By Eric Wittlake published August 3, 2014

How Measurement Can Kill Your Content Marketing Strategy

sepia image-arrows-dollar signsThe measurement tail is wagging the marketing dog … and it’s turning your marketing into a dog. Unfortunately, few marketers have the insight needed to illustrate the problem, and even fewer have the guts to take it on within their organizations.

Content marketing strategy begins with an understanding of audience and context — everything from analyzing your competition, to assessing economic pressures and exploring competing priorities. Based on that understanding, you identify the opportunities or challenges marketing needs to tackle.

  • Are you losing opportunities because of a perception problem?
  • Are you not in the consideration set at all because of low awareness of what makes your solution different?
  • Are you not being discovered when people look for a solution to the problems you solve?
  • Is the problem that your product or solution addresses a challenge that has simply become accepted as a part of doing business today and is no longer seen as a source of pain?

Now you should be ready to establish your strategic plan. But instead, you are going to toss everything you just did and cave to the demands of the measurement dictocrats.

Here are just a few of the changes you will make. By the time you are finished, there won’t be anything left of the plan you could have created — or the difference it could have made. 

You will ignore the biggest opportunity you have

You could create a great article, white paper, and video that address the opportunity or challenge you identified and ensure they are broadly distributed, consumed, and discussed. For many marketers this is probably appropriate.

Not so fast. You need to measure that effort and definitively tie it back to revenue. Easy enough: You add a registration form.

Now you know who actually saw your content (not just how many times it was seen) and can tie future revenue back to that form completion and your marketing effort. There are just two elephant-sized problems you are overlooking: You decimated the distribution of your content and replaced your original content marketing strategy with rote lead capture.

Sure, your results look OK on paper, but you are now all but ignoring the biggest challenges or opportunities you have.

You will sacrifice the customer experience

Creating a great experience is critical, right?

Unfortunately, there is often a trade-off between measurement and experience. Usually marketers opt for the measurement and end up leaving results on the table. Here are three examples that are far too common:

  • Social-sharing buttons that require authorizing a new application before sharing: Sure, you get some great data, but at what cost to the visitor experience or the social distribution of your content?
  • Limiting RSS feeds to headlines and abstracts lets you track views of your content but increases the distance between your audience and your content. You created that content because you wanted people to see it; now you are making it more difficult.
  • Unnecessary thank-you pages make measurement a snap but they often become a dead end, keeping visitors out of the experience you were drawing them in to.

Every break point you add to the experience gives you a way to measure activity or collect additional data, but each additional step may compromise customer experience and your ultimate results.           

You will slowly adopt the most obnoxious marketing tactics

Strategy is not infallible, but measurement is not either.

Visits, sign-ups, sales meetings, and closed deals may be in nearly every report, but you will never see a line for the number of people who screamed, “I am sick of Acme Company!” because of an aggressive appointment-setting firm you hired.

You likely know to avoid aggressive telemarketing, but what about these common content missteps? Would your strategy lead you down these obnoxious and destructive roads, or just your measurement?

  • Interruptive online ads — like the not-at-all-welcoming welcome ads major publishers sell — deliver traffic from everyone who missed that tiny Close button by just two pixels. That includes practically every mobile visitor to the site. How many of them frantically hit the back button in frustration while your landing page loads?
  • Sensational, yet misleading, headlines increase traffic but leave your visitor feeling duped and wary of clicking again.
  • Expanding your retargeting program: I recently saw five retargeting ads for a single company on one page, each one bought through a different provider. Measurement, not strategy, made an agency do that.

Obnoxious marketing tactics look great in reports, but are they really great for your business?

It is time to resurrect strategy and stop sacrificing real results for the sake of misleading numbers on a piece of paper.

Are you with me?

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine. 

Cover image by Joe Kalinowski

Author: Eric Wittlake

Eric Wittlake is the Director of Media at Babcock & Jenkins. He regularly shares his views on B2B marketing at B2B Digital Marketing. Follow Eric on Twitter @wittlake.

Other posts by Eric Wittlake

  • Jay Ehret

    Eric, You’ve picked the age-old battle to fight here. But I believe it’s a disservice to paint it with a broad stroke of “more measurement = less desirable content.” It’s true that measurement can kill “your” content marketing strategy if your strategy includes a total abdication of responsibility. Creators want to create, I get that. But I believe the content marketing community as a whole has encouraged the creation of content for content’s sake, while largely ignoring the need to quantify results. This was the same problem problem we faced with the social media marketing evangelists hiding behind the Oz curtain.

    The better approach is to research and encourage ways to maintain content quality while improving measurement. In my anecdotal experience, that’s not what I’ve seen from content marketers. It’s been more of the content machine approach.

    • Eric Wittlake

      Thanks Jay. You are right (of course), more measurement doesn’t necessarily mean worse content. But what I continue to see is marketers allowing measured results to take them away from their strategy and vision. This is how content marketers end up creating listicles, posting cat memes and turning every new statistic into an [infographic]. Better metrics will help, but I’m of the opinion that near-term metrics can always be manipulated. Without keeping a firm eye on strategy, those metrics, however appropriate, can lead you astray.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Jay Ehret

        True Eric, the better measurement is long-term. Content marketing is better viewed as a strategy, and not a magic traffic machine.

  • Hashim Warren

    Gold, gold, gold. the best content marketing causes serendipity and that can’t be measured

    • Eric Wittlake

      Thanks Hashim!

  • Jason Keller

    It sounds like the bigger problem with measurement isn’t that it is hurting a content strategy. but rather that it is a terrible, lackluster, and useless approach to measurement.

    Measurement should do two things; inform whether a strategy is useful or not and inform how content can be made better. If you are solely trying to tie every content piece to revenue, then you are probably doing it wrong especially considering that different content has different effects at different levels of the marketing funnel.

    Because of the above, you may want to change your word choice from “measurement” to “metric” as that is the argument you are really trying to make, right? If so, you are totally right, people should never alter a strategy to make metrics possible… instead they should just figure out other strategies to measure that strategy and if they claim there isn’t a way to do that, well that’s just lazy.

    • Eric Wittlake

      Jason, I agree with most of what you’ve said. The sticky point in my experience is moving the business from established metrics. In a large company, this isn’t a content marketing measurement discussion, it is a change management issue that reaches across multiple groups and processes.

      So can we measure it better? Yes (although as I commented below, every short-term measurement can still be gamed to some degree). However, we can’t just make a major unilateral change in how marketing is measured in the organization. When the business is focused on leads or ecommerce revenue, and those metrics set your budget for the next period, they have a disproportionately large impact on our activity and how we set up the measurement of that activity.

  • William Holland

    All I can say is: ITS ABOUT TIME.

    • Eric Wittlake

      Thanks William!

  • Scott Frangos

    I think a common mistake people make reading analytics is to assume that learning what people do at your website can also tell you WHY they do those things. What visitors do is still important, but asking them why will yield still more valuable insights.

    • Eric Wittlake

      Scott, good point, and asking someone “why” (along with other questions) is often what you need to do when you look at some of the underlying challenges marketing is tasked with addressing (perception, awareness, recognition of challenges, etc). Thanks for the comment!

  • globalcopywrite

    Thank you for addressing the issue of obnoxious measurement tactics. I abandon content every week simply because I don’t want to deal with it. It’s a good lesson for all of us.

    • Eric Wittlake

      Thanks Sarah, glad to hear I’m not the only one!

  • Zak Pines

    Eric, I’m finding your comments are missing the mark. Your examples seem to just be examples of mismanaged marketing and have nothing to do with “measurement killing content strategy”.

    You give an example of a registration page & thank you page… I would think a registration page would be one highly specific use case as to how content is distributed, and there are many more ways to measure content effectiveness beyond leads generated through a registration form. And thank you pages should have evolved to being highly useful to users by providing related content or information.

    And your other examples (Ads, Headlines, Retargeting) actually MAKE THE CASE for closed loop measurement…. you are right that traditional “Raw” traffic, click through or conversion data might be misleading, but closed loop tracking would certainly reveal quality issues with such tactics and the informed marketed would see those types of tactics are not beneficial to the user or providing them return on investment.

    You seem to be fighting a battle with ghosts.

  • suzy spring

    Great article. It tells how you felt because of this. All are facing such kind of problems daily. This article is clear about how it will distory. Good to read.

  • Nigel Cliffe

    Hi Eric – nice article and certainly made me prick my ears up…

    Let me start by saying that as of late I have moved towards a general strategy of ‘if you can’t measure it – don’t do it’ – so your take stopped me in my tracks.

    Isn’t this a more complex question than you give it credit for?

    The role of measurement has to be more sensitively administered. You need to be measuring different things at different times. To be measuring the wrong indices will inevitably drive the wrong behaviors.

    For example. Forcing the lead capture strategy too early in the process, as you suggest, will be a turn-off. So that in itself becomes a moment to measure. But rather than a simple ‘on or off’ measure, it should always be done side-by-side, i.e splitting the traffic into two channels and seeing what works.

    By a process of further segmentation it becomes possible to fine-tune the process of measurement, always backed up by actual resulting data as opposed to what we *think* the outcomes may be.

    In this way you have a self-optimizing process of improvement, built on small incremental steps, rather than wide-sweep of assumptions.

    In these days of improved marketing technology I find it hard to accept that we should forgo the ability to measure, wouldn’t you agree?

  • HK Visa Handbook

    Our content strategy can be described as a consistent stream. After having produced our foundation content “The Hong Kong Visa Handbook” (which is completely open to all comers on the web) we then developed three “D-I-Y Kits” which are acquired against an email address and a first name. This list of email addresses gives us an audience we can reach out to ONLY when I have something of great value to offer for free, mostly invites to free talks I am giving on my niche and providing my tribe the opportunity to come and meet me and pick my brains for free. Then I publish 4~5 times a week on my Blog, The content mostly comes from videos we make of my public talks, short podcast answers to questions I have been asked by visitors to my websites (providing a continuous source of new content that widens our unrelenting mapping of the knowledge information graph on our niche) and also my views and updates on changes in our niche. Ultimately, we provide a real public service where previously there was a dearth of non-self serving information and content. Out of things springs relationships and paid business.Attempting to tie back any of these activities directly to leads and sales is futile represents a complete misunderstanding of how content marketing works. The only metrics that we consider offer any value are (1) how many users are on our sites each day? (2) how long do they stay? (3) how many pages do they visit? (4) how much revenue did we earn this month? This is all we need to know our content strategy not only works but also is getting more and more effective. If your peers, colleagues or boss wants to know how the modern internet works look no further than Rand Fishkin’s killer Whiteboard Friday piece The Greatest Misconception in Content Marketing:

  • Matt Cooper

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the article. I think it points out a great number of issues around adopting measurement centric activities without putting too much thought into why. Adding a form to collect leads at the cost of reach, measuring interactions at the cost of user experience, inappropriately marketing at the cost of customer service… These are all common examples of measuring for the sake of measuring.

    I agree with you that it can go too far, but the problems you’ve described happen when the person or team measuring are not thinking critically about WHY they are doing it. It’s not one or the other. The idea I feel you’ve proposed is a very slippery slope. “Don’t measure, it will get in the way”. Far too often I work with clients that want to know numbers that they think will be “interesting” specifically at the cost of the user experience. Our job as marketing strategists is to serve as that layer of critical thinking, aiming to strike a balance between what we measure, and if it is more important than the impact it brings to the equation.

    Anyone who approaches measurement as a checklist will inevitably end up running into the issues you’ve described, but the same can be said for any discipline that doesn’t look at what they are doing in a holistic way. Saying that measurement can “Kill” your content marketing strategy assumes that all strategists will want to measure the same way, and will communicate the weight of that measurement as higher importance than the marketing itself. This is simply not the case.

    Making sure your organization has a clear and concise understanding of the performance of your marketing initiative has real value. Assuming that there is only one way to measure that value is far too simplistic a vantage point.