Content and SEO are equally as important… But which do you start with? We asked 60+ experts to share the strategy they prioritize—and why.
Content Marketing | Jun 25
Jessica Greene on March 31, 2021 (last modified on April 22, 2021) • 27 minute read
What makes a piece of content successful, and how can you measure its success?
The answer to the first question is one only you (or your boss, team, business, or clients) can provide. And the answer to the second question depends entirely on your answer to the first.
Measuring content success isn’t a straightforward process. To evaluate your content, you have to define goals, set KPIs for those goals, and then measure and track your KPIs.
And it may not be enough to just set goals and KPIs for your entire content marketing program. In fact, many of the respondents to our most recent survey set goals and track KPIs for each piece of content they create, and 37% say they monitor the success of their content every week with another 26% saying they monitor content success every day.
To learn more about the processes, metrics, and tools required to evaluate content success, we picked the brains of dozens of content marketers who take a scientific approach to the task.
From strategies to measure, metrics to track and software to assist with calculations, here’s what they said.
Before we dive into ways to measure content marketing ROI, we should explain how marketers measure content success in general. When measuring content marketing ROI, it’s important to follow this 4-step process.
301 Digital Media‘s Andrew Becks explains: “When it comes to content marketing, the goals should match the measurement. If you’re in the ecommerce space, focusing on measuring around direct sales and conversions is great. If you’re a software or subscription-based business, measuring the lifetime value of users you bring in through content marketing efforts might be the best way to measure and prove ROI.”
Becks says: “No matter the industry or content type, determine how you’re going to measure and gauge success is one of the very first things we like to do both for our own internal campaigns, as well as when engaging with clients.”
So, the first step in measuring content success is to set goals, either for an individual piece of content, a specific content campaign, or your overall content marketing program.
“In order to measure the success of your content, you need to know your goals,” says Resolute PR’s Natalie Cagle. “A lot of marketers lose sight of business goals when they get into the research, planning, and production phases.”
Ollie Roddy of Catalyst Marketing agrees: “A piece of content’s success depends on what its aim is.”
“If you’re writing a series of pieces to rank better for a certain keyword, the obvious way to track success is to measure your position in Google. But if you’re writing content to create a new sales funnel, you’d want to measure your conversion rates.”
“The tracking of a campaign all depends on your goals as a team and a business.”
Once you have a goal in mind, you need to determine what key performance indicators (KPIs) you’ll use to track progress toward your goals.
For example, if your goal is to increase engagement, your KPIs might focus on metrics like time on page and bounce rate. If your goal is to increase organic traffic, you may want to focus on metrics like number of inbound links and improved search rankings.
“Different goals require different KPIs to measure your content’s effectiveness,” Natalie Cagle says. “However, with almost any goal, you can measure KPIs from user behavior, social media engagement, and SEO impact.”
But before rushing into this, bear in mind the words of Brandon Andersen of Ceralytics, “ROI is a finance equation”, and any goals you set “have to be specific, measurable, and tie back to a monetary number. Notice that likes, impressions, and shares cannot fit into this equation.”
Andersen explains: “The key is to assign values to KPI’s that aren’t directly related to money. For example, you can calculate the average value of an inbound lead. Take the number of leads x the value of each lead, and you have a revenue number you can use for your ROI calculation.”
However, not all marketers recommend tracking ROI as strictly as Brandon.
According to our respondents to this latest report, we found marketers consider leads, visit-to-signup, and unique sessions as the “most important” KPIs for communicating content ROI.
Jonathan Aufray of Growth Hackers specifically recommends tracking these three (non-monetary) metrics:
And James Green, Founder and CEO of Offer to Close, says: “We create different measurements based on our goal for each piece of content. If the content is building awareness, we will primarily use impressions and clicks to show the value of the piece of content. When the goal is to drive sales, we’ll only look at which piece of content eventually led to the sale.”
Best Company‘s Chad Zollinger agrees: “Our main KPIs include the organic ranking of our top partners, quarter-over-quarter click increases, backlink generation goals, and quarter-over-quarter organic revenue increases.”
“We try to look at overall costs vs overall sales (or revenue)”, explains Andrew Maff of Seller’s Choice. “The KPI we watch is impressions or visits, then we just try to keep improving the direct return.”
In a nutshell: The metrics you chose to track ROI should be somehow related to earning more money.
Unique visitors, lead magnet downloads, and conversions can all play a role, so you’ll need to hone in on exactly which metrics eventually result in paying customers if you’re accurately measuring the return on your content investment.
You’ve got a list of metrics you’re thinking of measuring, but where should you collect the data from?
Simple metrics, such as the number of conversions or conversion rate, can be easy to find-as explained by Kiyo Wiesnoski of Adlava: “If the goal is strictly getting users to directly buy something, that’s straightforward enough to measure”.
But Kiyo says “content marketing often assists revenue growth in other ways.”
And we agree! Content marketing can increase overall brand awareness, improve organic rankings, and build upon the campaigns you’re using advertising for.
That’s why you’ll need to measure key metrics across several platforms–such as CPC on Facebook Ads, LinkedIn campaigns and Google Ads accounts.
Here’s Kiyo putting that into practice: “For example, if the goal is to increase organic reach, you could measure organic entrances to your website originating from the URLs specific to a content marketing campaign. If the content was created for link building purposes, you could measure success by the number of websites linking to your content.”
Once you have goals and KPIs, you need to decide how you’ll measure your KPIs and track your progress toward goals. Our respondents use multiple tools to measure their KPIs, with Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and SEMrush being the most popular:
“We do a weekly review to see if the content we created performed how we expected it to perform,” says Wordable’s David Khim. “We look to see if any changes are correlated to our activities.”
“For example, say we published an article a couple of weeks ago, and then we noticed some traffic growth. But in our review, we saw that the traffic growth didn’t come from that article; it came from a more recent article.
“We can then dig into why a newer article brought in more traffic and why the old post isn’t generating the traffic we expected.”
Monitoring your KPIs over time is a great way to gather new insights into which tactics are working—and which aren’t driving the results you need to hit your goals.
Once you’ve decided what goals to pursue, and the best KPIs to track your goals, how should you track those KPIs and metrics to measure progress toward hitting your goals?
Our respondents offered lots of tips, tools, and tactics to consider. Let’s take a look at how can you measure content success for some of the most common content marketing goals, such as organic traffic increase, search rankings, leads, audience engagement and more.
“Conversions are what every marketer wants to generate at the end of the day,” Bill Ferris of Decor Interiors says, “but the real measure of success for content is organic traffic.”
“I track long-term organic traffic trends for key pieces of content to identify seasonal patterns or other drops that might need attention. This macro view also helps guide future content development,” Ferris says.
“I track organic clicks through Google Search Console and check them every week for the pages I’m focusing on,” says BestCompany’s Alice Stevens. “I look for overall traffic growth, drops, and spikes. Analyzing the differences helps me identify what pages to target or what keywords I should prioritize.”
Fundera’s Maddie Shepherd argues that “percentage growth of weekly traffic is the ultimate metric for measuring the success of content. Percentage growth creates an even playing field for all articles, even those targeting lower-volume keywords.”
And if you use topic clusters, David Khim recommends “reviewing your organic traffic in Google Analytics to see which cluster of blog posts is seeing the most growth.”
“Our goal is growing organic traffic,” David Khim says, “but instead of just looking at traffic growth as a whole, we keep an eye on two things: organic traffic growth specifically for the blog posts we wrote to target specific keywords, and our rankings for those specific keywords.”
“To track our rankings, we set up an automated report in AccuRanker that keeps us updated if we have any ranking movements week-to-week for specific keywords.”
But if you don’t want to subscribe to a tool to monitor your rankings, you can always check them manually. “I check rankings in an incognito window using keywords I’ve targeted on specific pages to see if they are increasing in rank,” Alice Stevens says.
While you’re checking manually, Bill Ferris also recommends looking to see if you’ve earned any featured snippets. “If you get a featured snippet, it will generate far more attention than a normal top listing since it’s larger and can include images.”
And in addition to looking at clicks and rankings, Glacier Wellness’ Samuel Mayers recommends measuring impressions.
“One of the most underrated KPIs is total impressions, which can be accessed via Google Search Console.”
“While it may seem less critical than other factors, this metric effectively includes countless factors, making it a comprehensive KPI. A webpage’s impressions measure how many times users saw a link to the page in search results.”
“This can put an entire SEO campaign into perspective, and it provides more context for metrics like average click-through rate.”
*Editor’s note: You can recreate these reports from Google Search Console in Databox and create beautiful, real-time visualizations of impressions, click-through rate by page, and much more, with free Google Search Console Basics dashboard.
“Traffic can offer you insight into the popularity of your content now,” says Clutch’s Riley Panko. “But to truly understand the staying power of your content—especially if you publish content with SEO in mind—you should be measuring how many websites link to your content.”
“Links give your content the chance to rise higher in search engines, giving you more and more traffic over time instead of short bursts of popularity immediately after publishing.”
Panko recommends using Ahrefs’ Backlink Checker and Google Search Console’s links report to track inbound links to your content.
Bill Ferris is also a fan of Ahrefs and uses it for checking backlinks and much more.
“Once a piece of content has been out there for a while and Google has had a chance to index the initial backlinks, I enter the article’s URL into Content Explorer and look at a wide variety of KPIs.”
“I pay attention to URL rating, referring domains, dofollow backlinks, organic keywords, organic traffic, and traffic value. I also dig a little deeper to track any movement of high-volume keyword rankings, as well as competitive pages and gaps in our content.”
“Another important factor to consider when analyzing your content’s effectiveness is the level of engagement it has,” Alice Stevens says. “If your content has a high level of engagement, it’s a good sign because it means that your content is attracting people and they’re seeing value in your site.”
“A complete content marketing system will have several pieces of content that span the entirety of a customer’s journey,” says Autumn Sullivan of Big Sea Co. “Focusing on the intent of the content helps me define the KPIs.”
“I don’t expect awareness-stage blog posts to convert, so I don’t track conversions as a KPI for those. Instead, I’ll focus on engagement metrics like traffic to the page, time spent on page, scroll depth on the page, and audience.”
“If you’re measuring how well your blog content is resonating with your audience,” says PrimePay’s Sean McCaffrey, “you can set up a custom report in Google Analytics that is filtered to show only the metrics for a specific blog post.
“If your content is getting a high number of views, users are spending a few minutes on average on the page, and they’re filling out a form after reading your post, chances are your content is working pretty well,” McCaffrey says.
Audi Westmont’s Laura Gonzalez agrees: “The average time that visitors spend on your webpage suggests how effective your content is. If visitors are on your page for a while, that means that they’re spending a good amount of time reading your content.”
“But if visitors are not spending enough time on your page, it might mean your content is not fulfilling their needs,” Gonzales says.
You can find all of these metrics for each piece of content on your site in Google Analytics (Behavior > Site Content > All Pages).
And if you’re trying to measure engagement with your content on social, Bill Ferris recommends “paying close attention to the number of likes, shares, saves, and clicks.”
“As more people click through to the content,” Ferris says, “look for deeper engagement in the form of comments or questions. Most of the time the submissions are spam, but real readers offer a great opportunity to demonstrate your authority and industry interest.”
“For me, the most important measure of content success is how many conversions it brings and how much each conversion costs,” says Beetroot‘s Tetiana Vasylenko. “But by conversions, I don’t necessarily mean purchases. These could be micro-conversions, like visits to a product or contact page, subscribing to a newsletter, etc.”
To measure how many leads and conversions your content is generating, Nisarg Mehta and Rajat Chauhan of Techtic Solutions Inc. recommend tracking lead-gen form completions, email newsletter signups, completed purchases, and content downloads.
BestCompany’s Alice Stevens says “it’s very important to monitor click-through rates on conversion-focused links. The higher the click-through rate, the better your content is at helping consumers make a purchasing decision.”
Setting up goals in Google Analytics makes it easy to track clicks from content to conversion-focused pages and see which pieces of content generate the most revenue.
Or James Pollard of The Advisor Coach offers another solution: “Once it’s published, use unique tracking links so you can see which pieces of content are achieving your goals.”
“For example, you can include a unique tracking link to a sales page on each piece of your content. From there, you can see which piece of content delivers the most sales.”
If your goal is to drive traffic to your website from social media, you’ll need to measure social referral traffic. Our respondents offered a few tips for tracking social referrals.
“You can determine how many users were reached from a campaign or single posting using Facebook and Instagram insights,” says Mackenzie Thompson of National Health Care Provider Solutions. “Then, cross-reference those numbers with Google Analytics to measure content success.”
But Brittany Hardy of Empty Desk Solutions says it’s important to look beyond just referral traffic itself. “If we link to our content on social, we can see reach statistics on the posts, but more importantly, the number of clicks and actions taken once that person has landed on our website.”
To track those subsequent actions, AdEspresso’s Paul Fairbrother recommends using Facebook’s analytics tool.
“Using the analytics tool in Facebook Business Manager, you can create an Event Source Group that combines your Facebook page with the Facebook pixel that’s on your website. This allows you to track the user journey from when they engage with your post right through to when they sign up as a lead or make a purchase on your website.”
“Once this is set up, you can then create funnels and see what has the largest influence on getting leads or making a sale. For example, if you notice that engagement results in leads, you can run top-of-the-funnel ads optimized for engagement.”
“Always keep in mind that for high-ticket items or for B2B, it might take weeks or even months for content to result in a sale,” Fairbrother says.
Lastly, you can use UTM codes to track not only traffic from social media, but also inbound traffic from referral or paid search.
Joe Sloan of Advice Media explains, “We have specific codes that allow us to know what traffic came from Facebook (paid/organic), YouTube (even the video), PPC campaigns, and others.
But because we have standardization I can see traffic from all our content/ads across many sites that were targeting a specific vertical.
This allows us to show an increase in content created for a vertical has resulted in more traffic from those sources and lead to an increase in sales.”
Fancy getting started with UTM codes? Head over to Google’s Campaign URL Builder, and set the parameters you’ll use to measure the success of each campaign.
Sloan says you’ll use these parameters for everything–including your website forms: “You need to automate forms embedded into your content to automatically be added to your CRM system and labeled properly. This allows you to track leads through the sales process and what content generated that qualified lead. This will save you time and save you the headache of trying to manually track the performance of lead generation from your content.”
*Editor’s note: Track and visualize traffic from social media, as well as the percentage of new users your content generates from social media, and much more with this free Google Analytics Social Media Dashboard template.
While the overall ROI of your business’s content marketing strategy can be calculated by offsetting direct costs, there are other nifty tricks to dive deeper into your results.
What you really want to learn when measuring content marketing ROI is the answer to these four questions, shared by Lola.com‘s Mike Baker:
And how do you do that?
“The most effective way to prove the ROI of content marketing is to ensure you have closed-loop reporting in place that can attribute closed sales to engagement with your content”, explains Jennifer Lux of Lynton Web.
And that’s where attribution models come in. They’re rules that determine which page should be credited for conversions (mainly sales).
But when you’re using this method to track content marketing ROI, there are several ways you can credit the URL resulting in a conversion, including:
We found almost half of marketers prefer multi-touch attribution models.
…including Amanda Nielsen, who forms part of the New Breed marketing department.
Nielsen says: “We use a multi-touch attribution model to understand the way different types of content influence the customer lifecycle at all stages. We don’t believe in attributing 100 percent of the buying decision to a single touch point, because the decision-making process is usually distributed across multiple touch points and engagements.”
Nielsen’s decision to use multi-touch attribution relates back to their typical buyer’s journey: “For example, say someone converted on a middle-of-the-funnel form from a blog post right before they closed as a customer. In that case, it’s safe to assume they used that blog post to inform their final decision, so it’s weighed more than if it was their first conversion.”
Nielsen is not the only one using buyer journeys to determine the most appropriate attribution models to track content marketing ROI.
“Ideally you’ve built out a framework for your content marketing that is soundly based on the buyer’s journey”, says TSL Marketing‘s Ryan Nicholson. “After doing that you’re assigning performance KPIs for your content at different places in the journey. You have to look at this content as the foundational cost of attracting, educating, nurturing, converting, retaining, etc. And you’re likely going to need a pretty big window of time to see that investment turns into a return.”
That doesn’t mean multi-touch attribution is the only way forwards, though.
Ian Evanstar of UNINCORPORATED is one of the marketers who prefer first-touch attribution: “Despite the majority of KPI’s being the derivative of a final click in a conversion, identifying the origination of a customer gives agencies a snapshot into the most effective channels for content marketing.”
Summarizing, Ian explains: “Because we know from where a contact originated, we can report on the number of Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs), Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs), opportunities, and ultimately customers from those channels.”
But Brand Chemistry‘s Christabelle Tani doesn’t think which attribution model you’re choosing really matters.
She says: “I would be looking at whether buyers are actually interested in the content – are they even consuming it, finding it useful, becoming more interested in the product/solution as a result? Where they’re getting it from matters less. When it boils down to it, it doesn’t really matter – what matters is that you’re correctly putting content in front of your buyers, and they’re consuming it and it’s helping them convert into actual customers. In terms of metrics, tie it back to the customer.”
Majority of marketers use between 3 and 5 tools to measure the performance of their content, some marketers use as many as 10 different tools.
But managing so many tools—retrieving data from them, analyzing that data, and building reports—adds a tremendous amount of overhead to your workload.
Fortunately, we can offer a solution. To track ROI accurately, instead of collecting metrics from individual platforms, consider using these 5 marketer-approved tools and platforms that aggregate content and marketing analytics.
Speaking of attribution models, Dan Patino of Digifianz uses HubSpot’s Campaigns tool to “connect all blog posts, content offers, social media posts, etc. by Campaign Name”. He says this approach allows him to “know exactly which posts and offers are converting, regardless if it was a first-touch or last-touch.”
Dan’s team then “review which of those leads have converted into actual paying customers and attribute it equally to all content offers that were viewed in that specific buyer’s journey.”
Miller says: “It is one of the few that is actually closing the loop on content marketing via one centralized and holistic campaigns module where every data point and attribution points are trackable and reportable (when set up properly and used effectively).”
The best part? HubSpot’s dashboard allows them to prove their content marketing strategy to their agency’s clients: “Leveraging the HubSpot tool in this way, as well through consultation with clients on total costs and spend, we effectively report and demonstrate ROI for our clients content marketing.”
“As your content marketing strategy matures, measuring the impact of content along the buyer’s journey in a multi-attribution model can provide deeper insights into which pieces of content are most effective not only in a prospect’s initial buying phase but along their path to purchase”, explains LyntonWeb‘s Jennifer Lux.
That’s why she names HubSpot as her “tool of choice, alongside the reporting capabilities of Databox, to measure and track related KPIs.”
Oxygen’s Laurent Ross also recommends using Databox with HubSpot: “Through a combination of tracking links built in HubSpot, and utilizing Databox to create content-performance dashboards, we are able to give our team and our clients full (and live) visibility of the performance of our content.”
CallRail is a tool that tracks, records, and analyzes phone calls your business makes, and Brian says: “If you use HubSpot, you can take this a step further by connecting your CallRail account and following your leads throughout the entire lifecycle. The ROI then becomes crystal clear.”
To accurately monitor ROI, you’ll need to accurately track the activity happening on your website.
“I use a software called Improvely”, explains James Pollard of The Advisor Coach, “which tracks all the interactions someone has with my website.”
Pollard says: “I can clearly see if someone bought as a result of a piece of content I shared, as well as which piece of content that is. I’ve found that my longer, more in-depth written content tends to get more sales than anything else–even video. Using Improvely has allowed me to see which characteristics I should replicate in my future content.”
Are you using affiliate links on your website to generate more cash?
Nate Masterson of Maple Holistics recommends Pretty Links: “We use a plugin called Pretty Links, which effectively tracks our Amazon affiliate links within our blog posts. This shows us exactly where many of our Amazon purchases originate and which calls-to-action are most effective.”
But even if you’re not participating in affiliate marketing, the Pretty Links plugin can still track which links are being clicked–allowing you to understand the effectiveness of your linking strategy.
ou know how to track ROI, and the software you’ll need to measure it accurately.
But if you log into your dashboard and aren’t happy with the result, what happens next?
These four content marketers share their best tip for improving ROI, so you don’t have to pour your cash into a strategy that’s failing to see results.
PACIFIC Digital Group‘s Jennifer Cueller says: “When a consumer interacts with your content (be it an article, video, podcast, or anything else), they should walk away ready to make a decision about your brand. For some companies, that decision is anything from a purchase to social share to page view. These decisions around buying, interacting, and trusting represent how well your message landed with the consumer.”
That’s why she thinks “the heart of content marketing is delivering the right message in the right package.”
“If your content marketing strategy does not target the area of your business that makes the biggest impact then who cares”, writes Chad Zollinger of Best Company. “You need to tie keywords into revenue.”
Chad says: “ROI of content will ultimately come down to how well your organic efforts have attributed to your end goal (increasing revenue). It starts with content produced, technical SEO, and on/off page SEO. If you do these three things, you will see results in your organic rank, which will increase your impression share and organic clicks, which will ultimately increase your revenue.”
Granted, the term low-hanging fruit ranks pretty high on the “marketing jargon” list.
But if you’re looking to boost ROI in the short-term, Wendy Lieber of ContentBacon says: “Having a complete inbound marketing plan that covers all stages of the buying cycle is essential over time, but if you need a place to start, you start with what lever you need to pull to get the biggest bang for your buck.”
“That often is where some good ‘low hanging’ fruit is that can get the ball rolling.”
Putting this into practice, Wendy says her team “often start with our customer’s database and help them engage, re-engage, excite, and entertain them.”
You could take advantage of customers ready to convert again and boost the results you’re getting from your content strategy, by targeting this low-hanging fruit.
“The single biggest way we have built our presence is through paid ads to content pages about different kettlebell movements, expert advice and signing up for weekly workouts to receive in your email inbox”, explains Jay Perkins of Kettlebell Kings.
“By being able to target people who are interested in ‘kettlebells’ on social media we are able to get new leads into our workflows at about $1 per lead. This method has had about a 10X return on spend over the last year with these people turning into real customers who are buying our actual kettlebell equipment.”
David says: “This has been a super effective way for a business that has bootstrapped from the beginning to build our email list and community with the $1 per lead cost, because we were early adopters in the content strategy game in our niche we were able to spend less to get leads and turn them into customers as opposed to AdWords.”
Accurately measuring the return on your content marketing isn’t an easy job.
But it’s an important to-do in your content marketing plan, as Brandon Anderson (of Ceralytics) summarizes: “If you can do this, you can prove your worth as a content marketer to the c-suite. If you can’t, you’re going to have to rely on the c-suite having blind faith in your program. And when it comes to big budgets, proof always outweighs blind faith.”
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