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The Big Five Content Trends for 2021

Covid and Content. Not the kind of alliteration anyone wants. But that's how the timing worked out to watch Content Trends for 2021 from the Content Marketing Institute (CMI). Here are some of the more interesting ones to keep our eye on.

#1 Middle of the funnel disappears

If you've worked anywhere near marketing or content, you've heard the term "sales funnel," describing the widest part of the customer journey as it narrows to purchase. In theory, your prospect goes down a linear path to buy your product. Here's the thing: that's not how customers make decisions anymore. A person might see an ad, then click on a social media post that links to a white paper, attend an event, and then reread a blog post before finally making a purchase. As CMI Chief Strategy Advisor Robert Rose put it, "Customers are pinging all over the place. The funnel notion that we hold someone's hand doesn't make sense (content) needs to be there to resolve the needs that people have at that moment in time, and easily." He added, "Stop thinking about persuasive hard sell in the middle part of the funnel and put the value in treating your audience like customers. You want to build them all up as ambassadors and build loyalty."

#2 Sell content initiatives inside your company

Wait…what? Isn't it enough to convince prospects to read your precious words? Nope. There's a high chance that your content program may not get funded unless the powers that be see the value in it. As Joe Pulizzi, CMI Founder Emeritus, said, "Most content marketing fails because someone inside is holding purse strings. If you are in content marketing, before you do anything else, focus internally on accounting, finance, the CMO, and marketing. You have to sell it inside. You need to engage with them on a regular basis about what the storytelling is, how you're building customers, and how it supports financial models. You're not safe just because you're showing growth in revenue."

#3 CMOs crave more emotional data

Everyone knows that your customer list is the most prized gem, and secondly, the customers we want to court. But how you get those names is vital. As Rose put it, "There's a lot of talk about data being willingly given and trusted. There's no comparison with scraping of data, buying of lists, and the like." This idea, coined by Forrester under the name zero party data (ZPD), refers to "... a prospect that is intentionally and proactively sharing data with a brand for the purpose of a particular intent or value exchange." This type of data hand-off is the most desirable for businesses. "CMOs will value that over the data lake and acquiring lists. As content marketers lean into customer data and personalizing value and treating audiences as customers, it becomes the gold standard," Rose said. With that trust, brands should treat ZPD as VIP, building direct relationships with them, and only delivering valuable, customized offers and recommendations.

#4 Content's role is changing

The place of content marketing in organizations is also shape-shifting, and several trends illustrate this. First, the content needs of your audience surpass revenue goals. "Content marketing is drawing a line in the sand. It's filling those desires and taking it to the next level, not sales," Pulizzi points out. Witness that a company's editorial mission is squarely focused on providing high-value content to educate and motivate. Secondly, content will be more experimental and customized for individual prospects (also reinforcing the idea that the middle funnel may disappear altogether). "Customers want information when they want it and where they want it," as Mark Bornstein, Chief Webinerd and VP of Content Marketing, ON24 put it. "Think a premium content hub supported by a convergence of experiential deliverables and personalized that is interactive and targeted for unique audiences." In other words, your prospect gets one experience, and it focuses on accelerating their journey how they want to get there.

#5 Content drives revenue streams

Of course, the bottom line is…the bottom line. Although content should focus on customer needs, let's face it, companies are ultimately in business to rack up the revenue. Development of new and creative content revenue streams will be another measure of value. For example, the role of subscription models will increase, and companies will ramp up their programming. As Pulizzi put it, "Companies will produce their own content and digital experiences, which can be an effective subscription model. We need to go further to create really great streams of serialized programming and build loyalty." He points to big tech companies like Amazon that offer a suite of services, not just one or two, that increase loyalty and long-term customers. Expanding those streams to build a dedicated audience can lead to sales through events, affiliates, sponsorships, etc. Closely related, there will be more media shake-ups and companies snatching up properties next year. This turnkey approach to attracting eyeballs can quickly support brand goals instead of investing in a brand studio and patiently waiting for results.

If 2020 is any indicator, we have no clue what's in store next year for our own lives, but at least we will know what to look for with content. Stay tuned.

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