Why Content Marketing Will Never Be ROI-Positive For Most Companies
I’ve been doing digital marketing for about ten years. In that time, I’ve had four jobs. At each of them, I’ve done content marketing.
Specifically, that means I’ve written or managed the publication of helpful, non-promotional articles that sought to answer questions or entertain the company’s target customer. The strategy has always been to create and disseminate that content to catch the attention of potential customers, bring them to the site where you convince them to hand over an email address in return for some grander piece of content (like an ebook or a monthly newsletter), then nurture them via email campaigns until they become customers.
It works great in theory. But so far, at all the marketing jobs I’ve held over the last decade, I’ve yet to see it produce a viable ROI.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work at all, but I’m beginning to doubt that it’s financially viable for most businesses.
Let’s look at the costs.
You have a couple of choices when it comes to writing your content: write your own, hire someone internally, have existing employees write for you, or hire freelancers.
If you choose to write your own, well, you know what your time is worth. Maybe you can churn out content really quickly because you’re a phenomenal writer who doesn’t need to do drafts and editing, but probably not.
I do write quickly, but even then, I bet I sink about 5 hours into producing a single blog post, if not more. My freelance rate is $40 an hour so that means it costs me $200 to produce a single article.
You could hire someone internally and pay them less than that, but not much. Good content marketers (in Denver, at least) make around $30–40 an hour, so you wouldn’t be saving yourself much money. Plus you’d still want to review their work, so there’s still a personal cost.
You could have existing employees write for you, but some of them might make even more than $40 an hour and they almost certainly write more slowly, making this the least financially viable option (though possibly the best option in terms of quality, once the writing is edited, since the guys doing the work likely also know their shit).
Finally, you could hire a freelancer, but they typically charge around $400–$500 per article.
How many leads would one piece of content need to generate to earn back the $200-500 it cost to produce?
Publication and Promotion
You can’t just write an article and throw it on your blog, hoping people will magically find it. You have to get it published somewhere with a built-in audience or promote it.
You could publish it on Medium, which is free (and can actually earn you money), but then you’re faced with the struggle of relying on a third-party solution for your business. Meaning any likes, shares, or follows you get will all be to Medium, not your website. Sure, your profile can have a link to your site, but your articles themselves can’t (or else they’re ineligible for nearly all of Medium’s promotional opportunities, which are the only reason to publish on Medium). Most people won’t follow your profile link to your website, so you’ll capture only a very small percentage with your website’s gated content.
You could try to publish your articles elsewhere, like Forbes or HuffPo. But if that’s your strategy, you need to know that they reject a lot of articles, so there’s a high chance you’ll pay the production costs for articles that will never see the light of day. Sure, you might get rejected by the major publishers and eventually publish the piece on some smaller, niche site, but the value of that is pretty thin.
Plus, whether you get published on Forbes or a smaller site, the likelihood that someone will click through to your website is marginal.
You could also publish on your own site and then promote the article on social media and around the web with services like Outbrain. Depending on what you’re writing, this can be highly effective, but now we’re adding advertising to the cost of each article, likely in the range of $50–200, depending on a range of factors.
Even after a piece of content is produced and published, it needs to do the work of bringing in leads. Most gated content only captures an email address, with the goal of wooing your leads with progressively promotional email until they eventually convert to an MQL. And that means additional costs — you’ll need some service to send the emails (though these can be free at smaller scales), and someone to create/send them (which is never free).
Return on Investment
Let’s take a look at an ideal scenario.
You produce an article yourself for $200. You shop it to Forbes and they pick it up, getting you a thousand reads in the first week. Of those thousand readers, one hundred click through to your website (a very high percentage). Of those one hundred, ten download your gated content (also probably a high percentage). After a few months, one of those leads raises their hand and becomes an MQL.
Maybe that would be cost-effective, depending on the average price of your product/service. But it’s also highly ideal. In the real world, one piece of content is almost never this successful. Most of the articles you write will be ineffectual. Most will never get a thousand reads, let alone bring one hundred people to your website or capture ten emails.
The standard argument is that content marketing requires an investment, and that’s true. For it to be effective, you have to write a ton of content over a long period of time, most of which will drive no ROI whatsoever. Every dollar you put into them will feel like it’s being thrown away, but the content marketers tell you to keep your head down and keep driving because eventually, it will all work out and that investment will come back to you.
This can happen. I’m not going to say it never does. But so much content is being produced by very large companies with vast budgets that, unless you are part of a very large company with a vast budget, your content marketing will feel like an uphill battle that may never end.
And you’ll probably fail. You’ll probably never break even on your content marketing costs.
The Silver Lining
You don’t have to do content marketing.
That’s right. You can forego all the aforementioned costs.
You can grow your business without a blog. Without writing or producing video or making a podcast.
Content is not required for company growth, and in today’s era of content overload, it probably isn’t even preferable.
Invest in other things. Go to events. Network. Advertise. Pay some Instagram influencers to post about your business. Try account-based marketing. Hire a tenacious business development professional who will do all those things for you.
You should only do content marketing if you have something to say. You should only produce content if you love producing content, or you have someone on your team who loves it. You should only write for your business if you’re going to do it anyway and you might as well put the effort in.
I write here on Medium because I love to write, because I have strong opinions that I want to share, and because I’m a little bit addicted to seeing how many reads and followers I can get.
It’s an investment that I’m unlikely to recoup, but I don’t care because I’m not doing it for the ROI. I’m doing it for my own happiness and sanity, and that’s probably the only really good reason to do anything at all.