The 25 Most Awkward Cat Sleeping Positions - perhaps not the most inspiring of headlines, but the article in question was read more than 3.5m times on BuzzFeed.
This summer the site secured $50m of funding from US venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, an investment that values it at a cool $850m.
The future of content might not lie in sleeping felines, but the phenomenal success of BuzzFeed is a reminder that people remain voracious consumers of stories. As they increasingly seek to fit that consumption into snatched moments, via a plethora of mobile devices, the industry needs to embrace change.
If the perpetual handwringing in journalism is about how to make worthy topics interesting to a broad audience, among the content marketing industry, the journalistic endeavour may not be as pure, but the handwringing is just as intense. Rather than lamenting the rise of the likes of BuzzFeed, marketers must focus on how to use content better to connect with their consumers.
Content marketing may not be the industry’s silver bullet, but how can marketers and agencies ensure it better lives up to its promise? The very fabric of the industry is changing and brands that have adopted the role of media-owner must face up to the new and growing challenges that come with this
1. Long live longform
In their rush to capitalise on the fast-paced action/reaction nature of social media, brands are in danger of believ-ing that fast and fleeting is the future of content marketing. In reality, longform content continues to thrive.
Daniel Zeff, chief executive of content agency Evidently, says: "Our appetite for long-form content has only been enhanced by new platforms. Our desire to binge-watch on Netflix or Amazon seems to jar with Twitter’s 140 characters, but they have always co-existed."
Certainly, there has been a backlash against ‘bite-sized’ content. As social scientist Susan Greenfield writes: "The danger is not the trend for downloading per se; but rather the lack of an ensuing guarantee of any real understanding, or placing one thing in the context of some-thing else, of seeing one thing in terms of another. Surely we should not be reducing information, but… expanding it into a much wider context."
Brands should not make assumptions about how social media is changing the playing field. Andrew Hirsch, CEO of agency John Brown Media, says one of the most popular move-ments on Twitter is #Longreads. "Phones have become the prime medium for the long read. What we’ve seen the end of is lazy long copy. Long reads that offer value, make you feel glad you read them, move, inspire, inform and compel, we’re going to see more of."
2. Mobile everything
Given consumer trends, there is no doubt that mobile should be front of content-marketers’ minds.
Patrick Albano, head of solutions, EMEA, at Yahoo!, says mobile is offering brands new ways to reach their audience: "Now, if you create shortform content well, you can catch consumers’ attention throughout their day."
This ‘mobile everything’ principle extends to how marketers manage their business needs and content-marketing approach. Rob Newlan, head of Facebook’s creative shop for EMEA, explains that this involves installing new, simple processes. "At Facebook, [CEO Mark Zuckerberg] signs off engineering updates on a phone and from a capability point of view it is a renaissance."
According to Newlan, this shift will help address the issue of mobile creativity. "If you are an executive creative director you need to sign stuff off on the phone. We need to ask what the opportunities are and how we can maximise them."
3.Beware of talking to yourself
Just because the marketing and advertising industries have swallowed the rhetoric of ‘conversational marketing’, that does not mean your customers will want to participate. Chris Hirst, chief executive of agency Grey, says: "Most people, most of the time, don’t want to have a conversation with a brand."
The challenge for brands is to ensure they are there when people do. Hirst adds: "It is all about place and time" – understanding the consumer, not simply driving conversation for its own sake.
Certainly there are many stakeholders – from agencies to social-media platforms – with a vested interest in pushing the power of conversational marketing for any given brand.
Jonathan Trimble, CEO of agency 18 Feet and Rising, says not every brand needs to be a publisher. "Marketers are afraid of being seen as Luddite, when what they are doing [with content marketing] is not very meaningful. It is basically being used as a direct-response channel. It all costs time and money and much of it has little impact. It is a big distraction both for brands and consumers."
4. It isn't a race to the bottom
The rise of mobile and micro-content does not equate to declining quality. As Sir Winston Churchill aptly declared: "I would have written a shorter letter if I had more time." In this paradigm, less is more.
It is easy to dismiss new platforms as dumbing-down content, but the reality is more complex. As Chris Dixon, partner at Andreessen Horowitz, explains on his blog, BuzzFeed has created world-class systems for analytics, advertising and content management. He writes: "Everything is built for mobile devices from the outset. Internet-native formats… are treated as equals to older formats… BuzzFeed takes the internet and computer science seriously."
While brands and traditional publishers have tried to jump on the BuzzFeed band-wagon, BuzzFeed is doing the opposite – using the success of its ‘listicles’ to branch out into more longform, quality content.
5.Beware the myth of niche networks
Global technology means that niche has gone mass-market.
"A 20-year-old American snowboarder has far more in common with a Chinese snowboarder than an American cross-country skier," explains Ola Scholander, director of distribution and partner-ships at online extreme-sports TV service EpicTV. "These two boarders are now able to talk, share ideas and even form a group that will grow too large to be considered niche any more."
Yet brands have been slow to embrace this trend – in fact, many have been guilty of seeing marketing activity on Twitter or Facebook as a substitute for a genuine content strategy.
Michael Litman, founder of micro-content agency Burst, claims Twitter is in the midst of growth problems. He argues: "User numbers are decreasing, as Twitter is largely a very media-savvy audience in communica-tion industries. Many mainstream consumers simply don’t understand what it is for."
Paolo Nieddu, managing partner at agency Holler, says that WhatsApp’s entrenchment in consumers’ behaviour has made talking on the phone uncomfortable. "WhatsApp will be a good indication of the long tail of a campaign," he adds.
"The concept of a local business is growing more and
more irrelevant," contends Scholander. "We are now a global community, with the opportunities to reach out to anyone, anywhere, at any time."
6.Embrace the new visual economy
Neuroscientists believe that future generations will be more dominated by sensory, particularly visual, inputs in a way that will require more ongoing external stimulation. Content marketers need to adapt accordingly.
Patrick Albano, head of solutions, EMEA, at Yahoo!, says the idea of the photograph is evolving into photo storytelling. "There was this pressure for brands to tell the whole story in one picture, but, just as consumers have embraced micro-moments, brands should too," he adds.
The growth of video is also a key area. Jan Rezab, chief executive of analytics firm Socialbakers, describes videos as "the new photos" on social channels. He adds: "From shortform micro-content on Vine to longer videos on Facebook, the aggregation of video and content is a huge opportunity."
7.Look toward more fluid forms
Brands are pushing the boundaries of content marketing. Last year vodka brand Smirnoff teamed up with DJ Fresh for a world first. The DJ partnered three disabled dance music fans for the ‘Mindtunes’ project, in which they created music by using their brainwaves to control software.
While the marketing industry has been guilty of jumping on the tech bandwagon in search of nothing more meaningful than a splash or PR, content marketers have a huge opportunity to recognise and adapt to emotions in more nuanced ways.