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How to Future-Proof Your Content Marketing Strategy

future-proof-contentTrends come and go in the world of digital marketing. Some “hot” techniques -- like inherently manipulative keyword stuffing and forum profile linking -- are snuffed out of practice by improvements to the Google algorithms. But other more benign fads represent great opportunities for marketers to grab attention -- that is, if they’re smart about it.

When you see a trend emerging, jumping on it with quick content deployment (called newsjacking) can be a great way to increase your visibility and generate new interest in your brand. But what’s the point of investing effort into these “piggybacking” content pieces if they’re reliant on trends that will eventually die out? Content is a long-term game. If you don’t have a way to drive sustainable engagement from your content pieces, you’re losing money and risk falling behind to more savvy competitors.

Essentially, you want to find the sweet spot between jumping on hot trends and future-proofing your content so that you continue to derive value from it long after the trend you’ve capitalized on has passed. Later on, we’ll discuss the different ways you can find these trends and produce future-proofed content. But first, let’s look at an example.

A Lesson from Upworthy

Take Upworthy’s currently popular two-sentence headline structure. There’s no arguing with the fact that the viral content giant has been one of 2013 and 2014’s runaway internet successes. With an impressive 88 million unique visitors in November 2013, the site trounced media competitors like Business Insider, BuzzFeed and Huffington Post in terms of US-based unique monthly visitors. 

This success is driven, in large part, by Upworthy’s headlines, which make extensive use of what Carnegie Mellon researcher George Loewenstein termed the “curiosity gap.” Consider the following example from Upworthy’s list of 2013’s “Greatest Hits”: 

This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondertacular.”

Loewenstein’s theory posits that the curiosity gap is driven by two stages. 

1) In the first stage, the situation makes it clear that you’re missing out on something. In the case of this headline, it's emphasized that you don’t know what this kid did that was so amazing.

2) In the second stage, you’re driven to ease the pain of missing out by taking some type of action. In Upworthy's headline, you satisfy your curiosity by clicking through to the video for the information.

Knowing the reason these headlines works shows us how to use this trend in a way that’s “future-proofed.” Eventually, Upworthy’s headlines won’t be as effective as they are today (in fact, some suggest that we may already be reaching an Upworthy saturation point, and Facebook's even updated its News Feed algorithm to ding sites only relying on clickbait headlines). Internet surfers will become accustomed to headlines framed in this way -- even worse, if they consistently receive mediocre results after clicking in, they may come to resent them. Burnout will result, and readers will shift their attention and engagement to the next compelling trend that comes their way.

So if you wanted to take advantage of this trend in a way that’s future-proofed, the solution here isn’t to write two-sentence headlines the way Upworthy does. It’s to use the science underpinning them to create headlines that will better stand the test of time.

Suppose you’re writing a blog post sharing a customer case study you just completed. You might be tempted to try to capitalize on Upworthy’s success by labeling the post something like, “This Company Was Nearly Bankrupt. How They Came Back from Disaster Will Astonish You.” But unfortunately, as readers become acclimatized to these hyperbolic headlines, they’ll become less effective -- leaving you with a content piece that won’t get the attention it deserves in the long run.

So instead of using Upworthy’s structure, use the underlying logic that makes it so effective: the curiosity gap. Any of the following potential headlines can provoke curiosity without using a gimmicky structure that risks becoming less and less effective over time:

  • “How We Helped X Company Boost Profits by 150% and Avoid Bankruptcy”
  • “Want to See How X Company Boosted Profits by 150% and Avoided Bankruptcy?”
  • “The Unexpected Ways X Company Boosted Profits by 150% and Beat Bankruptcy”

By provoking curiosity in your readers in a more timeless way, you’ll position your content to take advantage of the psychology that’s driving Upworthy’s current success, but in a way that’s more sustainable in the long run.

Identifying Trends

It should probably go without saying, but if you want to jump on hot trends as they’re just emerging, you need to know that they’re, well … emerging.  Piling on an existing trend -- or worse, one that’s nearly played out -- won’t give you the viral traffic bump associated with being on the leading edge, and it won’t help you to create future-proofed content that will serve your site well going forward. It's a lose-lose situation.

So, to take advantage of the strategies described in this article, you’ve got to think of your job as being an active observer of trends. Keep in mind, though, that trends can take many different forms:

  • Content type - Content can be delivered in many different formats (including blog articles, social posts, graphics, infographics, animated infographics, slide decks, video clips, audio interviews, podcasts, and more). At any given time, some types will be more popular than others, with the potential for new types to overthrow the reigning champs.
  • Headline style - Upworthy’s headlines are a classic example of this type of trend, but theirs isn’t the only headline formula that exists. Different styles come and go, so keep your eyes peeled for changes as popular headline formats evolve.
  • Visuals - “Flat” design is huge right now, but that likely won’t always be the case. Delivering content that uses hot design techniques can be a great way to increase your visibility, but it’s just as important not to stray too far from your brand’s established image. If you release graphic content, try to design pieces that integrate new styles without completely departing from current brand guidelines in order to generate sustained attention over time.
  • Subject matter - Content pieces that piggyback off of news headlines are the perfect example of work that can be great in the moment and suffer over time. If you’re going to create news-oriented content, it’s imperative that you find a way to add value that will better stand the test of time -- and supplement the rest of your editorial strategy with evergreen content.

Turning Trends Into Future-Proofed Content 

You can certainly monitor trends through the usual mechanisms such as watching Twitter’s trending topics or setting up Google Alerts for specific keywords in your field. But if you want to be more proactive about monitoring trends, you’ll want to use a social trend tool like Topsy.

Take the following search for the keyword phrase “growth hacking,” showing the most relevant links, tweets, photos, and videos from the last week:

topsy

Looking at this list, one trend emerges -- the idea of applying growth hacking principles to the publishing industry. Seeing several results on this topic suggests that there’s current interest in it and that the potential for a new content piece exists. If this particular subject was something that might interest my readers, I could capitalize on it by taking the following steps:

1) Create a curiosity-provoking headline.

They might be a trend on their way out, but Upworthy headlines can still be effective among readers. In this case, I might go with something like, “Is the Next Best Seller Sitting on Your Hard Drive? Growth Hacking Principles Can Get It Seen.”  It’s still two sentences and it still provokes curiosity, but it doesn't use hyperbole that’s beginning to turn many people off to Upworthy-style headlines.

2) Deliver content in a style that’s currently popular.

Infographics have been popular for a while now in the growth hacking space, which means they’re not as attention-grabbing as they used to be. As a result, I might instead decide to deliver this content piece as an animated infographic, like the one I created here. Animated infographics offer many of the same benefits as their traditional counterparts, but with the added bonus of being relatively new and eye-catching.

3) Add value that readers will be able to come back to for years to come.

Growth hacking principles might not be as popular in a few years as they are now, but the desire to get a book on the bestseller lists is never going to go away. 

Knowing this, I would look carefully at the information I include to be sure at least part of it is evergreen in nature. I might do this by mixing in more timeless book promotion strategies with growth hacking principles or by tying growth hacking strategies to more traditional book marketing techniques. Here’s how this might play out:

  • I might include a section on how important it is to help find an agent to get your book published, but then I might talk about how to “hack” the process of getting an agent with insider workarounds.
  • I could cover ways up-and-coming authors have circumvented the traditional book proposal route by building up audiences online before seeking out publishing house contracts.
  • I might cover current digital marketing techniques that can be used to help build a following online, using solid best practices (like using an updated site design, incorporating structural SEO principles, and engaging with readers through social channels) that are likely to still be helpful a few years down the road. 

But however I handle it, if I review the content and worry that somebody viewing it two years down the line won’t get something out of it, I’ll revise it so that my efforts aren’t wasted. It’s too easy to be sure that even trend-based content is positioned well for long-term success to skip the few extra hours of effort and miss out on future engagement. 

Now, I don’t want you to just read this article and file these ideas away for later. Instead, give my process a try! Find an emerging trend in your industry and brainstorm ways you’d create future-proofed content that both capitalizes on current fads and provides long-term value to viewers. Then, share your results in the comments section so that we can learn from each other. Can’t wait to see what you come up with!

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