand, you can expect to see that algorithm evolve. Expect technology’s evolution to be dictated by human behavior, as the reverse will cause quick user dropoff.
Often, those ubiquitous brands that live on the devices of all our consumers will be great indicators of the pulse of the market. So when Facebook’s sinking all its resources into its Profile Expression Kit, Instagram introduces a new feature that appears to directly mirror one of Snapchat’s, or Google steps up with a new app that’s positioned to be a force in the market, keep tabs. Think about how these moves relate to the behaviors you’ve picked up on in your people-watching, and make your decisions based on your findings.
There’s no denying that technology has made the world smaller than ever—but with the decrease in size has come an increase in complexity. You already know how much effort is involved in bringing your brand across the globe, but by asking the right questions and paying attention to the right global resources, you can get a sense of the motions on a global scale. What’s the best route for this? Start with global trends reports, then make connections (even digitally) with marketers across the world who understand the nuances of their niche markets. What’s most important, even if you’re not going global in the foreseeable future, is to make sure you don’t get tunnel vision where your content strategy is concerned. A global perspective is guaranteed to paint a more detailed picture of the future for you.
When in doubt, your best lens to the future is tinted with human experience. So much of content marketing today revolves around telling a comprehensive story that keeps users in a particular world—be it the world of one particular story (as with the cause marketing that StoryUp does so well), or the world of your brand as a whole. Consider ways in which you could bring the discrete elements of your brand together by considering your user’s experience, the technology available today to enhance that experience, and the gaps between user needs and users’ natural instincts. In that way, you can create a world in which your audience wants to live.
Don’t get stuck in the past—or worse, the latent present. With a sharp eye to human behaviors and the data they generate, you can do one better than the best fortune teller around: you can extrapolate. And in our fast-paced industry, the first to extrapolate is often the next to break into the scene.