The year in content: review of 2015

It’s been a busy old year, with political organisations and traditional ad agencies waking up to the potential of great content, combined with significant changes in technology. Here are the stories which grabbed attention in 2015


The UK general election and the ensuing Labour leadership contest spurred political organisations to start telling their own stories through their own channels. With the outcome of both contests unclear right up to the wire, good content and social media exposure offered parties an opportunity to bring waverers round to their way of thinking.

The Conservatives used their website to post regular updates of around 200 words, which they encouraged users to share on social media in exchange for points, in a campaign called ‘Share the Facts’. The top 3 sharers received a ‘reward’: prizes included campaign posters signed by the Chancellor, and William Hague’s book on Wilberforce, signed by the author. FirstWord did not give this ‘gameification’ a ringing endorsement, but the party won with an unexpected majority so points really did mean prizes for the Tories.

The Labour leadership contest was of course eventually won by the initial outsider Jeremy Corbyn. His content marketing efforts during the campaign passed the FirstWord test – his site looked the most polished of the four candidates, with editorial coverage focusing on how a Corbyn-led Labour Party would approach government. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was also the only candidate to update his site with news of his victory in a timely manner…

Google search changes

In February, Google released a technical paper outlining potential changes to the way it searches for and ranks results. As the undisputed market leader (accounting for 85 percent of the UK search market), any changes Google makes are crucial for content producers who want their material to be found.

One of the major proposals in the paper was ranking individual pages on the quality and factual accuracy of their content, in addition to their popularity. Pages may be downgraded for containing factual inaccuracies or irrelevant content.

Of course a number of big questions were raised, including whether Google’s algorithms should be the arbiters of what is a fact and what is ‘right’. Overall, however, the changes should provide a boost for good content: accurate and relevant pages will be recognised as ‘high quality’. New content currently suffers because search rankings are partly based on popularity and links from other sources, which obviously recently-published work has not yet had the chance to acquire. So a shift in the focus towards quality and accuracy should push fresh content up the rankings.

Google did not say when these changes would become reality, but FirstWord put together this advice to futureproof your content if and when they do.

Social media and publishers cosy up

This year, the question of where and how users read content was as hotly debated as what kind of content they want to see: should content producers be trying to attract people to their own platforms or taking their content to where audiences already gather?

A number of technology launches backed up the latter view: Facebook brought out Facebook Instant, which hosts publishers’ content directly in users’ news feeds. The rationale is that Facebook benefits from more content, and the publisher gets to take advantage of Facebook’s robust mobile technology, which allows pages to load quickly. A number of brands are said to be interested in joining the trial, and media organisations including the New York Times are already testing it.

Google is also bringing out its own ‘accelerated mobile pages’ (AMP) project. The company said earlier this month that Pinterest is using the system on its Android and iOS apps and found AMP pages loaded four times faster than the existing method; Twitter is lined up to test it early 2016.

Not to be left out, Apple News joined the scene, aggregating news from 14 of the UK’s top newspaper and magazine publishers. “Apple News collects all the stories you want to read, from top news sources … so you no longer need to move from app to app to stay informed,” the company said. But FirstWord’s Adrian Michaels said the risk was all on the media companies: “The tech giants want to take media owners’ hard-earned reader data and use it to sell more stuff, but without producing any journalism in return.”

Agencies get into content

Some of the biggest names in advertising threw their name and money behind content marketing. In June JWT announced it was opening Colloquial, a content marketing agency with offices around the world, and in the same month, WPP launched a content marketing business called Truffle Pig, in partnership with Snapchat and the Daily Mail. Publicis then bought UK content marketing agency August for an undisclosed sum in October.

The FirstWord jury remained out on whether these deals would succeed – Adrian Michaels wrote at the time of the JWT announcement that the content they create “must look more Economist than sales brochure, or it’ll be giving us all a bad name.”

And finally – content hero and zero of 2015

Hero – Marriott

The Marriott hotel chain is producing a range of appealing and interesting content, including the short films Two Bellmen and French Kiss, which gathered 5.1 million and 6.1 million views respectively, a city guide website called Marriott Traveler and conversation with customers via the Overheard@Marriott Twitter account. The company’s head of content marketing, David Beebe, also gave a delightful definition of what the industry is, or should be, all about: “Content marketing is like a first date. If all you do is talk about yourself, there won’t be a second date,” he told the Washington Post.

Zero – Gannett

The risk of falling flat on your face is greatly heightened in the era of the internet – your misjudgements can instantly be shared and commented upon by an almost limitless number of snarky or legitimately annoyed people. So US media giant Gannett was not alone in creating a content disaster this year, but theirs was fairly gaff-tastic. A spoof video the company created, featuring the Gannett board (badly) lip-synching to “Everything is Awesome”, a song from The Lego Movie, was aired at a meeting of Newsquest, Gannett’s UK regional newspaper group, at a time when Newsquest was going through a bout of pay cuts and redundancies. With the lyrics “Turn that frown upside down/Hey folks, Gannett’s in town/So many websites, TV stations/Publications across the nation/Find a lead, meet a client/Make the sale/You’re a giant/Sell those ads, make commission/Ta-da! You’re a sales magician”, a positive reception was not forthcoming.

The original Lego movie song was itself meant to be a vicious and funny attack on mindless conformity and utter obedience in a totalitarian society. So probably best avoided altogether by a big corporation…