The State of Content Marketing in 2016: Five Trends

September 6, 2016 Marcus Varner

by Marcus Varner

If you’re like me, working in content only makes your year go by faster than it already does for most office workers.

Why? Because content marketers are constantly living in the future. For example, as I sit down here at my desk before Labor Day weekend, my mind is consumed with thoughts of projects that won’t go live until the end of the month, in October, and even in December. Such is the curse of the content marketer. And a curious side effect of living in the future is that it gets easy to miss the trends that are happening right in front of you.

When I decided to take on this assignment—writing a retrospective on the trends that have happened in content marketing so far this year—I had to take more than a few minutes. (“Wait, trends happened this year?”)

But after forcing my mind to stay in the present and giving it some reflection, I realized that 2016 so far, from my perspective, has indeed been a year of subtle, but possibly earth-shaking, changes in the world of content marketing.

Here are the five biggest content marketing trends I’ve spotted in 2016 so far—trends that could very well separate the winners from the losers of content marketing in the years to come:

1. Deciding What You Want to Be

For so long, content marketers have been fighting for survival. We’ve been stuck in a fevered rush to not only produce as much content as possible, but also to hang with the guys in demand generation and digital marketing in terms of justifying our existence. In most cases, this existence took us in the opposite direction from sound content strategy and got us into the business of trying to be everything to everyone.

This year, however, it seems, we’ve come to a staggering realization: being the best at everything is just not possible in content marketing.

I like to think of this phenomenon in terms of hunting. Let’s say a lioness (because we love lions here at Workfront) comes upon a herd of gazelles on the Serengeti. As soon as the gazelles make a break for it, flying off in different directions, the lioness has a couple choices:

  1. The lioness can try to pursue multiple gazelles at once, weaving back and forth between the two and, ultimately, losing precious energy and speed until she ends up with nothing.

  2. The lioness can pick one specific gazelle and dedicate all of her energy and speed to chasing it down. Her chances of catching prey are much greater.

In a recent conversation with a content marketing researcher from one of the biggest market research firms, we spoke about blogs. She outlined for me the predicament the corporate bloggers face. Corporate bloggers, she said, are faced with three possible targets in the race for blog success: SEO, Sales Enablement, and Thought Leadership. Because these three targets are so distinct from one another and require markedly different approaches, no blog can successfully pursue all three at the same time and succeed.

Does this mean that, in 2016, content marketers can choose only SEO, Sales Enablement, or Thought Leadership? No, but each content marketing campaign, blog, ebook, and video does need to choose the one thing they want to succeed at.

This is part of a larger trend of strategic focus happening across content marketing…

2. It’s Not About More Anymore

Starting a few years ago, the marketing world decided that content marketing was actually valuable, after all. We were ushered into the cool kids club and given much bigger budgets. Suddenly, we were in demand. Everyone—Sales, Customer Success, HR, Digital Marketing, Demand Generation—wanted us to create as much content as possible for them. Some teams’ appetites were so insatiable that they hired their own content people just to churn out content nonstop to fit all the myriad purposes they could think up.

In just a few years, we had gone from a bunch of ragtag bloggers and copywriters to high-volume content factories. But something was lost in this commotion. Content became single-mindedly fixated on filling slots and blindly repurposing assets into smaller assets with no strategic thought as to why, where, and to whom we were publishing this content.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Robert Rose to get his 2016 predictions. Among the many gems he shared with me was this:

"I think we've reached a tipping point where marketing departments are so complex now, every department is producing content for their own nefarious purposes. We've become so focused on becoming an on-demand vending machine of content for sales enablement, for filling social channels, email newsletters, and blogs...we've forgotten how to create high-impact content."

Then he put forth what he saw, at the beginning of this year, as the best way forward for content marketers:

"How do we get great at a few strategic points of the customer's journey? We'll never be perfect at every step of the customer's journey—but how do we become remarkable at a few strategic steps, so that the thing that the consumer wants is to have another experience with us?"

This year, as content marketers have begun to stumble under the weight of creating an endless content smorgasbord, they’ve started to wake up and take a hard look at the situation. We are starting to talk about how to consolidate the content we produce into the most potent, highly optimized, highly polished customer experiences we can deliver.

3. Breaking Out of the Content Production Silo

Content marketing, at its core, is very prone to silos. Much of the time, we work heads down, trying to pump out as much content as possible, and this tends to cut us off from the resources all around us. This totally worked in the old world of content marketing.

However, now that we’ve ditched the “more is success” mantra of old content marketing, we’ve also found that we can’t produce truly potent content campaigns alone. We need the help of our friends in marketing and beyond.

This means greater integration between content marketers and other groups managing the touchpoints with which our content will be integrated. It also means letting these other teams vet content concepts, rather than simply tossing them over the wall, to ensure that they will perform as planned in these different venues.

This greater collaboration and integration is proving absolutely key for teams trying to consolidate their content to maximum effect. Any tools that facilitate this integration and collaboration with key stakeholders will make this easier for content marketers.

4. Starting With Promotion in Mind

Remember the days when we produced content first and then considered how we would get eyeballs to it later? Some of us are still living in those days. Regardless, with content marketing’s new role in the spotlight and greater spend devoted to it, we are being forced to think beyond “Can we create this piece of content?” to “How will we ensure people consume this content?”

After all, content without viewers might as well not exist at all. And this is where promotion is no longer able to be an afterthought in content discussions. Across the industry, content marketers are learning that questions “How are we going to promote this?” and “Will it have an audience?” need to be asked during the planning phase, not at completion.

5. Collaborating With Influencers

We all loved social media when it came into being, especially for its ability to help us broadcast our content for free, clear of the tentacles of the search engines. But then everyone used it and abused it. Social media became saturated by different voices, and only a few voices rose up above the commotion to be noticed and listened to.

For a while, many of us tried to rail against these dominant voices or rise up to become one of them. But 2016, it seems, is going down as the year we learned not to compete against influencers, but to partner with them.

“Influencer marketing has always been a ‘thing,’ but in the last six months … wow … this topic has vaulted into the top five,” said Joe Pullizzi of Content Marketing Institute earlier this month. Of course, this doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. “It seems that every enterprise has some kind of content and influencer strategy, but few organizations execute a real strategy that makes sense.”


About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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