With more than 3,500 content marketers gathered in one place at this year's Content Marketing World conference, I made it point to talk to some of the best and brightest marketers in the industry about what the future holds for marketers. You may be surprised to hear what they can't stop talking about. 

First of all, the landscape has changed. Content marketing has grown. Conversations previously dominated by talk of ROI have been drowned out by the more complex problem of standing out in a crowded sea of content marketing.

"I think the biggest focus at Content Marketing World this year was what companies can do as a differentiating factor for their brand." John Hall, the CEO of content marketing agency Influence & Co. and Inc columnist shared with me. "There were clear hints of being unique with marketing tactics and not just copying others."

So, with this shift already in flight, how do brands stand out as the industry gets more and more crowded? Here's what a few of the top experts in marketing today shared with me.

Video Is Hot

Video-based content has been a hot topic for a while now. Apple has reportedly set aside more than $1 billion for original video content, and Facebook recently launched their Facebook Watch service. There's little doubt that both of these moves were in response to companies like Netflix and YouTube, who already dominate in the category. 

Everyone wants on the video bandwagon, and you may want to jump aboard as well. 

As Cisco reports, in 2019, video will represent over 80 percent of all Internet traffic, and for the U.S. alone it will be over 85 percent.

But, as Content Marketing Institute's Joe Pulizzi shares, "Marketing success takes three things. Record, repeat, remove. Marketing fails when our recorded goals aren't big enough." For brands looking to get into video, you need to think big and move quickly to turn goals into reality. But, if video is new, don't get overwhelmed.

In my experience, the best place to start is with the simplest approach. Today, all you need is a smartphone and Internet connection to take the first step. Simply decide how video best fits into your overall content strategy, then mix in lightweight video production to amplify your marketing results.

A.I. Is Getting More Intelligent

The next hot topic is artificial intelligence. Sure, it's a hot topic in every industry, but there is good reason to expect it to make a major impact on content marketing. Why? Because A.I. promises a better customer experience, including deeper insight on customer journeys and better overall performance from content. 

Marketers frequently have access to more data and customer intelligence than just about anyone (thanks Google). As more brands look to differentiate their content, technology that promises to personalize content to each visitor, or customize a customer journey, will be a force. 

A (not so) little company called HubSpot certainly agrees. A quick look at their Crunchbase profile reveals at least two major acquisitions in the past year alone surrounding artificial intelligence. 

Of course, A.I. is young, and will come with its own challenges -- so expect it to be a slow burn. Pay attention, experiment, but be careful before going all-in at this point. 

Google Is Still the Name of the Game

As far as cocktail party conversation goes, talking about Google with a bunch of content marketers is about as cliché as it gets. Nothing has changed. 

As Ian Cleary, founder of RazorSocial, put it, "The number of companies investing in content marketing is increasing every year so it's becoming increasingly challenging to get onto page one of Google."

Here's the thing, the best way to drive new customer acquisition with content marketing is still through Google search results. Today's content marketers have to make serious, ongoing investments in search engine optimization (SEO). 

As Ian concludes, "No matter how good the content is, if you're not investing the time in promotion [like SEO] you won't get the value from it."

The reason is that it's impossible to get results from content your prospects, customers, or audience never sees. When approaching SEO and its contribution to marketing ROI, a helpful way to think about it is like investing in the stock market.

You make educated decisions about what to invest in (keywords and topics), then wait. Over time, the market (web traffic) will fluctuate, but ultimately return with positive gains when you do your homework up front.

Do Marketing Strategy Like a Boss

No matter which of these trends you gravitate towards, the day research tells us that a documented marketing strategy is still the best barometer for long-term success. And, as Convince & Convert strategist, Anna Hrach, notes, "It is so easy to fall in love with every amazing idea. But, instead of trying to tackle it all at once, sit down and figure out what's going to be the easiest and most impactful to implement."

The data is on Anna's side. At CoSchedule, our research has shown that marketers who document their strategy with a marketing calendar are 538 percent more likely to report success than those who don't. The same report concluded that marketers who report success tend to accomplish 82 percent of the goals that they set for themselves. 

Some things just never get old. 

As I like to put it, your business isn't just competing with the competition, your marketing competes as well. So, where do you need to double down -- video, A.I., old-fashioned SEO, or even a marketing strategy refresh?

Don't be afraid to try some new things and avoid getting left behind by your competition altogether.

Published on: Sep 26, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.