By far and away the most common conversation I had with clients in 2016 concerned measuring the value of content marketing. It’s early days for 2017, but I don’t see the topic going away any time soon.
Solving this problem is challenging; it requires a mutual, and somewhat consistent, definition of what we mean by ‘content marketing’, and my experience suggests that there as many definitions for content marketing in the world as there are content marketers.
At the risk of being reductive, the most basic interpretation I can express is: owned and earned media (text, audio or video) whose primary purpose is to entertain and inform rather than ‘sell’ or promote a product. This is a useful jumping-off point, but the definitions often get blurry in a hurry. Any conversation around measurement must consider the loosely-defined nature of the medium.
Which leads to the second, and most crucial, problem we encounter: if there are so many varied interpretations of what content marketing is, then there are at least as many viewpoints as to what content marketing does.
As a communications tool, content is extremely flexible in its application. Which is why holistic conversations around the value of content can be difficult to nail down: content is only as valuable as it is effective at achieving its purpose (and only as much as its purpose has merit).
This inevitably brings us to the role of content within broader customer experience, marketing communications, and the customer journey. If this is spuriously defined in the planning process, effective measurement becomes a tricky prospect at best.
While it is possible (and in fact, desirable) to apply data-driven attribution modeling techniques to identify the value of content in the context of customer acquisition, revenue and retention, many senior marketers will likely find this solution to be unsatisfactory in isolation, for two key reasons.
Firstly, the technical challenges of cross-device, cross-platform attribution (particularly when considering off-site content, hosted on either social networks, partner websites or other walled gardens) means that the model will never be complete. While this by no means makes the analysis worthless, content marketing will suffer the impacts of these challenges more than other channels due to its nature.
Perhaps more importantly, this approach to measurement implies a purely promotional, or sales focused objective for content, irrespective of the intended purposes and outcomes. Attribution modeling is a very effective method of quantifying the promotional benefits of media and advertising, but is relatively poor at describing a customer journey in a more qualitative sense.
So how can we break the cycle of loose objectives and unsatisfactory measurement? The answer is to only ever consider content in the broader context of the customer experiences and journey’s that you intend to create. This means being granular and specific about the intend benefits of each content marketing initiative.
At the very least, before planning, publishing or promoting any piece of content, we should always consider: what do we want our audience to do next?
Sam Vining is head of data and analytics at iCrossing