Introducing the New Rules of Content Marketing

TL;DR: In 2020, traditional marketing tactics (think: Las Vegas trade shows, flashy billboards, and clickbait listicles) are no longer cutting it. Here’s how some of the best brands are rewriting the rules of content marketing for our remote-first, digital-first world.

If someone told me in January that I’d spend most of 2020 quarantined at home during a global pandemic, I would have said you were insane. 

I began 2020 working in brand and content development at one of the world’s most exciting B2C companies, leading a team, traveling the world, and in love with my job. Then the pandemic hit. In the span of a few months, I had moved apartments and switched careers. Normal activities like requesting an Uber ride or going grocery shopping were suddenly fraught with anxiety and risk. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

COVID-19 has transformed nearly every element of our lives, from how we work and play to the ways in which we engage with our favorite brands. 

The release of Google’s Zero Moment of Truth study in 2011 quantified what brands have long known about marketing: content is key to sparking and maintaining customer loyalty. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that our traditional approach to content marketing isn’t cutting it, both in the form of shrinking budgets and shifting consumer preferences.

Here’s how the pandemic has changed content marketing and what the best teams are doing to adapt to this new reality:

What people care about has changed

Marketing expert Neil Patel recently published a study highlighting how organic web traffic around search terms for certain industries has plummeted, including (and not surprisingly) travel, construction, and manufacturing. On the other hand, search for industry-related SEO terms for media, finance, and food has skyrocketed.

This indicates that consumers are focused on activities that they can control, versus activities that are either not a priority in our remote-first world or perhaps less accessible than they once were, like travel.

While major airlines are still operating and some states have reinstated indoor dining, international borders have closed and even taking a quick trip to the local drugstore isn’t without its fair share of precautions (i.e., wearing a mask, keeping 6-feet apart from other customers, plexiglass shields to protect workers, etc.).

What consumers care about has shifted, and while some industries have already begun rebounding, marketers should keep tabs on what’s top of mind for consumers. I’m not suggesting that airlines start tweeting about their favorite roasted peanut recipes, or manufacturing companies start sharing investing tips, but it doesn’t hurt to take stock of what terms people are searching for when determining your content calendar.

In-person events are out, virtual events are in

Massive, in-person conferences and events, long a mainstay of traditional marketing, are no longer logistically feasible. While some brands have decided to push back their in-person events to next year, many more are choosing to take their events online, with all-virtual versions.

Besides the obvious (you can attend in your pajamas), here’s why I think virtual conferences are a good thing:

  • They tend to be cheaper than in-person events - for everyone. Removing the travel, accommodations, and conference hall budget makes hosting and attending them much more cost-effective.

  • They require less of a time commitment than in-person events. Now, all you have to do to attend a keynote is press a button and listen in. Sure, crowded meeting halls and buffet-style continental breakfasts have their charm, but maybe not during a global pandemic.

  • Better technology exists to support them. Five years ago, the thought of trying to host a virtual conference would have sent chills down my spine - the technology to make them lively and engaging (not to mention non-laggy) just didn’t exist. Solutions like Attendify and hopin have made virtual conferences easier than ever before to not just host keynotes, but vendor booths, networking sessions, and even happy hours.

A year ago, there’s no way I would have chosen to attend a virtual event that wasn’t being thrown by my company or a company I wanted to work for. Now, I find myself registering for events I may or may not Zoom into simply for a change of pace. Even if I don’t attend them live, I know I’ll be able to access recordings after the fact to watch at my leisure. And if I don’t watch them, I’ll still be on the company’s email marketing alias.

The point is, I’ll remember the brand.

Length ≠ engagement

A thorough, well-constructed op-ed on the power of UV light to kill germs will probably go farther in selling you on a portable sanitization lamp than a flashy billboard with no words, but we’ve long been told that consumers don’t have the patience or time to read the next War and Peace. The good news? There’s a happy medium.

As marketers, short-form sells. After all, the average post on WordPress is just 280-words long. But it’s also true that article length does not necessarily correlate to engagement. Now that most consumers have more time on their hands and are spending more and more hours glued to a screen, the likelihood that they’ll actually sit and read through (or at the very least, skim) an entire, 800-word article has increased.

In my own work, I’ve found the sweet spot to be anywhere from 700-1,200 words for a content marketing article, and 3-4 sentences for an email newsletter opener. Keep in mind that I’m in B2B technology, but statistics drawn from other industries tell a similar story.

It’s easier (and harder) to become a social media juggernaut

Content marketing has been around for hundreds of years, but only 40 years ago, mass media was limited to a few curated mediums, namely television, films, radio, and print. With the introduction of the internet and social media, the channels (pun intended) through which brands could reach consumers skyrocketed, and it became more difficult than ever to get your content noticed.

Tik Tok is the social media platform du jour, making social media stardom just a “challenge” away, but the brands that really break the mold and offer us something both familiar and unique are the ones we remember.

Still, COVID-19 has made audiences eager for connection and entertainment; brands that do one of five things will win:

  • Engage. If you haven’t started engaging directly with your audience through social media (in other words, community engagement), now is the time to start. Customers want to be listened to and acknowledging them through a re-tweet or thoughtful response to their feedback will go a long way.

  • Include. Many companies have taken to Tik Tok or Instagram to start new challenges or even compilations of organic (often non-paid, with their permission) influencers featuring their product. It’s not easy to predict whether something will go viral, but the good news is that social media, particularly Tik Tok, is nascent, giving brands time and flexibility to figure out a winning equation.

  • Give back. During the pandemic, many brands have been donating supplies or money to related causes or even directly to first line responders. Even if your marketing budget is tight, you can consider giving back by offering free courses related to your areas of expertise. (Own a yogurt company? Teach a course on probiotics! Sell dog food? Write a free fitness guide for healthy pups). See below.

  • Educate. Can’t afford to give everyone in your studio audience a new car? Not a problem. Some of the best brands have been leveraging social media to educate or inform their customers about ways to stay healthy, fit, safe, and entertained during the pandemic.

  • Empathize. COVID-19 forced companies to communicate more intelligently and empathetically to position their brand in the context of a global pandemic - not an easy task for anyone except maybe Clorox or Kaiser Permanente. Brands are now forced to answer the question: why should people care about me in this new normal? What value can I bring to their lives?

The one constant: a demand for quality

I can’t emphasize this enough: if what you’re writing isn’t well-thought out and compelling, no one will care to read through to your call-to-action. I have written 2,000-word articles that received 10x pageviews than 500-word articles with catchy headlines. Your audience is smart, and clickbait just won’t cut it (though who doesn’t love a great listicle?).

If you don’t know what you’re writing about, your customers will see through your words. You don’t need to be a world-leading expert in something to write intelligently about it, but it’s important to include statistics, links to relevant (and reliable) sources, as well as other information that will bolster your argument.

In fact, as a result of COVID-19 and the impending U.S. presidential election, I predict that consumers will have even less patience for misinformation than they have in the past. Certainly, the rise in research into technologies and enthusiasm around regulations to stem its effects contributes to this trend, too.

Interested in chatting content? Connect with Molly.

Author bio: Molly is the Head of Content and Communications at Monte Carlo, a Series A data observability company funded by Accel, GGV, and DJ Patil, former US Chief Data Scientist, among other leading investors. Prior to joining Monte Caro, Molly led the Tech Brand and Content team at Uber, where she managed the Uber Engineering Blog and Uber Research Program. She graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in American Studies and wrote her honors thesis on Elvis Presley.