In March of this year, I drove to Charleston, SC, shortly after returning from back-to-back business trips to Nashville, New Orleans, and Miami. I was attending a business development event with about 30 agency leaders, some of whom I’d been with during my travels in recent weeks. We greeted each other with warm hugs of familiarity.
The world changed that week.
When I left Charleston, I waved goodbye from a distance, not daring to shake hands with those I’d hugged just 72 hours prior. I got in my car, took a deep breath and thought, “was all this travel a huge mistake?”
You’ve probably got a similar story, don’t you? The story of the way you felt when things changed for you. When the uncertainty about your health, the health of your loved ones, and the health of your business became real for you.
We’ve heard from many of you in the time since. You wanted to know how this radically changed world would affect the articles you write and the emails you send. You wanted to know if you should alter or abandon your positioning. You wanted to know if you should stop marketing altogether. At least for a while. After all, wouldn’t you come across completely tone deaf if you pressed on like normal?
We’ve learned a lot by working through these tough questions with firms like yours this year. In this article, I’ll share our latest insights on the state of content marketing today. I’ll spend time on what’s changed, and you’ll also learn what hasn’t changed, and why.
What’s Changed About Content Marketing in 2020?
Working From Home Made Video More Approachable
It’ll come as no surprise to any marketer reading this that 2020 brought with it an emphasis on digital marketing. After all, if you’re going to market during a global health crisis, it’s going to have to be digitally. But one tactic that we finally saw adopted by many firms was video.
Video has long been proven to enhance content marketing performance.
Users like video. Google likes video. But many firms struggle to produce it, believing it to be technically complicated or cringing at the idea of being the one on camera.
2020 changed all of that, almost overnight.
Now, we live most of our personal and professional lives on camera. If we want to see a colleague, a client, a family member, or a friend, we’re often doing it through a little Zoom box.
Because we’re on video all the time, we’ve been forced to address the obstacles that previously motivated us to keep video at arms length. We’ve had to create a comfortable working space at home, right next to our spouses, children, and pets. We’ve had to learn how to sound like ourselves, despite staring into our computer’s camera to simulate eye contact. We’ve had to adapt to seeing ourselves on screen all the time. We’ve had to learn about lighting and audio quality. And we’ve been forced to loosen up when it comes to interruptions or background distractions. I mean, we’re all in the same boat here, right? Maybe my kid can wave at yours during a meeting and it won’t be the end of the world.
If you still haven’t incorporated video into your content strategy, this needs to be at the top of your list. It’s never been easier to boost engagement on your website through video than right now.
Webinars Aren’t So Scary
Perhaps as an extension of video’s increased prominence in content plans across creative services firms, we’ve seen webinars rise in popularity as well. This was a shift. Though webinars have proven effective drivers of site conversions for years, many firms have been intimidated by the platform. That changed this year. As our Director of Content Coaching Ali Amoroso observes, the (mostly mental) barrier to webinar entry seems to have dissolved in 2020:
COVID has forced some firms to evaluate what was holding them back from webinars in the first place, and they’ve come to value them more than ever. For many, there has always been a misconception that webinars are too technically complex to pull off. A lot of firms believed webinars needed to be all glitz and glam, involving a fancy presentation with the ability to switch back and forth between the slides and being on video themselves, and so forth. The newfound casualness that came with being on nonstop video calls with colleagues and clients during this pandemic seemed to break down that barrier. Firms finally stopped obsessing over the technical hurdles and focused more on the content of the webinar and the value it provided to users.Ali Amoroso, Director of Content Coaching
One challenge we’ve observed with this more relaxed approach to webinars is the occasional decline in quality of messaging overall. We’re all used to being on Zoom most of the day. But despite that, your webinars should feel more polished and insightful than your typical conference call. As Content Marketing Coach Jeremy Wingle points out:
If you’re going to dip your toe into the world of webinars, be sure you choose a relevant topic that you can speak about confidently and thoroughly. Too informal and you’ll find yourself in a rambling Zoom session with no structure and little thought leadership value. When possible, bolster your webinar content with a supporting article that clearly articulates the insights of the conversation and the topic you covered. That well-written article will help you get the most SEO equity out of that page on your site, while also distilling the most value-laden content into a readable format for users who prefer that medium.Jeremy Wingle, Content Marketing Coach
User Research is Top of Mind for Everyone
We read a lot of content from firms like yours. It’s always interesting when a common theme begins to emerge among our clientbase, despite the differences in positioning, expertise, services, and location. This year, one such topic is user research. Most of you want to write about that in some way.
It makes sense. With in-person events off the table for a while, firms like yours have to rethink how they market to their prospects from afar. With such radical change happening in the world, it’s understandable that many of you wonder if your users and their interests have changed as a result.
Your clients are undoubtedly asking themselves the same questions, so user research has been a popular subject to explore in many content plans this year. Beyond incorporating user research-related topics into the editorial plan, many firms have taken steps to proactively get in touch with their user base to learn more about their interests. Whether through surveys, polls, emails, phone calls, or some combination of all of the above, firms collect and use this data to inform the evolution of their products and services.
Investing in user research allows you to unequivocally understand the ever-changing needs of your prospects. Especially in times of crisis, simply asking your users what’s on their minds reveals what you should write about. It means you’re not guessing. And that’s critical homework to complete before altering your messaging strategy.
After conducting user research, many firms were able to revisit their persona set altogether, shaping it with a deeper level of understanding and awareness. The detail expressed about each persona led to more interesting and effective topic ideation sessions, because firms were able to offer profound insights that directly related to the questions on the minds of prospects today. In many cases, those questions had shifted as a result of the pandemic. This is the beauty of persona work. It’s a source of truth, but not a rigid one. It changes. It evolves with the times, as it should. But most importantly, it’s a place where you can capture important insights about the people who hire you, and use those insights to influence how you choose to market to them.
The Content Marketing Constant: Personas
In Chaotic Times, Firms Rely Heavily on Their Personas
When the pandemic hit, every firm we work with questioned their messaging strategy. They wanted to understand how to adjust their tone, their topics, and their emails to somehow make sense of what was happening. But they wanted to preserve the integrity of their marketing strategy.
Without documented persona insights, you’re marketing blindly and relying on luck and intuition to result in something profound.
We had a lot of those conversations. And pretty much every time, we ended up back at the personas we’d worked to develop with that firm.
In this video, Director of Content Coaching Ali Amoroso and I spend some time unpacking why persona development is so important in content marketing today and why it matters most during times of chaos. We also talk through a few of the most useful questions you can ask yourself about your ideal prospects in order to develop messaging most likely to resonate with them.
So What About Content Marketing in 2021?
As one of the more dramatic, paradigm-shifting years in modern history comes to a close, I offer this advice for content marketers moving into 2021:
Stop chasing stability. Embrace the marketing courage you found this year.
The pandemic forced you to experiment. To be open to change. To try new forms of media. It required you to think critically about how you can best help people and make an impact. This year, you’ve released yourself from the rigid marketing standards you’ve honored for too long. You’ve thought more creatively about your positioning, your services, and your messaging. You’ve taken risks because you’ve had to. And many of them have resulted in stronger results than you’ve seen before.
Eventually, the uncertainty in the world today will lessen. We’ll feel more stable and comfortable. And while that stability will be much needed in many areas of our lives, your appetite for change and risk has expanded this year and that’s a good thing for your marketing.