A Guide to Content Marketing Trends for 2017, with Joe Pulizzi

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

Last year I spoke to Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute about what we could expect from content marketing in 2016. You can listen back to that podcast again if you need reminding but if you would rather look forward, you’ll be pleased to know I caught up with him again. This time we talked about what the future of content marketing holds for 2017 and beyond.

Have a listen to the podcast below and make sure to subscribe so you’ll never miss an episode.

What’s been happening in the world of content marketing over the last year?

This time last year, it seemed like people were not spending as much as we anticipated because content marketing, obviously, is still one of the faster-growing areas of marketing itself. And I think everybody sort of battened the hatches down last year to see what was going to happen. It seems like that’s changed. I don’t know what you’re feeling in your neck of the woods but it seems like we’re getting people that are positive, feeling good about this year, and starting to look at their content marketing plans…investing in them.

Here are some of the big trends that I think we are seeing:

  • A lot more attention is being paid to distribution than creation. I think what happened in, I’m going to say 2013-’14 into ’15 and beyond, we were looking at, “Oh, we’re going to create all this great content and people would find it.” People will find that content however they need to and what happened is, they didn’t find it. International businesses created a lot of content that just went unseen, unheard, unwatched. And now they realize, “Look, if you don’t have an established audience, you’re going to have to spend some money on promoting that content.” So we’re seeing a lot more integration with advertising programs, actually, and content marketing, which is really interesting to see.
  • We’re starting to see the merger and acquisition market really heat up around content marketing, not just in the publishing space but in brands actually buying media companies, buying blogger sites, and buying influencer sites. The case study that I love to talk about is Arrow Electronics. They’re one of the largest electronics manufacturers in the world and they purchased a number of media sites from our parent company UBM, a London-based company, which sold Arrow a number of media properties. And I think that’s interesting, that you’re seeing brands start to purchase media companies, as they become media companies.
  • There is a little bit of a move away from organic social, to paid distribution. This is unfortunate and I hate to say this because I’m the biggest cheerleader out there when it comes to content marketing. I think you’re going to have a lot of big companies that basically say, “We’re not doing this. It’s not working for us.” They treat it like advertising, they treat it like a campaign, they’re still talking about themselves, and they’re not focusing on the needs of their customers or prospects like they should. And they say, “Well, I don’t have the patience for this. We’ve got quarterly numbers to hit and we’re going to focus on direct marketing and public relations and advertising and interruption.” So you’re going to have a lot of haves and have-nots going into 2017, the end of that year, 2018.
  • I think another thing that we’re seeing is this focus on purpose or a higher purpose. Starbucks is a really great example. They have their Upstanders program that came out, I think it was about six months ago, and they basically focus on human beings that are doing amazing work out there. A lot of that work is with the veterans and they wanted to shine a light on that and they created an ongoing program. They hired a journalist and a storyteller from The Washington Post to do that and they’re committing to make that happen. And I think more and more, you’re seeing, whether it’s Chipotle and looking at sustainable foods or whether it’s Patagonia and looking at, you know, we want to make sure we work with companies that have fair trade and good employee practices, if you will. So those types of things I think we’re going to start seeing, where you have big enterprises. They’re going to say, “Look, instead of just our content marketing program, can we answer our customers questions and do it really well, let’s focus on something bigger that actually can create a movement and do something special instead of just always focusing on business.” Content with a conscience.

Is content marketing still under fire?

It always is. They said the same about radio and television and direct marketing and search marketing and social media and it’s just funny that most of the articles that really slam content marketing seem to come from England. You’re not going to say “Oh, we’re going to drop our advertising budget because we’re going to do content marketing.” You don’t do that. You use a little bit of everything and you want to diversify properly into your PR, your communications, your advertising and content marketing. But, yes, it still gets some flak and what we’re trying to do is just educate people. First of all, this is nothing new. I mean, this has been around for hundreds of years. I always talk about the John Deere case study. In 1895 they launched “The Furrow” magazine. Now they have 1.5 million in circulation, 40 countries, 14 different languages for that property, or that content brand, and John Deere is John Deere because of that.

It’s just that we don’t call it custom media, custom publishing, branded content anymore. We call it content marketing. And so I think that it’s more of a diversification play and what we saw over the past 20, 30 years is we became over-reliant on advertising. We became over-reliant from borrowing attention from other people’s channels and now we’re coming back and we’re saying, “Look, we want to build an asset. We actually want to communicate directly with an audience.” And how do we build that audience? Well, we better send them really good stuff on a consistent basis and if we do that, we believe that we’ll see more profitable actions out of those customers, or those prospects, or whatever the case is. And so I think that we’re returning to what the norm should be, I think more than anything else. There are a lot of people that don’t like that to happen but if you put your entire budget with advertising, I think that’s a fool’s game to start with. It always has been. Now we need to come back and say, “Well, what’s a good, realistic look at where we should be putting our money and creating assets long-term so that it helps the business as well as helps our customers?” And I think that content marketing should be something that every innovative company needs to look at.

I do speeches around the world and I say “I told you this Facebook thing wasn’t going to work. I told you a million people that like your page, you know, sooner or later, they’re going to take that power away from you.” And LinkedIn’s doing the same thing and it’s a thing, right? You basically can’t control anything when it comes to organic content in most of these social channels. I’m not saying don’t use social media but just understand what you’re getting into. If you’re going to create a following on social media, just know that, at some point, Facebook or LinkedIn or some other property’s going to say “You’ve got to pay for that.” You’re not just going to get a free ride.

Somebody’s going to say “You’ve got to pay the rent,” and that’s what’s happened, our rent has become due with all these social media platforms. And I would wish that a lot more people would say, “Look, what if we, at the time when we built up these Facebook channels and built up these social media properties, what if we would’ve been building up our email list? What if we would’ve been building up our databases and building our own audiences and our own opt-in relationships, what could that have meant for our organization?” So I just want to make sure we don’t get back into that rut and think that our savior is going to be free distribution of content on social platforms. I think that ship has sailed.

What’s the state of content marketing in the UK?

I think the findings on the UK side, which is surprising, were fairly positive compared to what we saw in the States. There are some very optimistic people in the UK which was actually new for us to see. We did an Asia Pacific report, mostly out of Australia, we did the UK report, and we did the North American report, which is mostly the U.S. and if we look at success rates, UK was the best. We saw that, more than not, marketers in the UK believed that they’re a little bit more successful than colleagues in the United States. Now, that said, we’re still not where we need to go and we’re not where we need to be. There’s a lot of experimentation going on. Even though content marketing has been around for a long time, it’s still a very immature discipline. So what we found from UK marketers, those that actually commit to it they go all in or do nothing.

For UK, the most successful marketers are the ones that say “Yes, we are committing to content marketing for a long period of time. We do have a documented content marketing strategy. We do deliver consistently.” When we saw success rates, that’s what we saw. And we would look at, “What makes content marketers effective?” and it’s the fact that the CEO or the CMO has bought into it. “We do have something written down that we share with our entire team. We don’t just blog on occasion. We don’t just podcast on occasion. If we choose to communicate through a channel, we do it consistently over a long period of time. We don’t expect results tomorrow.” So those are the things that we saw from a commitment level and I’d like to see that there is a clear differentiation between those that commit to it and those that don’t.

So let’s talk about the negative in this study. The negative is, those that are just experimenting with it aren’t doing well at all. They’d be better off if they actually just did nothing and decided to put their money into something else than actually to do spits and starts with their content marketing. And that’s where we are as an industry, so it’s interesting that the UK study came out this way. We’re seeing the ones that commit to it are doing really well and the ones that don’t commit to it are saying it’s failure. And that’s why you see a lot of those articles coming out of London saying, “It’s not going to work” because if you’re looking at it as a campaign, it probably isn’t going to work.

Who should own content marketing?

Every employee inside the organization is not going to take ownership of content marketing because they have no clue what it is and they have no clue what the importance is to the organization. Somebody in the organization has to sell this and get buy-in for the practice and the approach of content marketing, if you choose to do it. Whether that’s the chief marketing officer, the VP of sales and marketing…whether the CMO says, “Hey, I have a VP of content…” or head of content or head of branded content that’s going to do that, that’s fine. I don’t care who it is. It’s generally on the marketing side. I think it needs to be on the marketing side.

Marketing then communicates with PR and customer service but to sell-in content marketing and buy-in, it’s not a one-time thing and I think that’s what a lot of marketers were mistaken about. We felt, “Oh, hey, we’re going to get buy-in, we get initial budget, it’s great.” No, you know what? You have to sell it every day. You have to sell it every day. It is a ruthless job that you have as a marketer that believes in content marketing because it’s still something different and people don’t get it. And as we continue to see a lot of transition go on in UK enterprises, and you get a new person in there that doesn’t buy into it and they say, “Well, this makes no sense. Why are we doing this?” So, it’s a battle. It’s an absolute battle going on right now.

You say, “Who should own it?” Somebody in marketing should own it. If you ask “who should be a part of the process?” Yes, absolutely, you want every employee. What we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to knock down all these walls and silos so that every person in your organization – your employees – are your absolute best salespeople. So if they can understand that what they communicate matters, and if you have all these individuals that are building their own mini audiences, which is what they do, that can absolutely pay off for the organization.

You don’t just get somebody in the organization say, “Oh, this is something that I should do,” and, “Great, this is going to be awesome,” and “I’m not going to do my job right now because I’m going to do this.” If that’s not coming down from on-high and people don’t actually believe that’s a good use of your time, well, you’ve got problems.

Who’s doing content marketing right in the HR space?

I think that if we look in the HR area, if you look at what Monster.com is doing, they have absolutely gone out and said, “What type of marketer do we want to hire for our organization?” And the type of marketer that they’re trying to hire for their organization, are journalists, writers, editors and storytellers. Obviously there’s traditional marketing that still happens and you have those traditional functions but what they were missing years ago as part of their overall strategy was how do we attract the right talent? How do we make sure that we have those relationships that are working? How do we work for the entire organization? They said, “We need to tell better stories. And we need to create an ongoing process that everyone’s involved in that makes sense.” So it’s interesting to see that more and more of their hires are storytellers, are journalists, and they’re hiring from media companies. And we’re seeing that happen not just in the UK not just at HR companies, but that’s happening through enterprises in every marketplace. Who are the new marketers out there? The new marketers are actually publishers and journalists, which is interesting and it’s actually easier to train a journalist on marketing than a marketer on how to be a good storyteller. So, at least that’s what we’ve seen.

What content resonates best with your own audience?

In our business model, the thing that’s resonated the most has been the blog. We have a daily blog that we send out and that integrates with our e-newsletter. And if you’re saying, “What has made the business go more than anything else?” It’s been that daily blog that has increased. I think we’ve got something like 200,000 email subscribers now and that drives our entire business and that drives all of our business goals. And then we can look at that email subscriber and see how their behavior has changed over time. And then once we do that, then we’ve been able to diversify into other things. Our marketing podcast, very important. Our Chief Content Officer magazine that we do, very important. I’ve written four books and Robert Rose, our chief strategy advisor, and I are working on our fifth one that’ll come out in September of 2017.

Those are all pieces of diversification. The way that we diversify the program, that’s all-important, but the most important is our key platform. Our key platform happens to be our blog or our website, whatever you want to call it. If I was to give advice to any organization or a marketer it is to choose. Don’t just dabble. Don’t just say “Oh, we’ve got some blogs over here, we’ve got some videos over here, got some podcasts,” that’s probably not going to work. If you look at what has made media companies most successful over the years they start with one platform. You look at The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Media House, look at how they started. They started with one medium consistently delivering over time, they build that audience, and then they diversify out. And I think that’s where a lot of marketers go wrong – we try to do everything at once instead of really building an audience on one platform to start with.

Follow Joe on Twitter @JoePulizzi and remember to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.


Our newsletter is exclusively curated by our CEO, Jörgen Sundberg, for leaders who make decisions about talent. Subscribe for updates on The Employer Branding Podcast, new articles, eBooks, research and events we’re working on.


Play Video

Recent Articles

COVID-19’s Impact on Employer Brand

What we do here at Link Humans is helping our clients understand how they’re viewed by talent online, so they can improve their employer brand. Our approach is The Employer Brand Index and there are a host of use cases...

How Coronavirus Responses Define Employer Brands

People are going to remember what your company did during the Coronavirus epidemic. John Elkington's triple bottom line model of "People, Planet & Profit" could not be more true today. Now is not the time to focus on profit, and...

EVP Pillars in a Time of Crisis

A pandemic, or any crisis, will be an acid test for your corporate furniture such as purpose, values, principles, behaviors, etc. In the employer brand world, we have to ensure our EVP is robust and is delivering what it promises,...