Ep 11- 9 Content Marketing & brand storytelling Trends of 2021

How can your brand incorporate these nine brand storytelling trends into your future content strategy plans?

Now, after a year of unexpectedness, I actually thought twice about recording this episode.  I mean, who could have predicted 2020, right?  COVID-19 threw a lot of punches at us. Plans and strategies had to be reworked. Content calendars and campaigns you may have spent a long time creating, had to be paused, or revised so they weren’t tone-deaf. Influencers and other content partners you were working with may have been cut or put on hold for a bit. The people on your team probably changed in some way.  And, we all learned how to work remote.  We’ve had to shift and adjust more than any of us ever imagined.  

I mean, look at me. My role changed. 

I went from almost 20 years on the corporate side with the start of a side hustle consulting biz—to jumping full time into my consulting company, Kindred Speak.

My kids went from school to home, back to school, and as I record this are back at home for full-time distance learning.  So, I’m running my biz while my kids do school from home.

Now, there’s something I could not have predicted– nor would I have wanted to.

And, I know a lot of you are in similar positions.

But, no matter how topsy turvy it may be, trend growth over time still provides valuable insights.  So, as I do every year, I did a lot of online research, and pulled together 9 content marketing and brand storytelling trends I see growing in 2021.

CLIFTON STRENGTHSFINDER INPUT: MY SUPERPOWER

Have you ever taken a personality assessment at work?  I’ve taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment which is built on understanding what your strengths are—so you can then tap into those areas to be successful in your career.  Instead of spending time trying to improve your weaknesses the creators did extensive research about the value of spending time nurturing our strengths to excel the fastest. And, this can help pull together more productive teams when you each play to your individual strengths to get the job done well.

We all have strengths unique to us.  You can call them your superpower, your skills, your strengths. Whatever you call them—it’s what you’re good at.

One of my strengths is INPUT. Input is a theme in the Strategic Thinking domain of CliftonStrengths. It means I absorb and analyze information to inform better decisions. I may accumulate information, ideas, artifacts or even relationships.

This strength is spot-on for me.  I LOVE looking for clues and insights and piecing them together to inform a smarter brand storytelling plan. I do. It’s why creating brand storytelling frameworks is one of my favorite things to do. 

Imagine a private investigator for your content strategy… that’s ME!

I’m sleuthing around—looking for clues in your data, digging into info about your customer, industry trends, investigating SEO insights, tapping into the social voice of your customer, hearing paid media learnings… you name it! It all comes together to give you more clarity on what you should try next.

9 Content marketing & Brand Storytelling trends for 2021

1. Empathy to Build Connections

If you’ve been listening to my podcast since the beginning, you know using empathy to drive stronger results is my jam. But it’s not just me who sees this! The Content Marketing Institute backs me up. One of their big themes of 2021 content marketing trends, is Empathy and Connection.  That’s what I’m talking about!  They asked 100 experts to weigh-in with their 2021 trend predictions and empathy and connection, inclusiveness and transparency were common themes. Being more “human” was mentioned. 

In a recent interview I did for Brandpoint.com’s blog, I talk about why empathy will be HUGE in 2021.  Now, more than ever before, people want — and NEED — genuine connections. 2020 forced so many of us to slow down, and think about what’s important in our lives. To appreciate things around us that we previously took for granted. 

In 2021, brands have a real opportunity to let empathy drive their brand storytelling efforts. Using empathy filters is the fastest way to connect heart-to-heart, and mind-to-mind with your audience. In my experience, I’ve seen that connection help drive up to 7x better results; because it helps build trust and ultimately drive actions for your brand. With so much online competition vying for your audiences’ attention, I’m seeing brands invest more in growing their internal and external brand storytelling teams in 2021.  Again, another Content Marketing Institute expert backs up what I’m seeing across brands.  Cruce Saunders, of simplea.com also thinks 2021 will bring bigger investments in content operations. He says “We are entering a phase where C-level executives will begin to see that managing enterprise knowledge assets, creating content, and orchestrating omnichannel delivery together have the same capital efficiency as investments in industrial supply chains – and require as much resource allocation and executive involvement. This will be good news for overburdened and under-resourced content teams.” 

2. PRIVATE SOCIAL MEDIA COMMUNITIES

No idea how quickly this one will play out, but since social media is pretty clutch in your digital marketing lineup, there are two things happening that put this on the forefront for me & should be on your radar as it relates to your short & long-term social content plans.

First, data shows more people going to private social media communities. Especially younger people (a.k.a. future adults). Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review did research showing 3 areas they’re going to: private messaging, micro-communities, and shared experiences.

Why? They’re saying that after years spent constructing carefully curated online identities and accumulating heaps of online “friends,” they want to be themselves and make real friends based on shared interests. They’re also craving privacy, safety, and a respite from the throngs of people on social platforms — throngs that now usually include their parents. Source

Second, Facebook owns WhatsApp—a free multiplatform messaging app that lets you make video and voice calls, and send text messages all with a Wi-Fi connection. It’s one of the most popular messaging services in the world.  And, during an Antitrust Suit, Mark Zuckerberg testified before a House Financial Services Committee saying private messaging is critical to Facebook’s future.  WhatsApp represents Zuckerberg’s bet on the future of social networking as people gravitate to sharing in private spaces rather than public feeds.  Source www.theinformation.com

Harvard Business Review’s tip is to use this to inform the channels where you communicate with this audience. Think about how you can reach customers by mimicking their behavior.  For example, your brand can offer private messaging, or a private group experience that brings together people with a shared-interest.

3. DIVERSITY, EQUITY & INCLUSION

A top workforce trend, this also applies to your brand storytelling efforts. Look at who is included in your content, and what the stories cover to ensure you’re speaking to your entire customer base. Do a content audit to assess if you’re missing any important groups and make a plan for how they’ll be included moving forward.

4. IMMERSIVE LONG-FORM STORYTELLING

Contently calls this one out and I love it for brand storytelling.  You might be thinking—people have attention span issues, I can’t create long-form content.

I disagree. No. It’s not an attention issue. It’s a quality content issue. When people find something that engages them, that really connects with them—they’ll spend a long time watching it, listening to it, reading it.  Think about yourself. Have you ever watched one of those longer videos on Facebook?  I watched a 10-minute video on Facebook once because the story was really good and I was curious to hear how it ended.  People binge watch shows.  If it’s good content your audience will take the time to consume it. They will. 

Media companies are great at doing immersive, long-form episodic content, but brands haven’t done as much here.  And as Deanna Cioppa of Contently says, “If three people at an underfunded news outlet are making amazing immersive stories, brands should be able to too.” 

Another long-form channel you can work with is your brand blog. The content on your brand blog can support and help scale across many of your owned channels.

I’m currently the Editor of the Sleep Number blog (a client of mine/former employer), so I do a lot of work within brand blogs and make time to research blog best practices.

Nearly half of the online population reads blog, and new research is showing that long form, info-packed articles between 1,000-7,000 words long are driving the best traffic, with blog posts more than 3,000 words driving the most traffic. That’s a lot of words, right?!

These posts should be evergreen, SEO-rich to help your brand rank in Google’s search results. At this length, it’s almost like a mini e-book. But, the data shows it works. Google favors long-form blog posts which increases your brand authority online which helps your content be seen by your target audience, driving traffic to your site—which you can then retarget to bring down funnel. Boo-yah. Source

5. CONTENT ROI & ATTRIBUTION

Smart brands see the value of using storytelling to build connections, drive leads, increase repeat & referral, drive action, and build trust & loyalty. With almost everyone being online these days, if your brand isn’t online, you don’t exist.

But, you still need to ask for a budget, and 2021 budgets are going to be extra scrutinized based on the economy. They just will be. So, think about how you can you go one level deeper in 2021 to show the value your brand storytelling is having against your company priorities.  And, if proving ROI through to sales is tough for you right now, look at other things. For example:  What’s the organic SEO ROI value your content is bringing in? How many new customers is the content bringing into the brand for remarketing?  Is your content reducing customer service Q volume? Are you building your online authority rankings by answering questions and being shown as the leader? Are people who consume your content more likely to take a key action on your site?  Is the content helping increase engagement in your customer loyalty/rewards program?

As I was doing my trend research, I found this spot-on quote from Andrew Hanelly of Revmade that I can’t restate any better, so I’m going to read his quote directly.

Andrew says, “
After a year like 2020, the idea of trying to predict the future is almost quaint, which is why this year’s prediction is less about where things are going and more about what they were always about: 2021 will be the year content shifts from a marketing novelty item to a true business line with a positive profit-and-loss statement. 2021 will be the year content means business.”

Andrew is correct.  Digital content is part of your audience’s journey. It’s not a nice to have. It’s a must have.

Sarah Panus headshot smiling at camera with name of podcast next to her face.

6. AUDIO CONTENT OR VOICE CONTENT

Brand storytelling can engage all of our senses. Two years ago I included Audio—specifically podcasts and smart speaker content as an emerging trend for brands. And, I still see the Audio bucket growing so it’s making my list again as a 2021 Trend.

Let’s start with Podcasts: As more people eventually start commuting back into work, we’ll see podcast listenership #s continue to climb even more than they currently are.

Podcasting helps you create more emotional brand engagements with new and current consumers.

Think about it…

1 in 5 Americans is a podcast listener. They are more affluent, educated, and slightly younger.

Podcasting helps you reach your busy consumer. Podcasting is a “second screen” while working out, cooking, before bed, commuting or traveling.

Podcasts give you a long-format for deeper audience engagement. What other things do you have in your content stack where your ideal target customer listens to you talk for 20 minutes to 1 hour?  HUGE opportunity to go deeper, have colorful conversation and build trust by helping your audience know more about your brand personality- what you care about, who the people are behind your brand, what you stand for. And, people BUY from brands they trust.

Another bonus?  Podcasts have relatively low up-front costs to create/test vs. other paid content marketing efforts.

Next in the audio/voice content space:  Smart home speakers

The smart speaker global market is expected to grow 21% next year. Source

The industry is rapidly expanding, with market revenues projections of 35.5 billion by 2025. Source

Amazon Echo and Google Home are the two largest right now.

In complete transparency, outside of podcasts, I haven’t done a ton in this space myself YET—but it’s definitely a growing trend and I’m excited to dig more into this space to help brands understand how to think about voice content in their mix of voice and chat, or voice and visuals.  How content can be added to Alexa Skills and so on.

Have you thought about your brand’s audio sound?  Your brand style guide has visual guides of what your brand looks like. But, how about what it sounds like?

Think about how your target audience engages online, what questions they have, and if voice content could help answer it to be easily listened to via their home smart home speakers.  For example, it looks like some of the most effective voice apps today are news, info, Q&As or games.   

Lots of things to learn and understand w/this trend. Source

7. KNOWLEDGE INDUSTRY

Online course adoption is growing. Even before the pandemic, the forecasts for online education market was $350 billion by 2025.

I’m betting this forecast increases after analyzing the growth impacts of COVID-19 on the online learning market. I think the previous $350 billion estimate is conservative. 

So, I break the knowledge industry trend into two buckets:

1) Courses you yourself take (you’re the student)

2) Courses your company offers to your customers (the brand is a teacher)

Udemy is one of the larger online course providers and in a recent Forbes article Udemy, President Darren Shimkus says, “The biggest challenge for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market. We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” At this moment, online learning is becoming a huge catalyzer for people and companies to help the adoption of this rapid change in the world. 

A Forbes article says a top competency for employees in 2021 is self-leadership. In other words—individual accountability. You take online courses to help you specialize your skills. Learn new things. Be entertained. Your target audience does the same thing.

Online courses or webinars and masterclasses give you the ability to learn quickly from someone else.  As a brand they help you teach your level of genius to your target audience. 

The knowledge industry is so incredibly valuable because you pay others for their expertise to save time and learn quicker. Time is a valuable resource.  

So, could your brand demonstrate leadership and help your audience by creating a free or paid online course? I did this a couple years ago helping create a free online sleep wellness program called the Sleep30 Challenge by Sleep Number designed to help improve your sleep by improving your bedtime habits. You can check it out at www.mysleep30.com/challenge.  

You—or your customers– can dig into mastermind and coaching programs to scale themselves rapidly. This is an incredible opportunity.

The cost structure of online learning is another factor for the rapid growth of the market. Online courses prove a more affordable option than traditional ones and there are no commuting costs, and course materials are usually part of the online program.

Online learning is the future and will likely replace many facets of land-based learning in the future. If your brand wants to be seen as a leader on a topic, this could be a good space for you to lean into.

Forbes source

8. INTERACTIVE RESEARCH & REPORTS

This one comes from my friends at Contently, and I completely agree.  Consumers have higher expectations of how data and research is visualized today on their mobile devices.  So, instead of a static report, think about how you can make the data charts interactive.

Contently highlights GE’s 2018 Global Innovation Barometer as an example of an interactive white-paper experience vs. a flat pdf.

9. ANIMATED EXPLAINER VIDEOS

Video will still be huge in 2021. But, since COVID has made live shoots more difficult, brands will use more animated videos to explain topics in 2 minutes or less.  Just hire a VO artist to record the script, a designer to do the animation work and you have a video.

Community-sourced video content is also a great asset to mashup into your videos in lieu of an in-person video shoot.

That’s my list. Did any surprise you?  Which one resonated with you the most? Send me a DM on Instagram @iamsarahpanus or email me at sarah@kindredspeak.com to let me know.  I’d love to hear what you think.

I wish you all the best in 2021. I’m excited to see where this year’s journey takes us…

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A more focused and aligned brand storytelling marketing strategy is right around the corner! If you’re looking for a quick brand storytelling framework template to plug and play, I’ve got your back. I created this affordable PowerPoint template, with the above five essentials, to help you easily and quickly create your own brand storytelling framework. All you have to do is follow the prompts, update with your brand’s info, and bam—you have your own brand storytelling framework to follow and use for team alignment. LEARN MORE

Sarah Panus is a content marketing strategist, Minnesota mom, and owner of Kindred Speak, LLC, a remote consultancy that helps brands with digital content marketing, influencer marketing, and brainstorming. She’s spent the last two decades helping brands including Sleep Number, Starbucks, Nestle Waters, Christos Bridal, Game Crazy, Cone Inc, and others speak a kindred language with their audiences, driving brand advocacy and millions in revenue and brand engagements. Email Sarah at sarah@kindredspeak.com to book a free 20-minute consultation to discuss your brand storytelling questions and needs. Follow Sarah on Instagram or LinkedIn as she helps brand content marketers who struggle with overwhelm or confusion at work. Learn more at www.kindredspeak.com.