Whilst we still have a couple of months left before the year is through, I thought now would be a good time to look back over what has been an incredibly challenging year for content marketers. Looking backwards is often a good place to start when it comes to predicting the challenges that lay ahead, so with 2014 on the horizon this article looks back at some of the biggest changes to happen this year and forwards, to speculate about what the future has in store.

To get a clearer idea of the future direction of content marketing, I posed a question over on Google+, asking fellow content marketers what they believed the coming months had in store. Their comments, together with my own thoughts form the basis of this article, in which I predict where the content marketing emphasis will be in the coming new year.

9 marketing insights for 2014

A Look Back at 2013

The biggest challenges this year for many came from Google in it's continuing war against web spam. Starting with the major Penguin refresh back in May 2013, followed by their stealth release of the brand new Hummingbird algorithm in early September 2013 which was swiftly followed by another Penguin refresh. Whilst most of these changes were targeted at spammers and SEO black-hatters, many reputable businesses were still affected.

Some of my own clients saw very small drops by 1 or 2 places in search results, but these loses were balanced out by gains for more long-tail keywords that they had previously not been ranking as well for. In a bid to provide ever more relevant search results, some of the tried and trusted techniques that SEOs had been using for years, were suddenly the very things harming websites, and in some cases causing Google penalties; manual actions taken against websites flagged for web spam.

Businesses slow to adapt to a content focused approach have
faced a harsh learning curve on the road back to recovery

Whilst businesses making use of ethical SEO techniques felt little impact, the Google updates resulted in dramatically changing the SEO landscape. Businesses slow to adapt to a content focused approach have faced a harsh learning curve on the road back to recovery. Content marketers who have been focusing on producing high quality content and driving meaningful engagement however, have embraced, and largely benefited from the recent changes.

What's Next for Content Marketing and SEO?

This doesn't mean that it's all plain sailing however, and looking forwards, this increased focus on content will provide new challenges as more businesses invest in the area. Competition for those lucrative top spots in organic search results, is likely to increase further as more and more businesses adopt a content focused strategy. More competition in paid search too, means that budgets will need to increase in order to support the higher bids necessary to maintain visibility.

As social media reaches full maturity, so the techniques being used to
build and grow communities will need to be revised and sharpened in
order to rise above the hubbub

When it comes to social media, in order to rise above the high level of noise generated by increased adoption, boosting visibility will become even more crucial. Paid advertising, for example promoted posts and Facebook ads, will become increasingly necessary in order to reach customers. This means that companies who choose not to invest in this area and SMEs who simply don't have the resources, will gradually loose out to competitors with deeper pockets.

2014 - The Year of Big Brands or Creative Guerrilla Marketers?

The concern is that smaller businesses will loose out to big brands, who are more easily able to pay for greater visibility across social media.  Organic activities will fail to reach a wide enough audience (Facebook story bump is a prime example of this) and will instead be buried under an avalanche of paid advertising and 'popular' content.

Google's way of addressing this is in part, Google Places/Google+ Local, which helps to provide greater visibility for location based business owners. Whilst Google Places/Google+ Local is undeniably useful for bricks and mortar businesses who want to be found in local searches, it is of little benefit to internet only businesses who service the whole of the UK and don't rely on location based searches. These are the kind of businesses that will struggle in terms of SERPs visibility, and may in fact be forced into using Paid search in order to compete.

In a recent straw poll, content marketers agreed that
greater competition will be a major challenge in 2014

Not convinced? Econsultancy.com recently reported that Google has been testing huge banner ads at the top of their search results page. This has the effect of pushing all other content way down the page giving unrivaled visibility to the brands big enough to be able to afford such exposure. Whilst I should stress that at the time of writing, these banner ads are just be trialed and are not widely available as an advertising option, their future introduction looks highly probable.

Google banner ads

image courtesy of eConsultancy

If you want to understand the difference between Google Places and Google+ Local take a look at the recent article Google Places for Business Vs. Google Local from Amanda DiSilvestro at HigherVisibility.

Is it Possible to Stand Out Without Paid Advertising?

Branding will become ever more important as businesses need to stand out from the competition. Smaller businesses whose activities are not currently strategically driven, will need to up their game in terms of both understanding and conveying their USPs and they will also need to get smart about how they measure their success and how they devise actionable insights.

If small businesses can remain both creative and agile, they will be able to grow their communities and more importantly, they'll be able to leverage the power of those communities to their advantage. I'm pretty certain then that in 2014 we will see more investment into not just content marketing and relationship building, but into branding too.

Investing in branding and content marketing isn't optional,
it's critical in order to maintain online visibility

I recently read a great article on the Jeff Bullas blog, called 10 Top Brands with the Worst Google Plus Pages, which highlighted some examples of big brands on Google+ and the woeful inadequacy of their activities, from sporadic posting to not changing the default cover image. Many businesses still just don't get Google+ but I see that as a great big opportunity for smaller businesses.

We know that Google+ is the second biggest social network and it is getting bigger every day - it's not going away and it isn't something businesses can afford to simply ignore. Carving a niche on a platform which is still growing rather than fully saturated like Facebook, makes a lot of sense.  This will help smaller businesses to amplify their content organically, in a way that is no longer possible on some other social platforms such as Facebook.

Whilst opportunities will continue exist for those of us not lucky enough to have an internationally recognisble brand or large budgets, It's not going to be easy. As 2014 progresses, small businesses will learn that investing in content marketing and developing their brand isn't optional, it's something they have to do in order to maintain their online visibility.

Marketing Insights for 2014

  1. Greater competition as the volume of content being published and promoted online continues to increase, making paid search more necessary
  2. Increased need to differentiate, making branding all important
  3. Increasingly necessary to pay for social media advertising alongside existing organic activities
  4. Social media continues to be an important communications with Increased adoption of Pinterest, particularly for online retailers and increased business adoption of  YouTube
  5. Responsive design will become even more widespread as the use of mobile devices for browsing the internet continues to increase
  6. Greater use of location based marketing, primarily Google Places/Google+ local
  7. Smarter metrics necessary in order to obtain clearer insights and more accurately measure ROI
  8. Strategically driven activities will become ever more widespread as social media reaches maturity
  9. Creativity, agility and innovation will become more important in helping marketers to grab and hold the attention of their audiences

I'd love to hear what your own thoughts are on the challenges ahead!

I would like to close by thanking those who took time to provide me with their opinions, and in doing so, contributed towards the writing of this article. Thanks for your input Robert Alpha Avant, Steven Cole, Pranav Sanghavi, Ryan Crowe and Photoesque.co.uk.