It’s that time: the latest annual B2B Content Marketing report [pdf] from the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) and MarketingProfs has been released, examining the state of content marketing among B2B marketers in North America. This is the seventh such report, allowing for comparisons to years past to identify shifts and trends. So what’s new – and what’s consistent with previous years?.
[For an examination of how content marketing fits into the broader B2B digital marketing agenda, see MarketingCharts’ study, the 2015 B2B Digital Marketing Insights Report.]
Following are some highlights from this year’s edition of the content marketing study, including comparisons to prior editions where appropriate.
Adoption and Effectiveness
This year, 89% of respondents reported using content marketing, up slightly from 88% last year and 86% the year before, when a new definition was developed: “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”
Once again this year, when respondents were asked to rate the maturity of their organization’s content marketing, the largest portion – 36% (up from 29% last year) – rated themselves as being “adolescent” (the middle stage of the 5 identified), meaning that they have developed a business case, are seeing early success, and becoming more sophisticated with measurement and scaling. The majority of marketers fell in the middle 3 of the 5 stages of maturity, with fewer at the “sophisticated” (6%) or “first steps” (10%) extremes.
This year, the question of effectiveness has changed somewhat (maybe due to low perceived effectiveness in prior years?). Whereas last year just 30% of respondents rated their content marketing as effective or very effective, this year 3 in 4 say that their overall content marketing approach has been extremely (3%), very (19%) or moderately successful (53%). (Aside from the question changing, the survey went from a 5-scale approach to a 6-point scale.)
On an encouraging note, some 62% of respondents said that their organization’s content marketing success has become much (17%) or somewhat (45%) more successful compared to a year ago. And recent research indicates that marketers believe that content marketing is one of their most effective lead generation channels.
For marketers who reported that their success has improved over the past year, the most common reasons given were better (higher quality, more efficient) content creation (85%) along with a development or adjustment in strategy (72%). (See the chart above for the full list of factors.) Content creation challenges weighed prominently as a factor contributing to stagnant or declining success, though the leading reason for the lack of improvement was not enough time devoted to content marketing.
What constitutes success remains a grey area, though. Just 41% said that their organizations have clarity on what an effective or successful content marketing program looks like, a figure which is actually down from 44% last year. Separate research shows a continued lack of confidence in marketers’ ability to measure the ROI of content marketing.
This year’s study notes that the most successful content marketers are much more likely than the least successful to have a documented content marketing strategy (61% and 13%, respectively).
The trouble is that few marketers overall actually have a documented strategy. This year, that figure stands at 37%, though that is an improvement from 32% last year. Another 41%, down from 48% last year. In other words, close to 8 in 10 continue to have a strategy, but there’s been a small shift towards documented strategies.
Among those with a documented strategy, roughly three-quarters say that it includes a plan to operate content marketing as an ongoing business process, not simply a campaign. Fewer (54%) include well-defined business goals for content or a measurement plan to provide both insight and progress towards the business goals (51%).
Overall, most feel that their strategies are at least moderately effective, with roughly one-third feeling that their strategy is very or extremely effective. Moreover, 7 in 10 believe that the effectiveness of their strategy has improved from last year.
So it seems that – at least with respect to strategies and overall content marketing effectiveness – marketers are becoming more confident over time.
Goals and Metrics
This is an area in which there have been some changes in recent years. After brand awareness had been the top goal from 2012-2014, it dropped to the 4th-most cited objective last year, with lead generation moving to the top spot.
This year, lead generation is again the most-cited goal (80%), at least for focus over the next 12 months. Lead generation is very closely followed by brand awareness (79%), with engagement (71%) next. Interestingly, sales has dropped from the second spot last year to fifth last year. One wonders how that has impacted marketers’ confidence in their content strategies: last year, when sales was a top goal, marketers’ perceived content effectiveness was low. This year, when sales is no longer a top coming objective, marketers have become more confident in their effective…
Meanwhile, website traffic continues to be the most commonly used metric (78%) by a wide margin, while just half measure sales.
It certainly seems as though marketers are aligning their objectives with the metrics they’re able to report. While more than 7 in 10 agree that they can demonstrate how content marketing has increased audience engagement (75%) and the number of leads (72%), fewer (57%) agree that they can demonstrate how content marketing has increased their sales.
In a new question, respondents were most likely to say they measure content marketing ROI at the top of the funnel (49%), though a close proportion do so at the bottom of the funnel (44%).
Content Creation and Distribution
In this latest edition, 70% of respondents expect to produce more content in 2017 than they have this year. Content production has been on the increase for several years now, which may also be contributing to increased competition and lower effectiveness ratings. Recent study data from The Economist Group indicates that 3 in 5 executives around the world are at the point where they’re at least sometimes confused or overwhelmed by the amount of content they encounter.
Interestingly, the number of tactics used by marketers averages out at 8, a fairly significant drop from 13 the past couple of years. The top tactics employed are:
- Social media content – other than blogs (83%, down from 93% last year);
- Blogs (80%, fairly steady from 81% last year);
- Email newsletters (77%, down slightly from 81%);
- In-person events (68%, down from 81% last year);
- E-books/White papers (65%);
- Pre-produced video (60%); and
- Infographics (58%).
Blogs are easily seen as the tactic that will be most critical to content marketing success in 2017. That follows separate research indicating that blogs are among the most effective content marketing tactics.
When it comes to distributing content, email (93%) and LinkedIn (89%) are the most-used vehicles by B2B marketers, followed by Twitter (77%) and Facebook (76%). Email and LinkedIn are also considered the most important to overall content marketing success.
In terms of paid methods used, social promotion is the most popular (84%), followed by search engine marketing (67%) and print or other offline promotion (58%). Search engine marketing is considered the most effective at accomplishing content marketing objectives for the third straight year, though, closely followed by social promotion.
Budgets and Challenges
Not surprisingly given the buzz about content marketing, there’s some upwards movement in budgets, though not at the same level as in previous years. Indeed, 39% expect to hike their content marketing budget in the next 12 months, down from 51% last year and 54-58% in the prior 3 years.
Despite those increases over the years, the share of total marketing budgets spent on content marketing doesn’t seem to have changed. This year it averages out at 29%, compared with 28% last year and 2014, 30% in 2013, 33% in 2012, and 26% in 2011.
This year’s study does not measure perceived content challenges, though last year the top issue continued to be producing engaging content. That challenge seems unlikely to abate, given that most marketers plan to yet again increase their content production. Other pieces of research released this year suggest that producing quality content is the top challenge and that time is the biggest challenge to producing quality content.
For the full details on B2B content marketing trends, view the CMI and MarketingProfs report here [pdf].
About the Data: The sixth annual Content Marketing Survey, from which the results of the report were generated, was mailed electronically to a sample of marketers using lists from Content Marketing Institute, MarketingProfs, The Association for Data-driven Marketing & Advertising (ADMA), and WTWH Media.
A total of 2,562 recipients from around the globe — representing a full range of industries, functional areas, and company sizes — completed the survey during July and August 2016. The report presents the findings from the 1,102 respondents who said they were B2B marketers in North America.