‘Content is king’ — the great visionary Bill Gates opined in 1996. Now 25 years later, his words ring truer than ever.
A solid content marketing strategy is a prerequisite for any kind of business today. Content marketing trends show that 60% of marketers create at least one piece of content each day. It has taken off in the B2B space, with 42% of marketers considering themselves effective at content. Perhaps its widespread usage is evident from the stat 9 out of 10 organizations leverage content marketing to establish brand identity, generate leads, convert prospects into customers, and retain a loyal paying fanbase.
If content marketing was a mere buzzword in the early 2000s, it is the norm today. Its rise in popularity can be seen from the following chart on content marketing trends:
So you might be tempted to hop onto the content marketing bandwagon, but that is easier said than done. For content marketing is not static, it’s highly dynamic, and its landscape keeps evolving continuously. What was THE fad merely five years ago has drifted into obscurity and has become obsolete today (we’re looking at you, Facebook status updates). In such a fluctuating scenario, we must look at how content marketing has evolved over the years. Let us delve into the story of its origin and try to extrapolate its future.
But first, let us understand how we know content marketing in the present.
The Definition of Content Marketing in 2021
As we can see, content marketing comprises the creation and distribution of helpful content like blogs, images, videos, e-books, etc., to solve a user’s pain point. The key difference between this and traditional marketing is that content marketing is non-branded. It is not crafted with the intention of advertising one’s product or services; it serves to offer high-value information to anyone who seeks it. It’s a method to pull people in rather than shoving content (pushy ads) in people’s faces. What used to be an afterthought ten years ago is now becoming a centerpiece of marketing discussions today.
Content marketing has really evolved through the ages. Broadly, there were two major phases, including the pre-internet and the post-internet phase. We can divide the post-internet phase further into three stages decade-wise to understand the evolution of content marketing in granular detail.
Stage 1: Pre-Internet
If you thought content marketing didn’t exist before the internet, you couldn’t be more wrong. It did, albeit in a vastly different form. The origin of content marketing can be traced back to John Deere’s eponymous lifestyle magazine for farmers, The Furrow, back in 1995. This magazine was not a shameless catalog of its own products. Instead, it contained information about the latest farming technologies and trends, stuff that can make a farmer more wealthy. Deere hoped that farmers would remember the name and come back to purchase his equipment. And come back they did, which is evidenced by the fact that the magazine is still in circulation.
Another content marketing pioneer is Jell-O, who launched a cookbook with recipes containing their sweet, gelatinous product. Again, it wasn’t a blatant advertisement but more like an inconspicuous product placement. The cookbook went viral, helping Jello amass $1 million in sales in just two years!
These are just two examples of erstwhile content marketing, which was mostly done door-to-door and employed physical material like brochures, books, magazines, and catalogs.
Stage 2: The Internet
The 1990s: If the pre-internet era was the wild west for content marketing, this was rock-and-roll. The internet heralded a tectonic shift in the way brands reached people. Distribution costs became zero, and the reach became unlimited. This was the decade when websites became cool. Any and every brand wanting to come across as hip and happening created a webpage.
1994 witnessed the creation of the first online blog, according to the New Yorker. Microsoft launched its first corporate blog in 1998 and never looked back, spending $20 billion on content in the subsequent three years. All this set the stage for the grand entrance of sponsored content, with Artisan Entertainment’s indie film ‘The Blair Witch Project’ leading the way.
According to The Drum, the movie was a huge hit at the box office, thanks to its trendsetting digital promotions, which involved the creation of multiple ‘conspiracy theory websites’ to create a buzz about its plot points. The first documented example of viral content, if you will.
The 2000s: This decade can be seen as the inflection point for content marketing as Google came and changed the game. Because till this point, consumers were still accustomed to brands reaching out to them as opposed to vice-versa.
With the rise of Google, search became the dominant online behavior and primary buying action, spawning an entirely new industry (SEO). This was proved by Google’s seminal Zero Moment Of Truth study, which found that 88% of consumers like to research a product online before deciding to buy it — which came to be known as the discovery and awareness stage of the sales funnel. This study gave a huge boost to the SEO industry, and content marketing became geared more and more towards mastering Google’s Page Rank algorithm and coming on top of the SERPs (and staying there).
The 2010s: If Search dominated the first decade of the millennium, the second was characterized by Social. The Search was all about intent, where users proactively wanted to look something up to have their questions answered. But Social Media changed the way people consumed content.
People preferred browsing content mindlessly on Facebook and Twitter feeds, Instagram stories, YouTube videos. No longer did people go looking for content; content found its way to them. Content consumption became more passive, and this led to a flurry of catchy, shareable content. Social media feeds became inundated with branded content, and people became habituated to discovering new products on social media platforms. Content marketing trends show a spike in social media usage in the last five years, according to Statista.
2021 & Beyond
This brings us to the billion-dollar question — What does the future hold in store for the content marketing industry? A few recurring themes emerge:
- Content has to be geared towards mobile. About 61% of Google searches were carried out on a mobile device in 2019, says Statista, meaning content has to be tailored to look good on tiny screens.
- Videos have to figure prominently in your content strategy as content marketing trends indicate that 82% of businesses had video as a cornerstone of their marketing arsenal in 2020.
- Newer content formats will continue to pop up. Feed > Stories > Reels > Branded live streams?
- Audio looks like it could be the breakout medium. The surge in popularity of podcasts and audio-first social networks like Clubhouse (10 million weekly active users and growing) lends credence to this hypothesis. This has been further accelerated by the pandemic and people wanting to reduce their screen time.
Change is the only constant in life, and this adage applies perfectly to content marketing. Consumer habits will keep evolving, and the content will have to keep up. Content marketers will have to constantly reinvent themselves by staying abreast of the latest developments and producing content that’s on-trend or run the risk of being rendered irrelevant.