3 Questions To Help You Evolve Your Content and Marketing


Revolution brings sudden, radical, or complete change. And we’ve experienced enough of those 180-degree shifts to leave us all exhausted.

Evolving, on the other hand, happens more subtly over a longer period. Still, change for the better (rather than change for change’s sake) requires a series of decisions and actions.

Here’s the good news: You don’t need to radically change everything you’ve learned or processes you’ve relied on to meet content marketing’s challenges. But you will need to evolve.

Thousands of content and marketing professionals came to Content Marketing World in Washington, D.C., last week to share ideas on how.

As you might have guessed, many of the conversations involved artificial intelligence. Some of the brightest minds in AI shared their views on the state of AI and what it means for the future of marketers. I can’t share all the nuances and details in this recap without drowning out the rest of the week’s lessons (more to come in our ongoing coverage). But here’s a TL;DR version: AI will continue to have an extraordinary impact on our industry but so will humans.

With that understanding, I offer some provocative questions to consider based on the ideas keynote speakers shared for evolving to meet the challenges of 2023 and beyond.

1. Are you crystal clear about your content mission and purpose?

I’m sure you’re familiar with Zillow – the brand name has morphed into a verb to describe looking up home values.

You might think Zillow becoming a household term means the brand has achieved marketing rock-star status. Job done. Why would their marketing team change a thing?

But even established brands need to maintain and build on their reputation. As much as the Zillow team appreciated its funny and cool reputation, the company isn’t in the business of giving people a peak behind the curtains of houses – it’s an online real estate marketplace.

As Beverly Jackson, the company’s vice president of brand and product marketing (and Content Marketer of the Year finalist in 2018), explained, the team needed to evolve that reputation.

How did they do it? First, Beverly shared, they crystallized their purpose and centered their content on one mission – to make it easier for people to go through the home-buying process.

To do that, the team created a central hub where people can find everything they need. To promote it, they launched a campaign that embraced the reason most people know Zillow (i.e., to find out how much their boss paid for their home) and let them know it was so much more (i.e., a place to help them buy their own home).

That campaign returned a 94% unaided brand recall. “When customers started talking about Zillow the way we talk about our brand, we knew we were onto something,” Beverly said.

How can you adjust your organization’s marketing messages to get the company and the audience speaking the same language?

When customers talk about your brand the way you talk about it, you’re on to something, says @BevJack via @EditorStahl @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

2. Have you fallen for the biggest lie in marketing?

Derek Thompson is a writer and editor for The Atlantic, author of the bestselling book Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction, and host of the Plain English podcast. So he was a natural fit to interview the insightful, smart, and funny actress, producer, and director Elizabeth Banks (we’ll bring you more on that talk another time).

But I’m still thinking about the ideas in his solo keynote speech a week later.

Derek challenged what he called the biggest lie in Hollywood, marketing, science, academia (and pretty much everywhere else): that people need (and like) new things.

“The truth is that the most fundamental human bias is toward familiarity,” he said.

He only needed to point to the top-grossing movies of this century (think Avengers, Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.) to get nods of agreement from the CMWorld crowd.

“In an infinitude of choice … we are pulled toward the familiar,” Derek said.

Need more proof? Think of Spotify. New music floods the platform every week. Yet, listeners opt for the tunes they already like.

Derek shared what happened when Spotify tried to push subscribers to new music by creating Discover Weekly, a playlist of 30 new songs that drops into listeners’ feeds every Monday.

A bug in the algorithm let a few familiar songs creep into the playlist. When Spotify fixed the problem, it found the number of people listening to the playlist plummeted. “A little bit of familiarity in a product designed for novelty made it more popular,” Derek said.

Derek used an acronym – MAYA – to describe the process of evolving beyond the familiar frontier. The letters stand for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, a descriptor coined by Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design. (Air Force One and the 1953 Studebaker, which launched the automobile’s more aerodynamic look, are among his more famous works.)

Here’s Loewy’s MAYA philosophy: You can sell something familiar by making it surprising. You can sell something surprising by making it familiar.

What new things can you sneak into old things to engage your audience or guide them toward something new?

The idea that people need and like new things is the biggest lie in marketing, science, and academia, says @DKThomp via @Editor_Stahl @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

3. Are you running enough content experiments?

Phyllis Davidson, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, advocated for experimentation. I see that as the logical next step after following Beverly’s and Derek’s counsel.

But before I get into that, consider this jaw-dropping stat Phyllis shared from Forrester’s B2B research: 77% of customers are unlikely to expand their contracts with a brand if its content isn’t valuable or helpful. And that number jumped 10 percentage points between 2022 and 2023.

Bookmark that statistic for the next time you need to convince your boss of content’s value in the buying process.

According to @forrester’s #B2B research, 77% of customers are unlikely to expand their contracts with a brand if its #content isn’t valuable or helpful via @EditorStahl @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Back to her theme of experimentation: Phyllis got a chuckle from the crowd when she explained no one at CMWorld could just go to the Olympics as a gymnast. We all got the message: You can’t be proficient at something if you don’t do the work to become an expert.

“Given how risky some of the new tech is in helping us to modify and improve our content, organizations have to learn how to experiment at the content level to use these technologies,” Phyllis explained.

How do you do that? It’s not by innovation, she said. It’s by experimentation. Then she shared this quote she attributed to Isaac Asimov: “Experimentation is the least arrogant method of gaining knowledge.”

But how should you experiment? Return to what you learned in your middle school science classes.

Phyllis refreshed us on the steps and provided a marketing example to illustrate:

  • Ask a question: Will the AI-generated industry version of a white paper perform better than the non-AI?
  • Research: Evaluate differences in knowledge requirements and preferences across industries.
  • Formulate a hypothesis: AI-generated financial services and life science versions delivered in the same channels will perform 10% better.
  • Make a plan: Use outbound email to test versions against industry audience members.
  • Experiment: Run the test with list subsets using the same parameters/timing. Measure performance by the number of white paper downloads.
  • Collect and record results: Compare results across all versions.
  • Draw conclusions: Financial services met the key performance indicator (KPI). Life sciences did not. Run financial services white paper program. Evaluate input for the life sciences version. Consider testing a third industry.

The more marketing experiments you conduct, the more you can move quickly, and failure becomes a lot less painful, Phyllis said.

#Marketing experiments help you move faster – and make failure a lot less painful, says Phyllis Davidson via @Editor_Stahl @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet

What will be your next marketing experiment?

Evolution doesn’t require a revolution (even with AI)

As I mentioned, AI was on everyone’s mind. I found these themes (shared by Avinash Kaushik, chief strategy officer at Croud and formerly of Google) particularly helpful.

AI manifestation falls into one of three categories today, he explained:

1. AI gives us tools that help in our work.

2. AI can operate as co-pilots to help us be smarter and faster.

3. AI serves as a muse to help us get started and speed up our human output and quantity.

But AI adoption isn’t a revolution. As Cassie Kozyrkov, former chief data scientist at Google, pointed out, AI has existed for years. What is new, she said, is the user experience and design around AI.

I would describe that as the evolution of AI – from tech to tool applied by people.

Marketers – educators, trust builders, and entertainers – must embrace evolution. We make conscious decisions day after day about what to do next, whether about adapting our messages to our audience’s changing needs, planning our content to guide our audiences along, deciding how we’ll use AI, or something else.

We don’t need a revolution. We just need to keep evolving.

Want more insight from these and other Content Marketing World speakers? Register for an on-demand pass to get access to session recordings through Dec. 31, 2023. Use code BLOG100 to save $100.


Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute


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