Between the macro economy and generative A.I., content marketers have been thrown for a real loop over the past year or so.
Things changed and fast. Here’s our monthly job board revenue for the last two years. It’s a small sample size, but I believe it represents some larger trends in SaaS. Revenue—and, by proxy, the number of open roles—peaked in January 2022. Then it fell off a cliff. A historically good job market turned into a historically bad one within just a few months.
Profitwell founder Patrick Campbell recently shared an analysis of the SaaS market over the last 18 months. It’s a much larger sample size—his data looked at 33,000 tech companies—and captured what most of us know from experience. Economic uncertainty led to tighter budgets, anxiety, impatience, and, eventually, layoffs.
Layoffs.fyi reports that some 330,000 tech workers were laid off in 2022 and Q1 2023 combined. I don’t know how many content marketers were affected, but I’ve talked to dozens of folks in Superpath who were laid off sometime in the last 15 months. Not long ago, some of our job board customers were desperate for talented content marketers, willing to pay above-market salaries and competing hard against the many other companies looking for the same talent. As I write this in May 2023, the companies still hiring have their pick of talented folks looking for work.
It was tough out there in 2022, but the release of ChatGPT in November changed everything. Tools like Jasper and Writer were already popular among content marketers, but ChatGPT brought generative A.I. into the mainstream. It was an “aha” moment for many execs and marketing leaders who suddenly and collectively thought, “Maybe A.I. is a realistic way for us to cut costs!”
ChatGPT was released just as the job market was at its absolute worst, and it fanned the flames of uncertainty that were already burning plenty hot. Most of our worst fears around A.I. have subsided, but I believe it’s still one of the driving forces behind today’s “do more with less” trend, which seems to be squeezing both in-house and freelance content folks these days.
Generative A.I. is the coolest and most promising tech we’ve seen in a long time. But in the short term, it’s mostly made things difficult for content marketers. You can’t talk about content without talking about A.I. Everyone in charge of a budget is looking to cut costs these days, and they’re all wondering if A.I. can help them do it. A few early adopters are already running content programs with a big assist from A.I. Most of the rest of us are still experimenting, trying to sort out where A.I. fits within our existing marketing and content plans.
Aside from changes to strategy and workflow, A.I. has taken a mental and emotional toll on many content marketers, who are forced to talk about A.I. constantly—sometimes even having to defend their own work from the technology.
So now what? How is all this changing the content marketing landscape, and what can we expect over the next year or so? In studying the current state of content marketing and talking to Superpath members, I’ve found a few patterns and a lot of uncertainty. Nearly every company is reacting differently to the state of things, but all are reacting.
Everyone understands the benefits of working with freelancers. You can easily flex up and down, work with super-talented writers and avoid the overhead of health insurance, payroll taxes, etc.
Those benefits have always been there, but they’re more attractive now than ever. Hiring is hard, and firing is painful. Plenty of companies are looking to avoid the expense and risk, and rely instead on a lot more freelance help.
Jack Delaney, content manager at Paperform, said that his company had planned to build a team of in-house writers. That plan shifted over the past year, which actually freed up more budget than expected to work with freelancers. “At Paperform, our budget has actually increased, but we are more careful with how we spend it—lots of pruning, refreshing, updating—and a lot more of it's spent on external contractors and freelancers.”
Interestingly, Paperform is still hiring for other roles. “Where previously we were looking to build out a big team of content writers, now we're looking to outsource that type of work, and bring in a senior editor to help drive direction, edit, and ideate.”
Plenty of teams are ramping up freelancers to meet needs without making long-term commitments to headcount. But not everyone. Some teams I’ve talked to have actually done the opposite.
Ryan Sargent, head of content at Verblio, told us on the Content, Briefly podcast that he stopped assigning work to freelancers, and his internal team is writing more. That means overall content production is down, but the company is still fully committed to content marketing. Over time, as budgets loosen up, he plans to bring freelancers back on board.
Another content director friend told me off the record that he keeps the best work in-house. He wants his team to stay busy on impactful projects, especially as higher-ups are toying with ways to “trim the fat” (ugh, I hate that phrase). He felt his team would lose leverage if he outsourced important projects to agencies.
For many teams, it makes sense to outsource. Writers need long stretches of quiet time to write, which isn’t always easy to find in in-house roles. Content is expensive no matter how you slice it, but hiring internal team members to write one or two blog posts per week is especially pricey. Still, creating good content was, is and always will be the hardest thing. I totally understand why some teams are starting to focus on execution when they previously spent more time on strategy, planning, reporting and other admin work.
Demand for content briefly slowed in 2022, but based on all the conversations I’ve had recently, it’s stabilized. So there is work available, but freelancers must be adaptable to keep the gigs coming.
Holly Stanley was a copywriter at a marketing agency but was let go as part of a round of layoffs. She decided to try freelancing and has since worked with clients like Ahrefs, Clearscope, Hootsuite, Shopify, Writer and Superpath.
The work is there, but Holly finds herself navigating an ever-changing environment. “I think companies are definitely more open to scaling using freelance talent,” she told us, “But at the same time, the general uncertainty is causing companies to hold back on content plans and cut budgets. In 2022 and 2021, I worked mainly with retainers, and now I'm seeing that businesses prefer a more flexible approach and want more ad-hoc pieces.”
Some of her clients previously wanted four to five articles per month but now only want one or two. She’s brought on more clients for smaller projects to meet the changing demands. She also noted that sales cycles have become longer. The one and two-week cycles she was used to have slowed to three and sometimes even five weeks.
We’ve seen a similar trend in the Superpath Marketplace. A few customers have slowed down the cadence. Others would prefer that we create half as much net new content, then spend the rest of the time creating distribution materials. Still, others are shifting away from keyword-driven strategies to instead focus on sales enablement content like case studies. It’s been a slightly different story for each customer, with the only real constant being change.
In Patrick Campbell’s analysis that I referenced earlier, he goes on to say, “We're now likely entering the bottom of the market (at least in software and tech). Consumer verticals will suffer more. But B2B stabilizing signals the beginning of the end.”
We’re seeing signs of this among content marketers too. Companies aren’t relaxing just yet, but many seem to be refocusing on long-term growth vs. solving the acute pains they’ve felt recently.
Gia Laudi, cofounder of Forget the Funnel, echoed this sentiment in a recent podcast recording for Content, Briefly. She consults with SaaS companies and gets to hear all about their growth problems. She put it bluntly: “2022 was rough. 2023 has been a little better and I’m seeing signs of hope that the SaaS companies are looking ahead instead of behind.”
This too shall pass—but if you’re feeling beat down, tired and stressed from the last year, you are not alone. It’s been a trying time for content marketers. We aren’t out of the woods just yet, but there is a light at the end of this tunnel. If anything, this situation has shone a very positive light on content marketing. It’s the single most important channel for many SaaS companies. For many others, it’s an absolute necessity, not a “nice to have.” Plenty of companies have rethought their approach to content, but hardly any have stopped doing it.
I don’t know exactly what the future holds for content marketers, but I do expect a renewed emphasis on differentiation, especially in the form of thought leadership, editorial content and anything else that captures the very unique voice and spirit of a business. This is probably the version of content marketing that most of us signed up for to begin with, and hopefully something we can all spend more time toiling with in 2023 and beyond.