A sound content marketing strategy is one of the better ways a business can help shape its brand identity, garner interest from prospects, and retain an engaged audience. It lets you establish authority in your space, project legitimacy, and build trust between you and who you're trying to reach.
As you can assume, it's well worth understanding. But that's easier said than done. Content marketing isn't static. The landscape of the practice is constantly changing. It doesn't look the same now as it did ten years ago, and in ten years it won't look the same as it does now.
It's a difficult topic to pin down — one with a fascinating past and an exciting future. Out of both genuine interest and forward-thinking practicality, it's important to understand both where it's been and where it's going.
Here, we'll get some perspective on both. We're going to take a look at how content marketing has evolved in the past decade, and how it's going to evolve in the next one.
How Content Marketing Evolved in the Past Decade
Google changed the game.
In 2011, Google conducted its landmark Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT) study. It found that 88% of shoppers use what's known as a Zero Moment of Truth — a discovery and awareness stage in a buying cycle where a consumer researches a product before buying it. Google's research also indicated that word of mouth was a definitive factor in swaying that moment.
The study provides a unique point of reference in the context of content marketing's evolution. It captures the essence of how and why businesses needed to focus on content marketing at the beginning of the 2010s.
It was tacit evidence that companies' stories were being told online — well beyond the control of their marketing departments — and it was in their best interest to help shape those conversations.
The ZMOT study highlighted the need for sound Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Ranking for relevant keywords on search engines became all but essential to bolstering a company's online presence and holding up during consumers' Zero Moments of Truth.
But that study wasn't the only bombshell Google dropped in the early 2010s. Around the time the study came out, Google's search ranking algorithm changed to discourage “keyword stuffing” — the practice of repetitively loading a webpage with specific keywords to try to sway search engine rankings.
The change represented what is still a continuous effort by Google to provide users with positive, helpful online experiences. And it did just that. The shift that set the stage for businesses to focus on producing more high-quality, meaningful content.
Social media rose.
But content marketing's evolution wasn't exclusively linked to search engines. Social media's meteoric rise to prominence — one of the most disruptive trends in human history — also had a profound impact on the practice. As these platforms developed into mainstays of everyday life, they presented new challenges for content marketers.
As social media evolved, it popularized a different kind of content consumption than search engines. The difference boiled down to a matter of “pointed versus passive.”
Consumers use search engines to find content more pointedly. Generally speaking, when you use a search engine, you're looking for a specific answer or a specific subject. Social media allowed users to consume content more passively on their preferred platforms. The content you see on your Facebook feed is finding its way to you — not the other way around.
That trend incentivized the creation of more shareable, attention-grabbing content that could easily be spread across social media channels.
Video made a push.
Video also emerged as one of the prevailing content marketing mediums as the decade progressed, particularly among younger consumers. By 2017, over 50% of consumers wanted to see videos from brands they supported — more than any other kind of content.
Video is inherently engaging. Generally speaking, it's easier to follow than blog posts, email newsletters, or ebooks. Gradually, audiences took to it more and more as the decade progressed. By the end of the 2010s, platforms like YouTube were central to the landscape of content marketing.
Obviously, content marketing underwent several shifts in the 2010s, but as I said at the beginning of this article, the practice isn't — and will never be — static. There are still plenty of changes to come.
How Content Marketing Will Evolve in the Next Decade
Video content will continue to rule.
As I just mentioned, video was emerging as one of the most — if not the most — important mediums for content marketing at the end of this past decade. There's no indication that that trend is stopping anytime soon.
As of 2020, 85% of businesses use video as a marketing tool — up 24% from 2016. And 92% of marketers who use it consider it an important part of their marketing strategy. It's already a staple in several companies' content marketing operations, and research indicates that base is going to expand.
According to a survey by Wyzowl, 59% of marketers who weren't using video in 2019 expected to be using it throughout 2020.
All told, it looks like the exploration and expansion of video as the preeminent medium for content marketing is going to continue. The priority for marketers is going to be a matter of standing out.
That could mean emphasizing the quality of the content you produce — ensuring it's enriching, well-crafted, and relevant to viewers. You could also try looking to emerging platforms like TikTok.
No matter how individual producers and companies manage to innovate when it comes to video marketing, the medium is going to be a mainstay in the evolution of content marketing going forward.
Adjusting for mobile will be essential and present new opportunities.
According to Statista, global mobile data traffic in 2022 will be seven times larger than it was in 2017. Mobile device usage is increasing astronomically, and it's in every content marketer's best interest to keep pace with that trend.
In 2019, 61% of Google searches took place on a mobile device, and that trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Having a website optimized for mobile devices will be central to successful SEO efforts. And a lot of the content you create will need to fit that bill as well.
Blogs should be easily navigable on smartphones. Readily accessible video content that your audience can watch on mobile devices will be a big help as well. Prospects and customers will need to be able to get as much out of your mobile resources as your desktop ones.
This shift towards mobile will also present new opportunities through emerging kinds of media. More novel mobile technology — like virtual and augmented reality — will have a very real place in the future of content marketing.
As people continue to rely more on their mobile devices, content marketers will have to as well.
Successful content will be more empathetic, purposeful, and customer-first.
Google's ranking algorithm aims to prioritize the content that will mean the most to searchers. Ideally, by Google's standards, the first ranking search result for any keyword is the one that best addresses whatever users are searching for. And in all likelihood, they'll keep tinkering with their process in pursuit of that interest.
While there's no telling exactly how the algorithm might change going forward, one fact remains — marketers need to focus on high-quality content that will register with consumers. That means understanding your audience and putting considerable effort into how to reach them best.
As HubSpot Senior Content Strategist Amanda Zantal-Wiener puts it, “Where I'm starting to see content turning a corner is in the area of empathy. In the years to come, marketers are going to start creating more content that's truly created in the mindset of putting themselves in the shoes of others — be it their customers, prospects, partners, or someone else within their audiences. They'll ask questions like, ‘What does my audience need from me right now? What can I create that's truly going to help them?' That's going to become a requirement for marketers when they begin brainstorming content.”
Research, outreach, and community engagement will become even more important in the context of content creation. Content marketing is trending towards audience enrichment as opposed to product promotion. If this shifting tide holds true, content marketing will continue to become more targeted, purposeful, and customer-centric as the practice evolves.
If there's anything to take away from understanding the previous and upcoming evolutions of content marketing it's this — don't get too comfortable. New trends and challenges are always emerging, and it will always be in your best interest to stay abreast of them.
And above all else, focus on consistently creating high-quality content that your audience will always be able to get something out of.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.