How User Needs Are Changing When it Comes to Content Marketing
We want to help you stay connected to the content industry, even while we all have to stay apart during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, to help replace all the meetups and conferences you’ll be missing, we’re launching a series of virtual conversations between Setka’s CEO and leading content experts.
The world needs great content now more than ever, and we hope these insights inspire you to keep creating it!
Co-founder and CEO at Setka
COVID-19 has completely changed the content marketing landscape. Brands that generally worked on long timelines to create evergreen content are suddenly having to operate more like newsrooms to adjust to new updates and quickly-shifting customer needs. Customers have more time at home and on their devices to dive deeply into content, but are remaining as picky as ever in terms of what they want to engage with. And, more than anything, the answer to “what content will be most valuable to my readers?” is becoming harder and harder to answer—but more important than ever.
Chris Vitti has seen how these shifts have affected the strategy and success at many of the biggest content marketing players in the game. He’s the SVP of Marketing at Knotch, the Content Intelligence Platform that helps brands including Deloitte and HP plan, measure, and optimize content programs across all their channels.
Their Content Intelligence Platform not only gives you the ability to really dig into the most valuable data when it comes to measuring content, but it also gives teams tools to help them analyze what their competitors are doing, inventory all their content, map customer journeys, and get insights and recommendations specific to their audience needs. All this to help brands easily answer the question: Is my content truly effective? And, if not, how can I make it better?
On top of that, Chris has been in the content and marketing world for two decades in all sorts of capacities, so he’s seen a thing or two when it comes to how things have changed (and how they’ll continue to do so).
We sat down (virtually) with Chris to learn more about how COVID-19 has shifted the content marketing landscape, why taking risks and working collaboratively as a team matters now more than ever, and how teams can use data and empathy to create truly effective content for their readers.
— What is the most unexpected way in which content marketing has changed as a result of COVID-19?
Content consumption habits changed significantly. The challenge pre-COVID was how can you get someone’s attention for 10 seconds as they commuted to work? During COVID that completely changed. Suddenly, people are working on large-screen desktops & laptops again, with nothing but time. So the strategy became, how can you deliver substantial, incredibly useful, and high-quality content to people who badly needed and wanted it? Content effectiveness has been the name of the game, and that will continue.
— What do companies need to do in their processes and their content creation to adapt to this new way of engaging with readers?
We’ve really had to take a step back during Q2 and say, “Listen, the hard push, the hard sell is not going to work right now, and we need to have patience.” And that’s the word I just keep coming back to.
We need to have patience on the marketing side, our sales team needs to have patience. Take the time to get to know the brand, to get to know the people that you’re trying to reach. Get to know your personas and your audience and build relationships with them, because chances are good you’re not going to strike a deal right away.
So it’s more about stepping back and being patient and just building up those relationships and being really sincere about it. So that was one thing that we tried to do as a company and that we tried to help our customers do and we kind of just saw happening in the market in general.
Get to know your personas and your audience and build relationships with them
— In particular, how do you think content design plays into building more effective content that leads to higher engagement?
I think it always had an important role: being easy to consume, whether it’s just short and sweet and easy to scan through, or visual to help you as you read, was always important. But it became even more important with what we’re facing now because people are actually back on their laptops, they’re at home, they might actually have more time than they’ve had in a decade or two to sit and read and engage with a content experience.
At Knotch, we help customers measure text-based content, image-based, video-based, we’re now measuring email, webinars, and so on. And we’re seeing that getting the design and experience right is super important, and I’ll give you two good examples that I like a lot.
One was from USA Today about the history of slavery in the United States, and it was a really visual content experience, probably the best one I’ve ever seen in my life. There isn’t a lot of text, and it has these really informative images, and then it had an interactive element—so as you scroll it would bring up a little chunk of text and a little image, and those two married together really nicely. When you think about educational content, this piece totally nailed it. Plus, it’s such an important topic.
The second one was from The New York Times about the Notre-Dame cathedral fire that happened last year, so a bit more to do with current affairs or those timely topics we were talking about. It was very similar, a little bit more text heavy. It gave some background on the history of the cathedral and then what transpired during the fire and what’s going to happen in the future. Very interactive.
If brands can do more of this type of work, they can grab the reader’s attention. When you think about metrics like time on page, scroll depth, and so on, those are the types of experiences that are going to drive those metrics to where you want them.
— How do you think user expectations have changed when it comes to content and content design? How do you think those expectations will continue evolving, and what should companies do to keep up?
Lots of areas have changed since modern-day content marketing became popular in the mid 2000s. Distribution has gotten easier. More channels exist. More competition exists. Attention spans have gone down. Mobile has gone up. The list goes on. What users want is content that’s highly-relevant, easy to read, and accessible from anywhere.
Relevancy is key. Content consumers ideally want and need content that makes them feel like it was written for them and only them. Content that’s delivered at precisely the right time and place. Companies need to keep up by performing competitive content analysis as well as market intelligence. And they need to find ways to create unique content that no one else is creating. Brands that can’t keep up risk becoming obsolete.
— Can you talk a little more about what taking risks as a content maker looks like?
There are a few different phases of the content marketing lifecycle and one of those is very foundational work, like doing content planning and competitive analysis. So looking at your top 3-5 competitors, seeing what type of content they are publishing, what type of topics, what format and layout. Are they publishing it on their own sites, are they publishing it and working with publishers on the paid side, is it getting picked up by earned?
During the early months of COVID-19, Knotch found that the most popular themes across COVID-related content were:
Learn more about how other brands handled COVID, Black Lives Matter, and other global issues in Knotch’s “State of Content Marketing, Vol. 4”
So you have to do that upfront foundational piece—and not all brands take the time to even do that homework and get that foundation right—but then, once you know what already exists and maybe have some new ideas on what to focus on as a brand based on what your competitors are doing, you have to think how to tackle it from a different angle. Ask yourself: How do I come at it with a different perspective or a different view and say it in a different way that just might not exist already?
In terms of examples, if you look back to the USA Today and New York Times pieces I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t just about a different angle, it was about a different experience. I’ve been in the content world for two decades in all different capacities, and to catch my attention after that, those pieces had to be really different from the experiences that I’ve seen before. They delivered the content in a different format and experience compared to what I was used to, and kept me in that experience from start to finish. To me, that’s a huge win because it’s so hard to get people to finish reading any piece of content, and those really grabbed my attention the entire time.
— When it comes to the future of digital content, what are some of the big trends you’re watching, or the biggest ideas you think are becoming more important?
The tech behind digital content is becoming more powerful every year. The next step is for content tech to communicate to writers what they should write about. Not actually write the content for them, but to make data-backed recommendations on the topic they should write about next. Unfortunately, I am not seeing that happening fast enough in the industry, so that’s a focus for us.
I don’t have a huge content team, but I have people who write and we take a lot of time to do keyword analysis and put an organic search strategy in place where we’ll focus on maybe 300 words that really matter to us a lot. And that takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of investment, and it’s just a very manual process—so that’s something we’re going to change.
The next step is for content tech to communicate to writers what they should write about.
For instance, I want someone on my team to login and to see two things. One is: What should they be writing about next, what’s the most important topic to write about next from an organic search perspective? So if there really are 300 different topics that we need to be writing about, what’s the next one that’s most important and then what’s the second and third. I want to help people prioritize to the point where they can literally be told the topic to write about when they log in each morning.
And then the other side of that coin is less on the technical and SEO side; it’s more on hot topics. So, what might be trending in Google Search Trends that’s just a really timely topic today that we could be writing about? What’s trending that’s highly relevant for us and highly relevant for content consumers on the internet? How can we help teams identify that topic and be the first to write about it?
— What are some of the biggest points of friction you see when it comes to companies creating and designing great content on the web? How can content teams overcome those?
The biggest mistake I’ve seen, and I’ve seen it countless times for many years at a variety of different companies, is to make decisions based on feelings instead of data. Just because you think of a cute name for something, it doesn’t mean there’ll be demand for it. Do the homework first, and then make a data-backed decision.
On top of that, don’t create content just because someone told you to “publish X pieces of content per week.” That’s not a strategy, that’s busy work. Take the time to understand your audience, analyze the competitive landscape, do keyword research to see where there’s demand, and put together a content marketing program based on facts & data, not guesswork. Then, measure early in the campaign so you have time to optimize while it’s still running.
— At Setka, we’re big proponents of the idea that collaborative content processes—involving everyone from the writers to the marketers to the designers at every step—help create better content. What tips do you have for companies trying to create stronger internal content creation processes?
My advice is don’t work in silos. To get the results you need, each team needs to understand and care about the other team’s work, and work together to succeed.
There can even be silos just within your marketing team—nevermind outside of marketing—so step one is to break down those barriers. So you’ve got somebody writing content within your marketing team, you’ve got an editor that needs to edit that content, you’ve probably got an SEO specialist who’s thinking about how that content gets optimized so people can actually find it organically, you’ve got somebody on the social side who’s thinking about how to share that content and get engagement on social networks. So, you could have four silos right there who aren’t talking to each other. Step one is to break down those silos and at least get the marketing team functioning really well.
After that, I think it’s about achieving sales and marketing alignment. Especially when we think about those hot topics that we should be writing about, I want to make sure we’re in sync with sales and creating editorial content that they really care about and would feel proud to use when reaching out to a prospect or a lead, saying, “this made me think of you, this is highly relevant to you or your role or your brand or whatever the case might be.” So making sure that the content is valuable to the sales team is super important to me.
And that applies both on the prospecting side when I think about them going after new business and trying to reach prospects and leads for the first time, and also even further down in the funnel. When you think about the opportunity phase, how can content help them move that early stage opportunity further along?
And you can apply this thinking even on the customer side. When you think of retaining a customer—upselling them, cross selling them—how can we create content that makes them want to continue to work with us? How can we create content that assures them that we are thought leaders in our space, that we really get it? So content really plays a role in all areas of the funnel and breaking down those silos will help it function better.
… making sure that the content is valuable to the sales team is super important to me.
— How do you think content technologies will need to change in light of COVID-19? What are some of the biggest things Knotch is thinking about in terms of meeting user needs going forward?
Content has continued to grow in importance over the past 15 years. Independent data confirms this. It’s no longer enough to just have a Content Management System along with website analytics. Web analytics are for people who build websites, but content analytics are for people who make content. Content marketers need technology that’s designed specifically for them to create great content. This means covering all phases of the content marketing lifecycle including planning, measurement, and optimization.
One of the biggest gaps still is transparency. Many marketers struggle to understand if their content is effective or not—especially beyond basic quantitative metrics like users and sessions. And even if they do have that answer, it’s too often kept in a silo. That data really needs to expand to corporate communication teams, media teams, and beyond.
We have something called a content quality score (CQS) inside of Knotch and we’re always fine-tuning it. Ideally we want to look at just a couple of different dimensions—keep it simple enough, because we could try to boil the ocean and look at 50 different metrics and mash those together and come up with one score, but it’s going to be too complicated for brands and content marketers to understand.
The other gap is integration. There’s a lot of content tech out there, but it’s not realistic to use one vendor for the planning phase, another for measurement, another for optimization, etc.
Content marketers need technology that’s designed specifically for them to create great content.
— Did COVID-19 change your outlook on the market? If yes, how?
Absolutely. To see brands like Airbnb, Uber, and WeWork massively impacted, proves that anything can happen. For me, I’ve always believed in caring deeply about customers and trying to help them be successful in every way possible. That was pre-COVID, during COVID, and will continue for the rest of my career. That’s what everyone wanted and needed during COVID, and that will now be their expectation going forward.
Hayley Nelson, VP of Content Marketing at Salesforce, on using content to care for their customers through COVID:
“Some companies need advice, some need apps/services, and others need to hear how peers are adjusting their approaches. We have this mantra of ‘always be helping’ and our content reflects that, regardless of the subject.”
— As a content creator, what does caring deeply about your readers look like in practice?
I think it goes back to being patient. The example I would use is, sales teams are eager to close a deal. They want to do that as quickly as possible. And I think it’s important to remind them about the need to do the work it takes to build up a relationship and get to know somebody so you can close a deal.
At the end of the day, any B2B or enterprise SaaS company needs to close deals. That’s how I’m measured and so that’s always what I’m thinking about, but how we get there is the part that can have different variables.
So, sometimes there’s a feeling of “that’s not a lead-generating activity” or “that’s not going to turn into an immediate opportunity.” And to me that’s the wrong way of going about it. It just takes hard work sometimes in terms of rolling up your sleeves, doing your homework, getting to know the brand that you’re going after or the people at the brand that you’re going after, trying to understand what their challenges are at work, and maybe even what their challenges are in life. We’ve all gone through so much during 2020, so if you’ve got a persona that you’re going after, take that into account.
Say that person is someone who lives in the suburbs and has a family. What is that person going through during the pandemic versus somebody who might be in their 20s who lives in the city who’s struggling in a totally different way? You have to be in tune to everything that’s happening, both for them in their roles at their brands and their companies, and what they have to go home to at night.
It’s really important that every single marketer and content marketer and sales rep takes the time to understand the brand and the challenges they’re going through and to understand the people that they’re targeting at those brands both at work and at home.
ILLUSTRATOR: Khadia Ulumbekova