2016: The Year Brands Take Control in Content Marketing

By Avi Zimak

Originally published on re/code.

As 2015 races to a close, it’s worth taking a look back at some of the changes that shaped the ad marketing and publishing industries this year, while also looking ahead to see how executives should respond to these changes in 2016.

We know that content marketing gets results, including increased brand awareness, social sharing, page views, and other kinds of online engagement. We’ve also seen its effectiveness in driving more bottom-funnel results, like conversions through leads, downloads, subscriptions, and even purchases.

That’s why, according to the results of a CMO Club/IBM survey published in August,CMOs plan to increase spending across every stage of the customer journey by 50 percent in the next two years.

Also noteworthy is an Outbrain analysis of articles about content marketing that ran in our network. We looked at 5,600 articles recommended on B2B publications between January and October 2015, and found that of the four million page views in this period, a quarter of those were stories about content marketing.

Additionally, we saw that page views on the topic increased over time, indicating that while content marketing may no longer be the shiny new object in the toolkit, interest in it is on the rise. That’s because content has gradually become essential for marketers instead of a nice-to-have. Its proven efficacy will only become more evident as it delivers strong results for new verticals and businesses of all sizes.

So, as publisher content studios grow, agencies and publishers will begin to look a lot like competitors in how they pitch brands.

Agencies have already started to add value by using technology platforms that complement content creation, optimization, contextual story serving, and real-time data analysis. But marketers want more control over the distribution of their content, and in 2016 they will get it in the following ways:

Story sequencing

The customer journey has not been linear for quite some time, so serving contextually relevant content is imperative at each point of contact. Content marketing will evolve into long-form storytelling, something it has been challenged to do in part because distribution has either been fairly manual, with limited reach, or it’s been so algorithmic that it’s felt random at times.

Storytelling with detours and subplots across a range of media will be the norm, and will follow a buyer down the path to purchase.

For example, let’s say a customer engages with a native ad while on a laptop. That’s a notch for awareness. A few days later, that customer is reachable on a mobile device at an in-store touch point related to the product in that native ad. Instead of being served that native ad again, marketers will be able to serve a different piece of content, such as a product review from a third party relevant to that customer’s location, digital platform and in-store activity.

Audience shaping

Marketers will be able to better maintain engagement across the Web with priority audiences — like visitors to their websites — with relevant content.

Historically, they’ve relied on display advertising for this kind of retargeting, but if 2015 has taught us anything, it’s that consumers have reached a breaking point with display ads, and are finding the idea of blocking them alluring.

Content, on the other hand, provides a much more satisfying experience.

Marketers will begin to have more tools to reach beyond their initial target audiences to additional high-value consumers. Of course, a few of the big tech platforms, like Facebook, have offered this capability to marketers for some time, but it has been rooted in push advertising.

It hasn’t found its way to the more open canvas that is content marketing in a meaningful way. This is going to change in 2016.

Conclusion

The irony facing content marketing next year is that it will become more like traditional advertising as it becomes more mainstream — a positive development if managed correctly. More sophisticated targeting and greater integration with the rest of the digital marketing mix will start to move it out of the experimental budget phase and into a seat at the table with its older siblings search, social and display. This will open the door to some creative brand executions.

The notable difference — and big defining moment — will be consumer acceptance for it. If the content proves its worth, consumers won’t be tempted to block it. They might actually enjoy it, thus truly setting it apart from traditional advertising.

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