Measuring your “Return on Content”: How to tell whether your content is successful

If your organization is like most, it publishes a lot of content. When I oversaw Realtor.org, the member website of the National Association of Realtors, we published or updated 25 to 50 pieces of content every day. (Surprising, right? When we added it up, we were astounded also.) This content included news releases, bios, conference session agendas, program updates, magazine articles, issue briefs, and so much more. Our content was published by numerous people in our organization: in fact, 100 of our 300 staff members had rights to publish content online.

Even if your organization doesn’t produce anything close to that kind of volume, it’s wise to ask yourself an important question: Is all this content working? This article lays out how to answer that question for the content you have now and ensure that, going forward, your future content is positioned to succeed.

Introducing Return on Content

Return on Content needs to apply to every single piece of content your organization creates.

To figure out how successful an individual piece of content is, we need three pieces of information:

1. The goal for that piece of content

2. How to make that goal measurable

3. A plan for measuring it and using the information about what we find

How does Return on Content relate to content marketing?

Return on Content needs to be part of an enterprise content strategy, not just a content marketing strategy. In fact, the better your organization’s content is, the less content you’ll need to create specifically for content marketing purposes. Instead, your marketers will be able to focus on marketing the content your organization already has.

Let’s walk through each of the three elements of Return on Content for an individual piece of content.

1. The content’s goal — aka, why are we publishing this?

Effective content achieves a goal. While this may sound obvious, all too often the goal is misidentified:

  • that the content is published
  • that lots of people look at it

In these cases, content’s “success” could be misleading — reinforcing the creation of too much irrelevant content.

“Pageviews aren’t the goal. Your goal is the goal.” — Mike Powers, Director of Electronic Communications at Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Rather, a true goal for content is that it meets a user need, an organizational goal — or ideally, both.

You may be asking which is more important — business goals or user needs? The user experience profession gives us a clear answer to this chicken-and-egg scenario: if you satisfy users’ goals, you can achieve organizational goals — and if you don’t satisfy users, you can’t succeed from a business perspective.

Every organization has business goals. While for corporations, business goals are usually tied directly to revenue, professional organizations such as nonprofits, associations, or educational institutions, those goals are typically about audience (donor, member, student) satisfaction, retention, or action.

Content is a key way that organizations meet their goals: Every piece of content you publish is connected to what you do, who you are, or something your audience wants from you — a program, service, product, event, etc. Therefore, content’s success needs to be connected to what it’s about — driving usage of a program, awareness of a benefit, purchase of a product, etc.

“Content is the way our work is manifested to the world.” — Hilary Marsh

Content is the manifestation of an organization’s programs, products, services, resources, information, and tools. If an organization’s content is effective, its offerings succeed in achieving their goals. Further, the target audience understands what is available to them and how to take advantage of the right programs — and they don’t need to contact the help desk unless they have a complex question.

There’s a technique called the 5 whys that help you get to the root cause of something. I’ve found it helpful to use a similar technique to drill down to the true goal of a piece of content. It’s not always necessary to ask five questions, but it’s a good number to keep in mind. Here’s an example from a realistic conversation:

Why do you want to publish this content? Because we want to share an update about our program

What is that latest news? That we have given grants to several more organizations

Why do you give those grants? It’s part of our mission, to improve society

Why do you want people to know about this information? To increase donations, supporting our mission

So the true measure of the effectiveness of this content is not whether it is successfully published, or whether more people looked at the information about the program — but whether the donations to the program increased.

Here are a few more examples:

For a conference your organization is producing:

Marketers might want to publish videos from speakers teeing up their talk, or photos from previous events.

The true goal for those videos and pictures is is to get people to register for that conference — maybe that speaker’s fans, or maybe members of your audience who have never attended this event before. If the speaker is a well-known name, the video may attract attention, but if it doesn’t inspire enough new people to register, it is not successful. The photos from previous events might be more successful if they show members of the target audience engaged in the event and enjoying themselves.

For a report you produce:

The goal of the report is probably to educate your audience about a topic that is important for them to know and on which your organization is seen as expert.

If you require the audience to provide their email address in order to download it, and fewer people then get that information, the report is not successful.

For any content about the report — press releases, articles, blog posts, etc. — the goal is probably to get people to download the report. Did the tweet contribute to that result? The newsletter item? The home page announcement? The content about the report is successful when it delivers the result you’re looking for — and you can tweak the headlines, content length, wording of the call to action, etc., to improve that result.

For information about a product or service your organization offers:

The goal is to get the right people to buy the product or use the service. So if you get out the word about your product or service with general-purpose SEO or ads, you may get lots of traffic to the page, but if only a small percentage of your visitors actually take the next step, the content and tactics were not successful. Instead, the content needs to speak directly to the target audience, highlighting the right benefits and the exact value they need, using their terminology.

Sometimes content needs to support more universal goals — for example, the organization wants to get fewer customer service calls about its products. One of the goals for product content, then, is to be clear, specific, and comprehensive enough to answer the most frequent questions customers have.

2. Make your goal measurable.

Now that we have a better understanding of the true goal of the content, we need to think about how to make it measurable. These are often called key performance indicators, or KPIs. Here’s where marketing experts can help — they have invaluable knowledge about how to measure goals and matching the right tools to the right situations.

For the conference video, remember that the goal is to get new attendees to register for the conference. One way to measure that is by looking at the user path in your analytics software. Ultimately, you’ll want to compare the list of people who took that next step with the list of new registrants.

  • For product content, you could compare content improvement with calls to the call center about that specific product.
  • If your goal is engagement with your organization, you might make that measurable by tracking how often your content is shared on social media or via email.
  • If the goal is in drawing more people to the program or offering, you may measure that through search engine traffic.
  • And if your goal is to increase satisfaction with your organization or a specific offering, you may choose to measure that with surveys, starting with a benchmark from before and then following up every year.

Here is a chart that I adapt with clients to map goals to KPIs and determine how to measure them.

The key to this effort is the middle column — the measurable goal. Before you can choose measurement techniques, you need to reach clarity with the people in charge of what the content is about, about what success will look like. If one person downloads the report, does that make the content about the report successful, or does success require 1,000 people to download the report?

The National Retail Federation (@nrf) recently learned an important content strategy lesson through testing. They wanted to know whether content volume affects the content’s visibility. To test this, the organization reduced the number of news articles it produced by 21 percent from 2014 to 2015. They discovered that the total number of page views to its collection of news articles actually increased by 14 percent — and that pageviews and visitors to the site overall increased by 20 percent. Were they more selective about what they wrote about? Were they able to focus more on each news article? Understanding their behind-the-scenes decisions would help them use those decisions to fuel more success.

3. Measure, tweak, repeat.

The final piece of the pie in content success is in actually doing the measuring and reporting your findings back to the people who have a stake in its success. It might be the writer who created the content, as well as the department that creates the event, program, or service that the content is about. And don’t forget the organization’s management, too, so they have a sense of how your content is doing.

But that’s not all. Measuring helps you understand what’s working well and where you might improve — which gives you an opportunity to make your content even more successful.

Content improvements are likely to include:

  • Focusing the content on the benefits to the user, not just a list of features
  • Ensuring that the content’s goal is clear and explicit
  • Writing directly to the user, not in corporate-speak
  • Rewriting the headline so it doesn’t follow the usual formula (e.g., stop using number-driven or buzzfeed-style headlines, since readers are becoming numb to them)
  • Making the call to action clear, but not overly sales-y

Getting started

You can start your Return on Content journey today with your current content. Identify what the content’s goals were, ideally with the subject-matter expert responsible for the program that the content is about, and measure what you can.

Then, start working in partnership with those who manage the programs, products, events, etc. to draw out the goals for those programs and discuss the role content will play in those programs, so you can measure what is meaningful.

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”­ — William Bruce Cameron

The more goal-oriented your content is, the happier your users will be, resulting in greater business success.

(originally published at http://www.hilarymarsh.com/2016/04/27/return-on-content/)

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