05/17/2016 01:06 EDT | Updated 05/18/2017 05:12 EDT

How Are Brands And Agencies Measuring The ROI Of Content?

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As the digital revolution continues to transform the way in which companies market their products to consumers, brands and agencies are facing a whole new set of challenges previously unencountered in the industry.

There remains industry-wide confusion as to how to effectively track the success metrics of both content and content distribution. In fact, according to HubSpot's State of Inbound 2014-2015, measurement is the number one challenge marketers face, with nearly 30 percent of those surveyed reporting that proving the financial return of their content-driven marketing activities was a widespread problem.

So how are brands and agencies attempting to solve this overcome this stumbling block? How does their approach vary? I recently spoke to Leanne Brinkies, Global Head of Native Advertising at Sydney-based content agency, King Content, and Darin Diehl, Director of Content and Shared Services from direct bank Tangerine in Toronto, to find out.

Note: King Content and Tangerine have no affiliation and do not directly work with one another.

Industry-wide, we're quickly learning that organic content distribution can only get you so far. How important do you think paid amplification is as part of an overall content strategy?

LB: My personal opinion is that if you don't invest in any amplification of content, your ability to assess ROI is much lower because you have a smaller pool. That's why King Content has created a specialist native advertising division -- because we realized our clients weren't seeing the returns they needed. If you're not getting enough eyeballs on the content you've paid for, to me that isn't a very good equation.

DD: In terms of content distribution, you have to start with your owned and earned channels. And then of course there's paid channels, and we generally work with a media agency for that. The agency helps us devise a paid strategy that we can continuously optimize and track to ensure we're getting the most out of our paid distribution dollars. This year we're all about trying new things, seeing how they perform, and then optimizing them to ensure we see the results we need.

A problem facing most marketers today is how to track and measure the ROI of content. Are you any closer to solving the quandary?

LB: I think it goes back to the metrics we talked about before. It's about how many are viewing the content, where they are in the funnel, how they're engaging with the content, how they're sharing it, and how this is affecting sales and performance over time. At the end of the day, all our clients want to know how many sales they're making and at what cost per they're going to deliver. But so far it's been difficult to prove that case with content.

The last-click attribution model doesn't really work with content. It doesn't effectively demonstrate how content is performing or how engagement with content positively impacts a business's bottom line. For example, with a last-click attribution scenario search will always offer the lowest cost per acquisition (CPA). But what we should see is that that CPA, even for search, should reduce over time with a content-driven approach, because you've brought so many more people into the funnel that the number of searches a user does should decrease, and when a user comes through they should be lower down in the funnel.

A perfect attribution model is the holy grail of content marketing that we're all trying to discover, but we also need to find a way to demonstrate the value of engagement metrics and draw attention to those top-funnel awareness considerations.

DD: We closely track and monitor a range of metrics and KPIs so we can see what the results are, learn from the data, and then make adjustments accordingly. I would argue that we're always going to be in the process of figuring it all out. Things are constantly changing -- Google makes changes to its algorithms and user behaviour changes, so to truly understand the ROI of something, you're going to need to constantly revise the ways in which you're measuring to understand the impact your content is making.

I like to break our strategy down into three separate components because success looks different for each of them. Firstly, we look at whether the content is being consumed -- it's important to break through the noise by creating something that's going to make a connection with your audience. Then we measure engagement to see if the audience is sharing or taking some kind of measurable action, including following through on a call to action. And then lastly, what's the impact on brand perception and are we influencing conversion.

Closing thoughts

There will likely never be a hard-and-fast, one-size-fits all solution to measuring the financial return of content marketing. "It's really a constant learning model", explains Diehl. "I don't think there's a "plug and play" for this yet, and perhaps there never will be because the ground beneath us is always shifting. You've got to learn as you go and adjust as you go."

Extended interview on StackAdapt Native Advertising Academy

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