Between running a marketing firm, giving speeches and delivering workshops, Michael Brenner still finds time to answer questions and give advice about the content marketing craft.
Before founding the Marketing Insider Group in 2015, he was software company SAP’s first head of content marketing and built an award-winning program that continues today.
He co-wrote The Content Formula that same year by drawing on two decades of sales and marketing experience. The book explores the content marketing’s return-on-investment (ROI), including how to track and report the value of individual metrics. See more content statistics here.
Discussing analytics, social media and content marketing at large, Michael Brenner is the first entry in our marketing influencer interview series.
Calculating the ROI of Content Marketing
Keyhole: In your book, you title your chapters as “How to Calculate the Value of X.” X being pageviews, social likes and other metrics. How did you come to recognize the need to explain calculating the ROI of content marketing?
Michael Brenner: It’s the first question, and the number one question, I hear from senior executives in almost every single company that’s looked at moving toward a content marketing-based approach.
That question has come up almost unanimously. And I think that makes sense.
If there’s such a thing as a buyer’s journey for content marketing, people are moving from “what is content marketing?” to “why is content marketing effective from an ROI perspective?”
We wrote The Content Formula in this way because it was such a significant question we were getting quite frequently. And when we looked for answers, there was surprisingly little out there in the form of any written content at all – certainly not in the form of going through calculations.
KH: For freelancers, consultants and marketers in agencies, what advice do you have when it comes to explaining the ROI of individual marketing metrics to clients?
MB: It’s important to understand that each individual piece of content shouldn’t be looked at from an ROI perspective. My definition of content marketing is “continuous, regular delivery of content on a brand-owned platform.”
So, CNN doesn’t look at any one individual article and deem whether or not it has a clear ROI. CNN’s looking at all its different media properties.
With that being said, my point is that freelancers and contractors should be tied into the overall value of the program they’re supporting. And within that, it’s about understanding how they’re going to contribute to overall value.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive – if you had to choose between volume and quality, I think most people would say the content has to be good. And as someone working for clients, you don’t want to create bad content.
But the actual right answer is that you need to figure out volume. The question is “How do I create high volumes of quality content?”
And that’s where a freelancer, for example, can really contribute. You can say “It’s not because I delivered a piece of viral content. It’s because I contributed a number of pieces that added to the overall value of the content marketing program you’re building.”
KH: Shifting the focus, how do you and your team at the Marketing Insider Group use SEO and social media analytics tools on a day-to-day basis?
MB: I don’t necessarily look at analytics every single day, and that’s related to my point about not trying to figure out the ROI of every single piece of content.
But what I want to do on any given day is focus on the activities that are driving the most impact.
On a weekly basis, you should definitely be checking what your best content is. And that could come in the form of pageviews and social shares. A lot of the time, I’ll look at Twitter and ask what content is performing well on it versus other platforms. Then, I’ll share more of those kinds of posts.
So always looking at – again, back to my earlier answer – the overall traffic and shares that are happening on all our platforms. What kind of numbers are we getting that can guide us? Do we have plans in place to create more of the content that’s doing well?
One thing that I’ve found is there’s a bell curve in content, like anything else. It’s the 80/20 rule. 20% of your content is going to provide 80% of your results.
Here’s what’s interesting to me: As soon as I think I’ve figured out what that 20% is, it moves.
For example, if Top 10 list posts make up 20% of your content but 80% of your results, and so all you create are list posts, you may find they’ll no longer be as effective.
The bar’s always moving. That’s why you truly have to commit to continuously analyzing your content as a whole.
KH: You touched on tracking share metrics. There’s certainly a group of people that consider social shares to be “vanity metrics” that aren’t worth tracking. In your opinion, why isn’t this the case?
MB: The term “vanity metrics” is something I think executives like to say to discount or challenge the value of any metric.
The criticism, and I hear it all the time, is that we should be most concerned with creating content that generates leads. But how do you create content that consistently generates leads? Most people will say they don’t know.
Often, the best way to gauge leads is to look at views, shares and other metrics. What I’ve found is that the content that drives highest amounts of social shares also generates leads.
But the point isn’t to say “Hey, check out my piece of viral content – it got a million likes and shares.” The point is that when I continuously create content that generates high volumes of likes and shares, I know that content is going to create results the business can value.
Companies don’t always focus on creating likeable and shareable content. Most companies focus on creating content that sells their products. But we don’t say to a friend “Hey! Check out this spec sheet for the newest Apple iWatch.” No one shares that kind of content. We share articles that are informative.
By creating content that people want to share, companies are going to generate better results – including more leads.
The Importance of Measuring Results
KH: You have a diverse background, spanning from sales to field marketing. How has that background helped in today’s digital marketing world, which always seems to be growing?
MB: The first bias I brought into marketing was that I completely rejected the notion that marketing shouldn’t be held accountable to measuring results.
As a sales person, my quota was always clearly-defined and my bonus depended on hitting that number. I don’t think marketing professionals should have a quota to meet, per se. But I think marketing activities should be tied to results. Part of the problem is that we’ve come to accept the old quote of “50% of advertising is effective, I just don’t know which 50%.”
That notion needs to be completely rejected and thrown away in the digital world.
Everything we do is digital. Everything digital is trackable. Because of this, there shouldn’t be any waste within a marketing organization.
Yet it’s still somewhat normal to see teams execute 50%, 60% and even 70% of their marketing activities without measuring results.
We need to hold ourselves totally accountable for delivering results that businesses can value. And there’s a path to getting there. Likes and shares aren’t the ultimate metric, but they’re an indicator of whether you’re generating the kind of content that can result in leads and sales.
My career has led me to understanding the process of getting these key marketing results.
The Future of Content Marketing
KH: What do you think will be the biggest challenge for content marketers as they move toward regular measurement and working to meet key performance indicators (KPIs)?
MB: Once we get past the point where content marketers are constantly trying to defend the value of what they’re doing, I think the next challenge will be personalization.
We already have the tools to track results, but we don’t have the tools to create targeted content for people when they need it.
We’re starting to see some of the foundation of that toolset come into play … We’re starting to see companies understand the need to target content in a personalized way, delivering it to folks throughout the buying process at the moment they need it.
But I don’t think we’re there yet.
And if you think one step before that, we’ll need a channel designed to give people content as they need it.
Between now and then, every company is going to be working on content that answers customer questions throughout the buying journey.
To summarize, the first challenge is creating content that addresses a variety of unique customer needs. The second challenge is delivering that content at the right time and place.
KH: With that being said, where do you see the future of content marketing in five years’ time?
MB: I think, unfortunately, we’re going to see the demise of a lot of traditional publishers.
I don’t want to name them, but there are a few publisher sites that I can’t even visit anymore. They’re so cluttered with ad interruptions, that I just refuse. I have an ad blocker to avoid the painful process of going through those interruptions.
Publishers are doing that because they no longer see the revenue they used to get from banner ads. And because so many people are using ad blockers, the advertisers themselves are starting to see a lack of value from their current approach.
I think we’ll see that advertisers won’t have the capacity to act and think as a publisher, causing them to buy the publishing sites themselves. They’ll start buying second- and third-tier publications.
I also think we’ll see more publishers try to move into a model like the Guardian’s, which involves a wealthy non-profit trust driving high-quality editorial journalism.
And the idea of advertising and paying for media on publishing sites will stop.
Earning Social Media Influence
KH: Shifting the conversation to social media, you’ve built an impressive social presence and established yourself as a thought-leader online. What advice would you give to someone looking to become an influencer in their given field?
MB: It’s an interesting topic, because I never sought out to gain social influence.
When I first joined social platforms, I focused on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. I have a little bit of a presence on YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram. I just wanted to engage with folks who were sharing great content on the topics I was interested in: Digital marketing, content marketing, leadership and productivity in general.
Along with sharing this great content and interacting with the people creating it, I wanted to slowly start sharing my point of view on these topics.
The “lightbulb” moment happened when I started writing a blog and, for the first time, used it to start more interactions on the social platforms I was using. Previously, I was just sharing other people’s stuff – but that helped me create what you could call “social equity.” When I started creating my own content, those people started sharing it.
It all sort of happened by accident, but my whole point and purpose was to connect with the right people, share great stuff and – if I’m lucky – create some good stuff on my own.
That resulted in me creating a social presence that’s hopefully acting a positive way for folks looking for marketing help.
KH: Are there any opinions or bits of advice you’d like to leave us with?
MB: It’s been a rant of mine recently – there’s this concept that content marketing is just advertising dressed up as a pretty story.
Marketing has a marketing problem. What I mean is that marketing is not ads. Marketing is not promotion. Marketing is a conversation that happens between a company, its employees, its customers and its influencers.
An ad that tells a great story isn’t content marketing. It’s an ad that does its job better than an ad that doesn’t tell a great story.
Content marketing is customer-centric storytelling with the desire to help people. The companies that do that – and hence put their customers first – are the ones that sell more and build stronger relationships than their competitors.
That’s my parting point. Content marketing is not advertising dressed up. It’s a continuous, empathetic, customer-focused activity that – when done well – will generate a higher ROI than what’s achieved with selfish, promotional advertising.
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