Having worked in content marketing over the last couple years, I could be forgiven for feeling a bit smug: in 2014, content marketing has hit the mainstream at last, with businesses small and large shifting their budgets away from quick-fix ad campaigns and to long-term editorial content strategies. I could say: “We were right all along!” But there is no time to lean back, as the online marketing world doesn’t stop changing at breakneck speed.
If Gartner’s hype cycle for technology could be applied to the current hype on content marketing, we are soon in for a reality check. In fact, since the first warnings about an impending content shock, it looks indeed as if after years of growth, the total amount of search queries has already plateaued last year, while the amount of content being uploaded is growing and growing. SEO guru Rand Fishkin recently pointed out at SMX Munich that for content to stand out, it will soon require much more effort and thought than it does now.
In the past few months, marketers have been investing a lot in professionalising their content strategies as well as upgrading their marketing technology solutions. Now, I feel, it’s time to look at how to improve content itself.
Time to seriously strive for excellence
Since Jonathan Mildenhall launched Coca-Cola’s Strategy 2020 with a shift to Content Excellence in 2011, things have gone a bit quiet around the concept. Some thought that Coke may have given up on content and gone back to its old advertising focus. But changing the whole advertising industry was never going to be an overnight job, even for one of the world’s biggest brands. But now, the initiatives of Mildenhall, now VP of Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence, are starting to work, with Coca-Cola’s focus on storytellingand customer experiences rather than advertising.
Coca-Cola has already done a lot for content marketing. Now I believe it’s time to follow its lead and take content excellence more serious than ever before.
1. Investing more in content
The biggest challenge is changing the mindset that anyone can produce excellent content for next to nothing. Back in the old SEO days, businesses tried to keep the cost per word as low as possible, even trying to automate some of the content production. This old mindset is now starting to hurt back.
At the moment, we are in transition, redefining the role of content producers. Content writers are paid better, but still not as handsomely as their colleagues in advertising. In agencies, many are all-rounders and confidently produce content spanning various sectors.
This worked fine so far. Many target audiences in B2B are decision makers rather than experts, and are interested in the benefits rather than ins-and-outs - and the need for top-level, overview content will remain. But there is a growing need for specialists who are both experts in a field or industry and in content strategy.
Creating a really insightful, original, compelling piece of content doesn’t only take time; it also takes life experience. As investment in content increases, I expect content marketing to mature with the key people driving it being true experts in their field.
Google Authorship is already causing writers who are experts in their field to rank higher for their content, regardless of which website it is hosted on. As competition for the best talent hots up, the price of good writers rises along with the ranking power of the content they produce.
This trend is mirrored in content marketing’s media cousin, online journalism, where a number of big-name journalists are leaving newspaper companies to join independent news sites like Business Insider, BuzzFeed and Vox.
Organisations need to start thinking of investing in content as if it were their web real estate, where it pays in the long term to pay more for quality. There is a lot of fat to be cut elsewhere. Pay-per-click ad campaigns, for example, are not dissimilar to feeding a drug addiction - they give you an instant high, but you need to keep using or experience withdrawal symptoms.
With content, your return on investment will start slower, but once the content is created, it will generate results for as long as it is online. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
2. Who dares wins
You thought that drug analogy above was a bit edgy? That was my full intent. You may not agree with me, but it certainly won’t leave you indifferent. Unfortunately, a lot of content out there leaves you just like that. Over-cautious marketers are afraid of taking any stance - it seems every sentence has to be checked by the board of directors, Compliance and five lawyers.
The result is not just a slow production process, but worse: softened, bland, interchangeable, meh content that no-one will want to read, let alone remember.This sanitised content won’t hurt anyone, but it won’t touch anyone either. By all means do check with your legal counsel, but if pieces are clearly marked as the writer’s opinion, I don’t see a logical reason why a business should get in trouble for posting a controversial blog article.
As marketers, we should take an “act fast, apologise later” approach in our content strategy. That would make us more human, and it will make it easier to connect with other humans, our audiences.
3. Transcreation or, how to take globalisation seriously
I predict that the days of translating marketing content into all languages your business is trading in are numbered. It’s simply too slow, it’s costly and it often misses the mark.
The age-old dispute between global marketing and sales representatives in local markets proves that materials coming from head office often don’t connect with prospects in the fields. There is a simple and surprising elegant solution to this disconnect: Transcreation. It means creating unique content from scratch in each language simultaneously, while adhering to a detailed global brief.
Doing this makes it possible for global marketing to ensure the same core message is being communicated in a similar brand voice, while field sales will be happy about the authentic local feel and relevance of the content. Nothing gets lost in translation and the result is significantly higher engagement.
4. We need to think visually, but think first
Stable broadband connections have made it possible for lavish illustrations to load in milliseconds and videos to play without hiccups, and marketers have rushed to embrace these new visual tools. But imagery needs to be more aligned with the overall story your content is trying to tell. Visual content excellence doesn’t mean opulence, but usefulness. Is that pie-chart really helping users to understand the ratio between different parts of a quantity or should we rather display it differently?
Does my article on financial help really need a generic stock image of a happily smiling couple, or could we find a symbol photo that feels more realistic and natural? Visual content excellence will require substantially more planning and collaboration across the different content production experts.
This new approach would be desperately needed when it comes to infographics. They are still hugely popular with marketers, but the overwhelming majority that have been produced in recent months are a matter of style over substance. Too often, they are little more than a random collection of stats curated from around the web.The lacking overarching story makes them visually confusing and ultimately forgettable.
5. Innovate all the time
As marketers, we know that speed is essential when it comes to adapting to new trends. We have learned to listen to every new, emerging idea, fuelled by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) on the next big hype. But there is a better way of staying ahead of the curve: inventing the trends yourself.
At Axonn Media, people from all departments meet once a month to brainstorm, think about and discuss latest trends and product development ideas. I find these meetings tremendously rewarding: so many talented experts breaking down departmentalised silo thinking and looking at problems from their individual perspective. Here, you have content writers explaining to software engineers what would make their work more efficient, and sales executives working with graphic designers on innovations like our recent infographics. If an idea gets shared by a group of very different people, serendipity can happen and something truly great can come out.
We may not yet have found the thing or mix that will define content excellence in the future, but I’m sure it will be born out of collaborative efforts. Therefore, let’s take a step back from our daily routines every now and then and think about what could be the next big thing after the next big thing.
As marketers, we need to avoid becoming complacent. We need to start an open, industry-wide discussion on what content marketing should look like in a year’s time or five. And we need to experiment with answers before the content shock hits. What do you think, what else needs to change?