Social media is "where brands want to go and play," says Ryan Skinner, Forrester Research's senior analyst for content marketing.
For the second year in a row, social media was the most widely used tactic by content marketers, according to data from the Content Marketing Institute. The majority (88 percent) of marketing professionals use social media, a 4 percent rise from last year.
As brands hit saturation points with some social networks, they're also revisiting their content strategies. Early in the social media game, "there was a lack of direction," Skinner remembers. "There are only so many times a brand can ask you what you had for breakfast."
Extending the analogy, Skinner says that the new model is presenting consumers with research about what people eat for breakfast and announcing a campaign to change those habits. Brands are adding value, not noise, to the conversation.
Use of infographics, for example, increased 7 percent from 2012 to 2013, with 40 percent of marketers currently using graphically presented findings. A large part of their appeal is that they only ask consumers to digest one image, and they often spread virally through social media.
Marketing tactics that are not as speedy, including ebooks, books, podcasts, and Webinars, experienced drop-offs in use. Even the number-two tactic, articles on company Web sites, dipped from 84 percent to 78 percent.
Instagram, which didn't even have paid advertising until recently, is now a popular venue for brands. In September, two months before the mobile photo-sharing company sold ads on its app, brands accounted for 40 percent of the most-shared Instagram videos, according to data from Unruly. "Brands can make valuable and engaging content," Skinner says.
Kraft Recipes, which posts cooking tips that "help people feed their families and be more nutritious," Skinner says, is an example of "content that helps people live their lives better." That's something consumer brands should aim for, he advises.
Facebook continues to lead as the most popular social media site, but its growth appears to be tapering off. Nine out of 10 brands used Facebook, virtually unchanged from the previous year. Twitter is still being embraced by marketers, growing from 69 percent to 80 percent. Just behind Twitter, 71 percent of brands reported using LinkedIn, a jump from just 51 percent a year earlier. Slideshare also grew quickly, with 18 percent of brands using the cloud-based presentation service, three times the figure from the previous year.
One thing brands can't agree on is what percentage of their marketing budgets should go to content marketing. A full 23 percent of marketers said they had no idea how much of their marketing budgets went toward content marketing. Of those who did know, the vast majority said their brands spent less than a quarter of their budgets on content marketing.
Skinner suggests this confusion stems mainly from the fact that content marketing is everywhere. "It comes down to the definition of content marketing," he says. "People call it the Twitter team, not the content marketing team.
"It becomes a challenge to define where it stops and begins and pull out a specific budget. If you're producing email campaigns, and you're sharing useful content in those emails, is that your email budget or your content marketing budget?" he asks.
As content marketing continues to grow, both in awareness and application, this type of confusion might diminish. "Depending on who you're asking, this year (or the year before or the year before that) is the 'Year of Content Marketing,'" Skinner says. "It keeps getting reborn," not unlike the format itself.