Marketers have countless tools to slice and dice their content marketing audience, but one group demands extra attention: the C-suite. Happily, when presenting to them, you don’t need to feel extra pressure. According to a recent HubSpot survey, more and more company leaders are seeing the value of content: 28% of respondents plan on newly investing in content marketing in 2021 — up from 17% in 2020.
So there’s a willingness to embrace content marketing. But how do you calculate content marketing ROI? “I don't think there's any magic attribution model for content marketing,” says Mike Goldberg, global director of content marketing at the CFA Institute. The HubSpot report notes some standard metrics: sales driven by content, web traffic, social engagement, lead generation. But no single metric is enough. Goldberg sums up the challenge: “Tying it back to pure ROI has always been difficult.”
As you craft your messages to the C-suite, remember you're ultimately showing why content marketing matters to the bottom line. Engagement statistics are great, but you have to demonstrate the value you bring to the organization. When you use content strategically and track the right metrics, content marketing can drive millions of dollars in revenue. This is not an exaggeration. Just ask Senior Marketing Director at Wisetail, Estee Woods: “A technical white paper that I wrote had $59 million of closed-won attribution to it.” If that doesn’t grab the C-suite’s attention, nothing will.
C-suite leaders are results-oriented. Here's how to demonstrate — and improve — content marketing ROI to get buy-in for your next content campaign.
Demonstrate Your Content's Strategic Value
When pitching or reporting on your content marketing efforts to the C-suite, you must demonstrate content’s role in driving strategic business objectives. "There's always a question of whether content is being used in a strategic manner or not," says Albert Qian, senior content marketing manager, HCM at Oracle. "Be able to come to the table with a clear content strategy that identifies how that content will work up and down the top, middle and bottom of funnel."
Explain how each piece of content or campaign can be used to increase the number of leads, revenue or whichever metric you feel most confident tracking that adds value to the conversation.
"Really what it comes back to is being able to tie the investment in content to a result that they actually care about," says Josh Gallant, SEO lead at Foundation Marketing. "Try to connect it to either revenue — if you can do that directly — or to pipeline, depending on which of those numbers matters most."
Since it can be hard to tie content’s value directly to revenue, you should have several proofs in your back pocket. Revenue attribution is a popular metric. When the bottom of the funnel, product-related content drives someone to schedule a call with sales, make a note attributing the lead to that piece of content, Goldberg says. Each time a deal is closed, you can look back to see the first touchpoint.
You should be prepared for some potential tensions, as differing attribution models can cause friction with sales. First interaction attribution gives complete credit to the first touchpoint (often a piece of content), while last interaction attribution gives full credit to the final touchpoint (usually a sales rep).
Realistically, true attribution is going to be shared. Work with your sales team to determine the right attribution model for more accurate reporting — and be open to exploring new technology to help you make the case for content. “A lot of companies are launching content intelligence tools to dig deeper into that,” Goldberg says.
Present Opportunities, Not Just Metrics
Before you can demonstrate content marketing ROI, you need to get company leaders on board with the big picture benefits. Map out a comprehensive strategy matched to clear metrics. A lot of marketers tend to fall back on data-heavy presentations to the C-suite. But the key is prioritizing the content that will get leadership's attention. Drill down into what matters most.
Find the basic funnel math. If a content campaign drives 10,000 people to the website, how much pipeline does that generate? What’s the average conversion rate? "Figure out what number matters most and then work back from that conversion," Gallant says.
Try to connect it all the way down the funnel. Show that an investment of X-thousand dollars in content could potentially lead to X-thousand (or, better, X-million) in pipeline generated for the company. "Find the most efficient way to do that as possible by cutting a lot of the middle pieces," Gallant says. "When we're trying to pitch and get buy-in on the investment itself, the focus should be on that far-to-the-right end number."
Lay out the pipeline opportunity. Kickoff your presentation with the most essential pieces and high-level points. Know all of the numbers so you’re prepared to answer leadership's questions, but try to keep your presentation at a higher level.
"Don't lead with that and lose them right away," Gallant says. "Then it just becomes a game of trying to explain organic search and inbound marketing when you [want] to really focus on what the opportunity itself is."
You should also address a campaign’s timeframe. A strong piece of evergreen content may not drive leads right away, but over time its influence will grow. For example, a blog post by Goldberg was the first touchpoint for a $7 million deal — two years after he wrote it.
Content at different points in the funnel will have different lead times. Pull up examples from previous campaigns to help make your case.
Work With Your Sales Team
Identifying content's strategic use requires an ongoing conversation with the sales team. This will help you set concrete metrics and goals. "As a content writer, you have to create content that goes directly to the salespeople," Qian says. Sales can use blog posts to get the conversation started quickly, while pithy, impactful videos are great for sales reps to share with their prospects. Work with sales to generate email content and datasheets that speak directly to the buyer. Sales reps are on the frontline, so they’re equipped to let you know what resonates and what doesn't. “In order to get revenue, we need to talk about the things people care about,” Woods says. Sales is where to go to get that information.
But misalignment between sales and marketing can result in content silos. Woods notes that, if the marketing team develops content without input from sales, you risk spending time and resources on content they can’t use. Or sales may splinter off to create their own content, which often doesn’t turn out well. Quite simply, the conversation between content and sales is invaluable for both.
Woods observes that a key benchmark for developing a content plan with potential is making the things that the sales team needs to sell first. If you give them the tools and material they need to close the deal, you earn their buy-in — and free up more space to focus on top-of-funnel material such as your thought leadership, educational content and other long-term content campaigns.
Match Content to Points in Your Marketing Funnel
Before you can calculate content marketing ROI, you have to make sure everyone is aligned on goals and metrics. How does the marketing department define a marketing qualified lead (MQL), for example? Do leaders in the C-suite have the same definition?
Be strategic and intentional when defining metrics. "The strategy that I often break it down into is understanding whether it's top, middle or bottom of the funnel," Qian says. "Each element of the top, middle or bottom-funnel set of content always has an association with a certain type of outcome."
The top of the sales funnel is about awareness. This is where you’ll see basic web copy, blog posts and introductory videos. The top of the funnel corresponds with the beginning of the buyers' journey. Some common metrics at this stage include website traffic, time spent on each page and impressions on related social posts.
Middle of the funnel content should provoke interest, Qian says. Prospects want to learn more and gain a better understanding of what your product or service can do for them. Email newsletter content, high-level thought leadership and whitepapers satisfy that need. You can measure success here by tracking email opens, clickthrough rates and downloads.
By the time prospects get to the bottom of the sales funnel, they’re ready to make a decision. This stage includes content related to products or services, like booklets or datasheets. Metrics at the bottom of the funnel include the number of demos or exploratory calls scheduled with the sales team driven by a single piece of content.
Once you’ve laid out types of content and metrics to track along the sales cycle, you can work with your sales team to define which actions trigger MQL status. This enables you to track the number of qualified leads content marketing generates.
Calculate Your Expenses
Before you can determine the return generated by a content campaign, you have to calculate the cost. Here are some of the most significant expenses that go into a content campaign.
Investing in the right SEO tools to optimize posts for long-tail keywords can be a considerable cost. But the insights it can generate into your prospects' needs are essential. Most SEO tools are available on a subscription basis.
If video is an important part of your content strategy, you might want to invest in high-quality video equipment. That can get expensive, but literally improves your image.
Remember, you can create the best content out there, but if you can’t get it in front of the right people, it’s useless. The right promotional elements and paid media help your content stand above the rest. “ROI is not just what you put into it — or what you get out of it — in terms of money,” Qian says. “It's also the effort you put in to promote it and to make that content piece the most important piece that a person will read that day.”
Of course, there’s human capital. "Writing with subject matter expertise is also expensive," Qian says. "If you just hire anyone off the street, you definitely get what you pay for." You might hire someone who already has subject matter expertise for a premium. If you’re looking to reduce the expense, you can hire a lower-salaried writer with potential, as long as you recognize you may incur a different type of cost due to the time it takes for them to master the skills you require.
You also need strategic thinkers to develop campaigns and campaign managers to keep your plan on track to generate the projected content marketing ROI. Content strategists and directors can command six-figure salaries.
Generating quality content that actually drives business objectives isn’t easy. Assembling an effective team is absolutely vital to your success. "For all the leaders who read this article and think that, I can just put one of my digital marketers part-time on content and now I've got content marketing, I implore them to think about actually investing in a content marketing team to do it right," Qian says.
Where you invest your resources depends on the sales cycle at your specific organization. A large HR tech company, for example, has a lot more money for branding than a bootstrapped startup. With prospects potentially spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new technology implementation, it’s understood that the sales cycle will be longer. As a result, middle and top funnel presence, like blog posts building your credibility, matter more.
A smaller company or startup, on the other hand, will typically have a much shorter sales cycle. You have to get to the bottom of the funnel quickly, so you have fewer resources to spend on branding. Your biggest investment is most likely to be channeled into sales-oriented content.
Monitoring the Modifications
Without data, you’ll never determine a content marketing ROI. This makes frequent testing to identify the content making the biggest impact essential. “Go into it like a scientist,” Woods says. “Track everything weekly.”
Track leads generated by content across the sales cycle. When a lead comes in, score and qualify it. This can, for example, help you identify the pieces of content driving the most late-stage conversions. You can use that knowledge to refine your content strategy over time.
“We learned that our long-form technical white papers were converting people at late stages within the funnel,” Woods says of a previous role. By the time someone was downloading a technical white paper, they had become an opportunity almost immediately.
Don’t confine tracking leads to gated content: You can leave it ungated and still track clicks and click-throughs and conversions on websites. Run tests on your site to see what content has the biggest impact, and at what point in the sales cycle. Then devote resources to developing and promoting content with the best chance of driving conversions.
These statistics can show the C-suite why you made certain decisions or designed a campaign in a specific way, as well as how your decisions are driving the bottom line.
Offer Authentic Updates
Be ready to report throughout the campaign's duration how your content is performing. Being transparent helps you set realistic expectations for content marketing ROI. Set a reporting cadence throughout the campaign. Track the metrics you initially presented and report back — transparently and honestly — how the campaign is tracking against your goals.
If the campaign is underperforming, don't try to hide it. Trust is essential for future buy-ins. Explain what happened and work to develop solutions for fixing it, Gallant says. Executives are far more likely to invest in future campaigns from someone who acknowledges a problem and then solves it, as opposed to the person who hid their shortcomings until the failure was undeniable.
Remember, calculating content marketing ROI isn’t clear-cut, and it won’t always be the same metrics for every company. When you find the metrics that resonate most with your audience, you need the C-suite to agree to this standard. When you track those metrics religiously to demonstrate growth over time, you need the C-suite to have faith in the figures you offer. This is an area where credibility is particularly essential, so make certain to protect yours.
Above all, never lose sight of the single most important piece of the puzzle — the customer. Employ frequent testing to ensure you’re meeting the customer’s content needs and ultimately driving revenue.
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