5 Takeaways From Content Marketing World 2021

By Kate Rogers and Evelyn Hoover  |  October 27, 2021

MSPC’s vice president of digital strategy Kate Rogers and vice president of B2B content Evelyn Hoover share their top five takeaways from Content Marketing World 2021, their first in-person conference since the pandemic.

1. Being in person at a conference was so great.

After a year and a half of online meetings, online education, online happy hours, etc., it was so refreshing to be in person at Content Marketing World. Networking with attendees, talking to vendors in the expo, chatting with presenters and attending sessions in person felt fantastic.

Cleveland, Ohio—home of the conference and its sponsor, the Content Marketing Institute—was a little quieter than the last time we were there, but we did experience the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a few restaurants.

2. Rudolph is more than just a red-nosed reindeer.

The children’s book was written in 1936 by Robert L. May on behalf of his employer, Montgomery Ward. So very early content marketing at work. But MarketingProfs’ Ann Handley used the story to illustrate the importance of making the customer—not a company’s product—the hero of every content marketing story.

In this case, the product is Rudolph and the customer is Santa. To become the hero of the story and deliver the toys on that foggy, snowy Christmas Eve, Santa needed Rudolph’s red nose to light the way.

Stories add context to your content marketing. Context adds value. “Invite your audience to be part of your narrative,” she advises.

3. Creativity requires courage.

Renowned storyteller and author Carla Johnson believes that fear is the biggest hurdle to innovation. In her latest book, RE:Think Innovation, she outlines a five-step innovation framework that’s part of her lofty goal of teaching 1 million people how to be innovators by 2025.

She explained how early in our careers, people are more willing to pitch new ideas but as we mature in our careers, that brainstorming process becomes less effective.

Here are the five steps she recommends for more innovative thinking:

  • Observe everything
  • Distill it into patterns
  • Relate the patterns to the work you’re doing
  • Generate ideas from inspiration
  • Pitch

4. Content marketing is stuck in the Gutenberg Era. What?!

In one particularly provocative virtual session, Doug Kessler and Dave Welch from Velocity Partners implored content marketers to work more closely with developers to create better, more immersive digital experiences. They reminded us that a downloadable PDF e-book is not digital storytelling. Kessler went so far as to suggest that 99% of today’s marketing could’ve been produced in 1999 and that our e-books, sell sheets, blogs and white papers aren’t far removed from what our brother Johannes Gutenberg was doing with his printing press in 1450. The truth hurts.

Welch noted that the New York Times changed the game for digital-first storytelling with its groundbreaking 2012 article, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” And that was 2012! We marketers have yet to fully embrace the nuances, hover states, animations, contextual form fills, personalizations and general interactivity that smart design, development and UX/UI have to offer. Far from shaming us, Kessler and Welch wisely framed this as a grand opportunity. Whether through in-house development or third-party tools, let’s go all in on immersive digital storytelling experiences—and push our clients to do the same. For real this time.

5. People still hate being sold, which is why we’re moving toward a seller-free world.

Marcus Sheridan made it pretty clear that the traditional seller’s mindset and approach is all but irrelevant. As content marketers, we know this. Our careers are built on delivering value and service instead of overt salesmanship. But he took it a step further with a few sobering statistics:

  • Buyers are 80% through the sales process before they actually talk to a salesperson. We still underestimate how much control buyers prefer to have throughout the customer journey.
  • More than 75% of buyers and sellers say they now prefer digital, self-serve and remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions—a sentiment that has steadily intensified even after lockdowns have ended. (McKinsey & Company)

So what, then? We need to continually push ourselves to orient our marketing around self-service, including self-scheduling, self-selection and even self-pricing. Instead of “capturing leads,” think instead about removing barriers and eliminating friction in the digital customer experience. When you ask for an email address, make sure there is a sufficient value exchange to earn one.

Consider letting the user take a quiz to help gauge his or her needs, then offer the results without any gating or lead capture. Then, after sharing the quiz results with your user, you could offer to send a full report with a deeper analysis of his or her answers. Now you’ve earned the email address and created a way for the buyer to self-select into your product or service. Well done. It’s a small but significant mindset shift that matters hugely in how we market.


It was an inspiration-filled few days. All in, Content Marketing World left us energized and recommitted to our work as professional storytellers and problem solvers. See you next year, Cleveland!

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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