If there’s one thing we’ve learned in 2020, it’s that the grocery store toilet paper aisle will probably be the first casualty of the future zombie apocalypse.
The other major lesson this year? There’s a lot of noise online. As brands have attempted to get in front of their audiences with empathetic messaging, the mass of display advertising, paid content, and email subject lines has felt redundant and hollow.
But despite the noise and the challenges, there’s still room for content marketing today that works. It might just look a little different than what we all expected.
What is content marketing (redux)?
This question in particular has seen a small Rick Astley-esque resurgence this year. Not only are people doing more research about content marketing and what it entails, but brands are also trying to discover the sweet spot between their business goals and what their audience cares about.
So … what is content marketing exactly?
For starters, a great way to look at content is how Stanley Bing once described it: “Content is … anything people consume with any of their sensory organs, other than their taste buds. Soup, for example, is not content. But a video of soup is.”
Content marketing sends that video of soup to people who would appreciate the ingredients or the recipe. Maybe they’ll eventually want to check out your restaurant and soup-adjacent menu. Maybe not. Content marketing just aims to build their curiosity.
It’s about them, not you.
This might feel counterintuitive to marketing and sales engines with dollar-sign expectations tied to their work, but building trust and credibility with customers means pursuing conversation before conversion. Because customers want to be inspired; they don’t want to be sold to.
While content marketers’ methods have evolved over the last decade, their motivations (largely) haven’t.
And then 2020 happened.
What is content marketing today?
As strange as 2020 has been, the one constant is this: good content marketing today should ultimately anchor to a few simple points.
Be everywhere your audience needs you
If a tree falls in the forest and there’s a podcast being recorded nearby, it definitely makes a sound.
We’ve known for years already that brands aren’t just brick-and-mortar anymore. But this is especially true now as pandemic scares and social mores have increasingly driven customers online to find the answers, products, and services they’re looking for. This has only amplified the shift for brands to be smarter about how they show up online.
According to research from BuzzStream, outside of communicating with a brand’s core audience, launching new social media campaigns and maintaining a consistent company blog have been the two strongest tactics for brands this year.
No, we shouldn’t whip out pitchforks any time a marketer waxes poetic about SEO and guest posting on external publisher sites. These avenues are still incredibly relevant and important today. What it does mean is marketers are starting to better adapt to user behavior online and not just settling for the comfortable go-to moves that got them here. Customers are increasingly consuming different types of content online, and brands have an opportunity to build presence on all those channels.
Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Quora, Instagram, and YouTube are becoming as important to a content marketer’s toolkit as Google. And podcasts and webinars are here to stay. Content marketing is rapidly changing—across rapidly blurring channels—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Keep things in focus
Few things in life are worse than visiting a restaurant for its world-famous soup only to find out they only sell ice cream.
Digital experiences can get this muddy, too. Sometimes, the promise in the email blast doesn’t align with the messaging of the not-yet-updated landing page. Sometimes, social channels feel disjointed because each channel highlights a disparate campaign, product, or service.
Content marketing today works when brands can build seamless customer experiences across all digital touchpoints. HubSpot calls this broader approach “integrated marketing”—reflecting a consistent brand experience (e.g., tone, theme, messaging) everywhere. Content marketing in particular takes that baton and runs with it; wherever your customer goes, they should know you really, really know soup.
Know your goals
As far as we know, Albert Einstein didn’t just talk about e and mc2 all the time.
Not all content marketing tactics lead to immediate, palpable, write-home-about-it results. But if they’re anchored to achievable content strategy, these tactics should influence customer behavior.
It may be difficult to measure the success of a business podcast or organic posts on LinkedIn, for example. But there are good questions to ask to find out if you’re on the right track.
Is this blog post series tied to a broader brand awareness program? Are they meant to nurture prospects? Drive subscriptions? Convert prospects into customers?
Especially during these uncertain times, that brand affinity you're building with content marketing could be the difference between making it this season and scaling it for long-term growth. Those nascent channels you’re testing out today may not look or feel like much right now, but they may be with you for the long haul if your audience is tuning in.
Work smarter, not harder
That one piece of cornerstone content on your company blog shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, think of ways to repurpose that content for different channels.
Brands don’t necessarily need to churn out new content daily to feed the digital beast; often, there are ways to spin off existing content into smaller or newer assets to extend the shelf life a bit.
Those chunks of data in that cornerstone blog post can turn into infographics. Those infographics can turn into smaller images for Facebook. For Twitter. For Instagram Stories.
That webinar could turn into a few blog posts, a thought leadership piece, and a few smaller videos for social channels. That webinar slide? A plethora of more options.
When you start thinking about content marketing in this way, it becomes clearer how one single asset can turn into awareness drivers, lead magnets, social posts, and paid ads. Ungated content can become gated assets. Gated content can become ungated assets. All of this can turn into the kind of stuff that really beefs up a nurture program or two.
Content marketing today is less about churning out brand new pieces of content and more about amplifying and optimizing what’s already working in-market.
Don’t just be credible. Be authentic
You’re not pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes. Smart customers understand that brands are trying to win them over—even with all the videos about soup.
But authenticity matters.
It matters for context. This is why nurture streams exist: the best content marketing efforts consistently give customers more and more of what they’re craving to learn.
It matters for credibility. This is how brands differentiate themselves in a crowded digital space: the best content marketing efforts consistently drive home the specific strengths and industry knowhow the brand brings to the table.
And it also matters for SEO. When everybody’s talking about soup, it’s the brands talking about Instant Pot soups that are going to reach the customers looking for Instant Pot soups.
In complex times like these, content marketing has never mattered more. Google has cracked down on brands that try to leverage real pandemic and social fears to mislead or sell to vulnerable customers. Content marketing today is still about teaching your customers valuable information, not about selling them something.
Research from Twillio suggests that authentic content marketing works: 37% of consumers are especially moved by inspiring and thoughtful messaging related to the pandemic—especially when that messaging is grounded in the brand’s particular area of expertise.
Creating brand content during a global pandemic is not on anyone’s résumé. Marketers now have to rethink their customers’ priorities to determine what’s worth communicating, while balancing marketing goals with customer empathy. This conundrum has businesses playing themselves, generating nearly identical messaging across site banners and emails. The content din makes it more difficult for audiences to discern one brand from the next.
Cure the insomnia
Contrary to popular belief, those Global Pandemic Content Marketing 101 classes didn’t prepare us for this. That’s less an indictment of imaginary university courses and more an acknowledgement of content marketing today: being good at it requires strategy, adaptability, and authenticity.
Especially jarring is how this pandemic has largely left chunks of Q1 and Q2 business goals in a sort of cryogenic suspension, forcing marketing teams to think cautiously about how to build campaigns that run through the rest of 2020. The ebbing and flowing of the still-recovering economy means brands now have to reorient around their customers’ evolving priorities to determine what’s worth communicating—while tracking all of this against business goals.
When you think about it, the purpose of content marketing is exactly what it’s always been: start a conversation with your audience and continue to pique their interest. The conversations and needs have become complex, but the brands that succeed are the ones that create moments for dialog across digital touchpoints.
But there’s a fine line between doing content marketing well and being annoying. Flooding channels with content for content’s sake is just noise. Instead, create opportunities for real conversations—talking with an audience, not at them—that make people want to dig deeper and learn more.
Think of content marketing today as the cure for insomnia. Let your audience rest assured by giving them answers about the kinds of things that keep them up at night.
If you can do that, they’ll feel you’re worth buying into. And a brand, eventually, worth buying from.