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The one thing that matters more than ROI in content marketing

by Anna Horan

It starts with a brief. The client wants to start an Instagram account. Or they want to engage influencers. Maybe it’s you who is briefing it in. A budget is set, a deadline proposed, success metrics discussed and questions raised about deliverables.

But, hold up.

Before you start asking for deliverables, KPIs and what your return on investment is likely to be, there’s one question you should always ask first in content marketing: why are you doing it?

The ‘why’ forms the cornerstone of every content strategy. And if you know the ‘why’, you’ll know the answers to a lot more of your questions, including what your KPIs and ROI should be.

Why content is an effective tactic

The most obvious reason is that content marketing is so versatile - and you don’t have to stick to a single format or channel. Content can be a downloadable worksheet in an eDM, an Instagram Story, a how-to video on YouTube, a Spotify playlist, a thought-provoking podcast, or an article that lives on a branded content hub.

But the reason it works so well has nothing to do with formats or channels. Good content makes your brand and its products relevant to people and their lives. It not only helps create the context for why they might need your product - it shows why your brand exists in the world, and its greatest power lies in its ability to guide the conversations you want to be a part of.

With content marketing, you can start talking to people much earlier in the purchase funnel, way before they have an inkling they want to buy your or anyone else’s product. And if your content is great, it can turn them into warm leads.

The catch is, to be successful at content marketing, you can’t really talk about your products or yourself (at least not all the time). It’s meant to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

As Laura Norman, Salesforce’s senior director of marketing, said at a Dreamforce conference: “Content marketing is a way of creating a relationship with a prospect that’s not all about the product.

“In a traditional marketing world … it’s all about the product, but in content marketing, it’s about creating interest and a relationship with a brand without explicitly promoting it.”

She continues: “With a content marketing strategy, you’d share only some information about yourself and about your company as you go through stages of the relationship.

“On the first date, you are not going to tell them the whole story. Instead, you reveal enough about yourself so that they know you are kind, trustworthy, smart and funny so they want to come back for the second date.”

In other words, content marketing at its best is customer-centric marketing. You should be entirely focused on the person’s needs, wants and interests, and show that you really “get them” before you start recommending your services. It should be a natural evolution, not feel like you’re being catfished.

Why are you doing it?

It’s for this reason, that you really need to interrogate exactly why you want to do any content marketing.

Content marketing is problem-solving. It’s your opportunity to shape and contribute to the conversation, and even address specific challenges you might be facing. So what is your challenge and what is your objective?

If you come to the party with a channel set in stone with no room to move, you’re going to end up creating confusion, and more problems to solve down the line. Remember, one of content’s greatest strengths is that it can take so many forms and live in so many places - so you don’t want to limit your opportunities by being too prescriptive in the brief. Describe what you need to solve and what you want to achieve and you’ll get much stronger, richer content ideas.

Defining the challenges and objectives clearly like this will also inform meaningful, measurable KPIs, which in turn show your content’s ROI.

LinkedIn’s Daniel Hochuli says content marketing is there to attract a broad audience around an industry or topic, and to keep that audience warm until each person is ready to take the plunge: “its primary purpose is to convince your audience so your advertising can convert them faster,” he says.

He recommends content marketing as a “premier” tactic if you’re “looking to pivot or disrupt an industry, aspire to own the conversation around a topic, want to diversify your product portfolio, create new revenue streams or just want a more regular cadence of warm leads.”

If you’re just starting, you’re probably going to be focused on owning the conversation or developing more warm leads. A lead isn’t necessarily someone who is ready to buy something from you - remember, you’re starting much earlier on the path to purchase than any of your other marketing tactics. At this point, a lead could be, as Jordan Teicher, writing for Contently, says: “anyone who shows interest in your brand by taking a deliberate action to hear more” - which means it could be “filling out a form, signing up for an email newsletter, or answering a survey”. Content marketing’s role is to build your brand’s resilience in the mind of the consumer. Getting the thumbs up from them to keep talking to them and influence them is a real win.

The metrics that matter

When you are defining your KPIs, and getting asked the tricky questions around ROI, your primary focus should be time. Traditional measures of clicks and impressions hold less water than they used to; no one is buying reach anymore, everyone wants ‘engagement’. The amount of time the audience spends with your content “is an indicator of a deepening relationship” as well as an indicator of quality and how well it is serving your audience.

Here are some key metrics for a content hub:

  • Average time on site or dwell time “tells us the amount of time a visitor spends actively reading, watching, or engaged with your content.”
  • Average scroll depth/finish a great way to study the quality of your users’ site visits. If they’re spending several minutes on a short article, it’s a good sign.
  • Bounce rate tells us whether or not people are visiting other pages during their visit. Bounce rate can also tell you if your UX could be improved, or that people aren’t finding what they’re expecting when they arrive on your website.
  • Return visitors vs new visitors tells you how useful people find your content over time - they’re coming back!

Who are you doing it for?

After you’ve asked ‘why?’, your next question should be: ‘who?’ Because content is interwoven in our everyday lives outside of work, its separate purpose for brands can easily get lost. We have our own personal Instagram accounts, Pinterest boards and blogs, so we might assume they should exist for the brands we work on, too. But that’s putting channel or format before audience, when a successful content strategy should always be audience-first. Tapping into the audience’s fundamental needs and interests will tell you whether you should be on Instagram (channel) or creating a podcast (format). Where your audience is, and what they like to consume, should dictate the execution part of your content strategy - not the other way around.

Content is the product you’re providing to consumers right now. It’s your opportunity to build trust and influence; if someone likes and is satisfied with the content products you’ve provided them before, there’s a good chance they’ll come to you when they’re in the market for one of your brand’s core products or services.

If you’ve done any content marketing, you would be familiar with the term ‘always on’. It’s important to remember that ‘always on’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘every day’ - it means your content should be discoverable and relevant when people come looking for it. Think about when you look at a small business’s Facebook page - if they haven’t posted since October 2018, you immediately become less confident that information on the page is up-to-date or worse still, you might question whether they still are open for business (the internet is a graveyard after all - The Nanny website from the ‘90s is still a thing).

As Hochuli says: “Just like a newspaper, a brand’s content marketing needs to keep providing regular value to their audience in order to establish trust and build authority. The added benefit to ‘always on’ is it keeps potential leads warm and familiar with your brand until they move to transactional intent and are open to engaging your advertising campaigns.”

Lastly, what can you afford? It doesn’t pay to do too many things at once, especially if you’re working to an ‘always on’ strategy. Focus on getting one, two or three channels right before reaching for others. And take into account that while it’s all very good to make fantastic content, most of what you make will need and should be supported by media spend (outside of your production budget). You want the most eyeballs to see what you’ve produced, and how the algorithms work across channels now, organic and owned channels won’t get you there on its own.

Content is a layup rather than a slam dunk. But maybe you shouldn't be playing basketball.

Content marketing is the long game - it’s not going to convert in the moment. Unlike billboards and TV ads, content is the tactic that doesn’t intrude on our target audience’s lives, it waits patiently. You may not login into Netflix for a few days, but whenever you do, there’s a curated list of TV shows and movies there for whatever mood you’re in. The same goes for bridal magazines - for 98% of your life you’ve probably never looked twice at them, but for the 12 months leading up to wedding bells, you might buy half a dozen of them.

If you can’t afford to play a full season, that’s okay. Content marketing isn’t where some brands should be focusing their efforts. When the content is strong and sticks to the long game strategy, it can be the glue that brings together different channels - from eDMs to social to ATL campaigns. But it’s just one tactic.

If you do pursue it, start by asking ‘why?’

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