Marketing Content Strategy

No. 2 Trend: What Brands Need to Know about Interactive Storytelling for 2016


“Never trust the storyteller. Only trust the story.” – Neil Gaiman

Rarely do we read interviews in which people reflect on the profoundness of corporate blogging. In the next B2B article you click on, chances are you will not be led to wonder, nor will there be unique prose surrounding the next product pitch you read. In marketing, it’s always been about marketing speak, and lately, that’s been marketing’s biggest problem.

Yet here we are, discussing the evolution of content marketing as it pertains to your 2016 strategy. In my prediction post published in August, I outlined six trends you couldn’t afford to overlook next year, and I have been diving deeper into each tactic ever since. You can read about the first trend, content amplification, if you missed that post. This one is all about interactive storytelling.

In 2015, media companies and research firms have experimented with and examined the effect of various storytelling formats. Below I outline core characteristics of rich content that brands will look to adapt next year as they try and become stronger storytellers.

The State of the Content Marketer

The Content Marketing Institute, in partnership with MarketingProfs and Brightcove, recently published the 2016 edition of their B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks report. Among the findings were clues to smarter storytelling that few brand marketers have put together.

Content Marketers

According to the research, 30 percent of B2B marketers say their organizations are effective at content marketing, down from 38 percent in 2015. In addition, fewer B2B marketers have documented content strategies (32 percent vs. 38 percent) compared with last year, despite those plans being critical to success. Only 28 percent of marketers have documented editorial missions.

When looking at current strategies and future goals, the research raises a major red flag. Organizations plan to produce more content in 2016 when compared with 2015, using 13 different formats, yet fewer marketers understand what success looks like and know how to effectively map out strategies to govern all the moving parts in their programs.

Still, 72 percent of respondents indicate that they will continue to heavily focus on creating engaging content, above all other priorities in 2016. Interestingly, further down on the priority scale, the research shows marketers are also interested in creating visual content (51 percent) and becoming better storytellers (41 percent). How marketers plan to go about creating “more engaging content” before they become “better storytellers” is beyond me. The focus feels backward.

For the purpose of this piece, I’m going to focus on the last two priorities I mention above: visual storytelling and better storytellers. I believe these are the keys to more engaging content next year.

What Is Quality Content?

B2B Content Marketing Tactics in 2016The CMI research consistently shows that B2B marketers plan to focus even more on quality content creation year-over-year. And while the bar is set higher every month, few marketers have taken risks this year, compared to years past.

Instead, 2015 has been the year of media organizations reclaiming the storytelling thrown. The rise of native advertising—editorial, video, social media content—has helped once struggling media brands find new revenue streams and develop agency-like branches to coach companies into the world of storytelling.

When I looked at the new CMI research, I began to compare responses slide-by-slide in hopes of uncovering contradictions or patterns just below the surface. To me, the fact that brands plan to use 13 different content formats but have yet to piece various media types together into seamless storytelling experiences shows how much more the industry has to mature before companies really become publishers.

Let’s look at the growth of long-form, data-driven reporting in the media industry, and see if we can make a case for brand adoption in 2016.

The Skinny on Beefy Content

With murmurs coming from SEOs claiming that long-form content outranks short, quippy articles, media companies, brands, and solo-bloggers haven’t been shy about exploring the effects of lengthy editorial formats in 2015.

A new study funded by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism wanted to better understand how readers found, read, and shared long-form content. To do this, researchers contracted 63 self-identified long-form content lovers and monitored their consumption behavior over 21 days.

Why does this matter?

Basically, since the advent of the Internet, people have preferred shorter content. But as download speeds increased and new devices offered unique reading experiences, consumers changed their tune every so slightly. Original content publishers like Wait But Why and The Big Roundtable have launched with the goal of advancing the adoption of longer content types. Media companies have edged closer to 3,000-word articles. And then there’s The New York Times, which with one click of the “Publish” button, completely changed how people think about storytelling online. The Times’Snow Fall” piece represented a shiny beacon of hope for the Internet, and now every media company on Earth wants its own badge of honorable journalism.

CJR ChartBack to the study: Participants read 1,349 stories in three weeks and shared nearly 35 percent of them without any prompt. Readers shared these stories across three main hubs: Email (43 percent), Facebook (21 percent), and Twitter (15 percent). And they read these stories evenly throughout the week, with 50 percent of consumption happening on the weekends. Even more surprising, readers finished a long story in one sitting 66 percent of the time. Meaning, these long-form articles were able to capture the reader’s attention and entertain him or her throughout the narrative.

Media brands can publish 6,000 word articles and keep their audiences attention 66 percent of the time, but you can’t even get a text back? Shame.

When we think about long-form content today, we rarely envision a scrolling page of black-and-white text. This isn’t book publishing. Instead, we picture well-designed templates that pair editorial with images, videos, audio clips, and GRAPHS! So many graphs. It’s this interactivity and playfulness that keep people engaged, and it’s this direction that content marketers should take in 2016.

Which brings up another question: Where did all these graphs come from?

What Do You Think the Inventor of Graphs Is Doing Right Now?

William Playfair, a Scottish engineer and political economist, introduced the line chart and bar chart to the world in 1786 when he attempted to explain the exports, imports, and general trade trends of England, in a single view. Playfair knew that the sheer amount of statistical information he wanted to publish would overwhelm his audience, and by organizing this information into number-driven images, readers could quickly understand his core points.

Fast forward to 2014, where Quartz Editor Kevin Delaney estimated to Nieman Lab that his journalists created approximately 4,000 charts in the service of stories about the global economy alone. That doesn’t take into consideration stories around other topics or categories on the website.

In modern-day publishing, charts are used to break up large chunks of text and draw the reader’s eyes to an important fact or figure. Reader interest in charts—and attraction toward images in general—doesn’t look to decrease anytime soon. This led Quartz, and other media outlets, to heavily invest in new image-generation software and departments. For Quartz, this consumer trend inspired the development of Atlas, a platform for sharing and creating charts, as well as an open-source Chartbuilder Tool.

Data visualization started as a way to quickly communicate data to an unfamiliar audience, but today it has founded a content type all of its own. We see publishers like The New York Times and MSNBC using it in organic and paid editorial as a way to improve readability and likelihood to share. When you look at some of the best examples of sponsored content or native content, you don’t care who the sponsoring brand is, as long as the information is interesting and engaging.

A core component of engaging content is the story behind the article. When a story evokes emotional responses or provides the reader value, length becomes a non-factor. So while trends in native content may seem parallel, but irrelevant to brands’ content strategies, reader behavioral trends can be applied to one definition or the other.

Consumers Warm Up to Branded Content

Whether brands choose to invest in storytelling through native posts on media outlets or by launching their own branded content hubs, consumers indicate they’re open to reading articles when the stories add value to their lives.

AOL ResearchIn AOL Research’s “The Alchemy of Connection” report, 61 percent of respondents agreed that “as long as the content is good, [they] don’t care if it is sponsored by a brand.”

In Acquity Group’s 2015 Next Generation of Commerce Study, which surveyed more than 2,000 US consumers, 59 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to watch an online streaming TV series produced by a brand such as Red Bull, rather than the same content made by a traditional media company, if it meant they didn’t have to watch commercials.

However, 60 percent of respondents also noted that they see too much sponsored content and other forms of advertisements from brands. To be effective in any form of marketing or advertisement, quality must always be the barometer by which you measure the value of the media you’re about to publish.

Consumers are looking for more engaging content, and content marketers want to produce that type of media for their customers. While few organizations are ready to produce their own online TV series, interactive storytelling formats are in reach for almost every B2B and B2C organization.

The Rise of Interactive Content Marketing in 2016

The Content Marketing Institute found that B2B marketers desperately want to be good at content marketing by creating engaging content and becoming better storytellers themselves. I believe that interactive storytelling is the solution they’re looking for, which requires newfound knowledge of data analysis, web design, and a true understanding of how to write.

Instead of calling out the volume of different content formats included in a content strategy, top-tier producers will look for ways to piece these assets together in 2016. We’re not far off from brands like New Balance and Microsoft figuring out ways to scale interactive storytelling as part of their broader digital marketing strategies, and when we get there, content as an industry will reach a new, more respectable level of maturity.

This is just one of the major trends impacting your 2016 marketing strategy. For information on the other 5 trends, don’t forget to check out the series round-up.

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