By Jake DiMare published July 14, 2014

Content Marketing Optimization: Focus on ‘Critical Few’ Metrics

swimming penguin-underwaterA growing problem with the rapidly rising tide of data content marketers are swimming in these days is it’s becoming much easier to become overwhelmed and drown. Much like an inexperienced swimmer struggling to stay afloat in the water as it rises overhead, problems are often rooted in not knowing what to do next. What’s even more unfortunate is when we drown in data, there are usually no lifeguards to save us.

However, the great news is we can learn to swim, and this is precisely why I like to remind the organizations I partner with to focus on what Avinash Kaushik refers to as the “critical few” metrics of success. This suggestion always resonates deeply with marketers.

The critical few metrics strategy involves focusing on no more than three or four ways to measure the business outcome of the work we do in content marketing. The fewer, the better — this is one area where you will get bonus points for keeping it simple!

The beauty of the critical few metrics concept is it forces us to think about business outcomes instead of obsessing over the full complement of raw data typically available to us when we log into our analytics platforms. In addition, focusing on outcomes allows us to communicate more successfully with leadership — business decision-makers love to hear about outcomes… and tend to glaze over when presented with raw data. How many times have you shared the most recent numbers with someone in leadership, only to hear them say something like, “That’s great… but what does a higher number of sessions mean to the business?

The tricky part is knowing which critical few metrics will be most important to your organization. While this varies across business types for far too many reasons to address here, for content marketing optimization purposes, we can certainly make a couple of assumptions as we explore the subject in more detail. Hopefully the knowledge gained will help you find your own critical few and grow incrementally better at measuring and communicating success.

It’s all about the Benjamins

Some friends and I were feeling quite patriotic as we stood around at our Fourth of July barbeque and eventually found ourselves discussing the Declaration of Independence and the idea of truths that are self-evident. Later that evening, as I lay in bed (wide-awake and wishing I had exercised less freedom over the amount of grilled meat and ice cream I had consumed), this conversation led me to ponder business truths that (I hope) are self-evident — particularly my personal favorite: Business truly is all about the money. To be successful, every single thing we do in any business, whether we’re selling hot dogs and hamburgers or strategy consulting services, must have a direct line to one overriding business need: creating economic value.

In the name of simplicity, it may be tempting to call the creation of economic value the first of our critical few metrics of success. However, I think we can get away with digging just a little deeper. Just below the surface there are two separate but equally important functions that roll up to creating economic value:

  1. Increased revenue (marketing and sales)
  2. Increased profitability (finance and operations)

Revenue: Many incredibly talented and valued content marketers can get tripped up on the revenue side of things. After all, truly exceptional content marketing is about creating quality content, not direct economic benefit (right?). It’s a long game, where we care more about engagement and less about selling. And even when we think about our work in the context of conversion, we are really just thinking about moving leads into and through the top of the funnel. Phases of the buying cycle are often referred to as awareness, consideration, and deliberation — not “getting the user to click the ‘buy now’ button.”

As both a content creator and a strategy consultant who helps marketers decide on the right mix of tactics for communicating with their customers, I naturally have mixed feelings. In an ideal world it would be wonderful if all we were measured on is clarity of message, grammatical quality and/or production value, and whether it’s going to help anybody. The truth is much less difficult to measure, but it’s not as simple as more sessions, a lower bounce rate, or longer duration page views.

In the context of sales, the secret to determining what the critical few measures are for any organization lies in understanding what a typical customer’s buying cycle looks like — and it’s even better if you know what it looks like for each of your buyer personas.

If you ask your organization for this information and they don’t have it, there’s no need to despair. It just means it’s time to stop the presses and generate a customer journey map that illustrates the phases a customer will encounter as they go from first becoming aware they have a need for your products or services all the way through to the point of purchase and beyond. Once armed with this knowledge, it’s truly easy to come up with the outcomes-based metrics your company’s leaders want to see and hear as a result of your content marketing.

Profitability: The other aspect of creating economic value I mentioned earlier is profitability. It may also be necessary to do some digging to understand how content marketing is ultimately impacting this end of the business, but it will almost certainly be worth it.

For instance, let’s say it costs your company $5 to print and ship a big, full-color brochure. If the how-to blog your content marketing team publishes leads to 100,000 potential customers downloading the brochure as a PDF (i.e., saving you printing and shipping costs), that’s a $500,000 argument for the efficacy of your work.

Another great example is the cost of email lists. Purchased from a reputable supplier, a high-quality, legitimate source of targeted, opt-in email addresses can be as high as $1,000 CPM, or $1 per email address. If that same how-to blog your group is publishing generates 10,000 new, legitimate and needed email subscribers a month then, as you may realize, you just saved the organization $120,000 per year (never mind how much more qualified your organically grown email list will be).

Use critical few metrics to rally the team

Improved reporting to leadership is obviously important, but there are other reasons to do a better job of understanding the critical few metrics and their role in content marketing optimization. For instance, once armed with a clean and simple understanding of the business impact content marketing is having on your organization’s top and bottom line in the aggregate, it’s a great time to leverage this information to get your content team excited about the work they do as individuals and as a team.

When I first began my career as a content creator, I wrote for a fairly high-traffic online magazine but was not paid for my work. I had an interest in writing, but no formal education or experience. This ad-supported publication had a need for content and a willingness to give me a crash-course in essential writing skills, so long as I was willing to take direction without argument.

At the time, the lack of pay didn’t bother me, and the relationship worked. But truthfully, what really excited me — and kept me going as my writing improved and the value of instruction decreased proportionately — was very simple: Once a week, the publisher sent out a report to all the contributors that included top content and engagement with content for the week, as well as aggregate numbers about the continued growth of the publication’s viewership. On a side note, this email also contained the publication’s weekly reminder of the editorial calendar for the coming weeks — something we paid much closer attention to, since it was attached to the numbers.

Later in life, when I started getting paid to write, I contributed to a trade publication that did not share any information about the downstream outcomes associated with our work. In spite of being paid, it wasn’t long before it became very challenging to prioritize my work for them and remain interested in the subject matter. I suggested they share traffic data to rally the team, but they couldn’t understand why this information would matter to us. Making the situation worse, I eventually learned (through unofficial channels) about the tremendous economic value some of my work had created — work that I was not being credited for within the organization. My disinterest turned to resentment, and we eventually parted ways. I don’t know if they recognized the loss in financial terms, but I know they were very sorry to see me leave. Sadly, what was done was done, and it was hard to bounce back from the damage this simple lack of openness had created.

Recently, I helped another organization grow an incredibly successful content marketing department with internal contributors whose full-time responsibilities lay elsewhere. This group started with only three people, but leadership celebrated their individual victories across the organization openly and often. Before long, half of the company was interested in learning how they could spend their personal time contributing, and this dramatic increase in content with virtually no overhead led to many revenue opportunities that closed at a better rate than those from all their other channels.

In case it isn’t clear, the dynamic at play in this situation is competition, and it works very, very well. Creative people are much more competitive than most of us might think.

Whether your organization’s content team is staffed with part-time volunteers, internal subject matter experts with other full-time responsibilities, or a dedicated team of paid content creators, it’s very likely they will have a genuine and consistent interest in understanding the impact and value of the time they spend creating content. The great news is, once you have worked out the critical few metrics for your organization it’s a trivial task to segment your content marketing optimization efforts by a team, a content contributor, or even individual content items. The other great benefit to sharing numbers with contributors is they get a chance to see what works and what doesn’t. In a healthy environment, this should quickly set up a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement to the benefit of all parties.

Wrapping it all up

Hopefully this post has provided a few ideas on how to get started with taming the data dragon. This is no trivial task, so don’t be discouraged when you realize your content marketing optimization efforts have been focused on the wrong things. Part of setting up a data-driven content marketing team is promoting a culture of continued improvement, and this starts at the top. Give yourself permission to get started with measurement whether you are sure about what’s being measured or not. Also, get comfortable with the idea of gathering data from multiple sources. Clickstream analytics are only part of the picture.

In closing, we’d like to know: What are the critical few metrics by which you measure the value of your organization’s content marketing? What are the ways you’d like to measure? Is it a challenge to communicate ROI to leadership at your organization? What did I miss in this conversation?

Need help finding which content marketing tactics will put your business on the path to greater success? Check out our guide toBuilding the Perfect Content Marketing Mix: Execution Tactics.

Cover image courtesy of Ken Funakoshi under a creative commons license

Author: Jake DiMare

Jake DiMare is a Digital Strategist and Marketing Technologist, currently leading strategy engagements with the amazing team at Agency Oasis in Boston, MA. Jake has worked in digital marketing for the last 15 years designing, building, and optimizing world-class digital customer experiences for a variety of client partners in entertainment, lifestyle, transportation, publishing, health and higher education. With a strong focus on enterprise content management, measurement and optimization, and marketing automation, Jake loves to talk about the business impact of placing customers at the center of fully cohesive and seamless digital customer experiences supported by outcome driven content marketing.

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  • http://seoinbound.co.uk Rory Truesdale

    Just to add my ‘tuppence worth’, another thing I like to keep my eye on is the volume of brand-related searches that you’re website is getting. This is very easily accessible through Google Webmaster Tools.

    My theory is that as long as I see the volume of branded search queries increasing, I’m getting my content in front of the right eyeballs, and it’s engaging enough to drive them towards an action like searching for my brand online.

    You can also measure engagement metrics and value of this branded search visitors (to some extent) using Google Analytics.

    It’s not as tangible as the ideas you’ve suggested above (which I love!), but just thought I’d put it forward.

    • jakedimare

      Thanks Rory! I really like your suggestion on Branded search. I think it’s really common for organizations to become so focused on unbranded search they forget about the importance of branded search…Which is a shame if they’ve invested heavily in a maintaining brand awareness with Content Marketing!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/joshlight/ Josh Light

    Thanks Jake. I’m a huge fan of Avinash as well. Which analytics platforms do you prefer to use?

    • jakedimare

      My career is pretty solidly focused on the web so my go to options are Google Analytics, MOZ, and SproutSocial. I’m starting to play around with QlikView for stringing together data sources and creating more advanced, integrated dashboards and visualizations.

  • Jitendra Padmashali

    Yes thanks, For sharing this post with us, Many brands are investing in content as a smart way to build trust and authority with their audience as opposed to typical sales-focused advertising.

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