By now, content marketing is old hat. Most brands are publishing content in some form or another. LinkedIn Technology Marketing Community reports 38 percent of marketers publish content in some form or another at least once per week. The best business bloggers know this; 91 percent of their group publishes at least weekly.
But publishing content doesn’t lead to automatic content marketing success. Plenty of frustrated brand marketers would agree. With the huge glut of content hitting the web every hour (2 million posts per day, according to MarketingProfs), your brand content needs to be great, not just adequate.
This not only applies to the information communicated, but how it’s packaged. Readers are easily distracted and are usually moments away from clicking away. To fight this, your content needs to be:
- Easily consumable (especially for mobile users)
- Attractive and visually engaging
- Integrated into your site using good navigation
- Created with clear takeaways in mind
- Promoted to the right people at the right time
- Better than “good enough”
Remember, your biggest competitor isn’t other brands, it’s the distractions like Facebook and Buzzfeed your readers would rather consume.
As a web content geek, I consume a lot of content (including reports and meta-analyses of web content trends). Here’s what I’ve seen will make content successful in 2017.
A Higher Class of Content
There’s a tendency in the SEO world to take a good idea, find some way to exploit it, and then ruin the web content experience in the process. This is what happened with Brian Dean’s skyscraper technique.
Basically, with the skyscraper technique, you build your content off of what’s come before, but you make it better.
“Better” requires actually insight, value, and talent – things that are difficult to scale – so SEOs have resorted to just “bigger”. This means there’s now a lot of long content that doesn’t add a lot of value to the reader.
Benji Hyam at Grow & Convert calls this “mirage content”, content that looks like it has value but doesn’t actually do much for the reader:
Mirage content is content that looks good on the surface, but after giving it a deeper look, you realize it’s nothing but high-level fluff.
Let’s be honest, it’s also the majority of blog content on the internet.
Here’s why it’s so common. It stems from:
- A writer not having enough real experience (or the ability to give real examples) to write a compelling post on the subject they’re supposed to write in-depth about.
- A lack of specificity on the topic the author is writing about – I believe lack of specificity and lack of experience are correlated. Naturally, you’re more specific if you know a topic inside and out.
If you’re currently creating mirage content, you run the risk of losing potential customers due to the fact that readers think you don’t know what you’re talking about. But what’s worse is you also run the risk of investing in content marketing and not being able to grow.
This content doesn’t work anymore.
Another tactic – one that should have been dead two years ago but is still around – is creating massive amounts of content for SEO purposes. Unless readers are sharing your content, and unless your content delivers great value and is worth consuming, your SEO isn’t going to be affected like you want.
In the coming year, the kind of content that will succeed will actually deliver value. Readers/viewers will come away feeling like they’ve learned something rather than simply forgetting your content. (Or worse, not even finishing your content because it’s not worth their time.)
Getting a specific focus in your content takes more effort. You either need to hire writers with experience or find writers who can interview your subject matter experts, then turn the SMEs words into your content (this is my approach). This way, your content delivers on its value promises to users and grows your brand.
Design Thinking for B2B Content
Now that a slew of design tools have popped up in the last year or so, it’s easier than ever to incorporate great design into your content.
This doesn’t mean simply including images here and there (though visual elements are important). It means enhancing your content through design elements.
Want some examples? Charts, graphics, and lists generally improve the reading experience, especially for mobile users. The Priceonomics blog does a nice job at this. (If you have unique or proprietary data you can share with your audience, that adds value and makes for nice visual elements – a double win!)
Including interactive design elements can also work, but only when those improve the design. If your work includes things that look neat but make the experience dumber (such as text that only appears when you hover over images), then you’re hurting your content.
Here’s an example of whizz-bang web design getting in the way of content:
Forcing users to hover over an image to see text fundamentally breaks how their browse the web. IF they’re scrolling down your page, they suddenly have to perform a different action. Not only does this increase cognitive load, it’s annoying.
In the same way Apple helps bring good design principles to usability, we’re seeing major publishers incorporate great design into their content.
The New York Time’s Snowfall was award-winning, and for good reason. It’s gorgeous, and the visuals complement the content.
Not every content piece has to be as ambitious as Snowfall, though. This CNET interview with Jony Ive has some nice design elements that make the content more interesting. And in a much more subdued way, this Newsweek article about Trump shows how design can showcase content while looking great on any screen size.
I tend to favor essentialist web design, but if that’s a bit too boring for you, duotones are big this year. They enable an attractive web design without distracting from the content.
Here’s an example from French agency Viens-là (that shows how to properly do image text overlays as a bonus):
Visually Attractive B2B Content
Now that we’ve covered how web content needs to change generally, let’s dive into B2B content (which is probably the entire reason you’re here).
B2B blog content is generally garbage.
There’s a lot of lazy B2B content. Rather than pushing through the superficial topics into delivering genuine value, many B2B publishers simply produce surface-level blog posts that are effectively big walls of text.
Some brands don’t want to use better design elements because it’s too much of an investment. Others are afraid of not looking professional or seeming “silly.”
You know what really looks silly? Walls of text passing as content in 2017.
Just because your brand is professional and caters to businesses doesn’t mean you can’t use good design. If your data is good, your content can perform well AND enhance your brand.
WorkFront is a good example of this. Their white papers have a nice format that’s readable on web, print, and tablets. (Since their white papers are PDFs, they aren’t quite responsive. But they’re a great step forward.)
In addition to having an attractive design, WorkFront also includes appropriate charts and graphs:
Though it’s not quite B2B, the University of Utah’s Algorithms for Innovation site shows how the same content can look great online, in print, or on a tablet:
Algorithms for Innovation took the clever approach of writing all their content in a responsive way, simplifying the design process across any reading experience. Even if you’re not creating content for print, the principle is solid.
Moving Past Stock Bootstrap
I love Bootstrap. This very site is built on a theme based on Bootstrap. It allows fast, clean, attractive site building.
But Bootstrap isn’t for everyone, and sites shouldn’t use bootstrap for every project. At least, not in the “Here’s our site it looks like everyone else’s but I love it because it’s mine” sort of way.
In fact, some designers are getting pretty tired of lazy Bootstrap-based sites (contains NSFW language):
When every startup website looks the same because they’re using barely-modified Bootstrap, it’s hard to stand out.
If you’re running a lean team and want to keep your site simple you can still use bootstrap – just make sure you make it your own. Establish content standards and guidelines, and spend a little bit of time developing assets and customizing your setup. Once you’ve built it right, you can add to it indefinitely.
Mobilepocalypse came and went in 2015, almost two years ago. The message from Google was clear: more users are on mobile devices, so optimize your content accordingly.
For some, this simply meant changing to a responsive design. But there wasn’t a significant change in approach.
If your enterprise site has dozens of menu items, it’s not going to play well on mobile. No more menu link dumps (tsk tsk, IBM):
New tools like sophisticated (yet accessible) marketing automation allow you to think beyond the web and onto other platforms when reaching your customers. This means you can focus on serving customers the right experiences at the right time based on their interests.
For example, this might mean creating a subsite or microsite with menu options that change based on what the user wants. Leveraging big data to deliver a more customized experience will not only enhance content discovery, it will boost conversions and improve business goal metrics.
A rule of thumb I’ve seen for 2017 is to cut top menu items from 5-7 down to 3-4, then redesign your pages from there.
Embracing Data to Serve Relevant Content Experiences to Audiences
Carefully presenting the right content to your audiences helps This means retargeting, duh, but that’s not new.
We’re going to see a rise in creating personalized experiences based on smarter automation.
This means constant customized emails, blog posts, articles, and more served to audiences based on their interests.
Right now, this can be done – it can be done in many mail automation, it just takes a long time to set it up and create the content.
(Here’s a sample I created as a starter template.)
Brands who can afford this should have already started creating, planning, and testing content experiences.
And as the cost of personalization marketing software drops (as seen in the very affordable ActiveCampaign), small business and entrepreneurs will be able to harness this level of personalization. (Just make sure you have someone who can help you plan your content experiences.)
Brands will actually promote content in ways that matter
In 2010, when some early brands were realizing this blogging thing could pay off, the belief was, “If you build it, they will come.”
That wasn’t really true then, but it’s definitely not true now.
As mentioned, there’s more content generated per day than you could consume in a lifetime.
This means you need to work to get your content in front of your target audience.
My favorite way to do this is targeting users using paid ads and getting them to opt into an email list, but each brand needs to learn what works for them.
In 2017, the majority brands will finally realize their “publish and pray” content promotion strategies aren’t delivering on their business goals. They’ll have to learn how to promote their content
If they have a smaller-than-needed in-house content team (and most do), they’ll find services that promote content for them. (Cough hire us cough).
Or they’ll work with outsourcers such as traditional agencies, paid journalists, and others.
The Biggest Takeaway
We’ve covered a lot in this article, but here’s the biggest takeaway:
In 2017, your content needs to be better, created with a measurable purpose, and promoted properly to perform. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of money without seeing a positive return on investment.
There’s a lot more to consider than the items listed above. For now, these should give you a solid starting point to think about how your content marketing will improve this year.