The Future of Content Marketing Isn’t Content Marketing

Let’s talk about the content marketing industry’s favorite chart.

contenet marketing Google trends

We love this chart! It pops up in about 75 percent of all content marketing talks, showing the explosive growth in searches for “content marketing” this decade. I use it in three different presentations. It’s basically our industry’s version of the “Everything is Awesome” theme song from The Lego Movie. (Which was the Greatest Content Marketing Program Ever™, as anyone in the industry will tell you.)

While the Google trends chart is very useful when you’re making the case for content marketing, it’s not nearly as telling as a different chart from Gartner, which maps the hype cycle of marketing technologies. Look where content marketing falls—smack dab in what Gartner calls the trough of disillusionment.

content marketing hype cycle

The “trough of disillusionment” is the most existentially depressing term in marketing, and new industries can’t really avoid it. First, everyone gets super excited based on fawning TechCrunch articles, Ad Age trend stories, and prophetic thought leadership from charming founders leading the way. A few early-adopters see massive success as hype builds. But then everyone joins the party, so resistance and road blocks crop up at every step, especially at large organizations. Brands need to wait as vendors scramble to meet their needs. Expectations fade and disillusionment sets in.

Through the Trough

The start of content marketing’s hype cycle, in 2012, shouldn’t have surprised anyone. By then, it’d become clear that consumers were spending less time paying attention to traditional advertising because of the rapid proliferation of smartphones and streaming. Publishers, desperate to stay afloat, choked web pages with display units, until display had begun to feel less like a channel and more like one of the 10 plagues.

Then along came content marketing, which posed a simple solution: What if brands just told stories that people wanted to watch, hear, and read?

The early examples were inspiring. Red Bull pioneered the idea of a brand as a media company, while early Contently clients like GE, American Express, and Mint showed that B2B organizations and companies in niche industries could get in on the fun as well.

In response, brands started building content teams and earmarking experimental budgets for content marketing. In hindsight, this was the wrong approach. Instead of serving as the fuel for a brand’s entire marketing operation, content often existed in a vacuum. Brands would launch a flashy blog hidden in the recesses of a corporate website and just expect it to work. Even if that content got little paid or organic promotion, audiences were supposed to find it anyway.

It’s easy to see why this happened. Few organizations had any sort of documented content strategy. (More than 60 percent of marketers still don’t.) Marketers couldn’t draw from established education or instruction. And most importantly, building a blog was a hell of a lot easier than undergoing a transformation to ensure that every team and channel had the strategy and means to engage its target audience with breakthrough stories.

However, based on what I’ve seen over the last couple of years, both by covering the industry as Contently’s editor-in-chief and by working with dozens of clients as Contently’s Director of Content Strategy, we are about to move past the trough of disillusionment. Brands are finally realizing that great content has to be integrated into every part of their marketing and communications strategy. And as a result, what those brands need to run a successful content program has drastically changed.

A Content Transformation

Next month, I’m giving a talk at Content Marketing World titled “The Future of Content Marketing Isn’t Content Marketing.” (September 7 at 4:15 p.m., just in case you want to mark your calendar.) That title is a clever way of saying that content marketing as we’ve known it is officially dead.

As we transition in the next phase on the hype cycle, it’s time for us to rethink the challenge of content marketing. It isn’t about “doing content marketing.” It’s about transforming the way organizations operate so they’re more successful. That means taking five steps to get content right:

  1. Embracing the idea of accountable content so every action maps to high-level company objectives.
  2. Developing a strategy that ensures you’re producing the right content for the right audience.
  3. Gearing teams toward real business goals, not just vanity metrics like pageviews, impressions, and likes.
  4. Investing in tech-enabled processes that helps you save time and make smarter decisions about what your audience actually wants.
  5. Committing to a higher standard of storytelling, which I like to call “breakthrough content.”

I’m going to stop here so I still have enough insights to share during Content Marketing World. I hope you can make it to my session because I want you to hear what I have to say. But I also want to hear what you have to say. Together, we can spark a conversation about this new era of content marketing. Because the future of content marketing isn’t content marketing. It’s so much more.

Image by Unsplash / CC Zero

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