“Holy Grail”, “Elephant in the Room”, “64 million dollar question”, whatever idiom you want to give it, the marketing industry is quite rightly obsessed by ROI. In the world of content marketing, the initial feeling was that this was a discipline that had ROI at its heart. After all, the rise of content marketing was indelibly linked to the advent of digital and this meant that clicks, likes, views, dwell time, bounce rates and other forms of measurement were readily at hand. However, as is now appreciated, while valid performance metrics, they do not easily translate into commercial ROI.

Instead, what those forms of measurement can tell you is how well your audience is engaging with the content. And these are essential metrics. For example, understanding how many people have viewed a piece of content, how long they spent doing so and what they went on to do next are important insights that tell you how your content is performing. What they do not tell you is whether the content is delivering a commercial return.

The spotlight is very much turning onto this form of ROI and it seems that attribution to sale is emerging as the “must-have” ROI metric. This makes perfect sense as it relates the dollar investment in content with the sale. But, and it is a massive BUT, this is simply not possible to do with any degree of certainty unless the journey from the content to the sale is mapped out.

Therefore, any marketer wanting to understand the full spectrum of content marketing ROI needs to follow this formula :

  1. Content Engagement Metrics
  2. Content Journey Metrics
  3. Content Attribution Metrics

These consist of the standard engagement metrics that you already have in place and which collectively allow you to understand how your content is performing across all your engagement channels.

They can split into three groups of metrics:

  1. Social media metrics – often dismissed as ‘vanity metrics’, they are actually an essential way of understanding audience interest in your content. If your social media strategy is built around not simply attracting followers but guiding them forward on a content journey, then understanding audience interest is key. Analysing volumes of likes, shares, favourites, retweets, comments and so on will tell you which content attracts the most attention which in turn will help refine future content production. If this content is driven from your audience journey plan, then you will not fall into the trap of simply creating engaging content that fails to support a journey towards your commercial goals.
  2. Website metrics – your own website is, of course, the optimum place for a digital engagement. An audience engaged in marketing content on your website is that much closer to either the probability of buying through eCommerce or the probability of making contact with your sales team. As many marketing activities naturally drive people to the website, it is therefore mandatory that you constantly analyse the performance of your website content. By understanding the click rates, bounce rates and dwell times on a piece of content, you will understand how many people looked at it, whether it was relevant and their level of engagement.
  3. Campaign metrics – as the drivers to your website and, often, to your social media accounts,

campaign metrics remain vital. However, campaigns are evolving away from simply pushing people to a direct purchase and instead are trying to engage people with content that will allow the company to develop a long-term engagement. The latter sees content marketing come to its fore as it enables the marketing team to push people to consume their own web content which means you are engaging the target audience at an earlier part of their decision-making process. This makes the ability to measure attribution to sale doubly important.

This is the part of the formula that is entirely missing within content marketing programmes today. Put simply, there is no connection between the content being produced within marketing programmes and the subsequent content required to progress the target audience forward towards the defined commercial goals. Without this, sales attribution cannot be robustly calculated. However, even more importantly, the marketing content lacks commercial integrity.

By measuring content journey metrics, you are able to ensure that the content being produced is contributing to the journey and whether specific pieces of content and journeys are performing better than others in terms of driving the target audience forwards towards the commercial goal. It also means that if some commercial goals have higher priority, you can understand which content is supporting those priority goals most effectively and where the gaps or underperforming content is.

To measure content journey metrics, the following is required:

  1. Defined journey maps – marketers need to embrace the need for audience journey planning so that there is a clear understanding of how the audience will progress from initial engagement through to consideration and sale. In order to be able to measure the commercial ROI, it is essential that the mapped journeys all lead to a commercial goal which then allows the performance of the content within the journey to be measurable. By ensuring that every piece of content is tagged back to the maps, it is possible to assess the contribution of both individual pieces of content within one or more journeys and how specific journeys themselves are performing.
  2. Production from maps – for the content contribution to the goal to be measured, all the content that is planned for production must be directly tagged back to the maps. The easiest way to do this is by producing all content briefs from the journey maps themselves. Not only does this mean that the content’s performance within the journey maps can be assessed but it also makes it far easier to determine what content should be produced next as it is clear which journeys need supporting.
  3. Next best content – to enable the journey, the audience must be offered the next best content (as defined by the maps) based on their content consumption to date. Without doing so there are no journeys, just isolated pieces of content which the audience is expected to self-navigate.

The final piece in the puzzle looks at how your content is supporting and enabling sales. As already mentioned, it is not possible to do this without having in place the content journey metrics that are outlined above. If those are in place then it will be possible to analyse the journey progress at an individual, persona group or company (if B2B) level regardless where the sale was made as long as the individual is identifiable. It is also worth mentioning that they do not need to be identifiable along every step of the journey in terms of who they actually are as it is perfectly possible to match an IP address to a customer record when the person does register.

When it comes to content attribution metrics, there are varying levels of sophistication and the following list starts with the most straightforward to achieve:

  1. Audience progression – with the journey metrics in place, it is then possible to start analysing the progression of the audience towards your defined business goals. Whether registered (and therefore identifiable) or unregistered and only identifiable as an IP address, it is possible to monitor this progress. What this does not tell you is whether the goal was achieved but it does give you valuable insight in terms of seeing how your target audiences are progressing from initial marketing engagement towards consideration.
  2. Sales enablement – the audience progression analysis tells you more than simply the volume of people engaging with the content and where they are in the journey, it also provides deep insight and intelligence into both their motivations and potential buying intent. This is because the journeys themselves are based around mapping this motivation and intent with the content then produced around those two factors. By analysing the consumption of that content, you are then able to gain insight into your target audience that can be used to enrich sales intelligence and therefore improve the ability for your company to have a more meaningful engagement with your prospective or existing customer.
  3. Sales attribution – if the content journey analytics are integrated with your CRM systems, then it will be possible to attribute the sale to the content journey. Depending on the level of detail you require, this could go down to the level of quantifying the content investment to the volume of sales as each piece of content that contributed to the journey could be linked to the sale. Another valuable attribution metric would also be how the content marketing programme contributed to the ease of sale. This includes key metrics such as reduction in contact centre AHT and reduction in eCommerce basket abandonment. While in a B2B context, the content attribution metrics will look at the quality of the lead and subsequent conversion rate.

Next steps

The above formula will create the ideal commercial ROI analytics for content marketing. However, this is not a take it or leave it approach. It is perfectly possible to steadily put in place the technology and processes that will continuously improve the ability to prove the commercial ROI of content marketing. Nor should it mean that existing ROI assessment that is being done would have to be abandoned.

The critical thing to understand is what the business needs to see, balanced against what you want the business to understand to support your content marketing activities and investment. And it is vital to appreciate that this is not simply about justifying the existing dollar investment but understanding how to improve the content marketing programme so that you are producing greater commercial returns.

Given that you will almost certainly have a range of Content Engagement Metrics in place, then the next logical area to tackle is Content Journey Metrics which begins with audience journey planning. From that point forward, the metrics can be developed over time until you reach the optimum level of ROI measurement for your business.