Marketing ROI: De-risking the Up-front Investment of Content Marketing and Technology Solutions

January 16, 2017 Jonathan Crowl

With content marketing, the risk is in not trying.

Imagine you’re a marketing director who just wrapped up oversight of a major TV ad campaign. The budget was enormous, the stakes were high, and you delivered the results your company wanted to see.

But in a recent meeting, your executive team asks how your marketing ROI turned out for the campaign. You admit, sheepishly, that you aren’t sure how to answer the question. You point to the mass audience reach and brand impressions, and report the strong viewership numbers the network enjoyed when the ads were aired. In the past, this has always been acceptable to the leadership.

Now, though, they want to know: did your marketing campaign generate sales? When pressed for a concrete number, you have nothing to offer. In all honesty, you can’t say for sure that sales were affected in any way at all. Between their questioning and your own lack of answers, it reminds you that in today’s marketing world it’s all about return on investment. The solution is much more than trying to dig up some numbers to offer to the executive team: When you start to roll up your sleeves, you realize a new marketing model is needed, one that can offer tangible ROI.

Content marketing is capable of filling this hole in brand marketing strategies, but the struggle is balancing its long-range plan with the up-front costs. It’s true that content marketing ROI compounds over time, and that long-term ROI is much more reflective of success than any short-term gains. But that won’t make it easy for leadership to green-light hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending when facing the prospect of spending months in the dark on the return on investment.

To satisfy the executive team asking for better insight, you’ll need to convince them to spend more money now, while taking the risk out of the equation. For committed marketers, there’s a way to get this done.

1. Measure Short-Term Success

Establishing measures for short-term success is much different than evaluating long-term. Remember: growth doesn’t always happen on a straight line. Content marketing is an investment that pays out incrementally as time goes on. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit around and spend money for two years before you get any signs that the investment is paying off. There are plenty of metrics that can indicate early success and show either direct ROI or indirect evidence that your content marketing plan is unfolding as is expected.

As the Content Marketing Institute pointed out, most of your content discovery will come through just three channels: email, search, and social. At the start of your content strategy development, these channels should be prioritized. Whether you’re creating blog content, video, newsletters, white papers, or all of the above, these channels need to effectively reach an audience if there’s any hope of squeezing value from them.

But in the early months, the volume of this traffic isn’t as important. Instead, find your starting point and aim for incremental growth. As you grow the audiences reached through these channels, seek out ways to limit turnover—which will indicate that the content is strengthening brand loyalties and building a relationship with consumers. Track customer retention and percentage growth in the early stages of this distribution strategy, and don’t abandon any of these channels—if something isn’t working as planned, change your approach.

According to entrepreneur and influencer Neil Patel, the types of content you choose early on can dictate your success. It’s best to stick to content that will be most palatable to the broadest audience possible, since growth is such a priority. For example, blog articles are easily the type of content viewed as most useful by 35 percent of consumers. Infographics rank second, at 24 percent, followed by case studies at 11 percent. Focusing on the top types of content early on allows you to prioritize what works best—and, through that, maximize your early returns.

Fractl/Moz Study of what clients want most from content marketers

Meanwhile, consider scale when evaluating metrics related to customer acquisition, purchasing influence, upselling, and other benefits of content marketing. It’s very unlikely, in the early stages of implementing a company-wide strategy, that these numbers will even come close to generating a positive ROI for your company. But in their small scale, they could very well indicate that content marketing is having positive benefits on a set of consumers. Content marketing technology can be particularly beneficial in identifying trends that might not be evident to the human eye. By identifying these positive trends—even though they exist at an unfeasible scale—you can reasonably argue that time and persistent content marketing can increase the volume of that positive activity, leading to significant gains in ROI that actually will move the needle in terms of sustainable marketing spend.

2. Give Yourself a Parachute

You can dangle the prospect of better short-term metrics and indicators of ROI, but that won’t completely ease leadership’s fears of making a bad investment. Given the cost of a dedicated content marketing strategy, brands can’t help but be distracted by the risk of getting years into a venture, only to find the spending didn’t yield any payoff.

Brands can protect themselves from this risk by choosing a lower-risk structure for deploying their strategy. Opt-out clauses are one option: Even if a strategy’s full deployment is scheduled to take 2-3 years, companies could give themselves the option of canceling the deal at certain points in the business partnership, such as every six to 12 months.

That keeps pressure on content marketers to continue producing results, and it gives brands a chance to re-evaluate and make sure they’re making the best decisions for themselves. For example, some brands start out with multiple content marketing agencies producing content for their company—anywhere from two or three to two dozen or more—and evaluate the performance of those various agencies in terms of how their content is moving the needle for the brand.

Over time, the enterprise brand can trim down the number of content agencies being used to include only the top performers. By the time they company has settled on which agencies to stick with long-term, they’ve had a chance to test the waters with a wide range of industry leaders, and have lowered their risk by going with the companies that offer the best results.

Similarly, companies sometimes face the decision of choosing between a content marketing agency and a costly PR firm. The difference here centers around who owns what: With content marketing agencies, you own all the content you create, and this content becomes a digital asset you can carry with you even after your relationship with that agency has ended. PR firms, on the other hand, only generate earned media—mentions in news articles generated by press releases and other activity. But they don’t offer any content assets that a company can own. By going with a content agency, brands are able to earn a significant brand reach while also maintaining ownership of that content—in other words, they retained full control of their story instead of counting on someone else to do it for them.

This control is critical in an era where brand narratives are huge selling points for consumers. When you’re investing so much into content marketing, it only makes sense to own the things you’re paying for.

de-risking the content marketing investment

3. Segment Your Timeline—For Every Channel

Evaluating ROI always requires a close look at the specific components of your content marketing. In the early months, it’s absolutely critical to getting a view of what progress is being made.

Publishing standard blog content, along with infographics and other site-owned content, will only generate a trickle of positive results in the first few months, and that’s largely dependent on what you had going in. If your company already had a large marketing email list, and was already active on social media, you might see more action early on compared to if you start from scratch.

For SEO, it’s similarly hard to see significant early results, since search engines favor consistency and a long track record for publishers. But if you have a low or nonexistent SEO presence, you should see your prominence gradually rise, especially where long-tail, lower-competition keywords are concerned. It’s possible these results could start to roll in within a few weeks of daily publishing, especially if you’re active on social media—where mentions and links can improve SEO—and also driving traffic from other sources, like email. As you track this growth in page rank, pay attention to how it affects your website traffic: This can help you project what kind of growth might be on the horizon.

In some cases, the first few months truly are a grind a commitment to best practices and a willingness to be patient. For example, social media is notoriously slow to build—but the rewards are far too great to ignore. On a platform like Twitter, it’s likely that the first three months of social activity won’t offer much more than a drop in the bucket in terms of engagement and reach. Between three and six months, though, there should be signs of increased engagement, while your follower base continues to grow. After six months, there should be a continue increase in overall reach, with that growing audience engaging your Twitter regularly, making reference to your brand, and participating in an ongoing social conversation about your company.

Email, on the other hand, should chart a steadier course where newsletter sign-ups and opt-ins are concerned. The bigger challenge is driving click-throughs and sales: An email follower is great, but it means little if they aren’t reading your content regularly. If your open rates are strong, though, it’s reasonable to assume that increased conversions are within reach. This could be a case where tweaks to how content is presented might render changes in performance—regular testing of new strategies is the best way to ensure your email game stays sharp. Email is also a great channel for using content marketing technology to improve your performance, either through better segmentation, improved email timing, or other insight-driven changes. This technology can also facilitate optimal activity on social and other content channels, and various automation features can be used to enhance efficacy of your strategy from day one.

By the two-year mark, in most cases, there should be tangible returns for most brands. If content marketing growth has stalled, it’s either time to change your approach or change your content partners. In the meantime, stay patient and look for positive markers of progress. They may not pay the bills right away, but they can forecast the rewards that await up ahead.

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