You may not have heard of Shane Snow yet, but in his area of expertise (content marketing) he is already a rock star. Last year he made Business Insider’s Silicon Alley’s “100 Coolest People in Tech” list, and was named one of Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30.
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Shane runs Contently, which is a web-based platform that allows big brands to tap into a talent pool of 20,000+ high-quality writing and editing professionals without the HR hassle. I met Shane when he was on a panel entitled, “What is Success? What’s the return on investment? Is it all about the bottom line?” at an Etsy content conference this summer. The conference was an industry-insiders event attended by the bloggers and marketing managers of some of the largest companies in the country. What I learned at the conference is that while everyone agrees that quality content is essential for marketing these days, fewer brands are measuring the real return on investment (ROI) than you would expect. I caught up with Shane to learn more about this issue, and to get his take on the best approach to content for large and small businesses. What I learned surprised me.
Content Marketers Are Afraid Of Data
“Marketers and journalists are scared of data,” Shane told the audience of content specialists. “We fear that if we look at hard numbers, creating content won’t be worth it. We clearly believe there is a wholistic benefit to [producing content], but in terms of wanting to scale your efforts, you need to have a metric to justify it.”
So how should marketers do that? To start, Contently tracks three crucial metrics for its clients: reach, engagement, and influence. “Reach is how many people are seeing the content, or could be seeing it throughout the web, based on who is sharing it. Engagement is how much time people are spending involved with your content on your site — and coming back to it later. Influence is how many people are taking an action after they consume your content.”
These metrics help companies shape their content strategy, but they do not show “dollars in” vs. “dollars out” ROI. In other words, Contently cannot tell a company exactly what content production is really worth to their bottom line. This tracking has to be done by the business itself, but it can be done.
Measuring ROI Is Possible, It Just Takes Work
“People get frustrated and make sweeping statements like ‘the ROI of content hasn’t been cracked yet’ — but it has. It is just business specific,” Shane explained. “It’s a difficult thing to prescribe one solution for the myriad of use-cases companies have for content, but each company can find its own metrics.”
For example, “West Elm might determine based on research that someone who engages with their content and returns to their site, and subscribes to their blog and shares their stuff, is 25% more likely to make a purchase than the average customer. A West Elm customer might be worth $100, so that person would be worth an extra $25. This is the measurable monetary value to that engagement and this is what a lot of brands are doing.” The key is to have someone on the team who is really drilling down into the data, looking at cohorts and paths of use, and tracking what works and what does not.
It’s Easiest Business-To-Business (B to B) Companies To Measure Content ROI
For B-to-B companies, “we show how the content works in their funnel,” said Shane. “We create a bunch of stories, [count] the people that read those stories and then actually sign up to talk to a sales person, and then track those who eventually close. We can see the customer list that the content creates, and attach a value to it. The relationship gets even tighter for educational content, like e-books, how-tos and live videos. All a company has to do then is track the relationship between who watches and who downloads.”
Content Marketing Also Has Measurable Branding Value
While everyone is hot to measure the ROI of content, a lot of content, especially in
B-to-C businesses is used for branding, rather than bottom line ROI, and this is where the impressions and interactions data is particularly helpful. Brand value and awareness can be measured using the same techniques as traditional media buys like tv, radio and billboards, through surveys and market research that show how many people know about the brand and what they think of it.
Paid Search Is Often A Better Choice Than Content Marketing For Small Businesses
With a limited marketing budget, small companies are thinking about where to allocate their dollars and often feel the need to choose between paid search and content. Unfortunately, trying to compare the two may be like comparing apples and oranges.
“Paid search is a proven way to turn on the spigot to a specific actionable landing page. In contrast, content is about building a relationship with someone, which lends itself more to branding and enterprise sales and pipeline building. I don’t see very many small businesses being patient enough to build a long-term relationship with people who aren’t their customers yet. They can’t do it very well because it’s usually a bigger investment than they have the time or money to make to do a really good job.”
Product Enhancing Content Is The Exception
The exception, Shane notes, are companies that use content to enhance the purchasing experience, by providing the backstory on who made the products. “They build a relationship with the potential buyer very quickly through human stories.” This is a tactic that definitely works, so investing here is a good way to distinguish from the competition and build loyalty.
The Other Exception Is Producing Content For PR
For entrepreneurs on a budget, Shane also noted that, “it’s far more effective to have company leadership involved in content at higher levels than to hire people to blog for you or to create content for you. When you are small, you’re trying to get people to know who you are, and what you care about. Having your CEO guest post on Tech Crunch is way more powerful than having some blogger that you hire write posts each day on your blog.” This is a great point, as so many blogs and news sites accept contributed content that not only builds brand awareness and credibility, but also produces important SEO-rich backlinks for your site.
For large companies thinking about building content, the good news is that it does not have to be a huge leap of faith. Depending on the goals and the products or services involved, you can set up good tracking throughout the process that will allow your company to build audience, brand loyalty and conversion with positive ROI.
For smaller companies, Shane’s advice is priceless: instead of spending thousands of dollars pumping up your personal blog, look for solid content contribution opportunities that will allow you to get the most exposure for your brand with the least amount of work on your end, while using homegrown content selectively on your site to enhance the purchasing experience.
In either scenario, smart content is essential to growing a successful online company. It is worth thinking strategically about it before you dive in.
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