Brands are at a crossroads with content marketing: there’s a pressing need to determine whether it should be a tool for branding or for direct response. If it’s the former, then how do you measure whether it has been effective? The answer for most brands seems to be ‘with difficulty’.
“The traditional brand performance tools aren’t really geared up to measure content, so we all need a new set of benchmarks,” says Hannah Fisher, head of marketing at insurance company MoreThan. “We have control of the short term – measuring interactions through social media, blogs and the like – but the next gate is proving a consideration metric [to show that content influences purchase decisions]. Getting through that will be a huge challenge – it’s a new ask and there’s no blueprint.”
Digitalisation has complicated matters. Marketers have used content for decades, in the form of advertorial articles for example, but what is new is the explosion of channels they can feed it through. There is a “maelstrom” of activity, says Sholto Douglas-Home, chief marketing officer at recruitment firms Hays. Customer journeys are complex, hence tracking what any one piece of content does or the actions it prompts is a headache.
Research by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) sponsored by Axonn Media, published in December, shows a “worrying” 10% of marketers don’t track the return on investment (ROI) for content marketing at all. Meanwhile, just 7% said their measurement methods are ‘very successful’. This struggle for measurement could also account for the notable shift in focus – the CMI/Axonn Media data identified a new emphasis on sales, lead generation, lead nurturing and engagement.
“The traditional brand performance tools are not geared to measure content, so we need a new set of benchmarks”
Hannah Fisher, MoreThan
“Businesses will be less interested in brand awareness and customer loyalty, and aim to use content marketing more for ROI and sales,” the study reads. But as Marketing Week reported last month, data from the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that business audiences want overt sales messages to disappear from content marketing – 71% of executives are turned off branded content when it reads as a sales pitch rather than valuable information.
What’s clear is that many brands are in an experimentation stage. Match.com marketing director Jeremy Corenbloom explains: “Content needs to be monitored and measured like anything else, but the difference is that we are still in the infancy of understanding what the right methods and KPIs [key performance indicators] are.” Match.com, which works with media agency Vizeum, has created its own KPIs each relating to different parts of the customer journey. It’s an approach others are taking too.
Guy Daniels, vice-president of brand and marketing communications at Fujitsu, says: “The paradigm is changing too quickly for industry standards to have been established so far. We set our own measurements based on how our sales channels address the market and what we can relevantly capture. The main challenge is to select the metrics which really count from the profusion available.”
According to the CMI/Axonn Media data, the most popular metrics for measuring content marketing success are website traffic (used by 61% of marketers), higher conversion rates (47%), sales (44%), sales lead quality (41%) and SEO ranking (40%). Some content marketing platforms and providers have already identified that marketers are in need of some help.
Last March, LinkedIn launched a ‘content marketing score’, a data-driven tool enabling brands to measure the impact of their paid and organic content on the platform. The launch came on the back of the CMI/Axonn Media report, specifically the finding that 93% of B2B marketers have content marketing strategies yet only 42% think they’re doing it effectively. The tool measures how effectively a brand’s content is engaging its audience by looking at the various points of contact across the platform.
The amalgamation of both qualitative and quantitative data is crucial. The latter, which can include everything from ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ to click-through rates, provides numbers but often at a crude level with a dubious connection to financial returns.
Scott McLean, co-founder and chief operating officer at the Intelligent Marketing Institute, says: “Simply assessing ‘clicks’, ‘likes’ and other stats that show you what consumers have done at one moment in time doesn’t really cut it when you want to be able to show to the business that the engagement you are achieving as a marketer through your content marketing is demonstrably attributable to commercial goals.
“Most brands will tell you how they are using content marketing to engage with their customers and prospects. What they won’t talk about is what they do with the engaged audience and that’s because without a structured journey, they are not able to do anything,” he adds.
Some are acutely aware of the need to delve much deeper, however. At Hyundai Motor UK, the content is designed to make the brand appealing enough to get on a potential buyer’s longlist of brands, and then to be entertaining and informative enough to get Hyundai onto that buyer’s shortlist too. It’s about “lightly” educating consumers about the brand, says marketing director Andrew Cullis, noting online video content created with Redbee Media as an example.
“Our sales figures are influenced by a huge number of factors, so it’s very difficult to isolate the impact of any given content campaign on actual sales,” Cullis continues. “You can measure things like click-through rates to product pages or test drive booking forms. But those measurements only capture some indicators of immediate interest, and don’t measure any impact over the longer period of the car purchasing cycle.
“We overcome this difficulty of determining efficiency by setting clear objectives for the content marketing and then focussing our evaluation on the things that indicate whether the content is building an affinity between our brand and our audiences,” he adds.
Cullis, among others, says a clear idea of “what you are trying to do and what [the content] can and can’t do” will ensure “you measure the right things to determine success”. Realism must be part of the plan, as must flexibility.
Europcar says it reviews its KPIs on a weekly or monthly basis, in turn adjusting its plans accordingly. Match.com’s Corenbloom also promotes flexibility when outlining metrics and targets, whilst Jackie Nixon, director of marketing at Cisco UK & Ireland suggests “keeping an open mind about how you expect any individual piece of content to perform and evaluating it in the context of all the other factors that influence brand perceptions”.
She adds: “While every effort is made to ensure content is relevant, contextual and helpful, it’s still not an exact enough science yet to be able to predict whether it will strike a chord with the audience,” she adds.
Barclays last year took an important step towards ensuring the bank’s content resonates with customers, creating an editorial board which, according to director of interactive content marketing Mark Brayton, “behaves a bit like a newsroom”. Information is gathered and brought to the weekly meeting, in order for the brand to react quickly through the right channels with content that will “help, engage or inspire” customers.
Separately, Barclays’ LifeSkills advice service for young people also works with agency Livity on content collaborations with YouTube vloggers, in order to increase registrations, engagement and reach. Putting the customer rather than the brand at the heart of content has brought decent results in terms of engagement, Brayton says, but going forward he’ll want to understand the impact on longer-term brand metrics such as image.
The difficulty of attributing sales to a growing number of marketing channels has made it harder to open the purse strings – lack of budget is considered a top challenge for 46% of marketers in the CMI/Axonn Media study, whilst 18% also cite a lack of buy-in and vision from more senior colleagues. MoreThan’s Fisher says ROI is a challenge for all marketers but content is definitely the right area for the brand to be playing in: “For me the question is how big do we go?”
Tracking the journey and measuring effectiveness does make the process more complicated, but we use a variety of internal tools that provide us with the visibility. Closed-loop reporting via our agency Really B2B tells us the precise journey an individual has been on throughout the demand generation and lead nurturing process. We also use Lead Forensics [tracking software] that tells us the details of companies who visit our website, the pages and content they’ve viewed as well as corporate contact information.
Very early on, it became clear that every customer journey is unique. But as activity progresses, we are able to identify content consumption trends at a ‘firmographic’ level [industry, company turnover, employee and fleet size] and at job function level. For example we know that Sunday afternoon and evening is a key time for finance directors to engage with content, so we can optimise the best time to push it out. Whilst complex, it is this combined insight that will help guide and shape our content and our wider B2B marketing strategy.
Content marketing is an increasingly important element in how we initiate and maintain conversations with our customers, primarily when they are outside the sales cycle.
Evaluating its value is still something of a work in progress, however, and there are several variables to consider. For one thing, the practice is still relatively new, so there are few universally agreed ways to measure its success. For another, by definition, content marketing is designed to engage the audience on a more emotional level than a straight lead–generation activity would, so there may not be an immediately-visible reaction or outcome from that engagement, making tangible measurement that much harder.
Having said that, there are ways to start to define the value content marketing provides to overall engagement with customers and prospects; beginning with what objectives the campaign is expected to serve. Given its position outside the sales cycle, positive reinforcement of the brand is where a content marketing campaign can deliver the most value.