It’s not just anybody talking
Brand voice will transform copy in 2021, and companies that serve up pain vanilla words will fade to gray behind the vibrant vocal stylings of brands that dare to write differently.
For example, the new flip-the-script-on-HR company Leon doesn’t shy from profanity, gif-heavy diatribes, or its homepage claim, “Your employees hate their job.” This brand’s voice is a shot of Jack Daniel’s, neat; a dunk in icy water; a radical-honesty kind of guy who keeps things light with clever humor.
Leon is a motivational speaker. He’s a motorcycle jumper. Leon is not fit to be a bank teller or a preschool teacher. He simply doesn’t have the filter because he is tired of this sh*t and he’s found a better way.
Even Leon’s call to action — Hit the damn button — smacks of a brand with purpose. When I spoke with its CEO Bryan Smith, and got the gist of what Leon aims to do (it’s like Moneyball for maximizing employee performance in high-growth companies), I couldn’t help but want to know more, more, more.
Digital will be exploited for its flexibility
Expect to see brand leaders giving the green light to edgy copy with crisp, short sentences designed for ultimate scannability. Digital flies first class, with print content a distant runner-up (you head on back to seat 32B in coach, my friend).
In digital, expect to see more long-form copy laced with emoji as the ease and depth they bring to communication on text and Slack bleeds into B2C and even B2B. You’re probably already seeing emoji pop up in email marketing across a wide range of industries, from brands such as Dribbble, AllModern, Venmo and Old Navy — turning heads in subject lines and CTA copy.
You’ll also see brands refactor copy across digital channels, appropriate to the device and screen size. Content is expensive to create, so smart content strategists will atomize content as blocks (not just one long web page-blob) and reassemble those blocks in various ways using a content platform rather than a web CMS.
Goodbye, suite and tie (and pants)
As the world flipped — almost overnight — from brick and mortar office presence to home-based Zoom calls, the formal trappings of office culture fell away with it.
In a recent LinkedIn post (liked by more than 850,000 people), Lauren G., an HR consultant at Cisco, explained, “Recently, I took a long hard look at my LinkedIn profile photo — the woman staring back at me had newly highlighted hair and a fresh cut, a pressed blazer. I remember standing in my power pose as my husband snapped the photos … but the person I was exuding then is not always who I am, and certainly, not who I am right now.”
Lauren captured the cultural zeitgeist that allows informality, but more importantly, embraces authenticity. Influencers in the Wild on Instagram mocks self-styled influencers, and brands should beware of content created without an authentic message behind it.
Take note of me-too brands that jumped on the bandwagon for racial justice in word but not in deed; and those that nod to Covid-19 with “in these unprecedented times” one line before a chirpy “click here to buy!”
New brand narratives driven by comfort, not aspiration
Content marketing in 2021 means cutting through the hype. It means taking a red pen to the words “innovative” and “passionate” unless you truly are. It means that a marketing message that tells a consumer they’re not enough will only alienate them — they already know they’re failing at juggling online school or budgeting through unemployment.
In short, 2021’s best content will have a deeper empathy for customers and what they’re going through. It won’t sound like bells-and-whistles marketing-speak. It will find ways to be in service to customers, rather than simply finding new ways to dig into their wallets.
Lauren wrapped up her post, “I’ve witnessed and read enough on authentic leadership to know that being genuine and vulnerable will get you a lot farther in your career than a glossy headshot.” Likewise, brands that succeed with content in 2021 will tap into our need for authenticity, comfort and stability.
A Kellogg School of Management study explained, “People are more likely to put traditional Oreos in their cart, rather than trying out the latest new flavor. In the face of so much constant fear, an unfamiliar Oreo seems to be a risk that many consumers are simply unwilling to take.”
Perhaps that’s why Covid comfort kitsch (think ugly holiday sweaters by Cheetos and Hidden Valley Ranch) is one of Holiday 2020’s hot trends.
More broadly, you’ll see graphic designers support content with more people in real-life context (the object-oriented “flat lay” photos are on the outs). You’ll also see a greater focus on home and comfort woven through brand narratives, and a much deeper cultural conversation on work-life balance as we struggle with rising pressure and ongoing insecurity.
In a world of content, context is king
I like to joke that my kids have been home so much that they’ve “finished Netflix.” People are voraciously consuming a world of content — created by media channels, brands and individuals — and the challenge isn’t to find what’s new (because who can really finish Netflix?), but to find what’s relevant to your interests.
Enter context. Brands with content-producing machines might be missing discoverability. If you own a channel (such as a website), you owe it to your brand and content creators to make sure that the next thing that interests your audience is discoverable on your channel.
Netflix makes this a snap, giving me list upon list of shows I might like from its enviable recommendation engine. In print, Buzzfeed is a champion of recommendations. “More stories like this” sends me down a rabbit hole far longer than my coffee break will allow.
Content creators and editors must think of their content not as “pages” or “stories” but as a complete “story package” composed of many chunks of content … and like breadcrumbs, they can queue up small chunks in the sidebar or footer of other stories to make their content more discoverable. Contentful recently did this in our blog transformation, ensuring each post was properly tagged and categorized so that the recommendations from any blog post you’ve read lead you to other posts you’re likely to enjoy.
Extending this discoverability trend, content strategists must think beyond a single channel to the multiple digital channels where people will consume or interact with content. That’s one more reason to set up reusable content blocks that can be shared across any channel.
Humans are hard-wired for story
The final content trend to take note of in 2021 is the re-emergence of storytelling as an essential brand messaging practice. There’s plenty of both B2B and B2C copywriting out there that hammers customers with features and benefits. Throw in some stats, flashy adjectives and a quote from an Important Person, and you’ve got yourself a typical content marketing piece.
The world’s most successful orators know that one good story beats a thousand stats. Tell a story about how a difficult challenge was overcome by one person using one product, and the audience will extrapolate to their own situation. Make the challenge harder, make the stakes higher, make the hero more relatable … you’ve got the recipe for a darned good story.
As an author of both fiction and nonfiction books, I’ve found storycraft to be one of the least understood aspects of content marketing, but also one of the most powerful. Stories have an identifiable narrative arc that produce emotion, create curiosity from the audience, and also embed in memory.
As you plan your 2021 editorial calendar, I urge content wranglers — writers, editors and producers of every stripe — to let the story be the star, not the product features. Write the story in your authentic brand voice, strip it of marketing-speak and buzzwords, test whether it’s helping your audience or discouraging them. Then harness the power of digital, atomized content to share that message far and wide on any channel and device.
These aren’t just content trends for 2021, they’re the recipe for creating powerful content for years to come.
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