Show me the money – we need to talk about the ROI of content marketing

We’ve written plenty on here about the good reasons for doing content marketing, mainly with our B2B hat on, and how best to go about it.

What we haven’t talked about much — and we’re certainly not alone on that front — is return on investment (ROI) when it comes to content marketing programmes.

In an industry renowned for its forensic use of analytics and data to measure and track all kinds of marketing activity ROI can be a difficult conversation when it comes to content. It will often elicit two very opposite responses — either an awkward silence and staring down at the shoes or praise for all the non-measurable soft benefits such as establishing thought leadership (there’s an overused word in content marketing for you) and raising brand awareness. KPIs and hard data? Nah, you don’t need those. Piggy Bank

With that I guess I’ve put us on the spot. Where do we stand on the ROI issue in content marketing? For a start we’re going to disappoint you if you’ve come expecting us to reveal some magic formula (hint, there isn’t one).

We would, however, certainly advise building a case for ROI — the ‘what would success look like’ question — at the start of any content marketing strategy or programme. And it’s worth saying that for many companies just dipping a toe into the waters and getting started at all is a more important step than worrying from the off about rigid KPIs and dashboards full of analytics.

One of the reasons the ROI conversation is sometimes brushed under the carpet is that there is no definitive answer or calculation when it comes to content marketing. There are some obvious inputs and outputs than can be measured (cost of producing articles, videos etc, cost of promotion/distribution and returns in the form of in-bound leads and actual sales) but there is much of real value that also can’t be tracked so easily in a spreadsheet.

A gated white paper or article produced to promote an event and encourage people to register can be fairly easily tracked for number of views, downloads and will have a list of email addresses that can be followed up. And there are all kinds of marketing and analytics tools out there to track those sorts of metrics.

But an executive blogging programme aimed at establishing a brand as a trusted advisor and expert in their market might take many months to show signs of that uplift. And how do you measure that kind of engagement? Page views and social shares might be relatively low compared to a mainstream established publication but if it’s been targeted at the right audience with good quality content then the quality of that engagement is much more valuable — although don’t ever let anyone use that ‘quality over quantity’ argument to excuse poor content or poor execution of content marketing.

Look at the example of the banking group HSBC where the marketing team was coming under pressure to justify its investment in content marketing with solid proof beyond the standard brand awareness story.

How did they do this? HSBC’s marketing team went through the data to examine every client that either had or had not interacted with the content and comparing sales numbers of the two groups. Just one of the findings it threw up was businesses that had engaged with HSBC’s content saw annual revenue that was 35 per cent higher on average.

Make no mistake, as content marketing budgets continue to grow so too will the pressure from other parts of the business to justify that investment. And so it should.

Like HSBC one of the ways to do that is to work backwards from the overarching goal of the content programme to identify the key metrics you need to be tracking.

The ROI question is going to be increasingly hard to dodge and marketers and content producers will need to have credible answers — don’t be the ones left staring awkwardly at your shoes.

* photo credit: Break the Bank (6/365) via photopin (license)

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