Content marketing: What’s ahead for 2021

In a September 2020 survey from the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), 86 percent of respondents said their organization pivoted its content marketing quickly in 2020. They had to shift course to cover the impact of COVID-19 and how governments and businesses could begin to make sense of the world and respond. Then in the summer, against the backdrop of a pandemic that disproportionately affects people of color, protests in support of social and racial justice took place across the world. Companies responded with content discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organizations and in business and society.

Some of the content changes stemming from the events of 2020—such as faster and more flexible operations, more digital content, virtual events and webinars—are likely to stick. Indeed, the CMI survey revealed that 86 percent of content marketers expect some of the changes to stay in effect for the foreseeable future.

As we close out a tumultuous and challenging year and look ahead to 2021, there are a number of lessons learned and priorities to take with us.

Useful, timely content requires flexibility—not just speed

With circumstances changing by the hour and companies clamoring to get content online, it can feel like any semblance of strategy is falling to the wayside. Everything is reactive, whether to a late-breaking news item or a conversation a subject-matter expert just had with a client. And speed is the name of the game—previously monolithic content operations have gone to newsroom-style publishing processes. It can present challenges and strain resources—but it also presents an opportunity.

Companies are unlikely to go back to their old ways, so content marketers need to find a way to build flexibility and speed into content strategy—and get back in the driver’s seat. They can do so using the following approaches.

Prioritize based on urgency, timeliness, and utility. When it comes to publishing priorities, consider whether your audience responds better to a hot take or a measured synthesis. Companies should still publish on how current developments—unemployment numbers, vaccine trials, economic reopening plans—affect the business landscape. But spending a lot of time and resources on content that will be outdated quickly may not be the way to go. Content marketers should strategize based on the insights their audience needs now and then determine which topics and themes are best served with more development time or longer publishing timelines. Thinking critically about this is important—it will ensure readers get what they really need and content gets the right airtime, rather than flooding the market with irrelevant or niche topics that drown out what matters.

Reconsider length and format. Shorter, snappier formats serve two purposes: they can retain readers (who are short on time and attention, especially now) and they are faster to produce on an expedited publishing schedule. Rather than the typical feature-length article or white paper, consider briefings, blog-length pieces, or a more graphic, data-heavy approach such as an infographic or interactive. Video can also help get points across in quick and visually striking ways, while Q&As are typically low-resource and high-value options. There’s certainly still a space for longer pieces with more detailed analysis, but striking the right balance can help get content to market faster.

In this essential reading guide from Vox, for example, content ranges from a set of charts and podcasts, to regularly updated 500-word briefings, to long-form research reports.

Webinars are effective—but only when done well

A webinar I recently attended was slated for 90 minutes on a Friday afternoon. Introductions of the seven participants took nearly 25 minutes. The webinar was held on Zoom and looked like the video calls I (and presumably a number of other attendees) had all week. It was in sharp contrast to another webinar I attended a few weeks ago, which totaled 30 minutes including the Q&A, featured two presenters and a moderator, and the screen alternated between the participants and other visuals. One was markedly better than the other.

Webinars can be a very effective tool: they reach a nicely sized audience and put experts front and center. But to capture—and keep—an audience’s attention, companies need to be smart producing them. A few best practices include the following:

    • Keep it short. Twenty-five minutes of presentation is plenty—any longer than that and the audience is likely to tune out. Save the last few minutes for Q&A, and keep the answers concise.
    • Incorporate visuals. Webinars need to have some production value. Your audience doesn’t want to feel like they’re on just another videoconference. And there’s an opportunity to elevate visuals beyond a PowerPoint thrown up on the screen: interactive digital content the presenter can click on adds some interest.
    • Don’t overdo the panel. Too many people in a virtual setting leads to confusion, awkward pauses and interruptions, and Brady Bunch–like visuals. Two or three presenters with a moderator is the way to go.
    • Try different formats. Debates, rapid-fire interviews, or other formats can help webinars stand apart from the typical presentation.

Diversity, inclusion, and equity content is best when bold

Following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, many companies published statements on racial and social justice and highlighted diversity, inclusion, and equity issues—and solutions—in their thought leadership. How companies, governments, and communities should address these issues will be an important topic for a long time, and many professional-services firms are creating new standards for bold content. This can’t be a check-the-box exercise. Companies must confront reality and heighten the pressure on society and their own organizations if things are going to change. To make this content matter, companies should do the following:

Be specific. Vague statements condemning racism and offering support to the Black community aren’t worth readers’ time. Rather, companies that list concrete commitments, from donations to changing their hiring practices, acknowledge that what they have been doing isn’t enough and that they have a role to play—and a difference to make. And specificity isn’t just important in company commitments; thought leadership that tackles root causes of racial inequity with meaningful solutions is what we need to advance the conversation and see change.

Put the right voices front and center. It’s important to see business and government leaders step forward and talk about racial inequity, but the fact is that most of those people are white. Companies can use their platform to make sure the voices and stories of the people experiencing injustice are heard. McKinsey recently produced a powerful, moving, and illuminating documentary-style video series, Our Black Voices. In the video on the Black male experience, one man says, “Just the perception of a threat could literally end my life.” In another featuring Black women at the firm, a female colleague says, “The biggest shock for me was not realizing that my white colleagues had such low expectations of me as a Black person.” We need more content like this to confront, and change, what people live with.

Video will never replace in-person meetings—but it’s still worth the investment

Zoom fatigue is real. The novelty of seeing CEOs in T-shirts sending dispatches from their living rooms is long gone. Yet companies should still be investing in video, especially when we’re all distanced. They just need to be far more thoughtful about how to do it.

Elevate the video setup. Recording a video call is fast, easy, and inexpensive, but viewers are overloaded on that format. A remote-video kit with a high-quality camera, good lighting, and digital mic can add polish and production value. In our experience, shipping these kits and having subjects set them up at home has been relatively seamless. Companies can significantly elevate their video content, and the visual difference is significant:


We’ve also seen two iPhones mounted on tripods to capture different camera angles, which can automatically add visual interest to a talking-head video.

Add postproduction. Music and graphics can go a long way in setting the tone, creating more captivating sensory experiences, and telling a story. We often recommend a mix of graphics and live action for standard talking-head videos, and it’s more important than ever when people are spending most of their time on video calls.

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It’s hard to say what 2021 will bring, but many of the shifts in priorities and processes we experienced in 2020 are likely to follow us into the new year. We can use those lessons to rethink which content matters, how we create it, and how to connect with audiences in new, more compelling ways.

Alia Samhat

Alia is a partner at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and content development. She spends her time working with writers, marketers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.

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