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How to Set Content Marketing Goals That Matter to Business Leaders

Updated April 15, 2021

Have you ever heard a sales leader or business exec disparage content marketing as “arts and crafts” or wonder about its business value? You aren’t the first.

The myth that content marketing is some nebulous, feel-good, unmeasured thing gets told all too often.

But why?

The business purpose of content marketing is literally written into its definition:

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.

Change the arts-and-crafts view of #ContentMarketing. Connect it to the business value, says @KMoutsos via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Divided by uncommon language

We content marketers might have ourselves to blame if we’re not setting (and hitting) goals business leaders care about.

But the terms marketers bandy don’t always play nicely with terms business leaders expect to hear (CMI’s Ann Gynn recently wrote about the expectation mismatch over the term “return” in return on investment.)

Consider this goals chart from our B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends Insights for 2021 report.

The one goal nearly everyone claims to have achieved is brand awareness (87%). Among B2C marketers, brand awareness response was also the top response (81%). We see similar results year after year.

Brand awareness is a fine and worthy endeavor. But if it’s your only goal, you may be challenged to explain how awareness ties into an outcome that business leaders care about.

Here’s the truth. Just saying, “Our content marketing increases brand awareness,” isn’t going to cut it when it comes to securing, keeping, or increasing funding.

Just saying #ContentMarketing increases brand awareness won’t cut it if you want to secure, keep, or increase the budget, says @KMoutsos via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

How to align content marketing and business goals

Instead of setting something like brand awareness as THE goal, think of it as one step toward a business goal.

And what’s the business goal of content marketing? To drive profitable action.

Boom. Goal defined. My job here is done.

Except … you probably have questions. What counts as a profitable action? Let’s explore.

To be useful (and measurable), content marketing goals must be specific – and match a meaningful business goal your company is working toward.

CMI Founder Joe Pulizzi likes to say businesses care about three things:

  • Sales
  • Savings
  • Sunshine (his term for customer loyalty, retention, cross-sales, and evangelism)

Choose goals that support one of those three things and you should have no problem communicating how content marketing contributed to the business goals.

#ContentMarketing goals should support sales, savings, or sunshine (customer loyalty, cross-sales, evangelism), says @JoePulizzi via @KMoutsos @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Here are several business-related possibilities to consider when setting your content marketing goals.


Building a subscribed audience is the basis of content marketing. Subscribers give you permission to communicate with them regularly. And that gives you permission to subtly market to them while giving them value outside of your company’s products or services. In fact, CMI Chief Strategy Advisor Robert Rose says the business asset created by content marketing isn’t content, it’s the audience.

Building a subscribed audience is the basis of #ContentMarketing, says @KMoutsos via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

When it makes sense: Make a subscriber-related goal when your business wants to penetrate a new market, compete with a high-profile market leader, or begin the content marketing journey.

Profitable actions to track: Measure progress by the number of subscribers to an owned channel (email newsletter, blog alerts, magazine, podcast, etc.) or the subscriber conversion rate compared with general audience conversion rate.

To go deeper into the subscribed audience as a goal, check out:


Great content can encourage consumers to become prospects by signing up for a demo, registering for an event, or requesting access to a resource center. (In some organizations, a lead could be defined as a contact.) Unlike subscribers, leads provide more than an email address. They trade more information about themselves because they see value in the content offer.

Caveat: Some leads aren’t really leads. These contacts might have wanted the piece of content, but they may not want to hear from your brand again or aren’t that interested in your product or service now. Consider getting these not-really leads to opt-in as subscribers because they may become more valuable over time.

When it makes sense: Focus on lead-related goals if your business sees content marketing as a tool for the sales team – to help find or qualify new prospects or to help nurture leads through the funnel.

Profitable actions to track: Measure content’s impact with form and landing page conversion rates, downloads, and percentage of marketing- and sales-qualified leads.

To go deeper on tracking lead generation, check out:

Sales support/enablement

Supporting sales with content typically involves creating pieces that offer proof points to help customers decide to choose (or justify choosing) your product or service. Think testimonials and case studies that show how similar companies have solved their problems.

When it makes sense: Focus your content efforts here when your company needs to grow sales or open up new revenue streams.

Profitable actions to track: Measure your sales support through lead-to-customer conversion rates, effect on time to close new customers, and revenue generated.

To go deeper on aligning content with sales, check out:

Customer support and loyalty

Though many think of content marketing as a top-of-the-funnel play, content can work to reinforce the customer’s decision after the sale. How-to and activation content can help make sure the customer gets value from the purchase – and is likely to buy again.

Though many think of #ContentMarketing as a top-of-the-funnel play, content can work to reinforce the customer’s decision after the sale, says @KMoutsos via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

When it makes sense: Focus on customer support content when reducing support costs is a priority (i.e., high volumes of support calls), when the business struggles to secure repeat business, or when upselling product options and add-ons is a priority.

Profitable actions to track: Measure the impact by the percentage of existing customers who consume content, reduction in the number of support calls, number of repeat customers, revenue from upselling, customer-retention rate, change-in-churn rate.

Don’t hide your goals under a barrel (or in a PowerPoint slide)

Most of us know the SMART (specific, measurable, actionable/achievable, realistic, and time-bound) framework for goal setting. Authors of an article from MIT Sloan argue it omits important elements – frequent discussions and transparency – that can help eliminate quarter or year-end surprises.

The article suggests FAST as a better acronym and framework:

  • Frequently discussed so the team stays focused on the right things and can change/correct course as needed
  • Ambitious so they promote innovative ideas
  • Specific so they include milestones and metrics
  • Transparent so teams understand and coordinate on each other’s needs and goals

The frameworks are seemingly complementary and could easily be a blended mix (SMART-FAST, FARMS-STAT?) for your content marketing goal-achieving plan.

Whichever framework you choose, do your content marketing program a favor. Set ambitious goals tied to a business outcome. And then talk about those goals in ways that make your business leaders care.

As usual, Joe nails what’s at stake:

Most content marketing programs don’t stop because of lack of results. They don’t stop because they aren’t working … They stop because the people with the purse strings – the ones who control the budget – don’t understand content marketing, why you are doing it, and what impact it could and should make on the organization.

What goals are you working toward? How are you making sure the purse-string holders understand what content marketing is contributing to the business? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute