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Missing Elements in the Content Marketing ROI Equation

circular orange field-sun-like centerShane Snow grinned, formed his hand into the shape of a pistol, and pointed it at his targets. The Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer at Contently was onstage at his company’s packed Contently Summit in mid-June, and he had one of those gun-to-head questions for his panelists — BuzzFeed Data Scientist Ky Harlin and Moat President Aniq Rahman:

“If you were forced to pick only one metric to track for analyzing content marketing success, what number would it be?”

“That’s really not a useful way to think about it,” Harlin answered. “You’re almost better off doing nothing than focusing on one single metric because you’re very prone to coming to false conclusions based on that.”

When Snow pressed his gun closer, Harlin spoke of BuzzFeed’s eye on “viral lift” — quantifying the propensity of a piece of content to be shared. But Harlin’s initial resistance was telling. Different businesses, industries, objectives, content formats, and distribution methods call for different factors for determining content marketing ROI. Sure enough, a week after the Summit, I pointed Snow’s gun back at him in a conference room at Contently’s recently expanded SoHo offices. He leaned back in his chair and looked up thoughtfully toward his signature curly moptop. Clearly, this is not an easy question — though Snow is among the best people to address it. Contently used the capital raised from a successful investment round earlier this year to do more than just blow out the back wall of its office suite (and hire a bunch of people to fill the new digs). It also created an analytics platform on behalf of the clients who tap into their CMS to fill the buckets of their content strategy.

After acknowledging that the “one metric” question was highly dependent on a number of factors, Snow answered a variation on the original question, which I had posed to him: “What is one metric content marketers aren’t widely measuring (or measuring well) but should be?

“This isn’t a ‘metric’ per se, but one thing you want to measure is relationships,” Snow responded. “That was the word of the day at the conference. Part of what we’re trying to do with our Insights product is, knowing that last attribution — what was the thing that put you over the edge? — isn’t going to mean anything if you don’t understand what went into that. But if you can measure a relationship being built… ”

The metrics conversation is driving much of the content marketing dialogue now — which is a very good thing for those of us in the space. What gets measured gets managed, the old business cliché goes. So I asked some content marketing execs to answer the same basic question I had posed to Snow. Here are some of their responses (edited for conciseness and clarity) on what’s currently missing from our industry’s measurement efforts, and their advice on what should be more of a priority as we move forward. 

Emphasize organic engagement

Companies develop large quantities of content that reside on their site or blog. To help build awareness for this content, they push some of it to their Twitter feed, Facebook page, or other social networks. Then they look at the engagement of that social media post to determine the popularity of that piece of content. The problem with this is that it ignores a metric that is becoming increasingly important: organic engagement. Today, consumers visit a brand’s content libraries and explore content most relevant to their needs. To remember these pieces of content, they save that information to their individual presences on the social web. This saving behavior is not initiated by what the brand is pushing out, but rather by what the consumer is pulling from amongst a wide range of content. Generally, this organic sharing eclipses social engagement on content the brand has posted itself, and this can lead to a substantially better understanding of what resonates for your audience.Apu Gupta, Co-Founder and CEO, Curalate

Get deeper

I’d love to understand motivations better and get to a deeper level on what types of people tend to work well with a Century 21 professional. You could hyper-target them. I think that is where we are heading in terms of the data-mining and the capabilities we will have. I would also like to accurately deliver for our agents and brokers every time anyone in their social media sphere of influence experienced a birth, death, divorce, marriage, or graduation. Real estate needs surface with happy moments and sad moments in our lives, and those are the five big ones. And lastly, I would like to see more data around social media advertising in terms of actual bottom-of-the-funnel results. We’re not a products business. You’re not buying a widget, so it’s not as simple. But we could definitely be more effective at it.Matt Gentile, Global Director of Social Media, Century 21 

Measure individual pieces

People tend to focus too much on the aggregate performance of content and not enough on how well each piece is hitting the mark. This data gives marketers the ability to iterate and adjust tactics with each new piece produced. I recommend regular surveys of customers to see if they viewed content prior to becoming a lead/customer. And marketers should focus less on number of views but more on a targeted viewer. If you are producing finance content, then a placement on five top finance blogs is more valuable than 50,000 views on a general social news site.Stew Langille, Founder and CEO, Visually

Learn from your mistakes

Storytellers should be looking at data as a gift. This is like a focus group that’s being handed to you every single day. I encourage our storytellers to look daily at next pages and bounce rates via Omniture and Google Analytics. From this understanding of how users are interacting with their content, they can start to play with headlines, imagery, and calls to action in a series of their own A/B tests. And when they look at the data, they need to understand that good metrics are important, but bad metrics are sometimes even more important. They give you a chance to learn from the mistakes and apply the learning to creating better engagement the next time around.Jason Kaufman, SVP and Managing Editor, Digital, Weber Shandwick

Catch the right fish

Will the customers we bring in add to the overall value of the company, the value of the product, or the value of the service — all of which then increases our margin? By having more clearly defined goals that really add more value to your company, you’re going to do a heck of a better job. You can always go fishing and catch all kinds of fish, but real fishermen will go for trout, bass or walleye with specific baits and lures in order to get the kind of fish they want to catch and eat.” —Jeffrey Hayzlett, CEO of The Hayzlett Group and Bloomberg TV host

Get the lead

A great metric to track would be the visitor-to-lead conversion rate:

Number of Leads Generated / Number of Visitors = Visitor-to-Lead Conversion Rate

Businesses must understand how many leads they’re getting from their content efforts, which eventually helps you determine your overall content marketing ROI. Having the right content marketing software in place is key, and your content needs to live in an environment where you can easily track how many visitors you’re getting and, in turn, track how many of those become leads — fill out a form, request a demo, sign up for a free trial, etc. To do this at Uberflip, we feed the metrics from our content hub to our marketing automation tool (HubSpot in our case). This gives us a 360-degree view from when somebody visits a piece of content to when they become a lead and eventually a customer. So for any individual piece of content, we know the visitor-to-lead conversion rate. This lets us refine the type of content we create moving forward, both from a topical standpoint (what kind of things do we create content about?) and from a format standpoint (video, articles, infographics, etc.).Hana Abaza, Director of Marketing, Uberflip

Keep your eye on the end game

We have wonderful metrics on all of the things you would expect us to track — engagement, reach and other factors. But with the Merrill Lynch financial advisor business, it’s business that’s done between human beings. It’s about personal relationships. Whether content gets handed to a client or a prospect by an advisor or we deliver it to the client or prospect electronically, we lose some of the connection of what happens next. Who did they talk to about that piece of content? Who did they call, what FA did they research, what website did they visit? Has it gotten them to think about their finances differently? You’ve got to put a lot of things in place to be able to understand and measure that. We have a lot of data and we can optimize our marketing and content direction from it. We know what we’re doing is working from that and from talking to advisors and prospects. It’s just getting to the impact on the relationship that’s tough.Joe Corriero, Head of Digital Marketing, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

How you actually implement and monitor a new barometer of success — whether it is one surfaced here or a measurement idea you come up with on your own — is as highly varied company-to-company and industry-to-industry as the metrics themselves. But as you explore these areas, SimpleReach CEO Edward Kim believes you should keep something important in mind, along with emphasizing shares over time spent for brands looking to achieve thought leadership:

What good is it if 10 people read your article for 10 minutes, if it was only 10 people? Is that worse than 1,000 people reading your article for 30 seconds? All the people that are banging the time drum, here’s the biggest thing they misunderstand: They are treating marketers as if they are publishers, as if the goal of creating content is to become a publisher. You’re not. That’s not your product. Who cares about the content? The content is just a proxy for something else — for the next goal. Measure the business goal. Don’t try to create a metric around a content-driven goal. How does that make any sense?”

Agreed? What metric do you think we should all be paying attention to but aren’t? Let us know in the comments section.

Looking for more guidance on how to track and measure the value and brand impact of content marketing? Don’t miss Content Marketing World 2014, September 8–11, 2014. Register today!

Cover image by Vladimir Kramer