This was the year digital marketers embraced content that informs, educates and empathizes with their prospects and customers, an industry analyst told CMSWire.

“On the good side in 2015, marketers got the memo on content marketing,” said Jake Sorofman, a Gartner research vice president who specializes in digital marketing. “They learned how to think beyond themselves as the hero and the stories they tell and became much more audience centric. You have to earn the right to your audience’s attention by starting with what’s at stake for them."

The Write Stuff

The numbers back him up. Just look at HubSpot’s INBOUND customer conference. Cambridge, Mass.-based HubSpot champions content marketing. About 14,000 went to the late-summer conference in Boston (30 percent more than 2014), the content marketing provider’s signature event. Adobe’s digital marketing summit in March in Salt Lake City drew less than half of that.

The point? Content marketing may be king right now. Content Marketing Institute's (CMI) Content Marketing World, held the same week as HubSpot this year in Cleveland, drew 3,500.

CMI defines content marketing as "a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action."

“Marketers are very much trying to become brand publishers,” Sorofman said, “and I think we saw a lot of progress in that regard this past year.”

Who Takes the Reins?

Although marketers are shifting more dollars toward content marketing, challenges remain. The sector is suffering from a huge staffing problem. Skills honed in other fields can be repurposed for content marketing, Seth Dotterer wrote early this year. The bigger challenge is staffing up with candidates who have the right attitude.

“Content marketers aren’t just the sum total of the skills listed on their resumes,” he wrote. “They need to be the living, breathing embodiment of a brand’s message.”

And sometimes, content can be too much of a good thing. Marketers, especially B2B, often get so focused on content that they forget the marketing part of the equation, according to Carter Hostelley, founder and CEO of Leadtail, an agency focused on making online marketing and social media work for business. Marketers can’t rely on SEO and inbound marketing alone to get their quality content in front of target buyers, he warned.

“Yes,” he wrote, “it’ll work to some degree, but it won’t make the money you’re pouring into content production pay off … there’s just too much content competition these days."

3 More Key Strategies

Three other strategies dominated marketers blueprints this year: omnichannel, programmatic and mobile.

Seth Ulinski, senior analyst for Technology Business Research, Inc., said multi-screen and omnichannel strategies became en vogue with marketers. Mobile, he added, is so ubiquitous that it's no longer a stand-alone tactic — something with which investors agree.

“I think some of the moves by global brands such as P&G to consolidate agencies and invest more in platforms, including ad tech insourcing, further speaks to this,” Ulinski said. “The ability to have a consistent, unified view of the customer across a fragmented media landscape requires fewer silos and tighter integration ofcampaigns across ad tech and marketing tech platforms.”

Marketers in 2015 also began to understand the nuances of programmatic ad tech better, Ulinski said. It still is driven, he said, by strategy.

“Ultimately the performance of advanced media buying/selling tools is only as good as the data that goes in,” Ulinski added.

“This is where more work needs to be done to mitigate the wasted media spend as a result of botnets, non-viewed ads. In that vein, I think marketing attribution strategies are still evolving, last-touch frameworks are still widely used but this really isn’t ideal for data-driven marketers. A brand can have multiple touchpoints en route to a sale or purchase. This is where advanced analytics in the form of multi-touch attribution come into play.”

Major Players

Although we heard our fair share of product updates from the marketing cloud tech big players like Adobe, Oracle, and Salesforce, it was quieter than the past few years in terms of mergers and acquisitions. The only buys of note in 2015: Neustar bought MarketShare for $450 million and Oracle bought Maxymiser.

“I think they’re metabolizing,” Gartner’s Sorofman said. “They’re sort of in harvest mode. They are trying to connect the dots and really drive value from those acquisitions. The ultimate goal is a digital marketing hub.”

Title image by Mike Kenneally