With the release of a series of algorithmic updates over the past few years, Google has upended the internet landscape and the world of website owners. Suddenly, website owners discovered that they could no longer drive traffic through the use of generic, bland, and repetitive content. Suddenly, quality content was king once again. Content mills--such as Demand Media--quickly gave way to sites such as Contently and content marketing firms willing to pay top prices for unique, high-quality content specifically created to address niche audience needs.
Content marketing, while really nothing new, has become top of mind and a must-do for organizations of all sizes. In fact, according to "Content Is the Fuel of the Social Web" by AOL and Nielsen, there are 27 million pieces of content shared daily. And that is precisely the problem for marketers-how can they create and distribute content that will effectively break through the clutter, resonate with their audiences, and, most importantly, generate some desired action?
That's the million-dollar question, and it's one that is likely to continue to baffle the growing masses of content marketers as we move into 2016. Before we look at what's ahead, let's take a look at what life was like for content marketers in 2015.
The Year in Review
Google hasn't been the only driver of higher-quality content. A rise in consumer use of ad blockers also caused content marketers to scramble in 2015, says Aaron Goldman, CMO of 4C, a data science company based in Chicago. "As more people install ad-blocking software and apps, the imperative is to create content that your audience wants to-and still can-see."
A report from PageFair, in partnership with Adobe-"The Cost of Ad Blocking"-estimated that ad blocking would cost publishers nearly $22 billion in 2015 and indicated that there are now 198 million active ad-blocking software users around the world.
In 2015, as in 2014, many content marketers were simply spinning their wheels, trying a variety of approaches in increasingly frantic attempts to engage an audience. Unfortunately, few have found the elusive success they seek.
It was an interesting year for content marketing, says Joe Pulizzi, the founder of Content Marketing Institute (CMI) and the author of Content Inc. "Almost every company in the world employs some kind of content marketing strategy and yet, according to Content Marketing Institute/Marketing Profs research, just 30% are seeing success." Why the disconnect? Pulizzi says it has to do with strategy-or lack thereof. He says that the majority of content marketers "do not have a documented strategy, and more than half do not know what success looks like." Their content marketing efforts, he says, tend to be built as campaigns and not as ongoing initiatives that could build audiences.
In 2015, content marketers faced a number of challenges. They were, according to Pulizzi, as follows:
- A lack of focus on building an audience over time
- Attempting to extract value too quickly (it takes time to build value)
- Not telling truly differentiated stories
- Running campaigns instead of consistent communication programs
Social media channels may be partly to blame. "The majority of platforms are giving brands less opportunity to communicate with connections," says Pulizzi. "This has put a major focus back on email connections, where we have more control."
But social media channels continue to proliferate and draw an audience. As they do, they are increasingly pushing users to buy the ability to get their messages in front of the audiences they hope to reach. In the process, says Goldman, the lines between content and advertising continue to blur. "More and more web properties are creating ad formats that mirror editorial content and blend into the site," he says. "Good content can, and should, be amplified through native ads and advertorials."
While 2016 promises to hold more of the same in the content marketing world, Pulizzi and others continue to exhort content marketers to shift their focus from churning out more and more content to thinking strategically about how content can be used to achieve their marketing goals and objectives.
A Look Ahead
In 2016, says Goldman, there will be more emphasis-and budget-placed on content marketing. "Companies will focus on operationalizing the practice by creating scalable and repeatable processes for generating content and leveraging technology automation to distribute and measure it," he says.
Hopefully, these content marketing resources will be applied strategically. The lack of a well-defined and consistently applied strategy remains the biggest barrier for those attempting to drive audience engagement through content.
"Smart marketing isn't about knowing how to take advantage of individual platforms, but figuring out how to fit them together in a campaign that is much greater than the sum of its parts," says Matthew Sommer, partner and chief strategy officer for Brolik, a digital agency in Philadelphia. "I strongly believe that any marketer who is looking at content marketing as a separate discipline from SEO, PR, social media, or any other marketing discipline will find themselves left in the dust in 2016, as progressive marketers focus on the integration of these tools and platforms."
As most continue to struggle to figure it all out, some will attempt to gain traction through acquisition. In 2016, expect to see a lot of "content marketing M&A [mergers and acquisitions]," says Pulizzi. "We will start to see serious buying interest and activity from brands of all sizes in the purchasing of niche media and blogger sites," he says. "Yes, building an owned-media platform takes time, so some will short-circuit the process and just buy the asset."
When it comes to content marketing, not much has changed during the past year. More and more organizations and individuals are jumping in to produce content, but one significant roadblock persists: the need to develop and implement a sound strategy designed to gain measurable results. It's not just about continually creating and generating content. It's about creating and generating content with a strategic purpose.
For now, as content marketers look ahead to 2016, the best place to focus their content-marketing-related energy continues to be on strategy-developing a clear path forward aligned with desired business outcomes and designed to resonate with well-defined audiences. With content marketing being adopted by more and more organizations, the path forward in 2016 must continue to be designed to cut through what promises to be an increasing amount of clutter in many forms, across multiple channels and multiple devices.