In 1956, a dust of mysterious plant spores blew into the town of Santa Mira, California. That’s when things started getting weird.
Big green pods started growing around town. Even stranger, local psychiatrists suddenly had an influx of visits from people who lived in the community. Each patient suffered from a condition called Capgras delusion—when you believe someone you know has been replaced by an impostor. Soon, the doctors started panicking too. Their own friends and family were acting weird. They walked mindlessly, staring blankly like zombies.
Before long, an epidemic of mass hysteria broke out. People believed that their loved ones weren’t really their loved ones anymore. It turns out that the patients were right—their loved ones had been replaced.
The plant spores had come from outer space, and the pods had consumed people while they slept, regenerating identical copies of them in the night. In no time, almost everyone in Santa Mira had turned into a “Pod Person.” A thousand versions of the same empty shell wandered the streets.
This story never actually happened. It’s the plot of the classic movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But it is exactly what might happen to the content marketing industry if we aren’t careful.
The zombiefication of content marketing has already started. Millions of smart marketers have been infected by the content bug. They’ve bought into the idea that stories and customer education build relationships in ways that commercial sales pitches and calls-to-action do not. While this realization is a good thing, many brands have started drifting asleep and flooding the internet with the same generic zombie content as everyone else.
This might sound a little dire or pessimistic. A lot of great storytelling exists in the business world. But the warning signs are clear.
At Contently, we get thousands of inbound requests each month from businesses that want help with content marketing. We help hundreds of the world’s top brand publishers run their content marketing programs. Our blog and print magazine report more regular news coverage on the content marketing industry than just about any other publication. With this view of the landscape and what’s coming up on the horizon, we see zombie content marketing as the biggest challenge for brand publishers in 2017.
Two forces are causing this crisis. First, the content marketing industry is starting to get saturated. It’s like when technology made it so any of us could record our own music and publish it for free online. Before long, an insane amount of music had flooded the internet, most of it bad or boring. (I’d include a link to my own band’s old Myspace page if it wasn’t so embarrassing.) After a while, it became hard to find a good new artist among the Myspace zombies.
Second, vendors that aren’t that good at content are selling zombie pods. Agencies that specialize in traditional tactics are just throwing the word “content” in their same old offerings. “Me too” tech vendors are pitching end-to-end solutions that promise brands the world but fail to help them create content worth watching or reading. Publishers are leveraging their editorial reputation to launch content studios, but the content often falls short. The result: branded content that looks like it might be worth consuming but is ultimately just an empty shell.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The future belongs to those who get the following right:
1. Breakthrough storytelling
At the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Edison unveiled a brand new invention that would change the world. It was the kinetoscope, the first practical device that could display moving pictures. Essentially, it was a film projector.
Following the release of his kinetoscope and its subsequent updates, Edison hosted events to screen motion pictures. Some of these early films can be found today in online archives. They are crude by modern standards, but back then, they were miraculous.
On one such occasion, in 1903, people in New York City dressed up and gathered for a special Edison film—the latest and greatest. They put on tuxedos and gowns. They stood in line outside the theater house. Then they sat down as the lights dimmed. As the moving pictures began, people gasped. It was so lifelike.
The black-and-white film shows three men on a trash barge, shoveling. That’s it. Just shoveling trash for five minutes.
The movie was literally garbage.
Can you imagine? People bought furs in anticipation of this screening. They argued about who would babysit the children. They drank brandy and champagne and sat in fancy seats… to watch garbage. They were willing to do so because the medium itself was so novel. Motion pictures were so cool that people would show up to watch anything. Even garbage.
But that didn’t last long. In the first decade of the 20th century, the U.S. film industry produced 23 films. In the next decade, it produced over 4,000. In the 1920s, over 7,000 films were made.
However, after the apex of the twenties, the number of films made each decade dropped sharply. By the 1960s, only a couple hundred movies were coming out each year. That’s because garbage isn’t really that interesting unless it’s new. After a while, people stopped watching average movies, so fewer investors backed them.
The film industry learned that it wasn’t enough to just make a movie. In order to entice people to come to the theater, there had to be a good story.
Things really turned around in the 1970s with the birth of the blockbuster. Movies like Star Wars and The Godfather gave people compelling stories that broke through the noise of everything else competing for their attention: the news, TV shows, films, screaming kids, etc.
This is, not coincidentally, exactly what happened with the whole Myspace music scene we talked about earlier. Once anyone could produce music and put it online, the internet exploded with zombie tunes. A regular YouTube video of someone playing a guitar wasn’t interesting. It became the stuff of the pod people. That is, until—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—Justin Bieber came along. When Bieber was 13, music marketer Scooter Braun accidentally clicked on one of Bieber’s acoustic guitar home videos. Braun was impressed and brought Bieber to Atlanta to meet Usher.
Bieber soon became a star. And many others like him, who would never have been discovered, now have careers because they created content that stood out amidst the garbage.
With every new way of communicating with an audience, the same pattern has emerged. We’re excited by the latest thing—radio, the web, Snapchat—so we pay attention, even if what’s on there is garbage. But eventually, we lose interest in content for content’s sake. Eventually, we need awesome content or we’ll find something else to do.
Brands need to start creating incredible content or else consumers are going to tune out completely.
Tomorrow’s marketer will think of herself as the director, the Spielberg or Lucas sent to craft the narratives that are 10 times better than her zombie competition. She’ll also realize the incredible leg up that technology can give to a content program. Which brings us to our next key…
2. Tech-enabled and data-optimized content
In 2013, Netflix decided to make an original TV series for the first time. Until that point, the company had simply bought licenses to stream movies and television shows that other companies had already produced.
The show was a political drama called House of Cards, based on a British show with the same name. It would star two-time Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey and be directed by David Fincher, director of The Social Network, Fight Club, and other groundbreaking movies.
It was a big investment. TV shows cost a lot of money, and this one in particular—between Spacey, Fincher, and the rest of the cast—was billed at $100 million for two seasons.
Most decisions to greenlight a television series come down to the experience and gut intuition of executives. It’s usually a crapshoot. But Netflix had a secret weapon that all but ensured the investment would be worth it.
Most television and movie studios judge success by a few factors. They know how many people bought theater tickets and DVDs, and they see the reviews from critics and aggregator websites like Rotten Tomatoes. But Netflix knows a lot more. Because viewers watch through Netflix’s apps, the company knows exactly how many people make it all the way through its movies and shows. It knows when people pause or rewind, and what they watch next. Netflix not only knows what percentage of people who start Parks and Recreation are likely to watch several seasons, but it also knows exactly what percentage of Parks & Recreation fans also like, say, Batman.
Through its data, Netflix knew three things: People who watch Kevin Spacey movies tend to watch all the way to the end. People who watch David Fincher movies tend to watch lots of David Fincher movies. And people who watch the British House of Cards tend to watch it all at once and all the way through.
With this data, it didn’t seem so crazy for Netflix to make the new House of Cards. And guess what? Based on the number of new subscribers Netflix picked up because of the show, the company’s $100 million bet paid off in under three months, according to analysis by The Atlantic.
Since then, Netflix has used the same data-driven approach to greenlight lots of new shows: Orange is the New Black, Making A Murderer, Jessica Jones, Stranger Things, etc.
In regular television, it’s well known that almost two-thirds of new shows will not be popular enough to get a second season. Netflix’s original shows get renewed at twice the rate of regular TV. Only 30 percent of Netflix originals get canceled after one season.
Netflix shows perform twice as well as the rest of the television market because of the way the company uses technology and data. Its story also demonstrates a nice lesson for brands: If you can create content that speaks to a very specific audience, you can attract subscribers who keep you in business a lot more effectively. A relatively small number of super loyal subscribers paying Netflix $8 a month is more profitable than a huge number of viewers tuning in to a commercial on CBS. In the same way, a relatively small number of loyal readers or viewers can be worth much more to a brand than a bunch of one-off ad impressions.
This is the way the future will work in every content medium, not just television. The creators and companies that make smart use of data and tech will have a huge advantage over the rest.
It’s important to note, however, that Netflix’s use of technology does not eliminate the need for human creativity. House of Cards still needed Spacey to act in it, and it needed awesome writers to pen the episodes.
But technology plays an increasingly vital role. It provides a platform on top of which content creators and distributors can operate, giving them a leg up on the competition. Before long, if you’re not using technology to drive decision making or efficiency, you will be less creative and cost effective, and you will lose.
The exact technology you use and the data you pay attention to is part and parcel of the third area that will make the difference for content marketers of the future: rigorous content strategy.
3. Rigorously strategic
Here’s a scary pair of stats, via the Content Marketing Institute’s annual Benchmark Report:
- More than 60 percent of marketers still don’t have a documented content strategy heading into 2017.
- The amount of money spent producing branded content has continued to skyrocket. 73.6 percent of content marketers plan on spending more next year.
More money, same lack of plan is not a good formula for success. It’s like giving a 16-year-old an Audi after he dents the Oldsmobile.
This is perhaps the biggest problem with the content marketing industry right now—and the biggest opportunity for the future.
At Contently, we’ve spent six years educating brand publishers on the ins and outs of content strategy. (We named our blog The Content Strategist, after all.) Our industry methodology for how to do it right lays out the framework:
By now, most brand publishers have access to solutions for creating content. As I mentioned earlier, the future of content will belong to those who create breakthrough stories. And technologies (like ours at Contently and others) increasingly allow storytellers to optimize their strategies. But much of the content marketing landscape today is whiffing on the part in which they actually connect with audiences.
Many marketers today think content is like Field of Dreams. (If you haven’t seen it, the film is about Kevin Costner building a baseball field in the middle of nowhere after hearing a voice saying “If you build it, they will come.” In the end, a bunch of old baseball players, including his father, show up to the field to play. Turns out they’re all ghosts.)
Those marketers aren’t wrong. Field of Dreams is exactly what happens. We get some crazy content idea in our head, we build it, and no one with a pulse actually shows up.
How we get people to see our stories is such a crucial part of creating them, but we tend to spend a lot less thought on it. This may be because content strategy is counterintuitive. You have to connect with the audience after you have content to give them. But you shouldn’t create the content until you’ve figured out who you’re creating that content for, and how you’re going to reach them.
We may not be hearing voices, but we are crazy if we build content hubs in the middle of nowhere and expect anyone to come.
A recent study by Beckon, a marketing software company, shows exactly how bad the content zombiefication is right now: Only the top 5 percent of branded content accounts for 90 percent of all engagement.
Does this mean that content marketing no longer works? To the contrary. As Contently editor-in-chief Joe Lazauskas recently put it, “It validates something obvious—that if you create something original and great, you have the opportunity to monopolize consumer attention and leave your competitors in the shadows. It’s proof that mediocre content just doesn’t work—on social or search.”
The invasion of the zombie content is the biggest opportunity in our industry right now. Will we fall asleep and turn into pod people? Or will we use technology, strategy, and creative storytelling to capture that 90 percent of attention that the zombies will never get?
As you plan your content strategy for 2017, that’s the fundamental question you can’t stop asking.