Six years ago, I started working in content marketing.
At 23, I helped start an online newspaper out of a Park Slope, Brooklyn coffee shop, and by some stroke of luck, we connected with an upstart digital agency that offered us office space and a small retainer. In exchange, we promised that our small squad of editors and freelancers would serve as the company’s on-call editorial team. Apparently, this agency wanted to do something called content marketing.
It was new to me, but as I soon learned, it was new to everyone. The concept—creating entertaining and informative stories for brands so that they could connect with people online—made enough sense. And if they wanted to pay us real money to make this stuff, who was I to argue? After all, I’d graduated into The Great Recession. I never became a journalism purist because all of the pure journalism jobs were gone.
Back then, content marketing was barely on anyone’s radar. I was lucky to get into it early while I could learn on the job as the industry evolved. There were young journalists, like me, who got in the game for a steady paycheck and came to love marketing. There are marketers who transformed their careers. With each passing year, we’ve matured and discovered what works through trial and error.
It used to feel like you could hire anyone to run your content marketing program because no one knew what the hell to do. That’s definitely not the case now. Over the past few years, a new class of creatives has come to learn the ins-and-outs of content marketing. As I survey the industry today, the big differentiator that all successful brands have is people who actually know what they’re doing.
Which leads us to our first big trend of 2017…
1. The content marketing talent war
A few years ago, I predicted that a rash of editors would defect to content marketing programs. That came to fruition at a few companies like Casper, Harry’s, athenahealth, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola, but we never experienced the kind of mass exodus I had in mind.
I never became a journalism purist because all of the pure journalism jobs were gone.
When I made the prediction, I overlooked something important: It’s easy for journalists to freelance for a brand, but it’s another thing for a journalist to work every day inside a brand newsroom. You have to be ready to learn new business lingo and navigate bureaucracy full of silos that stand in the way of everything you want to accomplish. It’s not uncommon for an editor to take a content marketing job, only to discover that she has no control over the email newsletter, social channels, or paid distribution budget.
You can’t succeed just on great editorial instincts. You also need the patience, business acumen, and interpersonal skills to execute your plan. Most people don’t have this unicorn skill set, so they return to the media world or settle for lucrative one-off freelance assignments. There is, however, a special class of creatives who have successfully worked inside content marketing programs and know how to get the job done. In 2017, brands will battle to find and hire this talent.
Look for everyone to start poaching from T Brand Studio and other successful content marketing outlets. This war won’t just be about money, though; the brands that commit to editorial independence will secure the best young content creators. These changes, more than anything, will lead to an improvement in the quality of branded content in 2017.
2. An obsession with 5 percent content
I’ve mentioned this stat before: In September, a study by Beckon found that the top 5 percent of branded content accounts for 90 percent of all engagement.
Some people have used this stat to argue that content marketing is a risky or failed venture. Smarter folks, however, see it as an opportunity: If you create something really good, you’ll monopolize consumer attention relative to your competitors.
The best brand newsrooms will take this stat, stick it on their wall, and force themselves to ask one question about every piece of content they create—is this a 5 percent piece?
This year, I expect to see the long-overdue demonization of the puffy filler that infects most content marketing programs: mediocre blog posts, generic e-books, self-promotional press releases dressed up as native ads. Instead of just peddling busy work, smart marketers will focus on creating exceptional content that drives widespread sharing, earned media, and audience loyalty.
3. Short video optimized for Facebook
Bold and daring, I know.
At this point, stating that video is going to be a big trend is like predicting that Donald Trump will tweet something insane about China, or that a Silicon Valley CEO will say something cluelessly sexist. It’s not speculation. It’s expected. The more important question is what kind of video will take off?
Brands are doing enough video, but they’re doing it wrong. The majority of branded video consists of 30-second spots repurposed on Facebook or YouTube. If a clip is produced just for the web, it’s often something that no human being would want to watch. I’d rather stand on the corner of Broadway and Houston and ask tourists to slap me with hot dogs than watch some 15-minute interview with a bank’s VP of financial services.
In 2017, we’ll finally start to see brands emulate the video tactics that have worked so well, particularly on Facebook, for media companies: short motion-graphic explainers, like the ones created by Vox; how-to videos that immediately capture your attention; spoofs of social dynamics made popular by the likes of BuzzFeed and The LAD Bible.
Brands don’t need to break the bank to create these videos. And they’ll soon learn that these clips are a lot more effective than giving Bob from accounting his 15 minutes of fame.
4. A renewed focus on paid media
No brand would ever create a commercial, plop it online somewhere, and just expect people to find it. You need to make some media buys, secure airtime and online impressions, and give it a chance to make an impact. Yet, when it comes to content marketing, too many organizations have little or no paid media support.
The work just sits there, gathering digital dust.
Since so many content teams exist in companies with silos, they may be in charge of creating and publishing content, but they’re cut off completely from most mechanisms of getting it out there. As a result, the work just sits there, gathering digital dust.
This year, we’ll see marketing heads finally realize that this system is an utterly bizarre way to run a marketing operation. The smart decision-makers will set aside a large, dedicated budget to promote their content marketing on Facebook, Outbrain, Twitter, and other platforms. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you’re going to spend $500 to create a piece of content, it only makes sense to spend $50 to ensure that twice as many people see it. (Or hell, another $500 to make sure that ten times as many people see it.) If paid distribution isn’t at least 25 percent of your content marketing budget, you’re doing something wrong.
5. Custom ROI formulas
I’ve spent years trying to crack the code on content marketing ROI. It’s something I have to help our clients do, but it’s also something I need to figure out to justify our own content efforts on The Content Strategist.
Over the past year, I’ve come to a conclusion: There’s no universal formula for content marketing ROI.
While there are general frameworks you can follow, there are also some measurements that will likely be very specific to your brand. This year, for instance, we’re using Clearbit to track how we’re reaching our target audience (by company size, industry, etc.) in a very granular way. While we grew our audience to several million readers in 2016, our focus in 2017 is increasing our audience size in specialized groups, such as Fortune 500 finance companies.
I expect companies across the content marketing industry to improve their ROI game this year as well. My confidence comes from trusting the people running those content marketing operations. (For instance, check out this existential content ROI thread by Coca-Cola content head Doug Busk.) After a half-decade in this industry, we’ve figured things out. It’s no longer guesswork. It’s game on.