A sound content marketing strategy is one of the better ways a business can help shape its brand identity, garner interest from prospects, and retain an engaged audience. It lets you establish authority in your space, project legitimacy, and build trust between you and who you’re trying to reach.
As you can assume, it’s well worth understanding. But that’s easier said than done. Content marketing isn’t static. The landscape of the practice is constantly changing. It doesn’t look the same now as it did ten years ago, and in ten years it won’t look the same as it does now.
It’s a difficult topic to pin down — one with a fascinating past and an exciting future. Out of both genuine interest and forward-thinking practicality, it’s important to understand both where it’s been and where it’s going.
Here, we’ll get some perspective on both. We’re going to take a look at how content marketing has evolved in the past decade, and how it’s going to evolve in the next one according to expert predictions.
How Content Marketing Evolved in the Past Decade
Google changed the game.
In 2011, Google conducted its landmark Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT) study. It found that 88% of shoppers use what’s known as a Zero Moment of Truth — a discovery and awareness stage in a buying cycle where a consumer researches a product before buying it. Google’s research also indicated that word of mouth was a definitive factor in swaying that moment.
The study provides a unique point of reference in the context of content marketing’s evolution. It captures the essence of how and why businesses needed to focus on content marketing at the beginning of the 2010s.
It was tacit evidence that companies’ stories were being told online — well beyond the control of their marketing departments — and it was in their best interest to help shape those conversations.
The ZMOT study highlighted the need for sound Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Ranking for relevant keywords on search engines became all but essential to bolstering a company’s online presence and holding up during consumers’ Zero Moments of Truth.
But that study wasn’t the only bombshell Google dropped in the early 2010s. Around the time the study came out, Google’s search ranking algorithm changed to discourage “keyword stuffing” — the practice of repetitively loading a webpage with specific keywords to try to sway search engine rankings.
The change represented what is still a continuous effort by Google to provide users with positive, helpful online experiences. And it did just that. The shift that set the stage for businesses to focus on producing more high-quality, meaningful content.
Social media rose.
But content marketing’s evolution wasn’t exclusively linked to search engines. Social media’s meteoric rise to prominence — one of the most disruptive trends in human history — also had a profound impact on the practice. As these platforms developed into mainstays of everyday life, they presented new challenges for content marketers.
As social media evolved, it popularized a different kind of content consumption than search engines. The difference boiled down to a matter of “pointed versus passive.”
Consumers use search engines to find content more pointedly. Generally speaking, when you use a search engine, you’re looking for a specific answer or a specific subject. Social media allowed users to consume content more passively on their preferred platforms. The content you see on your Facebook feed is finding its way to you — not the other way around.
That trend incentivized the creation of more shareable, attention-grabbing content that could easily be spread across social media channels.
Video is inherently engaging. Generally speaking, it’s easier to follow than blog posts, email newsletters, or ebooks. Gradually, audiences took to it more and more as the decade progressed. By the end of the 2010s, platforms like YouTube were central to the landscape of content marketing.
Obviously, content marketing underwent several shifts in the 2010s, but as I said at the beginning of this article, the practice isn’t — and will never be — static. There are still plenty of changes to come.
How Content Marketing Will Evolve in the Next Decade
Video content will continue to rule.
As I just mentioned, video was emerging as one of the most — if not the most — important mediums for content marketing at the end of this past decade. There’s no indication that that trend is stopping anytime soon.
And, as Canva’s B2B Head of Content Rachael Perry points out, “Video content is positioned for massive growth now, especially as video-first social platforms like TikTok continue to rule.”
Perry says, “Almost everyone creates and absorbs visual content in today’s world, and video is a great way to bring your brand to life and build more personal connections with your audience.”
Perry adds, “Until now, video creation has been complex, but there are new tools making it easier. If you can understand what your audience truly needs, video can help you provide that value in a memorable way.”
All told, it looks like the exploration and expansion of video as the preeminent medium for content marketing is going to continue. The priority for marketers is going to be a matter of standing out.
That could mean emphasizing the quality of the content you produce — ensuring it’s enriching, well-crafted, and relevant to viewers. You could also try looking to emerging platforms like TikTok.
CEO & Co-Founder of Slidebean, Jose (Caya) Cayasso, told me he encourages brands to step outside the more traditional avenues of content marketing — blogging, email marketing, and SEO — to create “wider moats” around their content efforts.
He says, “[At Slidebean] we decided to bet on YouTube, and it’s become our most significant source of revenue and brand awareness. Alternatively, companies like Morning Brew and Duolingo are killing it on TikTok — but requires us to reinvent ourselves constantly, and to break the status quo of typical corporate content.”
Cayasso adds, “You have to be incredibly clever and adaptable to succeed in video content — even more so if you’re a brand, versus an individual.”
No matter how individual producers and companies manage to innovate when it comes to video marketing, the medium is going to be a mainstay in the evolution of content marketing going forward.
Adjusting for mobile will be essential and present new opportunities.
According to Statista, global mobile data traffic in 2022 will be seven times larger than it was in 2017. Mobile device usage is increasing astronomically, and it’s in every content marketer’s best interest to keep pace with that trend.
In 2021, 61% of Google searches took place on a mobile device, and that trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Having a website optimized for mobile devices will be central to successful SEO efforts. And a lot of the content you create will need to fit that bill as well.
Blogs should be easily navigable on smartphones. Readily accessible video content that your audience can watch on mobile devices will be a big help as well. Prospects and customers will need to be able to get as much out of your mobile resources as your desktop ones.
This shift towards mobile will also present new opportunities through emerging kinds of media. More novel mobile technology — like virtual and augmented reality — will have a very real place in the future of content marketing.
As people continue to rely more on their mobile devices, content marketers will have to as well.
Successful content will be more empathetic, purposeful, and customer-first.
Google’s ranking algorithm aims to prioritize the content that will mean the most to searchers. Ideally, by Google’s standards, the first ranking search result for any keyword is the one that best addresses whatever users are searching for. And in all likelihood, they’ll keep tinkering with their process in pursuit of that interest.
While there’s no telling exactly how the algorithm might change going forward, one fact remains — marketers need to focus on high-quality content that will register with consumers. That means understanding your audience and putting considerable effort into how to reach them best.
As HubSpot Senior Content Strategist Amanda Zantal-Wiener puts it, “Where I’m starting to see content turning a corner is in the area of empathy. In the years to come, marketers are going to start creating more content that’s truly created in the mindset of putting themselves in the shoes of others — be it their customers, prospects, partners, or someone else within their audiences.”
She adds, “They’ll ask questions like, ‘What does my audience need from me right now? What can I create that’s truly going to help them?’ That’s going to become a requirement for marketers when they begin brainstorming content.”
Content marketing is trending towards audience enrichment as opposed to product promotion. If this shifting tide holds true, content marketing will continue to become more targeted, purposeful, and customer-centric as the practice evolves.
As Katelyn Seese, Content Strategist at Blue Frog, puts it, “Content marketing has the power to make real connections with your audience and educate them of the value of your brand beyond your services, products, or offerings. Consumers care much more today about the who and why of your brand rather than just what you do. Understanding who your audience is and why they need your brand is the key to creating meaningful content that truly resonates with your audience.”
Of course, content creation isn’t easy. Fortunately, Kim Giroux, Director of Marketing at Beautiful.ai, believes the future includes an increase in tools that should help your writers with content creation and design.
Giroux told me, “Over the next decade, content creation will be automated with tools backed by artificial intelligence and natural language processing. Widespread adoption of such tools will give marketers the ability to create quality content in a fraction of the time. At the same time, integrations will simplify tech stacks and end-user experiences. Professionals will no longer need to understand complex tools, while workflows and team collaboration will be seamless.”
She adds, “With automation in content creation tools as the norm, designing or branding content such as presentations, infographics, blog posts and white-papers will be effortless.”
“The days of spending hours formatting and incorporating brand elements and design principles into every piece of content will be long gone. Smart technology will instantly create branded, visually appealing collateral, freeing up marketers’ brainpower to focus solely on the messaging and strategy behind a brand.”
Historical optimization will become increasingly important.
Basha Coleman, a Historical Optimization Marketing Manager at HubSpot, believes the future of content marketing will include an increased awareness and dedication to historical optimization.
She says, “As we enter an era where competitive content is appearing each minute, content teams will find it worthwhile to extract more value out of every minute spent on content development.”
Coleman adds, “That means existing material that is updated with new data and trends can compete with brand new content on the same topic, while spending less time and resources to produce it.”
If you don’t already, consider investing in a strong optimization strategy for 2022 and beyond. This will help you create consistently relevant and high-ranking content without constantly starting from scratch, and is a critical SEO tactic for maintaining authority in the SERPs.
Marketers will use more interactive content on their websites.
To serve your audience’s needs, consider how you might implement more interactive content, which breaks up long paragraphs of text and provides the viewer with an alternative method for consuming content.
As VP of Marketing at Trusted Health Jill Callan puts it, “With average attention spans dwindling down to less than that of a goldfish, brands can no longer afford to have one-way conversations with their audience.”
Callan says, “Interactive content on your website or blog can help engage visitors and make complex information easy to digest.”
Callan adds, “At my company, Trusted Health, we’ve used this approach to engage our nursing audience with things like our Salary Calculator, which helps nurses get detailed salary and cost of living information for every state. The best part? Creating contextual user experiences needn’t suck up precious product or engineering resources.”
If you aren’t sure how to begin, you’re in luck. Callan shared with me three tips to kick-start your interactive content journey:
Embed an ROI calculator on your website to show potential customers how you will save them money. An interactive tool immediately shows your product’s value versus relying on text-heavy copy to explain it.
Crowd-source product innovation. Tap into your brand advocates and loyal customers to learn more about their pain points and product wishlist. Use those insights to inform a product roadmap.
Create a quiz. Not only are quizzes a great way to engage visitors, they also give you a better understanding of your audience so you can create more targeted campaigns in the future.
Zero-party data will become the preferred option for collecting prospect and customer data.
To do this, many marketers will switch from using first, second, or third-party data to using zero-party data, which is data collected voluntarily from customers in exchange for value. Zero-party data goes beyond email address or phone number, and instead can include personal context, interests, and preferences — in return, prospects and customers can expect a more personalized consumer experience.
As Senior Director of Marketing at Microsoft Advertising John Cosley told me, “Zero-party data is the foundation for a relationship built on trust and a value exchange. For consumers, it holds the promise of a personalized and more relevant experience with brands. In return, brands and businesses receive better insight and a longer-term relationship.”
Using zero-party data enables you to create trust between your brand and its consumers, while also ensuring you’re delivering the most personalized content possible for your customers. As other types of data collection are phased out — including third-party cookies — you’ll see marketers shift to zero-party data in the next decade.
If there’s anything to take away from understanding the previous and upcoming evolutions of content marketing it’s this — don’t get too comfortable. New trends and challenges are always emerging, and it will always be in your best interest to stay abreast of them.
And above all else, focus on consistently creating high-quality content that your audience will always be able to get something out of.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in May 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Who doesn’t like to have a good experience consuming content?
I know I do. And isn’t that what we – as both a consumer of content and a marketer of content – all want?
What if you create such a good experience that your audience doesn’t even realize it’s an “experience?” Here’s a helpful mish-mash of easy-to-do things to make that possible.
1. Write with an inclusive heart
There’s nothing worse than being in a conversation with someone who constantly talks about themselves. Check your text to see how often you write the words – I, me, we, and us. Now, count how often the word “you” is used. If the first-person uses are disproportionate to the second-person uses, edit to delete many first-person references and add more “you” to the text.
You want to let your audience know they are included in the conversation. I like this tip shared in Take Binary Bias Out of Your Content Conversations by Content Marketing World speaker Ruth Carter: Go through your text and replace exclusionary terms such as he/him and she/her with they/them pronouns.
2. Make your content shine brighter with an AI assist
Content published online should look different than the research papers and essays you wrote in school. While you should adhere to grammar rules and follow a style guide as best as possible, you also should prioritize readability. That requires scannable and easily digestible text – headings, bulleted text, short sentences, brief paragraphs, etc.
Use a text-polishing aid such as Hemingway Editor (free and paid versions) to cut the dead weight from your writing. Here’s how its color-coded review system works and the improvements to make:
Yellow – lengthy, complex sentences, and common errors
Fix: Shorten or split sentences.
Red – dense and complicated text
Fix: Remove hurdles and keep your readers on a simpler path.
Pink – lengthy words that could be shortened
Fix: Scroll the mouse over the problematic word to identify potential substitutes.
Blue – adverbs and weakening phrases
Fix: Delete them or find a better way to convey the thought.
Green – passive voice
Fix: Rewrite for active voice.
Grammarly’s paid version works well, too. The premium version includes an AI-powered writing assistant, readability reports, a plagiarism checker, citation suggestions, and more than 400 additional grammar checks.
In the image below, Grammarly suggests a way to rephrase the sentence from:
“It is not good enough any longer to simply produce content “like a media company would”.
“It is no longer good enough to produce content “as a media company would”.
Much cleaner, right?
3. Ask questions
See what I did with the intro (and here)? I posed questions to try to engage with you. When someone asks a question – even in writing – the person hearing (or reading) it is likely to pause for a split second to consider their answer. The reader’s role changes from a passive participant to an active one. Using this technique also can encourage your readers to interact with the author, maybe in the form of an answer in the comments.
4. Include links
Many content marketers include internal and external links in their text for their SEO value. But you also should add links to help your readers. Consider including links to help a reader who wants to learn more about the topic. You can do this in a couple of ways:
You can link the descriptive text in the article to content relevant to those words (as I did in this bullet point)
You can list the headlines of related articles as a standalone feature (see the gray box labeled Handpicked Related Content at the end of this article).
You also can include on-page links or bookmarks in the beginning (a table of contents, of sorts) in longer pieces to help the reader more quickly access the content they seek to help you learn more about a topic. This helps the reader and keeps visitors on your website longer.
5. Don’t forget the ‘invisible’ text
Alt text is often an afterthought – if you think about it all. Yet, it’s essential to have a great content experience for people who use text-to-speech readers. Though it doesn’t take too much time, I find that customizing the image description content instead of relying on the default technology works better for audience understanding.
First, ask if a listener would miss something if they didn’t have the image explained. If they wouldn’t, the image is decorative and probably doesn’t need alt text. You publish it for aesthetic reasons, such as to break up a text-heavy page. Or it may repeat information already appearing in the text (like I did in the Hemingway and Grammarly examples above).
If the listener would miss out if the image weren’t explained well, it is informative and requires alt text. General guidelines indicate up to 125 characters (including spaces) work best for alt text. That’s a short sentence or two to convey the image’s message. Don’t forget to include punctuation.
For both decorative and informative images, include the photo credits, permissions, and copyright information, in the caption section.
For example, if I were writing an article about Best Dogs for Families, I would include an image of a mini Bernedoodle as an example because they make great family pets. Let’s use this image of my adorable puppy, Henri, and I’ll show you both a good and bad example of alt text.
An almost useless alt-text version: “An image showing a dog.”
It wastes valuable characters with the phrase “an image showing.”
Use the available characters for a more descriptive alt text: “Author’s tri-colored (brown, white, black, grey wavy hair), merle mini Bernedoodle, Henri, lying on green grass.”
It’s more descriptive, and I only used 112 characters, including spaces.
Want to learn more? Alexa Heinrich, an award-winning social media strategist, has a helpful article on writing effective image descriptions called The Art of Alt Text. @A11yAwareness on Twitter is also a great resource for accessibility tips.
Improve your content and better the experience
Do any of these suggestions feel too hard to execute? I hope not. They don’t need a bigger budget to execute. They don’t need a lengthy approval process to implement. And they don’t demand much more time in production.
They just need you to remember to execute them the next time you write (and the time after that, and the time after that, and the … well, you get the idea.)
If you have an easy-to-implement tip to improve the content experience, please leave it in the comments. I may include it in a future update.
All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.
If you have an idea for an original article you’d like to share with the CMI audience, you could get it published on the site. First, read our blogging guidelines and write or adjust your draft accordingly. Then submit the post for consideration following the process outlined in the guidelines.
In appreciation for guest contributors’ work, we’re offering free registration to one paid event or free enrollment in Content Marketing University to anyone who gets two new posts accepted and published on the CMI site in 2023.
HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT:
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
Whew! We made it to 2023! As we closed in on the end of the year in December, the finish line seemed awfully far away. Many marketers told me they were busier than ever.
I myself was fielding calls for strategy help, working on business deals and managing the chaos all the way to the eve of Christmas Eve, something that rarely happens in my 20-plus-year career.
Look back and celebrate, then move on
The first business for 2023 will be to step back, clear your head and take stock of all the great things you accomplished in 2022 despite the odds (i.e., coming out of COVID, going into a rebound and COVID round 2, moving into supply-chain shortages and other hiccups, facing down a potential recession) and how they affected the work you did to succeed.
And now it’s 2023. I hope you got your budget request approved and you’re ready to move ahead with a clean slate and new KPIs to hit. You’re probably wondering, “What can I do now to grow my program?
3 directional changes to grow your email program
Naturally, every marketer’s goals will be unique. We have different audiences, challenges, resources and goals. But I’m focusing on three major directional changes with my clients this year. Which of these could help you succeed this year?
1. Stop sending so many emails
Yeah, I know. That sounds strange coming from somebody who believes wholeheartedly in email and its power to build your business. But even I have my limits!
Email during this last holiday shopping season was insane. In my 20+ years in the email industry, I cannot remember a time, even during the lockdown days of COVID-19, when my inbox was so full.
I didn’t run any numbers to measure volume, isolate cadences or track frequency curves. But every time I turned around, I saw emails pouring into my inbox.
My advice for everyone on frequency: If you throttled up during the holiday, now it’s time to throttle back.
This should be a regularly scheduled move. But it’s important to make sure your executives understand that higher email frequency, volume and cadence aren’t the new email norm.
If you commit to this heavier schedule, you’ll drive yourself crazy and push your audience away, to other brands or social media.
If you did increase cadence, what did it do for you? You might have hit your numbers, but consider the long-term costs:
More spam complaints.
Lower revenue per email.
Take what you learned from your holiday cadence as an opportunity to discover whether it’s a workable strategy or only as a “break glass in case of emergency” move.
My advice? Slow down. Return to your regular volume, frequency and cadence. Think of your customers and their reactions to being inundated with emails over 60 days.
2. Stop spamming
In that Washington Post article I mentioned earlier, I was encouraged that it cited one of my email gripes — visiting websites and then getting emails without granting permission first.
I could have given the Post a salty quote about my experiences with SafeOpt and predatory email experiences (“Business stress is no excuse to spam“) for visitors to its clients’ websites.
Successful email marketers believe in the sanctity of permission. That permission-based practice is what you want to be involved in. Buying a list means you don’t hire a company to sell you one, whether it’s a data broker or a tech provider like SafeOpt.
Spamming people doesn’t work in the long term. Sure, I’ve heard stories from people who say they use purchased lists or companies like SafeOpt and it makes them money. But that’s a singular view of the impact.
Email is the only marketing channel where you can do it wrong but still make money. But does that make it right?
The problem with the “it made us money” argument is that there’s nowhere to go after that. Are you measuring how many customers you lost because you spammed them or the hits your sender reputation took?
You might hit a short-term goal but lose the long-term battle. When you become known as an unreliable sender, you risk losing access to your customers’ inboxes.
Aside from the permission violation, emailing visitors after they leave your site is a wasted effort for three reasons:
A visit is not the same as intent. You don’t know why they landed on your site. Maybe they typed your URL as a mistake or discovered immediately that your brand wasn’t what they wanted. Chasing them with emails won’t bring them back.
You aren’t measuring interest. Did they visit multiple pages or check out your “About” or FAQ pages? As with intent, just landing on a page doesn’t signal interest.
They didn’t give you their email address. If they had interest or intent, they would want to connect with your brand. No email address, no permission.
Good email practice holds that email performs best when it’s permission-based. Most ESPs and ISPs operate on that principle, as do many email laws and regulations.
But even in the U.S., where opt-out email is still legal, that doesn’t mean you should send an email without permission just because somebody landed on your website.
3. Do one new thing
Many email marketers will start the year with a list of 15 things they want to do over the next two months. I try to temper those exuberant visions by focusing on achievable goals with this question:
“What one thing could you do this year that could make a great difference in your email program’s success?”
When I started a job as head of strategy for Acxiom, I wanted to come up with a long list of goals to impress my new boss. I showed it to my mentor, the great David Baker and he said, “Can you guarantee that you can do all of these things and not just do them but hit them out of the park?”
“That’s why you don’t put down that many goals,” he said. “Go in with just one. When that one is done, come up with the next one. Then do another. If you propose five projects, your boss will assume you will do five projects. If you don’t, it just means you didn’t get it done.”
That was some of the best advice I’ve ever received and I pass it on to you.
Come up with one goal, project or change that will drive your program forward. Take it to your boss and say, “Here’s what I’m going to do this year.”
To find that one project, look at your martech and then review MarTech’s six most popular articles from 2022 for expert advice.
You’ll find plenty of ideas and tips to help you nail down your one big idea to drive growth and bring success. But be realistic. You don’t know what events could affect your operations.
Drive your email program forward in 2023
The new year has barely begun, but I had a little trouble getting motivated to take on what’s shaping up to be a beast of a year. You, too?
I enjoyed my time off over the holidays. Got in some golf with my dad and his buddies, ate great food and took time to step back and appreciate the phenomenal people I work with and our amazing industry.
What gets me going at last? Reaching out to my team, friends and you. Much of my motivation comes from fellow marketers — what you need, what you worry about and what I can do to help you succeed.
If you’re on the struggle bus with me, borrow some motivation from your coworkers and teammates, so we can gather together 12 months from now and toast each other for making it through another year.
It’s time to strap on your marketer helmet and hit the starter. Here’s to another great year together. Let’s get the job done!
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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.
As the co-founder of RPEOrigin.com, Ryan Phelan’s two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for Adestra, Acxiom, Responsys, Sears & Kmart, BlueHornet and infoUSA. Working with peers to advance digital marketing and mentoring young marketers and entrepreneurs are two of Ryan’s passions. Ryan is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board and a member of numerous business community groups. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on digital marketing.