Normally, this is the time of year when many businesses map out their budgets, strategies, and plans for the upcoming year. But this is 2020 – the year that refuses to quit upending everything. How can we know if we’re making the right planning decisions for 2021 when everything right now still seems so unclear?

To help make planning feel like less of a moving target, CCO invited seasoned industry change agents to talk about the trends they’ve seen taking shape and the issues and ideas they’re considering in their content plans for next year.

I’m sharing the biggest themes and takeaways that emerged during our discussion here. To get the full benefit of our panelists’ expertise, including some tactical recommendations, watch the entire conversation:

Disruptive times require flexible strategies and connected experiences

2020 gave marketers plenty of cause to question whether their existing strategies still have the right focus and are able to deliver results. So, we kicked off our discussion with a look at how this volatile year has affected what our panelists are looking to achieve next with their content.

Deanna Ransom: COVID-19, as well as all of the other things that happened in 2020, has significantly shifted my content strategy. For my high-level content goals for 2021, I’m looking at how to create a strategy that’s flexible. It has to serve the needs of my audiences and their preferred channels. It needs to emphasize humanity because people connect with people. And I need to measure my content effectiveness a little differently – maybe by looking at consumption measures and feedback indicators versus volume and design.

Marcus Collins: [The way marketers talk about content] is often about the things people hate. No one’s like, “Yes! White papers. Love them,” right? No one goes to the movies (pre-COVID) and says, “Man, Christopher Nolan gave us some great content,” or “Drake just dropped some really dope content.” No one says that. People say, “It was a great album.” “It was a great movie.” If we think about the messages that we put out in the world … things that are experiential, that add value, that feel good, that feel human, I think that’s how marketers start thinking about people first and creating the messages that help propagate these communities that we’re a part of.

Mark Bornstein: The thing that we’ve been thinking the most about is how do we make it as easy, as painless, and as fun for people to experience our marketing as possible. And the conclusion that we came to is that we need to be able to deliver experiences.

Jessica Bergmann: COVID forced us all to align. We’re a big company. We have a lot of different teams, a lot of regions. And when we all came together and focused on episodic content, it helped us tell a wider range of stories (within some guardrails). I think in this current environment, having foundational elements that maintain some flexibility so you can balance short-range and long-range planning is key to achieving success – being able to move fast enough while having all of your teams cross-functionally aligned to get the work done.

Lean in and listen to your audience’s current priorities

Many marketers are reporting that they’re seeing new audience needs and engagement patterns emerge as a result of the pandemic. Our panelists discussed some of the key trends they’ve observed – and how they are adapting their content in response.

David Brown: For our clients, there’s been a really interesting focus on understanding the audience; resetting the audience’s needs because they’ve suddenly been reprioritized – the more basic needs are now much more important than ever before. If you get that right, everything else becomes easier and you get out of the tactical game of developing thousands of pieces of content that are, frankly, irrelevant [if you are reaching them at the wrong time].

Jessica: We talk a lot about digital transformation at Salesforce, and the COVID situation has accelerated that investment for our customers. But digital transformation in and of itself doesn’t really matter unless it’s customer-first. So, we talk a lot about customer-first transformation and hearing from the communities; not trying to market to them but actually going where they are. Sometimes they’re on Slack channels and they just want to connect with other peers and get help. So, we’ve started to look more at how we can help build these communities so they can share [information] quickly … It’s about helping, listening, and making sure their voices are part of our content.

Kristin Twiford: I work for a B2B tech company that serves creative people. And I think all these creative people in the room will agree with me when I say I miss that sense of connection. We were supposed to go to 12 in-person events this year and all of them were canceled overnight. So, all of a sudden, we realized that our audience was really craving this connection with their peers, and everybody wanted a chance to see what everybody else was doing. They didn’t necessarily want to hear from us, they wanted to hear from each other and to connect with each other.

One of the things that we did was a virtual summit where we brought together a bunch of different speakers from all over our community to share what they were doing. But then we also launched a Slack community … and the response was amazing. Really, we could plan all the programming we wanted, but the real value was in that sense of, “Oh, I’m not alone. Other people are going through the same thing.” It provided such a valuable sense of connection in a time where everybody really needed it.

Deanna: You’re spot on with community and connectedness. We even thought about how we could not only help and connect peer-to-peer but also give them time back and make it so that they could connect on their terms. So, we started with biweekly 15-minute chats over coffee to give it that more human connection. “Join us here, learn from each other, take it back into your day, and let us know how it’s working and if it’s valuable.” It’s bidirectional, yet human; it’s less about a marketing message and more about peer-to-peer learning. I think those types of experiences are going to be key.

It gave us a chance to hear with some empathy where they are. What were they experiencing? What were they needing? And then, we married in the digital components of the intent data and the technographic data. What are they searching for? What was expressed? What has been searched? What is in place? And then we asked, how can we support the whole human? That’s what makes it authentic.

Lead with empathy and address emotional needs

Underneath every transactional decision, there are emotional needs that consumers are looking to satisfy. Here, our conversation turned to the actions that marketers can take to better support those needs with the content they create.

Marcus: It’s not enough for us to “walk a mile in their shoes.” We have to see how they see the world and remove our own biases, our own judgments, right? Because if we understand how people make meaning, then we can take that understanding of who they really are and solve the problems that they have, be it wants or needs. And a lot of that comes from being a part of the discourse that we see in social listening – asking the right questions to get the answers that really unearth the things that are in people’s hearts.

If we take cues from what we as humans digest and think about that when we’re programming the stories we’ll tell as marketers, then we’ll be far better off than just thinking of consumers as people who eat messages and crap cash.

David: The content world is very good at meeting functional needs, but not at all good at meeting emotional needs. Yes, you have to tick the box of the functional needs, but you’re going to know that all of your competitors are going to do that, as well. And that leads to commoditization and generic solutions. But the emotional need … if you can describe that in a unique and interesting way, that’s what leads to big ideas. The content world has very, very few big ideas. But if we get better at getting to the emotional insight, a brand can own that. And then I think it will lead to exciting ideas, concepts, and experiences. It’s easy to say, but hard to do, I think.

Act swiftly, yet thoughtfully

Consistently generating exciting new ideas and approaches is critical to content success, but there’s always the question of how – and when – to incorporate them into your content plan. While our panel didn’t come to a consensus on this issue, they did raise some important considerations that should inform your own decisions.

Kristin: I think it’s really important to act on insights really quickly, especially at this time. Because you never know when something’s going to be irrelevant even in a couple of weeks. And one thing that we’ve really pushed for is more real-time storytelling. So, after we talk to a customer, how can we turn that story around really quickly?

David: Kristin, is there a risk of moving too fast?

Kristin: I think there’s a risk of moving too fast, but then there’s also a risk of missing an opportunity. I think you need to take a calculated risk and think about, OK, maybe something isn’t going to be at its best, most thought-out level of quality as much as it could be if we spent a year on this. But then again, we’d miss the opportunity if we wait a year on it or even a couple of months. This is the time to take risks because everyone is a little bit more forgiving right now.

John Ville: The beauty of digital publishing and digital content is you can make media changes judging by response and performance. And I think you can pivot very, very quickly and go down a different route. I don’t think you can ever go too fast – I’m more scared of moving too slowly, because the world is changing super, super fast. I worry that our content could be getting left behind.

David: One of the lessons Manifest has learned is that many of the initial responses to COVID-19 in hindsight were wrong and ill-advised and had to be changed. So, I think you always have more time than you really think you have. I counsel clients to [take the time to] get it right, especially because of the brand-building implications of content. Content can really mess up a brand strategy if we experiment too much. Brands need consistency and stability. So, I would vote for a more organized approach – less breathless, more organized, maybe a little bit slower.

Inclusivity in content starts with internal reflection

Of course, regardless of the creative, tactical, and functional decisions marketers make, the resulting experience should speak to your audience in an authentic way – something you can’t fully achieve if you fail to consider diverse perspectives and points of view. So, we closed out our discussion with a look at how the cultural conversation around diversity and inclusivity is shaping our panelists’ content plans for 2021.

Marcus: If nothing else, I feel like that the voice of certain communities now have “an ear to hear” them. It’s not like these communities didn’t exist before or didn’t have a strong buying power. But they were marginalized, right? And because they were marginalized there was no need to really focus on them, despite their commercial impact.

If you don’t have representation of those communities [in your organization], then [you aren’t] being fully empathetic and understanding your consumers – how they see the world, how they make meaning. And to me, it’s like, it’s about damn time. Good grief. The buying power of the Black community alone is out of this world. And to be ignored for as long as it’s been just seems like dumb business. It seems stupid. So, I appreciate the fact that [the need for greater diversity] is now clear and present for the business community more broadly. And I hope this is not a moment in time, but rather a lasting change to our perspective of how we go to market and how we run our businesses.

Deanna: We’ve been talking about empathy and humanity quite a bit in terms of our audiences. But it should start with how you are purposefully creating and ideating on [those ideals] before you put [your content out] into the world. Think about not just the needs of one particular audience, but of all of your audiences. Think of stories – and representation in those stories – that connect on that emotional level with them, which is where you’re going to get a connection. You may have heard me … I didn’t mean to shout, “Yes,” when Marcus said, “It’s about time.” But it is. But it’s about time, across the full spectrum, that we purposely think about the people that we are connecting with and how to serve them better.

Mark: I’m in the (San Francisco) Bay area, where we’re all liberal and [we think] we’ve all got the answers. But I do feel that each of us needs to look at ourselves and think about our own preconditioned biases. I think that we all need to start listening to and having conversations that may be difficult. As marketers, we spend so much time thinking about our content. Well, maybe we need to start taking the same type of approach to thinking about our own viewpoints as they relate to diversity and cultural differences. We need to really come together to try to make this the long-term work, not just pay it short-term lip service.

John: I think this whole remote thing has basically kind of opened the door to this [at Atlassian] because now we’re not necessarily relying on the Bay Area and Silicon Valley for the hiring process. We can now look for talent everywhere. In a way, it’s not about content, but it is about getting your team and representing them in the right way. It’s been tough all year. But there are some real opportunities there.

Jessica: In addition to making sure there are diverse voices in our content, we’re also thinking about our immediate hiring processes. How do we make sure we’re doing blind portfolio reviews – looking at portfolios without seeing any names attached – to remove any of our biases? Making sure we’re holding vendors, and contractors, and all of our partners accountable, as well. Taking a look at things that were just standard practice and really questioning, “How do we increase the diversity of the pool of candidates we’re bringing in?”

It’s diverse voices and representation [in our content], but it’s also the hiring practices, in combination, to make sure we’re able to do something ourselves, but also change the way [marketers] operate within the company.

Deanna: That is so authentic that it resonates. It starts with “you.” Before you ever think about what you’re going to put out [as a marketer], look around your room. Before you think about what you’re going to create, what voices are you hearing? What imagery are you shining? Work from that, inside out, and then it will ring true.

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at [email protected].