In many ways, 2014 saw an explosion of marketing technology.
Organizations took advantage of the amazing things that technology can do to create personalized experiences for the audience. We began to more fully access and begin to understand Big Data, and turn it into action. Smart people with money are on board the marketing technology wave; VentureBeat reports that there was more than $6 billion invested in marketing technology over the last three months.
But, marketing technology is not the big winner in the world of content marketing this year. Human beings are.
The Golden Age of Content
Despite all the focus on marketing automation and technology platforms, marketing is moving toward creating a more human experience for the audience. And yes, it may seem counterintuitive. With all the current focus on algorithms, we’re now getting back to basics – often with the help of those algorithms. This is awesome news (at least for those of us who are human beings).
This shift may very likely mean that we’re on the verge of a golden age of content. You already see it on TV, where cable channels produce astoundingly great programs that never would’ve seen the light of day back when the Big Three networks ruled the world.
Now, talented people have removed the shackles and are being pushed to create breakthrough programming to connect with an increasingly segmented audience. Sound familiar? It should because organizations diving into the content game are at the beginning of the same revolution.
The signs are all around us. From the way success measurement is shifting, to 10-year-old overnight success that is podcasting, to the way Google has reshaped content consumption – the race for the highest quality is on.
For the audience, this is great. For marketers, it’s a great opportunity.
Let’s Face It: Page Views Are A Lame Metric
We’ve always focused on maximizing page views to determine whether or not a blog post or a website is a success. We did this knowing that a reader may have clicked on something by mistake, and opening a web page does not equal reading a web page. It’s a shallow statistic.
But in 2014, publishers began to focus on the time spent reading statistic. I believe it was Contently that led the charge – at least that’s the first time I heard anyone arguing for it. It’s what Medium focuses on, and it’s how The Financial Times and The Economist now sell advertising. And it’s logical – the more time you spend reading an article, the more engaged you are with the content.
No, this measurement still isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step in the right direction – the human direction. Time is our most precious commodity, and if we give it, it means we’re engaged.
The Podcasting Renaissance & Audience Intimacy
Once upon a time, when radio was not filled with screaming talk show hosts, it was considered the most intimate medium. Because it was the radio host’s job to paint a picture, he or she (almost always he back then) was tasked with firing the listener’s imagination.
Radio was a great venue for telling stories. However, it really isn’t any more. Virtually no one on radio lets a story unspool; there’s a business-driven compulsion to fill every minute of every 24 hour day with high energy. It’s just less human.
Enter the podcast.
Podcasting surged toward the mainstream in 2014, symbolized by introduction and rapid rise of the cliffhanger series Serial, which has drawn near universal raves from anyone who listens to it.
The huge advantage of podcasts is that they’re on demand content, and podcasters therefore don’t have a need to fill up an entire broadcast day. Instead of 24/7 broadcasting, a couple hours a week can be more than enough. Less filler means more quality.
And high quality, un-rushed, mostly uninterrupted storytelling is intimate – when done well, it feels like a one-on-one conversation. Additionally, the fact that we often listen to podcasts on earbuds that are literally inside of our heads makes it all the more intimate.
As Jonah Weiner recently wrote at Slate, “we tend to trust voices instinctively.” As marketers, we are seeking to build trust with the audience; today, trust always comes before the sale. Without trust, there is no sale, because the audience has an entire globe’s worth of opportunities.
As human beings-slash-audience members, we want to trust. We want to be told a story that engages us. The human brain is wired for stories; well-told, intimate, human stories work.
The fact that 2014 saw a surge toward old-fashioned storytelling via podcasts is a major reason human beings were the big content winners this year.
Your audience is not a mathematical equation.
Marketing cannot be pure science, no matter how much the tech folks want it to be. It is, and always will be, both an art and a science. We now have access to Big Data, and so we believe that crunching those numbers is all we need to do understand our audience.
Not so, according to a new study from Vision Critical. Their report suggests that “super users” skew the analytics and that therefore we’re either getting a diluted picture of those super users, or an amped-up version of the entire audience.
For instance, 29 percent of Facebook users are responsible for 94 percent of visits to Facebook. That means that the bulk of the activity comes from a relatively small percentage of the larger population, and should not be considered statistically accurate.
As Vision Critical’s Alexandra Samuel told NewsCred, “Don’t for a minute think that what social media analytics are showing you is a representative picture of how your customers as a whole see you.”
Of course, algorithms and analytics are becoming ever more sophisticated. However, there is a new realization that the human touch is needed to smooth out the soulless, machine-driven approach to connecting with an audience. And that is pulling marketing back towards art, and away from what often manifested itself as cynical science-driven trickery. SEO is, at its core, dishonest. It is, by definition, an attempt to game the system.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paying attention to it, but the cold-hearted mathematics of it are nowhere near as important as they were five years ago, thanks largely to Google’s animal-themed algorithm updates. The point is that the brief golden era of SEO drove many organizations to create remarkably trashy content, keyword-stuffed orgies of stupidity. Thankfully, you really can’t do that anymore.
So, how will you connect with these humans?
As a content marketer, your job is to build connections with the audience, provide a reason for them to trust you, and ultimately drive revenue (let’s not forget that part). It’s very easy to get bogged down in all of the platforms, tools and numbers at your disposal and forget these main goals.
What we’re seeing is that all of the information we can gather now is creating an environment in which true talent will win. The playing field is being leveled by technology and the Internet has matured to the point where quality wins (or at least gives cat videos a run for their money).
For organizations, this new reality means they need talented storytellers with an editorial sensibility. They need content marketers who have an innate understanding of the audience and know how to create stories that resonate with human beings.
That means hiring fewer technologists and more people with journalism backgrounds. Journalists have been trained to take a set of disparate facts and anecdotes, conduct research to bring an idea to life, and then to deliver something compelling to the audience. That’s what journalists do every day, and that’s the direction marketing departments need to move toward.
For us human beings that make up the audience, the move toward more human communication is a huge win. There’s still a significant amount of bad content out there, but it is becoming easier and easier to ignore it and find something more engaging.
For us human beings charged with connecting to the audience, this is a chance to do interesting, meaningful work that creates a deeper, long lasting connection.