Inbound marketing is the strategy of choice these days, and content marketing has become a staple of every organization's marketing stack. Despite the prevalence of inbound marketing strategies in B2B companies, there's an elephant in the room that no one addresses.
What's the ROI on content marketing, and is it worth it?
Forrester Research states that 62% of B2B buyers finalize a vendor list solely using digital content. Pathfactory found that 92% of marketing leaders in an organization rate content marketing as important for their business. Fractl presents a curiously specific 42.78% of respondents who identify free content as a key to winning their business.
Yet, none of these numbers answer the ROI question. If content marketing is so important, why is it so hard to get someone to quantify its value? Is it plausible that the ROI question itself is incorrect?
"While performance is important, we don't look at it as just likes or comments and shares," says Patricia Nelson, Digital Strategist at API design and documentation platform Stoplight. "We like to look at it as having more depth: Did the people consuming it actually receive value?"
Why is it so Hard to Measure ROI?
The problem with content marketing for ROI measurement enthusiasts is that it takes time and works in indirect ways. Content marketing might seem like an anomaly in today's data-driven marketing environments. While teams can measure the success of individual topic clusters or content, there's no neat metric that tells them how well their content strategy is working.
For instance, measuring the effectiveness of a CTA is as simple as looking at conversion rates. Improving the CTA and choosing the best option is a matter of A/B testing them and choosing the one with the highest conversion rate.
Clearly, this process falls apart when applied to content marketing. Content marinates and takes a while to make an impact with audiences. Marketing teams would love to create viral content all the time, but the average piece of content takes time to build momentum.
"It takes time to build your authority as a thought leader in your space," says Bailey Gannett, Communications Manager at Stoplight. "It's not going to be one quick blog that's going to get a ton of hits that does it for you."
Nelson adds "Becoming a thought leader isn't about getting a ton of shares. If I conduct research down the road and find content that's relevant and useful, that's great long-term content value. When we publish a piece of content, we're not always looking at immediacy."
The momentum you build from earlier pieces of content adds juice to newer pieces, and slowly but surely, your authority builds. Content marketing is an organic process, and success requires a lot of patience. This is at odds with the ROI-driven mindset that wants to measure everything yesterday.
This isn't to say a data-driven, bottom-line-focused strategy is flawed. Instead, organizations need to look at their data differently.
A Better Way
Nelson endorses a storytelling approach, informed by data science, when evaluating Stoplight's content quality. This makes intuitive sense. Storytelling is a pillar of great content. Why not use it to make sense of your strategy and data as well?
It's best to begin with the context within which a piece of content or cluster was created. Which segments of your audience were you targeting? As Gannett and Nelson point out, thorough knowledge of your prospect base helps you set baseline expectations for engagement.
"Companies often create content that they want or around topics they want to drive conversations around," Nelson says. "Listening to the audience is important. Understanding what they want and what you can give that provides them value."
When creating content for technical products, it's helpful to seek the thoughts of your product team or developers. Gathering feedback from within can unearth issues with content targeting and help you zero in on the engagement standards you can expect.
When combined with knowledge of your prospect segments, it gives you a good platform from which you can build context to inform the metrics you'll gather down the road. Metrics are both a boon and a bane for data-driven marketing teams.
On one hand, it's possible to get to know your customer segments deeply and validate assumptions. On the other hand, you run the risk of measuring vanity metrics. Gannett recommends gathering a wide variety of metrics from social listening tools such as Meltwater and Google Analytics and monitoring on-site KPIs such as page scroll depth, bounce rates, and time spent on a page.
"We do track vanity metrics, but they're not the most important thing," Gannett says. Stoplight's objective is to get all of their data to tell a story.
Much data-driven digital marketing literature focuses on the "best" metric or KPI, but as Nelson and Gannett point out, building context is what matters the most. For instance, certain metrics provide insight in some situations but might be irrelevant in others. This doesn't mean some metrics are "better" than others.
Marketing teams are best served using KPIs as tools that allow them to build a story that describes the engagement their content is receiving. Thus, instead of using data to achieve short-term gratification, it's best to zoom out and use it to build context.
Patient, not Reactive
A lot of data-driven marketing workflows are reactive and focus too much on single metrics or events. While this approach works in some instances, it doesn't help you invest in a long-term content marketing strategy that will pay you healthy dividends.
Content marketing might be slow, but to dismiss it as being flawed for this reason is missing the forest for the trees. Build the right context for your content, and you'll understand how to think about ROI a lot better.