In 2014, the PAN Annual Content Fitness Report (CFR) made its debut. Over the next eight years, the agency grew from 60 employees and its more traditional public relations roots in Boston to a true global integrated marketing and PR firm, 200 strong and growing. As the business evolved, the Content Fitness Test (CFT) that collected our data did too — and so did the insights that we shared.
Marketing looks different, too. Remember the days of quantity over quality? When keyword stuffing was the way to optimize? When social media marketing was an afterthought? Change is good.
This year — our ninth year of annual research — things look a little different. We felt it was time for something new. Time to focus on the bigger picture — THE STORY and why so many simply miss the landing. Missed Connections: Why Stories Don’t Find Their Audience — and How to Fix It, the first PAN Communications Brand Experience Report, is available to download now.
But in honor of the OG concept that grew with PAN to where we are today, it seemed fitting to take a stroll down memory lane and see how far we’ve come as marketers since 2014.
We were in the early stages of real-time information — but we noticed that consumers were both consuming and frequently sharing content, regardless of its relevancy.
Consumers preferred Online News Sites over Twitter, and thought Facebook was the most important app for keeping in touch. (Side note: Remember Google+?) Multi-device engagement was becoming more mainstream, and with it responsive content. Personalization of content — and that golden rule, quality over quantity — was being introduced. And Google Analytics was the primary source of social media performance data, leading 99% of surveyed marketers to feel uncertain about their key content metrics and effectiveness. All in all, an impressive 76% of marketers felt their content was tailored to the needs of their customers. It goes without saying, and yet is still remarkable, that nine years ago most of the primary channels we take for granted today were still relatively untested.
Marketers were still fumbling with multi-channel strategies — 26% of surveyed marketers thought omni-channel strategies didn’t apply to them — and clear goals for content marketing expectations were still being defined.
At this time, LinkedIn was the least preferred channel for multi-channel campaigns — how the tables have turned. For comparison, email was first, and Facebook was second. Top goals for content marketing programs were new customer acquisition and brand awareness. Although 73% of marketers felt they were tailoring content to customers’ interests, only 52% of respondents were confident that their marketing content drove customer engagement. What a disconnect!
The pathway to purchase continues to become more complex, as do the stresses of creating the right content, for the right audience, at the right time. Our biggest takeaway in 2016? Connecting and creating a dialogue with your (human) audience — seems on point reflecting now in 2022.
It was a big year for quantity of content, though often at the cost of quality. Our own marketing team was publishing 20 blogs per month. Were some of them high value, quality content? Of course. Were some of them about why PR is like baking? They certainly were. We weren’t alone. More than three quarters (76%) of respondents said they planned to produce more content in 2016 (I’m sensing inauthentic voices tied to this pace) — and 57% of the same audience said producing content consistently would be their biggest struggle (maybe a lack of skill or platform distribution strategies). This all leads to yet another decrease in content confidence — 64% of marketers thought their content was tailored to their customer needs, and 51% were not confident in how they were measuring the impact of their content strategy.
Marketers were feeling the pressure. In 2016, they planned to increase content production. This year, they’re realizing barriers such as cost, team skillsets and time are limiting efforts, especially on the creative front. Not to mention the continued struggle with integrating cross-channel strategies.
The value of integrating strategies was making its way into the CMO conversation, and 57% of marketers said they were at least beginning to put this approach into practice. Only 5% of marketers were at an “advanced level” of creative support for their storytelling and messaging (hello, 2022!) — something that’s no longer a “nice to have” five years later. Interestingly we saw a small increase in marketers’ confidence in their personalization strategies, with many citing the use of ABM, more robust buyer personas, and a new mantra of “quality over quantity” — all to increase customer trust and brand awareness. But confidence in measuring the impact of content strategies continued to fall – 76% of respondents were not confident in their measurement. Only 24% of marketers were using a combination of awareness, consideration and decision metrics, and it’s clear marketers were already struggling with attribution. This was the year marketers realized that siloed skillsets weren’t the marketing department of the future, but integration and alignment was still an uphill battle.
Marketers were getting smarter and more thoughtful with brand positioning and expanding their content initiatives to find new ways to engage and connect with customers. But marketers were missing the impact of building advocates, and still struggling with finding ways to stand out from the competition.
Fifty-four percent of marketers said they were constantly reassessing their brand messaging and positioning, and 47% said their content marketing program was fully integrated with their overall communication strategy. There was a strong focus on marketing efforts to customers. But only 22% of marketers were prioritizing employee and customer advocacy efforts (think about that today as brands look to recruit talent based on amazing customers), and 76% of marketers weren’t considering employee advocates as part of their influencer strategies at all. On the measurement side, 62% were struggling with measuring the impact of content strategies — an improvement from the year before.
How can we better serve the needs of our audience? Unique perspectives, exceptional storytelling and passionate brand advocates were three need-to-haves in 2019. Emotional connections, authenticity and personalization were critical to an impactful branded content experience.
Almost 63% of marketers defined their strategy as fully integrated — a continued improvement year-over-year — but 69% were still struggling with measuring content impact and ROI. Marketers were still looking to increase budget, time and skillsets to further support channel diversity. The battle between innovation and practicality continues. We also looked deeper into advocacy this year. While customer experience was a #1 priority for marketers, only 30% had implemented a Voice of the Customer program, and only 12% were even considering an employee advocacy program. But with brand awareness and thought leadership as top goals for content programs, advocacy was clearly top-of-mind and the marriage between HR and marketing was taking shape.
A year for the books … But maybe a much-needed reset on prioritization, brand narratives and compelling stories to build true and authentic connections. Emotions trumped data in 2020, and brand advocates paved the way for content marketing success.
Marketers felt overwhelmed by content and its efficacy — confidence in measurement dropped to 50 percent. But emphasis on emotional connections doubled from initial goals set at the start of the year, and marketers were hyper-cognizant of evolving conversations and the need to infuse awareness into all content communication. Maybe this was the year marketers were trying to figure out how to measure “the heart” rather than “the download”. As a result, we saw a greater percentage of marketers deciding they could live without a data and analytics skillset on the team — feelings held more value than facts. Circumstances gave marketers the kick in the butt to finally start implementing that customer advocacy program they had been talking about for years. While over 75% of marketers felt they needed to re-configure their marketing strategy for the second half of 2020, the year provided a long overdue reminder that successful marketing is about proving to customers and employees that their voices are being heard, and expectations are being met and exceeded.
Cadence, personalization and impact still shine through as top struggles, but marketers had some new tricks up their sleeves as they continued to apply key takeaways from 2020 to future strategy adjustments. However, marketers are still trying to find their opportunities with community — both internal and external — and purpose-driven stories.
While marketers continued to struggle with an effective pace of distribution, they also struggled to apply the full impact of emotional storytelling. A brand’s mission and values shined through in 2020, putting people above all else, but 72% of customers reported preferring a company with a great product or service over a company who stands for something. Furthermore, 35% of marketers still had no employee advocacy strategy, despite the previous year’s takeaways. And while marketers understood that a social media strategy is a must, they still ignored the differences between building a community and finding opportunities to sell. In the end, 56% of marketers felt their content efforts were attributed to the bottom line, a slight increase from the year before.
Last year, we concluded the Content Fitness Report with this statement:
Marketers continue to demonstrate a tenacity for the long game, towards the twin goals of masterful storytelling and tactical revenue contribution. As a community, it seems, marketers are committed to putting in the work. The challenge will be balancing the strategy across employees and customers with authentic, impactful content.
What a happy coincidence that the sentiment is the perfect segue into what we’re doing next. In 2022, we analyzed brand-customer relationships — specifically, the gaps between how marketers choose to tell brand stories and how customers understand them. Over time, we hope to see those gaps close. Only time will tell.