ROI

The Biggest Reason Brands Fail When Tying Content to Business Goals

By Melissa Lafsky March 9th, 2016

I recently attended the content kickoff for a midsize company that had just decided to make a big content marketing push. Publishing was new territory, so they’d hired a team, brought me in as a content strategist, and allocated a significant annual budget for content production.

On kickoff day, the team gathered in a conference room, eager and excited to build a strategy and develop an editorial calendar for the upcoming quarter. But before a single theme or story idea was discussed, one of the senior team members put up a slide in front of the room. It read:

“ROI GOALS: 1) Lead generation 2) Increase sales 3) Customer retention/loyalty 4) Upsell.”

“These goals,” she said, “have been handed down from upstairs, and they are the standards upon all content ideas will be judged. Before we approve an idea, it must be mapped to one of these goals.”

In seconds, I could feel the energy leave the room. People who had walked in with pages of ideas were now starting at notes, clearly making mental calculations: Will any one of my ideas make it through these preliminary hurdles?

That declaration changed the trajectory of the entire editorial calendar that the team mapped out during the meeting. No one wanted to be the person who suggested a story that couldn’t directly tie back to a specific business goal ahead of time. As a result of that one slide, the team moved forward with lower morale, the content they produced saw less engagement than I had expected, and the whole operation struggled to reach its goals.

This example isn’t an isolated incident. Brands often run into trouble if they demand that every piece generates ROI. That’s not to say they should ignore ROI—understanding how publishing leads to business is essential for any content marketer. But there’s one factor that’s more important, especially when you’re just starting out: audience needs.

A tenet of digital publishing is that no one reads, watches, or shares anything unless they have a good reason. If your audience doesn’t trust you or care about what you publish, how is your content supposed to drive ROI?

Content marketing is still trying to find a reconciliation between the goals of traditional marketing—to sell a product—and the goals of editorial content—to inform or entertain an audience. A publishing operation that tips too heavily to one side or the other will inevitably run into problems, either from lack of ROI or lack of audience response.

The key to avoiding this pitfall is knowing how to approach your content before you start. You need to build a relationship with your audience, so it helps to answer some major questions that can yield insights: Who are our current customers? What’s important to them? What problems do we solve? What authority do we have and how can we share it to improve people’s lives?

A developed and documented content strategy will lay out an audience-first standard that answers the above questions and then weaves in ROI goals. This strategy will leave room for creative thinking outside of the need for leads.

When I think back on the misguided content kickoff, there was another element missing from the company’s approach: training. If your company is (relatively) new to digital publishing, you have to teach your employees how to think about content, both from a marketing and editorial perspective. It’s not just a matter of making some hires, buying some technology, and filling an editorial calendar with glorified sales collateral.

Chances are that your team will consist of both former journalists and experienced marketers—and each side can offer a value perspective as you try to map out how ROI fits into your gameplan. People with editorial backgrounds can help turn dry product updates into full-fledged stories and know how to push back against overt self-promotion. Marketing folks, meanwhile, can help content creators stay true to company messaging and know how to attribute your content to sales.

Don’t think about ROI as the enemy of creativity. The two need to work together. But if you focus on how your content will help your business instead of your customers, you’ll likely wind up wondering where you went wrong.

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