Digital Content Report
We surveyed over 400 content marketers—at agencies, freelance, and in-house—to explore the current state of digital content.
The results reflect what we all know: the market is changing. Content marketing is getting harder.
Read on to reveal the processes, challenges, and secrets to successful digital content in 2022.
I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM, WE ALL SCREAM FOR
LET'S START WITH THE OBVIOUS
Creating content requires resources. Still, as we saw last year, content is a moneymaker for marketing agencies. This isn't too surprising in a survey of content marketers, but it’s worth noting that content isn’t just a passion project or a necessary but loss-leading offering:
Over three-quarters of agencies are generating real profits by building content for their clients.
Tell us more...
We're slightly concerned about the 21 percent who don't know.
So, which agencies are investing most heavily in content?
Answer: The big ones.
When we look at the agencies making most of their revenue from content, the majority have more than 10 employees. Which makes sense, because, say it with me now: content requires resources.
Regardless of their size, most agencies aren’t doing it alone.
More agencies are getting help than ever before.
Last year, 38 percent of agencies reported producing all of their content in-house. This year, only a quarter of agencies say the same.
For the 75 percent of agencies getting outside help, it's through a combination of freelancers and content marketplaces.
Agencies need more help than they used to because they're creating more content than they used to.
Because it takes more content, and more labor-intensive types of content, to fuel a successful marketing strategy than it used to.
Check out the data:
The drop off in agencies producing between one and four pieces of content per client per month is notable.
Do you think that means clients are beginning to see the value of content? Sadly, no.
Content is still a tough sell.
Despite content needs going up, more than half of agencies said that their clients do not understand the value of content marketing.
We all know getting buy-in for content can be hard. There's consolation, though, that this number is up significantly from last year: In 2021, only 16 percent of agencies felt their clients understood the value of content marketing. That's progress, right?
We're running on a platform of total content buy-in by 2025. 'Vurblio
Real advice from the real marketers who contributed to this report
Tips for Planning & Production
“Planning content should always start with the goal. (ie what role does this piece play? Lead generation? Brand awareness, etc).”
“Build out a content strategy per quarter, and focus on it.”
“Get someone on your team who absolutely lives and breathes brand research.”
“Create content around a question and use that content to answer that question.”
“More research up front means less time in revision.”
“Be ruthless with your editorial team. If someone is below standard, stop working with them instead of investing months trying to bring them up to standard and then often being disappointed with the results.”
“Work with subject matter experts at the company to interview them and get their unique insights for content.”
“No fluff, stick to the point, only write enough to get your point across sufficiently.”
On average, we found that in-house marketers are producing more pieces of content per month than an agency would be producing for a single client.
And, like agencies, many in-house content teams are building a lot of their own content. A full half of them, though, are outsourcing anywhere from a quarter to all of their content needs.
When they need help, in-house marketers are almost twice as likely to use freelancers over content platforms or agencies.
The hybrid content creation model—one that blends freelancers, agencies, and content platforms—is normal.
We also asked in-house marketers how their team fits into the larger corporate structure. It depends on the company, but most organizations see content as a growth function.
What’s behind these different org structures? We found that the larger the organization, the more likely content is seen as an in-house creative agency function, rather than part of the growth team.
4 out of every 5 marketers who self-identified as part of an “in-house creative team” are part of a marketing team with more than 25 people.
And those folks who identified as “other” were overwhelmingly one-person content teams. When you’re doing it all, it’s hard to figure out how you fit into the larger org chart.
“To the 21% of agencies that don’t know how much revenue comes from content—you are not charging what you’re worth! When an agency doesn’t understand which services are contributing to their revenue it’s a red flag. It usually means the agency is charging hourly instead of value-based pricing. Stop being treated like a commodity! Get paid what you’re worth and discover which services are profitable. The ones that aren’t should be eliminated or out-sourced.”
“Content is the reason people visit websites. Clients eventually figure this out and moments later, discover the limits of an all in-house team. This research shows that all but the biggest companies need help. And the best agencies are there for them."
9 out of 10 content marketers agree
OUr jobs are getting harder
You can't fake expertise, and that makes creating quality content hard for everyone.
When agencies build content for clients in-house, they run into two major roadblocks: expert knowledge and client expectations.
Not much changes when agencies outsource content creation—authentic industry knowledge and client expectations remain sticky spots.
In-house marketers who outsource content reported similar problems.
As a content creation platform, our inbound sales inquiries consistently mention this need for expertise:
"Looking for authors who can display authority in their fields to write about real estate and event related content."
"We'd like an IT or software specialized writer"
"Do you have writers that are familiar with the dental industry?"
"I'm looking for ways to streamline the creation of blog posts where I require significantly less time from my engineers."
Quality content isn't just about expertise OR good writing—it's a blend of both.
For both agencies and in-house teams, the biggest struggle is in finding these SME unicorns—writers who have authority in their niche, and who can fully dedicate their time to content creation (as opposed to the activity that made them subject-matter experts in the first place).
Freelancers feel the pain of managing client expectations and gathering expert knowledge, too. But what agency and in-house people tend to overlook, and that's especially salient to freelancers, is that good content starts with a good brief.
Real advice from the real marketers who contributed to this report
Quality > quantity
“Don't create for the sake of creating, create with a goal in mind and set achievable targets.”
“Don't be afraid to reuse your best ideas in a new format.”
“Always ask, 'Is there a better/new way to write this?'”
“Creating quality content far surpasses the total volume of content produced.”
“Less is more. The word ‘and’ is the Achilles’ heel of marketing content.”
“Readability, scannability, and design are more impactful than quantity.”
“Quality content doesn't mean 'beautifully written.' Quality needs to start with a great idea and have great execution. Writing fundamentals are important... but only to a point.”
“Keep things simple and engaging.”
Gut check: Success isn’t about having flashy interactive campaigns or TikTok influencers. Sometimes, the true-and-true basics are still best (and often, the easiest).
Like we saw in 2021, blog posts and landing pages continue to be the backbone of a successful content strategy.
Interestingly, when we break the results down by marketer type, we see that agencies and in-house marketers both ranked blog posts and landing pages similarly high. Freelancers, however, were more than twice as likely to vote for blog posts over landing pages as the most successful content type.
In our own experience at Verblio, blog posts are much more likely than landing pages to be outsourced to freelancers. There may be a bias, then, for freelancers to undervalue landing pages, since they’re not creating them as often.
We know distribution matters, but that doesn't make it any easier.
Here, too, marketers are relying on a couple of the same tried-and-true methods.
Social media and email newsletters are the most effective distribution channels across all marketers. There’s another freelancer caveat in this data too, though, with 14 percent of freelancers responding that they are not involved with distribution or measuring results.
So, how do content marketers define quality?
Across agencies, in-house marketers, and freelancers, all three groups agreed: It’s about engagement.
After that, consensus disappeared.
Freelancers were equally as likely to define quality by qualitative metrics as by conversion stats.
In-house marketers, on the other hand, valued conversion stats far more (and qualitative metrics far less!) than either agencies or freelancers.
Agencies split the difference and use conversion stats less than in-house marketers, but more than freelancers—and they depend on qualitative metrics less than freelancers, but more than in-house folks.
This all makes sense. In-house marketers are the most vested in making sure their content actually drives revenue.
“Here is the winning ticket: don’t limit your strategy to one content type or platform. We’ve seen Google adapt the SERPs to show a variety of content types. Most recently including short-form videos from TikTok! Multi-media content and multi-modal content strategies have always been superior. Now Google is rewarding that in big ways.”
“The definition of success may look different for freelancers than it does for agencies or in-house teams. Freelancers are more likely to look at success when they deliver the content instead of performance metrics after the content gets published.”
“In terms of the most effective channel for distributing your content, it makes total sense to me that email and social take the top spots - you have a lot of control over those channels. But manual outreach to publications can have a huge impact on your content and SEO strategy, especially if your distribution goals include improving brand authority, increasing your reach, and earning better links.”
“We need to stop thinking of content promotion as necessary for 100% of content. I’ve ranked hundreds of pieces of content with zero links to it. Promote the big ones, let quality content + SEO do the promoting for the majority of your content library.”
“Most teams see content as an unpredictable, but required part of life and don’t have content strategy. A content strategy using data brings predictive outcomes, but, it also brings higher hit rates, and yields easier paths to future content investments because the outcomes are more reliable. Higher quality predictions and higher success rates with content = bigger budgets for content in the future.”
"I understand social media is still considered a distribution channel, but it should ALSO be a stand-alone conversation and community channel. If you're using it to just share links to your blog, you're missing a massive piece of the value. And I'm shocked to see "buying links" on the list, I didn't realize marketers were still finding that tactic useful!"
Gaze into our content
Across all three groups of marketers, the bar for content is rising.
But marketers aren’t feeling that equally.
Close to 70 percent of agency and in-house marketers agree that it’s getting harder to build successful content, but only about half of freelancers think so. Our theory is that difference is related to the 14 percent of freelancers who aren’t involved in distribution or measurement, as well as the higher tendency among freelancers to rely on gut feel to measure quality.
If you’re not keeping tabs on the hard numbers around performance, you may be less likely to feel changing industry standards.
Real advice from the real marketers who contributed to this report
Humans > Search Engines
“Meet your audience where they are - context and intent are almost as important as the content itself.”
“Think about the user not google, we optimize for google but google optimizes for the user.”
“Write for humans, not search engines.”
“Put yourself in the mind of the user and totally understand their thought process.”
“Make the reader the 'hero' of the content, not the business who is producing the content.”
“Stay true to yourself, don’t do it just for the trend.”
“Tell a story, and be authentic, always.”
“Create human content.”
Even as success is harder to achieve, the demand for content continues to rise.
And we were happy to see that despite the economic uncertainties of the last year, 81 percent of agencies and in-house marketers have not yet had to cut costs to stay competitive.
Overall, the future of content is bright.
Creating content that cuts through the noise is getting harder, but companies understand the value and are continuing to invest in content marketing for the long-term.
"I expect the quantity to keep increasing, but for most clients, results will be flat. Unless you have data to support the more-is-better case, you're probably better off publishing fewer, better pieces… especially research pieces like this."
“Demand for content is increasing, but I wonder if B2C is driving a lot of that. B2C content is much more focused on social, video, etc., and content marketers should keep that in mind when looking at the growth of content in the next few years.”
“I don't think it's getting harder necessarily to build successful content, but I think it is taking more effort and more planning. It really depends on the goals of the content and the type of content. If the goal is just to get visibility, then creating content for places like social media isn't as hard as creating meaningful content that is going to engage users, bring them into the site and hopefully convert in some way.”
Thanks very much to our expert commentators:
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