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Marketing ROI

Does Chasing Content Marketing ROI Cause Us to Lose Sight of the Long Game?

13 Minute Read

Best practice and all the gurus in the world tell us that content marketing is a long game—that it takes time to bed in and start to see results. But business rarely plays the long game; goals and KPIs are often short-term in a dash for content marketing ROI, and stretch goals don’t do much to encourage thinking about a five-year strategy. Some leading marketing thinkers even say that a one-year marketing plan is in fact a redundant strategy because things change so quickly in the modern marketing world.

I’m here with some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that this is not going to change without a massive amount of effort on your part. The good news? It’s the same across all marketing disciplines, not just content marketing performance.

Here’s Peter Field, marketing consultant and former strategic ad planner: “The digital revolution means that we’re seeing a massive shift towards short term thinking in marketing. Instead of evaluations taking place over a year or more, which used to be the norm, people are increasingly looking back over weeks, days, perhaps even minutes.

“That is extremely damaging to effectiveness. We know (particularly when it comes to real-time evaluation) that it is leading brands to produce campaigns that maximize short-term effects. This, in turn, completely negates long-term success.

“What actually drives growth in the long-term is sustained commitment behind some kind of emotional association or message—or something that gets brands talked about. These are, in the vast majority of cases, not to do with timely offers or indeed new product functionality, but emotional platforms. And that is what will be sacrificed in the future—really powerful long-term branding.”

There’s a traditional notion in marketing practice that 40 percent of your work should be “activation”—that is, actively pulling in sales—while 60 percent should be branding, the more long-term work of building a brand story and engaging that loyal audience. These days content marketing makes up a large part of that 60 percent. Recent studies show that ratio has pulled to 50:50—and while those 10 extra percentage points on activation might not seem like a lot, think of it in practice. Those are likely the dollars thrown at PPC, SEM, programmatic, the low-hanging digital fruit that can drive up clicks and bring in more new leads—and hit your monthly targets.

Global chief executive of Maxus Lindsay Pattison likens this to marketers being on a kind of crack, characterizing their preference for short-termism to an addiction: “They’re all under pressure to deliver in the short-term and when you have people without a marketer’s expertise, they’ll go to last-click wins and direct. And they’ll follow the magic fairy dust of Google and Facebook. They lack the experience to understand the long-term goals of branding.”

Short-Termism Might Increase Revenue—But Does It Increase Profit?

But the sales funnel is more complicated than that. There are multiple touch points, starting with your target audience totally unaware of you and what you can do for them; to build a strong brand, you cannot rely on last-click attributions. Remember what short-term thinking did to the global financial markets? What do you think it’s doing to your brand?

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Image attribution: Raw Pixel

A focus on quarterly budgets and monthly lead conversion is necessary, yes—you need to prove content marketing ROI so you can keep building your content marketing performance, and your board’s shareholders only think in sexy numbers, not awareness. This has become even more of an imperative as the nature of shareholders has changed: In the UK, insurance companies and pension funds owned 43 percent of shares in 1998. Now they own just nine percent. The new shareholders want quick profits and an exit.

But, as the Chartered Institute of Marketing writes in their 2011 book The Marketing Century: “The problem is that the narrow focus of short-termism does not maximize profits by thoroughly tapping customer loyalty and satisfaction opportunities, but instead leads to customer churn, which destroys loyalty and strengthens competitors while raising customer acquisition and maintenance costs and lowering profitability.”

What do we hear time and again when it comes to content marketing? Content helps to establish a brand as trusted advisers. It helps a brand become a go-to source for information and advice, for education and answers. You want customers to think of your brand straight away when the time comes that they need your services. It’s about long-lead customer acquisition and retention.

Content is also great for feeding the entire sales funnel, not just new acquisitions. As Clare Dodd writes for Articulate Marketing: “Thinking purely about getting in enough leads to convert this quarter means you are focusing too much on those customers near the bottom of the sales funnel and ignoring all those potential folks that could be filling up the top of the funnel. Of course, ignoring them means each quarter it will become harder to fulfill those conversion quotas as you’ve built up no real base to nurture them from.”

Does Chasing Content Marketing ROI Cause Long-Term Damage?

Dodd continues: “Short-termism in marketing also tends to mean you are focused on luring customers in and pay no attention to them once they’ve signed on the dotted line. In fact, it is six to seven times more expensive to attract a new customer than it is to retain an existing one, meaning if you were to look ahead a little you’d see that today’s customer could be tomorrow’s repeat customer, or upgrade opportunity.”

Time for some hard stats? OK, sure. The IPA, in its report “Selling Creativity Short: Creativity and Effectiveness Under Threat,” suggests the effectiveness of creative campaigns has halved over the past four years—30 percent of the IPA’s Effectiveness Award-winning brand campaigns are measuring success over just six months, where a decade ago, only seven percent of brands measured over such a short period.

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Image attribution: Raw Pixel

Another IPA report, this time in conjunction with Adam & Eve DDB head of effectiveness Les Binet, alongside the IPA’s Peter Field, says this pursuit of highly-targeted short-term sales activations, often on digital platforms, has come at the expense of long-term brand building activity. They analyzed 500 digital-era case studies of marketing campaigns in recent years to present a modern picture of how recent trends in marketing are impacting results.

Field points out that marketers are now much more focused on serving “last minute marketing messages to people in market” rather than building long-term memory structures that build long-term profit growth and market share, which becomes more critical the larger a brand becomes.

“A lot of the clients that we work with will tell you they are driven by ROI, they will not cross the road if ROI isn’t on the other side, and we’re very concerned about the impact this is having, the negative behaviors it drives and feeding this frenzy of short-termism,” Field told Ad News.

“If we are chasing maximum ROI, what we are going to do is go for the low-hanging fruit. We are going to do our sales activation piece and serve our messages only to people we are sure are in the market. The easy targets we are going to do very efficiently at low cost and we will want to achieve very large returns on investment.”

He Who Shouts Loudest Gets the Content

It’s hard—I know. I’ve been in-house, and I understand the imperative to hit monthly targets and drive greater and greater numbers of MQLs. It’s really, really hard to convince marketing leaders to focus on the long-term when the short-term shouts so much louder. We content marketers are not out of this game; while digital and campaigns need to hit their targets, all of it is driven by what we as content marketers can produce.

“I think short-termism impacts the way content is handled in two ways,” says Jamie Thomson, director of Brand New Copy. “Firstly, it can cause brands to publish content ‘for content’s sake,’ without really giving much thought to its purpose. And secondly, it can result in poor quality content that doesn’t do anything for a company’s growth, or reputation.

“In my experience, successful brands believe in cause and effect instead of luck. They’re willing to put the work in and fulfill their own standards first. The results come about as a result of staying focused and concentrating on the task at hand.”

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Image attribution: Sherwin Torres

Easier said than done? Luke Hughes of Origym built his long-term content strategy on SEO needs, knowing that Google prefers long-term consistent SEO strategies and so his rank would improve, thus bringing in more awareness and more leads.

“Dwell time and click-through rate are fantastic for providing short-term goals in a long-term strategy,” he says. “When you are renovating a piece of content to improve dwell time, for example, think about adding subheadings, creating information gaps, and shortening your introduction so that readers can access the meat of your content faster. Once you have made these changes, reach out to new bloggers and experts and measure how your content climbs in terms of Google rank.

“Similarly, for click-through rates, make sure your title tags include eye grabbing numbers (“5 Super Easy SEO Hacks”), brackets and other punctuation, and the current year if possible so readers know your content is up to date and relevant. Such techniques are great examples of how analytics and metrics can be used to immediately improve content on a practical level, while still adhering to a long-term plan of creating a brand voice and increasing the authority of your website.”

But SEO tricks aren’t for everyone. Some feel constrained by trying to game Google (which, by the way, you can’t) and go for the old adage of relevant, timely, and entertaining content to enhance their short-term metrics, maybe even newsjacking to increase short-term numbers.

“Short-termism can be a very appealing prospect when we’re talking about content,” says Ian Ferguson of Flow Digital. “Newsworthy content always performs better when it comes to metrics such as web visits, click-through rates, and social shares, which makes it way more exciting on the surface. However, brands that solely focus on short-term goals often end up with a leaky-bucket syndrome, where they’re producing content at an accelerated rate to make up for the natural decline in interest that short-term content suffers from.”

Ferguson advocates using data to appease goals, and including “as much variety as possible” in your content strategy: “For on-site content, it’s relatively easy to analyze the returns that marketing campaigns yield. If you’re using Google Analytics, you can use various tactics to ensure you’re tracking as much data as possible, using custom goals and URLs to measure the success of your campaigns. It then makes your job a lot easier to explain, ‘Hey, this is how many sales our spring Facebook campaign brought in, but actually, by building links to our new white paper, this is how many new organic visits we’re getting every month.’

“Ultimately, you should always be looking to diversify your content and embrace the formats that are going to help get your message across. Providing high-quality, rich content is a fundamental way to stand out and makes the lives of your digital PR and outreach teams so much easier.”

Keeping the Customer as Hero Helps You Plan Long Term

Lesley Bambridge, founder and director of We Mean Business London, spends her days helping London’s start-ups and small businesses create brand awareness. She believes that brands jump into content and figure things out as they go—but then they get stuck.

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Image attribution: Helena Lopes

“A lot of brands I see online or work with are stuck in a product-focused rut,” she says. “You sell a drink or a piece of jewelry and all of your posts are focused on including these items. This can be good in the short term, but as a brand you can have a right to be a much bolder and bigger voice, and it’s this that will set you apart and help you create a more sustainable long-term brand.

“You do need short-term metrics; every piece of content or campaign should have its own goals. However, each piece should form part of the jigsaw which is your overall brand activity, and that needs to tell a consistent brand story about who you are and why you exist, and be consistent with your brand tone of voice and values. That’s how you build your brand over the long term.”

And, of course, remember why you’re creating content (or why you’re running a campaign, or creating an ad): It’s all about the customer. As marketers, we are the voice of the customer, and we cannot ever lose sight of that. As Stephanie Ciccarelli, co-founder and chief brand officer at Voices, says, “When producing content strategically, we have to remember not to lose sight of its greater purpose and customer-centric heart.

“The amount of content being produced by brands is starting to reach a critical mass,” says Ciccarelli. “By now, most have caught on that they need a content strategy—but many struggle with how to differentiate their content and add value to the reader. This can cause brands to act quickly to produce content, but without taking the time to consider what they can uniquely offer to their audience.

“It’s not that long-term thinking is lacking—every brand wants to be great in the minds of their key audiences in the long term—it’s just that they don’t have the luxury of time. However, those who are willing to slow down and sort out how they can best serve their audience—whether that’s with useful tips, tricks, and advice, or through an entertaining new perspective—will be able to produce more effective content for the long haul, more efficiently too.

“To bring both sides together for the best chance of success, what creatives and brand owners can do ‘in the now’ in order to best prepare for the future is simply focus on creating relevant content that will best serve the user. Your brand should serve as a guide—your customer is the hero. Long-term and short-term goals don’t have to clash. In fact, if the vision for your company is clear, both sides of the coin should be in perfect alignment.”

So there you have it: The short term and the long term can and do co-exist in great brand strategies around the world. But as marketing teams struggle to prove content marketing ROI, struggle with a lack of resources and budget, struggle to figure out how to turn the intangible awareness goal into sexy metrics for the board, it’s natural that short-termism is going to take hold. The best way to break out of that vicious cycle is to keep your customer as the hero of your brand story. That way, whether you’re pushed for quick wins or you have the luxury to plan a year-long content campaign, the long-term end goal for content marketing performance will remain within reach.

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Featured image attribution: Riley McCullough

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Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.

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