A man searching for content on a tablet
Looking for content ideas on a digital tablet PHOTO: Shutterstock

Content marketing has been around since 1895, when the John Deere company started a magazine for farmers. 

Fast forward to today, when brands have infinite media options for engaging customers—web sites, blogs, videos, social media, podcasts, and webinars among them. Each medium offers a different way to tell a story, educate prospects, and turn customers into advocates. And as 2018 approaches, newer forms of content marketing are gaining traction, including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa. 

Here are 7 trends content marketers are predicting for 2018. 

1. Brands Will Ramp Up Experiments With Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and 360-Degree Videos

With so much content flowing from so many brands, marketers are realizing they must up their game to get attention, says John Haynsworth, senior content strategist at marketing agency POP.

“I’ve noticed clients go from settling for stock images within a blog post as an afterthought to deliberately considering how key information or data points could come to life as an illustration,” Haynsworth explains. “More aggressively, I’ve seen clients willing to experiment with emerging technologies such as VR, 360-degree videos and AR. With so much content available to audiences, content marketers and their clients have to creep closer, even if reluctantly, toward the cutting edge.”

Haynsworth adds that VR and AR as content marketing channels “are still a bit aspirational. VR, in particular, has barriers such as equipment, which isn’t quite part of the mainstream. So, it’s difficult to deliver those experiences at a large scale.” 

But the benefit of VR and AR is in their ability to “deliver a complex experience to anyone anywhere,” Haysnworth continues. For example, consider a B2B company marketing large manufactured goods or equipment. “A hands-on demonstration that immerses the audience in an experience where they can engage with products at full scale is a powerful evaluation tool for conversion,” he says.

Though VR and AR can offer compelling new ways to reach consumers, the question is: Are they right for your brand?There’s no shortage of channels for reaching customers today,” says Ann Handley, chief content officer of MarketingProfs, which provides training for marketers. “But you can’t pursue them all. Just focus on the ones you can do well and that make the most sense for your audience.”

2. Personalization Will Be Even More Important

In 2018, the digital experience will feel even more personal, predicts Shafqat Islam, CEO of content marketing platform provider NewsCred. “Individual online experiences will be both curated and customized,” he says. “What you see when you visit a company’s website will look different if you’re visiting from a hotel in Dallas after just seeing a new movie, versus an airport in Miami while waiting for a delayed connection to Argentina. For the smartest marketers, personalization creates a massive competitive opportunity.”

Personalization is particularly important in email marketing. One successful example comes from BarkBox, a monthly subscription service delivering dog gifts and treats. “Their email program is amazing,” says Handley. “They’re always listening socially and using that data to run their marketing in a smart way.” 

BarkBox does an excellent job using humor and tone of voice as well as customer data to deliver highly personalized content, Handley says. The emails she receives from BarkBox seem as if “they’re written especially for me, and I have this crazy brand loyalty to them as a result,” she adds. (Recently, Handley wrote a blog post about BarkBox’s email program.) 

3. Content Marketers Will Leverage Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence for Even Greater Personalization

Currently, only half of all B2B content is discoverable on Google, says Kevin Bobowski, senior vice president of marketing at BrightEdge, an SEO and content marketing platform company. “When we’re talking about B2C, that number drops to 20 percent. Brands can’t afford to allow this to continue and hope to remain competitive.” 

In 2018, Bobowski predicts marketers will increasingly turn to machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to create ‘smart content.’

Smart content is created by combining search marketing, AI, and content marketing, Bobowski says. “These three factors develop, activate and optimize high-performing content. An example of smart content would be leveraging AI to identify what consumers want, what consumers are organically searching for, and where consumers are searching. Using this information, content marketers can create relevant content revolving around these keywords and phrases that target their key audiences. This customer-centric approach allows content to be more discoverable within search engine ranking pages.” 

4. ML and AI Will Accelerate Content Production

ML and AI will also help marketers keep up more easily with the growing need to produce a large volume of content quickly, says Elliot Sedegah, group manager for strategy and product marketing for Adobe Experience Manager, a digital experience management platform. It’s not so much about using these technologies to replace marketers, he notes. It’s about helping marketers be more efficient in their work.

“When you think of all the different steps required to create, manage, assemble and deliver content, a lot of people and steps are involved,” Sedegah says. ML and AI will increasingly streamline the process in multiple ways. 

For example, AI can accurately add a variety of specific tags automatically to images that, in the past, a human would have had to add. A photo of a family on a beach might simply have been tagged with generic identifiers such as “vacation,” “beach,” or “family.” But if, say, the father in the photo is holding a beer, AI could identify the brand of that beer and automatically tag the image with the brand’s name. In turn, that image would then surface in a keyword search of the beer brand’s name. 

ML and AI “will help shed light on untagged assets in a content repository that would have otherwise been hidden in the dark,” Sedegah says. 

5. The Internet of Things — Especially Virtual Assistants — Will Play a Bigger Role in Content Marketing

The Internet of Things (IoT) provides yet another “digital portal” through which you can deliver helpful content to your audiences, notes Handley. In 2018, expect to see more brands and organizations use IoT devices, particularly assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, to deliver content, she says.

For example, the American Heart Association developed an Alexa ‘skill’ to provide verbal instructions for performing CPR as well as how to detect signs of heart attack and stroke. “Providing a super-useful tool for people in an emergency situation is the kind of accessible content that marketers should be thinking about with the Internet of Things,” Handley says. 

(A recent NewsCred blog post lists “10 Examples of Content Marketing with Amazon Alexa.”)

6. Expect To See More ‘Microinfluencers’

The Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on influencer marketing in an effort to curb the practice of celebrities being paid to endorse products on social media without disclosing that they’re being paid. In 2018, celebrities will continue to endorse products to some degree, but brands will begin to leverage microinfluencers as well, predicts Islam. 

Microinfluencers are “everyday people with smaller but highly engaged social media fan bases,” Islam says. They give brands “an opportunity to connect with the most passionate members of their audiences. More ‘regular’ consumers, especially younger ones, will share their product experiences across their networks in ways that inspire trust. This user-generated content will continue to augment brand-generated content.”

7. Marketers Will Get Smarter About Why They’re Producing Content

Eight years ago, at the advent of the modern content marketing era, few marketers had a documented strategy, Handley says. Instead, “there were a lot of random acts of content.” But in the past few years, marketers have gotten smarter “not just about how they produce content but why they produce it,” she says. 

More content marketers are taking their programs more seriously these days, Handley says. They’re more likely to ensure that content is tied to specific business strategies and goals, and that their content marketing programs are well documented (instead of ‘random’). 

Among top-performing B2B marketers, 62 percent have a documented content marketing strategy, according to a recent survey conducted by MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute. But there’s still room for improvement, Handley notes. According to the survey, 37% of all B2B marketers have a documented content marketing strategy, while 38% have a strategy but it’s not documented. 

Documenting your content marketing strategy is key, Handley says. “It’s hard to get others to buy into a strategic content marketing strategy unless you have the strategy documented. What are you trying to achieve? Who are you trying to reach? What do you want them to do? That needs to be documented.”

Ultimately, “creating great content consistently and at scale requires a strategic editorial process, with measurement integrated into the broader business strategy,” notes Robert Rose, chief strategy advisor for The Content Advisory, the consulting and advisory group of The Content Marketing Institute. “And, ironically, solving that challenge is the only way marketing teams will be able to explore new and interesting shiny acronyms likes AI, VR and IoT.”