As an avid practitioner of content marketing, both for our clients and my own company, I’ve heard (and expressed) a lot of opinions and comments about content marketing, ranging from:
“It doesn’t work, so why the heck are we doing it?”
“I think it might help us, but we have no way of measuring results.”
“Even if it does work, is content marketing the best use of our resources?”
“We need lots of help in this area and are way behind our competitors.”
Who makes the decision about how much time and money companies invest in creating and sharing content? Is it the CEO, the head of marketing, or someone else? There are lots of conversations going on where the CMO has to defend his or her decision to focus on this area. The CMO may strongly feel the need to maintain or accelerate their content efforts but can’t answer the tough questions about how these efforts contribute to leads and/or revenue.
How Content Marketing Optimizes the Sales Process
Sales funnels can be quite complex, but can basically be simplified into four key steps. You must first make prospects aware of you, then you educate them, gain their engagement, and finally sell them your products or services. This series of steps is what we call the Revenue Machine Blueprint and it holds true for large enterprise deals closed by a field sales rep, for e-commerce sites where direct sales is not involved — and everything in between.
Your job here is to use content marketing to help prospects find you using informational (not sales) content as a magnet. Measurements at this stage include:
- Social engagement shares.
- Connections on your social media platforms.
- Visits to your website.
- Quality links back to your website.
- Increase in raw inquiries.
Prospects are now aware of you, and they visit your website. This is your chance to use content to educate them. Depending on where they are on the buying journey, this could consist of teaching them about your domain subject matter (e.g. a whitepaper on how to find the right system) or information about your products and services (e.g. data sheets, testimonials). Measurements include:
- Subscribing to your blog or newsletter.
- Downloading papers, briefs or data sheets.
- Watching online videos, demos.
- Increase in marketing qualified leads (MQLs).
Prospects are now aware of you, and they have been at least partially educated on what you do and how it benefits them. Many companies lose prospects at this stage, so your goal is to use quality content to get prospects to take an action that gets them engaged with your sales team or your e-commerce site. Measurements include:
- Providing full information on a contact form.
- Participating in a personal demo.
- Requesting a quotation.
- Setting up a telephone or in-person meeting.
- Increase in sales qualified leads (SQLs)/opportunities.
Sales Conversion Stage
Once the prospect is engaged, it is primarily up to either the sales representative (direct sales model) or the website (e-commerce model) to convert the prospect to a customer. Now, content is used to drive a higher conversion rate. Examples include live demos, customer references, testimonials and product/service usage examples. Measurements include:
- Online sales via your e-commerce site.
- Direct sales via field- or telephone sales force.
- Upsell and cross-sell revenue.
- Conversion of free-trial or premium programs to paid customers.
Note that the right content can not only help in the four-step revenue process, it can also be used to keep customers engaged and happy. For example, there is a lot of attrition in the software industry because customers have good intentions of using a product but have a hard time after the initial implementation. In this case, online tutorials (written and video) can be used to boost usage and adoption. We’ve experienced such programs reducing attrition by as much as 30% per year.
Tips on Making Content Marketing Produce Good ROI
Assuming you meet the criteria for continued or increased investment in content marketing, what can you do to make sure it achieves results that are strong enough to convince the skeptical CEO? Here are some ideas.
- Commit and follow-through.
Please don’t start down the content path unless you intend to do it right. Half-hearted efforts won’t impress prospects and beat the competition, and it will take a relentless and consistent effort to meet your goals. This doesn’t mean you need to create a lot of content in a short time, but start and continue at a steady pace. And if you don’t have the internal resources, there are lots of good external resources that can help you.
- Be consistent and specific.
Better to be a niche content producer and go deep into a particular subject of interest, than to feed your readers with your latest stream of consciousness. I know that there are exceptions, but generally, specialists beat generalists at the content marketing game.
- Produce quality content.
Don’t write it unless you believe that your audience will find what you produce to be both interesting and relevant. If you focus on quality, they will subscribe for more content and, at the right time, they will engage with your sales team.
- Don’t neglect your most important content asset.
Regardless of what other types of content they review, prospects will end up at your website. This is particularly true in B2B models. Make sure your website reflects the best of what you offer and is consistent with all the other content you produce.
- Have a conversion plan.
To help support the company’s revenue objectives, always keep in mind that content must be designed to optimize each of the four stages (awareness, education, engagement, sales/conversion) and help improve key metrics at each stage.
Most of us can come up with the correct way to measure the value of a metric like sales qualified lead (or opportunity if you prefer). The calculation of content marketing ROI can be a bit trickier, especially since many/most of the cost is usually related to time. Basically, the formula boils down to dividing the results by all the costs. Here is how it worked for one of our clients after a full quarter of creating and sharing content (2 whitepapers, one video, 3 blog posts, 3 landing pages):
- Total costs (allocated between internal resources and outside agency): $13,000
- Value of 22 additional SQLs/Opportunities (based on historical close rates): $33,000
- Return on Investment ($33,000/$13,000): 2.5
Note that these ROI numbers did not include the value of how the content continued to produce revenue in future quarters. It also does not account for the tremendous jump in exposure and brand equity. Nor does it include a calculation for “opportunity costs” — what the team could be doing with the same investment of time and dollars on other marketing initiatives.
For a more in-depth analysis on this type of analysis, review Jay Baer’s excellent article, The Formula to Calculate Content Marketing ROI
Fortunately, when it comes to content marketing, my company practices what it preaches. By publishing and socializing a steady stream of content about revenue growth and B2B marketing, we have attracted great clients from the U.S. and countries as far flung as India, Italy, Germany and the U.K. These clients found our content (became aware), read it (were educated), contacted us (engaged) and retained us (converted). Because of our use of content as a pull marketing strategy, our inbound lead flow is steady – we can be selective and work only with companies where the fit is good (for the client and for us).
I will leave you with four key questions:
- Can quality content expose you to plenty of fresh new prospects?
- Can quality content enable sales that otherwise would be lost?
- Can quality content make sales happen more quickly?
- Do you have the resources (internal or external) to create quality content and measure results?
If the answer to the last question, plus one or more of the first three questions, is yes, you can indeed drive solid ROI from your content marketing efforts.