State of Content Marketing 2016: The Tipping Point

By Shane Snow December 17th, 2015

“You cannot bore people into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it.” —David Ogilvy

It’s been four years since the thing called content marketing started taking over the Internet.1

Per industry tradition, I’m obligated to point out that this party has been going on since the printing press. In reality, though, it was more like a geeky after-school club that turned into a Wolf of Wall Street-style rager around 2011. And things appear to just be heating up. As this Google Trends graph shows, interest in “content marketing” has climbed steadily since 2011, but in Q4 of 2015, it jumped 20 percent, growing as much in two months as it did over the past two years.

We started building Contently about a year before the 2011 inflection point. We’ve also been reporting on the content marketing industry since the original surge. Every year, we recap the state of the industry and how it’s evolving based on our research,2 CMO interviews, and what we’re hearing from our own brand customers and sales pipeline.

Our research and pipelines both tell us that the late 2015 spike is an indicator of what’s to come in 2016: more investment in content marketing and more mature content strategies. Content marketing has reached a tipping point, making this year’s report our most important one yet.

As the great Andrew W.K. once said, it’s time to party.3

2015 Content Marketing in Review

“If our clients are in a place and want to consume information, we have to be there as well.” —Mike White, CMO of Raymond James

Despite the zodiac, 2015 was not the Year of the Sheep for content marketing. Both consumers and brands got wise to crappy advertising, even as shady ad and headline exchanges multiplied. Adblocking went through the roof. Mobile ad spend skyrocketed, primarily because of native ads. Everyone started a podcast (including us!). Ad click-throughs went down as inventory continued expanding like the cosmos. And brand content spend and consumer favorability went up.

Content measurement tools—and the marketers who use them—grew more sophisticated and started successfully tracking conversions and brand lift from quality content…

… leading 77 percent of B2C marketers and 76 percent of B2B marketers to say that they’ll increase their content marketing efforts next year.

For years, when you’d ask for examples of awesome brand content, only a handful of names4 ever came up: American Express, Red Bull, GE, and a few others. In 2015, however, the playing field grew as several major companies launched or accelerated massive new content programs. The most notable was probably Marriott’s Emmy-winning content studio, with brands like IBM, Casper, Starbucks, and Chase also launching major initiatives.

(See our complete coverage of the best branded content of 2015 by month here.)

(Full disclosure: American Express, GE, Chase, and Marriott are all Contently clients.)

2015 also saw explosive growth in sponsored content, the practice in which brands partner with traditional publishers to produce higher-quality advertorial. The New York Times, in particular, stood out on this front.

Troublingly, our 2015 sponsored content study showed that most consumers are still confused by this blurred version of media shared between brand and news outlet. Close to 40 percent of readers can’t identify the sponsor of a piece of content on a site like The Onion, and 62 percent think a publication loses credibility by doing sponsored content. However, the number of people who said they felt deceived by sponsored content in 2015 dropped by 15 percent compared to 2014—a sign that indicates an increase in quality and/or consumer savvy, which is a trend that hopefully continues.

Finally, 2015 was undoubtedly the Year of Facebook.5 As content marketing continues to mature, the industry has recognized and emphasized the importance of content distribution. This year, Facebook broke away from the pack.

(For everything you ever wanted to know about Facebook for content marketing, check out our popular e-book here.)

2016 Content Marketing Trends

In November and December 2015, we surveyed marketers to assess how they’re running content marketing and where they plan to grow. (To get the full survey results and analysis when they’re released in January, sign up for our newsletter.)

Our research—both from the study and our daily industry coverage at The Content Strategist—indicates that 2016’s big content marketing themes will map almost equally across the three areas for publishing success, which we like to organize in a flywheel:

Whereas most of the industry momentum we’ve seen in the past has been focused on creating quality content, we anticipate that the need to tie content to business results will drive sophisticated activity around creating content, connecting with audiences, and optimizing the entire process more than ever before.

Theme 1: Omni-Channel Publishing

“In between sales and the customer is the critical role marketing can play. It’s an integration role.” —Wendy Harrington, CMO of Tyto Life

Content marketing’s roots come from two places: custom publishing (airline magazines and the like) and advertorial. The idea was that media companies were good at making and printing content, and for a price, they could make and print content for you—in their magazine or in your very own.

The magazine of the future is no longer the one you print yourself; it’s everywhere your audience hangs out.

Twenty-first century content marketing has become a digital version of that old standard. Instead of a brand magazine, we made brand blogs. Instead of advertorial stories in the pages of The Atlantic, we made sponsored content on TheAtlantic.com.

For most of our history, Contently promoted the former. Build your own audience was the talking point. But heading into 2016 and beyond, even traditional media is changing (or needs to change) its mind on publishing platforms. The magazine of the future is no longer the one you print yourself; it’s everywhere your audience hangs out.

In other words, succeeding in content marketing over the next five years is going to be about publishing to multiple platforms. It’s how brands will effectively build owned audiences and maximize their share of voice in a competitive landscape.

2016 will be the start of the omni-channel publishing era.

This dynamic is facilitated, in part, by how social networks have grown up. Publishers and marketers used to treat social media as a digital delivery truck for links to their owned content, largely because all social networks were variations on ways to SMS people. Now, social networks that once dealt almost exclusively in text updates and links are morphing into longform publishing destinations.

LinkedIn Pulse, Facebook Instant Articles, and Medium (the brainchild of the guys who made Twitter) are all letting brands publish big content natively so users of those networks never have to leave. Visual social networks like YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, and SlideShare are already destinations for their respective content formats; your brand video will get a lot more action on YouTube than your own site.

In the long run, content will empower enterprise companies across every department, not just marketing.

Thus, 2016 will be the start of the omni-channel publishing era. Every brand will use social media networks as publishing platforms for destination content and to promote content on other destinations—including a brand’s own blog or CMS.

In the short run, this will mean a little more chaos, but in the medium run, it will mean that the social and content departments at brands will merge. And in the long run, it means that content will empower enterprise companies across every department, not just marketing.

As we say at Contently, great stories build relationships and make people care. Don’t HR departments want to connect with employees and job candidates, just like PR relates to reporters and IR communicates with investors? Don’t salespeople want to have strong relationships with prospects, just like marketers build rapport with leads? The transformation of social networks into publishing networks means that in the future, brand content won’t be about just marketing. It will be about everything.

Theme 2: Increased Focus on Content Distribution (Particularly Paid)

“Unless you’re really relevant, you’re not going to cut it.” —Gianni Giacomelli, CMO of Genpact

Our state-of-the-industry survey indicates that 70 percent of marketers spend under $1,000 a month on content distribution. There is a huge delta between the majority of content marketers and their most successful peers, who tend to spend a much higher share of their content marketing budgets—around 30 to 50 percent—on paid content distribution. For brands already creating effective content, paid content distribution is the best and easiest way to take a huge leap in 2016.

As we wrote before, there are a number of major platforms for amplifying headlines, and social networks are increasingly becoming great arenas for paid content promotion. Additionally, as these social networks get more saturated, the organic reach of brand content will continue to decrease. Our analysis shows that paid social media distribution is now a more cost-effective strategy for content marketing than building organic social audiences.

For brands already creating effective content, paid content distribution is the best and easiest way to take a huge leap in 2016.

On the organic distribution front, email continues to be the most underrated channel for content marketers. (Email proves so effective, in fact, that new entrants like Mel and Lena Dunham’s Lenny are launching email-first publishing strategies.) Despite the fact that many brands have huge mailing lists, and despite the fact that great content increases email open and click rates, our research indicates that most brands are not making use of their email lists for content marketing. This is a huge opportunity waiting to be unlocked as omni-channel content strategies start to break down silos inside the enterprise.

Theme 3: Data Fuels Enterprise Content

“I would task any large entity that is a platform player to be more helpful in how data is presented … I don’t see enough of that today.” —Karin Timpone, Global Marketing Officer of Marriott

Our survey indicates that most marketers evaluate their content activities once a month. As history (not to mention all our client data) indicates, the more rapidly a publisher can iterate through the Create → Connect → Optimize cycle, the more successful it will be. So the third big opportunity for maturing brand publishers is speeding up the rate at which they evaluate and adjust content tactics.

Fortunately, data for measuring and optimizing content is increasingly easy to access. With tools like our own Contently Analytics, Buffer, Optimizely, CoSchedule, and SumoMe, optimization can happen automatically almost in real time—or at least as often as your content team wants to look at the numbers.

Furthermore, as more brands use content in different lines of business (and eventually other divisions of the enterprise), data from marketing content can be used to help other departments. We’ll start to see more of this in 2016.

Finally,6 data can help make content distribution more effective so marketers know which half of their budget is being wasted and double down on what works.

Vendors are scrambling to provide content marketing products and services in all of these categories now that the industry is really heating up. As we wrote earlier this year, in the battle between agencies, publishers, and technology companies, the data/optimization factor gives tech—or tech-enabled service companies—a distinct advantage.

As Contently CEO Joe Coleman recently put it, “Before long, content marketers won’t be able to compete without technology.”

The Future

“At the end of the day, our job is to convince people.” —Gianni Giacomelli, CMO of Genpact

Since the beginning of the content marketing surge, people within the journalism community have asked (or fretted) about the ramifications that content marketing will have on journalism. We revisited these questions a year ago with the essay “What’s the Business Model That Saves Journalism?” But it’s clear that both industries will need ongoing reminders that content is not journalism, and that marketers—to remain successful and credible—ought to focus on entertainment and education. Content marketers shouldn’t tackle news unless they’re able to set up editorially independent newsrooms.

Storytelling can be a powerful force for good or evil, and we—consumers of content, creators of stories, and businesses hungry for results—need it to be good.

We’ll need to keep talking about ethics, increase public awareness of what is and is not independent, push to proudly brand content so that readers aren’t deceived, and, above all else, take an audience-first approach when creating that content.

If that happens, the future might just be a place where content that has commercial value (everything but investigations and hard news) will primarily be published by brands. It’ll be published across social networks, driven and scaled by data and technology.

We won’t see that future in 2016—at best, we’ll get a few glimpses. And if some brands pee in the pool and sacrifice credibility with short-term content gimmicks, we’ll be looking at a much different, much darker future. Storytelling can be a powerful force for good or evil, and we—consumers of content, creators of stories, and businesses hungry for results—need it to be good.

Despite the growth, there’s clearly work we need to do to turn the content marketing tidal wave into sustainable energy. In the words of Aristotle, “Well begun is half done.”

He was no Andrew W.K., but that content was spot on.

(For an even deeper dive into stats, predictions, and strategy for 2016, get a free copy of our Winter 2016 issue of Contently Quarterly here.)


  1. For newcomers, our content marketing encyclopedia has everything to get you up to speed on the industry.
  2. Catch up on the 2015 and 2014 reports here.
  3. http://genius.com/Andrew-wk-its-time-to-party-lyrics/
  4. Outside of marketing tech companies like Contently, HubSpot, and Moz…
  5. By the time the Year of the Sheep rolls around again, maybe the zodiac will be consumed by Facebook and simply be known as the Zuck.
  6. That’s 3 F’s in a row!
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