In digital channels, everything can be measured, and content marketing initiatives are no exception to that rule. Without measurement, there's no way of knowing what's working and what isn't. You won't have any information upon which you can refine or improve results, or jettison the stuff that's less effective.
In short, you should never begin content marketing until you have an ongoing plan for measurement and analysis. Not only will it continually inform endeavors as they move forward, it will also help justify the time, energy, resources, and budget required to get those endeavors underway to the people in the corner office.
Establish a measurement plan
The first step is determining what will be measured. Yet when you can measure practically everything, narrowing that list down to the essentials is a daunting but necessary task. Skip it and you put yourself at high risk for what web analytics pros call "analysis paralysis." Confronted with mountains of web analytics data throws even the most stalwart people into deer-in-headlights mode.
So the first step in setting up a plan for measurement is establishing key performance indicators (KPIs), perhaps five or so. These are the core goals that are foundational to success. KPIs vary depending on goals. Examples might be newsletter sign-ups, white paper downloads, leads from a contact form, increased site traffic, higher search rankings, inbound phone calls, increased online orders, higher brand (or product) awareness, more inbound links, and keyword value. It's your call, so long as KPIs are relevant to business and marketing goals and are measurable.
Let's examine some of the top content marketing KPIs.
Web traffic and engagement
We've evolved well beyond the early internet era when "clicks" or "hits" were the ne plus ultra of site owner goals. It's not just traffic that counts, it's what the traffic does that matters -- users exhibiting desired behaviors, such as downloading, sharing, commenting, signing up for a newsletter, or calling a call center. Use an analytics package to track behaviors (Goals in Google Analytics) helps to answer these questions.
Where the traffic goes is equally important to when they consume a piece of content. Do they stick with it to the end or bail off the page after only a few seconds? Are they visiting the pages or site sections you want them to?
Others use website analysis to assess that very elusive (but oh-so-desirable) goal of user engagement. To measure engagement, you have to define it (which no one really has). That's not stopping you from developing a working definition of your own. Perhaps it's someone who viewed three or more pages, or spent three or more minutes on the site, or a visitor who returned multiple times. Traffic is a metric that can also be applied to social media (e.g., "likes" on Facebook).
Search keywords are also a value that can be very effectively tied to traffic. What keywords are visitors using to find your content? What are the highest-converting keywords (e.g., the ones that lead visitors where you want them to go, or that make them stick around longer and consume more)? You ought to create more content for them! Keywords are worthwhile for almost any content marketer to measure.
Bottom line? Slice traffic measurement any way you want to, just so long as what you measure is in consistent, pre-defined units.
A survey conducted in 2010 by Bazaarvoice and The CMO Club shows CMOs aspire to move beyond engagement (number of fans, site traffic, etc.) to tie social media more closely into hard business metrics such as revenue and conversion.
Sometimes it's easy to tie content directly into sales. But very often, no matter how effective the content, there are still secondary and often tertiary steps in the sales cycle (most often, long- or short-term cycles of lead generation and consideration).
This is where it's important to build attribution methods into content marketing initiatives to get credit where it's due. Online registration forms are one method (e.g., prior to downloading a white paper). Other companies assign discrete 800 numbers to different pieces of content to learn what generates calls. In some cases, definitively demonstrating content marketing shortens a sales cycle and can be an effective proof of its worth.
Qualitative customer feedback
Friends, fans, "likes," comments, reviews, survey responses -- everyone likes to be liked, and being liked does impart value. The question, of course, is how much value? A "like" on Facebook from a member with a closed profile or with only a dozen friends in their network is clearly not worth that same "like" from a member with an open profile -- and thousands of friends who see that message.
Feedback serves other purposes than the network effect. Comments on content, product reviews, and tweets can lead to improvements and refinements in products, customer service, and research and development. Recommendations and becoming a fan can aid in branding and awareness, or in the perception of your company or its executives as credible thought leaders. Positive Twitter mentions serve much the same purpose.
Once again, this may be an area essential to your own KPIs, but it requires analysis and refinement before deployment.
Sales lead quality
Content-oriented marketing initiatives crafted to engage and educate a target audience are the most effective at driving "high value leads most likely to convert to sales" (Lenskold Group/emedia Lead Generation Marketing ROI study, 2010).
Yet to implement sales lead quality as a metric, you must first define a "quality lead." Perhaps it's by job title (e.g., parsing out VP and above titles from the average site visitor). Bear in mind, however, this depends on the type of offering and sales cycle. It's hard to define a quality lead for toothpaste because everyone buys it. In large enterprises, a VP may not be as important a qualifier as someone from procurement. Alternately, a high quality lead may be someone who watched an online demo and downloaded a white paper prior to getting in touch.
By all means, measure sales lead quality, but first ensure that you can define and identify it!
Search (and social media) ranking (and visibility)
Increased search awareness is often the primary goal of content marketing. It's not just getting the company or product name to rank high in organic search results; it's also ranking for the relevant keywords and phrases searchers use to find what you're offering -- at all stages of the sales and lead development cycle. Web analytics help gauge this. So do services such as Alexa.com and Compete.com, which benchmark search terms for you as well as competitors.
Boosting SEO ranking is more than mere visibility, however. Judiciously optimizing for the right keywords helps connect with the right visitors who are most likely to engage with content, and ultimately convert.
Similarly, social media visibility boosts search rankings and can also increase awareness, buzz, branding, and other key metrics around a brand, product, or service.
An attractive aspect of content marketing is that it's a highly creative, right-brain discipline. Content marketers tell stories, use images, produce videos, and are wordsmiths. Yet all that creativity must be governed by discipline, measurement, and a strong degree of precision. Choosing what metrics matter, why, and how to actually measure them is just as critical as the creative element of content marketing.
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