Could Measuring ROI Actually Hurt Your Content Marketing?

A couple of weeks ago I attended a Newscred dinner with about 30 other content marketing professionals from a variety of large enterprise companies and agencies.

As you’d imagine, the topic of measuring performance and particularly the ROI of content marketing came up, which got me thinking:

Does measuring content marketing ROI help… or could it hinder?

My instinct is that of course, the success of content marketing programmes has to be tied back directly to business results. Why shouldn’t it be subject to the same kind of oversight as other business functions like performance marketing or sales?

A distorted (and unhelpful) approach

The reality is that content marketing isn’t a direct response tactic in the same way performance marketing (or sales) is, so if we try to measure it the same way, we could actually be restricting its success.

Imagine if you only ever tried to create content that resulted in a specific trackable metric, such as impressions, leads or sales. Where would that leave you?

Very one dimensional is my guess.

And probably making bad decisions that would hamper your overall content marketing efforts.

For example if you only chased impressions, then you’d only ever create fun, shareable and relatively ‘lite’ content in the same vein as classic Buzzfeed listicles. This would leave you bereft of consideration and decision pieces that help build the business case for your product/service, or more serious posts that answer questions and help build your SEO authority.

If you only considered content successful if it generated leads then you’d be tempted to gate everything, making for a poor user experience and ignoring the accompanying awareness content that helps drive traffic to landing pages.

Then if you judged all of your content’s success based on its ability to elicit a direct response (i.e. sales) you’d only ever create content directed right at the bottom of the funnel, targeted at decision-stage users. This would leave you without any top-of-funnel, lead-gen or other supporting content.

The problem with all the above approaches is that, as Rand Fiskin illustrated in his great presentation ‘Why Content Marketing Fails‘, content marketing just doesn’t work in a neatly measurable, linear way.

If you ultimately judge your content marketing success based on sales (not exactly an outrageous thing to do as a business!) then this also means you’re likely to over index towards your direct-converting content and under value the support cast.

In football terms it will be like trying to fill your team with 11 strikers because they score the goals, forgetting about all the other players who contribute to the build-up, create opportunities and make the assist.

So that begs the question – how should you measure content marketing success to offer room for innovation, messy user journeys and content ‘assists’?

A better way to measure content marketing ROI

Here is one suggested approach (but I’d love people to comment or add their own suggestions).

Measure holistically: Don’t just measure your content’s success at a granular level. Take a step back, and instead of trying to judge individual content pieces, consider your programme as a whole.

You’ll only be able to do this after a 6-12 month period (at a minimum). Are sales rising? Is your CPA improving? Are sales cycles shortening? Whatever your main business objective, consider whether the needle is moving in the right direction.

Of course, it’s likely you have also undertaken other initiatives in the same time period, so perhaps it will be difficult to isolate content marketing directly as the cause, but if things are working and moving in the right direction, well ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it.’

Measure patiently. I’ve already given a nod to the kind of time frames you’ll need to start properly judging the effect of your content marketing programme.

Even when looking at individual initiatives and content pieces, you’ll need to wait more than a week to pass judgement. It can take some time to start seeing Google reward you for high quality content with more organic referrals thanks to higher SERPs rankings.

Similarly it may take time to build trust with members of forums or grow your social base to start seeing social referral traffic increase.

In an ideal world, you could measure in time-based increments, so look at your content’s relative success at 1 week, 1 month, 3 months and perhaps 6. Stop when the metrics begin to plateau.

Be balanced. Being balanced is as important in content marketing as it is in life. Create a blend of metrics to measure the success of your content, and judge each piece according to its specific goal. So for example you might have 3 buckets of goal-oriented content: awareness, consideration and decision.

To judge the success of your awareness content you may combine any or all of these: impressions, press hits/mentions, social media shares and likes/pins/retweets, traffic, time on site, bounce rate, organic referrals / SERPs positioning and inbound links.

For consideration you may measure leads, comments, time on site, social sharing by target companies etc.

For decision you’ll clearly want to measure sales, but you might also look at CPA, sales cycle and average lifetime value of customers attracted through content.

Taking all of the above into consideration is a lot of work, but it’s the only way to give an accurate, balanced picture of how your content is performing without making your programme one-dimensional.

Leave room for blue-sky thinking. Last but certainly not least, you have to leave room for innovation and content marketing that perhaps doesn’t lend itself to any direct measurement. Perhaps you follow the lead of companies like Net-A-Porter, Uber and AirBnB and release a print publication. Print is notoriously difficult to offer direct attribution too, but does that mean shouldn’t do it?

Maybe…just maybe…you deliberately create 20% of your content with a view to never measuring it against any of the above metrics, just so you’re completely free and unencumbered by expectations, which could then lead to a radical breakthrough. These kind of skunkworks projects might wind up being your biggest asset over time.

Conclusion

The impact content marketing has on a business does need to be measured. You can’t just throw money at something with no proof it’s contributing to your overall business strategy and growth.

However the way you measure its impact must be very carefully thought through.

If it’s too tightly monitored for direct response sales, timeframes are too short or the entire creative process is guided by a single metric then you’ll probably find you’re shackling your content marketing to the point of deformity, and it’s then unlikely to be as effective as it might be if you gave it a little more leeway.

Apply the right amount of patience, balance, freedom and ultimately common sense to your judgement of ROI and you’ll be able to prove the value of content marketing to your businesses without hindering the creative flourishes and supporting work that can help you stand out and actually make you more successful in the long run.

What do you think? Can the wrong approach to measuring content marketing ROI hurt it’s success? And if so, how should you measure it?

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