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Content Marketing ROI: Myth or Maxim?

Even though content marketing offers a host of dynamic ways to engage your buyers, many marketers still approach it with an old-school “one-and-done” mindset.

With all the time that goes into the creation of content assets, it goes without saying these assets should have a life far beyond just being sent out to an email list to see what happens. It’s high time we move past ‘push’ strategy and into realizing the ‘pull’ of online conversations that influence and acquire trust.

Bigger than most people think

While all this may sound great–as usual–it’s the tactics that put success in motion. You have to treat content as higher-level initiatives, or themes, that are being disseminated through many different channels. This is where the campaign mentality is still relevant, but content campaigns will end up being much bigger than most people naturally think.

Think of it like this: A large cornerstone content asset is, itself, like an umbrella initiative. How you promote that content is how you determine ROI across multiple channels like social, email demand generation, and content syndication. So, all your creation expense will roll up to the higher umbrella level, rather than the channel promotion. Those promotions do carry a cost, but absent the content creation at the parent level.

In modern marketing, where the buyer’s journey more convoluted than ever, we don’t just want to measure what caused a lead to take a direct action, but what influenced that lead over time as well. This is where traditional thinking derails and modern-day digital marketing grabs the wheel.

Form fills aren’t created equal

Influence can be found across many touches, each one with a different definition of success. For example, your buyer reads a blog post and subscribes. Success. They are then re-targeted by a display ad promoting a larger content piece in the same topic vein, they download. Success. Shortly after, they are presented with a note from your content manager asking if they found value in the piece and if so, to share it with their network, they tweet it. Three separate campaigns, three separate “funnels” — mini life-cycles on the way to deeper engagement.

Any of these tactics alone means almost nothing in reality. Surprised? Many marketers would be. In our last quarterly benchmark review, we found that 71% of organizations we spoke to treat form fills on their site as “hot” leads. Any form fill.

Modern content marketing

In today’s information-heavy age, buyers treat content like a learning tool. The quickest way to kill your reputation as an educational resource is to present a quiz before the first lesson.

Modern content marketing works in the same way that a conversation does: it builds, turns, and takes root. And like you would in any good conversation, expect to give and get. So, you’ll want to be able to associate those “gives” back with the overall lead cycle as a result of that consumption.

First Touch vs. Multi-touch

Let’s take a look at this in terms you can apply to your content marketing programs and a big distinction you need to make – First Touch (FT) vs Multi-touch (MT).

Most buyer interactions today fit into the latter–multi-touch. Education is a journey and modern day buyers want to be educated. After a purchase is made, first touch receives the credit for lead acquisition, and therefore we continue to invest in programs yielding good outcomes. But, the real meat and potatoes happens in the engagement between acquisition and customer conversion.

Multi-touch examines every interaction, aligns and weights them, which is what gives us the notion of influence. Once we have these two figures established, tracked and analyzed, the ratio between the two really becomes telling. So telling, in fact, that you can extrapolate a lot of value in planning your next initiative. Key metrics like lead quality per acquisition channel (the lower the MT value, the higher the channel effectiveness) and buyer education cycle ( the larger the MT value, the longer buyers take to realize value propositions) can easily be extracted.

In action

Let’s take a look at this in action via a model that comes to us from one of the most popular Marketing Automation providers, Marketo. This is their actual data (from a few years back) which makes the example really interesting.

Table

In the example above, we can look at two fairly contrasting channels–website conversions vs. outbound sales efforts. The initial investment on both these channels is low – which is to say their costs are fuzzy. Of course there is a cost to develop, maintain and drive traffic to a website, but those costs are either sunk or distributed to the respective channel driving traffic.

For this example, “website” represents organic traffic and conversions, making it an excellent contrast to outbound sales as that channel has equally fuzzy costs (you could put in an assumption of COGS here if you really want to get tricky).

The primary difference between these two channels is, of course, one is an outbound effort (sales) and one inbound (website). The website channel in particular keys us in to how buyers who are researching use online as a way to shore up the buying process. No brainier right? What isn’t as predictable is buyers who were in essence “pulled” into a funnel by sales and have very little engagement with the site, and therefore content.

Barking up the wrong tree

So, what’s the deal? Both of these channels are driving pipeline–the distribution is pretty equal with the inbound channel winning out slightly–but the ability of content to influence the sale when we already have a web-engaged buyer is actually more than acquisition. If you look at any of the digital channels, you’ll find this to be true. Therefore, if we look to explore acquisition as a determinate for content ROI we are, quite simply, barking up the wrong tree.

The common marketing mentality is that a piece of content alone is going to acquire the lead. When it comes to measuring what drove a lead to take action, most marketers think in terms of not only first-touch, but single touch. That’s a setup for failure. Each piece of content will influence leads as the conversation takes place and measuring the value in each touch, as well as what the buyer took from the interaction, is the basis for multi-touch attribution and content marketing ROI.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that the process is really freaking hard. By hard, I mean complex. Consider for a minute that content interactions do not provide a standard value–value is a function of what the buyer needs and how well that content met those needs.

We recently put together a really in depth study around HOW to actually go about doing so. In short, when you know what types of content a given persona consumes at a given funnel stage, you can make sure you’re working to get it to them specifically, not just scattershot across your entire base. However, if you’re reading this article, asking yourself if content actually bears ROI fruit and haven’t begun attributing value to your content campaigns, you really don’t need to get into the woods quite yet. You simply need to put the concepts above to work.

Our approach

At LeadMD, our approach consists of the master-level content campaign being built, then each channel where we distribute the content is a child campaign to that content. Take a recent successful content campaign we launched, consisting of a “big pillar” content piece we spent three months developing. Sure, we did the requisite distribution to our subscription nurture list, but we’re also distributing socially, in content syndication, on our website, and above all we’re aligning those efforts to the right buyer at the right time as best we can.

Let’s face it, your buyer moves around like an Etch-a-Sketch on amphetamines. Information is abundant, even good information. Buyers have access to everything they need to make informed decisions. The contact form of yore is looking less and less attractive. So, how would we ever expect to distill the driving factor behind a buyer’s decision to a single action–much less the first action?

The question isn’t really about whether content marketing can yield ROI. The question we should be asking is “Do our current marketing metrics have any validity?” If they aren’t taking multi-touch attribution into account, the short answer is “No. They don’t.”

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