Although "content marketing" has become standard practice for all brands only over the last 15 to 20 years, the concept of creating content specifically for your brand's target customers is not new.
According to a Content Marketing Institute blog post, content marketing has always been about storytelling — but online outlets have made the barriers to entering the publishing arena much lower. Decades ago, only brands with enough money to print their own publications or sponsor a radio or television program could get into content marketing. As technology evolved and opened up platforms for blogging, photo sharing and video uploading, more companies in more industries could make their voices heard.
But recent years have brought on some major shifts in the kind of content that is created — and how it's pushed out to the public. Here are five ways content marketing has radically changed, and where experts believe it will go. [Content Marketing Lagging? Avoid These 4 Mistakes]
Content marketing: then and now
From text to visual
From posting on Instagram to sharing a Snapchat story or using emojis to convey an entire message, consumers are communicating in pictures, not words, said Matt Langie, CMO of visual marketing platform Curalate. As consumers continue to communicate visually, brands have updated their content marketing to be more visual, too.
"Not only are visual channels of communication changing how people discover, connect [with] and engage with brands, but they're influencing the types of images that people relate to," Langie said. "Domino's is a great example of a brand that's embracing the visual consumer, launching the first emoji-driven food-ordering system — tweet the pizza emoji if you want a pie — last year."
Lauren Fritsky, senior manager of global content for marketing technology company MediaMath, agreed, and said that although long-form content still exists, shorter, more digestible visual content — infographics, short videos, interactive quizzes, etc. — has become the norm.
From one-size-fits-all to personalized
Peggy Chen, senior director of product marketing at SDL, a provider of customer experience solutions, said that brands used to focus on a one-size-fits-all content strategy, in which everything was created and sent out to their audience the same way. Single-channel distribution methods no longer cut it in a world where customers consume content at their own speed and on their preferred networks, she said.
"[Consumers] expect a consistent customer experience across all digital and physical touch points," Chen told Business News Daily. "In the early days, websites were largely looked at as online brochures. Today, websites need to be designed to accommodate a multitude of 'customer journeys.' Brands need to segment their customers to truly understand their needs and desires, and deliver a digital experience that speaks to them specifically."
Tom Wilde, senior vice president of strategic development at marketing solutions provider Universal Wilde, said this idea of a consistent customer experience is especially evident in marketers' focus on content distribution methods.
"What's the point in having the right content if it's not going to the right people at the right time?" Wilde said. "To assure hard work gets results, marketers are now taking a deeper dive into their distribution strategies. With more and more platforms from which to distribute content constantly popping up, marketers are recognizing that there has to be feeling of congruency across each point. The brands that crack the code to distributing content in a consistent way across the board will see a development of customer affinity and loyalty which, as all marketers know, is imperative for continued success."
From quantity to quality
Several years ago, there was a big push for brands to produce as much content as they possibly could, regardless of whether it was good. The idea was that the more recent content you published, the higher search engines would rank you. While it's still true that frequent publishers enjoy better search results, the quality of the content matters more now.
"Marketers have moved away from needing to pump out so much content just to stay relevant," Fritsky said. "Marketers are more targeted and discretionary in what they are producing."
Leeyen Rogers, vice president of marketing at online form builder JotForm, added that consumers have become overwhelmed by all the content that's available today, and spammy "clickbait" articles, though still prevalent, are no longer the way to go.
"It's frustrating to have to sort through the noise to get to the quality content that is actually useful, interesting and something that you would truly recommend to others," Rogers said. "Because of the exorbitant number of articles out there, your content must be good [in order] to stand out. You cannot get away with writing an intriguing headline that gets clicks but then not delivering in the body of the article. This is a spammy practice that does not win any favors with long-term readers."
From strictly informative to multifaceted and relatable
Much of the branded content of the past was almost entirely focused on product information: what the product is, when and how to use it, etc. This helped people who were specifically looking for details about the product, but didn't do much else. Product-related content still exists, but now the product itself tends to be a footnote in a more engaging, wide-reaching piece that fits seamlessly into the existing publication or platform. Native advertising programs that exist for this very purpose are gaining traction among content marketers.
"If you offer something truly useful to your customer, the rewards will follow," said Bryn Dodson, senior content specialist at Blue Fountain Media. "Traditionally, 'useful' meant 'informative,' but I'd argue that providing associations and experiences is becoming almost as important."
"To engage consumers, your content can't just push products," Langie added. "It needs to be authentic, add value and convey a larger lifestyle."
Stacia Pierce, a business expert, coach and mentor, noted that relatable, shareable content — articles, social posts and images that resonate with the average person — has become a content marketer's best bet for reaching a target audience.
"The best [content] adds 'humanness' ... and forms an emotional connection to your audience," Pierce said. "The more people talk about something, the more likely they are to share it with others. Commenting on what's trending on social media or common social woes like #MondayMornings will help your brand stay relevant."
From trial-and-error to data-driven
Marketers initially did content marketing simply because were told they needed a website, a blog and social profiles, Fritsky said. They were publishing content, but not tracking its performance to see what audiences really liked. Today, she said, marketing has become more data-driven, with more tools to better measure performance such as engagement, shares, channel analysis, and what people are doing before and after they interact with a piece of your content.
"Now, marketers can more accurately and quickly optimize content that is working and retire different topics and formats that are not, to maximize results," Fritsky said. "Smart marketers are also able to track ROI [return on investment] of content and how it influences lead conversions."
Where it's headed
Our expert sources shared their thoughts on where the new and improved notion of content marketing will go in the years to come.
Stock photos will fade away. "Stock photography is quickly losing relevance to editorial-style creative. So, if you're still defaulting to sterile product photos [with a] white background on your product pages, on your social channels, in emails and within digital ads, you're doing a huge disservice to your brand. For example, [our client] Sigma Beauty knows their customers are more likely to click on a makeup product when it's on a person versus in someone's hand, so they've built product pages to reflect this. By complementing traditional stock photos with authentic lifestyle imagery, they've grown on-site engagement by nearly four times." – Matt Langie
Varied, multichannel campaigns will help content spread. "The art of storytelling will come more into play to showcase brand voice and beliefs, with marketers divvying up this content across channels for the best engagement. Marketers are also getting smarter in how they give a single piece of long-form content legs. One white paper can turn into an infographic, an interactive e-book [or a] webinar, blog series, social tiles, etc." – Lauren Fritsky
Content strategies will utilize location data. "Content marketing, like all forms of marketing, works best when it is fueled by data and consumer insights. Location data can help marketers understand consumer affinities and need states to personalize content. [It] can help align content marketing initiatives with larger, multi-channel campaigns based on how consumers interact with brand touchpoints. Armed with a better understanding of consumer behavior, brands can ensure content that lives across digital channels is connected to measurable, real world engagement." – Duncan McCall, CEO of consumer behavior analytics company PlaceIQ
The 'customer journey' will drive content creation. "The proliferation of channels and new methods of communication has fundamentally altered the way buyers make purchase decisions and interact with brands. The plethora of touch points available online and off-line have put customers in the driver's seat, allowing them to create their own road map and experience with a brand rather than following linear routes dictated by marketers. This marked shift means that marketers will ... [start] viewing everything from an aerial approach and holistically working on an overall digital experience." – Peggy Chen