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Move Past ROI To Paint a Clearer Picture of Content Impact

With great content marketing comes an even greater set of challenges — measuring performance and getting buy-in from the C-suite.

For traditional marketers, performance measurement operates on metrics that roll nicely into ROI. While it’s far from perfect, the C-suite pitch is straightforward: “For every dollar spent on X, we saw Y return on our investment.”

The signals supporting that conclusion might be difficult to decipher, and the line tying marketing impact to business value can get a little fuzzy. However, most organizations comfortably rely on that formula to set strategies and allocate budgets. It’s how business is done because business has been done that way for a long time.

Determining content marketing’s impact is a different (and more complex) story. The editorial product is closer in spirit to something a media company might produce. But unlike media companies, which sell advertising and subscriptions, content marketing lives in service of the larger enterprise and its business objectives.

Your content operations might share goals, audience touchpoints, and reporting processes with other organizational functions. However, you can’t always access their proprietary systems, let alone their performance data, to quantify content’s impact across them.

The measurement problem isn’t due to a shortage of useful metrics. It’s an issue that’s most effectively addressed with a two-part approach: First, content marketers must align their operations with a business goal — a process that largely informs which performance metrics they’ll use. Second, you must secure buy-in from the C-suite — a goal that requires persistence, trust, and good communication.

Editorial metrics sell the story of awareness

“You’re always serving two masters with content marketing,” says Richard Murphy, editor-in-chief and director of global brand thought leadership for ServiceNow, a B2B company that automates processes across nearly every enterprise function. There’s awareness, which is what the PR and brand folks care most about, and then there’s conversion — essentially what people do after consuming the content — which is what the sales folks care most about.”

Richard says the editorial priorities and metrics used to track performance largely depend on where content marketing sits inside the organization. 

“When we started, we were part of the communications team, which focused mainly on earned media hits,” he explains. “Today, we sit in brand marketing, where the focus is more on brand awareness.”

But no matter which broader team they work under, Richard says their focus is always on creating useful, hopefully inspiring content about enterprise tech and business strategy for an audience of senior leaders. “We measure content performance using traditional publishing metrics like unique visitors and time on site, as well as marketing-oriented metrics like registering to download a gated asset.”

Those metrics break down into three buckets:

  • How many people are consuming the content?
  • Are they the right people (based on LinkedIn audience data)?
  • How engaged are those people once they are on the site? 

According to Annie Granatstein, vice president of content marketing at Marriott International, the story is similar on the B2C side.

“Marriott Bonvoy is still a relatively fresh brand (five years), so we’re aiming to raise brand awareness, [increase] understanding of the Marriott Bonvoy travel program, and drive cultural relevancy,” Annie says.

The measurements Marriott Bonvoy uses should be familiar to digital marketers. For video, they measure views, watch time, and completion rate. Performance for articles and websites is measured by page views and time spent. On social media, Marriott Bonvoy measures engagement rates and social actions. For Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, their digital travel magazine, Annie says they’ve implemented Knotch Cards — polls embedded at the end of content, to capture audience engagement and perception data in real time.

But it’s not about racking up media metrics for direct marketing purposes. Richard says his primary goal is to use content marketing for thought leadership, building trust with decision-makers who will, hopefully, become ServiceNow customers down the road.

“In brand advertising, you rent an audience and deliver compelling creative,” he says. “We’re building our own audience. Dollar for dollar, content marketing isn’t as expensive, but it takes longer to build your own audience and gain their trust. We just have to keep chipping away.”

For Annie, content marketing is also about driving brand love and opening the door to deeper storytelling. When Marriott Bonvoy’s TikTok followers grew by 293,000 in a year, that was a measurable outcome that speaks to brand love. When About the Journey, Marriott Bonvoy’s podcast, is featured on Apple Podcasts alongside major publishers like Conde Nast Traveler and The Washington Post, that’s a qualitative measure that tells Annie consumers see Marriott Bonvoy as a storyteller worth listening to.

“By increasing our ability to measure brand love we are showing leadership that they can rely on the content team to drive that important goal,” Annie says. “Focusing on metrics that show engagement, such as video watch time, can be powerful for leadership, as content marketing is deeper storytelling than other forms of advertising, engaging consumers more and for longer durations.”

Conversion metrics are messy (and they might be in the eye of the beholder)

Conversion, the other master content marketers typically serve, presents a different set of challenges. Sure, you can measure the percentage of readers who visit your website and fill out a form for a gated asset. But those metrics aren’t always a straight line to conversion, says Tiahn Wetzler, director of content and insights at Adjust, a B2B mobile performance measurement company owned by AppLovin.

“A lot of content focuses on awareness, but with good measurement and buyer understanding, specific formats can drive impressive lower-funnel impact,” Tiahn says. “We make it our goal to consistently reinforce [to leadership] that content isn’t just traffic, clicks, or downloads; it’s an essential sales tool and a highly effective driver of leads and pipeline.”

Yet, measuring conversion has its limits, says Tiffany Muriel, director of marketing at AppLovin. Yes, content marketers should stitch together conversion metrics up and down the funnel, but Tiffany says it’s equally important to create a culture of testing and learning.   

“[An] important part of our reporting process is communicating key learnings and insights — where we can improve next time, where we’re excelling, and where we can lean in,” she says. A big part of our growth is our commitment to constantly learning and iterating.”

There’s also a nuanced question at work when it comes to understanding conversion.

“We’re heavily invested in thought leadership, which is about building trust in our brand,” Richard Murphy says. “We’ve never been responsible for lead gen, but when we measure the willingness to give up an email address for access to gated content, the product marketing team looks at that and sees a lead, whereas I see [it as] a measure of trust. Same metric, different interpretations.”

In other words, content marketing doesn’t just serve two metric masters; its performance can mean something different, depending on the metric’s user.

How should you sell content success to the C-suite?

If you think measuring the performance of content marketing is challenging, try explaining what you’ve learned to the C-suite. That’s a daily challenge for Andy Crestodina, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Orbit Media Studios, an agency that helps B2B clients with content marketing.

“I’ll often hear someone say, ‘We should be doing something with TikTok,’ or ‘We need to start a newsletter,’” Andy says. “That’s the sign of a leader who is going to launch content without really thinking it through, then three months later run out of steam because they have no idea what the [business value] is.”

A good content marketer can teach any business leader how to measure content’s contributions, but that doesn’t mean every leader is willing to listen. You need a leader who trusts the process while you build a content operation and gain traction.

“It’s a long-game mindset,” Andy says. “It’s weird to say it, but it’s actually good that a lot of leaders don’t understand content marketing. When they give up it leaves more room for the rest of us.”

But even when leadership gets it, you still must regularly make the case — and reinforce their understanding of it. At Marriott Bonvoy, where leadership knows the value of content marketing, continually raising internal visibility for content marketing is still crucial.

“What we do, especially in a large organization, can be lost amidst traditional, broad-scale advertising efforts, Annie Granatstein says. “I regularly send emails regarding important launches [and round up] content around major cultural events (like the recent eclipse) and awards news (like our recent 13 Webby nods). And we’re about to launch a quarterly holistic content update.”

At B2C companies, it’s usually a good sign when leadership willingly allocates resources based on the results their content marketing team drives. That’s true at B2B companies, too, but another measure of their buy-in is leadership’s willingness to serve as subject matter experts and co-create content.

“Getting your C-suite to contribute is also key,” Richard says. “That’s a good sign you’re in sync with them.”

And if you can’t sync up with leadership?

“If a content leader is doing everything they can to prove the value of content marketing and tell that story, but their boss still won’t listen,” Andy says, “well, sometimes you have to find a new job.”     

Michael Estrin

Michael Estrin

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer with extensive experience ghostwriting thought leadership for B2B companies across adtech and beyond. He’s also an award-winning journalist who has embedded with public defenders, written about gold rush fever in contemporary California, and kayaked the LA River to get his story. His editor at California Lawyer Magazine said Michael “owned the bizarro beat.” His editor at Bankrate called him a “talented generalist with a flair for using pop culture to tell stories.” Michael’s ghostwriting clients sing his praises, consistently ask him back, and refer him to their colleagues. Connect with Michael on LinkedIn, and if you need a laugh, subscribe to Michael’s bestselling humor Substack, Situation Normal.