This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of CCO.

Marketers are awash in data. But ask marketers if they’re measuring the right things and most answers are closer to “damned if I know” than “you betcha.” So, what can be done when big data gets the better of you?

As a category judge for the annual Content Marketing Awards, I’m always particularly interested in seeing how the entrants report success metrics. And I’m often disappointed when I continue to see many of them still relying on the same ubiquitous (and often useless) metrics everyone touts regardless of the nature of the content or the business goals it’s meant to achieve. Even when marketers clearly defined their goals for the project – and not all of them do – there’s a striking disconnect between their achievements and how they claim to demonstrate success.

Too many marketers mistakenly rely on the same ubiquitous metrics regardless of their content’s nature and purpose, says @SarahMitchellOz via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Rand Fishkin sees the same behavior. The founder of SparkToro and Moz and author of Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World has spent his career helping marketers reach their target audiences. Rand and I spoke about measurement in a 2018 episode of the Brand Newsroom podcast:

“I think that one of the biggest issues I see on measurement and reporting, for sure, is that the marketing metrics we use are disconnected from the things that actually impact the business goal.”

He believes business is on autopilot when it comes to reporting, pointing to preconceived ideas as a culprit. “I think it happens because marketers are used to certain metrics. Their managers and CMOs and even CEOs are used to certain metrics; they’re used to reporting in a certain way,” Rand says.

“You know web analytics tools are used to giving certain kinds of outputs, so you get this bias.”

When pressed to give his top metrics, Rand says a one-size-fits-all mentality is the wrong way to think about measurement. “We should be asking, ‘For this particular situation, where we are trying to accomplish X, what are the metrics that we should be using to measure whether we’ve done X?’”

A prescribed path that gets you nowhere

Let’s be clear: The way to content marketing success is simple to define but difficult to achieve. Often, it looks something like this:

  1. Define business goals.
  2. Develop a content marketing strategy with defined marketing objectives and success measurements.
  3. Produce original, high-quality content aligned with those objectives.
  4. Publish to online and offline channels identified in your strategy.
  5. Distribute content via your email database, social media outlets, and PR initiatives.
  6. Amplify your content using search engine optimization and marketing to find those you don’t know or who don’t know about you.
  7. Measure results against business goals.
  8. Refine the strategy to improve your results.

Rand’s advice still holds here: What you measure must relate to the first thing in the cycle – your business goals. Yet, most content marketers focus on reporting the success of distribution and amplification efforts. This results in an overall lack of accountability to the business.

Before you protest, remember: Content marketing’s fundamental purpose (as Content Marketing Institute’s industry definition illustrates) is “to drive profitable customer action.”

It’s easy to become distracted by the process of content marketing because data gives a great way to see results. It’s exciting to tweak a project and see metrics change, rankings shift, or follower numbers increase. The gamification of social media turned us into an industry of tracking fiends – while distracting too many of us from the business outcomes we should be trying to achieve.

Popular metrics aren’t necessarily useful ones

In my opinion, some of the most popular metrics deliver data that are ineffective at determining the success of a content marketing initiative. We need to be better at demonstrating content’s ability to influence business goals, and that starts with moving past the measurement traps we’ve fallen into for far too long. For example, while they may make it easy to report statistics and figures, none of these metrics is useful when calculating returns on our marketing investments:

  • Activity metrics: Gobs of statistics – including impressions, reach, views, sessions, and engagements – are reported for websites, social media, and online advertising covering both organic and paid traffic. Big activity numbers can seem good, but they don’t necessarily help determine if you’re meeting business goals. It’s a little disingenuous to pay Google to promote your content or website, then turn around and claim success.
  • Time spent: Does more attention on Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, or any other online channel or platform convert to more business? Too many marketers make the pivot into content designed purely to entertain, or for the sole purpose of holding attention longer. Will that compilation of cheesy ads from the ’80s coax a person to make a purchase? Will those oh-so-clever memes and mashups lead to more newsletter signups? Will people notice or care which company page or account the content came from?
  • Sentiment scores: These might reveal how people feel about your content, but do they make a difference to your bottom line? Sentiment may help you set the right tone, but it’s a long way from proving the effectiveness of your content.

What is your purpose? What does profitable customer action look like for you? What can be measured to ensure that your efforts are appreciated and rewarded with buy-in from your business? Profitable customer action most resembles growth in the business.

What can content marketers do to improve measurement? Focus on indicators of profitable customer action and business growth, says @SarahMitchellOz via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

A caveat about visitors and users

One of the most misunderstood metrics marketers rely on is new users. Reaching 100% of your audience is difficult, if not impossible, so tread carefully when using this data point to equate reach with meaningful impact. Before you report a victory to your management team, it’s worth knowing how new visitors and new users are counted.

New visitors and new users are designed to gauge activity on your website, not penetration of your target audience. Even then, it’s not an exact science and it’s influenced by whether cookies are used to track your visitors.

In simple terms, a new user is counted on the first visit to a website within a defined period, like a month or a week. Once the period expires, everyone is considered a new user again.

Other factors that can skew how you interpret user and visitor counts include visitors who use more than one browser when visiting your website or reset cookies during a session.

Unless the people reading your report understand the intricacies of how Google counts visitors and users, reporting on these metrics is likely to create misunderstandings, not communicate strong performance. A new visitor to your website is not the same as a new customer to your business. A returning visitor is not the same as a customer who buys from you more than once.

To avoid confusion, do not use new visitor or new user numbers for reporting purposes.

Good things to measure

It’s vital to define business goals in your content marketing strategy along with how you plan to measure goal achievement. This creates a good opportunity to get buy-in from elsewhere in the business because the important measurements aren’t necessarily the ones found on a simple Google Analytics report. You need support from different departments to get assistance on reporting.

It helps to overtly explain how you intend to drive growth with content marketing. While a single piece of content rarely generates a direct conversion, your overall strategy should make a measurable contribution to growth. Consider including some or all these measurements in your strategy:

  • Sales data is the motherlode of all measurement. If you can prove content marketing is impacting your sales team’s bottom line, you’ll have no problem getting more budget for future efforts.
  • New customers are another critical measurement. Identifying the influence content has on customer acquisition – such as proven acquisition cost decreases, a reduction in advertising and traditional marketing expenditures, or a scaled-down lead-to-conversion period – illustrates the real value content marketing can deliver to your business.
  • Average customer lifetime value reflects how content marketing aids upselling and cross-selling opportunities. Benchmark this figure and track it as part of your management reporting.
  • Increased customer retention and loyalty rates also prove the value of content marketing since it’s cheaper to keep a satisfied customer than create a new one.
  • Tracking the leads that directly result from your content is a quantifiable indicator of potential revenue opportunities created for your company.
  • Email subscribers rank at the top of the audience hierarchy, according to Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose in their book, Killing Marketing: How Innovative Businesses are Turning Marketing Cost into Profit. This is because those subscribers have not only shown an interest in your content, they’ve expressly requested to receive more of it. If they like your brand enough to raise their hand, it’s much easier to convert them into paying customers.
  • Goal attainment in Google Analytics depends on the goals set up by your SEO team. When configured correctly, they can be used to track the effectiveness of your content and how well your calls to action are working.

The above goals measure profitable customer actions. Meanwhile, other metrics provide more tactics-focused indicators of success. They may not be enough to prove value in and of themselves, but they can be used to analyze how well specific components of your content are functioning, as well as to identify weak spots or opportunities to improve:

  • Open rates from emails show whether your titles or subject lines are resonating with your audience.
  • Click-through rates (CTR) from website content and email campaigns identify a willingness to answer calls to action or trust your brand to provide further information. It’s essential to understand how customers move through your content – where they enter and drop off – but remember: High CTRs don’t necessarily equate to conversion.
  • Time spent demonstrates your content is interesting, but it doesn’t show whether it’s meeting business goals. Still, if time-spent figures are changing, it’s worth examining why.
  • Invitations received by your brand to present at in-person events, contribute guest posts, or make appearances on other companies’ videos or podcasts are indications your content is being recognized for its thought leadership or subject matter expertise.
  • Results from research and surveys about your company provide a body of information to be tracked over time. Depending on the questions asked, you can ascertain whether your content efforts are having a positive effect on your business.

However, as Rand explained in our conversation, even positive web analytics results can create biases in marketing’s expectations that can be difficult to measure up to. For example, consecutive monthly reports showing increased activity, time spent, and improved sentiment can instill a false sense of security and make teams reluctant to adapt their content strategies when faced with new challenges, opportunities, or marketplace conditions.

Refocus your measurement to regain your content influence

The less that marketers and management understand increasingly complicated content analytics and performance metrics, the more likely they are to grow frustrated with the discipline and conclude that “content marketing doesn’t work.” It can, and does, still happen all too frequently in organizations – even when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. To counteract it, we all have to get better at knowing how and where to go looking for that evidence.

Switching to business metrics for measuring and reporting the effectiveness of content marketing requires a shift in thinking. But the marketers who are able to report on the impact content has on the business will be better placed to gain influence in their organization and continue to create successful work.

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at [email protected].