The uncomfortable state of content marketing metrics

content marketing metrics

 

In a post titled Content Marketing – It’s About to Get Weird, my friend Joe Pulizzi revealed disappointing findings from an annual research survey. Here’s how he broke the news:

In our 2016 Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends research (conducted in partnership with MarketingProfs), the effectiveness rate for B2B organizations actually went down (from 38 percent in 2015 to 30 percent in 2016). This is not good. And the worst may be yet to come.

Joe goes on to paint a hopeful picture of content marketing’s future by plugging this problem into the Gartner’s “hype cycle” model.

The Gartner model suggests that with any new technology adoption, there is exuberant adoption followed by disillusionment, which can be redeemed by a period of “enlightenment” when core problems are resolved and expectations soar again.

While I’m not sure content marketing is a “technology” appropriate for this model, I agree with Joe that the problems faced by content marketing may get worse before it gets better, but maybe not for the same reasons.

Fixing the content marketing problem

Do you remember when the first MP3 players were introduced? I bought into the hype and purchased an early version. It sucked. The thing held about 12 songs and the battery died after two hours.

Steve Jobs iterated, and in 2011 Apple launched the IPod. The period of enlightenment for the MP3 player began.

But it doesn’t always work that way. 8-track players didn’t re-enter a period of enlightenment. MySpace didn’t enter a period of enlightenment. Lots of good ideas die.

What’s the difference? To enter that period of enlightenment, you need to correct the problems that created the disillusionment in the first place.

What is creating disillusionment in content marketing? I think the answer is also embedded in the new CMI findings: 65 percent of the marketers say “measurement” is their top priority, specifically figuring out “what content works and what doesn’t.” Year after year leaders lament an inability to measure their marketing efforts.

And here’s the fact that makes me concerned about whether content marketing will rebound as a tactic or spiral down in an 8 track kind of way: The measurement problem is getting worse, not better. Let’s unpack the idea and see why that is so.

Content measurement is getting more difficult

I have a confession to make. I have no idea how many people will read this blog post. I can’t even make an educated guess.

Doesn’t that seem like it would be a simple thing to know? Wouldn’t that simple metric form the basis of knowing what content is working and what isn’t in my marketing world?

While content is the fuel for social media success, we simply can’t even trace its path today.

Five years ago, I had a decent idea of how many people actually viewed an individual post. People subscribed and I had an idea of open rate. Perhaps they found the article organically and I had a record of page views in Google Analytics.

With Facebook’s preoccupation with dwell time, more and more often we will be posting content, not just links, on our updates. And that’s when an individual blog post takes on a life of its own.

The happy life of a successful blog post

WHERE you are reading this post right now is anybody’s guess because the focus on content distribution has made the measurement issue profoundly worse …

  • Since Facebook is rewarding “dwell time” instead of links that take people away from its site, I have been posting some entire articles into a Facebook Note. How many people read that note? No idea.
  • A recent Facebook Note I created was shared by 10 other Facebook friends. How many people in those audiences viewed my post? I don’t have a clue.
  • I also posted this on LinkedIn. LinkedIn does give you some idea of how many people viewed it, so there is a number!
  • I cut and pasted this post into Medium. Why? I want to increase the distribution of my content. I can see likes, recommendations, comments and “reads.” The Medium “read ratio” is unique among publishing platforms and is an interesting indicator of success.
  • Some of my posts are good enough to be turned into a feature on Harvard Business Review, where I am a contributor. This would get a ton of views. How many? I don’t have access to that information.
  • High profile sites like Ragan’s PR Daily often syndicate my posts. So, with my permission, they suck up my article and post in a newsletter that goes to hundreds of thousands of people. An entirely new audience, an entirely new unknown number of readers.

Now, here’s one last big one. Studies consistently show that about 70 percent of the social sharing on the web is “dark,” meaning that they share it in a way we cannot see like email, direct messages, or a text from a phone. I have one reader in Canada who prints out many of my articles and posts them on a company bulletin board!

What does this all mean?

If a company is doing a decent job publishing and distributing its content, they can never really know how many people see it. So when the boss comes in and says “Great job producing all this content! How many people are viewing our work?” … and you shrug your shoulders … well that’s not a good sign.

And that is why many companies are freaking out about content marketing. It is really, really hard to track even simple things … like a page view. And like it or not, we live in a world that expects measurement. I think that is what’s showing up in the CMI research.

Christopher S. Penn, author of the brilliant new book Marketing Red Belt: Connecting With Your Creative Mind, is one of the most intelligent and resourceful analytical minds on our planet. Here’s what he had to say about measuring something as basic as content “views:”

Total views across platforms is almost impossible to measure unless you have access to the hosting sites’ analytics … views are the undiscovered holy grail of top-of-funnel attribution. If anyone else has a working solution that’s sound, let me know too!

I’m a data-oriented guy. I want to see results. I want to measure. I NEED to measure. But this whole gig is getting uncomfortably close to the place where the answer to your manager’s question about the value of content marketing is “trust me.”

As bad as advertising measurement may be, the irony is, the technology-enabled new kid on the block, content marketing, may becoming even worse. We can’t even estimate “impressions.”

The crucial bridge between content and conversions, the trusty link, is deteriorating. Analytical capabilities are not keeping up with the changes in the industry.

What’s the answer?

Do we ignore it?

My friend Mitch Jackson, a lawyer and entrepreneur in California, has a radical approach for his business:

Things are changing and they’re changing exponentially fast. Not doing something because it can’t be quantified or measured just may be a recipe for becoming obsolete. Believe me Mark, I “get it” but I’ve also always been able to see the benefits of change when others don’t, or are afraid to embrace it. That’s what’s allowed me to stay ahead of the curve.

Is Mitch’s approach of racing head-long into content marketing without a measure a sign of the future?

Maybe. I can see what he is saying. As a small business, I don’t dwell on the minutia of measuring. I can see the macro-benefits over time and I’m comfortable with that.

But for most businesses, especially large businesses, we simply must measure. How do you know whether to spend more or less on content marketing? How do you know if your trends are heading in the right direction?

Not only must we measure, we must measure in the language of business: Leads, sales, cost savings, customer satisfaction. Don’t count on changing company culture. That may take decades. But that is a story for another time.

Well folks this post has already run long enough (and I thank you for making it this far!). But there are a lot more ideas to explore in future posts:

  • The importance of qualitative measures.
  • The dance between measurement and company culture.
  • Why measurement technology is not keeping up with marketing needs.
  • New ways to think about measurement to satisfy the CMO and the language of business.
  • Creating realistic expectations with management.
  • ROI versus relevance.
  • Why social sharing may be the only measure that matters.

The key to moving out of the trough of disillusionment is not more content, better content, or expecting CMO’s to “understand.”

The problem that needs to be “fixed” is measurement, pure and simple. And because the tech is not keeping up with the changes in Facebook and other platforms, that solution is rapidly moving away from us, not getting closer.

Your thoughts?

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Sam

Book reference is an affiliate link.

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  • Not to make things even worse, but I just had to share my chuckle this morning…I was reading this blog post through my Triberr stream (you know how you can click to open and read before you share?) and it completely reaffirmed your point about “wild” content. Yes, you can see the fact that I shared it out to Twitter, but the ability to read the full post is definitely “dark.”

  • wow. powerful point. also the opposite — a click does not mean a “read” !! : )

  • Michael Miller

    In a “misery loves company” kind of way, it’s comforting to know that smart people like you, Joe and Chris are having the same struggles that I am. I think eventually tools will catch up with this, but only for a moment. As marketers we seem destined to (to paraphrase the famous quote) never know which 50% of our budget we’re wasting. The only absolute way to avoid the measurement trap is to avoid those tactics we can’t absolutely measure. But that means abandoning things that we know add value, even if we can’t prove it. Hopefully, your higher level numbers are positive and you can point to those when leaders come knocking.

  • This is great food for thought. One of the questions I have about the CMI study is, “what is effectiveness” defined as? More sales? Measurements should be aligned with goals and translated to the digital channel. I tell clients all the time, if we send you 100 leads a month from this downloadable study, but your sales team doesn’t follow up to close any of them, is that the fault of marketing? The measure for digital marketing success in this example should not be sales, it should be “leads” from the digital work done. But often that translation doesn’t happen, and there’s no clear agreement on what is a true measure of success. So if you don’t know what success looks like, how will you recognize it when it happens?

  • I agree MIchael. Truly, it is getting weird. I don’t think the analytics are keeping up with the demand

  • Well said. Nothing to add except thank you for your thought-provoking comment Mana.

  • Yeah this really got me thinking…especially since not only can I read the post in Triberr (and other platforms), there is a “dark comment” stream there too. A whole other layer of complexity.

  • Yikes. Stop it. You are making my head hurt.

  • Morning Mark. Much of the sharing world is dark indeed. What isn’t dark though are leads. I’m certain the majority of marketers are tracking visitors at the individual level (if they are still watching traffic numbers, they are losing the game). I for one notice the immediate impact of doubling or halving the number of posts I publish, or the amount of interaction I engage in, and I can see how those individuals arrive at and traverse my website. So, rather than worrying about content views, I’m focussed on the views an individual has. Much better metric and indicator of whether or not your content is working for you.

  • I probably didn’t cover this properly in this article. But if you are posting/promoting your articles on social media platforms you are getting the views on those platforms, not your website. Since Facebook and LinkedIn are focusing on dwell time they don’t want links, they want the content. So increasingly to get visibility, we need to post, not link and this creates problems for the inbound model.

  • Delaney Turner

    I think this issue says as much, if not more, about marketers than it does about content marketing. We’ve gone from saying “we can’t measure anything” to “now we can measure everything.” Unfortunately, the results are about the same in both cases.

    Marketers who focus exclusively on leads will miss the macro trends and big market shifts. Those who focus only on the big macro shifts will have no real ROI to stand on.

    Solving this challenge means knowing what you can measure and prove, what you can’t (or with the same degree of accuracy) and then making sure your content strategy can account for each.

    You also need to be honest with your execs when it comes to setting expectations.

    Build a strategy that can draw a strong enough link / connect enough of the dots to prove your impact on pipeline and sales, but also be willing to say “there’s some stuff that is helping us, but we can’t control it or measure it in the same amount of detail.”

    Obviously, marketers want their content to reach as many (relevant) people as possible. Inevitably, that means submitting it to other publishers (or having it picked up by other publishers) whose data you may never see. You can use that venue’s advertising rates and even its reputation as a proxy for reach, but chasing down exact figures for this kind of exposure is a fool’s errand.

    On the other hand, Marketo and companies in its ecosytem can do a damn fine job measuring the ROI of your content as well. But they won’t tell you the whole story.

  • Racer721

    I agree with Randy that views aren’t the end game. Isn’t the point not about reaching the audience but rather what we want to them to do once we reach them?

    I do say that the social publishing at the moment has very weak CTA integration (no surprise) but you can still ask a reader to take some sort of action after they read your stuff.

    And perhaps it’s a Canadian thing but I still see lots of referral traffic back to our websites from FB and Linkedin through links which is translating into leads for us.

  • No doubt a Canadian thing ? ?

  • Yes, I agree. All good points. I also can get referrals back from FB if I want to but I believe this dynamic is changing, although it certainly is different by region.

  • Superb comment sir. A great blog post in its own right.

  • Delaney Turner

    Thanks! I was thinking the same, myself. I’ll add it to the list. Also, I’m really enjoying your “Content Code.” Essential reading, really.

  • Great article Mark! When you step back and really think about it, I we are already well into a new globally engaged digital and live streaming world requiring completely different mindsets, approaches and ideas. Just because I can’t put a number on how valuable my relationships, reputation and sphere of influence are doesn’t mean they aren’t critically important. Not being able to quantify the ROI of these relationships, much less the ROI of my front office receptionists, wife and family, has nothing to do with the value they have in my life and frankly, my success. I enjoy measuring things when I can but, I’ll never allow the inability to measure something interfere with my ability to be unique, stand out, and succeed. These are exciting times and I’m glad we’re all trying to figure things out together!

  • Thanks Mitch.

  • Means a lot. Thank you. I’m proud of the book. My best work (so far!)

  • randyclarktko

    Great stuff Mark. As a content marketer I often feel like I’m alone driving in the dark. Surely, someones has a better grip on content ROI than I do!? I know the “big players” have the perfect answer for the C suite!? I mean–don’t they? After reading this I don’t feel so alone or off track. Thanks man.

  • Thanks Mark. I’m a huge fan of your blog. You’re the thought-provoking one :).

  • Thank you so much for those kind words Mana!

  • We’re all in this together. I actually have a lot of ideas on measurement that I think can help so watch this space : )

  • Lori Gosselin

    Hi Mark,
    There is a lot of information here! I’m really bad with stats and worse with analyzing them. But one thing that is helping me measure the success or not of the content marketing I’ve been doing is watching my Admin panel on my site to see what pages the people arrive on. I can’t always (unless I’m watching real time traffic) connect the dots between their arrival on the site and whether of not they order but I’m working on it. Still if one article brings copious amounts of traffic there has got to be a return on that in terms of sales, no?
    Basically (and I’m no pro at this) I try to anticipate which questions they will ask and write an article about each one. So much fun figuring this stuff out!
    Lori

  • Lori Gosselin

    Hi Rosemary! Don’t you just love Triberr though 🙂 What a great source for wonderful content!

  • Yes, I do love it. I use it every day!

  • Thanks Lori.Traffic alone is probably not a great measure but it’s a start. Also good to look at how long people are spending on your pages. Good luck and thanks so much for reading my blog and taking the time to comment!

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  • Hi Mark…thanks for the inclusion. Really good thinking here. I do think that measuring impressions is a pointless activity. At the same time, right now, you can still measure the behavior of a subscriber. Brian Clark can tell you how many people purchased his software and all the different behaviors they’ve been making up to that point as an email subscriber. We know at CMI that those within our audience that subscribe to three different activities are MUCH more likely to come to Content Marketing World or Intelligent Content Conference.

    All those wonderful activities you create content in, lead to interest around you, and many of those opt-in to subscribe to your content.

    But to your last point, many (if not most) marketers are measuring, but they aren’t measuring the right things. We know that if we build an audience that knows, likes and trusts us, that audience will be more likely to show positive behavioral changes. Content then can help us create better customers. At least that’s the goal.

    Thanks my friend!

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  • I think the issue that concerns me, and is certainly reflected in the huge volume of posts on the subject and the CMI research, is that measurement is a moving target because of the radical changes in the delivery platforms and our own distribution techniques. This is a maturing marketing practice. It makes no sense that a majority of marketers are still frustrated with measurement. The analytics in the space do not seem to be keeping up. Thanks for your continued leadership in this area and for taking the time to comment Joe.

  • Neil Patrick

    Amen to your comment Delaney! Good job I read the comments before posting or I’d risk repeating some of your views. And thank you for reminding me to get Mark’s Content Code book which has been on my to do list for too long.

    For what it is worth, I would just add that with my clients I attempt – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – to manage their expectations and reframe how they think about this stuff. They usually have to make a leap of faith, and accept that some of what happens is too nebulous to be measured in mechanical ways. We measure what we can and accept that making the fuzzy areas crystal clear is probably not worth the effort – clients without MBAs are much easier to persuade on this point!

    Rather than attempting to measure ROI as costs and incomes, I prefer to think about it as an intangible asset on the Balance sheet – i.e. an investment we nurture, rather than cost and income lines on the P&L. This mindshift seems easier for those who haven’t undergone years of management and professional ‘development’.

    Thank you both for showing me that greater minds than mine are grappling with the same issues. I feel much less lonely now!

  • Neil Patrick

    Amen to your comment Delaney! Good job I read the comments before posting or I’d risk repeating some of your views. And thank you for reminding me to get Mark’s Content Code book which has been on my to do list for too long.

    For what it is worth, I would just add that with my clients I attempt – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – to manage their expectations and reframe how they think about this stuff. They usually have to make a leap of faith, and accept that some of what happens is too nebulous to be measured in mechanical ways. We measure what we can and accept that making the fuzzy areas crystal clear is probably not worth the effort – clients without MBAs are much easier to persuade on this point!

    Rather than attempting to measure ROI as costs and incomes, I prefer to think about it as an intangible asset on the Balance sheet – i.e. an investment we nurture, rather than cost and income lines on the P&L. This mindshift seems easier for those who haven’t undergone years of management and professional ‘development’.

    Thank you both for showing me that greater minds than mine are grappling with the same issues. I feel much less lonely now!

  • katehenley

    Great post. Ideas for future discussion are really interesting.
    Wish I had answers to the questions.
    But havent we always been obsessed with quantity?
    Now its likes or followers ( ie numbers) and back in the day it was opportunity
    To see, people meter data or subscription rates. Non of which told us
    Anything about engagement then either.

  • katehenley

    Great post. Ideas for future discussion are really interesting.
    Wish I had answers to the questions.
    But havent we always been obsessed with quantity?
    Now its likes or followers ( ie numbers) and back in the day it was opportunity
    To see, people meter data or subscription rates. Non of which told us
    Anything about engagement then either.

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