This was originally posted as a LinkedIn Article by Skylar Cohen on October 2, 2023.
It’s a tough time to be a content marketer. The omnipresence of AI has forced many to double down on their efforts to justify their value to their employers, who could generate content for free (albeit of dubious quality) using a free large language model (LLM). Content Marketing World 2023 wasn’t afraid to acknowledge this unprecedented disruption, but the conference’s framing was ultimately uplifting. A major throughline was that shifting conditions are not a bad thing. If I had to summarize the conference in a sentence, it would be this: Yes, we need to change, but in the long run this can make us stronger and better at what we do.
Here are a few running threads that stood out to me most throughout the conference.
“It’s how things are usually done” is no longer enough to justify a content strategy
Several speakers looked beyond the most common search metrics and strategies to argue there are better ways to measure success. Dale Bertrand cautioned against reflexively inserting relevant keywords into a pre-formed piece of content, instead pushing the audience to think more deeply about search intent and determining calls-to-action and analyses that align with the user’s intent. This requires a focus on metrics that emphasize engagement, rather than simply visiting a site (I’m reminded of this classic Adobe ad, where valuing the wrong metrics leads to a lot of unsold encyclopedias).
Ryan Brock went so far as to hold a mock funeral for foundational content marketing concepts like keyword cannibalization, arguing that forces like the pandemic fundamentally altered consumer tastes and the strategies necessary to rank. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, a case study he presented suggested that even a lower-authority site could stand toe-to-toe with big competitors, given the proper use of pillar page structuring.
AI can only remix what humans have made — for better and worse
ChatGPT and its brethren are bound by their reliance on training data. At least for now, everything they create is built on material that already existed. Several presenters pointed this out as a sign that humans were still necessary to create meaningful final products, though still making clear there was absolutely space for AI to help.
Derek Thompson summarized key points from his book Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction, stating that audiences instinctually seek out novel experiences while also craving aspects of the familiar. This sets the stage for humans to inject new ideas into something “familiar” created by AI. And Elizabeth Banks cautioned that AI inherits many of the biases and stereotypes that influence how humans see the world, and that we will have to account for that inclination in AI-generated work if we don’t want to perpetuate it.
According to Cassie Kozyrkov, there’s a concrete difference between “thinking,” an intellectually engaging activity, and “thunking,” or boring and unstimulating work. Her closing keynote expressed hope that AI would allow people to improve efficiency by minimizing thunking time and allowing for as much thinking time as people could handle before needing a break. She also framed AI in perhaps the most human-dependent way seen at the conference — referring to data as a raw ingredient, with algorithms and models as appliances and recipes. The one thing AI could not be is the chef.
Facing frustrations head-on and continuing to learn is critical
While Content Marketing World 2023’s speakers had impressive track records, they were willing to discuss their past frustrations and missteps as well as their successes.
For example, Ron Zwerin recapped an ultimately successful process of making the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society more useful and attuned to the needs of its users, which wasn’t an easy process. Mobilizing key stakeholders and aligning the team took much longer than initially expected, and selling the need for change required diving deep into the ways that the society wasn’t sufficiently personalized for specific real-life users. And Jacqueline Loch had to recognize that an entire work culture was simply not working as a group of young men optimized for cosmetic keywords that didn’t reflect what women were actually searching for.
More broadly, the majority of sessions (well over 50%) were classified as “intermediate” sessions, with less than 10% labeled as “advanced.” While this could of course reflect speakers hesitant to scare off newer marketers, I’d like to think it is instead indicative of a broader drive to learn and grow throughout the industry. Given how rapidly things are shifting and evolving, few can truly claim to be advanced in the skills needed to succeed in our new reality. Content Marketing World has been a snapshot of an industry in motion, and I’m excited to see how it evolves and to be part of that evolution.