I opened a very scary Google Hangouts message in March of 2020. “Hey,” it read. “Our whole content calendar is now irrelevant. We need a new plan.”
Then followed the onslaught of emails about budget cuts and event cancellations. The pressure was now on digital marketing teams to navigate the pandemic.
Fueled by adrenaline in response to widespread pandemic panic, many marketers rose to the same challenge we did: change your plans, focus on digital, and do it fast with less. A year later, some of our budgets rebounded. It looked like we might have a new normal, but more surprises were in store.
Content creators now face a recession and the Great Resignation. At the same time, there are louder demands from customers, audiences, tech platforms, and internal teams to niche down further and produce even higher quality content. So, how are marketers to create more content with less?
The crux of the issue isn’t necessarily budget, but people. Sixty-seven percent of marketers report being asked to do more without expanding their team when hiring slowed during the pandemic and never picked up again.
More than half of us are still operating with either zero or just one full-time team member dedicated to content marketing. Top it off with a competitive market for freelance and contracted talent, and you’ll find some stressed-out marketers.
I talked with several professionals who manage their company’s content about how they’re experiencing today’s challenges, and the strategies they’re using to thrive despite them. Those conversations surfaced three common themes:
- Pressure from search algorithms to a higher volume of high-quality content
- Pressure from customers to create more personalized content
- Extremely tough competition for talent
3 challenges fueling the rapidly increasing need for content
“Do more with less, please.”
This message resonated with everyone I spoke to for this article. In order to impact sales the same way we did yesterday, we need to create more content today. And if we’re tasked with growing our impact, well, that’ll up the ante too.
A higher demand for content means budgets are stretched thinner, which is an even tougher challenge for those of us facing turnover on our internal or external teams.
1. Search engines require higher-quality content than ever before
A 10,000-foot view of Google’s past search algorithm updates shows they’re focused on prioritizing things like a good user experience (UX) while knocking spammy content off the radar. It’s a noble endeavor, but it means well-intentioned marketers who used to rely on SEO shortcuts can’t do that anymore.
Mark Cluett, PolicyAdvisor’s director of Content and Digital Assets, has seen a growing need for domain expertise, as well as a need for content to satisfy several search formats like Alexa search results or snippets, the highlighted text that appears first on a search results page.
“I’ve noticed that over the past few years, SEO has gotten smarter,” says Cluett. “It all has to make sense when Google crawls and serves content to a user in those formats.”
While content has to make sense for a wide span of changing algorithmic complexities, it must also never leave people feeling they just wasted their precious time. Esther Lizmi, Cashfloat‘s head of Business Process Optimisation, grew their SEO strategy from the ground up. When she was just getting started, search engines demanded more content, but less from it.
“People notice that unless it’s really good content, meaning it’s exactly what someone needs ‘right now,’ it won’t help you anyway. It won’t convert, or help you drive leads or sales.” says Lizmi
Lizmi used article-creation websites to generate articles in bulk several years ago. Those articles covered different topics, all written quickly in the same structure, and were successful. Today, she finds the type of content that performs well is published less frequently, more researched, and of a much higher quality.
2. Audiences expect personalization
The demand for higher quality alone isn’t enough to strain resources. It’s the demand for high-quality content that must then be personalized for each and every relevant audience.
Personalization looks different for every business. But it often means content for each relevant vertical, at each stage of the buyer journey, for every buyer persona. Some companies even take it a step further with content for specific customers or accounts.
Forty-three percent of us think the majority of our customers expect personalized content, but only 32 percent of our content is actually personalized.
Plus, higher-quality content takes much more time to create in the first place. Thirty-nine percent of content marketers think it takes around one week or more to fulfill content requests, and only 11 percent say one request can be completed in less than a day.
If each and every piece of content needs to be personalized for several different audiences, you’re tripling your workload. Marketers think being able to work faster with a bigger team could increase a brand’s revenue by 48 percent on average. Whether or not that’s true depends on the team and the ability to find good talent.
3. Competition for talent is fierce
Making the case for more people is hard even when marketers aren’t resigning en masse. Even more so if your content marketing strategy isn’t yet mature enough to attribute every dollar you spend to revenue.
So, the solution for many marketing teams is to outsource more to content creation platforms, agencies, or individual contractors. In some cases, marketers have found they don’t need to replace the in-house staff they lost in the Great Resignation.
“We learned to guide our contracted writers and have them optimize articles for SEO themselves, so we didn’t need to hire the full-time staff back,” says Lizmi.
Cashfloat ultimately spent less money than they would have hiring back an in-house team and gained the flexibility to work with subject-matter experts. Lizmi sourced writers from a freelancing platform, which she preferred to an agency, where she felt like that subject-matter expertise was lacking.
I’ve personally been working with Contently to source a wide range of domain expertise in everything from advertising technology to knowledge of specific vertical trends and in multiple languages. The access to over 160 thousand freelancers worldwide at any given time has been invaluable and has allowed our content operations to scale dramatically over the course of five years.
But, the Great Recession has affected contracted talent too. We’ve seen more turnover than usual on our freelance publication staff.
Cluett also mentioned that his team has had trouble finding native English-speaking freelancers to count on reliably, as many of them move to in-house positions, leaving the ones he does work with stretched for bandwidth.
“While we used to be able to count on a pool of talent in Canada with domain expertise, no longer is there any guarantee that I might tap a certain freelancer and they’re not already at capacity,” says Cluett.
Strategies to meet the need for more content despite the challenges
The outlook may seem bleak, but content marketers are no stranger to changing headwinds. Learn from content teams at companies like PolicyAdvisor, Cashfloat, and BFG Financial Advisors who are thriving despite today’s challenges.
1. Tighten standard operating procedures
Whether you’re working entirely in-house or outsourcing more, now’s the time to tighten your standard operating procedures (SOPs). This means documented, clear instructions about your brand, style, and SEO requirements.
“Writers are good at what they do,” says Lizmi. “The clearer your instructions, the better they’ll write for you. Sometimes it may seem counterintuitive, but the more you give, the more you’ll get.”
Cashfloat’s content creation SOPs include an idea management system. It allows anyone in her company to submit content they find valuable around the web, so Lizmi never runs out of ideas. Of course, their content ideas also come from places like SEO tools, social media signals, and feedback from customers and audience.
She then provides writers with clear, detailed briefs on exactly how to prepare an article so that it meets their SEO goals. This includes writing, as well as using tools that allow them to do a lot of self-editing before an article ever makes it back to her desk.
“Now that we have SOPs in place, everything is so much easier—onboarding, training—it’s just all there,” sayz Lizmi. “We don’t have a problem with freelancers not meeting our specifications anymore, which saves us a ton of time.”
2. Only create content your audience wants
I’ve never met a marketer whose analytics convinced them their content was resonating with their audience. Unless something goes viral, that is. Many of us still rely on pageviews and clicks, which doesn’t tell the full story of a customer’s journey.
When you don’t know whether or not content is working, your content strategy becomes listening to the internal team screaming the loudest. 68.7 percent of us say our content marketing decisions are driven by other teams, like sales and support, while just over 50 percent of us say decisions are made based on content intelligence or anecdotal evidence from an actual customer.
Sara Lohse, BFG Financial Advisor‘s director of Marketing, grew BFG’s content marketing function by listening fiercely to her audience’s needs. In her experience, consumers engage with a company online because they want to be provided value in some way.
“I create the content because I want the public to have it, not because the company wants it,” says Lohse.
If you’re feeling the pressure to create more content, consider categorizing your to-do list by tasks that are data-driven and those that are internal requests. You might gain some clarity about which are worth spending today’s time on and which are worth pushing to tomorrow.
3. Create content for SEO snippets
Feed the search engines the content they want by structuring articles so they can easily be displayed as a snippet, or the answer to a question in the “People Also Ask” section of a results page.
“Search results are just so specific now,” says Cluett, “People are looking for that very specific piece of information, and then they grab it, and they head out.”
Creating more bite-sized content that provides a specific piece of information, while still creating an opportunity for an instant sale, has been an important part of Cluett’s strategy.
The best path to success is focusing on a long-term strategy
You always want your content to perform “right now,” but the best path to success is focusing on a long-term strategy. Because of that, it can be easy to spin your wheels and keep pivoting a content strategy to pander to today’s fire drill.
But focusing just on today’s current challenges is a mistake. Content marketing has always been a changing field. What worked two years ago doesn’t work anymore, and what works today probably won’t work two years from now.
“There are a lot of people who think they can be successful by overcoming the challenge of the moment,” says Cluett. “Gaining the skill of overcoming challenges may be more important.”
No matter who you are or what you’re selling, the best content strategy will always be one that focuses on providing long-term value to your audience consistently, despite the demands of today.