Every year, my team at Masthead Media attends Advertising Week New York to gather industry knowledge--not just in our own specialty, content, but across every aspect of marketing and storytelling. (AW is one of the conferences I highly recommend for content marketers of all levels). 

Last month, the team at Advertising Week gave my team the opportunity to present our own panel about the "Future of Content Marketing." Our panelists were among some of the top women in content, including winners, honorees, and judges of the inaugural Women in Content Marketing Awards

The live discussion yielded plenty of critical insights about the ever-evolving practice of content marketing. Here's how the experts say content--and our way of leveraging it--should and will change in the year ahead.

Where Does Content Really Fit?

Content marketing is always evolving, the way we think about how it fits into an overall marketing strategy needs to evolve, too. 

"We as marketers need to treat content as a product," said panelist Stephanie Stahl, General Manager at The Content Marketing Institute. She explained how there are important parallels between the way that technology is developed and the lifecycle of a content marketing initiative. "If you treat it as a product, there is constant testing, iteration, and very little time to go off on a tangent." 

Candice Jones, Brand Content Lead at Amtrak, emphasized the importance of using content to drive authentic conversations with consumers. "I think sometimes brands get hyper-focused on trying to create a great piece of content," she said. "But if you're missing the things that naturally and organically resonate with your audience, you're going to be missing opportunities for revenue." 

To that end, Candice developed a "messaging architecture" that serves as the common thread across much of Amtrak's content and highlights the seasonality and reasons why people travel by train.

She emphasized that a similar framework is "low-hanging fruit" for other brands who want to start a content marketing program. 

Creating and Testing With a Purpose

The panelists discussed the importance of a strong brand purpose. So much of a content marketing strategy is tied to a brand's core mission. 

"I think people get purpose confused with cause marketing," said Stacy Minero, Global Head of Twitter Arthouse. "A purpose is about having a point of view, and knowing why your company exists, and then thinking about how that translates down to the products and the proof points."

According to Minero, a top-down approach can help brands ensure that their purpose is woven into every piece of content and communication. "What are the stories you want to tell that map back to that larger purpose statement?" 

But it can take time to find the right statement or message.

"Messages always end up better after you've tested them," explained Jamie Luke, Director of Content at The Foundry @ Meredith. "But the problem is, we're living in a fast-paced world and agencies need something yesterday for their clients....time is sadly a luxury."

Tracking Toward Success

There are so many ways to measure the success of a marketing strategy, and those metrics often depend on where in a customer's journey your brand fits.

"A lot of our client brands are looking for a brand halo. They just want to get their brand out there, and get a sense of an emotional tie to their brand," Luke said, noting that a worthwhile KPI is a consumer's time spent with digital content. "You want someone to read it or watch it, love it, feel an emotional connection to it, leave it, and then remember it and come back."

Minero highlighted the "think, feel, do" framework. "You can actually map all your metrics to that," she said. "Thinking is about awareness, 'feeling' can be tracking sentiment or conversation that you're catalyzing, 'doing' can be clicks and conversions." 

Jones shared how her brand views measurement, as it's a bit different than how publishers think about it. For Amtrak, brand awareness counts, but ultimately, its about driving an uptick in ridership or revenue. "The latter tends to be more important in terms of getting the buy-in necessary from senior leadership, and getting the budget and other resources necessary to continue with our efforts and try new things," she explained.

Stahl summed it up: "If you're not planning to measure what you're doing, don't even bother."

Quantifiable metrics are critical to knowing whether your content strategy is working (or not!) and making smart choices to improve performance during the next cycle. 

Telling Stories That Matter

Beyond the metrics, how else can you tell if you're making smart decisions about your content? 

"I think what we're all trying to do is replicate what we feel in our gut, the human condition," Luke said. "You know when you read a great story. That gut "thing" is what every brand is looking for."

Jones and her team develop the Amtrak magazine The National, and focus on highlighting real people and stories that may help riders rediscover places they've been before. "We use that content to tie to our roots," she explained. "It's a cool way to continue the conversation about travel via train."

So what's coming next?

Brands will continue to invest in experiential marketing, Minero predicted. "There's the original IP that a brand can create, or the syndication of experiences that are already happening. There's so much potential there, and we're just scratching the surface."