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Looking Back on 2017

When considering a medium as constantly evolving and often amorphous as content marketing, it is impossible to generalize how the field has concretely advanced over the past year. What we can say with certainty is that 2017 produced highs, lows, and many questions worth exploring when it comes to crafting and leveraging content marketing for a new era.

2017 was, in many ways, a year of reckoning for digital marketing at large. It was the year that investigations into social media and data safety reached an all-time high after the seismic consequences of “fake news” and Facebook targeting rocked the United States and sent aftershocks coursing through the rest of the world. Suddenly, we became obligated to obsess over how content reaches the audience it is connected with, and the ethics of that process. For content marketing, which is, naturally, predicated on targeting specific audiences with relevant content, this ethics discussion is perhaps one of the most powerful concepts to emerge and shape the field as we move through 2018.

In this vein, 2017 was the year that we were forced to recognize Facebook, 90-95% of whose revenue is now being driven by ads and content, and its nominally “tech” contemporaries as media companies. Last year opened many brands’ eyes to the fact that they have been automatically, if not completely willingly, elevated to the status of major influencers and opinion drivers among consumers. As the line between advertising, organic, and social media has blurred to a nearly incoherent state, brands have had to assume more social responsibility in terms of what they are producing - lest they face the wrath of an increasingly scrupulous public eye.

Dovetailing with these ethical questions is the concern surrounding audience fraud and the often fraught relationship between agencies, publishers and brands. Given that the core business of content marketing revolves around paying for a certain amount - or type - of eyeballs on a specific piece of content, it is extremely important to those holding the purse strings that those views are of the quality promised. At the very least, they need to be human - and over the past year there have been multiple whistles blown at falsified or invalid (read: bot) traffic reported by publishers to their brand clients. As content has become more personalized and painstakingly targeted for maximum ROI, the assurance that it is reaching the correct audience has become tantamount.

All that being said, 2017 wasn’t all doom and gloom and hard lessons for content marketers. The sometimes-harsh spotlight on the space also allowed (and somewhat forced) the medium to come into its own and finally take its place among other fully realized types of marketing.

There were enough extremely lauded branded content partnerships born in 2017 to fill countless glowing recaps from industry authorities from AdAge to Forbes throughout the year, and cutting edge experiential content pushes (like HBO’s incredibly buzzy Westworld activation at SXSW, facilitated by boutique creative shop Giant Spoon) pushed the envelope and forced a widening of the definition of content marketing itself. It was encouraging to observe how a year marked by a massive increase in the density of content marketing and branded content of all types concurrently produced so much quality material. The breadth and depth of branded output last year was inspiring, optimistic, and vitally challenging. It threw down a gauntlet for 2018.

2017 was also a year during which the sophistication of the modern consumer pushed marketing forward and placed content marketing on a pedestal. In a digital and physical world saturated by ads, consumers now expect and demand to derive more value out of the what they are served with. Advertising is a two-way street, and we as a marketing community are following that philosophy now more than ever. This awakening has heavy implications for all facets of commerce, but it will ideally lead the marketing field into a place of increased symbiosis between brand and consumer. The newfound emphasis on using content to earn attention as opposed to relying on aggressive pop-ups or outdated banner ads is an important sign that the audience is playing a more active role.

These active consumers haven’t merely influenced the rise of content marketing itself, but how it is distributed. Demonstrated preference for mobile consumption has guided brands and agencies to create content with a mobile-first approach. Branded content has never travelled better. The success of conversational tone as utilized by the omnipresent millennial retail brands that dominated the scene in 2017 has been picked up and run with throughout the advertising community, making everything from email inboxes to subway signage feel more intimate and personalized than ever before.

In short, 2017 was the year that marketers truly, irrevocably realized that they had to create things to fit into their audiences’ lives, and not the other way around.

This is all to say that last year was complicated for content marketing, with big wins and jarring losses. In a word, it was pivotal. And now for the fun part - 2018 is when we take things to the next level.