2021 Contently Report: What Buyers Want From Content Marketing

2020 put the spotlight on digital content like never before. With in-person activities on hold, content marketing became an investment that many brands could rely on. Last summer, LinkedIn reported that 78 percent of marketers expected their content budgets to increase this year.

With bigger content investments, however, comes increased competition for attention. Brands are not only competing with their competitors for consumer attention, but also every individual content creator and media company on earth. Each year, that competition is only increasing.

To make sense of the changing landscape and how brands can better serve their audiences, we set out to hear directly from consumers. What do they want from content marketing? How do they spend their time online? And what else can brands do to positively influence their purchasing decisions?

Here’s what they had to say.

[If you’d like to read the PDF version, we have you covered here.]

Methodology & Key Findings

At the start of January, we surveyed 1,072 Americans to find out their content marketing preferences. The sample size was proportioned based on U.S. Census data for attributes including: age, gender, region, and income.

Buyer content key findings

Results & Analysis

Branded content has broken through to the masses

In marketing, recognition always matters. Creating great content costs time and money, but with ad blockers so popular and media habits constantly evolving, there’s no guarantee people will pay attention to your work.

For that reason, it’s encouraging that 80 percent of respondents read, watched, or listened to a piece of content from a brand in the last year.

Buyer interactions with brands

When content marketing emerged last decade, some people viewed it as a side project that wasn’t incorporated into their larger marketing strategies. And when companies did invest in it, they weren’t always sure how to package their content, which led to trust issues. In 2016, Contently partnered with the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at The City University of New York on a study that revealed 44 percent of people were not able to identify the brand behind a piece of sponsored content.

“In marketing, recognition always matters.”

Steadily, though, those problems dissolved as brands felt more comfortable publishing meaningful content (more on this later) and thinking like media companies. There was no reason to hide logos or sponsorships. Now, brands are eager to put their work out there and reach a wide audience. It’s official: Branded content has gone mainstream.

People trust brands more than media companies (and it’s not even close)

A clear majority of U.S. adults (63 percent) now trust brands more than traditional media outlets. In isolation, this is good news for marketers. But it also may be bad news for the civic health of the country.

Buyer trust in brands vs traditional news outlet

This data point is complicated. The news industry has withstood an unprecedented attack on its integrity over the past five years, as the Trump administration turned “fake news” into a rallying cry. Numerous studies—like this one from Edelman—have discovered that trust in news media continues to sour.

While consumers increasingly question the motivations behind the news media, the motivations of brands are more transparent: They want to sell you something, even when they’re creating helpful content. Brands that are transparent about their motivations will likely earn more trust as long as their content adds value to someone’s life.

As for the distrust of the news media? That’s a whole other problem that warrants more research.

Most people follow a brand on social media

Social media is a test lab for creativity. It’s a lot easier to send a tweet than hire people to write, edit, and illustrate a blog post. Social networks also offer more freedom than corporate websites. Plenty of branded accounts have found a voice there, and it appears to be working. In our survey, 69 percent of respondents claimed to follow a brand on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Instagram. Nice, right?

Buyer social media brand following

We’ve heard firsthand from the people behind successful social accounts for brands ranging from Steak-umm to Merriam-Webster about how they build community rather than plug product pages. There’s no universal blueprint, but the best brands seem to embrace a straightforward, colloquial style. They’re quirky, clever, and quick to join conversations native to the platform.

Many of the brands with big followings and impressive engagement skew B2C. No matter how hard we all try, there can only be one Denny’s. But B2B companies with smaller audiences can still use their platforms to post useful advice, answer pressing questions, and show off a personality. HubSpot does a great job of this on Twitter, mixing in polls, discussion questions, and tips for its 815,000 followers.

Only a small portion of HubSpot’s tweets consist of links to their content, but this pays off in the long run. Followers know you’re not just posting for traffic, and they’ll appreciate the interactivity, which was the original point of social media. Then, when you are looking to drive people to your content, they’ll be eager to click on a link and head to your site.

Social impact storytelling drives purchase intent

Contently head of marketing Joe Lazauskas recently crowned social impact storytelling “the hottest content trend” of 2021, and for good reason. We found that 65 percent of people prefer to buy from brands that align with their values.

Consumer values and buying preferences

There’s an additional wrinkle here that underscores the big role content can play. When we asked if people are more likely to buy from a brand after reading a story about the positive impact it’s having on the world, the likelihood they’d make a purchase increased by 9 percentage points.

Brand positive impact and consumer purchasing behavior

This suggests content about corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives can have a real impact on purchasing decisions. Covering these efforts is more than just a humble brag. It separates legitimate action from the empty words and gestures that some companies use to score a few PR points.

Patagonia is arguably the best example of a company that has mastered social impact storytelling. In addition to donating 1 percent of all revenue to sustainable causes, Patagonia has also developed longform stories on activism and a series of beautiful documentary shorts about environmentalism. A number of other brands ranging from TOMS to Bank of America have followed suit. And in the last year, the pandemic seemed to galvanize a lot of companies into reporting on their COVID-19 relief efforts.

patagonia social impact

As Lazauskas explained in his newsletter: “One of the coolest things is that telling these stories will not only help your company’s bottom line—it’ll help the world too. That’s because when you tell great stories about the good your company is doing, it creates a positive feedback loop that encourages your company to invest more in CSR and social impact efforts.”

Most consumers subscribe to multiple brand newsletters, but the competition is heating up

Email hasn’t changed all that much over the past two decades. Yet year after year, marketers consistently vote it as one of their top distribution channels. In fact, marketers rated email newsletters as the best way to nurture leads, ahead of blog posts, in-person events, and case studies, per Content Marketing Institute’s 2020 B2B Benchmarking Report.

We’re not here to rain on the parade. Email is also one of Contently’s biggest content distribution channels. However, too much of a good thing can lead to negative consequences. Because while it’s very easy to send an email, getting someone to care about it is a different story.

“While it’s very easy to send an email, getting someone to care about it is a different story.”

According to our research, 69 percent of respondents are subscribed to multiple brand newsletters. About 21 percent aren’t subscribed to any.

Buyer subscription to brand email newsletters

Given that the average worker receives about 120 emails per day, it’s promising to see a healthy appetite for branded content delivered to their inbox. But with so much competition and clutter, it may be harder for newsletters to gain traction—especially since a 2020 Litmus report found that 54 percent of marketers expected to send more emails than the year before.

To stand out via email, marketers can no longer rely on the same old digest of recycled links. As we wrote recently in our newsletter guide, marketers must ensure their newsletter provides unique information and perspective their audience can’t get anywhere else. They should also consider publishing content that’s exclusive to newsletter subscribers, and personalize and segment email content based on audience data. (We use MailChimp and Pardot to do this.)

Lastly, focus on promoting your newsletter. It won’t grow if nobody can find it. Use prime real estate on your site to set up “Subscribe” fields, and reach out to relevant companies to see if there’s mutual interest in guest posts that could increase your reach.

Consumers crave educational courses

The point of content marketing is to help the buyer. Good content should either entertain you or make you better at your job. Great content should do both.

Educational courses are one practical way to pull this off. We’ve been bullish on this trend for a while, and according to our survey, audiences feel similarly: 58 percent of people said they were somewhat or very likely to take a free course from a brand.

Brand educational course

Courses are effective because they get marketers to produce series rather than one-off pieces of content. (It’s called the buyer’s journey for a reason.) People don’t make a purchase after reading one blog post. The average B2B executive buyer consumes 17 pieces of content over the course of the sales cycle, according to Sirius Decisions. So marketers can show off their unique expertise with a course. Plus, it makes more sense for someone to fill out a lead form if they’re expecting to receive a new lesson every week from your company.

“Good content should either entertain you or make you better at your job. Great content should do both.”

To see this in action, we recommend checking out HubSpot Academy and Grow With Google. Both educational hubs chunk out courses into short video lessons that are easy to digest. If you’re looking for more insight before you get started, we put together some quick tips and research insights that should help.

Invest in influencer marketing at your own risk

Trust has been a common theme running through this report. It’s arguably most important when it comes to influencer marketing because influencers blur that line between selling and helping. They’re not always held to the same labelling and disclosure standards as brands.

That blurred line may be catching up with influencers. Only 26 percent of respondents trust influencers when they promote a product or service from a brand.

Buyer trust in influencer brand promotion

While paid influencers may come across as misleading or transactional, social proof remains an incredibly powerful force in marketing. People value expertise and third-party validation, as long as it comes from the right source. To dig deeper, we asked people to rank five groups based on trustworthiness:

Buyer trust rankings

Marketers can’t really tap into friends and family, but to replicate a similar kind of trusted expertise, they do have another option: thought leadership. Last year, Edelman found that 89 percent of people believe thought leadership has enhanced their perceptions of a company, and 49 percent claimed it influenced purchasing decisions.

Savvy thought leadership content, which is more popular in B2B marketing than B2C, tends to have better optics than influencer marketing. And it may be your best bet to solve those trust issues for good.

Strive for a balance of content formats to maximize your reach

In 2015, three words began messing up digital media: pivot to video. Some companies decided to go all in on video because they thought it would please social media algorithms. Others soon followed suit, hoping their content engagement would immediately skyrocket.

As a result, entire editorial teams were let go. We now know that the pivot was hugely problematic. Facebook, in particular, provided inflated video metrics to publishers and advertisers, misleading them into investing more resources into Facebook video. Social platforms inflated video metrics so that companies would pay more to promote their content. Five years out, this serves as a strong reminder that there’s no perfect content format.

Content format buyers enjoy

Our study backs this up. When we asked people to select the type of content they enjoy the most, results were split. Video led the pack at 30 percent, but visual content (like graphics and memes) and text were close behind, with 28 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Notably, when we filtered the data just for people aged 30-44, text edged out video as most enjoyable.

Therefore, unless you have a very narrow audience, it makes sense to invest in a balanced content output. It also makes sense to conduct research on your audience by interviewing them or using software that captures their preferences. (At Contently, we rely on an internal tool called StoryBook for this.) Find out details like which topics, channels, visuals, and headlines will resonate with them so you can make the most of your content budget.

Plus, content rarely lives in a vacuum. Good stories often incorporate multiple content formats on the same page. On The Content Strategist, for example, we try to break up long blocks of text with video embeds and custom graphics.

This approach helps hold the audience’s attention because we all retain information differently. There are four common learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing. Younger people tend to favor visual learning, but research shows that preferred learning styles change as we get older, leaning more toward reading and writing. With this in mind, marketers should aim to accommodate as many potential buyers as possible.


How can brands continue to improve their content programs and drive results? The main takeaway from our report is to focus on trust. The companies that stand out find unique ways to add value to people’s lives. They connect with a distinct voice and emphasize helpful guidance over promotional tactics.

In 2021, as more money pours into content marketing, we expect there to be increased competition for attention. However, as our report lays out, there is a clear blueprint for creating great content and reaching the right audience.

We hope this data helps guide your future plans. Buyers aren’t shy about what they want. Now it’s up to today’s content marketers to give it to them.

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