Every year or so, a tried and true online marketing tactic is declared "dead." This usually happens long before it actually is dead, sometimes even while it's in its prime.
So I'll do you a favor, and I'll avoid trying to tell you that "content marketing is dead." We're nowhere near that point yet.
An incredibly small percentage of marketers have even reached the point where they've been able to execute it properly, and I'd be very surprised if the approach has already peaked.
We're digital marketers. Our livelihood is played out on a battlefield where not even the ground itself stays the same from one year to the next. To remain competitive, we need to stay at least one step ahead of the curve, and just as importantly, think two or more steps further down the road.
It's with that in mind that I can see a future, a relatively near one at that, where what we call "content" today will not be king. I know that this next step exists, because the most powerful companies on the web have already taken it.
It's time to talk about the elephant in the room. It's time to talk about that next step.
Applications, the Future of Digital Marketing
In 1996, Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin built a search engine as a research project. By 1998 it was already getting talked about on top sites like Salon.com, which said it gave better results than Hotbot and Excite.
At that time, Google had acquired a grand total of $100,000 in funding and had virtually no marketing in place. By 2004, Google handled 85 percent of the searches on the web.
In January 2004, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg created a social networking site for Harvard students. Its growth continued to include members from all Ivy League schools. The site had a million users by the end of the year, with only a $500,000 angel investment.
These sites were doing very little marketing at all, and certainly not "content marketing."
A quick look at the most linked to sites on the web reveals that essentially every single one of them is a tool of some kind. Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, WordPress, Wikipedia, and LinkedIn simply don't owe their success to content marketing. To pretend that they did would be disingenuous.
They owe their success to innovative (and not necessarily complicated) software ideas. They have come to dominate the web because they are more than content. They are interactive. People use them.
And let's not forget about Amazon, the site that consumers now turn to even before Google when they want to research a product. Amazon was just one of many ecommerce sites in the 1990s, and the media didn't think much of it. But then Amazon started inventing things. Recommendation engines. The ability to look inside a book before buying it. An API. It was this that took Amazon from a site that didn't turn a profit in its first four years to the most wildly successful ecommerce site on the web.
The future of the web is only going to get more tool-based as users switch over to mobile.
Here's a jarring statistic from Flurry: users spend 80 percent of their mobile time in apps. Digital marketers are devoting 100 percent of their time to something that users are only devoting a fifth of their mobile time toward.
Flurry doesn't expect the web to die as a result of this. Instead, they expect it to start looking more like apps.
Oh, and did I mention that in 2011 people were already spending more time in apps than on the web? That's everywhere, not just in mobile. And, again, that was 2011.
Are you ready for this change? Because it's coming either way.
Tools to Connect
"OK, so people are using apps more than the web," a Mr. Straw Man says. "Who cares? Look how much of that time is devoted to Facebook. We can't cut into that!"
Actually, Mr. Straw Man, believe it or not, Facebook use may be in decline, at least in the first world.
Facebook has already publicly admitted that teens are using their social network less than they used to. In fact, research suggests that Twitter is now more popular than Facebook among teens. But what may be more interesting is the surprising rise of niche social tools, mostly for mobile.
For a while it looked like the social space was completely packed and there was no room for new players. But now we're seeing things like:
- WhatsApp, the world's most popular messaging app, currently has 350 million active users. That's more than Twitter. WhatsApp is also working on an API that will also allow users to share content with each other, but in a private setting more intimate than Facebook. It's one of many messaging apps which, together with texting, take up way more use than Facebook.
- Snapchat, a messaging app that friends use to send selfies to each other, which disappear shortly after, has 5 million monthly users.
- Vine, the social platform with its six second videos, has at least 40 million users, and has continued to grow despite the introduction of Instagram's video feature.
"OK, but still, those are platforms dedicated to social. We're not social networks."
Well, here's some more news for you, Mr. Straw Man. Did you know that 65 percent of American social media users have read an online message board in the past week? That almost half have read one in the past 24 hours?
That this makes online message boards more popular than blogs?
In fact, Reddit, which is essentially a message board, had 90 million unique visitors last month, making it roughly as popular as Pinterest.
On top of that, free forum platforms like moot are taking forums in a more modern direction.
I'm not suggesting that installing a pre-packaged forum platform on your site should be the beginning and the end of your approach to this new era of social tools. I am suggesting that doing so is probably the bare minimum if you change nothing else, and if you want to matter in five years.
As humans, we remember and care about experiences far more than things, or content. We will always remember and treasure a vacation more than, say, a movie (unless it's "Star Wars"). The marketers of the future need to create interactions. Users experience them, and so they become memorable. Peer reviewed research suggests that this is the only way social networks create sales anyway.
While it can be useful to do this on a platform like Facebook, it's far more useful if it takes place on a platform of your own, where the call to action isn't far away, the topic of discussion is related to your product, and there are no distractions.
Your tool doesn't have to be the next Facebook. It just has to connect people. If it's also innovative enough to pick up some press coverage, that's all the better.
Tools to Create
What might be even more memorable than an interaction? The act of creation.
You could say that YouTube, WordPress, and Blogger are some of the most linked to sites on the web because of their content, but that would be missing the point. These sites dominate on the web because they make it extraordinarily easy for people to create something that they otherwise couldn't, at least not without a server and some programming knowledge.
We're only just now seeing the beginning of what tools like these can accomplish. Social networks, for the most part, don't really facilitate the act of creation. But if you've taken a look at the stuff that gets posted there recently, I have a feeling images like these will be familiar:
Image Credit: someecards
Image Credit: Imgur
Someecards sees roughly 100 million impressions each month, and Imgur gets about 70 million unique visitors each month. All these sites really do is make it easy to post text on an image and share it in a way that looks a bit better than something you would make in MS Paint.
The fact of the matter is, users are very hungry for tools that help them create something to share with their friends and family, and they don't have many to choose from. Most just do a Google image search and post something that looks original to them, because nothing else is easy enough.
There's a wealth of opportunity here.
Just take a look at some of the most popular iPhone apps:
- Elf Yourself: An app from Office Max that you can use to make an elf version of yourself.
- Perfect 365: People use this to give themselves virtual makeovers.
- Emoji: To create images made out of smileys.
- InstaCollage Pro: For creating collages.
All of these apps have tens of millions of users, and of course I'm just glossing over Instagram, which offers filters that have made the image sharing tool attractive to a base of 150 million active users.
The important thing to realize about tools like these is the fact that you don't just reach the people who use the tool. The end product is likely to end up on social networks, where it will be shared and seen by a much larger audience.
Perhaps even more importantly, if you empower your users to create something of their own, they may start to develop a common language and form a culture around your brand as well.
Farewell to the Static Web
Embedded Vines, tweets, and Facebook posts, Pinterest style infinite scrolling, Amazon style recommendation engines, and advanced message board technologies are only the beginning. The web may have started as a series of web pages with little more interactivity than the ability to click a link, but this is changing.
The sites with the best tools have almost always dominated the web, but this is changing from something we expect from elites to something we expect from every corner of the net. As we move away from the PC and onto our mobile devices, we increasingly find web browsers dull and boring compared to the immersive experience of apps.
Apps are the future of marketing. Don't say I didn't warn you.
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