In April of 2014, a six-pound binder of stats, graphs, inspirations, and editorial resources and I were (very conspicuously) making our way through the streets of Boston for a job interview at a content marketing solutions company. Nervous about being alone in the city for the first time, and because I had some time to kill before I went in, I had called my mother—who, in no uncertain terms, expressed her confusion and apprehension:
“What is content marketing, exactly? Do you even know what you’re getting yourself into?”
I couldn’t define it for her then and there. Not only would it not have made for great conversation, (“Oh, yes, well, the Content Marketing Institute says it’s ‘a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action,'”) but although I had been researching it for months (and consuming content for years), I didn’t truly get it in the way an experienced content marketer would. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I probably mumbled something about telling brand stories and added a little about working with freelance writers.
Fortunately for me, my editorial background and those six pounds of research were enough for the interviewers to believe in me, and in May of that same year, I was hired.
It’s only been about two human years since I started working in the content marketing industry—but in technology years, that equates to something like a decade. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work in several departments at Skyword: first editing stories for grammar and content, then as a recruiter working with freelance writers to match them with their dream clients, and finally, today, as a content marketing specialist, where I help push the Content Standard in bold, fresh directions from both editorial and content strategy perspectives. In all those opportunities, I was exposed to new elements of our nuanced industry, and I’ve had a front-row seat from which to watch it evolve.
Now it’s 2016. Gone are the days where content marketing simply meant posing a 300-word-long question, the answer to which was a particular product or brand. Along with those have gone the days of churning out article after keyword-stuffed article—which was a valid strategy back before consumers and search engines alike began to truly value quality stories and original thought leadership from industry experts and serious brand journalists. Brands around the globe have started recognizing the value of freelance contributors who can create compelling content—and on a multimedia level at that: writers, videographers, designers and animators, among others, have all become valuable partners on content marketing teams. And from where I’m sitting, things appear poised to get more intricate, and more powerful, with time.
So today, after being immersed in content marketing for some time, I’ll explore the definition of the term through the lens of its evolution. Of course, content marketing predates my entrance into the industry—going as far back as 1895, according to Marketer Gizmo—but its recent history is pretty fascinating. Let’s take a closer look at where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
When I first became acutely aware of content marketing, many of the elements you’d consider cornerstones of the industry were already in place. Marketers were already popularizing the importance of blogs, video was part of the conversation, and we were aware of the value of long-tail keywords. At that point, search engines were starting to respond to more conversational queries—or, in the words of a Search Engine Watch post circa 2013, “Google [was] becoming a person.”
I quickly noticed major developments in the written content I was editing. First, there was a necessary departure away from talking about one’s own brand. Of course there would still be links back to brand sites within pieces, and more often than not there were calls to action, but I was noticing less instances of brand names making their way into the bodies of pieces.
Instead of heavily branded, obviously advertorial blog posts about company services, for instance, travel stories were focusing more on a freelance writer’s journey to a particular place, or they were close studies of certain locations across the globe. Branded tech stories incorporated industry news that kept its audience abreast of the latest trends. And although we weren’t talking about stories in the way we understand them today, and storifying an entire company was a thing of the near future, pieces were getting longer and more in-depth, with more interviews and increasingly organic incorporation of keywords. People were experimenting with story form, and their risks were paying off—resulting in deeper connections between brands and their audiences, and content that was much more compelling.
While new brands are constantly entering the fold of content marketing and getting a grasp on its nuances, content marketing today is (at least in my eyes) at its most exciting. For brands, the question isn’t “what is content marketing?” so much as “what can content marketing become?” Virtual reality has entered the fold as a way people can learn about the world, which will be a huge boon for cause marketing efforts.
Major social media platforms are digging deep into human behavior to learn more about ways in which they can be connected and share their lives. They’re also creating opportunities for users to share live video—challenging some of our more traditional media platforms, such as television. We’re learning more and more about what makes the brain tick, and why humans respond to certain emotions the way they do.
And, oh yeah—we’re finally telling stories.
Like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the apparition of content marketing’s future is, as yet, silent. But while we can’t quote it, we can consider everything we know about stories, and about people, to predict where it’s going. For one, it seems all the pieces are falling into place for brands to create fully immersive experiences. And once smell and taste can be simulated virtually, we’ll have opportunities for completely multimedia, multisensory digital hubs that allow people to shop, taste, explore, and connect with brands without having to leave their local spheres. Along with this, the roles of content marketers (which have already changed, becoming more hybrid) will evolve. Marketing teams will start taking on creatives and strategists with even more skill sets.
Imagine, too, what search will be like in just two years. Or five. Or even seven. With your smartphone’s AI already impressively capable of turning your language into searchable commands, and Google’s ability to interpret and answer questions, content optimization strategies won’t be allowed to stagnate. And the possibilities there, which today seem unimaginable, will materialize in amazing ways.
“What is content marketing? Can you remind me?” It’s a near-lyrical refrain in my conversations with my mother by this point. But I can’t blame her for asking. My roles and the sphere of capability within the field have changed and grown so rapidly that it’s hard for even me to keep up. And for that reason, I never get tired of telling her.