Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a wide range of responses regarding what defines B2B content marketing in 2021, so we’re sharing the best practices to help you sharpen your strategy.
“The Times They Are a-Changin.”
— Bob Dylan
Once again, we marketers find ourselves in a time of flux. A few years back, you needed a website to attract business. Then you needed SEO. Then you needed to be on Facebook. Then you needed to blog.
Now it’s 2021. Everyone’s blogging, and everyone’s “telling stories.” (Read more about why storytelling isn’t for everyone here.)
For every “must have” you hear one minute, there’s a newer, better, different–and sometimes totally opposite–“can’t skip” trend coming at you the next minute.
“We’re going to examine what the overall content marketing landscape looks like in 2021—and how you should spend your marketing time—without taking a one-size-fits-all approach.”
To get started, let’s investigate what the current definition of content marketing looks like.
“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”
That’s pretty much the industry standard definition of content marketing from the Content Marketing Institute. But what does it actually mean? And how does it inform those of us looking to crush content marketing in 2021?
Another way to think about it is that the content marketing landscape is constantly shifting, meaning B2B marketers need to keep ahead of audience preferences and demands–as well as industry trends–if we are to stay relevant.
“Only amateurs use short copy.”
—David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising
We’ve reached an inflection point where brands have “turned traditional business into media publishing companies.” To be most effective, we marketers have to evolve as well.
Content Marketing is Providing Relevant Value
Instead of focusing simply on the definition of content marketing, let’s get right to the heart of what your audience cares about: value. Without value, all the other defining features (production, distribution) disappear faster than you can say “content shock.”
If you’re a content marketer, you already know the lingo. You’re here because it’s the effectiveness of your content marketing in 2021 that’s in question, not whether or not you need to use it at all. And if you don’t have much experience with content marketing, keep reading for the crash course.
Content marketing is effective when your audience perceives value in every aspect of your product or service—including marketing. Josh Steimle from Forbes says value is what differentiates content marketing from advertising. “You can tell if a piece of content is the sort that could be part of a content marketing campaign if people seek it out, if people want to consume it, rather than avoiding it,” he writes.
Value builds trust, loyalty, intrigue–in other words, all the warm fuzzy feelings people tend to enjoy. But your audience doesn’t just want the warm fuzzies — they need them if they’re to engage with your content.
The necessity of building and sustaining these qualities has never been greater than in 2021. That’s because the selling component of sales has been greatly diminished. Accenture reports that most customers are a whopping 57% of the way through the buying process before they meet for the first time with a company representative. Your job is more than halfway done before the customer even walks in the literal or virtual door!
There’s another way to describe what we’re talking about here: it’s called building trust with your customer audience. Trust, like any other factor in human relationships, relies on commonalities, similar beliefs and opinions and a sense of connection in an otherwise disconnected social climate.
Effective content marketing shines brightest when it builds a sense of trust.
Offering relevant value–i.e. educational or tutorial content–isn’t enough on its own anymore to cinch an audience. An overwhelming volume of high-quality content has already saturated the market. Nowadays it takes original research, and then leveraging that information for multiple types of content, to position yourself as an authority in your niche.
Another way to increase value at every stage of the buying process is to allow customers to choose their own segment when looking for content. “This feeling of self-selection empowers customers to feel like they’re dictating their own journey,” according to Gartner. Self-segmentation makes the biggest splash when providing additional resources and help.
A Short History of Content Marketing
Learning to transition from the content that worked in the past to what’s working in 2021 means looking back to the origins of content marketing. The more we know about why we do what we do, the more effective what we do will get.
So let’s begin where content marketing historians usually start–at the turn of the 19th century, in the American Midwest.
Content marketing as we know it was born in 1895, when John Deere first published The Furrow, a magazine for farmers that offered suggestions on how to increase revenue and profits using John Deere equipment. The Furrow is still around in 2021, only now, of course, it’s online.
After The Furrow became a hit, in 1904, French tire manufacturer Michelin began publishing the Michelin Guide, which provided drivers with maintenance tips. Not only that, it presented travel features and established the gold standard in restaurant review scales: the Michelin Guide three-star rating system.
Providing value to the consumer has been at the heart of content marketing since way before it was even called content marketing. And it didn’t stop there.
Jell-O introduced its first free cookbook in 1904. In 1982, toymaker Hasbro partnered with Marvel to create G.I. Joe comic books. And Microsoft launched the first major corporate blog in 2004.
But then, in 2014, came the biggest paradigm shift since publications first went online: the mobile tipping point.
Starting in 2007–but not really reaching critical mass until the 2010s–smartphones changed the way people communicate with each other, as well as how they interact with products and services. Over a decade later, now might arguably be the absolute best time to be a consumer–the bounty of information and opinions is literally boundless.
But there’s a dark side.
In 2021, businesses are constantly competing with what Mark Schaeffer calls “content shock” or “the emerging marketing epoch defined when exponentially increasing volumes of content intersect our limited human capacity to consume it.” In other words, supply has vastly outpaced demand in the online content market. What’s worse, it’s happening across nearly every vertical.
What’s fascinating about content shock, though, is that content marketing itself might be the only thing that can rise above the mostly indistinguishable cloud of content available online and eventually save content–from itself.
In essence, your job as a content marketer is to transcend the noise and win over consumers’ hearts and minds using ethical strategies, deep data mining, smart analysis, creative edge and–above all else–a truly authentic (and supremely human) voice that invites readers to connect with your brand deep down on a subconscious level.
Unfortunately, once you’ve got that licked, you’re not quite done with your job just yet. You’ve still got to win at distribution, which is a whole other can of worms.
The truth is that marketing to sell a product is not your primary objective. And as luck would have it, “content marketing is actually pretty darn good at selling products” too.
Let’s Dig a Little Deeper in the Why of Content Marketing
Content marketing accounts for 25% of B2B marketing budgets, while even more successful companies use almost 40% of their budget on content marketing, according to Marketing Insider Group.
In addition to building relationships with people, content marketing helps businesses increase sales, generate traffic, retain customers, build brands, answer questions, and sustain engagement for longer periods of time. What’s more, content marketing is highly adaptive and easy to integrate across multiple channels, which can double or triple its effectiveness.
Most importantly, according to Jay Baer, content marketing is “an information annuity that can’t be replicated elsewhere.” Once you produce the content, it’s there forever.
Our 2016 content marketing blog post mentioned the importance of content being approachable, human and focused on helping. In 2021, these attributes are still essential to your content marketing strategy.
Lisa Dougherty from Content Marketing Institute comments that, “Marketers will need to create more natural conversations to stay in the content game. Speaking to people from the heart online–with the same conversational language and tone they might use with a friend, or colleague–will help in search (think “how would I respond personally?”), as well as with building deeper, more trusting consumer relationships through the content they share.”
Jay Baer adds that, “Content without community, without approachability, without humanization and kinship is ineffective. Just as content that is focused on selling, rather than helping, is doomed to fail.”
To remedy this, you’re going to have to build a winning content strategy.
Developing a Strategy
When the Content Marketing Institute asked about marketers’ content, 87% of the most successful organizations reported that their content marketing program is “sophisticated/mature.” Also, 69% of successful companies report having a documented content marketing plan.
In other words, companies need to cultivate a content marketing strategy and maintain it for the long haul if they want to rank among their most successful competitors.
Everyone in the company has to be involved in content creation that puts the customers first. Customers have come to expect personalized experiences, which has strengthened and defined the customer-centric approach that’s currently trending (and vice versa). Success means getting away from simply doing content marketing, and developing a content marketing plan designed to align buyer personas and the customer journey.
With this in mind, let’s take the extra step and document the strategy. Every strategy/plan will be a little different, but Mark Schaefer’s blog breaks down the basic sections into 6 easy steps:
- Business Objectives
- Brand Objectives
- Content Inventory and Audit
- Content Gaps
- Content Calendar
Strapped for time? Learn how to create a content marketing strategy in 8 hours or less.
Your business objectives are synonymous with your content strategy goals. They should be clear, specific, and actionable–what good is a goal if you can’t achieve it? More importantly, your goals will set the foundation for the other sections to follow, keeping you and your team on the same page as you move forward in your strategy.
Some examples of clear objectives may be:
- Educate consumers about the difference between your product and the competition.
- Become a recognized thought leader in your market.
- Increase the time spent on your company’s website by developing interactive content.
- Improve conversion rates by supplying content at every stage of the buyer’s journey.
Jay Baer makes a great point in his article about the objectives of your strategy: “The goal isn’t to be good at content marketing. The goal is to be good at business because of content marketing.”
If you can outline your objectives into action items on a list, not only will your content be manageable and easier to create, but your business, in general, will also benefit from your efforts.
Note that brand objectives are different from business objectives, because the right questions (and their answers) aren’t about the company so much as about its audience. How do you want people to feel about your business? What effect do you wish to have on your audience? What effect are you actually having? How can you close the gap?
Just like when defining your business objectives, the questions you ask should be clear, specific and actionable. Brand objectives are addressed with tactics that simultaneously work to achieve your business objectives. For example, working with industry influencers to promote greater visibility on social media is a great tactic to employ if your business objective is to move traffic from social media to your company website.
However you define your brand objectives, make sure it’s coming from a place of data-driven analysis, not strictly from your intuition or personal opinion or agenda. This can be hard when you’re especially close to a project. For example, you may think you know what feelings a certain piece of content elicits in your readers, but unless you ask them–unless you test it–how on earth could you possibly know?
Avoid making assumptions at this stage. It will save you time and resources down the road. The more honest you can be when mapping out your objectives, the more likely the content will resonate with your target audience.
Content Inventory and Audit
Next, it’s time to review your existing content. If you don’t have any, it’s time to create some (tips on that to follow). Most businesses usually begin their content journey with some content already in tow. This could include case studies, research papers, old blogs, how-to videos, interviews and even re-purposed website copy.
The goal isn’t to leap from the gate with oodles of content. Instead, focus on your content mix–what’s working and what isn’t? Take inventory of the content you have and separate the stuff that’s worth repurposing from the stuff that’s just noise.
If you’re not sure what’s working and what isn’t, try looking at these four types of content marketing metrics. Measuring the results of your content, whether in terms of lead generation, sales or social reach, is essential to the success of your entire endeavor.
Your content should help you achieve your business objectives, and if it isn’t doing that, then it’s not doing its job.
At the very minimum, you should be able to glean some insight from consumption metrics, which are the basic data points we count all the time–things like page views, downloads and engagement time.
Most CRM platforms will have the tools you need to start tracking this metric right away. As you develop your strategy, you can dig a little deeper, with metrics like sharing (likes and shares on social media) and lead generation (blog and email subscriptions). You need to be able to quantify your results before you can successfully review and audit your content.
According to Hootsuite, this step is also the ideal time to review your team’s strengths and weaknesses. If you lack a videographer, you might not want to focus strongly on that type of media. Likewise, if you’ve got a shop full of amazing copywriters, you might want to prioritize improving your weekly newsletter.
Once you’ve reviewed your existing content, it’s time to look at your competitors. When dealing with the competition, Marketgizmo says, “Until you understand what your customers value, you won’t know where to start when you begin to analyze the competition.”
On average, B2B buyers today interact with 12 pieces of content before they go to a company’s website. Searchers are starting to favor the B2C buying process when making decisions by referring to videos, social media and referrals. Are you creating content in areas where these buyers can find it? Go undercover as your competitor’s customer to find out.
Competitive analysis is an important type of reconnaissance work. It’s rare to find a product so unique that it requires zero analysis. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, someone is trying to solve the same problem as you. Either that or they’re trying to solve a related problem, the solution to which will also solve your problem.
To gather competitive data, you’ll want to do things like sign up for newsletters and blogs, follow social media channels, research and review competitor websites, analytics and ads, and possibly even make purchases so you can experience the entire customer journey from beginning to end.
For marketers and businesses just taking flight, this is a helpful tactic that also illustrates what generally works in your shared market space. But don’t overestimate the power of imitation.
Will it flatter your competition? Yes. Will it guarantee a win for your strategy? Not necessarily.
You’re a unique individual. Your company is also unique. So should your content.
Filling in the content gaps is your next task. This is where the data you’ve gathered on your audience and competition, your internal metrics and your company/brand objectives collide to produce content.
Gartner reports that the buyer’s journey is no longer linear and most B2B purchasers will “revisit each of those six buying jobs at least once.”
Does your content cover stages like awareness, investigation, evaluation, decision and loyalty? If not, these are gaps that you should pay attention to.
For example, the content you create for a newsletter will likely interact with a previous customer or someone nearing the tip of your sales funnel. That’s because if they’ve gone ahead and given you their email address, they must be pretty sure they like your product and your brand.
Conversely, if you’ve created content that’s being promoted via a Facebook ad campaign, chances are the people who see it may not know anything about your brand, so it makes sense that the content reflects this lack of familiarity.
With this same example, the newsletter addresses loyalty, and it makes sense that you might offer discounts or special features. The content seen on Facebook addresses awareness and investigation and, therefore, should aim to educate, intrigue and excite a viewer.
Finally, it’s time to map out your content marketing strategy over a calendar year. In addition to a yearly plan, we recommend mapping out a monthly calendar for day-to-day content and specific tactics. Plenty of sources advocate the use of a content or “editorial” calendar to help keep pace with your content as things get underway.
Crafting an effective calendar is both labor intensive and detail oriented. Lucky for us, Convince&Convert has some great tips to help us on our way.
First, consolidate all of your editorial calendars into one. Why use lots of tools to do one job? Keep everyone in your team on the same page by leveraging and maintaining one content calendar.
Second, focus your calendar on getting more traffic. Another great tip is to give your team plenty of lead-time to create complex content.
Once you’ve got your calendar all tightened up, it’s time to start creating then distributing and analyzing your results. As things get going, use that new data to refine and optimize content scheduled further down the pipeline.
Your results will increase exponentially the longer you keep analyzing the data and adjusting your content.
Data-Driven Analysis and Content Marketing
As you might have already guessed, data fuels a robust content marketing strategy. Without data, you might as well be writing with your eyes closed. Marketers and advertisers have used personas and data analysis for decades; what’s different in 2021 is the way in which the data is used.
Here are some questions from Business2Community (and us) to help develop and refresh your B2B personas:
- What are their job titles?
- What is a typical day like for them?
- What are their biggest challenges?
- What are their top goals?
- What is the job they need to get done—that only your solution can do for them?
- What motivates them?
- Who are their influencers?
- What are their buying behaviors?
Improved analytics is helping marketers use “hyper-personalized” data to identify customer needs and segments. What’s more, analysis is now automated, which provides marketers with the available data far faster than if it had to be calculated by hand. Artificial intelligence can then take that information and create scaled, personalized messages and experience.
That’s crucial. A Salesforce survey identified 72% of consumers reporting that they expect personalized content and messaging based on their unique needs.
In response to this consumer demand, 69% of B2B companies say they’re prioritizing content measurement and analytics in 2021. That’s because operational data no longer gives companies a competitive edge the way experience data can.
Operational data isn’t able to relay information about customer beliefs, feelings or sentiments. But experience data, aka X-data, lets companies look deeper into customers’ motivations and needs, which allows for a more bespoke customer experience.
The key to all of this is automation. That’s because automation allows for on-the-fly predictive analysis, which enables personalization at scale. After all, AI tools gather, organize, analyze and calculate information at a magnitude beyond what humans can do.
And nowhere does the rubber of automation hit the road of personalization with more momentum than when chatbots are deployed. Chatbots improve the sales process by following cues from users and presenting relevant content at each stage of the sales funnel. And as consumer preferences continue to trend toward self-service, chatbots will become more important than ever.
Businesses now have more available data on their customers than ever before. Add social media into the mix and now companies can actually tell an original story about their audiences using basic analytics.
According to the Harvard Business Review, when aggregated data reaches sophisticated and measurable heights, businesses are able to illustrate extremely “compelling visualizations or interactive applications.” In other words, they’ve got data with insights that have likely never been explored, researched or examined.
Only recently have businesses begun to appreciate the relevance and unique perspective their data offers. HBR notes that many businesses prefer to keep their data private, while others, like Kickstarter and General Electric, have seized the opportunity to share information (aka content) with their audiences.
“When you’re sharing fresh, accurate, relevant numbers, you are offering content that gives people real value,” says Alexandra Samuel. “All that information could be fodder for top-notch marketing; instead, it’s treated like a state secret, and used almost exclusively to drive internal decision-making.”
Since value is what defines effective content marketing, it would seem logical to proliferate data as opposed to hiding it. This is a great place to investigate creative content ideas. What does your data say about your niche? Can you tell a meaningful story with it? Will your audience think it’s valuable?
In 2021, data doesn’t just help content marketers adjust their strategic courses; it’s literally the topic of your content.
In addition to being a good time to share your insightful data, 2021 is a big year for investigating the offline consumer space in as much detail as the online persona. Forbes sums it up like this: “The line between in-store and online shopping is blurring, and this makes for a great opportunity for brands to utilize data innovatively to help fuel their marketing efforts.”
This integrated strategy improves the uniform appearance of the brand across nearly every channel, while also ensuring the brand remains consistent across omni-channel experiences.
According to CMI, with this innovation, “marketers are able to piece together this information in hopes of understanding the true context and intent of people’s interactions.”
When one of the most difficult questions to answer is, “Who are my customers?,” the prospect of finding out using an integrated data strategy sounds awfully appealing. And in 2021, content marketers are on the cusp of this discovery.
Better Content Creation
Aside from using big-data to push further into the subconscious minds of your audience, there are some basic steps you can implement today to kickstart your content creation.
“If advertising were better,” said Tim Hwang, “it would become known to us as information.” This, according to Celtra, is why “64% of marketers said they have devoted more resources to creative production.”
According to Gartner, content creation is moving from a “mass production” mindset to one of “mass personalization.” With the growing availability of detailed, personal data, marketers will be spending more time creating niche-specific content. Then, after creating personalized content for specific niches, the same information will be repurposed for larger segments.
With so much money tied to production—“more than 40% of the average advertising budget”—it’s no surprise that marketers are beginning to sweat. What’s more daunting is that “the growth of content creation expenses gets worse as your marketing budget scales.”
To stretch their budgets further, marketers need to create smarter content by taking existing content and repurposing it into other formats, such as videos, eBooks, blogs, audio clips, podcasts, quotes and more. Each permutation of a single piece of content should link back to the original. Most marketers–89.55%–think repurposing content they already have is more effective in terms of time, cost and results, according to Databox.
The best way to reign in cost while also building better content is to get SMART about content creation. SMART is an acronym developed by Hootsuite that stands for:
“Every piece of content you commit to should serve a clear purpose for your marketing efforts,” said Evan LePage.
If your content doesn’t serve the content marketing strategy you just outlined, you might want to reconsider using it.
In addition to being SMART, Search Engine Watch says, “[C]ontent marketing practices need to become more intelligent. Content marketers will focus on measurement and on creating content that reaches the target audience precisely.”
In that article, author Jim Yu explains that experiences rule content. “As much as people like to imagine that they base their choices on concrete facts, emotions and psychology are important parts of making decisions. People remember experiences, not text.”
Data is also inherently linked to better content. According to ScribbleLive, data can “determine who is at the forefront of your industry and which influencers you should connect with” as well as “what kind of content you should be creating, and to better understand which content formats are gaining the most traction with your audience.”
Data can help build personas, and data can also show you what content your audience is engaging with the most.
Information is everywhere, and it’s up to you to use whatever data you have available to improve at what you do.
As your content creation gets better, you may find you’re more prepared to stretch yourself creatively. Earlier, we discussed Mark Schaffer’s “content shock” theory, which posits that the human capacity for information is greatly limited by the extraordinary volume of it that’s available. The irony of his theory is that it’s likely to be more content–albeit creative content–that’s able to rise up and be heard through the noise.
Creative content “is all about providing people with the type of content they’re craving, something they haven’t seen before,” says Savannah Marie of Business2Community.
This is apparent in Mark Schaffer’s updated post on content shock, as he debunks the content quality myth. He writes, “The problem is not just an explosion of bad content. There is also an explosion of amazing content–and that is the real problem.” Schaffer then follows up the claim with an example of how the abundance of high quality content is affecting publishers.
There’s no right or wrong way to approach this subject, but there are some essential truths content creators have learned while exploring this side of creation.
For example, creativity isn’t something only creative people possess–it’s inside of everyone. Your job isn’t to copy what other people are doing. Your job is to tap into your own creative source.
Deanna Lazzaroni says you must first “know thyself” to work creatively. But what does that mean?’
Lazzaroni explains it like this: Neil Patel knows that he writes better in the early mornings. He also knows that he writes better after activities that boost adrenaline and dopamine, like exercising. Patel has stayed consistent with his writing schedule and has been able to improve the creative flow of his work by knowing when he works best. Lazzaroni then suggests you try to build your own writing routine around what inspires you.
Another great tip to help increase creativity in your content is to read a variety of materials as regularly as possible. This includes other content marketing, fiction, cereal boxes and more.
“In addition to exposing you to different forms of language, reading others’ work also puts you in position to evaluate writing methods and examine your work more critically,” says Lazzaroni.
Another way to get creative in writing compelling content is to ask people for help. Group help, as described by Wade Harman, is a great way to catch the inspiration bug from those around you, or from colleagues in a similar industry. “Learn how to use other people’s ideas and make them your own. That’s where the creativity comes in handy for yourself.”
Empathy is also extremely important when developing creative content. Sometimes when we write about a subject we know particularly well, our content can lack emotional empathy for the reader. That’s a turn-off for contemporary customers who almost universally respond best to more human, conversational marketing.
Always look for areas in your writing that may pose uncertainty or vagueness. Try to premeditate your reader’s questions and offer answers in your writing. You don’t want to leave them hanging, which may cause them to search elsewhere for answers.
If you need more inspiration, check out Dave Mooring’s list of 75 creative content marketing ideas. Here are a few of his most creative suggestions:
- Interview industry experts.
- Invite guest bloggers to post.
- Relate content to a news event .
- Recap popular posts of the year.
Finally, use the rule of 24. Wade Harman says that most content writers get what he calls “content goggles,” which is something that happens to all writers when they aren’t able to step back from their work and let it simmer.
To avoid this, don’t publish content on the day of your first draft. Give yourself at least 24 hours to let the content sink in and approach your ideas with fresh eyes and new perspective the next day.
Remember, creativity is not a gift some have and others don’t. Creativity is simply about expressing an opinion or idea in a novel way. In addition to aiding creativity, this type of thought leadership will help build rapport with your audience. The more authentic your opinion–the more honest you are when expressing your beliefs–the more likely readers will connect with your content, which in turn spurs engagement and leads to sales.
Moreover, creativity doesn’t always mean the same thing as entertainment. While some companies like LEGO have done a fantastic job of using entertainment to engage users on multi-channel campaigns, creative content can also be informative, poignant, provocative or even abstract.
This year, content will undoubtedly focus on creativity. And as more businesses take advantage of content marketing, the tool alone will no longer be enough to drive the desired results.
To rise above the noise, it’s essential that your content approaches topics with a fresh perspective and authentic voice.
Once you find your creative rhythm, focus on delivering your creative content across multiple media. With unique ways of sharing content, new platforms and interactive content will become essential to compete and drive metrics.
How to Leverage Different Content Media Types (Video, Images, Infographics)
So far, 2021 continues to prove the rising importance of visual media, with 32% of marketers listing it as “the most important type of content for their business.” While not all marketers may put visual media at the top of their priority lists, a significant number of them use visuals as an adjunct to, say, social media marketing.
The most popular type of visual media is video, reports Hubspot. Wyzowl’s 2021 The State of Video Marketing Survey reveals that marketers’ use of video has grown from 60% in 2016 to 85% in 2021. That’s because, as Think With Google reports, “70% of B2B buyers research potential purchases by watching videos.”
The majority of consumers —54%— prefer video over other types of content, which can include regular video as well as augmented reality (“AR”) and virtual reality (“VR”). Also in 2021, 86% of consumers want to see more video from brands. And as if consumer preference wasn’t enough, Forbes reports that Google is starting to reward video over text in search rankings.
Cisco predicts that live video and video stories will account for about 13% of internet traffic by 2021. What’s really trending is the practice of interacting personally with customers by giving them a behind-the-scenes peek at business, special events, and impromptu interviews in real time on Facebook and Instagram Live via so-called “Stories.” One advantage of embracing this particular channel is that these kinds of posts are fast and easy for users to share.
Go-Globe reports that internet traffic from streaming video will reach 82% of all traffic by the end of 2021. And Wyzeowl says 87% of marketers report that video is a main driver of increased traffic to their website.
Personalized video is another huge trend your content should focus on this year. According to a recent report by Demand Metric, 74% of B2B marketers said that video was the highest converting media.
According to the Huffington Post, “Personalization has swept through email marketing, social media, content marketing, and most recently web-based content thanks to the introduction of RTP (real-time personalization) technologies.”
HuffPost explains that “personalized video [is] a new concept that enables marketers to customize the actual video content with information unique to each individual viewer for a truly tailored content experience.”
There are two types of personalized video: traditional and real-time. Traditional videos work better with email campaigns and ABM/sales. Real-time videos, on the other hand, are literally rendered one at a time, making them less feasible in large email blasts. They can, however, be effective on websites and landing pages, where traffic is more distributed over time.
Some of the benefits of personalized video include higher open rate, more engagement, stronger relationship building, higher CTR. Most of all, however, is that personalized video is a fantastic tool to help you break through all the noise–according to Hubspot, personalized calls to action do 202% better than traditional CTAs.
In a blog post, Chris Gillespie explains that personalized video needs the right balance of personalized moments. The minimum to keep viewers engaged requires including something in the beginning, middle and end of the video that relates directly to the individual consumer. Also, he notes, the more closely your personalization relates to your message, the more effective and impactful it will be.
Personalized video works because consumers desire control and relevance when using various forms of media, and personalization increases the immediacy of the experience in all the right ways.
Video content is shifting from a lean-back attitude to a lean-forward mantra. This means an audience can now do a lot more with video than just click on a button to make a purchase. Things like surveys, questionnaires, gamification, data collection and a host of other useful marketing tools are now accessible in interactive video content.
Video marketing used to be considered a luxury. Now, however, it has become accessible and affordable, as high-quality video has become available on smartphones and both mid-tier and professional cameras.
Despite its increasing affordability, if video still isn’t in your teams’ budget, there are other effective content options worth exploring.
Images remain powerful in 2021. In this article, Neil Patel showcases the power of images in our online activity. According to Patel, “Content with images gets 94% more views than content sans images. It doesn’t matter what industry, topic, niche, or specialty, images matter.”
Great! But what kind of images should you be using in 2021–and how many? Patel has some great answers. He recommends one image for every 350 words, as well as defining a style for your images. Pay attention to composition, color filters and contrast. These characteristics should relate and appear cohesive in all your images across all channels.
Patel also suggests branding all your images so, if they do get shared, people will see your logo and know you’re the source of the image.
Infographics are another hugely effective market tool–after all, they’re the fourth most-used type of marketing content and 32% of marketers report they’re the most important type of content for them. The fact is, visual storytelling can be very effective at communicating complex ideas. What’s more, “65% of the general population are visual learners,” so producing visually stimulating content is a great way to stay relevant in 2021.
Michael Brenner identifies the 12 Biggest Content Marketing Challenges in 2021; when it comes to distribution, specifically, those are “Figuring Out How to Feed the Content Beast,” while “Maintaining Volume, Quality, and Speed.”
This is important, especially as everyone is now creating and filling the web with content. How you get that content shared and read is just as important–if not more so–than just producing great content.
According to CMI’s Annual Benchmark Report, social media distribution is what everyone is already doing. Your goal is to break out of the noise cloud and get noticed. In 2021, content will “move, reply, reorganize and customize more than ever–in videos, audio and interactive charts,” says Zontee Hou. Hands-on, personal content will be key to providing valuable information, and video is still the most effective delivery platform for that.
Branded content is transforming into a combination of paid social media content in story form (a la Facebook and Instagram Live), as well as user-generated content. Above all else, content needs to be perceived as “real” and “human” if it’s to resonate with modern audiences.
Take advantage of a variety of channels to present information the way customers want to consume it. Focus more on distribution and content creation time, as well as how to get it more places with a smaller budget.
One-to-one conversions, like chat and email, can be used for specific customer segments and be based on a company’s content library.
Among B2B marketers, 35% find that online communities are the best way to promote their content. As a result, B2B companies get 31% to 50% of all their traffic from online communities like Reddit and Quora. Users in those communities are more likely to have shared interests and similar content preferences, just as influencers tend to have tightly-knit communities. Plus, the role of experts in these communities provides more opportunities for customers to find valuable content.
Finally, you can never overestimate the power of email. A whopping 83% of businesses prefer to conduct business communication with email. It even outranks phone calls, video conferencing, social media, text messages and face-to-face interactions.
Consider the following 2021 email marketing statistics:
- Email marketing delivers an estimated $44 in returns for every $1 spent.
- 60% of all marketers say email marketing is their top source of ROI.
- 81% of B2B marketers used email newsletters in the past 12 months.
- B2B marketers cite email as the third-most important content distribution channel after social media and their own site.
- B2B marketers cite email newsletters as the top method to nurture audiences.
And don’t forget some of these basic distribution tricks this year as you move forward. Focus on things like audience time zones and reposting content multiple times so people get more than one opportunity to see it. Additionally, you should A/B test your distribution on social media and email campaigns.
Also, get your team involved. With social media in particular, encourage your employees and team members to like and share content on their personal accounts.
And above all else, use the data you collected in your strategic planning phase, draw from customer personas, and make educated predictions about when and where to reach your target audience.
Influencer marketing will continue to be one of the year’s biggest B2B marketing trends. B2B companies are moving towards using their owned and maintained media channels as a way to develop relationships, instead of more traditional advertising methods.
Lee Odden, CEO of TopRank Marketer says,
“As consumers become increasingly numb to formal marketing messages and advertising, their trust in information from peers, social network connections and industry experts has increased.”
84% of B2B buyers start the purchasing process with a referral, so getting involved with key influencers is a great way to get a piece of the action.
Who are the industry influencers? Forbes wrote this nifty equation to help us figure it out:
Influence = Audience Reach (# of Followers) x Brand Affinity (Expertise and Credibility) x Strength of Relationship with Followers.
Influencers don’t need as many followers as you might think to be effective. Their relationship with their audience is tight, and their acknowledged expertise in their fields or industries builds trust. B2B companies are moving to leverage the tight-knit following enjoyed by influencers engaged with specific topics and niche communities.
Inc., says, “Influencers not only amplify your brand reach on social, they add an element of authenticity to your brand.” Businesses are starting to use influencer marketing more effectively by including influencers in the content creation process and finding ways to use their story to connect with the brand.
Imagine hearing about a great new product from the company trying to sell it to you. Now, imagine hearing about the same product from one of the bloggers you follow on Instagram. See (and feel) the difference? The latter is more appealing for several reasons: 1) If the blogger likes the product, you probably will too, 2) You already have an established relationship with the blogger, and 3) You can learn more about the product from the blogger without lifting a finger.
B2B ecommerce loves a good success story, as well as seeing what customer advocates have to say and other sources of data that make them more like B2Cs, and so marketers can leverage influencers in their field by sharing their experience on peer-to-peer platforms. Also, clients are starting to see vendors as partners who can help grow their business, not just as suppliers.
Getting in good with influencers takes time and patience, as well as a customized marketing plan aimed at capturing influencer attention.
A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work here.
Steve Rayson, director of BuzzSumo, outlines a great plan to get influencers’ attention: “Find well-shared content that is highly relevant to your area. Analyze who shared this content and filter those with high retweet rates (on average how many times their tweets are retweeted) but relatively few followers. Develop relationships by answering questions they ask on Twitter, sharing their content, commenting on their blogs, attending their webinars and meeting them in person if you can; and above all, ask how you can help them.”
In addition to your regular content marketing objectives, focus on a separate plan exclusively for targeting influencers. Just like other campaigns, track your results and adjust your outreach tactics to achieve better results. Build these relationships to last, and they will take you far in 2021 and beyond.
Social Media Marketing
Social media is one the most important distribution channels you have at your disposal, and unlike email marketing and advertising, it’s totally free. Almost all marketers–95%–say that social media is their most often-used platform for content. So, how do we maximize our content efforts in 2021 on social media?
First, let’s take a look at how your social sharing capabilities are working on mobile. According to Zoominfo, the most web traffic–70% of it–is generated on mobile devices. This means your website’s sharing icons need to be prominently displayed on mobile. Plugins like Digg Digg and Flare can help optimize your social sharing.
Are social media icons part of your email branding? They should be! It’s a good idea to keep the icons in the same place in every email. Test them often to make sure they work.
Also, Click to Tweet is a fast and easy way to encourage content shares on Twitter. All you have to do is pull a great quote from your content and embed the application in your post or email. Then, readers just click on the text, and it populates a Tweet automatically. Ryan Hanley reports that he increased his retweets on Twitter by over 30% by including Click to Tweet in his content.
Be aware of your social strengths and weaknesses. Neil Patel discovered that when he limited the number of social media channels on his share toolbar, he was actually able to increase shares on his best performing channels.
Melwater offers solid advice for improving basic social sharing tactics. Try making your posts more “skimmable,” as well as sharing consumer-generated content to encourage community engagement.
And Mark Schaffer reminds us to always shorten URLs if they become too cumbersome in Tweets or posts.
In addition to social sharing, however, B2B companies need to alter their social media strategy to adapt to customer preferences. This means favoring story content over traditional newsfeed content and moving toward a more unpolished form of storytelling.
SEO for Content Marketing
“The way to apply SEO in a broader way is to channel its specific technical endeavors into content marketing. Conversely, the only way to ensure the success of content marketing is to apply SEO techniques in its implementation.”
The most basic example is the way we use keywords to develop an SEO strategy, and we use those keywords in content marketing to help deliver better SEO. In 2021, the interplay between content and SEO is inescapable. In fact, it’s a good idea to get your SEO team involved as you develop your content marketing strategy.
When optimizing content to improve SEO, you should be, “optimizing the robots.txt, enhancing metadata, utilizing proper tags, and constructing a strategic sitemap,” Kissmetrics explains.
You should also be optimizing the elements you’re going to be most focused on in 2021: videos and images.
For images, this means assigning a descriptive file name to every image, saving file sizes down, and using alt text to briefly describe content using keywords.
For video, adding SEO plugins like Yoast helps search engines index your content. Best use practices for sites like YouTube should also be noted. For example, picking a thumbnail that’s most descriptive of the video content can greatly increase your engagement online.
And don’t neglect branding opportunities and a call-to-action when posting video content to places like YouTube or Vimeo.
Most of all, however, the key to improving SEO in 2021 is to optimize content for voice search and mobile. Voice is expected to account for 50% of searches by the end of 2021, and mobile continues to be important after Google moved to mobile-first indexing in August 2019. To adapt to the mobile-first environment and the increasing use of voice search, a common strategy has been to optimize content for Google’s Featured Snippets in order to rank above competitors.
Another SEO trend in 2021 revolves around the way in which search engines now put more weight on intent than on specific keyword matches. With Google now analyzing intent, search results are now displayed with links that the Google algorithm believes will solve the user’s problem closer toward the top. To optimize content based on intent, consider what problems your customers are trying to solve and see if Google includes other search queries in the results.
Proving the ROI of Content Marketing
One of the most challenging tasks a content marketer must face is proving the ROI of distributed content. We know good content when we see it, so why is it so hard to calculate effectiveness?
For starters, most content will continue working well past its original published date. Content moves and circulates, after all. So, knowing where and when someone interacts with a specific bit of content–and then tying that interaction to a specific point of sale–can be a challenge.
Steve Olenski said,
“In using online platforms for content marketing, new analytics tools have been developed that help you determine the type of return on investment you are getting for those influential words.”
First, you have to define what it is exactly that the content was intended to do: Generate new leads, gain followers or convert sales? Once you’ve identified this, you can better equip yourself with tools to measure these elements specifically.
Tools like Google Analytics, most CRM software and social media analytics can help break these areas down more clearly. They can indicate which content performed best, which subject lines were opened most often and how long your audience is spending on any given page of your website. These are important tools you should use in your endeavors to calculate ROI.
According to Jeff Bullas, “Revenue attribution is the final mile in the process of making content more accountable.” There are three types of attribution:
- First-touch Attribution: Where 100% of the credit for a closed sale is given to the first content asset the customer interacted with.
- Last-touch Attribution: Where 100% of the credit for a closed sale is given to the last content asset the customer interacted with.
- Multi-touch Attribution: Where credit for an acquired sale is distributed evenly among all content assets the customer interacted with.
Once you pick a model and set up your tracking system or CRM, you’ll be in a better position to both track ROI and meet conversion goals on various channels.
Without a doubt, a lot of the data and analysis you dig up will be impossible to attribute. But that doesn’t mean you should toss that data away. Jonsen Carmack says, “[Y]ou don’t just need numbers. You need to embed those numbers within meaningful contexts.”
Here are some questions Carmack suggests for building context around your statistical data:
- How does your content improve sales opportunities?
- Did a content marketing campaign affect how warm and informed the leads were by the time they made it to sales?
- Did a content marketing campaign increase the number of leads?
- Did a content marketing campaign decrease the overall number of leads but increase the number of sales-qualified leads?
New for 2021, as Chris White puts it, “Measuring content ROI will now include content’s effectiveness at building first-person audiences.” As this happens, focus is shifting from engagement metrics to KPIs that illustrate whether or not likes, views and readership are actually leading to revenue. Businesses able to invest in funnel-based analytics will do better at measuring these conversions.
Overall, 59% of marketers rate their ability to show ROI from content marketing measures as “excellent or very good.” Top-performing content for each stage of the marketing funnel is as follows.
For building awareness
- Blog posts and short articles.
- Social media content.
- in-person events.
For securing leads
- In-person events.
- Webinars and online events.
- Ebooks and guides.
For nurturing leads
- Blog posts and short articles.
- In-person events.
For converting leads
- In-person events.
- Case studies.
- Webinars and online events.
So What’s Different About Content Marketing This Year Than Last?
First, this year you’ll really need to ditch the short 500 word posts and focus on creating higher quality, more valuable, long-form content. Second, you’ll need to move beyond just words and expand into interactive and video-based content, especially personalized video. Lastly, you’ll have to get engaged with influencers and get your content shared so that it doesn’t sit stagnant on your website.
To make a real impact this year, don’t overlook the importance of incorporating the human element with data-driven marketing:
“In 2021, the only way to create highly personalized content that will perform well on search is to use data to understand the target audience, and analytics to reverse engineer the content that this audience values.”
So, what do you think? How will you modify your marketing efforts to meet the priorities of 2021? How can we help?
To learn how we support our B2B marketing clients as they develop and expand their content marketing programs, contact us today.
Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in 2016 and has been rewritten to reflect B2B content marketing in 2021