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What’s Next for Content Marketing? You.


Consumers have changed. Great digital experiences are no longer new … they are expected.

In response, marketing departments have flexed and stretched with each new disruption, channel, and technology … but only within the existing bounds of their confined, comfortable, and well-worn structures.

To succeed, marketers must step out of the shampoo-rinse-repeat cycle of chasing campaign-oriented capabilities around every emerging channel. They must not only describe the value of their brand, they must create differentiated value separate and distinct from that brand.

Content marketers – with their influence on all of the above – may be ideally poised to become the change agents of this decade.

“So, what’s next?” is a question I get asked with some regularity at conferences or when I’m asked to do a workshop or client advisory. And to be clear, the interrogators are not asking about next week, next month, or even next year. No. They’re asking what’s next after content marketing. You know – what’s the next Big Idea. When I answer “you,” they look at me a little like my dog does when I try to whistle.

Let me explain what I mean. There’s a wonderful quote by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future.”

The question – what’s next – really isn’t about predicting the future. If we peel back the layers, what we’re really asking is, “What is our place in the future?” How do we prepare ourselves now so that we’re ready for whatever comes next?

In a July 2014 Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Ultimate Marketing Machine,” three authors (who were all part of a larger study called Marketing2020) concluded that in order to meet the challenges of the future, marketing organizations must evolve to deliver what the authors call the “total experience.”

They wrote: “Companies are increasingly enhancing the value of their products by creating customer experiences. Some deepen the customer relationship by leveraging what they know about (customers) to personalize offerings. Others focus on the breadth of the relationship by adding touchpoints. Our research shows that high-performing brands do both – providing what we call the ‘total experience’. In fact, we believe that the most important marketing metric will soon change from ‘share of wallet’ or ‘share of voice’ to ‘share of experience’.”

It seems clear now that the evolution of marketing will move beyond the goal of simply creating a customer – in fact, creating a customer will simply be table stakes for most marketing organizations. The new objective for marketing will be to evolve customers, from unaware all the way to a brand-subscribing advocate. And content-driven experiences will be the natural-selection process that moves the customer along.

To put it bluntly: To succeed, marketing departments must themselves evolve. They must not only serve to describe the value that has been theoretically created in the product or service for sale, but also to create differentiated experiential value that is separate and distinct from that product or service.

That is what’s next from a marketing perspective.

But, more importantly (and to get to the heart of the question), what’s our place in it? How will the content marketer specifically, and the practice of marketing more broadly, fundamentally change in order to be ready for it?

Changing the marketing structure

Our experience with the Content Marketing Institute’s advisory clients and partners, and with participants at our latest Executive Forum, tell a similar story. We are seeing brands have much more success when there is a process for creating consistent and integrated experiences. And the key is that these experiences are solely designed with the purpose to create delight at every single stage of the customer journey.

OK, so that’s way too pat of a projection for sure. “Design for delight” is an easy, tweetable sound bite … but come on, surely the reality is more complicated. How does this relate to the structure and process in the marketing department?

One of the largest challenges we see is that brands have spent the last seven years fully stratifying the customer experience – and then adding discrete teams (each with its own silo goals) to address each stratum.

We now have brand teams, demand-generation teams, sales-enablement teams, field-marketing teams, social-marketing teams, social-CRM teams, PR teams, and even (my favorite) a separation in some organizations between digital marketing and regular plain ol’ marketing.

The interesting thing is that brands have been so focused on this structure that it has encouraged agencies to do the same. For all the strata mentioned, there’s an agency to cover each slice. Even big agencies now have the direct group and the digital group … the analytics group and the experiential group.

So, before we look at hubs, spokes, agile, or other structures … if marketing is to become customer-centric and a strategic discipline for delivering value to the business by 2020, we must simply agree that change is what’s important. “Into what?” is a question that, in this moment, is candidly less critical.

The agents for change

We often talk about how using content-driven experiences for marketing purposes isn’t a new practice – and we still believe that. For hundreds of years, businesses have been using content in pockets within the business – discretely focused to handle a very specific need at a very specific time. But the reality is this: Whether it was John Deere’s The Furrow from the 1800s, Michelin’s guide to car maintenance in the early 1900s or even Hasbro’s GI-Joe partnership with Marvel in the 1980s, content was not – and is not – a scalable, repeatable practice within the function of marketing. In short, content marketing was historically (and still is almost exclusively) treated as a project, not a process.

That’s the part that has changed. Whether it’s due to the digital disruption and ease by which we now publish and distribute content and experiences to aggregate our own audiences, or just the natural evolution of marketing itself doesn’t matter as much as the ultimate outcome. We’ve absolutely seen evidence of this in all the research, advisory clients and our own Executive Forum. Companies that have successfully created a process to deliver valuable content-driven experiences worry less about the specific structure of the group and where it sits in the company hierarchy; they focus on content itself as a recognized, valuable, and discrete function in the business.

Built to change

Ultimately there is no way to accurately predict what the marketing organization will need to look like in five years’ time. It’s only been eight years since any business could even think about how to address such disruptions as Facebook, iPhone, or Android. And it’s been less than five since any marketer even thought about what opportunities an iPad could bring.

So – what will the next five years really bring? What’s really next? Who knows. What is clear is that we know consumers’ buying habits have changed. And we know content and customer-centric experiences are the drivers to creating more meaningful engagement with those consumers. Instead of looking at each new disruptive technology (hardware or software) as a need for a new team or node to a structure, marketers (and content marketers, specifically) should instead just look at structures where collaboration, content, and data flow more fluidly to handle ANY new disruption – from wherever it may come.

What we do know – what we can say when someone asks, “What’s next?” – is that marketing organizations absolutely will need to be built to change … constantly. And content marketers can be that agent of change. That is what’s next. And that’s why I answer the question with “you.” It is our time to evolve the practice of marketing more broadly. How do we do that? Well, that’s an even bigger question – but it starts by making what we do real in the business. The delivery of a scalable, manageable marketing process that consistently produces valuable content-driven experiences will never be achieved by begging, borrowing, and stealing resources that can “do content” whenever it is convenient.

We must first change the notion that content is everyone’s and no one’s job. Content – and the experiences it creates – should be a strategic asset that is well-resourced, has adequate investment dollars, and is held to account for the value it does or does not create. So, the job now is to be the revolutionary, not the politician.

We can change, and marketing will change with us. But right now, instead of trying to figure out exactly what we should change into, we first should just start at the word “change.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Image courtesy of CCO magazine