The uncomfortable state of content marketing metrics

content marketing metrics


In a post titled Content Marketing – It’s About to Get Weird, my friend Joe Pulizzi revealed disappointing findings from an annual research survey. Here’s how he broke the news:

In our 2016 Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends research (conducted in partnership with MarketingProfs), the effectiveness rate for B2B organizations actually went down (from 38 percent in 2015 to 30 percent in 2016). This is not good. And the worst may be yet to come.

Joe goes on to paint a hopeful picture of content marketing’s future by plugging this problem into the Gartner’s “hype cycle” model.

The Gartner model suggests that with any new technology adoption, there is exuberant adoption followed by disillusionment, which can be redeemed by a period of “enlightenment” when core problems are resolved and expectations soar again.

While I’m not sure content marketing is a “technology” appropriate for this model, I agree with Joe that the problems faced by content marketing may get worse before it gets better, but maybe not for the same reasons.

Fixing the content marketing problem

Do you remember when the first MP3 players were introduced? I bought into the hype and purchased an early version. It sucked. The thing held about 12 songs and the battery died after two hours.

Steve Jobs iterated, and in 2011 Apple launched the IPod. The period of enlightenment for the MP3 player began.

But it doesn’t always work that way. 8-track players didn’t re-enter a period of enlightenment. MySpace didn’t enter a period of enlightenment. Lots of good ideas die.

What’s the difference? To enter that period of enlightenment, you need to correct the problems that created the disillusionment in the first place.

What is creating disillusionment in content marketing? I think the answer is also embedded in the new CMI findings: 65 percent of the marketers say “measurement” is their top priority, specifically figuring out “what content works and what doesn’t.” Year after year leaders lament an inability to measure their marketing efforts.

And here’s the fact that makes me concerned about whether content marketing will rebound as a tactic or spiral down in an 8 track kind of way: The measurement problem is getting worse, not better. Let’s unpack the idea and see why that is so.

Content measurement is getting more difficult

I have a confession to make. I have no idea how many people will read this blog post. I can’t even make an educated guess.

Doesn’t that seem like it would be a simple thing to know? Wouldn’t that simple metric form the basis of knowing what content is working and what isn’t in my marketing world?

While content is the fuel for social media success, we simply can’t even trace its path today.

Five years ago, I had a decent idea of how many people actually viewed an individual post. People subscribed and I had an idea of open rate. Perhaps they found the article organically and I had a record of page views in Google Analytics.

With Facebook’s preoccupation with dwell time, more and more often we will be posting content, not just links, on our updates. And that’s when an individual blog post takes on a life of its own.

The happy life of a successful blog post

WHERE you are reading this post right now is anybody’s guess because the focus on content distribution has made the measurement issue profoundly worse …

  • Since Facebook is rewarding “dwell time” instead of links that take people away from its site, I have been posting some entire articles into a Facebook Note. How many people read that note? No idea.
  • A recent Facebook Note I created was shared by 10 other Facebook friends. How many people in those audiences viewed my post? I don’t have a clue.
  • I also posted this on LinkedIn. LinkedIn does give you some idea of how many people viewed it, so there is a number!
  • I cut and pasted this post into Medium. Why? I want to increase the distribution of my content. I can see likes, recommendations, comments and “reads.” The Medium “read ratio” is unique among publishing platforms and is an interesting indicator of success.
  • Some of my posts are good enough to be turned into a feature on Harvard Business Review, where I am a contributor. This would get a ton of views. How many? I don’t have access to that information.
  • High profile sites like Ragan’s PR Daily often syndicate my posts. So, with my permission, they suck up my article and post in a newsletter that goes to hundreds of thousands of people. An entirely new audience, an entirely new unknown number of readers.

Now, here’s one last big one. Studies consistently show that about 70 percent of the social sharing on the web is “dark,” meaning that they share it in a way we cannot see like email, direct messages, or a text from a phone. I have one reader in Canada who prints out many of my articles and posts them on a company bulletin board!

What does this all mean?

If a company is doing a decent job publishing and distributing its content, they can never really know how many people see it. So when the boss comes in and says “Great job producing all this content! How many people are viewing our work?” … and you shrug your shoulders … well that’s not a good sign.

And that is why many companies are freaking out about content marketing. It is really, really hard to track even simple things … like a page view. And like it or not, we live in a world that expects measurement. I think that is what’s showing up in the CMI research.

Christopher S. Penn, author of the brilliant new book Marketing Red Belt: Connecting With Your Creative Mind, is one of the most intelligent and resourceful analytical minds on our planet. Here’s what he had to say about measuring something as basic as content “views:”

Total views across platforms is almost impossible to measure unless you have access to the hosting sites’ analytics … views are the undiscovered holy grail of top-of-funnel attribution. If anyone else has a working solution that’s sound, let me know too!

I’m a data-oriented guy. I want to see results. I want to measure. I NEED to measure. But this whole gig is getting uncomfortably close to the place where the answer to your manager’s question about the value of content marketing is “trust me.”

As bad as advertising measurement may be, the irony is, the technology-enabled new kid on the block, content marketing, may becoming even worse. We can’t even estimate “impressions.”

The crucial bridge between content and conversions, the trusty link, is deteriorating. Analytical capabilities are not keeping up with the changes in the industry.

What’s the answer?

Do we ignore it?

My friend Mitch Jackson, a lawyer and entrepreneur in California, has a radical approach for his business:

Things are changing and they’re changing exponentially fast. Not doing something because it can’t be quantified or measured just may be a recipe for becoming obsolete. Believe me Mark, I “get it” but I’ve also always been able to see the benefits of change when others don’t, or are afraid to embrace it. That’s what’s allowed me to stay ahead of the curve.

Is Mitch’s approach of racing head-long into content marketing without a measure a sign of the future?

Maybe. I can see what he is saying. As a small business, I don’t dwell on the minutia of measuring. I can see the macro-benefits over time and I’m comfortable with that.

But for most businesses, especially large businesses, we simply must measure. How do you know whether to spend more or less on content marketing? How do you know if your trends are heading in the right direction?

Not only must we measure, we must measure in the language of business: Leads, sales, cost savings, customer satisfaction. Don’t count on changing company culture. That may take decades. But that is a story for another time.

Well folks this post has already run long enough (and I thank you for making it this far!). But there are a lot more ideas to explore in future posts:

  • The importance of qualitative measures.
  • The dance between measurement and company culture.
  • Why measurement technology is not keeping up with marketing needs.
  • New ways to think about measurement to satisfy the CMO and the language of business.
  • Creating realistic expectations with management.
  • ROI versus relevance.
  • Why social sharing may be the only measure that matters.

The key to moving out of the trough of disillusionment is not more content, better content, or expecting CMO’s to “understand.”

The problem that needs to be “fixed” is measurement, pure and simple. And because the tech is not keeping up with the changes in Facebook and other platforms, that solution is rapidly moving away from us, not getting closer.

Your thoughts?

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Sam

Book reference is an affiliate link.

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