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4 Things We Learned About Content in 2020

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably sick and tired of reading things about how hard 2020 was. We were all there, we know. But like it or not, it’s a year we’re likely to be talking about for quite some time.

As we finally put a bow on this longest of years, it’s instructive to look back and see what we can take with us into 2021. I’m definitely doing this, as this year was my first in a strictly content marketing role—which means that I had to learn a lot. So I thought it would be helpful to all of us (including your humble author) to think about some of the things that we can learn about content from what we went through in 2020.

Lesson 1: People are always hungry for content.

I have to admit that when I started out in my new content role in March, I was a bit worried. Obviously, as one does in any role, I had metrics that my performance would be judged on. But as COVID spread like wildfire, we transitioned to remote work, things shut down, and everyone seemed to totally recalibrate their priorities, it was hard to know whether those numbers were still relevant—in more ways than one. Would it be possible to create content that people actually wanted to engage with? Would people read it, even if I did? Should I even be worrying about any of that?

As it turns out, my concerns that people wouldn’t be reading blogs in lockdown seem pretty silly now. One study shows that once lockdowns spread across the country in spring, digital consumption shot up, and while levels of online engagement did drop as restrictions eased throughout the summer, they have remained higher than pre-COVID. In other words, since we couldn’t go out and do things, we spent more time online instead, and that habit didn’t go away as things began to reopen.

And we saw that here too, with our own content. We saw very clear year-over-year traffic growth, and plenty of our older content performed great as well. People are hungry for content, now more than ever. This time last year content marketing was important; now, it’s pretty much a requirement. That’s not likely to change anytime soon. For those of us who really get our hands dirty creating content on a day-to-day basis, that’s very good news.

Lesson 2: Don’t be afraid to create content for the times.

I get it, when you write something you want it to last forever. There’s not a lot that feels better as a writer—or really a creative person on any level—than going back and looking at your old work and thinking “yep, that still rocks.” Most of that is down to quality, but some of it depends on the subject matter. If I’m being totally honest, it’s just easier to create something that holds up later if you plan for that from the start.

But that’s not always a possibility. Sometimes things happen that mean you have to react, and react in a way that means your content isn’t necessarily going to be evergreen. 2020 was probably the best example ever of this.

Almost every email, blog post, or other piece of content that’s been created this year has sort of had to address This Year in one way or another. It’s hard to get around. Especially back in March, April, and May—but still to this day, in my opinion—it just felt wrong to act like everything was normal. Despite my love for creating evergreen content, it seemed disrespectful to the struggles that people were going through every day to not at least mention it where appropriate. Hopefully when we come back to our 2020 content later, it’ll look weird, rather than familiar. (And a lot of it would be great candidates for repurposing later, if you’re running your content operations right!)

And that’s okay. Evergreen content is great, and can drive traffic for ages after it’s published. But sometimes it’s not the answer. Sometimes there’s stuff you need to talk about right now that might not be important in a year. Here’s an example: as events had to be cancelled early this year, many transitioned to the online space. So we started talking a lot about these virtual events—how to plan them, how to promote them, how to brand them. We even took it across platforms. Now, we think it’s pretty safe to say that virtual events are here to stay, in one way or another, whether that’s just as an optional part of in-person events after those are allowed again or something bigger. But there’s a chance we’re wrong; nobody’s perfect, and it’s possible that as soon as COVID finally goes away, virtual events follow.

That doesn’t mean that the time and effort and money we spent on this content was wasted. This is the content we needed now, and it served its purpose. It might serve a purpose beyond that, but if not, that’s fine. Don’t be afraid to create content that you think might not last forever. Not everything has to be evergreen.

Lesson 3: Don’t get trapped in a plan.

In January, we had a meeting as a marketing team to plan out our goals and strategy for the year. Walking out, we were super confident that we had everything we needed to succeed in 2020. And, of course, that lasted all of two months before the plan got chucked in the garbage.

I’m proud that we reacted quickly. Once it became clear that 2020 was going sideways in a major way, we got together and talked through what parts of the strategy should stay and what should go, and how we should react to the “new normal.” It seems like the obvious play, but that’s not always the case. It can be easy to fall in love with your plan and not want to change it, even as it becomes increasingly clear that you absolutely need to change your plans.

Don’t get trapped. Don’t be afraid to pivot. Plan intelligently, but if the plan goes up in flames, the answer is not to let yourself catch on fire too.

Lesson 4: Transparency, transparency, transparency.

When things get bad, it’s kind of natural to want to close off. I think we’ve all been there, and many of us were there this year. But as a business and a brand, you don’t really have that luxury. You can’t just let your blog stagnate, you need to keep moving like a shark to survive.

But there’s also nothing wrong with sharing that—your struggle, the human element of what’s going on within your business. The more real you are, the better, in fact. Be empathetic. Stand by your values.

That’s not always easy. In fact, transparency is a pretty difficult value to uphold. It only gets more difficult as times do, and real transparency requires your brand to step out of its comfort zone a bit. You might find that what’s real for your brand is throwing your weight behind a cause that not everyone likes. That’s fine, if it’s true for you. Trying to be everything to everyone typically leads to being ignored by everyone. And if you lose people by standing up for something that you and your business believe in, they weren’t the right fit anyway.

Don’t be afraid to be real. It’s what people really want anyway.

Bonus lesson: Adversity is a great teacher

I think I speak for most, if not all, of us when I say that I will be glad to see the back of 2020. But (perhaps unfortunately) New Year’s Day 2021 isn’t going to mean we can simply forget about this past year. It’s important to look back on what worked and what didn’t, because we learn a lot more from adversity than we do from easy wins.

I know that I learned a lot more about myself, about my work, and about content in general in 2020 than I probably did in the last four years combined. And these are lessons to take into next year, and beyond. So don’t be afraid to reflect on this year—it’ll make each one of us much stronger and better going forward.

Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.