6 Content Marketing Trends to Help Plan Your 2016 Budget

I’ve been so focused on becoming a better writer lately that I spent about 30 minutes over lunch thinking of the most creative way to start this post. With brands adopting story form as a way of creating content that resonates with audiences, kicking off any article these days without a clever first line will turn readers away.

At the same time, I had a vision for this post, and I wanted the utility of the information to stand on its own. As brand marketers, we’re gearing up for our Q4 overviews, where we lay forth our 2016 budgets and plans and hope neither gets torn apart too much.

Content strategy has undeniably earned its place in enterprise marketing budgets this year. In February 2015 I forecasted on the Content Standard, along with many more credible sources, that spending, talent acquisition, business transformation, and customer experience would play crucial roles in successful brand storytelling programs this year.

Now that we’re eight months into the year, new trends have emerged, and we need to factor in how those events will affect our budgets and programs in the near future. BrightEdge, in partnership with SAP, reported that more than $135 billion was spent in 2014 on creating new digital marketing content. A July 2015 report from Qvidian found that 78 percent of B2B professionals worldwide say content is very important to the effectiveness of the sales process.

So here we are again, looking at what worked, what didn’t, and what strategic patterns unfolded in 2015. I’ve partnered with some amazing people to present to you the trends to watch and plan for in 2016.

1. Amplification

In the past, there was a clear difference between a marketer and a content marketer. The former focused on the promotional side of the equation, while the latter spent much of her time creating on behalf of the brand. As dollars began to shift to content strategy, content marketers earned respect from peers and began to take on new responsibilities. No longer were content marketers writing blog posts day-in and day-out—they had to factor in distribution, measurement, and much more.

Sophisticated content marketers have studied media traditionalists over the past eight months, picking up tricks of the distribution trade and modernizing them for inbound marketing. The industry has recognized simply creating content doesn’t build a leaned-in audience.

For the Content Marketing Institute’s 2015 B2B and B2C trend reports, researchers asked for the first time about paid distribution. CMI found that the most advanced content marketers have organized amplification strategies, with a growing focus on paid social media ads, promoted posts, native content, and content discovery tools. You can see the B2B and B2C breakdown below:

When I think back to how marketers were approaching amplification last year, it was with an uninformed or undocumented strategy. Sure, brands were using social media, some content discovery tools like Outbrain, and email marketing in support of their digital publications. But there wasn’t much synergy between the many programs in the market, and paid efforts often conflicted with how content marketers thought of audience development. While we’d love the world to be full of organics, the reality is that some synthetics help sustain life, and that’s no different in community building.

As content marketers, we have only just begun to understand distribution as an invaluable component of content strategy, and we still need to partner and study the media industry before our digital publications will hit critical mass. In 2016 content amplification and distribution will be the latest in the line of skills you’ll need to master if you want your content to be found, read, and internalized by a loyal audience. Yes, many brands have invested in amplification already, but their efforts have often missed the mark. No one is doing this well yet.

Furthermore, big players like Google have vested interests in content amplification, specifically native content. I spoke with Chad Pollitt, vice president of audience at Relevance.com about the future of amplification:

“My prediction for content amplification in the next 12 months is a big one. Google has its native ad network in private beta today. As expected, it will compete directly with companies like Revcontent, Adblade, Taboola, and Outbrain. However, it will do something none of them currently do – connect brands directly with publishers at scale for full-fledged sponsored editorial content publishing on blogs and premium publications. Similar to what The New York Times, Huffington Post, Forbes, and others do un-scaled.

The biggest difference is that Google will be the middleman and deliver sponsored content as a scaled channel for brands. I anticipate the public launch of this new network within the next 12 months, and it will likely be the biggest innovation disruptor for content marketers to date.”

2. Interactive Stories

The media industry has evolved quickly over the past few years to remain relevant in consumers’ minds. Many publications have thrown out the purists in favor of entertainment writers and social marketers as a way of building and maintaining audiences. All of this work has been done to support media’s burgeoning sponsored content efforts, which now dominate revenue models for almost every top-tier player online.

A few years back I might’ve sided with those who felt media was doomed to fail. But some publishers have turned the corner by expanding into new digital realms, and surprisingly their efforts are still light-years ahead of brand marketers, despite having smaller budgets on average.

That being said, brand marketers are great at identifying a good thing, adopting it, and making it even better. In media, clear leaders like The New York Times’ T-Brand Studio have introduced to the world a new form of digital storytelling, using a mixed-media approach of quality editorial, amazing photography, audio clips, and stunning video content. These stories create impressive destinations for brands and leverage The Times’ storytelling capabilities to woo readers and viewers.

Other publishers have begun producing these types of interactive stories both as sponsored posts and as original news reporting. MSNBC’s expose on poverty in America continues to make my list of best examples of digital storytelling today. However, we’ve only just begun to see brands taking on this kind of content creation challenge. In many cases, interactive stories force content marketers to think even more like editors and journalists, and many of them aren’t yet there in their career development.

One organization (while not a brand in the traditional sense) that uses data visualization and storytelling to inform its audience is NASA. I spoke with Joshua Stevens, a senior data visualizer at NASA’s Earth Observatory, about how he and his team use visuals to create rich stories around the data pulled in by the organization’s satellites.

How do you and your team determine which part of a story might benefit from a visual treatment?

We focus on research data, so visualizing the results of studies or NASA missions is where our primary focus is. A lot of the time, it boils down to “What is the most interesting part of this story?” With NASA, that often means, “What did the satellite show us that we didn’t know was happening, or what surprising result did the research produce?”

When you’re working with instruments that can detect groundwater by measuring gravitational anomalies, that’s something a lot of people didn’t know one could do, so visualizing the data really helps communicate what is being measured (and where).

And data backs up this trend as being a top focus among content and digital marketing moving forward. In Q2 polling by the CMO Council, nearly two-thirds of senior marketers in North America said that visual assets were core to communicating their brand stories. More, those same professionals ranked photography and video as critical to their success.

A separate study from Digiday and Chute in April 2015 found that marketers plan to spend 30.5 percent of their year-end budgets on creating, producing, and publishing visual content this year alone. That number will rise in 2016.

In media, images have often taken center stage over editorial, despite many of these websites focusing on news and timely trends. In a Digiday sponsored post for GumGum, a few popular media sites were studied to determine the proportion of pixel real estate that was held by visual content this year. The data found that 21 percent of The New York Times’ homepage was covered by photography or other visual elements. Websites like Mic (16 percent), POLITICO (31 percent), and Quartz (63 percent) were also designed for the visual eye.

In both media and brand marketing, visual and interactive stories that combine original photography, video, data visualizations, and editorial will play even bigger roles in how publishers engage and develop unique experiences for global audiences. Over the past few years there has been a siloed focus on the creation of video or the production of long-form editorial. In 2016 we will see the combination of many pieces and watch brand storytelling take on new shapes and sizes.

3. Episodic Content

When brands start out with content marketing, whether by blogging on an owned hub or by developing long-form assets for lead generation, most marketers still think in terms of campaigns. There’s a lot of upfront work done to create and launch an eBook or publish a blog, and once that piece of content has served its purpose, it’s on to the next big push.

But as brands begin to build a surplus of content and analyze the data coming in, clear patterns emerge and there are opportunities to expand upon ideas and themes. Sophisticated content marketers see these themes as trends to be explored in ongoing series, and in 2016 we’ll see more businesses partnering with great storytellers to focus on episodic content. That is, content broken out into chapters that progresses along a plotline with a beginning, middle, and end.

One of the best examples of this I’ve seen in 2015 came from Coca-Cola, of all companies. Typically focused on product, the Coke brand stepped outside of its comfort zone with its “Crossroads” series, which was directed by Oscar-winning director Dustin Lance Black. I spoke with Black about his vision for this series and the special impact it had on its audience.


Coca-Cola’s “Crossroads” series was a huge leap for the brand, which is often so product focused in its marketing. Where did the inspiration for this series come from for you?

I spent years on the board of The Trevor Project, which is focused on helping at-risk youths. There, you hear so many stories from young people who are in a crisis, and so often they’re being bullied, whether it be in person at school, at church, in their own families, or certainly online. So when Pereira & O’Dell’s pitched me on a series that asked, “What if we just take a look at these crossroads moments for young people?” the message is what grabbed my attention.

The fact that it was Coca-Cola made it all the more appealing because it’s a global brand. I felt the message could get out in a way that it might not if it wasn’t attached to a brand, frankly. The brand would help push it out, the brand is recognized globally, and this is a message that certainly isn’t exclusive to the United States. In fact, when it was pitched to film these in Spanish and Portuguese, I thought it was a great idea.

Read the rest of our interview with Dustin Lance Black.

Media companies are also learning the power of episodic content, especially when it comes to video content. The Atlantic, which isn’t best known for its ability to speak to Millennial audiences, has struck gold with its “If Our Bodies Could Talk” series, featuring Dr. James Hamblin.

Hamblin and team produce regular short videos that put health myths, studies, and treatments to the test. As of 2014, the series ranked as the most popular among The Atlantic’s 10 original series, and since 2013 it has accounted for 17 percent of the site’s total video streams alone, according to Capital New York. Hamblin, who uses his wit and intelligence to draw in viewers, has built a social following for himself and the video series—further proof that a solid character is essential to quality storytelling.



In 2016 we’ll see even more brands and media companies tell stories in stages (or chapters) as a way to build suspense, develop characters for Web audiences, and capitalize on momentum through social sharing.

4. Fringe Social Media No More

By now we’re tired of hearing how social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn will change the way we market to our customers. That’s old news, and while many brands still lack the skills and tools to be successful, the more forward-thinking marketers are looking to fringe social hubs as the solution for reaching niche audiences.

It’s unfair to call networks like Instagram and Snapchat “fringe,” as they’re clear leaders in their respective camps and have dominated news circuits in 2015. A report from eMarketer forecasts Instagram will have nearly $600 million in advertising revenue in 2015, rising to $2.81 billion by 2017. Over the past year, Instagram has further proven its effectiveness as an ad platform. Shareablee found that consumer actions for US brand pages on Instagram more than doubled year over year in Q1 2015. Interactions on Twitter (32 percent) and Facebook (27 percent), rose, too, but paled in comparison.

Besides the rise of Instagram marketing, networks like Snapchat, Periscope, and Meerkat have erupted, giving marketers new avenues to use when connecting with consumers. Currently, Snapchat is valued at $16 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal’s “Billion Startup Club.”

5. Influence

In a May 2015 study by Schlesinger Associates for Augure, 84 percent of marketing and communications professionals worldwide said they planned to launch at least one program involving influencers in the next 12 months. Moreover, 81 percent of respondents were happy with the effect their influencer campaigns had on business goals.

Up until now, marketers have looked outside the business walls to collaborate with industry influencers on campaigns or content programs. In 2016, influencer marketing will evolve to encompass both external and internal influencers, putting greater focus on employee advocacy and how staff members use social media to build personal brands.

A report from May 2015 by Scredible looked at the Internet profiles of 20- to 45-year-old professionals. Data showed that 54 percent said their social media profiles would be important to their careers in the next five years. Unfortunately, current corporate policies and structure scare many internal thought leaders away from popular social networks. In the report, 25 percent of respondents said they weren’t more active on social media due to worries about what their current and future employees would think about their presences.

The raw power of influencer marketing lies in its ability to build community and amplify messages. Today, corporations are not trusted institutions, but their customers and employees certainly have clout among consumers. Without a focus on developing relationships with internal and external influencers, content programs won’t earn the attention of consumers to the fullest extent. I recently spoke with Julie Zisman, head of marketing at Little Bird, an influencer marketing platform, about the future of influencer strategy.

How will influencer marketing evolve over the next 12 months?

Marketers will understand that the social web is full of valuable influencers and even more valuable insights. Influencers will lead social conversations that drive global change and more peer-to-peer business. New or improved technology will help mine influencer data for hyper-qualified lead generation, competitive analysis, and positioning intelligence across all the social networks.

6. Technology

At Skyword, we talk a lot about the role technology plays and will continue to play in the evolution of marketing. Probably the highest form of validation for the content software and platform industry came in 2015, as Forrester Research recognized the growing tech sector in its first-ever wave report. The Skyword Platform performed well in the inaugural release.

But enough about us, and more about the industry at large. An April 2015 report from Harvey Nash, in association with KPMG, found that IT’s relationship with marketing was the weakest among enterprise departments. Another report, this one from Pan Communications, found that 38 percent of marketers envision the convergence of marketing and technology as the single biggest trend to watch this year. In 2016, the trend will continue to make waves in digital marketing, as rounds of consolidation, growth, and innovation will disrupt an already dysfunctional industry.

Skyword’s Founder and CEO Tom Gerace says:

“Like Salesforce does for sales, brand storytelling platforms will become the central organizing system for marketers. Storytelling platforms will manage core marketing workflows and become the key data repositories that marketers use across the enterprise. They will then plug-in best-of-breed solutions for each marketing function like Salesforce does.”

Get to Planning

There you have it–my top six predictions for 2016.

There’s a lot still to do to make content marketing an effective and useful practice for humanizing marketing, but more than ever, the marketing industry has a wealth of talent dedicated to transformation. What are your predictions for 2016? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.

This article originally appeared on The Content Standard.

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