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How to measure content marketing success

How to measure content marketing success Michael Estrin

When it comes to content marketing there isn't much debate about whether or not it's right for your brand. These days, just about every brand on Earth is using content marketing, whether B2C or B2B. But content marketing isn't just another tool in a marketer's bag of tricks.

"Content marketing has changed the way we talk about marketing," says Matt Wurst, director of digital communities at 360i. "Instead of just speaking at, or to, or even about consumers, brands are leveraging digital and social platforms to communicate with consumers, to hear from them and facilitate more insightful, multi-directional conversations."

How to measure content marketing success

As that conversation grows and becomes more important, Wurst says brands can look to a long list of metrics, like shares and endorsements, to track the success of a campaign or strategy. But there's a difference between being data-fluent and data-obsessed. After all, the combination of content marketing and digital has given us a seemingly limitless supply of data points, but more than a few marketers have lost the forest through the trees.

"The collection and interpretation of data enables marketers to unlock the currency that motivates a potential consumer to pay attention, or an existing consumer to share a message and advocate for the brand," says Wurst. "Without these insights, it is much more difficult to understand what is truly discoverable or sharable, which is the key to creating and optimizing quickly and efficiently."

Remember business goals still matter

Call it a strategic hazard. With the rise of content marketing, brands and agencies have come to see themselves as content producers. In fact, the "think like a publisher" mantra has become something of a battle cry for many digital marketers. But while some have questioned the merits of that strategy, others say the real trick is to remember your advertising roots, which means you can't ignore business goals.

"Some clients seem to think that front-end engagement is in itself an indication of success," says Dave Martin, SVP of media at Ignited. "In general you'll see views and clicks and other engagement metrics pop when you create an engaging piece of content. But because the content itself isn't an ad, and therefore doesn't have the same brand impact that a well-crafted ad might have, front-end metrics are not enough."

In other words, that YouTube video your team just posted may have gotten a ton of views, but it's not a success unless it drives an actual business goal. But unlike a TV spot that may have reached a wide audience, the trap with digital is that it's often very easy to mistake views for success.

"It's more critical with content marketing that you take a deeper look at what happened after the initial engagement," says Martin.

Check your social stats, but don't live and die by them

While there's no one measure of content marketing success, Gian LaVecchia, managing partner for digital content marketing at MEC, says you'd be hard-pressed to find a worthwhile content marketing campaign that didn't include many of the benchmark metrics we commonly associate with social.

"The most successful content marketers understand that the performance thrives at the intersection of social discovery and engagement," says LaVecchia. "That said, some of the most important success indicators fall within the realm of social engagement metrics -- sharing comments, likes, favorites, and retweets."

What is often harder to do, according to LaVecchia, is for a brand to translate those "soft metrics" into KPIs that a CMO can use. It is, after all, one thing to point to a spike in retweets for your brand, and something else entirely to say that those retweets drove a corresponding spike in sales. On the other hand, not every piece of branded content is going to correlate to a business goal.

To illustrate that tension between a specific business goal and engagement for the sake of increasing brand equity, LaVecchia points to a recent tweet by Ben & Jerry's commenting on Colorado's decision to legalize marijuana. The tweet registered more than 10,000 retweets and several thousand favorites -- clearly a lot of love, especially for a brand account -- but putting a meaningful business figure on what all that means is complex, bordering on impossible.

"Of course, the volume of social engagements was exceptional but more importantly, Ben & Jerry's elegantly tapped into one of the most significant news and cultural events in the U.S. while remaining true to the core tenants of the brand and its audience," says LaVecchia. "Obviously, the impact of that cultural immersion is significant and cannot be measured through traditional diagnostics, [but] the impact on long-term brand perceptions and favorability is real and cannot be ignored."

Does it resonate emotionally?

At its core, advertising is about making an emotional connection with the consumer. But if you're using content marketing, you need to find some way to gauge the emotional resonance of your message, says Tom Lorenzo, executive creative director of Situation Interactive.

"At some level, it's just [about] someone being exposed to our message," says Lorenzo. "It's the same as a print ad, but the difference is it's a much deeper impression because content marketing allows us to use storytelling to make a strong emotional connection with our audience."

That means brands need to be asking if their content is resonating emotionally. But, according to Lorenzo, that isn't necessarily the same thing as tracking how many people saw your message or shared it. Unfortunately, focus groups and tests only take you so far when determining emotional resonance. At some point, marketers need to trust their creative instincts and honestly ask themselves if their content is emotionally resonant.

Quality counts

We live in a data-driven world, and whether we like it or not the trend toward quantifying anything and everything will most likely continue. But a serious commitment to content marketing means that brands can't just look at the numbers, according to Chris Younger, principal and VP of strategy for Ayzenberg Group.

"The quantitative measure of content is the immediate, the qualitative is the lasting effect," says Younger. "That's why we remember the Old Spice 'The Man Your Man Could Smell Like' ads from a few years ago and not a banner ad you saw in the past."

Of course, quality is highly subjective and therefore difficult to reduce to data. After a campaign launches, marketers can and should use social metrics like comments, shares, and likes as proxies for quality. But making quality material -- whether it's a plain old ad or content marketing -- requires something of a judgment call, according to Younger, who says marketers need to ask if the material delivers a satisfying experience.

But a satisfying experience shouldn't be the end of the analysis. How content marketers often fail, according to Younger, is by making a series of assumptions after they've determined that they have quality content to publish.

First, says Younger, marketers incorrectly assume that everyone will see their content if it's good and available on a popular platform.

"Discoverability is still a big challenge," says Younger. "Just because you place it on YouTube doesn't mean everyone is waiting to see it."

Second, brands make the mistake of preaching to the choir. The content may be good, but if it only resonates with the brand's diehard fans, there won't be much marketing traction. So while positive comments are good, brands need to make sure those comments are coming from new voices if they want to grow their presence.

Lastly, good content isn't necessarily the same thing as the right content.

"A lot of content is being produced by brands, and a lot of it says nothing about the brand," says Younger. "It's almost as if the idea is that any content is good content."

That means that while the content itself might be successful by numerous measures, it will fail if it doesn't align with a larger strategy.

Consider the channel

When we talk about content marketing, we're really talking about a pretty diverse universe of material. At one end of the spectrum we have text-based content like blog posts and tweets. But there's also graphic content, which is especially popular and powerful on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. And of course, there's the granddaddy of content marketing -- video, which proliferates on YouTube and runs the gamut from quick viral hits to long-form narratives. Initially, content marketing was about maximizing eyeballs on these and other platforms, but increasingly the benchmarks for success are about costs, says Chris Ferguson, executive creative director of Tribal Worldwide.

"Content marketing has been measured by views, with the primary goal being brand awareness and affinity," says Ferguson. "But I think that has changed. More and more content marketing is measured on a cost-per-action or cost-per-engagement basis using metrics that are specific to the content and where it's placed."

By way of example, Ferguson points to a hypothetical video series on a platform like YouTube. In the past, it would have been sufficient to tally up the total number of views within a specific timeframe; if the view count was high, the campaign would be a success. But increasingly Ferguson says brands want to know how many people are going from one video to the next and what it costs to drive each one of those people across the series.

Success is a spectrum, not a destination

Talk to a group of marketers about content marketing and pretty quickly you'll hear someone mention Red Bull. When it comes to content marketing, Red Bull is pretty much the brand to beat. But what marketers sometimes fail to appreciate about Red Bull is that the brand isn't just about one-off stunts like "Stratos." Furthermore, the idea to skydive from space didn't just happen the day the brand decided to get into content marketing.

"I don't know anyone who did something once and was an expert at it," says Lisa Barone, VP of strategy at Overit. "I also don't know anyone who sent one tweet and found themselves an immediate following. Content marketing isn't a shortcut or a single blog post. It's an investment and it takes time to find what works and build the audience you need to spread your content."

In other words, success is something you build on, and a successful campaign is one that also gives you valuable lessons for the next go around.

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow Estrin at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Young female doctor holding measuring tape and apple" image via Shutterstock.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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