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The Problem with Quantifying Content Marketing ROI

content return on investment

We all know that tracking the performance of your content is important. But one number that content marketers struggle to precisely measure is the return on their content investment. According to a Content Marketing Institute study, only 57% of content marketers are even tracking ROI—and considering today’s content ecosystem’s complexity and the increasingly convoluted modern customer journey, it’s hard to blame the 43% too much.

But it’s always going to be the white whale for content marketers and those who write the checks—if you can show ROI, you know whether the money you’re spending on content is money well spent. So what does the hunt for ROI entail? What does the final product look like? And, despite all the talk, is this hunt really worth it? Let’s take a look.

How do you track content ROI?

Sometimes, it’s easy to tell whether a piece of content has helped you make a sale. If you’re properly engaging marketing technology, it’s pretty simple to see when someone buys from you whether or not they’ve looked at your content, what content they looked at, and tons of other data. At Element Three we use HubSpot for this, and it helps us to determine whether the leads we bring in are coming in through contact with our content or through other paths.

Your metrics should always be directly connected to your business goals, or at least as directly connected as they can be. For CXL, Bill Widmer says:

Different companies with different goals have different ideas of ROI. Therefore, the definition of ROI changes depending on your personal content marketing KPIs.

He suggests website traffic, leads generated, conversion rate, and direct sales as four good metrics that most content teams should track, though your priorities depend a lot on what stage in the content marketing process you’re in.

Here’s an example that shows both how this data can help, as well as why sometimes it’s a bit more complicated. With one of our clients in the RV industry, we found that around 85% of purchasers were using an RV customizer tool on their website before making their purchasing decision. That volume of users was enough to tell us that it would be worth it strategically to devote resources to updating and upgrading the tool.

The complication comes in when you see that we aren’t strictly tracking money here. We see clearly that the customizer tool is a part of the buyer journey. People use it, and then they buy. It’s definitely a statistical correlation, but it’s not as simple as saying “if we spend $X on that tool, it will lead to $Y in revenue growth.”

See how Element Three helped Newmar transform their critical annual dealer meeting into an engaging—and effective—digital experience in 2020.

The real problem with content ROI

And that’s part of the issue that we run into when we try to track content return on investment. There’s no guarantees, because in a lot of cases, there isn’t a direct line to be drawn between reading a piece of content and closing a deal. In most cases, today’s buyer journey is more convoluted than ever. And even if you’re creating content at each stage of that buyer journey, it’s just not that common to see a prospect finish a blog post and immediately call to close a deal. The causal relationship’s just not easy to prove, in many cases.

That’s partly because it’s just not feasible to gate all your content. If you could, then you’d have great data on every single reader—names, email addresses, anything you want to ask for. But that added barrier to entry hurts traffic, and while that’s not necessarily the most important of all content metrics, you do want a wide variety of people to be reading your work—especially at the top of the funnel.

To go back to Mr. Widmer, he notes that yes, content ROI gets complicated. It provides a lot of benefits that you simply can’t track, or can’t track precisely. As a few examples, Widmer names:

  • Better customer retention
  • Increased customer lifetime value
  • Brand awareness
  • Potential links from large publications
  • Stronger relationships with influencers and thought leaders
  • Higher search rankings

Obviously, some of these are more quantitative than others. Your rankings on the SERPs are trackable, and with decent SEO chops you can determine what content is helping you to improve keyword rankings. But what is that worth in terms of dollar value? As Widmer says, “your content will almost always provide a greater ROI than the number you’ll come up with...regardless of the KPIs you use.”

Tracking ROI without a specific dollar value

Obviously, the tactics your marketing team engages are expected to create financial value. But as we’re seeing, not all of that “value” can be perfectly tracked, with a dollar value assigned to a blog post where we can say “this is making us $X.”

That does not mean the value doesn’t exist. As my colleague Joe Mills said on a podcast recently, “what’s the ROI of hugging your mother?” It’s clearly valuable, both in the short and long term. But not in a measurable way.

Joe said that in reference to something that we talk about all the time as marketers: brand. A strong brand clearly has value—a lot of value, when you look at a brand like Coca-Cola recovering from a pricing PR flub, or the death and rebirth of the Twinkie. But brand marketers run into this same problem a lot. They get asked to show ROI, and it’s just really hard to do in any definitive manner. There are tons of ways to estimate a brand’s monetary value, but none are perfect—none are going to tell you precisely how big a PR hit you can weather, for instance. There’s no mathematical formula that proves that updating your logo will directly cause a $300,000 increase in revenue.

One tool that can help us get closer to that answer, though, is to leverage proxy metrics—numbers that can act as a smoking gun that shows you whether you’re on the right track, or you’re way off. Bill Widmer’s metrics are an example of this, but here’s an example from our work.

With another client in the recreational vehicle industry, we spend a significant level of monthly effort on refreshing, republishing, and resharing content. We know that this effort is driving results not because we’ve attached a specific dollar amount of return on each action, but because along with the client, we’ve determined that site traffic and other downstream metrics have value. And by moving the needle on those proxy metrics that we’ve agreed on, we know that we are driving impact for the organization through content.

In this “brand” content model, maybe every individual blog post isn’t driving massive value. But their cumulative value—the weight of your full content system—benefits from each positive marker you put down.

Return on your content investment won’t come immediately

This is pretty much content marketing boilerplate—you’ve likely heard it before, but it bears repeating, and whether you’re a content marketer yourself or you’re a stakeholder who wants to see bang for your buck, this has to be the expectation set before engaging in any content marketing strategy.

Content just takes time to work. Starting a new content strategy now may not bear fruit for weeks, months, or longer. But long-tail search performance—that is, people who ask Google full questions, rather than just typing “stores near me” into the search engine—is the foundation of content marketing. You build stores of knowledge over time and give it to your audience, and they search for it. And as that knowledge base grows, that leads to traffic, which leads to conversions, which lead to revenue.

Marcus Sheridan is the poster boy for this. His “they ask, you answer” strategy has borne fruit in more ways than one. His commitment to content marketing took him from struggling to keep his pool business afloat to having to turn away millions in potential business they didn’t have the capacity to serve. Today he’s one of the most widely respected marketing voices in the world, all because he devoted himself to answering the questions people wanted answered. Through content, he’s made himself the most trusted voice in his industry twice over.

In other words, you cannot look at content the same way you would look at paid search—the metrics and the expectations have to be different. Instant gratification is not on the table.

There is no one right way to track return on content

As you can see, it’s really hard to put a precise number on the ROI of your content, in most cases. A lot of the good that content can do for you—like earned media, and like brand awareness lift—is difficult or impossible to track. That, of course, doesn’t mean you throw in the towel.

The measurement you can do can lead you to piece together a picture of what is and isn’t working—and where your marketing-generated revenue is coming from. One option: go through a process like the one outlined in our marketing toolkit. Set your marketing objectives first, based on your overall business objectives. Know your goals before anything else. Then put together as rigorous a tracking scheme as you can based on that, and stick to it—you’ll be able to see whether your content investment is paying off.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to point to a single number that tells us exactly what content marketing is worth. But the work you do to get as close as possible will be worth it.

Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.