Why Attempting to Establish the ROI of Content Is a Fool’s Errand

Last Friday night I was seated at a dinner table next to two C-Level executives of Fortune 500 companies. As we nibbled on rubbery chicken breasts and over-cooked vegetables, I asked the question that had been on my mind since the banquet was added to my calendar.

“Let’s say you hire me to help your business streamline its content marketing/inbound marketing efforts,” I said. “I’m going to handle the overall strategy concerning the content the business produces, and I’m going to take an active role in tying everything together with the overall objectives for the business. How are you, then, going to determine the ROI of the strategy I deliver and the ROI of content your business produces from that strategy?”

The executive to my left, whose area of business has marketing under its auspices, looked up at me from glasses that appeared to be falling off his nose.

The look on his face was one of befuddlement.

“First, why would you try to define the…ROI of [content]? If, as you say, content is a part of the entire business, how can you…expect to pull out only what content is responsible for? Second, your biggest problem is the more [specific we get at assigning a value for content], the more I’m going to push you to get that number higher. I’m a marketing guy, yes, but my main [goal is to figure out a way to either] cut costs or increase revenue. Even better if I can do both.
“It’s that simple. So, to me, defining — What is it? The ROI of content? — isn’t your problem. If you can show me how content helps my overall business make money, now I’m looking at you with wide eyes. Before, mind you, I’m looking at you thinking ‘How can I cut expenses related to content?’”

He chuckled in amusement. I gulped.

His words echoed sentiments I’ve heard numerous times in the last few years, from executives at companies of all sizes.

That message, in a nutshell:

We, as strategists and marketers, have to get away from thinking of content as the answer to businesses problems. Even for brands that’ve happily jumped on the content marketing bandwagon, executives say, content is a means to an end, not the destination, which is something a lot of content folks are missing.

Content Is Never The Solution

In fact, I sense in many of these C-Suite denizens a level of frustration that borders on annoyance. The earful I got at the dinner party was all the confirmation I needed to solidify my belief that defining the ROI of content is fraught with risk and flirts with disaster.

The other executive, who’d been listening to my question, chimed in as well.

“Here’s what I’d say to folks like yourself trying to define [the ROI of content.] Think of it like trying to sell a plane. I need to buy a fleet of planes, good planes, for my airline. If you come to me and say, ‘Mr. Brown (who is not an airline executive), you need this plane because it has the best structural integrity of any plane you can buy, and it’s lightweight, meaning it’ll save you a ton of money on fuel costs because the plane will operate more efficiently,’ I’ll probably think, ‘OK. I need an efficient plane. And if I can save money, even better.’ But I also need a large plane to compete with the competition. Plus, it needs to have all the creature comforts travelers expect. And I need it to be safe, reliable, feature the latest technology and be delivered on time. …But you’re selling an efficient plane. …You can’t make it just about the content.”

There is no nice way to say this: Content is not the solution.

Not content audits. Not content strategy. Not content marketing. Not content promotion. Not even content amplification.

Those of us who know, love and work in content cannot fathom being part of the problem. But in the corporate world, there’s revenue and there’s expenses. And never shall the twain meet.

Content is an expense.

“But,” you say, “it can’t be seen as an expense when I can show we’re generating revenue from content.”

Not so, my friend.

When we raise our hand and say, “Hey, look at content! We’re helping the business make money over here,” it gets the attention of the C-Suite in a different way: “This content stuff can work and sometimes does work, but look at the stats. They’re inconsistent. I don’t trust it. What can we do in place on producing all this content?”

Remember, the C-Suite wants a steady winner, a horse that can win even when no one’s hands are on the reins. We aren’t there.

When you add in the cost of staff and tools alone, content is a very tough sell, especially if the goal is to do it right.

The Internal Battle We’re Typically Not Aware Of

The comments from the executives are what I’ve come to expect from folks inside of corporations, away from agencies and the marketing echo chamber. In fact, for more than two years I’ve wondered how such a glaring disconnect could exist between the folks doing the work and the folks who’ll ultimately be judging that work.

I talk to a lot of content strategists and content marketers each week, via email, Google Hangouts, GChat, Twitter DMs, Facebook Messenger and phone.

Inevitably the conversation comes around to “How can I use data to show my boss how valuable [content] is for [growing/keeping] business?”

With the plethora of tools and the vast amounts of data we can access today, numbers are not hard to come by.

So I typically hear phrases like…

  • “Gets customers in the funnel sooner and helps keep them there”
  • “Lowers costs-per-conversions”
  • “Enhances brand lift”
  • “Far more effective than traditional ads”
  • “Nothing beats content for converting prospects to lifelong customers”

And we see similarly impressive figures associated with these phrases (e.g., $5,000 spent; $19,000 in conversions).

Armed with such information, we shove the data in our client’s faces, then look on in astonishment when they appear underwhelmed.

In fact, many of us have been fired after delivering results that exceeded what our clients purportedly expected.

I suspect the problem stems, in part, from the broken line of connectivity between marketing and operations at most businesses. Typically, the CMO sells the rest of the C-Suite on content marketing. But as I’ve written in the past, what marketing counts as a success is far different than what the rest of the C-Suite, especially operations, is looking for in the way of returns from content.

(Hint: It’s not page views, unique visitors, brand lift or, in many instances, conversions. Banish the thought, you say.)

Talk to executives for any amount of time, and you come away with a strong sense that the “We-only-care-about-conversions” notion comes about mainly because content folks have done such a poor job of highlighting how important content is to the business overall.

I’ve now come to believe that attempting to define the ROI of content, in isolation, is akin to fitting a rope around our necks.

The Data Won’t Save Us

When I started in content marketing, I was amazed at how often I heard the term “data.”

  • “You cannot ignore the data.”
  • “I’m using data to show my clients how much money we’re making them.”
  • “The data provides our agency a measure of job security.”
  • “Everyone responds to data.”

Data certainly is important, especially for quantifying the work we do. If nothing more, it allows us to assign a value to various measures (e.g., conversions, etc.) important to a business’s overall success, and enables us to use the language the C-Suite so often responds to, which is key, a point driven home to me during a talk with Jonathon Colman, a content strategist for Facebook.

“[We have to] figure out what [the C-Suite] responds to, then speak to them using that language,” he says.

Data Sets You Free: Analytics for Content Strategy from Jonathon Colman @jcolman

Data is important.

But I’m beginning to think data is less the be-all and end-all as it is what we’ve come to use as a crutch, preferring to, as the saying goes, “measure all the things” as opposed to (a) in-depthly discerning what data has the most value and/or looking for ways to impact the business beyond numbers.

Recently, I asked Moz’s Rand Fishkin about distracting rabbit holes the industry is spending too much time in.

What he had to say surprised me.

“For decades the biggest and smartest brands invested in almost entirely un-measurable channels like TV, outdoor, radio, promotional events, etc. and then watched overall lift in brand recognition, sentiment, and sales by geography. When the web came along, the pendulum swung to measurability, which is awesome, but I think it may have swung too far. Marketers are spending more time proving the value of investing in content/SEO/being on Twitter/Facebook/Google+ and less time engaging in meaningful activities that create the value. I think we could live with a little bit less data-crunching and a little more actual marketing. There’s a healthy balance to be found.”

Personally, I’m finding that businesses do respond to data. It’s an essential arrow to have in the quiver, especially when you can highlight to the C-Suite which numbers matter and what the impact is likely to be for their business.

However, I’ve also found that to keep more of the work we initially get, data isn’t enough.

Focus on the strategy and the overall value of content, not the ROI of content

Let me explain: When a company approaches me for content strategy help, they’re specifically looking for help with personas (e.g., audience assessment), their competitors (e.g., competitive assessment and keyword assessment) and how their business can do better what they are already engaged in (e.g., gap analysis, content audit).

But typically, during the initial conversation, I recognize that content strategy isn’t their biggest problem. Often, they need help with branding, PR, Paid Media or SEO.

This is usually when I explain how content is the glue that binds it all together, then share with them my thoughts on how an overall strategy would be the best benefit to their company, instead of simply providing content help.

I had this epiphany while working with a tech startup whose owners had lots of cash but very little knowledge of marketing. The vice president of marketing inquired about content strategy help, but I could see that the company overall was a disaster waiting to happen.

I had two choices:

  1. Take the contract for content strategy, but know that I’d get fired two months in when the branding and PR/outreach efforts tanked, or
  2. Sell the prospect on strategy help, with content forming the skin for the whole deal

I chose the latter and was glad I did. The client had initially seen content strategy as a short-term solution.

He came to know that content strategy has the potential to have a far greater impact on the business than previously recognized. He was then willing to extend the relationship well beyond what was initially discussed.

I’ve had the same experience with numerous other clients, which has prompted me to joke that “I’m not the content guy; I’m the guy who can use content to benefit all areas of your business.”

That seems to matter, resonate.

We must quit compartmentalizing content: As I have said and written, “Compartmentalization is proxy for marginalization.”

Instead, we should highlight how content plays an invaluable role in the overall business, including in the following ways:

  • Benefits sales through identifying prospects and creating proper messaging;
  • Helps drive communications through keeping managers aware of initiatives they should be out front on;
  • Assists the executive team in identifying future leaders through writing, social media and presentation workshops; and
  • Helps keep the tech budget on target by running a lean, mean CMS.

There are just a few areas we can make business owners aware of when exploring the role of content strategy.

As you might have gathered, this is a topic that means a great deal to me, particularly as someone who loves content both content AND business strategy.

I’m now of the opinion that instead of trying the define the ROI of content, we should use content to open the door, if you will, but work to impress upon clients the need to have a broader strategic role inside the business.

You might be amazed at the reception you receive.

(This article was originally published on ronellsmith.com)

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