March 21, 2019
“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.” — John Wooden
With apologies to Coach K, Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma, John Wooden is the greatest college basketball coach in the history of the game, winning 10 national championships in 12 years, including an unprecedented seven in a row. So, who better to look to for inspiration when talking about measuring success? Wooden knew that it took more than just talent and physical effort to win. Conditioning and perfecting skills were a big part of preparation, but he was also meticulous in his game planning, clearly laying out specific goals for each of his players. He was also admired for his ability to adjust his strategy depending on his opponent, supporting another of his famous sayings, in which he paraphrases Ben Franklin, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
The same can be said for achieving success in Content Marketing. You cannot be successful if you do not plan carefully. One of the keys to insuring success with your Content Marketing is determining how you will define success before you begin producing content. This ensures (1) your content marketing goals are aligned with your business goals and (2) that every piece of content is created with a specific goal in mind. Identifying specific and measurable goals, and the methodology you will use to assess if you’ve achieved them, is as important as developing a clear strategy for producing your content.
Once you have put in the work to identify clear objectives and planned out your content production approach you still need a sound strategy for monitoring and accurately measuring the impact your content marketing is having. The mechanisms you put in place to measure and analyze the impact of your content marketing activities will change depending on (1) your objectives, (2) what type of content you are producing and (3) where you are publishing content, but your approach should remain pretty similar for each piece of content you produce and publish. In this piece I’ll cover the basics of Content Marketing Measurement, including selecting the right goals, identifying Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) used to monitor success, tracking performance at each stage of the marketing funnel and, the holy grail of all metrics, calculating the Return On Investment (ROI) of your Content Marketing initiatives.
Setting Objectives for Your Content Marketing
First, let’s look at a few different objectives you can accomplish with your Content Marketing and then assign the success metrics associated with each. I find it helpful to break down the objectives into categories that align with the customer journey. Journeys vary with each customer segment so for the purposes of this article we’ll take a somewhat generic approach and use the traditional marketing funnel as the basic framework for a customer journey, i.e. Top of Funnel (ToF), middle of Funnel (MoF) and Bottom of Funnel (BoF) as the three stages in journey.
As discussed in a previous post, the traditional marketing funnel view is a bit oversimplified for describing the behavior of today’s consumer, as they have access to an almost infinite amount of resources at their disposal, and tend to jump around, but it’s still an effective construct to use when determining the informational needs of your target audience.
When you’re targeting a ToF audience and initially looking to increase awareness with prospects and establish your brand as a source of useful and relevant information, it’s easy to make the mistake of asking your content to do too much. It is highly unlikely that a single blog post or podcast is going to convince someone who has never heard of your brand to jump right to buying or signing up for a service, unless you have an extremely low price point and there is little risk to trial by buying.
The customer journey, even for low consideration items, has become infinitely more complex over the past 10-15 years with the average number of brand touchpoints required to deliver a sale increasing significantly. The number of interactions required for a prospect to go from becoming aware of a brand to making a purchase also varies significantly depending on the product or service but cross-industry average is a minimum of 6-8 touchpoints. If you need a minimum of six brand interactions to produce a sale, then it becomes critical to align specific pieces of content with specific objectives that are associated with progressing your prospects along their unique journey. Clearly, you also need an accurate way to monitor whether or not your content is producing the desired action at each touch point, not just the last touch prior to a conversion/purchase.
Measuring the Performance of Your Top of Funnel Content
When you are looking to build business and bring in new customers, your initial focus is going to be on increasing your brand awareness. This is the stage at which you are at the greatest risk of violating one of the core concepts of Content Marketing: Focus on your customer’s needs. Since you are talking to an audience that doesn’t know who you are or what benefit your product or services provide, your tendency is to want to tell them all about who you are and why you are different, but you have to keep the audience’s needs front and center. Remember, the overarching goal here is to build trust and establish yourself as a credible source of accurate information. You’ll have plenty of time to sell, and a more receptive audience, if you keep your priorities straight.
When you’re creating content designed to build awareness of your brand, you have the widest playing field, meaning that you have a very large audience with a broad set of informational needs. This is both an opportunity and a risk. You need to offer something that is attention-grabbing because you are not able to leverage any existing experiences or familiarity with your brand, so you’re going to want to focus on producing something that is highly educational or informative. If you’ve put in the effort to really understand your target customer, you know what kind of questions they will be asking and what information they’ll be looking for that you can be a credible source of, and you’ll have built your content strategy around this. For every question a prospect has you can create a unique piece of content that helps answer that question and produces value for your audience and customize it for different distribution channels.
To gauge whether or not your content is succeeding at this early stage you’ll likely be evaluating success using softer metrics that measure “engagement,” since it would be premature to be pushing for sales or even leads at this point. Potential customers don’t even know who you are or what you have to offer so your goals at this stage will be focused on gaining attention and encouraging interaction. The primary activities you’ll want to monitor include views, likes and shares, if you’re distributing your content across social media platforms. I tell my clients to give more weight to shares because this is a strong indication of value. When someone shares content, it implies they are endorsing it, giving it their stamp of approval before sending on to friends or colleagues. All of the major social platforms offer access to basic analytics if you set up a business account (In future posts I’ll cover a step-by-step set up of your analytics account for each of these platforms). As you expand your measurement efforts you may also want to include additional behavior such as mentions, hashtag usage, and keyword analysis.
For content that you are publishing on your site you’ll want to track page views, unique views, time spent and views/listens for audio and video content. You may also dig a little deeper to see where your visitors are coming from, i.e. “referrals,” as knowing who is linking to your content can be quite useful. Google Analytics’ dashboard makes it very simple to track these metrics and see bumps in engagement activity aligned with your publishing schedule. “Dark social sharing,” the sharing of links through email or private messaging, is also a topic that is gaining more and more attention One study suggest that as much as 84% of all outbound sharing occurs via dark social and messaging apps are becoming increasingly popular so this number is likely to go up. A few companies now specialize in the monitoring and measuring of dark social but there are also some workarounds in GA that will allow you to get a good idea of how much traffic is coming in through links shared this way.
Measuring The Performance of Your Middle of The Funnel Content
Once you’ve started to build a following and have established your presence in the marketplace as an authoritative source of information for your target audience, you have to recognize that your customer’s informational needs will change as they become more informed. Their questions will begin to narrow, from general inquiries (Should I buy or rent? What is the best way to lose weight? How can I manage all my sales leads?) to more specific answers or solution (How much do I need for a down payment? What sort of yoga burns the most calories? Do I need a custom CRM solution?).
Just as your content strategy should guide you to creating content that aligns with your customer’s changing needs, your measurement strategy should adjust to accommodate the shift in the success metrics that you’ll be tracking. When you’re creating content for MoF prospects you’re likely producing assets that dive a little deeper into the subject matter and are lengthier, for example a whitepaper or an infographic with well-researched data. This is also the time when you can start to introduce the idea that your company may be able to provide a relevant product or service, but it’s a good idea to reference other options, even your competitors, as a way to continue to build trust by minimizing the perception of bias.
Measurement at this stage begins to shift away from branding metrics (awareness, engagements) and should focus more on hard business performance (e.g. lead generation and lead quality). It’s important to continue to monitor data on engagement but you really want to see some actual prospects raising their hand and expressing interest. If don’t begin to see an increase in leads as you step up your MoF content efforts it may be time to revisit your approach. The time frame for assessing really varies depending on your product/service and the average length of your sales cycle. Driving awareness through content marketing can take a little more time because it’s a softer sell, but even with high consideration offerings you should expect a measurable increase in qualified leads within a 3-4 month timeframe and much less than this with products and services where the price point is low and there is a single decision maker. I suggest working backwards, starting with scrutinizing your content. Is it at an acceptable quality or did you perhaps rush through the production phase in an effort to “get something out there?” Content Marketing, particularly in the B2B space, is always a quality over quantity venture. The entire end-to-end customer experience with your content is representative of your brand.
For example, maybe you have created a series of three short videos that take a deep dive into preparing your home to put it on the market. Let’s say these are “10 Tips for Improving Curb Appeal For Under $100,” “The Three Rooms To Renovate To Increase Your Home’s Value,” and “The Do’s and Don’ts of Staging.” You’ve posted clips to your Facebook and Instagram accounts and you’re seeing healthy click throughs to the full-length videos on your site and high completion rates. Engagement? Check. Unfortunately, you’re seeing very few “Contact Us” form submissions. It’s probably a good idea to take a look at a few things. Are you making too many of the fields required? While it might be helpful to know when a prospect is planning to sell or what their desired price range is, this may be more than they are willing to share so you might be better off just requiring an email address and requesting they opt in to be contacted. You may also want to check your call to action. Is it strong enough? Prominent enough? Is the value proposition clear? On the other hand, if you’re seeing low engagement (click throughs, views, completes) you have to reassess your content strategy. Did you validate that the topics you chose align with your content pillars and were your pillars built on accurate primary research against your target audience?
On the executional side, you can play around with these variables until you find the version and combination that is most effective, and you can tweak and optimize without incurring huge cost. In fact, as part of your upfront planning cycle, you should include some scenario planning for what elements you will adjust if you don’t get the desired results. I’m not going to get into the details of A/B vs. multivariate testing in this post but there are best practices that should be followed when testing in an effort to optimize conversion rates. Hubspot has a nice overview of running basic A/B testing, and a downloadable guide if you want try to tackle it yourself, available here. If you find yourself questioning the strategy behind the selection of content (vs the engagement experience) this can become a more time-consuming effort, involving additional research and validation of your content pillars. Again, there is a reason the “Measure twice, cut once,” is our mantra. Having to revisit your strategy is a potentially costly proposition that you can avoid with a little extra effort upfront, or as Mr. Wooden reminds us, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
In next week’s installment I’ll cover measurement for the last stage of the buying cycle where you are producing Bottom of the Funnel (BoF) content and how to plan for measuring the ROI on your content marketing programs.