Brands Are Failing at Content Marketing Metrics

Click here for a 2016 catch up on content marketing metrics.

When I studied business in undergrad, I was forced to pick a “track” early on—marketing or finance. One professor warned, prophetically:

“Many of you will pick marketing because you don’t like numbers, or you’ll pick finance because you don’t like selling. But when you get a job, you’ll realize that today’s marketing is all numbers. And today’s financial professionals spend half their time selling.”

I opted for neither and became a journalist. I wanted to tell stories.

It turns out that I couldn’t escape marketing or finance anyway. Journalists are always pitching (selling), and numbers are paramount for today’s publishers and storytellers. Or at least they need to be if you want to build a sustainable business that lets you keep telling stories. [1]

Throughout the Web’s history, the number that publishers have most concerned themselves with was pageviews. Even when they measured search engine rank and social media shares, those metrics simply served as markers of pageviews-to-come. For all of the Internet’s power to track the effectiveness of advertising, Cost Per Thousand (CPM) has been king for two decades and counting.

But the next big trend in media is going to require us to rethink publishing metrics entirely. [2]

Brand publishing—which shows up under various terms like content marketing or custom content—is one of the fastest-growing channels in modern marketing. This year, more money will be spent by brands in the effort to engage audiences through stories, instead of traditional advertisements, than any year in history. This is a big deal. If you’re reading this post, you probably know all about it.

The elephant in content marketing’s kitchen is this question: How do you properly measure content marketing’s effectiveness? There’s plenty of anecdotal data about businesses growing through publishing (for instance, our business has grown almost exclusively through our digital magazine), but there is no universally agreed-upon measure of success.

Since 2009, a thousand marketers selling content marketing solutions have published posts about “how to measure the ROI of content marketing” (me included), and the best you’ll be able to find are lists of traditional publishing metrics—if not a laundry list of every metric ever.

The real problem with using those metrics is that content marketing is a different game than display advertising—or most other advertising for that matter. It’s a lot more like weightlifting than bowling: The results can be massive, but they manifest after time and consistency. Lucky strikes are rare.

So what game are brands playing as publishers? Ultimately, they’re trying to build relationships. They realize that if they own the relationship, they can eventually speak to the audience much more often and for less money than if they have to pay to play every time. They won’t have to go through a middleman anymore, like a newspaper or TV station. [3] So what they really ought to be measuring is whether and how relationships are being formed.

That’s why it’s so silly that every analytics tool marketed to content marketing doesn’t actually measure the thing that matters: relationships.


Last year, we started talking to our clients at Contently about how they were measuring content marketing. (In fact, we’re doing a broad study on this right now. If you’d like to participate, all you have to do is answer these six questions!) Most of them were measuring what the traditional publishing industry analytics tools measured: pageviews and where they came from.

Unfortunately, as Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile recently pointed out in an excellent op-ed for TIME, 55 percent of website visitors don’t stay longer than 15 seconds. And it turns out that sharing is a terrible proxy for whether people actually care about content. The most-shared articles, according to Haile, are often the least-read:


What those and other statistics about content consumption show is that pageviews, clicks, shares, likes, and referrals aren’t correlated at all with relationships between reader and publisher.

Haile is right when he says that advertisements ought to be valued on how much attention people are paying to them, not just that the ads are there. Tools like Chartbeat are going to be monumentally important to the media landscape if they can convince publishers and advertisers to come together on a new way of measuring ads. [4]

However, all of the existing analytics tools on the market are still built to solve a different problem than the one brands face. In our research over the last year, we’ve found that most content marketing and the vendors that service them are still measuring success using the metrics of a publishing business that’s fundamentally different than the one they’re in.

They’re not tracking what happens to their individual readers over time. (Instead, they’re aggregating the audience as a mass—which fits traditional publishing’s model but not that of a brand.) They’re not tracking where in their stories they’re losing people. And they’re not tracking what readers do next.

So we decided to build a tool that measures what matters in content marketing—and then helps you do something about it.


Today, I’m pleased to announce that Contently is launching Insights, the first analytics package built specifically to optimize brand-reader relationships.


But it’s more than analytics. We call it “Insights” deliberately. At the end of the day, marketers don’t need data. They need to know what to do. With a line of JavaScript, Contently now tracks how much time people spend actually paying attention to stories (we track scrolling, mouse movements, highlighting, active window/tab, and other factors to deduce the exact second that users stop paying attention). Then, we distill actionable insights from that information—in human language, not data-speak.

The coolest thing about Insights: If a story was created using Contently’s workflow, Insights can go even further and combine reader engagement tracking data with Contently’s data about who wrote it, who edited it, and everything that went into the process. Insights then feeds all of that data back into the system to tell you what you should try next if you want to build better relationships. It’s pretty great!

Here’s what Insights uniquely tracks:


#1: Insights monitors people, not “visitors.” When a reader comes back, Contently keeps track, and tallies how much engaged time that reader spends with your brand’s content each visit, so you can see how relationships are being built over time. (So, for example, if you come to The Content Strategist on three occasions, Insights adds up how much you’ve been engaging throughout your relationship with our brand.) [5]


#2: Insights shows brand publishers how much of the content their audiences stick around for. It tracks this unique indicator on an aggregate basis and per every story you produce, to help you see if people actually care about what you’re saying. Because seeing—or even sharing—a piece of content is not the same as being engaged.


#3: But the real magic of Insights is that Contently tells you exactly why certain stories performed well, and what action steps you can take to make future content better.


This is just the first phase of Insights. There’s a lot more coming based on this idea of helping brand publishers track relationships—and tying those relationships to actual business results. It’s the first step of a larger initiative for Contently—one we hope is going to change content marketing for the better. We want to make it more helpful and enjoyable to readers and push the industry to start measuring what matters.

Because if we have to be good at numbers when telling stories, we may as well work with the right ones.


[1] This said, there will always be a need for important but unprofitable public interest storytelling. Such investigative journalism has typically been subsidized by other things. (The Sports section of the paper pays for the series on water pollution, etc.) We need to build sustainable businesses and then give back to nonprofit journalism when we can. We’re big fans of ProPublica and Berkeley’s Center for Investigative Reporting.

[2] In an interesting twist of fate, I put my business hat back on in order to address the changes in the journalism industry, which led to the formation of Contently in December 2010. You can read more about our journey here. (P.S. I picked the “Marketing” track back at business school, in case you were wondering.)

[3] This is certainly not to say that traditional media companies will (or ought to) be cut out of the advertiser equation entirely. I think that for a long time to come there will be brands without a large owned audience who will fund sponsored content (and native advertising) that will both buoy up the media institutions we love and also help those brands reach an audience larger than their own. And even for companies with large owned audiences, I think “native” will be a part of a content distribution mix for most for the foreseeable future. 

[4] I am a very big fan of what Haile and Chartbeat are doing for media companies and the attention economics of advertising. And I love what Medium does with its analytics for blog posts, where it tells you where people abandon your story. It’s disheartening when you see that your 10,000 visitors only read 10 percent of your post, but it’s nice to get an honest picture of how much your readers care. Hat tip to both companies for their thought leadership.

[5] Found on a whiteboard in Contently’s product department:

people not visitors

What’s the deal with The Content Strategist? At Contently, storytelling is the only marketing we do, and it works wonders. It could for you, too. Learn more.

More on content marketing metrics:

The Ultimate Content Strategist Playbook No. 5: Measuring and Optimizing Your Content Marketing

4 Keys to Calculating ROI for Content Marketers

Image by Insomnia Cured Here

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