ROI

The Ant and the Grasshopper, or Why Ignoring ROI Is a Death Wish

By Joe Lazauskas July 14th, 2015

When I contemplate the content marketing industry’s tumultuous relationship with ROI, I often think back to the last week of college at my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College—the much-dreaded “Conference Week.”

Sarah Lawrence focuses on writing the same way the Trix Rabbit fixates on brightly colored breakfast cereal: It’s an obsession. There are no finals; instead, you write a 25-page mini-thesis for each class, the result of biweekly meetings with your professors in which you’re given a dozen books to read and ordered to dive into the academic tidal pool of LexisNexis. The idea is that after 12 weeks of hard, methodical work, you produce a brilliant paper that establishes you as the preeminent scholar of your generation.

Most of my friends, however, used a different approach. The biweekly meetings with professors were often trials of masterful bullshitting, prepped for with frantic skimming of SparkNotes. This strategy usually worked—even if the professor could smell the bullshit, they wouldn’t always have the energy to call the student out on it—but it was a harrowing ritual nonetheless. On any given day, at least one of my friends would be in the midst of a mild panic attack, certain that their professors would discover their deception. In desperate times, they’d fake being sick or cry, but you could really only play those cards once. After feigning progress the whole semester, everyone would blindly pray to the Adderall gods that they’d somehow pull through.

Though a screwup in many ways, I avoided this hellish routine thanks to my natural Jewish neurosis. The stress of not doing the work would tear a hole in my stomach, so I tended to get my papers in early. I also couldn’t endure the inferno that was “Conference Week”—the seven days leading up to the end of the semester. It was a grizzly, confusing scene: 40 acres of idyllic grounds in high spring, dotted with ivied manors pulled straight out of The Great Gatsby, were suddenly infested with 800 sleep-deprived, hollow-eyed students manically guzzling every stimulant in sight, all in hopes of cranking out 75 pages in a single week.

Usually, after a little bit of research, they’d discover that the thesis they’d been bullshitting about for three months was, in fact, total bullshit. It didn’t make sense, and you couldn’t write a paper on it. So they’d either have to start from scratch or make a bunch of things up so that they could jam their square thesis into a round hole. By the end, they’d look more zombie than human, even if they’d miraculously made it through.

It was a real-life fable, the collegiate version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” the famous cautionary tale about preparing for winter. They were grasshoppers, dancing the semester away while the few ants among us toiled steadily at their papers.

The panic in the grasshopper’s eyes when the end of the semester arrived was vivid and real, and I’ve only seen it one other place since: in the pupils of content marketers who have to show their bosses how their work generates ROI at the end of the quarter.

A content marketing fable

I’m going to generalize a lot here, but I think there are two different kinds of content marketers: those who plan like the ant and those who ignore hard work like the grasshopper. (I’ll refrain from making a bad Antman joke here.)

The latter group reminds me of my procrastinating friends from college; they start with a vague idea of what they’d like to accomplish, get it approved, and then do relatively minimal work, generally content to just cover their asses and get by. They fake it, throw up one or two vanity blog posts a week, and pray that no one asks any tough questions about ROI.

The content marketers who prepare, however, have a clear plan and goals in mind, and relentlessly work to reevaluate that plan and make sure it’s on track. They know if their aim is audience growth, SQLs/MQLs, brand building, customer education, or, more likely, a blend of a myriad of metrics. They can see the finish line, and they’re constantly tinkering with their content to get there.

Recently, someone at Contently asked me what’s different about the way our content team works this year versus a year ago, since our monthly audience is twice as big, our content is driving tons of leads, and, to be honest, the stories we publish are a lot better.

There are a lot of factors at play, but the biggest one is that we’ve become much better at thinking like the ant.

At the start of every quarter, we have a big planning meeting where we lay out all the big projects we want to accomplish over the next quarter. We audit our overall content strategy and think about badass new storytelling formats and topics that we think will expand our overall audience. We also map out a series of big reports that we feel will reach the marketing executives who are important to the business side of Contently. During the first half of this year, for example, that meant “The Ultimate Content Strategist Playbooks” series; a half dozen other e-books; a few original studies; two custom spring editions of our print magazine, Contently Quarterly; and consistent improvement and innovation in our daily content.

Since we have clear goals laid out, we’ve been able to benchmark our progress on a weekly and monthly basis—something my former Sarah Lawrence classmates couldn’t do while they were procrastinating and getting lost in the hallways after eating too many mushrooms. When my team at Contently was off the mark and not accomplishing what we needed to, we knew it immediately and could correct our course. This ensured that we didn’t find ourselves scrambling at the end of the quarter to justify to our VP of finance just what the hell we’ve been doing all this time.

When you’re a content marketer with a diligent plan, it’s pretty hard to fail. After all, the great thing about content is that creating it is in your control. If you pay attention to what works and then bust your ass to double down on those strategies, chances are you’ll have enough successes to hit your benchmarks (and, most likely, exceed them).

But if you’re a content marketer who, like the grasshopper, is ignoring the coming winter, not even a week-long Adderall binge will help you when it inevitably arrives. But hey, at least you’ll be too busy obsessively cleaning your kitchen to remember that you no longer have a job.

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