Covid has accelerated many trends already underway, from the decline of high-street shopping to the rise of flexible working. In our area, the pandemic has elevated the importance of branded content, which was already steadily growing as part of the marketing mix but has now truly become a vital marketing and communications tool.
I hope this isn’t too obvious but with no in-person conferences and exhibitions to attend in lockdown, and less travel once restrictions are eased, virtual interaction is getting a lot more attention. A survey last year by the Content Marketing Institute found that 70 per cent of companies had changed their targeting and messaging strategy, and almost as many had been altering their editorial calendars, all presumably in an effort to ensure that their audiences were tuning in.
Recently FirstWord convened a Zoom roundtable in conjunction with PRmoment to explore what these changes had meant with a few marketing and comms experts in financial services. It yielded insight from people on the ground actually doing the work, which is always valuable.
● Information overload is severe and people are getting serious screen fatigue at home. This is forcing brands and publishers to explore new formats. Some companies are putting effort into establishing online communities. Others are realising what they should have known all along, that content is not one-size-fits-all. You don’t have to have multiple story ideas every day, and one story can be made to stretch into different placements on a variety of platforms for people with differing attention spans at different times of the day. A video to watch in lunch break, a podcast to listen to on a walk, a blog list to browse over breakfast, and so on.
● In spite of screen fatigue, openness to digital engagement is high, because what else is there? That has been great for tracking engagement and has forced companies to produce (and budget for) other material that they should have been doing anyway – content follow-ups to digital conferences, for example. How often do companies spend vast sums on inviting speakers but don’t bother to budget for write-ups, photography or mail-outs to attendees and those who didn’t make it? When conferences are on Teams, those activities suddenly seem more important and obvious.
● Zoom town-hall meetings have become a more popular way of communicating internally and again this is because thinking has been directed in the virtual world to ways to break up the monotony of email and stay in touch creatively. It’s not new, but brains have become more focused on problems that were there all along.
● Animated slideshows and video are on the up. Ninety seconds seems to be about the right length and finally budgets are going on better production. The fixed camera focused on the unrehearsed bloke in a suit just won’t cut it anymore.
● Everyone is listening to podcasts more, possibly because we’re all walking more. Podcasts can be an effective way around device fatigue and Spotify, to give one example, has reported a huge burst in podcast activity.
● The newsletter is reborn, with the Washington Post reporting that Mailchimp saw a whopping 49 per cent rise in new account registrations a year ago.
What has content ever done for us?
● Personally I found this the most interesting part of the discussion. Content is no longer just about brand building but is proving its worth at different stages of the marketing funnel. Better-produced content has been forced to replace steps in the sales process that used to be done face-to-face, such as pre-meeting questionnaires, preparatory video before a pitch and so on.
● Crucially, this is opening up opportunities and more receptive audiences. Older, less digitally savvy people are tuning in because they must. One attendee at our roundtable, whose company sold financial products to the elderly, reported a big rise in online receptivity and willingness to engage pre-meeting. And the online meetings themselves, sometimes involving far-flung family members, were of course far easier to organise and better attended.
● Internally, content engages and empowers employees to be active digitally. I’ve felt like a stuck record on this for years. Your employees are your completely free ambassadors of messaging and the social media addicts among them are a self-selecting bunch who are happy to post material frequently. All you have to do is make it easy for them. Essentially internal comms has to be seen as part of the same process as external – it’s vital for employees to be given a range of consistent messaging in formats that make their role as brand ambassadors as straightforward as possible. Finally, Covid has made people see the possibilities here.
Getting the messaging right
● But message consistency is crucial and it demands coordination between departments. This is harder when we’re not all in the office, so people need to work at it. This might be a bit “meta”, but storytelling can be a useful skill to build pieces of content for sharing among comms and marketing people themselves. Keeping everybody aligned involves better internal messaging in itself. Bring journalism to your PowerPoint. It will help.
● Don’t fall into the virtual trap that you’re hitting everyone at the same time all over the world so a single story will do. Local still always beats generic – and marketing still needs to be personalised and regionalised.
I don’t think any of this will be a surprise – but it’s about how minds have been focused on issues and trends that were there all along. As we emerge blinking into the outdoors, have a think about how your strategies have evolved in the past 18 months, how you have maintained creativity and how you have measured audience reaction. It will help you work out what your content needs to look like and how much share of budget it needs to be given.