These Analytics Led Us to a Facebook Breakthrough

I hear a lot of complaints from content marketers, but here’s one that never comes up: We have too many readers. Usually, it’s the opposite. A brand invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in a content marketing program, builds a good-looking site, creates a lot of quality content, and watches with disappointment as only a few thousand readers trickle in each month.

Luckily, there’s an easy solution: paid content distribution, which should be a part of every brand’s content strategy. On an over-simplified level, if you’re going to spend $400 on an article, spending an extra $50 to ensure that twice as many people see that article just makes sense, assuming that traffic is high-quality. (There are also much bigger benefits, which we’ll get to more below.) At Contently, our preferred method of attracting those extra readers is through sponsored posts on Facebook, which offers an unmatched combo of audience targeting, buying efficiency, and, most importantly, traffic quality.

Over the past year, Facebook has greatly improved its content distribution. You can target by age, gender, location, job, pages liked, and a slew of other factors. This targeting is important because we don’t just want clicks; we need to ensure that we’re reaching the right audience of engaged readers who spend time with our content, and are therefore more likely to turn into email subscribers, loyal readers, and, hopefully, folks who will buy Contently’s services one day.

We rely on a small budget for our paid content distribution on Facebook, which we have to spend wisely. Luckily, our content seems to strike a chord with our target audience of marketers on Facebook, and if our social media editor Kieran is optimizing just for clicks, we can get traffic at about a $0.05 cost per click. But again, we don’t just want clicks. This is where deeper engagement metrics play a big role helping us decide which stories to promote.

Through Contently Analytics, the proprietary smart analytics program baked into our platform, we can see not only how many people come to us from various referral traffic stories, but also more meaningful metrics like what percentage of those readers were engaged readers, how much of the article they finished, and, on average, how much time they spent actively reading our content (scrolling, highlighting, clicking, etc.), among other data points.

For instance, if we’re getting traffic to a story at $0.05 a click from Facebook, but readers are only spending an average of 45 seconds with the piece, that’s not good. It means we’re not delivering what the reader was expecting in some way. For instance, take an interview we did with Richard Branson a couple months back. We sent it out in our newsletter, and those readers were really engaged, spending four or more minutes with the piece. We then put a small amount of money behind the story on Facebook, and saw this—a huge red flag:

This piece cost us just $0.05 a click on Facebook, and if we’d judged based on that, we’d think it was a huge success and probably put more money behind it. But clearly… not so much. We couldn’t even get these readers to stay for a full minute. There was something about the piece that ultimately didn’t resonate with the readers we were targeting. (My guess is the headline and copy captured the attention of people interested in Branson, but those people may not have cared enough about his intricate take on content marketing.)

By contrast, let’s examine a similar piece from earlier this year, an interview I did with marketing legend Seth Godin. The CPC for this article ($0.18) was more than 3x that of the Branson piece, but damn, look at that average engaged time—five minutes! The interview is really long, so we can excuse not everyone finishing it.

Ultimately, this piece is a much, much better use of our content distribution budget, especially when you consider that the readers coming to it are subsequently sharing the piece thousand of times, leading to more free traffic from other sources. But without a way to measure these deeper engagement analytics, we would have wasted a ton of money promoting the wrong story.

I focused on attention time a lot, but it’s worth keeping in mind that there are other big benefits that come from promoting the right piece of content. Readers of that Seth Godin piece converted to email subscribers at about a 5 percent rate, which means we earned a bonus email subscriber for every $3—probably closer to $2 per subscriber when you take into account all the free traffic we got from people resharing the piece, either on Facebook or otherwise. Additionally, plenty of readers checked out our solutions pages and converted into leads and opportunities. It’s a beautiful system that delivers compounding returns.

Looking back at this year, our biggest success may have been that we figured out how to use the right metrics to optimize our paid content distribution. It’s helped us grow our audience to over 250,000 monthly readers, more than double our mailing list, and take our inbound marketing machine to new heights. Considering it’s such a simple system, I’d encourage all content marketers to figure out how they can marry their content distribution and analytics in 2016.

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