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Three Methods for Demonstrating Content Marketing ROI

By Kyle Harper on May 16, 2018

Content marketing has come into its own over the past few years as a widely accepted practice within the marketing mix. Most brands today understand that they have to support some form of engaging material on their site, even if at the bare minimum to improve their SEO. But even as more brands become sophisticated in their use of content, I still continue to get the dreaded question: How do you prove content marketing ROI?

The value of content marketing is difficult to assess primarily because of the way we frame our thinking about "return" in marketing. We gravitate to last touches and direct-to-buy actions. When it comes time to connect the dots between marketing and sales, we like straight lines that go from A to B-but this isn't how audiences interact with brands or their content.

Demonstrating content marketing ROI can be very straightforward, so long as you're willing to reframe your conversations about "return" with your stakeholders.

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Image attribution: Raw Pixel

The Content Conundrum

Two primary attributes of content marketing make it difficult to fit into traditional marketing funnels and attribution models:

  • Content can fill multiple stages of the marketing funnel, depending on the substance, presentation, and position of the content within the customer's journey.
  • Customers touch various pieces of content at multiple points throughout their lifetime with a brand.

Point one messes up our normal step-wise attribution, where we like to consider what percentage of our audience will typically move between each step of our funnel. Normally, it would be easy for us to value each of these steps against eventual conversion, divide it by the cost of the step, and calculate ROI. But if your content is distributed as part of your awareness campaigns, linked to as supporting material for informational pages, repurposed for email retention campaigns, or any number of other activities, how can you attribute its costs or value to multiple steps of your funnel?

Point two, meanwhile, speaks to many of the limitations that brands run into when they think about their content tracking. Particularly for brands that sell directly in the digital space (so, most brands today) we often look at the last thing a user did before becoming a customer: Which ad did they click; which salesperson did the speak to; which page did they come from?

But despite the amazing content creators working in the space today, I would be hard pressed to find a content creator who consistently makes material that leads straight to conversion. Single pieces of content don't usually drive people to purchase. Rather, the experience of interacting with multiple pieces of content over a span of time tends to be content's primary value-and as brands, we're not always great at tracking this.

An effective system for demonstrating content marketing ROI has to move away from the idea of driving direct sales. Although this happens, it doesn't reflect the long, nurturing role that content plays in the customer's lifecycle.

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Image attribution: Brooke Cagle

Three Methods for Showing Content ROI

With a focus on demonstrating value over time and understanding your audience's journey, there are a number of ways that your team can go about tracking, attributing, and ascribing return to your content marketing. None of these methods require a sophisticated, multi-touch attribution system, but they continue to be of value if your brand does have that technical capability.

Method One: Content Groupings

One common roadblock that many marketing professionals face when trying to build a content attribution system is that they think about their content at an individual level: How can I attribute value to each specific piece of content we publish?

This practice can be very cumbersome, and it can muddle analysis with unnecessary data while missing a large portion of content marketing's value for a brand site. Consider for instance a blog that publishes thirty pieces of content over a month. All of this content is properly constructed and search engine optimized, and it includes timely pieces about current industry events and more evergreen topics.

In a month when a large shift is happening in industry, we might see much higher interaction with the timely content than the evergreen content. Attributing value at the individual level, a content team might conclude that current event reporting is most effective, or that evergreen content isn't worth the time and effort. This method first completely ignores the supportive effect that all of the optimized content has for the blog's SEO, and it also fails to account for how different topics can ebb and flow in value over time.

A better method might be to organize your content into content groupings that are tracked as a bin within your web analytics. When using this approach, I typically create a nested scheme where all of my content belongs to one big group ("content marketing material" or "blogs" for instance), and then underneath that are categories based on either format or subject matter-for instance, "white papers" and "blog articles" would work for a brand that only really talks about one subject, while "industry news" and "best practices" or similar groupings might work for a brand that serves a range of topics and personas.

Content groupings can then be examined in different ways:

  • At the site level, you can show the aggregate traffic. (It's often a better scope to explain how all of your content is supporting your site, and then highlight top-performing pieces in a time period, rather than focusing on individual pieces.)
  • For analytics with event or goal tracking, you can examine groups as a step towards single-session conversions.
  • With cookie tracking in place, you can store and pass which content groupings users interacted with as part of a conversion, which can provide clear, high-level analysis of what sort of content is supporting your various customers on their way to a purchase.

Method Two: Saved Ad Spend

While we may not be big fans of paid advertising in the content space, it's exceedingly rare to find brands that are engaged in content production that don't also have some kind of SEM or display campaigns in place.

Towards this end, a powerful and direct way you can measure your content ROI is to compare your organic traffic to paid traffic as a measure of saved cost.

Think of it this way. You have an article that's been search engine optimized against the keyword "handmade watches." At the same time, your brand is also running a number of SEM campaigns against a keyword grouping of "handmade watches" that's driving visitors to your site at a cost of $.35 per visit.

Every time your content appears in a search and brings a user to your site organically, that is $.35 your brand didn't have to pay to bring in that user. So a piece of content that brings in 2000 visits over the course of a month just saved your brand $700.

This method is particularly powerful for demonstrating your content's value over time, as your organic traffic should steadily increase as an aggregate. While individual pieces might not always have big exciting numbers attached to them, the consolidated value of all of your content marketing efforts can quickly add up to large value for your company. With careful consideration, this method can also be used to evaluate successes like organic reach and sharing on social platforms, or organically earned media coverage.

Method Three: Valued Steps

With last-touch attribution, the difficulty content marketers have is that people don't often read a blog and then immediately decide to buy. To beat this, you can sit down with your larger marketing or finance teams to determine intermediate values for various steps in your marketing funnel. Teams with robust advertising will often already have this valuation in place, as a means of controlling media spend efficiency.

It is much easier to value your content if the goal isn't full conversions, but rather actions like contacting a rep or filling out a lead generation form. This precedent also gives your team direct ability to expand on ROI-generating efforts by defining values for gated content like webinars and white papers.

The more valued steps your brand supports, the more opportunity your content team has to demonstrate worth. If your team doesn't have a valued step system in place, you can sometimes calculate values from fractional conversion costs. For instance, if you know that on average nine percent of prospects who speak with a rep go on to make a purchase at an average value of $150, and your content touched 100 sessions that resulted in a conversation with a rep, then you could argue your content contributed to $1350 in value.

a smiling man tips back in his desk chair, a laptop open in front of him

Image attribution: Ali Yahya

The True Value of Content Marketing

Direct ROI tracking is a difficult but essential step for content marketers to embrace if they want their efforts to be supported by their organizations at large. But the primary goal as your team takes a foray into this analytical space shouldn't be to just stick dollar signs on your work. Rather, valuation can be a powerful place to tell stories internally to your stakeholders and to show the numerous outlets for growth, relationships, and interaction that your content serves that can't easily be appraised.

In everything you track, the goal should be to explain the holistic way in which content marketing supports your brand. In the long run, this mentality will be much, much more valuable to your brand than simple dollars and cents.

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Featured image attribution: Jakub Gorajek


Kyle Harper

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?