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The Evolution of The Content Marketing Ecosystem

Date published: July 23, 2014
Last updated: July 23, 2014

Content marketing has reached a crossroads. Technologies serving the industry are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. Content marketing, digital publishing, and social media are converging. The digital marketing landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented. Even changes in wider sociological factors and consumer mindsets are having an impact on the way we find, consume and share content.

We are now in an age where content’s existence is very different than in its previous incarnations. Our culture of incessant busyness has fostered short attention spans everywhere, making content’s existence more transient than ever before. Much of this is owed heavily to the Internet and the availability of a vast amount of real-time information, but it’s also attributed to the changing lifestyles of humans- our preferences, hobbies and how we choose to spend our idle time.

Traditional vs. Content Marketing

A dwindling number of peers in the marketing industry may still fondly recall the days of what’s now deemed as “traditional marketing”—advertising that communicated its message in a straightforward and understandable format. In other words, content that conformed. Younger marketers, however, are likely to be more aware of advertising that uses the newest technological advancements such as geo-fencing or near field communication (NFC), push notifications, and other mobile technologies.

It is this same generation that is also keenly aware of the changes in the content landscape. They already consume video on their mobile phones, interact with people across the world via social media, play in massive multiplayer games online, and are likely to be engaged with multiple screens at any given time. As the custodians of content as we know it, this generation is central to the content ecosystem and its continued evolution. Traditional marketing has evolved into content marketing, and this is what it looks like.

These cultural and sociological changes have consequently blurred the lines between digital publishing and social marketing. Faced with this undefined convergence, marketers are challenged to approach fast-evolving disciplines such as content marketing in an objective capacity – realizing that without careful attention, the velocity of change can be greater than our ability to keep pace.

The financial downturn was tough on many industries- marketing included. A particularly poignant article in Guardian last year spoke of the pressure that marketing agencies put on creative agencies during and after the recession. Its core message was that we have now effectively commoditized creativity. It states:

Marketing organizations have spent the last decade squeezing creative agency fee income and margins, a trend accelerated by the rise in influence of procurement departments in such negotiations. This had achieved an undesirable and unwanted outcome; over time agencies had become de-skilled, and consequently less useful. This model simply encouraged clients to believe that agency creative output was a commodity, a mere consumable, and not something with an intrinsic value. After all, it was the one line item that never appeared on the invoice.

While this article was focused on the demands of delivering creative results when under pressure from rigorous marketing protocols, it also identifies the crossroads at which content marketing now finds itself: learn how to define and demonstrate the value you provide or allow the perception that content marketing is a commodity to prevail.

Content Creation: Art, Science, Chaos?

With what mindset should we approach content? Is content an art, strictly reserved for deep exploration and creative self (or brand) expression? Is content a science? Is it something that can be mastered by deep understanding of an algorithm? Or is it chaotic, fluid, fast-moving and untamable?

These are fundamental questions with regard to the content ecosystem. How does one differentiate between art (creative and human elements) and science (technology that helps scale and distribute content)?

These two concepts exist in the same way that the different sides of the human brain exist – each with distinct areas of responsibility. They do not perform the same tasks; they both work in a vastly complex way that eventually is driven towards achieving an ultimate outcome.

One glance at this graphic of the marketing technology landscape supergraphic in 2014 demonstrates how art and science can combine to create chaos. This is the crossroads that we, the content marketing industry, have collectively reached.

The content ecosystem needs to find balance in the existing chaos—but not in a way that stifles creativity. It must allow us, as an industry, to benchmark where we are now and where it is we must get to in order to progress.

Disruption in the Content Ecosystem

Google’s Penguin algorithm update has brought the SEO industry to an interesting crossroads over the last 12-18 months. With the clampdown on what Google now deems “spammy link building tactics,” SEOs were forced to adapt and change their approach. This industry pivot relied heavily on tactics that PR professionals had been practicing for many years. The result? Confusion and bitterness amongst subsets of both the SEO and PR industries and – worst of all – brands not getting the service that they thought they were paying for.

Where exactly does PR fit into the content ecosystem? Does it exist in a standalone manner, or must it be coupled with pieces of old school marketing and SEO? Are there traits, tools, and processes shared amongst these respective disciplines? After all, a stripped-down, yet familiar, process for content marketing follows the basic PR process identified below:

Another curious occurrence is the increasingly fragmented marketing landscape. Familiar roles and titles within the industry have undergone many alterations over time. A job working with data might have been accompanied by the title “analyst” in the past, but that same job could now be called a number of things, including “data analyst,” “data scientist,” “insights coordinator” or “innovation engineer.”

As marketing and marketing technology continue to confound, ambiguity and fragmentation increase as well. Where do content marketing—and the content ecosystem as a whole—exist within this fragmented landscape? What is content, and who is this new breed of content marketers? Who, of all professional marketers, are best equipped to become content marketers? Or is this even a task for marketers at all?

Steering Content Marketing’s Trajectory

Taking an unbiased view on the future of content marketing is a rare feat these days. Professionals in all disciplines—PR, content, and SEO—will fight for their respective positions, quick to highlight their specialized skills.

The PR industry argued that SEOs touting their own “online PR” efforts were simply cycling press releases through automated, low-quality online news services. But who’s to say that PR professionals weren’t doing the same thing all along?

With some SEO companies hiring media outreach employees, and with PR professionals being more mindful of the SEO impact of their work, it ultimately caused both camps to improve their offerings.

But where does content fit into this moving forward?

The problem here is that many PR professionals will claim that they have already been in the business of content creation. To a degree, they may be right – but does the ever-changing landscape not mean that the level of expectation for this content needs to be consistently raised? Curiously, it is the PR and journalism skillsets that are sought after when it comes to content marketing, as this article by writer and editor Holly Regan states:

There is a growing demand for PR professionals whose outreach skills can cut through the noise and promote great content.

She goes on to claim that the traditional view of journalism will be reinvented, as trained journalists wield a skillset that’s very attractive to brands looking for content marketers.

Marketing and PR departments are starting to function like newsrooms, and journalists are being recruited to these new, “hybrid” roles.

The liberalization of these roles and the change in function of the modern marketing department opens doors for content creators in a big way. Brands like Apple and MTV have their own editorial staffs (i.e. content marketers) as well as a better understanding of the synergy between SEO, PR and content marketing.

Such synergy is dictated by the market and shaped by the skillsets that the innovators possess. This merge in traditional PR, journalism, social media, and SEO creates similarities in the primary functions for these individuals regardless of their title:

  • Consistent reevaluation of mediums used to communicate (dependent on the brand in question and their key demographic)
  • Creation of great content that resonates with its users
  • Outreach to those online that may find the content so useful that they would like to repurpose or republish it (with authoritative and traffic-driving links back to the original source)

The Next Generation of Content Marketing

Now we look into the future – how one constitutes value in content, the inevitable increase in content-orientated technology, and what doing content the right way looks like.

The Value of a Single Piece of Content

Something that has plagued many digital marketers is the need to demonstrate the value (financial or otherwise) of their work. As I see it, this is one of the core issues with content.

The price tag to effectively execute a content marketing campaign is not cheap. This is attributed to resource limitations – not the least of which include availability of skilled personnel in journalism, creative, design, PR, and outreach. These are not easy hurdles to overcome.

For example, consider the difficulty of quantifying the following with senior stakeholders:

  • An individual’s change in perception as a result of interacting with genuinely useful content from a brand they had previously used, but had no particular affinity with.
  • Creation of diversified business or revenue streams, born out of providing content and fostering a community.

With just two examples we can understand the difficulty in defining the tacit value of content.

Value is very much tangible in an online marketing sense; however, the disconnect is that content is not strictly digital or strictly traditional; it bridges both. Consequently, the unique way one organization approaches content marketing may not provide desired results for another. It’s important to understand what you’re really trying to achieve, and then figure out the best way to measure and achieve it.

 Imminent Tech Explosion

All digital marketing disciplines have, thus far, reached a tipping point where market forces dictate principal changes in the technology offered to support these areas of focus. Take the following as a very brief snapshot of examples:

  • SEO - now powered by innumerable suppliers of technology whether based on keyword tracking, technical website analysis, in-depth backlink analysis, and even link removal software.
  • Social Media – a huge variety of diverse and ever-emerging platforms (Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Whatsapp) and software for managing them (Buffer, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, Falcon Social, Sprout Social, Radian6).
  • Web Analytics – Google Analytics (Google Analytics Premium), Omniture, Piwik, Adobe Analytics

The sheer number of acquisitions taking place among these countless platforms and SaaS companies can be viewed as a barometer for imminent change in content marketing. It can be speculated that such acquisitions are examples of companies curating solutions for email marketing, social media management, and marketing automation in an attempt to own this emerging market.

One such acquisition of particular note was the $1.5 billion acquisition of Responsys by Oracle in late 2013. This has led to terms such as "content alignment" and "converged media" being added to the marketing lexicon, as Altimeter’s Rebecca Lieb observes:

Converged media - the blending of paid, owned and earned media - is also contributing to this trend. With content at the core of advertising, social media and PR, as well as a brand’s owned media channels, content must be unified with the ad stack, as well as with social media software.

Content stacks are necessary to consolidate the eight content marketing use cases identified in research I’ve just published on the content vendor landscape. No use case is an island. As organizations mature and become more strategic in their content marketing initiatives, it becomes imperative to seamlessly link execution to analytics, optimization or targeting, for example.

Adobe’s Vie for The Content Marketing Stack

Media convergence has been the main driver for the desire for the so-called content marketing stack, noticeably a newfound business requirement.

At this year’s Adobe Digital Marketing Summits, the company made it clear that they aim to be the best candidate to fill this market need. In addition to their immensely popular Creative Cloud, they have also been slowly building one of the largest marketing technology stacks available from the inside out.

Loni Stark, Director of Product and Industry for Adobe Marketing Cloud, sums up the Adobe Experience Manager nicely as, "The place where digital marketers and developer technologies can build digital experiences that span across site, social and mobile to build brand loyalty.”

Adobe’s ongoing partnership with BrightEdge (and the deep integration of the Advanced Content Optimizer) signifies the important shift in the collaboration and integration of digital, search and content marketing technologies.

Other notable competition includes and ExactTarget Marketing Cloud, which was also the subject of an acquisition to the tune of $2.5 billion early last year.

For those feeling ready to adopt the content-orientated technology stack – one question worth asking is, “Just how replaceable are the human elements of the process?”

As discussed earlier, creativity – to a large extent – is something that only humans can bring to the table. Digital provides the means for fetching, interpreting, understanding and visualizing insight into the task at hand, but creativity in its truest form is the art to the technology’s science.

Who will win the race to build the first content stack? As Rebecca Lieb states, “Currently, it’s Adobe’s battle to lose. With their Creative Cloud, they’re far ahead of the game and they have announced long-anticipated plans to integrate the Creative Cloud with the Marketing Cloud.”

What Comes Next?

So, I say again: content marketing has reached a crossroads. Acronym-friendly industries like PR and SEO are cohabiting with traditional marketing roles in agencies and organizations everywhere- creating new opportunities for a unique hybrid of skillsets. As the classic definition of marketing continues to be less and less customary, innovators and problem-solvers across the world are stepping to the plate with their technological solutions to organize the chaos that is content marketing.

Where will you (and your brand) fit into this new frontier of digital marketing?

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