Calculating and Communicating Content Marketing ROI

The pressure to calculate content marketing ROI can make any marketer sweat. Maybe you feel uncomfortable discussing it, or you’re not totally sure what all the metrics and key performance indicators even mean. You’re a pro storyteller, but can you weave a tale about the results of your stories? One backed by data?

But there’s no reason to be scared. When you understand the strategic purpose of each campaign and have clear metrics for measuring success upfront, you can confidently calculate and communicate content marketing ROI.

Because believe me, the value is real. Intelligent, well-structured content marketing campaigns and assets can drive millions of dollars in the pipeline. “A technical white paper that I wrote had $59 million of closed-won attribution to it,” says Estee Woods, vice president of marketing at Retina AI.

Wondering how she even knew that her work had that kind of impact? Learn how to measure content marketing ROI — and report on it — to get buy-in for your next content marketing campaign.

Choose the Right Content Marketing Metrics

There’s no shortage of options for measuring the ROI of content – web traffic, social engagement, lead generation, deals won by source – but no single metric is enough, nor will the numbers be the same for every sales and marketing team. 

Start this process by accepting that you will have to develop your own approach to measuring value. “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, sums up the challenge: “Tying it back to pure ROI has always been difficult.” 

For example, engagement statistics are easy enough to report on, but they will rarely be enough to drive a full program, calculate a return on investment – or less ever get you a raise as a content marketer.

Aim to develop a dashboard of three metrics that correlate with your organization’s sales priorities.

  • Brand awareness and engagement. These are leading indicators of growth. What engagement stat has historically shown the greatest correlation with future revenue? If your organization’s martech and sales tech stack aren’t robust enough to tell you that, organic search traffic on your top 10 keywords or downloads of gated assets are good places to start. 
  • Lead generation. This one can get messy depending on how your organization defines leads (more on that later). However, in the most conservative sense, you could ask how many people who engaged with a piece of content went on to request a demo or call with a salesperson within 7 days.
  • Sales Enablement. At this point, you’re the closest you’ll ever get to tying your work to revenue, but it’s also likely to be the hardest number to get your hands on. What is the total value of closed-won deals with accounts who engaged with your content at any point in the buyer journey? You can’t take credit for all of that, of course, but you can start to detect patterns and learn from them for future deals. 

If someone is intrigued by these high-level metrics, be ready to dig in with additional supporting data. 

Also, be aware that differing attribution models can cause friction between marketing and sales. If your company uses single-touch attribution, then first-interaction attribution will give complete credit to the first touch point (often a piece of content), while last-interaction attribution will give full credit to the final touch point (usually a sales rep).

Realistically, attribution is likely to be shared. Work with your sales team to determine the right attribution model for more accurate reporting — and be open to exploring technology solutions that help you make the case for content. “A lot of companies are launching content intelligence tools to dig deeper into that,” Goldberg says. 

Connect Content Strategy to Business Strategy

To make your content marketing more strategic, your program needs to align with the businesses’ overall strategic objectives. 

Instead of starting with an idea for a white paper or report, ask yourself: What’s the most urgent business problem we’re trying to solve right now?

They generally fall into a handful of categories, when it comes to areas where content marketing can contribute:

  • Building brand awareness with a modest budget. Campaigns get more traction when you say something interesting.
  • Generating qualified leads. Targeted content brings the right people in the door and saves the sales team’s time filtering through junk.
  • Closing deals faster. Better educated buyers are ready to close faster.
  • Retaining and growing accounts. Content campaigns can expand and deepen relationships with the customers you already have, giving you a chance to demonstrate value outside of the contract renewal cycle.
  • Recruiting and retaining talent. Your employer brand is critical in the Great Resignation.  

Get your hands on your company’s most recent strategic plan – or at the very least, your marketing and sales team’s part of it. Connect your content campaign directly to priorities in that plan, and be ready to show how it will support the big picture.

“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. “Come to the table with a clear content marketing strategy that identifies how that content will work up and down the top, middle and bottom of the funnel.” 

Tell the story of how each piece of content or campaign can drive leads, revenue or whichever metric adds most value to the conversation. “It comes back to being able to tie the investment in content to a result that they actually care about,” says Josh Gallant, senior lead, content strategy, at Foundation Marketing

Strengthen the Connection Between Content Marketing and Sales

Identifying content’s strategic use requires an ongoing conversation with the sales team. This will help you set concrete metrics and goals and give you inspiration for timely content. “In order to get revenue, we need to talk about the things people care about,” Woods says. 

This is the essence of both account based marketing and demand generation programs.

“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 powerful videos can move deals along more quickly. 

Cooperation and communication can also prevent misalignment between sales and marketing that results in content silos. If the marketing team develops content without input from sales, Woods notes, you risk spending time and resources on content they can’t use. Or sales may invest in its own content creation (the horror)

Marketing can’t let sales run the show here, though. Salespeople will nearly always prioritize spending on bottom-of-the-funnel content over brand awareness or nurture campaigns because that’s where they are feeling the greatest pressure. Never mind the fact that strong brand awareness makes deals easier to close down the road.

Just be prepared for this, and leave space in your plan to give the sales team some quick wins through case studies, data sheets and other collateral. If you give them the content they need to close a few deals, you’ll earn their buy-in — and free up more trust to create top-of-funnel thought leadership and educational content.

Align Content Marketing Goals and Metrics

An important part of calculating content marketing ROI is making sure everyone is on the same page in terms of goals and metrics. There’s no one-size-fits-all definition for many marketing terms, whether they are focused on B2B or B2C, so it’s important to align on definitions early on. 

How does the marketing department define a marketing qualified lead (MQL), for example? Do leaders in other teams have the same definition or are you potentially tracking two different numbers?

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 brand awareness. This is where you’ll see blog posts and introductory videos. The top of the funnel corresponds with the beginning of the buyer’s journey. Common metrics at this stage in B2B marketing include website traffic, time spent on page and impressions on social posts.

Middle-of-the-funnel content should provoke interest, Qian says. Prospects want to learn more about your product or service and gain an understanding of what it 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. For content that isn’t gated, like long-form blog posts, refer to organic traffic and time on site.

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 data sheets. Metrics at the bottom of the funnel can include the number of demos or exploratory calls scheduled with the sales team as driven by a single piece of content.

Once you’ve laid out what content you’re producing and the metrics you’ll use throughout the sales cycle, you can work with your sales team to define which actions trigger MQL status. This enables everyone to track the number of qualified leads that content marketing generates.

Calculate Your Content Marketing Expenses

Now that we’ve figured out how to calculate the return, it’s time to talk about the investment. Here are some of the most significant expenses that go into a content campaign. 

Content Marketing Labor

Whether you use in-house resources or outsource your content creation to freelancers or an agency, you’ll need people to do the work.

First, you’ll need to account for time to work on strategy including time to develop campaigns and develop consensus with other team members.

You’ll need someone to write and/or edit copy, which can be challenging depending on the subject matter. Less experienced writers might allow you to save money here, as long as you recognize you may incur more costs in editing time. “Writing with subject matter expertise is expensive,” Qian says. “If you just hire anyone off the street, you definitely get what you pay for.” 

Depending on the kinds of assets you’re creating, you may also need audio and video editors, designers, developers, and other creatives.

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.

Content Marketing Software

Aside from the tools you’re already using for ABM or marketing automation, as your campaign grows more complex, you may find it helpful to invest in content marketing specific tech, such as SEO analytics tools (SEMRush), content creation (Lately), content planning (CoSchedule), content experience (Uberflip), and others.

If you’re producing design or multimedia work in house, you’ll need subscriptions to software to perform those functions, too. 

Audio & Video Equipment

Microphones and cameras can cover a wide range, in terms of quality and costs. 

If producing podcasts or videos in-house is part of your content strategy, consider investing in better equipment to make sure you’re showing your brand in a good light.

Content Distribution & Promotion

Without a promotion plan – with sufficient paid spend – it won’t matter how amazing your content marketing creative is. Very few people will see it. 

The advertising budget is likely outside of your span of control as a content marketer, but it’s important that you understand how it’s determined because the available funds for the ad campaign are going to constrain what’s available for you to spend on creative. For example, if a campaign has a $50,000 marketing budget total, with the expectation that it generates $500,000 in revenue, you probably shouldn’t expect to be able to spend more than $15,000 on the content creative.

Because of this, it’s generally best to think of calculating content ROI inside the context of the full campaign rather than purely trying to isolate the impact of a single asset. However, you can draw comparisons between campaigns that demonstrate which types of content perform best or the impact of investing in high-quality creative.

Tell a Story of Positive Impact Through Content Marketing

Your data needs to be the foundation of your work, but when it comes time to pitch your ideas to others, that doesn’t mean you should bury people in numbers. Data-heavy presentations can overwhelm people, and the more stats you throw up on a screen, the more likely someone is to hijack your narrative with side arguments.

Remember, you’re a storyteller — find the right data points to tell the story of the business problem you’re solving. “Figure out what number matters most, and then work back from that,” Gallant says.

Try to connect that value all the way down the funnel. Show that an investment of X-thousand dollars in content can 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.” 

Your goal in making this pitch is to lay out the pipeline opportunity. Kick off your presentation with the most essential pieces and high-level points and get to the point quickly. “Don’t lead with a bunch of numbers 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 time frame. A strong piece of evergreen content may not drive leads right away, but its long-term influence can grow over time. For example, a blog post by Goldberg was the first touch point for a $7 million deal — two years after he wrote it. 

Content at different points in the funnel will have different lead times for delivering value to the bottom line. Present examples from previous campaigns to help make your case.

Track Content Campaigns Continuously

Without data, you’ll never determine a content marketing ROI. Implement frequent testing to identify the content creating the biggest effect. “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 practice will 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 became an opportunity almost immediately.

Don’t confine tracking leads to gated content: You can leave a piece of content ungated and still track clicks, 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.

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 hide it by, say, reverse-engineering Google Analytics data to show marginal results from a top-of-the-funnel campaign. Instead, explain what happened and how you’ll try to fix it, Gallant says. 

You’re more likely to earn investment in future campaigns when you acknowledge a problem and solve it than by hiding problems until failure is undeniable.

Content Marketing ROI Is a Collaborative Effort

If you were hoping for a simple formula here that only content marketing would “own,” that doesn’t exist. Ultimately, content marketing ROI is best calculated and communicated in the context of a full team effort. Prove your value by locking your efforts in with the rest of the marketing and sales team.  

Clare Chiappetta
Clare Chiappetta serves as editorial coordinator and staff writer, with a specialization in HR and the future of work. She earned a master’s in English from Southeastern Louisiana University, and continues to explore the world through books, films and music. Test your most esoteric pop culture references on her.

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