By Ann Gynn published April 7, 2021 Est Read Time: 10 min

Is Proving Content Marketing ROI an Impossible Dream?

The conclusion? Impossible.

The subject? Measuring content ROI.

Ahrefs’ Tim Soulo made this pronouncement in a series of tweets explaining the benefits of content marketing for the digital marketing and SEO tool company.

Tim says Ahrefs never intertwines return on investment and content marketing.

And yet, he shares, they use content marketing to advance their business goals – attract new customers, retain existing customers, reactive past customers, sell more to current customers, fuel paid acquisition, and so on.

“We won’t track how many leads we get from our articles organically, let alone what is the CPA of running paid traffic to our articles. Measuring those things would be just the tip of the iceberg,” he wrote.

“And let’s say we measured those numbers and they turned out terrible …? We wouldn’t halt our content marketing operations anyway! We KNOW that it works for us, no matter what those ‘isolated’ numbers say.”

I applaud Tim and Ahrefs for recognizing what so many don’t – that content marketing’s total value may be impossible to compute in traditional ROI terms, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

The failure to understand this too often leads to the demise of or weakening of content marketing support.

Why is the ROI of content marketing such a problematic question? Because the premise too often is that content marketing should be a direct feed to the bottom line. Many see the “return” in ROI as synonymous with “sales revenue.”

Sound familiar? If that’s the challenge you face at your brand, let’s explore a few options to overcome it.

Kudos to @TimSoulo and @Ahrefs for realizing traditional #ROI may be impossible to prove for #ContentMarketing – but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Get on the same page

Even people who work in marketing get confused about the difference between content marketing and other content used in marketing. It’s no wonder executives who operate outside marketing wouldn’t know the distinction.

Before you try one of the options below, consider hosting a conversation to explain the difference between content used in marketing and content marketing to key stakeholders.

What’s content used in marketing? Content used in marketing usually focuses on the sale. Think product pages, sales promotions, customer service instructions, ads, and other content designed to lead to a transaction – a sale.

What’s content marketing? As CMI defines it, content marketing is

A strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

Think blogs, newsletters, guides, video and audio shows, and other content designed to inform, educate, or entertain. Sales aren’t the immediate goal (though, of course, they can and should be part of the “profitable customer action” that’s the ultimate goal.)

Content marketing aims to build an audience. Some of the people this content attracts will convert to customers. But those conversions represent only part of the value content marketing offers.

The audience itself represents an asset with quantifiable value, says Robert Rose, CMI’s chief strategy advisor. (Robert explains how to model the value of the audience asset in this article.)

Tim’s tweet thread lists the 10 benefits Ahrefs knows they get from their content marketing, whether the return from each is measurable or not.

But executives expect numbers. And content marketing leaders need to provide them.

Though you can prepare your execs to think beyond traditional ROI assessment, you need to show how you’ll measure your content marketing’s impact.

Start by setting appropriate goals for your content marketing program. It’s not enough to say, “increase brand awareness” or “educate audiences.” Be specific: identify the goal, the target audience, the metric used to measure progress, the number you strive to achieve, and the timeframe in which you plan to complete it.

Here’s an example of a goal that covers each of those elements:

Our content marketing goal is to increase awareness of the brand online by women between the ages of 25 and 45. We intend to achieve a 10% increase in unique visits to our blog from this group in each quarter of 2021.

TIP: Make sure your content marketing goals align with your brand’s business goals. The example above only makes sense if the brand’s business goal is to increase sales within that target audience.

The more you speak the language of business, measurement, and success, the more likely business leaders will understand these two important points: Content marketing isn’t easily evaluated by traditional ROI, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fuzzy strategy that’s nice – but not essential – to invest in.

#ContentMarketing isn’t easily evaluated by traditional #ROI. But content marketers do need to describe its impact in the language of business, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Redefine your content marketing strategy

CMI’s annual B2B and B2C research shows the same top three goals for content marketing year after year: brand awareness, building credibility/trust, and educating audiences.

In our most recent research, at least 71% of marketers cited those goals.

In the same survey, sales-related goals ranked further down the list. Here’s how they factored for B2C marketers:

  • 6 – generating sales (54%)
  • 7 – generating demand/leads (52%)
  • 8 – nurture subscribers/audiences/leads

And for B2B marketers:

  • 4 – generating demands/leads (75%)
  • 6 – nurture subscribers/audiences/leads (60%)
  • 8 – generate sales/revenue (51%)

If you must operate under the premise that a return on investment means how your content marketing affects your bottom line, adjust the goals of your content marketing strategy. Focus on leads and sales.

If you make this switch, remember that your editorial approach will need to change, too. Don’t forget to adjust your metrics to align with your new goals. Website traffic and social media analytics shouldn’t be at the top of your list (they might not even be on your list.)

Invest in an attribution model

Of course, content marketing should have an impact on revenue. After all, why do it if it isn’t helping the business? But it’s not a direct line.

If your executives expect you to connect the dots to the bottom line, you must invest resources – experts, tools, and time – to develop a multi-touch attribution model.

By taking this route, you can keep using your current content marketing strategy until the data tells you it isn’t working for your brand’s business goals.

To connect #ContentMarketing to the bottom line, you must invest resources (experts, tools, and time) to develop a multi-touch attribution model, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The first component to invest in is someone who loves data. Interest in content marketing is a secondary requirement. (Traditionally, too many content marketing teams make metrics an afterthought or last step in both strategy and hiring.)

Look for someone who appreciates solving analytics puzzles and knows how to translate numbers into helpful data for the content marketing team and the company’s executives.

A few years ago, Content Marketing World speaker Katrina Neal shared the three analytics categories where data scientists can be helpful:

  • Descriptive (what’s happened)
  • Prescriptive (what’s happening in real-time/near future)
  • Predictive (what’s going to happen and how you should react).

Once you have analytics talent in place, your team is ready to develop an attribution model for your content marketing. An attribution model follows a person’s content touchpoints and what actions they take.

This illustration shows a multi-point attribution model that reveals a person downloaded an e-book, read an email newsletter, had a badge scanned at a trade show, and attended a webinar before becoming a customer. (You can read more about this model in Pawan Deshpande’s article Marketing Attribution Models: How Content Influences Buyers.)

An illustration that shows a multi-point attribution model that reveals a person downloaded an e-book, read an email newsletter, had a badge scanned at a trade show, and attended a webinar before becoming a customer.

Some companies use a single-touch attribution model in which all credit for the sale is given to a single interaction (even if the customer has interacted with the content in multiple ways.) For example, say the person in the example above becomes a customer, buying $280 in products. In attributing the sale, a single-touch model would designate the webinar attendance as the only touch that matters. Thus, the webinar attendance value for that person would be $280.

TIP: In a single-touch model, usually, the first or last touchpoint is given the value.

A single-touch attribution model is better than nothing, but it doesn’t work for a comprehensive content marketing program. A multi-touch attribution model better reflects the value of interactions over time that are the hallmark of a content marketing approach.

#ContentMarketing – building and growing an audience – takes time. It takes at least 12 to 18 months to show results, according to @JoePulizzi via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Using multi-touch attribution, a $280 sale gets attributed to four content marketing tactics. Using a linear multi-touch model, each tactic has the same value – $70.

In a weighted multi-touch model, the values vary based on the perceived importance of each touchpoint. You might set up your model to assign 30% of the value to the first touch (in this case, the e-book) and 15% to reading the newsletter. The tradeshow interaction gets 20%, and the last step before the sale – webinar attendance – gets 35%.

In this model, each of the content marketing tactics has a dollar value – an indicator of its contribution to the sale.

This multi-touch attribution model I’ve used here focuses on a single sale. But you can create more complex variations of the models that look at lifetime value, repeat customer value, and so on.

Pivot from content marketing

If a strategy overhaul or a better approach to analytics and attribution modeling won’t work for your brand, stop doing content marketing. You’ll never have the long-term support necessary for success. Content marketing – building and growing an audience – takes time. (CMI founder Joe Pulizzi has estimated it takes at least 12 to 18 months to show results.)

#ContentMarketing – building and growing an audience – takes time. It takes at least 12 to 18 months to show results, according to @JoePulizzi via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Shift your content marketing resources to focus on content created for general marketing purposes. By focusing your resources on that type of content, you can better connect your work to the bottom line – and get the necessary, ongoing support from leadership.

And if you want to bring back content marketing into the fold (or keep your existing audience), figure out how to create a minimum viable content initiative that can happen alongside the team’s marketing content work.

If your marketing content has a big impact on the bottom line, the executive team is more likely to support your content marketing MVP – and possibly more down the road.

Dig deeper into content measurement and ROI. Join us for ContentTECH Summit June 8 to 10. Register today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Ann Gynn

Ann Gynn edits the CMI blog. Ann regularly combines words and strategy for B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, continuing to live up to her high school nickname, Editor Ann. Former college adjunct faculty, Ann also helps train professionals in content so they can do it themselves. Follow Ann on Twitter @anngynn or connect on LinkedIn.

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