“The advertising and marketing world scrambles for new ways to reach consumers”, writes journalist and media critic Ken Auletta in his latest book Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else). Struggling to keep pace in an ever more capricious environment, mad men and women have embraced a medley of oversold techniques – programmatic advertising, influencer marketing and “pivot to video,” among others – only to discover their performance have failed to match their hype. Content marketers, so far, have fared relatively better, though not without problems of their own.
After studying a sample of 100 million posts published between 2015 and 2017, internet research and monitoring company BuzzSumo determined that social sharing of content had decreased by half during that period. Moreover, there had been a sharp decline in viral posts, with 90 percent of content garnering fewer than 62 shares. Adding insult to injury, an analysis of 1500 brands and 300,000 consumers across 33 countries, by advertising firm Havas Group, concluded that “60 percent of all content created by brands is poor, irrelevant or fails to deliver”.
Said troubles notwithstanding, most practitioners remain upbeat; albeit overcoming these and similar challenges requires stepping back and re-thinking current approaches to content marketing. A sensible place to start is with these three skills:
Subject Matter Expertise
Among the most effective content marketers are subject matter experts (SMEs): those individuals capable of thoroughly understanding and sufficiently explaining an organization’s products or services. For many, however, it is getting harder to discern exactly what businesses their enterprises conduct.
Take the Ford Motor Company. There was a time it was clear who were its competitors and customers. Back then rivals were peers such as General Motors and Toyota. Now they include the likes of Google and Apple. And where once earnings largely came from the sale of vehicles to consumers, bundling and selling consumer data from connected cars may soon provide a massive new revenue stream.
The automotive industry is hardly unique. As advances in technology bulldoze traditional barriers to entry, content creators of all stripes will surely have to expand their expertise, not merely to other markets but to the broader society, as companies’ words and deeds are judged in the context of social, political and environmental concerns. According to Edelman’s Earned Brand Survey, the latest in a spate of research gauging consumer sentiment, more than half (53%) of 8,000 people queried worldwide think brands can do more to solve social ills than can government. Fifty-four percent also believe it is easier to get brands to address such problems.
Apparently, corporate bosses are feeling the heat. Recent decisions by Nike and Levi Strauss to tackle controversial matters reflect the findings of an Economist Group report that 60 percent of executives believe consumer activism is forcing their companies to “authentically showcase their character” by how they engage with the public.
Accordingly, content marketers will have to understand and explain an increasing array of complex issues, and make sense of them for diverse audiences. This will require being able to cogently interpret the intricate interplay between enterprises and their stakeholders. One way to achieve this, notes the Economist, is through “thoughtful storytelling.”
Storytelling is at the core of content marketing. As Joe Lazauskas, Editor in Chief at Contently, tells it: “Content marketing works because our brains are programmed for stories”. True, though our brains are programmed to do a great deal more, including discounting stories.
Human behavior is highly susceptible to circumstance, and the brain constantly reorganizes itself to respond to continually changing events. So at any given moment it may be exposed to overwhelming amounts of information; more than it can possibly process. So the mind relies on short-cuts to maintain consistency and congruity, one of which is to accept, reject or manipulate information based on whether it conforms to or contradicts existing beliefs.
To that end, Spark Neuro, a firm that uses neuroscience to measure audience engagement, recently studied how Democrats, Republicans and Independents perceived Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad while watching it alongside television commentary and user-generated videos. By monitoring participants’ brain waves, heart rates and sweat glands, it confirmed that “Democrats and Republicans are putting the content right through their filter, and that changes the perspective of the ad”.
Context, too, is critical, which can be problematic for content marketers who are highly reliant on social media. Their narratives increasingly reside amid fake news and hate speech, two factors, Edelman asserts, that have damaged the public’s trust in social networks. This also accounts, in part, for why attitudes toward social advertising have stagnated or declined during the past year, according to software firm Sprout Social. It found that a majority of consumers are scrolling past ads on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Stories are, and will remain, an essential device in every content marketer’s tool kit. But their value is substantially diminished if they can’t penetrate the mental barricades people construct, often unconsciously. Before telling their tale then, content creators must, at the very least, fully comprehend what audiences already believe, know and understand about a subject; what they believe, know and understand about the source of the content; plus who or what else may coerce their communication.
That said, most content marketers can’t do it on their own. “Content marketing is not a solo pursuit”, writes Shafqat Islam, CEO of NewsCred, who advocates establishing collaborative, cross-functional marketing teams to “deliver great content experiences”
Granted, teamwork is an intelligent and time-honored approach, more often than not, organizers readily gravitate toward partners who share, if not the same ideas, then similar perspectives. The term for this is homophily – which literally means “love of the same” – a tendency for people to associate with others with comparable beliefs, biases and opinions. And while that may facilitate conventional means of problem-solving, it can also inhibit creativity and innovation.
On the other hand, there is ample research to demonstrate that some of the most successful strategies can be achieved when teams connect with cohorts on the fringes of their profession, and beyond. That is crucial if content marketers hope to gain new knowledge and skills necessary to cope with seemingly endless change. Thus, instead of limiting their collaboration to experts in design, writing and social media et al., they ought engage with a more diverse set of disciplines.
To better understand the interconnected systems in which they do business, for example, content marketers need to adapt complexity science to effectually position themselves within the context of consumers, competitors, policymakers and the media; as well as employ network theory to pull back to see how each of these influences and impacts the other. For their part, smart marketers have already begun to embed behavioral economics and neuroscience into their practices to appreciate how disparate audiences access, perceive, process and use information.
What is more, expanding penetration by artificial intelligence (AI) tools is driving organizations to become more team-oriented. Here, the challenge is to rationally distinguish between what people and machines can do. The knee-jerk reaction is to imagine technology marginalizing or even eliminating the need for human creativity. What is most compelling about AI, however, is not its ability to impersonate humans, but its capacity to view the world in different terms, enabling it to “think” in ways humans cannot. Individuals and organizations who can exploit the distinctions will come out ahead.
In an age of impermanence and uncertainty, content marketers, like the rest of their ilk, have essentially three choices going forward. One is to continue to do business as usual as much as possible. Two, is to jump onto every new trend, whether or not its long-term success has been validated. Or three, take the middle ground by sticking with what works but continuously exploring ways to make it work better.