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.