By Michael Brenner published June 8, 2015

How SAP Used Subscribers to Fuel Content Marketing Success


Recently, Joe Pulizzi wrote a great article on the importance of subscription goals for content marketing.

Joe pointed to CMI research that highlighted how less than a third of marketers consider subscriptions as a key metric. He also talked about an advertising industry report that didn’t even list subscribers as a key metric for content marketing.

And he referenced his upcoming book, Content Inc., where he will explain how countless entrepreneurs build content brands by focusing on consistently delivering amazing content to a slow-and-steady growing list of subscribers.

I’m first in line for a signed copy.

The key metric of content marketing success is subscribers

I found this to be the case when I was running content marketing at SAP.

But it didn’t happen overnight. I spent the better part of a year building the business case for content marketing and highlighting the content challenges we were facing as a company.

On Joe’s advice, we created our content marketing mission statement. We started with almost no budget and built an army of volunteer contributors who were writing consistent and high-quality articles to answer our customers’ top questions.

We struggled with how much branding the site should have. We battled over whether the site should be on domain (the company URL) or off domain. Finally, after nearly 13 months, we launched with more than 25 articles across four major categories, all written by me from campaign assets that were sitting on the shelf.

SAP’s goal was to reach, engage, and convert early-stage prospects we would never have reached with traditional advertising and promotion.

We spent a whole YEAR trying to convert our hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site into something the business could value. And for us, that was mostly leads.

The design of the site included dozens of links to product and solution pages. We promoted links to our e-store and our training courses. Users could chat with a sales rep. They could click to call our inbound sales team.

We tested dozens of approaches. None of them worked. After the first 12 months, the site had achieved more reach than we could have ever imagined. Engagement on the site was beyond our wildest dreams.

And despite hundreds of thousands of deeply engaged visitors, all consuming content on solution topics that directly related to the software solutions the company sold, we only had a few thousand clicks on product pages.

We had about two dozen “clicks to call” with our sales team. Total. After a whole year.

We did show a positive ROI through conversion of online training courses, but that was more a function of our low-cost structure. The revenue barely scratched the surface.

Redesign to focus on subscribers

After scratching our heads, we decided to redesign the site. We wanted to make it more visual, more mobile friendly, and we wanted to provide stronger offers for subscription.

We modeled our pop-up after the one right here on the CMI blog using the Pippity Popup plug-in for WordPress. And we set up an account with MailChimp, which automatically pulled our articles into a branded template for daily newsletter distribution.


The solution was simple, elegant, and relatively inexpensive. But would it produce results?

It didn’t take long. After just one month, hundreds of subscribers signed up. We emailed the subscribers with a few harder offers like event invitations, e-books, other pieces of thought leadership, and even our hard-sell “click to speak to a sales rep.”

We didn’t expect anyone to convert until we had built an audience of thousands of subscribers.

But the numbers proved us wrong. The results were small to start, but the subscribers were 10 times more likely to convert to a lead. And like at most B2B companies, leads had value we could quantify.

We were getting campaign registrations on white-paper landing pages. We were getting event registrations. We even sent our subscribers to paid search landing pages. The value of each visitor could be quantified based on the cost per click of our CPC-based paid search program.

Create an infographic to demonstrate your results

Now we were showing real results. Not just the vanity metrics our CMO was tired of seeing.

We were getting requests to present our results all over the organization, so we created an infographic template to highlight our key metrics.

For reach, we looked at visitors, page views, and traffic from unbranded (early-stage) search.

For engagement, we measured the time on site (averaging over five minutes), bounce rate, pages per visit, social shares, and traffic from (unpaid) organic and social traffic. For us, engagement was a measure of the baseline “health” of the content and the experience of the platform.

For conversion, we started by trying to measure clicks to the e-commerce platform (e-store), clicks to call/chat, and visits to solution pages, but we ended up focusing on subscriptions.

We knew that visitors didn’t convert. But subscribers did convert — by a factor of 10 to 1.

Subscriptions allow you to better optimize your site

One more thing we learned about subscriptions: It is the best lever to test optimizations.

If you want to change the design of your site, test the impact on subscriptions. If you want to invest in one type of content over another, test the impact on conversions. You want to see if the changes keep your engagement steady but increase subscribers. We found subscriptions were a great tool to figure out how to build a digital experience that is great for your reader and effective for your business.

Tips for delivering value from your content marketing with subscribers

Here is what we learned:

  1. Set clear goals and business objectives up front. Creating a blog is not a goal. Publishing content is not a goal. Getting traffic is not a goal. Serving your customers and driving value for your business is a goal. Subscribers can help you get there.
  1. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Buyers are unlikely to go from an early-stage search to ready-to-buy right away. Resist the temptation to sell too early. Earn your audience’s trust by delivering great content consistently. Create content your buyers want and then get your readers to opt in to the content.
  1. Focus on subscribers as the road to content marketing value. Determine the conversion path your visitors make. Segment subscribers in your reporting and measure their conversion or goal completion rate.
  1. Test common design elements, content types, and frequency to optimize your site for conversion.

What do you think? Easy right? Please let me know what you think or ask your questions in the comments.

Want to understand and measure what is working with your content? View the Content Marketing Institute webinar, How to Be a Jedi Master of Content. The transcript and slides also are available.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker on leadership, culture, and marketing. Co-author of the bestselling book The Content Formula, Michael's work has been featured by The Economist, The Guardian, and Entrepreneur Magazine. In 2017, Michael was named a Top Business Speaker by The Huffington Post and a top CMO Influencer by Forbes. Follow Michael on Twitter @BrennerMichael.

Other posts by Michael Brenner

  • Mayur Bhaga Rama

    Great article Michael. Really interesting to see how the practical use of content can add value to an organisation.

    Though surely for an organisation such as SAP. Building such a content model that had such synergies across so many BU’s must been a challenge. How did you address that? How did you offer tailored content for each segment and was there extensive investment into customer feedback functionality

    • Michael Brenner

      Hi Mayur, thanks for your comment and question. You are really hitting on the crux of the problem inside many businesses.

      My focus was to always show the perspective of the customer who does not care about business units or internal structures and especially not jargon. For example, at SAP, the small business segment is called “SME” for “small to medium enterprises.”

      While that term meant something to the internal team, to the external audience, that term was used so much less than SMB. So we had to quantify the volume of searches and content focused on the more customer-focused terms and topics.

      We also were able to show that the org matrix and internal silos by industries, regions and lines of business were largely artificial from a customer perspective. Great stories about leadership, for example, resonated with EVERYONE. Marketing best practices were not just interesting to marketing people. And on and on the examples go.

      This is why it is important to get your content marketing strategy right. It starts with a content marketing mission statement that exists at the brand purpose level. For SAP, we wanted to show how technology drove innovation. For AMEX OpenForum it’s about helping small businesses do more business. For Red Bull it’s about creating a lifestyle brand around adventure and pushing boundaries. These brand purpose statements and content marketing missions are linked and exist well beyond BUs and personas and product lines.

      A challenge internally? Indeed. But from the customer perspective it’s dead obvious.

      • Mayur Bhaga Rama

        Wow Thanks Micheal.

        Clarity and direction is such a powerful tool in guiding your strategy. Very interesting feedback. Do you perhaps have any case studies available documenting your planning process for any of your projects. I would like to present it to our marketing team. To show the power of a coordinated effort.

        look forward to your response

  • Len Diamoond

    Why do you say you wouldn’t have reached your prospects with “traditional advertising”? You’re doing it.
    Newsletters (and that’s what you’re describing, even if electronic) have been part of traditional advertising forever. The un-traditional part of yours is the delivery, which I grant you is far more economical of cost and work than the ones I used to print and mail; but trying to present “content” as a radical departure from and/or vast improvement over advertising doesn’t stand up to examination.

    • Michael Brenner

      Hi Len, thanks for your point of view and perhaps I should clarify that we wouldn’t have reached our target audience with interruption-based, campaign-minded techniques, using product / promotional content.

      Instead we developed a digital platform to publish non-promotional content and focused on organic search traffic, engaging content and subscribers as the metric of success. The newsletter was opt-in only and a result of the program, not the targeted delivery.

      Advertising interrupts what people are trying to read, watch or share. Content marketing attempts to be what people read, watch and share.

      Hopefully that helps to clarify.

      • Len Diamoond

        “Content marketing” people like to say traditional advertising is “interruptive” and there’s something intrinsically bad about that.

        In a b2b environment, specifically — what people are trying to read is information that will help them improve their businesses.
        If I have a legitimate product and can show real benefits from using it — do you think if I interrupt your non-promotional entertainment to say,”This product will help you make more money, and here’s how it works” — that will be resented? More likely it will have the kind of “content” that might help sell something.

        (sticky “o” key; the name is Diamond)

        • Michael Brenner

          Hey Len, I think each business should look at the data and use whatever works. In this case it was early-stage content that helped inform buyers, leading to engaged subscribers who converted to sales at lower cost than advertising.

          I will say this, when I go to a publisher site and they throw a welcome ad at me and then auto-play a video, your darn right I resent it. And the younger generations (48% of b2b buyers are millennials) resent it even more.

          • Len Diamoond

            That leaves 52% who aren’t…

            But look– ambition hasn’t been repealed, even for millennials, I would bet. So presupposing a legitimate product with real
            benefits in a b2b environment, if you can show someone he or she can be more successful — at whatever it is — why resentment?

            At the end of it all, after the non-promotional “content” has “engaged” the prospect, even if it’s educated him about the benefits of the product generically (“agnostically” today, I think) a big step remains. Tell me if I’ve missed something — but won’t the marketer still have to tell the prospect how his, the marketer’s, particular product is a better choice than any competitor’s product? Advertising does that. And it can be brought to bear early in the selling process.

          • Michael Brenner

            I agree with you Len. It’s just the balance that needs to change in the overall marketing mix to reflect the customer journey.

  • Mayur Bhaga Rama

    Hi Mark.

    I think that would be great. Ill try and arrange a team meeting. I currently work for Deloitte South Africa your knowledge and practical experience with SAP will be off great value to our team. While the product offerings do differ i feel that there are similarities and synergies in your experience that we could leverage and build on.

    Could you drop me your email address so I could update you on this offline.


    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Mayur, we connected on Linkedin and just sent you my email.

      If anyone else is interested:

      Happy to help!