Content marketing has seen nothing less than a revolution during the pandemic, with ripple effects on digital marketing and communications.
In this article I interview content marketing expert Joe Pulizzi to discuss content strategies during the pandemic and uncover the path to content marketing success in the new normal.
It’s clear that our screen time increased during the lockdown: at home we were more isolated than ever, looking to stay connected with trends and industry news. A recent survey recorded about 50–70 percent increase in internet use during the COVID-19 pandemic, and of that 50 percent of the time was spent engaging on social media in 2020.
The pandemic was a period when content marketing and communications teams had to be more creative, trying out new ways of breaking through the noise online. This culminated in a flurry of new online initiatives like podcasts, live streaming, video production and influencer-led campaigns for social media.
For example, The Guardian states that the number of podcasts on Spotify more than tripled in a year, from 700,000 in the final quarter of 2019 to 2.2m at the end of 2020, and influencer agency Takumi told Yahoo News that it received twice as many applications from people looking for representation in 2020 than in 2019, leading to a growth of 150-200%.
In order to better understand this impressive disruption in the world of content marketing, I decided to interview Joe Pulizzi, the podcaster, marketing speaker, bestselling author of Content Inc. and founder of the Content Marketing Institute.
We discussed the evolution of content marketing during the pandemic, successful tactics to connect with your audience and new trends such as the rise of micro-influencers and content entrepreneurs.
Q. How has content marketing evolved during the pandemic?
Some companies tried to be everywhere during the pandemic, and others decided to focus on being great at one or two things. The ones that focused on specific, niche audiences succeeded best, compared to those that spread themselves too thin.
Recently I was talking with one of those companies that dabbled in everything, and they may have acquired a lot of social traffic during the pandemic but this was all built on rented land. They didn’t develop any direct, opt-in relationships. So what now?
After social media companies started changing their algorithms, many people decided to focus on relationships – building direct relationships with their audience. So that’s why one of the hottest areas in content marketing is email marketing, which is the craziest thing ever because it’s really a return back to basics.
Q. Within the context of inclusive communications and megatrends like #BlackLivesMatter, has storytelling changed and become more personal lately?
Absolutely, it’s become more personal and the content reflects that. You see more individuals becoming spokespeople, with podcasters telling better stories, speaking in the first person… it’s not just a company marketing anymore.
Successful CEOs like Elon Musk are the ones who have been able to build a more personal, outgoing content strategy. It’s essential to choose the right platform, and in Elon’s case, he speaks directly with his fans on Twitter.
The rise of individual influencers has been pronounced. And that is a trend that has accelerated throughout the pandemic. Individuals tell better stories than corporations: always have, always will. We are more receptive to hearing stories from individuals and having relationships with those individuals.
So if you’re a big company, and you’ve got a lot of internal politics and red tape, how do you switch to a more personal approach? Just be real, flaws and all. It’s all about trusting your employees and trusting your spokespeople to be the lead storytellers, instead of it coming from the top down.
The most important marketers in your company are your employees. There may be some risk of losing control, but the upside is far greater than the downside.
Q. We are also seeing a growing trend as companies start to have a greater voice on bigger picture issues like climate change and inclusivity. Is this a positive thing, and how does that change content marketing?
Patagonia is an example of a company that was communicating very early on about climate change and sustainability, and then everyone jumped on the sustainability bandwagon. This is great but it needs to be authentic; it needs to be in line with the mission of the company and your overall business model.
Q. In my recent survey of marketing and communications directors, 83% said that the pandemic had helped their team to be more resilient and agile. Yet what is the impact on content marketing? How can it be more agile and reactive?
It’s important to make sure that you have your listening posts set up and you understand the needs, wants and pain points of your customers.
While you need to have a long-term content calendar that is revised every quarter, you also need to keep your ear to the ground. In your weekly content meetings, the first thing you need to do is to see what’s going on and if there is a need to change anything.
It has to align with the overall goal of your marketing. I’m a bigger believer in that. If you focus on your key audience and deliver value to that audience over a long period of time, that is when you will succeed and that’s when viral happens. If you continuously produce relevant, amazing content, then there is a greater chance that one of those will take off to a broader audience.
The trend of using more freelancers and contractors is here to stay. In the past, marketing departments felt that they needed to hire everyone directly. And that’s not the case anymore: today you can have small groups who do different things and own different initiatives in the marketing team and channel the best talent for each project.
The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic allowed for many marketing teams to wake up and realise: “We have to do things differently”. Because of that change and the need for flexibility, they were able to try a lot of new things, and they were obliged to improve internal communications to help staff adapt to the changes.
Today you may have a small department of 10 or 14 marketers, for example, and up to a hundred different freelancers or contractors working with you. That’s how media companies have worked for ages, and marketers are only realising that they don’t have to do it all internally.
Q. During my interview with Neal Schaffer, he said that companies and organisations should seek to work with influencers that will not only amplify content but also create new content collaboratively. Is user-generated content a growing trend, and what is your strategy to build on this?
It makes more sense to develop close relationships with influencers. Yet in order to yield the greatest benefit, I would focus on the middle-tier influencers who have an audience and are also willing to work collaboratively with companies and organisations. That way, it’s a win-win. Of course, their mission has to be aligned with your mission.
First, you need to figure out who are the influencers in your industry. Are they bloggers, podcasters or YouTubers? Then you can start small; initially, I would work with five or ten influencers and figure out how to build relationships with them. That’s the overall goal: working together, building a relationship and seeing how you can help each other. Like little partnership programs.
I do agree with Neal: we should stop thinking of influencers as people who simply amplify our content. If you develop a program collaboratively with only one fully engaged influencer, it’s likely that it will have a much greater impact than working with various influencers who are not aligned with your brand.
Q. What is the future of content marketing? How is it changing and evolving?
These days, the gap between media and marketing is very close. Product and service companies are becoming media companies. You’re starting to see numerous acquisitions of media agencies, allowing product and service companies to quickly build audiences.
Innovative companies and organisations that focus on building their audience base are going to be the winners. You have the example of software companies like Hubspot that acquired The Hustle for almost nothing, benefiting from a base of 1.5 million email subscribers, and companies like SalesForce that bought CMO Club. They’re the ones that are going to come out of this winning.
From a revenue standpoint, you’ll see B2B and B2C companies act like media companies: they will be selling advertising and sponsorship and offer premium content offerings. Sony already does it with Alpha University, for example. They charge for their photography training, in partnership with recognised universities.
We’re starting to see more collectives develop like Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO), where everyone has a say in the governance of a collective organisation. I think it’s the next great business model for content marketing, where a lot of people who are passionate about an issue can organize and get involved in a common mission. Everyone has a say and gets a piece of ownership in the initiative.
Overall, there will be more content entrepreneurs than ever before. Individual content marketing will grow, thanks to the low barriers to entry. Everyone wants to tell their own stories, build their own audiences. It’s going to be an exciting time.
For more from Joe Pulizzi check out The Tilt, a twice-weekly email newsletter and education program dedicated to teaching content creators how to become content entrepreneurs and turn their business into a content empire.
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