4 Keys to Calculating ROI for Content Marketers

Welcome to the latest post in our Contently Labs series, where we answer common questions we hear from current or prospective brand publishers. Today’s question: “How do I measure the ROI of my content marketing efforts?”

There are a few guarantees at content marketing conferences. Buzzwords. Free booze. People freaking out over measuring the ROI of their content efforts.

Indeed, content marketing ROI is often regarded like a buried treasure being chased by an industry of Captain Jack Sparrows. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Properly calculating ROI is far from a pipe dream; in fact, every marketer has the tools at their disposal to properly tie their content performance to business results. It involves properly understanding content’s role in building relationships with consumers, and properly modeling brand lift, engagement, loyalty, and conversion events.

Let’s begin with those relationships and the always-on sales funnel.

1. Understanding the funnel

Understanding how to measure content begins with understanding where consumers engage with content in the lifespan of a purchase and post-purchase. As the below chart from McKinsey shows, the new consumer decision journey is actually a relationship between brands and customers that involves near-constant interaction. The best way to build this relationship? Content.

calculating ROI

Through high-quality content, brands can fuel initial perceptions, inform research, build trust, and ignite purchase decisions.

For example, your brand might publish content on your own blog, social media channels, or as sponsored content on a major media site. The content is then shared and distributed, raising awareness about your brand expertise, services, or products. Most importantly, it makes your brand familiar to customers, putting you ahead of the game when consumers are considering an initial set of brands.

Still, a single piece of content rarely makes for a sale; it’s just the start of a relationship that you can strengthen by continuing to deliver valuable content. You can make that delivery in a few ways; some of the most popular options are through an email blast if the consumer gives an email address, a social media post if they follow you on a social channel, or a retargeted Facebook Sponsored Post or Promoted Tweet if cookies were enabled.

The important thing to understand is that each piece of content is just a building blog in the larger relationship you’re nurturing with a consumer. There’s no immediate end-game, which is a common misconception. As Moz’s Rand Fishkin notes in a brilliant Slideshare on content marketing misconceptions, many content marketers believe that content marketing works like this:

calculating ROI

Contrary to some marketers’ caveman fantasies, content marketing is almost never this simple, but it still works. It just looks much more like this:

calculating ROI

Via Rand Fishkin

As you can see, each piece of high-quality content strengthens the brand–consumer relationship until the point of purchase—and then it just keeps on going. Even if the consumer didn’t buy from you, they’ll remember you, and content will sway their perceptions about whether they made the right choice. To put this in teen movie terms: Even if you didn’t get the girl in Act 1, you can be the awesome, caring, entertaining friend who she chooses in Act 3.

Of course, you can’t just blindly assume that your content is working and building relationships, and that’s where measuring ROI comes in. So, what do you do to make sure your brand’s content is building relationships with consumers and ultimately driving sales? You need a few measurements. First, we’ll talk about ways to measure your content performance before conversion. Second, we’ll talk about how to measure the conversion.

2. Calculating brand lift

The holy grail of content performance is brand lift—the measurement of how people think about you in relation to your marketing objectives. In other words, it measures how well you’re building the relationship you desire with consumers.

Take, for example, this information from a BuzzFeed case study. If you read BuzzFeed, you’ve probably seen Sponsored Posts from Virgin Mobile. BuzzFeed was able to measure the impact that content had on readers through a one-question survey to measure brand affinity for Virgin Mobile.

calculating ROI

As you can see, a control group that hadn’t been exposed to Virgin Mobile content was compared to a control group that had seen 5–9 pieces of Virgin Mobile content. Impressively, those exposed to Virgin Mobile content were 389 percent more likely to agree that “Virgin Mobile is a brand that understands me and the things that I like.”

Assuming that Virgin Mobile’s goal was to demonstrate an increase in brand affinity, this is clearly a robust return on investment.

Purchase intent can be measured as well. As shown see below, repeated exposure to Virgin Mobile’s content had a big impact on purchase consideration.

calculating ROI

BuzzFeed measured this brand lift with one of the most popular survey providers out there—Vizu, which boasts that its platform’s advantage is that it “allows advertisers and their partners in the digital media ecosystem to collaborate around optimizing Brand Lift metrics, moving their target audience through the purchase funnel, from building awareness to creating intent and preference.”

In other words, surveys can measure many different kinds of brand lift metrics and be customized according to your marketing objectives.

Lift is great for these kinds of affinity measurements. You get a clear sense of how readers are being influenced by your content overall. But they aren’t perfect. For starters, they’re relatively expensive to run, and can be a drain on your marketing budget. They also make it difficult to get granular insight into which of your content is leading to greater lift.

Luckily, you can calculate brand lift another way—though repeat exposure and engaged time.

3. Properly using engaged time and repeat visitors

While lift is great for measuring the overall effects of your content on your reader’s perceptions, it doesn’t tell you which pieces of content consumers spend the most time with or are the most loyal to. You can use a direct measurement for that.

We call our measurement “engaged time,” which tracks time spent actively engaging with content on the page: scrolling, highlighting, clicking, etc. As you can see in the chart below, there is a direct relationship between engaged time spent with content and the likelihood that reader will return.

calculating ROI

Repeat visitors are incredibly important for a few reasons. At a base level, repeat visits clearly indicate that you’re building a relationship with that consumer, which is the fundamental basis of the sales funnel we discussed in section one. Secondly, as we examined in the Virgin Mobile/BuzzFeed case study, repeat exposures to content greatly increase brand lift.

This allows you to make two conclusions about pieces of content that are attracting a lot of readers and a lot of engaged time:

  • That content is building relationships by compelling readers to return.
  • That content is creating an increase in brand lift by facilitating repeat exposures.

As you can see in the graph below from Yahoo, there’s also a positive correlation between time exposed to branded content and brand recall.

calculating ROI

Ultimately, engaged time and repeat visitors are a fantastic indication that your content is building relationships and helping you achieve your marketing objectives. Which leaves us with the granddaddy of content marketing ROI: conversion.

4. Tracking conversions

So now that people are relying on you—and they like you—how do you know they actually choose you as the result of your content?

For that, you need to track the pathways between your content channels and the point of conversion. This is Content Marketing 101, and great odes have been written about how to do this well. One of our favorites is this Beginner’s Guide from Search Engine Journal, and it serves as a great refresher checklist if you’ve been tracking conversions for a while now.

In the end, remember: Content marketing is all about building relationships, and content marketing ROI is all about measuring the power of those relationships. And conversions, while crucial, are just one cog in a relationship wheel that never stops spinning. But with a healthy ecosystem of metrics—lift, engaged time, repeat visitor interactions, and conversion events—you can keep track of those relationships over time, and truly understand the impact that your content is having on your business.

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A 4-Step Guide to Evangelizing Content Within Your Brand

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Data Journalism on a Shoestring Budget: 5 Easy Steps

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