Farewell to 2016. It was an interesting year.

We saw the emergence of 360 video, virtual reality, augmented reality and chatbots as vital content tools, and we watched Snapchat stress levels rise among certain age groups (“I know this is a big deal but I’m terrified to use it”) in lock-step with spends on paid social.

Looking back at some of the content-marketing trends predicted for 2016, a few patterns surface: mobile-first decision making and the increased use of data to inform storytelling came to pass. The death of e-mail marketing did not. Wearable devices had little noticeable impact. Video grew but didn’t explode (as anyone familiar with Facebook’s recent announcement will attest).

I like the number five. For that reason, and that reason alone, I’ve bucketed my content marketing look-ahead for 2017 into five sections.

Everything old is new again

Podcasts, newsletters, webinars.

Not exactly the new kids on the block. But for a variety of reasons, they’ve received renewed attention as reliable elements of broad content strategies.

Podcasts were a tough nut to crack when they gained popularity many years ago as a novel way to bring the intimacy of radio to the web. Distribution and promotion were limited, with the likes of media stores such as iTunes, and social media, in their infancies. As a result, it was difficult to measure the impact and effectiveness of podcasts from an audience, and therefore a revenue, perspective.

Newsletters and email marketing remain key components of any marketing campaign.

Admittedly, they never went away, they just quietly continued along with niche audiences. Serial attracted a mass audience. Initially, market reaction was “wow, people actually still want to listen to these things, who knew?” Then, as with any successful venture, attempts to replicate Serial’s success began to present themselves. As the quality and variety increased, along with improved distribution channels, podcasts became a shiny content object again, and marketers started trying to roll up advertisers to support them, usually with ‘sponsored by’ interludes in some combination at the front, middle and back ends.

Metrics remain the tough nut (ideation and production barriers aside). You can measure downloads on media stores, but how do you know how many people followed through by actually listening to the content? You don’t. Which also means you can’t tell advertisers how many people heard their messaging. Hosting on your own website and using organic and paid social to drive traffic is a good option, and there are streaming services like Soundcloud, which also provides limited metrics. A combination of all of these methods is your best option. And yes, that’s a lot of work.

Newsletters are a simpler proposition, and their benefits are easier to track. Back in the day, most newsletters were built from scratch by developers. Low-costs services such as MailChimp, Constant Contact and VerticalResponse began to provide turnkey solutions to what used to be a bigger problem: getting good newsletters in the hands of readers and tracking their actions.

There are pesky ‘rules’ in place (in these parts we have Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation, or CASL) that make climbing the distribution-list mountain a bit daunting. After all, what good is a newsletter if nobody gets it, let alone reads it? But the fact is, if you provide great content that elicits a strong response from readers, you have an ideal platform on which you can sell sponsorships, and they land directly in people’s figurative laps. E-mail remains a highly effective marketing tool.

I’ll be the first to admit for the past few years I’ve shuddered when I heard the word ‘webinar.’ To me, it equalled effort and co-ordination that far outweighed audience results. After all, who had the time to sit through them?

I’m giving them another chance. I’m coming to the realization that they are an underused and underappreciated platform that, when well executed, can effectively achieve valuable interactions. The two most important strategic elements are topics and lead times.

You (hopefully) know your audience. If you don’t have access to rich data, talk to some of them (actually, talk to some of them either way). What do they want to know about when it comes to your industry or sector? Not what they want to know about you and your products, but the challenges you face as a group, and what you can capitalize on. What is there to discuss? Are you the right person to lead the webinar, or is there an expert better poised to do it?

Once you are confident you have a topic that will attract a critical mass of participants, give yourself a few weeks to promote the chat. Use newsletters, social channels and all other forms of content marketing distribution at your disposal to get the word out. Make sure you use software that enables people to sign up in advance by email, not only so you can send them automated reminders, but also for lead generation.

Other points to bear in mind for any webinar you host:

  • Use visuals when possible during the broadcast to keep it interesting and hold attention.
  • Give people the chance to participate by providing time for questions and comments.
  • Try to avoid a script. Jot down a few points you want to ensure you cover, but keep it conversational, not stilted.
  • Record the session so it can be viewed retroactively, and re-promoted, getting you bonus interactions.
  • Don’t stop at one. Do one a month. Build your audience over time.

Expect podcasts, newsletters and webinars to grow in popularity through 2017.

Paid social is the great equalizer

It was tough to be a small player, back in the days before social media. For most brands, a digital content marketing advantage came with size. The bigger and better known you were, and the more money you had, the easier it was to get your message out to a large group with a popular website or newsletter. For major publishers, built-in audiences attracted clients, eager to achieve scale.

Paid social media is a cost-effective and scalable way to get content to where your audience already is.

When social media first came onto the scene, it was a pretty level playing field. Individuals and small brands figured out ways to roll up followers as effectively as any of the big brands. Over time, however, those bigger brands learned to leverage their vast marketing expertise and public profiles to start dominating reach.

Along came paid social, and everything changed again. Suddenly, a big organic social following certainly didn’t hurt, but it was no longer required to target the audience to which you wanted to deliver content. Whether you have five followers or five million, a smart paid-social strategy can be the great equalizer.

Not only that, the elephant in the room (hello, Facebook) changed its algorithms to limit organic reach. Without spending money, or having insanely engaging content (hello, cats), the ability to organically attract an audience with content, even when users like your posts, is now limited.

A few pesky facts still give brands of a certain size a content marketing advantage. It takes time to learn how to optimize campaigns, which means you need to run them on a regular basis. Which means you still need to spend money. And the more you have to spend, the more sustained and more wide-reaching your efforts, and the more you can leverage more expensive and more targeted options such as LinkedIn.

Expect to see more marketing dollars funneled to our friends in social media in 2017.

Benchmarks will change

Data is useless without analysis. Analysis is useless without the right data. Working in content marketing means your first job is to determine your key performance indicators, or KPIs. Decide what they are at the start of the campaign, not the end. What are you aiming to achieve? How will you measure whether or not those goals are being met?

Only then can you reasonably assume your analysis will provide the required conclusions.

Here are today’s standard content performance metrics:

  • Impressions
  • Click-through-rates (CTRs)
  • Time spent
  • Page views

If you want to engage as many people as possible, these four indicators will help you measure holistic success (or lack thereof), particularly when brand awareness is your main goal.

Look for changes in the way success is judged in content programs over the next year.

Increasingly, brands consider awareness to be a side benefit of a more specific set of KPIs. An automotive manufacturer, for example, might set ‘bums in seats’ on test drives to be the goal. A retailer could dangle a web-only sale on a specific product and monitor lift.

Here are the metrics you can expect to become more important and put into broader use in 2017:

  • Scroll depth
  • Video completion rates
  • In-screen impressions
  • Referrer traffic
  • Behaviour breakdown by device
  • Click fraud rate
  • Cross platform comparison (search/display/native/social)

The more time consumers spend on a page, and the deeper they engage with the content, the greater the chance for an advertiser to convert. And we all know conversion is the ultimate goal.

This is the year to think beyond the click-through.

Competition for attention will multiply

You must remember this: As a content marketer, you’re competing with anyone who publishes on the Internet. Nearly half the planet is online, but despite the almost-inconceivable size of that audience, the number of people and pages fighting for eyeballs is akin to a vast ocean. There are billions of pages on the web.

Standing out in the crowd is becoming increasingly difficult and that trend will accelerate in 2017. Think about all the videos uploaded every second. All the Facebook posts. All the tweets. All the articles, the blogs, the research papers, the stock quotes. It never ends.

So, where’s your window of opportunity this year?

Know where and how your audience wants to engage with content.

Host your ads and your content on trusted sources, whether it’s your own property, another well-known brand, or a publisher. Know where your material is surfacing and be reasonably certain those locations maintain general public acceptance.

I say ‘general’ for a reason. Trust is a relative term. Do your research. Draw your own conclusions based on the information in front of you.

The U.S. election prompted a great deal of conversation around fake news and the reliability of online sources. These concerns existed in small part before the vote took place, but post-election analysis revealed the full extent of the issue. The coverage caused a significant percentage of the population to re-examine their content consumption habits.

Content marketers would be wise to take the same skeptical approach to their posts in 2017.

Article pages are the new landing pages

Your home page is not dead, but it’s on life support.

I’m not going to argue that 2017 will mark the official death of the home page as a construct. But by the end of the year, if you haven’t already, you’ll need to have a distribution plan in place for your content that doesn’t rely on any home page traffic, or things are going to get ugly.

Web habits have shifted. People are discovering information from a wide variety of sources, starting with search engines, which means you’d better have a strong SEO strategy to compete in that vast ocean referenced earlier.

Even more important is the push to pages from social, particularly Facebook, as well as text-based services. These delivery mechanisms target people where they ‘live’ online, putting relevant content in front of them instead of making them work to find it.

You don’t want to push people to a landing page, such as a home page, where you display a variety of headlines and images. That forces the need for a secondary click, and once you go down that road, you’re liable to lose a chunk of your intended audience.

Push them directly to a content page and design every one of those pages like a landing page. The story is there, in whatever format you’ve chosen, but you’ll need to surround it with links to other relevant content, either in the same series or related to it. (And a few ads, of course.)

As it gets tougher to drive audience to your home page, make every page a landing page. Hopefully it will result in multiple views from each user.

The big picture

Content marketing budgets are increasing across North America. Expect 2017 to be a good year to get in the game.


Sean Stanleigh is managing editor of Globe Edge Content Studio. Follow him on Twitter @seanstanleigh

Published by Sean Stanleigh

Head of Globe Content Studio at The Globe and Mail