Content Marketing: A Look Back and a Look Ahead at 2018

Even though the practice of content marketing has been around for over a century, it’s only in the last few years that we’ve seen explode onto the center stage of the marketing world. All you have to do to understand this is to take a look at the Google Trends curve on the popularity of “content marketing” as a search term since 2004:
content marketing
Content marketing has come a long way in the last few years, and so have the marketers who practice it. New insights into consumer tastes and preferences, new technologies, and new approaches have gradually reshaped content marketing into the sophisticated approach we know it to be today.

If content marketing as we know it began life as an axe, it’s evolved into a scalpel.

Confucius once wisely advised us to “study the past, if you would divine the future.” Now that content marketing as an “official” marketing practice has been around for a few years, we have a bit of a history to look back on, as we plan our next steps. By understanding where content marketing was when it started, and where it stands today, we can make more informed decisions as we plan for 2018 and beyond.

Where We Started

When content marketing took its first baby-steps into mainstream marketing practices, circa 2012, early practitioners had a good grip on the “what” … but they were a little shaky on the “how.”

For one thing, they hadn’t yet caught on to the importance of consistency and frequency. Early forays into content marketing tended to be sporadic — maybe one blog post in any given week, none the next week, and three the following week, for example. Those early adopters had yet to learn that, when targets consider whether they can trust you with their business, they look for clues to your trustworthiness — including whether you can be trusted to produce content on a consistent basis.

Early content marketers also had a few things to learn about their subject matter. Look at some blog posts from five years ago, and you’re likely to find quite a few product pitches and press releases thinly disguised as “content.” They were making the now-classic error of focusing on what they wanted to say, rather than on what would inform, enlighten, or entertain their audience. It didn’t take long for smart marketers to realize the difference, and to realign their content around topics that resonated with those they wanted to reach.

Then came the social media explosion, bringing its share of benefits and challenges. On the positive side, the lightning-fast pace of social media brought marketers around to the need to publish content on an ongoing basis. Their audiences were seeing fresh content in their news feeds every minute of every day, so “taking breaks” for weeks at a time — or even days at a time — was no longer an option.

Conversely, some marketers viewed social media as a replacement for their on-site content efforts. “Why have a blog when we have a Facebook page?” they asked themselves. Then along came social media’s “reach-apocalypse,” when the sheer number of players vying for attention made it nearly impossible for any one of them to ensure that its posts were seen on a regular basis. Thus ended that experiment, as marketers gained a new appreciation for the inherent value of their owned media on their websites and blogs.

Where We Are Now

Today we can look back on those early days of content marketing and laugh, knowing how far we’ve come since then.

Not only do we know more than ever about how to do content marketing right — we have resources that enable us to learn more about our targets than ever before and to personalize their content experience. We can use intent monitoring and other tools to learn exactly what our targets are thinking, as expressed through their online searches. We can use that intel to publish personalized content that speaks to their specific needs, at the exact moments when they need it most.

Take a look at today’s most successful content marketers, and you’ll notice they have a few practices in common:

  • They go where the action is. They use intent signals to understand exactly what their targets want, when they want it, and how they want it delivered, and they plan their content accordingly.
  • They personalize. Successful content marketers know content resonates with targets when it’s personal to them — and that goes far beyond including a name in an email. They use the tools available to help them create and deliver highly personalized content focused on the specific topics their targets are interested in.
  • They have clear objectives and plans for achieving them. They decide on content-related goals and get buy-in from all key stakeholders, then they build a plan for going where they want to go — and they stick to it.
  • They build brands. The most successful content marketers know their brand inside and out, and every piece of content they publish reflects and builds on that brand.
  • They build relationships. They understand that people are tired of being told what to buy; what they want is a relationship with an expert who cares about them and who is there to help solve their problems. If you can be that expert, you can create customers for life.

What Lies Ahead in 2018

Okay, so we know where we’ve been and where we are today … now what? As we look to the start of a new year, we can take everything we’ve learned, plus the tools that new technologies offer us, and begin shaping a new, more sophisticated approach to content marketing.

We have the ability to gather the data we need to gain a deep understanding of our targets, and now it’s time to get strategic about what we do with that data. As you build your marketing strategy for 2018, here are a few tactics to help ensure your success:

  • Learn something new about your targets. Go beyond the interests you already know about and see if you can uncover other opportunities for engagement. Then, build your thought leadership in those areas. If you don’t have the internal expertise, partner with external sources as needed.
  • Deepen your engagement. You’re already responding to every instance of your targets interacting with your content … but are you returning the favor? Look at the content your target organizations are publishing and show your appreciation by liking, commenting, sharing, and curating it to help them grow their reach.
  • Personalize even further. Look at both the calendar and your intent-signal data. When are your targets most actively looking at specific information? Identify patterns and build them into your content plan.
  • Assign a content leader. If “everybody” owns content marketing, then no one owns it … and it’s far too easy for your strategy to come off the rails. Designate one person to own your content marketing strategy and give him or her the authority to drive the process.
  • Consider turning custom content into a profit center. People are overwhelmed with the amount of content available to them, and they don’t have time to sort through and figure out which information is both accurate and relevant to them. If you provide what they need, chances are more likely than not that they’ll be willing to pay for it.
  • Think mobile first. The days of mobile being desktop’s ugly stepsister are over. Find out which devices your targets are using, and make sure that you’re formatting your content to offer a favorable user experience.
  • Keep up with trends. We predict that next year we’ll be hearing a lot more about:

○ Video production and editing
○ Graphic design, illustration, and editing
○ Audio editing and production skills
○ Content optimization across multiple formats
○ Content distribution and promotion
○ Analytics, metrics, and reporting

As the Chinese benediction (or is it a curse?) goes, “May you live in interesting times.” As we look back on the brief past of content marketing as a mainstream practice, we can certainly say that interesting times have abounded. As we look to 2018, the only thing we can say for sure is that change will continue. User expectations will continue to evolve. Technology will continue to offer better and better tools for uncovering intent and personalizing content. And, we as marketers, will continue to adapt as we explore new opportunities for reaching existing targets, identifying new ones, and using the resources we have to take our results to exciting new heights.

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