It’s Time to Unlearn Everything You Thought You Knew About Content Marketing

The next era of content marketing will borrow less from content libraries and traditional economics and more from bustling cities and platforms.
Headshot of author David McCarthy
David McCarthy
Expert Contributor
April 22, 2021
Updated: April 23, 2021
Headshot of author David McCarthy
David McCarthy
Expert Contributor
April 22, 2021
Updated: April 23, 2021

The first era of content marketing is nearing its end.

In the first era, “lead-generation content” usually meant ebooks, webinars and not much else. Marketing teams could rely on organic social feeds for some engagement and leads and content libraries seemed built for volume. The second era will change that.

This isn’t an alarmist’s feverish warning that the end of content itself is imminent; it’s not. The content types and channels we know best — blogs, SEO and corporate social accounts — are still potent when done strategically. Buyers will continue to spend their waking hours online. And content marketing is still an essential stand-alone function for high-growth brands.

But the appeal of this era’s primary formats seems to be dwindling, making room for the next era to start.

 

What Prompted the Shift?

It wasn’t just one thing that pushed us into a new era. Many factors have.

To begin, we’re all better marketers. First-era content-marketing best practices have become widely accessible, leveling the playing field. We content marketers now know the basics of a keyword strategy, we’ve memorized the workflows for creating a perfectly positioned ebook, and we are (painfully) familiar with the ever-changing requirements of an appealing organic social media strategy.

Tools and templates from companies like HubSpot and Canva have contributed to the transition too. They have demolished the barriers to produce first era’s primary assets, like ebooks, flooding the market flooded with largely undifferentiated content.

And let’s not forget the audiences. The decision makers and influencers driving B2B purchases are increasingly digital natives. And while this cohort consists of avid leisure readers, their multi-tab diet arguably varies more than that of any influential professionals before. It consists of websites, email, social media, personality-driven newsletters, chatbots, subscription-based memberships, podcasts, digital content and search engines. Much like products evolve to meet market needs, content must too.

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Communities, Platforms and Many Voices

The first era of content marketing was largely a solitary, sequential experience based on a supply-and-demand model.

For example, a brand might find that, each year, 6,000 searches are conducted on a particular topic. In response, they create the most authoritative post or a well-researched ebook on it, which they promote via social media, search, and email. As a prospect, I find it, download it, and page through its content, learning enough to decide whether to move forward or move on.

The next era will likely resemble something different: more akin to online communities bustling with the economics of today’s multisided platforms. In this era, single-voice authoritativeness likely matters less, while poly-voice authoritativeness and sharing — like the kind that can happen in cities and marketplaces — matter more.

As one lead at a rising digital health company told me recently, “In the age of democratized content, I am less and less interested in what one person — whom we've somehow deemed to be more ‘right’ than anyone else — has to say, and I’m more interested in what many people have to say.”

Take Drift, which offers conversational marketing and sales tools, like website chatbots, as an example. The company recently launched its membership-based sales and marketing community, Drift Insider. While they do offer first-era mainstays, like ebooks and blog posts, Drift Insider is much bigger than simply being an impressive library. It is a platform that connects two different audiences: sales and marketing professionals who are both looking to learn and share their expertise.

The market is validating this idea: At the time of writing, Drift Insider has acquired 30,000 subscribers (and thus 30,000 sales opportunities). This outcome rarely happens with an ebook, but it can happen more regularly through platforms.

 

Rethinking Content for the Next Era

This evolution can be unsettling.

It will force me to let go of one definition of content marketing and embrace a new one that we’re building in real time. For example, in the first era of content marketing, I would research a high-demand topic, create authoritative, frame-engaging content around it and showcase the voice and credibility of the brand. In the second era, I will need to think of which network can help me build authoritative, angle-driven content around the topic — not solely who will want to read it.

Despite the new demands this era will require, I’m optimistic. It will be jarring to relinquish some of the practices I’ve spent years learning. But as this new era gains momentum, I’m energized by the promise of using content to build something exponentially smarter, more truthful, and more diverse, something more closely aligned with the impetus of the Internet. That is: community.

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