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A Comprehensive Look at the Quantitative and Qualitative ROI of Content

By Joshua Johnson


People are constantly looking for ways to evaluate and measure the success of their content marketing strategy. It’s a conversation I have with prospects, clients, competitors, colleagues, and friends on a regular basis.

Here are two alternate viewpoints that often drive the discussion: 

  1. Data rules. If it doesn’t have a clear number attached to it, it has no value, and you shouldn’t invest there.
  2. Numbers surrounding content are vanity metrics. The core benefits content provides come from positioning yourself as a thought leader and the trust, credibility, and top-of-mind awareness that follow. 

Each argument has validity, but also its own shortcomings. An organization looking to measure ROI of its content efforts needs to consider both perspectives when evaluating success. 

The Case for the Quantitative Approach to Content ROI 

Establishing measurable and attainable goals is crucial for every marketing and business initiative. If you can’t tell me what success looks like in 12 to 24 months, it’s difficult for me to justify starting a content initiative. The anticipated goals should paint a picture that validates the cost of content marketing.

Focusing solely on metric- and data-driven impacts of content theoretically allows us to mathematically reverse engineer breakeven points, anticipated ROI, and timetables for success. 

Based on the quantitative approach to measuring the ROI of content, here are some key content metrics you should keep track of:

  • Traffic
  • Unique visitors per month
  • Time on site
  • Subscribers
  • Social shares
  • Social shares per visit
  • Call-to-action clicks
  • Call-to-action click percentage
  • Conversion percentages
  • Number of leads
  • Cost per lead
  • Number of marketing qualified leads
  • Sales numbers
  • Revenue generated
  • Cost per acquisition

(Want detailed explanations of these terms and more? Check out the 106 content marketing definitions you need to know.)

These metrics combined illustrate how your content is helping your company grow. On a macro level, traffic, shares, and time on site can reveal how well your content is resonating and engaging with your target audience. Setting month-over-month percent-increase goals is the best way to ensure you’re always improving your reach and influence. 

Another quantitative metric your content influences is SEO and ranking in SERPs. The higher volume of content you create, the more opportunities you have to draw backlinks, appear in relevant search results, and create more paths to your audience.

Comparing these metrics on an article-by-article basis can also tell you which articles, titles, and topics are most intriguing to your audience. Using this information can consistently inform your content efforts and help you make incremental improvements rather than waiting 12 months to figure out you’ve been creating and publishing the wrong content the entire time.

Where the Quantitative Perspective Falls Short

Content marketing is a long-term initiative, and you should consider this when measuring its impact. The metrics won’t blow you away in the first three to six months. Many companies halt successful content programs because they tie results too closely to metrics and fail to consider the big-picture implications.

For example, lead generation is a crucial metric (it’s the No. 1 KPI for our content team), but solely evaluating our content efforts in the short-term against direct lead-generation engines such as PPC, purchasing email lists, or outbound prospecting wouldn’t accurately represent content’s impact here. Leads we generate through content are consistently more educated, less price-sensitive, and have shorter sales cycles. This is where quality trumps quantity.

What about content you publish externally? A huge component of content marketing is growing your audience through guest posts on other niche and authority publications. Typically, you won’t have access to any analytics for those pieces, though they’re accomplishing many of the same objectives, oftentimes more effectively.

While most of these metrics can gauge online circulation and reach, they don’t tell the whole story.

The Qualitative ROI of Content 

Most digital marketing spends need to generate enough dollars coming in to cover the dollars going out plus the costs of delivering your products or services. If the dollars don’t match up with your content efforts, you may think the initiative isn’t a good fit for your business.

The problem with applying this mentality is that content provides additional value to your organization beyond generating leads and sales. In fact, for many of our clients, the leads generated through content are icing on the cake to the other returns it produces. 

Here are some less measurable but significant ways content can impact an organization:

  • Establishing thought leadership: Every company wants to work with the best. Creating consistent content that demonstrates your expertise positions you as a credible industry resource. And thought leaders and experts naturally attract viable opportunities such as speaking engagements, press coverage, clients, and partnerships. 
  • Opening doors: Content generates trust around you and your company, which breaks down barriers to new relationships. A new connection will be more receptive to an email sharing a recent and relevant article you wrote than a blatant sales pitch email, and it will lead to a more meaningful conversation. 
  • Nurturing leads: It’s easy for salespeople to sweet talk a prospect. But sharing relevant content from your blog or a guest post on a niche publication that backs up your case shows that you’re trustworthy and your ideas have merit. 
  • Providing research and education tools: The research and buying process has significantly changed over the past couple decades. Prospects traditionally hopped on the phone to learn about your offerings and value proposition. Now they go about 80 percent of the way through the sales process and identify the problem and potential solutions before they approach a vendor for a conversation.

If you’re not providing prospects with valuable information through these initial stages, there’s a slim chance you’ll be in the conversation when they’re ready to buy.

But the benefits don’t stop there. Content can also improve investor relations, serve as marketing ammo for other campaigns, establish top-of-mind awareness with your audience, and fuel your talent recruitment and acquisition efforts.

Holes in the Qualitative Approach

Measuring the results of your content efforts isn’t an exact science, and there are many moving parts in building trust, relationships, and opportunities. Here are some situations where looking at content’s impact from a qualitative perspective can lead you astray: 

  • Would you have closed that recent lead even if you hadn’t published and shared a Forbes article discussing that person’s exact objection? 
  • Would you have gotten that important introduction from one of your partners if you hadn’t sent him a monthly newsletter with your articles? 
  • Would you have been invited to speak at a conference if the organizer hadn’t read your column on Inc.?

You’ll likely never be able to definitively answer these questions. However, the more often you publish, add value to prospective clients, and direct the industry conversation, the more opportunities will come your way. 

At Influence & Co., we’ve put a simple process in place that helps us overcome the mystery factor. If our content came up during a phone call or external interaction or if our gut tells us content improved the quality of that conversation, we mark it down.

It’s not a detailed approach, but it shows us where and how often our content is showing ROI on a month-over-month basis — even outside the friendly data mines of HubSpot and Google Analytics. 

In the end, we can also assign sales and conversion assists to our content team and to specific articles we publish.

Content marketing is a highly complex and increasingly influential marketing and branding tactic. But many business leaders and marketers struggle to identify the impact of their content marketing initiative when looking through the narrow scope of qualitative or quantitative metrics.

To fully assess its ROI for your organization, you need to evaluate key metrics while keeping its qualitative influences in mind. And with a clear and detailed picture of your content’s reach, you’ll be able to fine-tune your initiatives and unlock its full value.


Posted on October 7, 2014

About Joshua Johnson

I am a Vice President of Influence & Co. I'm passionate about entrepreneurship, technology, Mizzou, and all St. Louis sports teams. I've contributed to Forbes, Entrepreneur, Under30CEO, and Linked2Leadership.

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