Beyond the Crisis: Plotting What’s Next for Content Marketing

6 essential considerations for every content program.

a person walking down a hallway, the sun is shining very brightly through the hallway

Sitting in my home office one Tuesday morning in May, I picked up the phone to find my daughter’s ophthalmologist on the other end. The clinic was closed and we had missed her six-month checkup. Did I want to schedule a telemedicine visit? I scoffed. How could a physician diagnose a 3-year-old’s eyesight from the other side of a screen?

Easy, he said, and pointed me to an accredited online guide to measuring children’s visual acuity. One article and one printable chart download later, I was on the way to updating my toddler’s glasses prescription.

Routine medical care is not the only practice that has changed dramatically in recent months as in-person interaction has been drastically curtailed. I’m not just talking about the obvious shifts, like schooling via Google Classroom and team meetings via Zoom. I’m thinking of all of us who are administering eye exams at home, or using an online video to guide us through coloring our hair, or maybe tuning in for a daily or weekly industry strategy update filmed from an executive’s basement.

What do all of these examples have in common? They’re all content. In the past few months, as the earth shifted under our feet—medically, socially and economically—content quietly became essential. Suddenly, everyone was connecting via content, from restaurants posting and chatting about their “secret” recipes to business leaders publishing updates from their living rooms to athletic brands dispensing tips on how to stay in shape indoors.

“Content is suddenly the glue that holds us together. When in-person life has all but stopped, content is a means of connecting, learning and doing.”

Those of us who traffic in content marketing every single day have long delivered earnest speeches about the power of content for all kinds of businesses and organizations. Content marketing, we’ve extolled to anyone who cared to listen, has the power to connect, teach, educate—when it’s deployed strategically. Recent weeks have made that stance widespread and have, just maybe, rendered content mandatory. Content is suddenly the glue that holds us together. When in-person life has all but stopped, content is a means of connecting, learning and doing.

The big question: What will happen next? As life begins to inch back toward the way it was—not normal, but maybe something resembling normal-ish, with people shopping in stores and dining in restaurants and working from someplace that’s not their couch—where does that leave content marketing? Will people file away their stylized Zoom backgrounds, pull their proper buttoned pants back on and go back to the way we were before?

I don’t think so.

The world has changed. The way we approach our health, personal care, shopping and workplace. The way we manage our money. Just about every aspect of life has been touched by the specter of coronavirus.

But as we emerge from the crisis and take stock of the state of business, where we’ve landed could prove beneficial for the practice of content marketing. Content marketing’s advantage over other marketing disciplines has always been its customer value. Advertising is shiny and attention-getting but also expensive and often hard to measure. PR can be worthwhile, but it’s also expensive and time-consuming. Content, at its core, is created with your audiences’ needs first. It delivers what your customers and prospects are looking for. When done right, content is inherently valuable.

That’s always been our advantage as content marketers; it’s the secret sauce that has fueled content marketing’s rapid ascent. It’s also what will make us essential as companies of every stripe feel their way through a changed business environment.

The harder part is knowing what our audiences will need in the coming months—what has really changed about the way we work and play. I’m talking about shaking off the crisis, which demands minute-to-minute thinking and shifts, and transitioning into the so-called New Normal—or something at least normal-ish.

Things will change. But how much, and in what direction? Here are a few things that I think will make a huge difference in how we communicate to our audiences.

Behaviors will change.

Long after museums and stores reopen, anxiety will remain high. There will be fear: fear of a second (or third) wave of disease, fear of getting too close to other people, fear of being in packed public spaces. There will be other kinds of fears, too: fear that our lives will never feel quite like they did before and that our once-robust economy will take years to regain its momentum.

That means that behaviors aren’t just going to snap back to the way they were in our pre-corona consciousness. Commuters will be reluctant to cram into a crowded rush hour train, for example, opting to work from home half the time—and eating into their podcast listening hour. Airline travel is likely to be depressed for months, if not years, reducing the volumes of travelers who stop in the airport newsstand. Conferences and conventions will be a shell of their former selves, possibly transitioning to hybrid models that include options for both in-person and online participation.

The content we produce has to work for consumers in all of these situations. If much of your industry is working from home, should you change the cadence or length of your podcast? If your conference-goers are moving online, how can those streamed sessions be sliced into other content types to be consumed across a variety of media? And what’s the substitute for good old fashioned in-person networking? All of us should be rethinking how we connect with our audiences.

We’re in a new economy.

So here we are. We’ve emerged from an unprecedented public health crisis into a certain economic recession. After a nearly decade-long boom, this is a shock for everyone, from the CEO of a global manufacturing company who has seen total supply chain upheaval to the high school student who suddenly is having trouble nailing down a summer job.

This means you can’t talk to your audiences the same way you did six months or a year ago. When people are stressed about money, when jobs are uncertain, when the safety net for individuals and businesses looks like Swiss cheese, you will likely need to rethink your content plan.

This has obvious implications for financial services companies, for example: “How to save for that dream vacation” may sound pretty tone deaf for a good long time. Americans will have new, urgent concerns: making ends meet, borrowing more, working longer and changing careers. But financial services companies aren’t the only ones who should be thinking about this. When consumers have less disposable income, all sorts of businesses are affected, from carmakers to higher education institutions. When career paths are up in the air, the role of professional associations shifts. When businesses tighten their belts, the impact ricochets across B2B providers.

So dust off that old content strategy and give it a hard look. Have your audiences’ concerns, needs and habits shifted? Do your personas need some rethinking to account for a new state of mind? The answers are most likely yes, which means you have work to do.

Audience-first matters more than ever.

Just because content marketing is poised to perform well coming out of this crisis doesn’t mean that we’re exempt from the widespread hand-wringing currently afflicting marketers around the world. And it certainly doesn’t mean the sudden rush of content that companies have put out already has been done well.

The expectations of brands changed during this crisis, and what we produce every day shouldn’t go back to normal, either. In April, PR giant Edelman asked consumers around the world what they thought brands should be doing as COVID spread and how they should be communicating. An astonishing 90% of respondents said brands should be willing to accept substantial financial losses to ensure the security of the public. The respondents promised to punish those who didn’t adhere to those new standards: 71% said companies that placed profits before people would lose their trust forever.

Forever is a long time, and Edelman asked the question at a moment of peak tension. Even so, there’s a lot to learn from the answer. The content we produce should start in one place: what our audience needs. Most of us would say we do that already, but how true is it, really? How often do your calendars or storylines get tweaked by a partner in another part of your organization? How often are they “realigned” to a product launch or high-priority offering, dulling the helpful intent along the way?

No one is saying that sales can’t be the end goal here. What we are saying is that your content better not be a thinly veiled sales pitch. Not today. Advertising is for pitches. Content marketing, especially now, is your chance to connect and gain customer love—and you do that by being genuinely helpful.

Think back to when the COVID crisis started. As we hunkered down at home, with just our screens to keep us company, marketing’s existential crisis immediately revealed itself. How many emails did you get from companies declaring they were there for you, signed by the CEO? Did you care about any of those dozens of messages filling your inbox? Likely not. But a few probably stood out. Maybe it was the message talking about a new e-commerce feature on a company’s website, or information on how to access a needed product in a contactless way.

Put simply, the stuff that stood out, and continues to stand out, was helpful. That will continue to be true as your customers and prospects adapt to new ways of going about their daily work and personal life. Consider where your organizational priorities overlap with customer need. Start there—and don’t venture far.

“Content marketing’s advantage over other marketing disciplines has always been its value. … It delivers what your customers and prospects are looking for.”

Perfection is out of style.

Think of it this way: We’ve been liberated. Freed from the tyranny of perceived perfection. Our kids run through the background of our Zoom calls, a CEO shoots an iPhone video from home. I don’t know about you, but as of this writing, I haven’t washed my hair in a week. When we talk to our colleagues and our clients under these circumstances, we see that they’re not just human, they’re flawed—in a good way. That’s more than okay. It’s endearing, and appealing.

For a few years we’ve seen some of the most successful content marketing humanize executives and others “behind the curtain.” Think of Dollar Shave Club’s relatable CEO and, during our recent lockdown, Goldman Sachs’ five- to seven-minute videos—shot at home—with some of its most senior industry thinkers.

This ethos isn’t going to go away as offices reopen. Expect to see more people dressing down. Expect freer conversations about when we’re working from home and less sheepishness when a dog barks or a baby cries.

That has meaningful implications for the work we create. Perfection is so aughts. Instead, the focus is on connecting in a real way. So as we inch tentatively back into our offices and studios, and printing presses fire back up, don’t be so quick to demand polished perfection. Make sure any influencers you work with get the message, too: Leave those just-so backdrops behind. Embrace the quickly-shot video and the last-minute blog post (as long as it’s edited, of course). Your customers have.

That goes for a polished, perfected point of view, too. If there’s one thing this crisis taught us, it’s that answers aren’t always there for the taking. If your customers are looking for guidance, give them as much as you can. If that information is incomplete, or evolving, just tell them. Don’t pretend you have all of the answers. None of us does.

Practical changes will win the day.

Let’s all cheer for the end of the boring, slide-driven webinar. New ways to deliver content have been born of this crisis, and I for one am thrilled. Roundtable videos shot via webcam? Why not? Way cheaper and logistically simpler than waiting months to get three or four high-powered executives together in a room. Hybrid model conferences that cater to those who would rather join remotely? Yes, please. It’s cheaper and more inclusive.

Now it’s time to take these new or evolved formats and apply them not just to crisis communications, but to your ongoing content plans. Where does it make sense to transition a three-part live-action video series to a series of seven or eight quickly shot, lightly edited video posts? Can a planned live roundtable be reimagined as an online event with complementary content created before and after?

As we all consume more digital content, there’s also an opportunity to get more mileage from everything you create. If leaders are making quickly shot videos or webinars, turn that content into written pieces and social posts. Use excerpts from a timely podcast episode as an audio clip on your homepage or in your social feeds.

McKinsey calls this kind of quick, flexible thinking embracing a startup mentality. When it comes to reimagining certain aspects of your business, just get something out there, they suggest, rather than waiting for the typical slog through multiple levels of approvals. Whether you’re talking about pivoting a content type or a revenue driver, this model prioritizes action over research and testing over analysis. That kind of agility will allow you to be in lockstep as your customers’ needs and priorities shift in a changing environment.

That may be a tall order for organizational cultures with multiweek or even multimonth publishing cycles weighed down by committees and review rounds. Set the expectation from the beginning that things are changing: Moving to a more real-time model requires making some process—and mindset—changes upfront. Return to that startup model: agile thinking that incorporates daily standup check-ins, periodic sprint reviews and weekly updates to top leadership. If you don’t have the organizational infrastructure to execute quickly, all of the great ideas in the world will get you nowhere.

Purpose connects.

This pandemic has changed so many things about the way we consume, connect and do business. It will also, with every passing day, separate the innovative thinkers from those who keep doing what they’ve always done.

“Have your audiences’ concerns, needs and habits shifted? The answers are most likely yes, which means you have work to do.”

Is anything staying the same? Yes, lots. Humans, by nature, are optimistic. We also have short memories. After the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, pundits shouted from the rooftops that we’d reached “the end of irony.” The world had become too sad, they said, too serious for the shallow and the inane. How wrong they were! Irony returned with a vengeance—and it didn’t take long.

Adapting isn’t about overreacting and trying to transform what your organization is. The Onion shouldn’t stop trying to be funny. If you weren’t a purpose-driven company before, you can’t become one overnight. But you can lean in to what drives you as an organization. For a financial services company, that may be helping people make the best possible financial decisions they can so they can meet their (potentially revised) goals. For a professional association, that may be connecting professionals to resources they need to launch and sustain a career. A tech company is likely focused on harnessing the power of technology to help people live and work better. In each of those cases, the goalposts have moved. Our audiences need us to help guide them through this new world of living and working. Not to pretend we’re someone we’re not—quite the contrary. To get closer than ever to the core of what drives us.

More than anything, content marketing after this crisis is about getting closer to our audience and being there for them in a way that’s more authentic than ever. I’m an optimist, but I’d like to believe that we’ll come out of this crisis better content marketers: more tuned in to our audiences, less mired by the process, more in touch with what really matters.

None of us could have imagined this crisis would derail our plans, from the executive delivering speeches from his living room to my daughter’s opthamologist. Content is helping us get through this crisis, and it can continue to deliver as we stumble out of our home offices into a post-COVID world.

Like my toddler daughter, grinning madly in her newly updated glasses, I’d like to believe we can all come out of this with something closer to 20/20 vision.

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