Five very promising signs for content marketing in 2017

From the CMI’s UK Benchmark, Budgets and Trends Report

January 3, 2017

The release of the Content Marketing Institute’s Benchmark, Budget and Trends Report is becoming a key date in the diary for content marketers. It’s not just a snapshot of how our craft is evolving from one year to the next – it’s also a great guide to the characteristics of successful content marketing businesses. This year’s report is hot off the presses having been released while we were all celebrating the Christmas holidays – and it contains plenty of good omens for content marketing in 2017.

From the LinkedIn perspective, there are a couple of statistics in the report that you might expect me to draw attention to. First is the confirmation that LinkedIn is the most important social media distribution channel for content marketers: it’s used by 84% of all content marketers in the CMI study, only 4% fewer than use email. Secondly, and just as significantly, LinkedIn makes by far the biggest contribution to content marketing success outside of email. Three quarters of content marketers who use LinkedIn rate it as very or extremely important to their success. YouTube is the next placed non-email channel with an equivalent rating of 54%.

Don’t get me wrong – the fact that LinkedIn has such a prominent role in content marketing strategies and makes such a tangible contribution to their success is great news. What’s even better news though, is that this is taking place alongside a growing sophistication in how UK businesses use content marketing generally. Here are the five key findings from the CMI report that show how our discipline is coming of age in 2017:

Commitment delivers results
As my colleague Jason Miller argued in a post earlier this year, you can’t expect to succeed in content marketing just by putting content out there and hoping for the best. The most successful content marketing organisations recognise the particular skills that content requires – and support the function with its own strategy and headcount. This year’s CMI report has hard evidence to show how this type of commitment transforms content marketing effectiveness. Businesses that describe themselves as committed to content are 37% more likely to be clear on what success looks like – and 25% more likely to describe their content marketing as ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ effective.

Content marketing strategies aren’t just a box-ticking exercise
It’s been a consistent theme of the CMI’s annual report that the existence of a documented content marketing strategy tends to divide successful content marketing organisations from the rest. It’s therefore encouraging that 40% of UK marketers now have a documented strategy – but what’s even more encouraging is the elements included in those strategies. Almost three quarters (72%) have well-defined business goals for their content and around half (49%) have a clear measurement plan in place. It’s significant too that 47% say their organisation has undergone structural or management changes in the past 12 months that have had a positive impact on their content marketing approach.

There are obvious areas of improvement here: 30% of UK marketers have a content strategy that they haven’t documented yet – and there’s obviously scope for more content strategies to have a definite measurement plan. However, it’s clear that content strategies are becoming more than simply a box-ticking exercise – and this is reflected in the powerful impact they continue to have on content marketing effectiveness. Of those with a strategy (whether documented or undocumented), 40% rate it as ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ effective, and 24% say that it is ‘much more effective’ now than it was just a year ago. Content marketing strategies are emerging as an essential tool for continuous improvement – and that’s exactly as it should be.

Quality and originality are now a priority
Content marketing has always involved a balancing act between working and non-working spend: the amount that you invest in distributing your content versus the amount you invest in ensuring that content is worth distributing. This year’s survey shows increasing emphasis on content quality over content quantity (quality is now prioritised by 71% of UK content marketers). And there’s an increasingly sophisticated approach to what quality content looks like: 65% focus on creating content focused on the audience rather than brand priorities; 62% consider how content affects the overall customer experience; 60% focus on differentiation versus the competition and 59% craft content for specific points in the buyer journey.

It’s noticeable too, that many content marketers have a clear idea of the techniques that will help them to craft more audience-centred content – in particular, the importance of keyword research to more effective content marketing. Amongst all UK content marketers, 61% now use keyword research, 58% use website analysis tools and 54% use social listening. I predict that, over the next year, we’ll see increasing use of A/B testing as a means of refining content strategy as well. Currently, 28% of UK marketers use this technique. There’s definite room for growth.

Content is breaking free of the campaign model
One of the most important characteristics of content strategies is the timeframe over which they see content delivering ROI. In fact, 79% of those with a content strategy say that they plan to operate content marketing as an on-going business process, not simply a campaign. I think this represents an important shift in mindset regarding content – and it’s one with very positive implications for content marketing going forward.

Meaningful metrics mean better funnel vision
As content marketing strategies become more mature and sophisticated, so too do the range of metrics used to measure progress. Marketers are increasingly clear on how to measure content ROI throughout the funnel: 42% have top-of-funnel metrics in place (lead generation and success at building an audience, for example), 42% are measuring conversions and sales at the bottom of the funnel, and 32% are able to track the tricky mid-funnel regions through measures of their developing relationships with qualified leads. Of those using content marketing metrics, more than half now say they can demonstrate growth in leads (65%), increased audience engagement (61%) and increased sales (54%). I think the 31% able to demonstrate decreased cost of customer acquisition is also a statistic worth watching. There’s obviously room for growth here, but it’s an extremely robust metric for content marketers to be focusing on – and it’s encouraging that almost a third are demonstrating ROI on this basis.

Of course, there’s another statistic in the CMI report that I could quote as being a positive sign for content marketing: the fact that 36% of marketing budgets are now spent on content, and that 53% of UK content marketers expect that share to increase this year. The fact is though, that it’s not the amount of budget given to content marketing that’s the most important indicator of success – it’s the sophistication with which that budget is spent.  The real story in this year’s Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends report is how that sophistication is evolving. A sign of a good year ahead.