Will this make us money?
We’ve all been asked that question. Far more than any other metric of success, return on investment is the most tangible and impactful. Successful content marketers constantly examine which pieces of content and which channels consistently bring in leads that convert into sales.
But while building a revenue attribution model gives you an idea of your ROI, it never tells the whole story.
Let’s say you create a video that generates a million impressions on LinkedIn, but you can’t attribute any sales to it. Is that video unsuccessful? You may be tempted to say that it is, but never underestimate the value of visibility.
That video familiarized millions of people with your brand and product offer, even if they weren’t quite ready to make a purchase right then and there. But over time, as they progress along the buyer’s journey, they’ll already have a positive attitude toward your brand. When they go back to your website and social channels to convert, they’ll do so only because of the “unsuccessful” video you created in the first place.
This is the challenge with revenue attribution: your content doesn’t start to impact your audience at the first conversion, but well before that point by creating a positive image of your brand in their minds.
That’s why your content strategy has to focus on all the factors that go into generating revenue, not just first- or last-touch conversions. Now that doesn’t mean you should stop tracking conversions or gathering insight from them. On the contrary, that level of quantitative information can provide valuable insights as you hone your content and content strategy.
But it means you should put those insights into the proper context, understanding that if you want to maximize your ROI, don’t just focus on your quantitative metrics, but also on qualitative attributes that can help you speak to your audience before, during, and after the buyer’s journey:
- Attracting the right audience
- Measuring total reach, audience enthusiasm, and, yes, conversions
- Setting clear expectations around how long it takes you to achieve your goals
- Focusing on revenue-generating activities and cutting the rest
- Adapting and adjusting as new information becomes available
Here are some practical steps you can take to build a revenue-generating content strategy.
1. Find the intersection of customer questions and your expertise
Marketing and sales expert Marcus Sheridan of IMPACT has said that “the ultimate content strategy is listening.” And he’s right.
Most content strategies go wrong when they try to be “all things to all people.” Instead, you should double down on particular areas of interest to your audience.
The more tuned in you are to your audience, the more impactful your content will be.
This requires listening to the market to figure out what your audience is talking about. Without this key information-gathering exercise, your content will fall flat, throwing your whole strategy into chaos. Here are some practical ways to gather this information:
- Social listening. A good number of your customers engage in conversations on social media. Listening to and participating in these conversations can help you find interesting questions and topics.
- Buyer personas. Building buyer personas helps you to understand who you’re marketing to and what’s going on in their heads, before and during an active buyer’s journey.
- Sales emails. Look at sales emails and marketing form submissions on your website. Those questions are obviously top of mind for your customers, so use them as the basis for your content topics.
Once you know what your audience is interested in (and there are probably a lot of topics), you have to narrow it down. You can only speak to those topics that you are able to address authoritatively and helpfully, so focus on the “sweet spot” — the intersection of audience interests and your expertise.
As search engines prioritize search intent over specific keywords, it makes more sense to double down on the specific areas where you can establish yourself as a legitimate authority:
- Product use cases. Think about the problems your product solves or the “jobs” customers hire your product to do. Those areas are automatically an area of expertise for you by virtue of your day-to-day experience with your industry.
- Competitive advantages. What are the key distinctions between your products and your competitors? The use cases surrounding these unique product offerings give you an opportunity to educate and inform the market that no one else has.
- Industry thought leadership. What are other companies like yours talking about? Where are your customers going for information? How can you speak to those conversations, while also providing something uniquely valuable to them?
Then use your customer research to figure out which of those areas align with the questions your customers are asking. This helps you stay in a specific lane and provide something that’s uniquely valuable to your market.
2. Set your KPIs.
The key to a revenue-generating content strategy is the ability to both generate interesting content and track the success of that content by understanding your KPIs.
For most startups, return on investment is the number one KPI to track. But as we said before, focusing solely on revenue attribution models can result in an incomplete picture of your content marketing success.
That’s why you should look at other leading-indicator KPIs and determine what they tell you about your customers. You should also rank them in terms of priority, like I’ve done with five common KPIs below:
- Attributed Revenue. If ROI is the goalpost, then you should know how much revenue a particular piece of content is bringing in. Even if you don’t get the full picture from your revenue attribution model, you can see its performance relative to other pieces of content and to itself over time.
- Conversions & Conversion Value. In addition to the attributed revenue, it’s important to note how many leads a piece of content is bringing in. While not all these conversions are going to turn into revenue, if a particular piece of content is converting at a lower rate than others, you know it’s not attracting the right audience and you should probably not use it as a blueprint for future content.
- Website Traffic. Your funnel may convert at high rates, but that doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have a regular influx of traffic coming through the top of the funnel. Understanding how much website traffic your content brings in shows you the health of the top of the funnel. You should segment this by channel, so you know which channel is bringing in the most traffic.
- Search Engine Rankings. How you rank on search engines not only drives the three aforementioned metrics, but it shows how much authority your website holds and how helpful search engines think you are to the questions your audience is asking. It’s one objective way of answering a subjective question: how are people perceiving us in the market?
- Social Media Engagement. While search engines provide a proxy for brand authority among your audience, there’s no substitute for actual engagement, and this is the primary benefit social media has to offer you. If you get negative comments on the regular, you need to change what you’re doing.
Once you’ve determined your metrics and ranked them in order of priority, then you need to determine what constitutes good versus poor performance.
Many companies look up industry benchmarks to figure out how they should be performing. There are several weaknesses to this approach. First, industry benchmarks are constantly changing. Second, your audiences should be segmented enough that each one is fairly niche, making general industry benchmarks unhelpful. Third, when you’re in the startup phase, you aren’t going to compare to a large company, so you need to develop a clear idea of what’s working and what’s not for your own audience and business.
This is where content quantity can help. The more content you publish, the more data points you’ll have around your audience’s engagement, which only helps you establish your baseline faster. Once you’ve established that baseline, it’s easy to figure out what kinds of content soar while others fall down on the job.
And, of course, as you deploy content across various channels, you’ll start to understand the benefits each channel gives you. For example, Twitter may generate lots of engagement and pageviews while Facebook consistently delivers quality leads.
Understanding these KPIs not only allow you to gauge your performance and content marketing health, but, most importantly, adapt and adjust your tactics over time.
3. Establish a timeline for success.
You don’t just want to know how much money your content will make, but the timing of that revenue. That’s why you should give yourself a deadline…I mean, a timeline!
A timeline not only gives you a picture of how far you’re going to go and what you need to do to get there, but it also gives you something to show your leadership when they inevitably ask “how long before this starts generating returns?”
A content marketing operation can take anywhere from two months to several years before you start to see real results. But your CEO doesn’t want to hear that. They want results now. So you have to shoulder the responsibility of establishing realistic expectations. Rather than some vague “it may take a couple of years”, demonstrate to them that you know what you’re talking about, and that you’ll consistently take the steps that will get you to that point.
Fortunately, the steps to success are the same regardless. You have control as to how quickly you execute against those steps:
- How quickly can you publish new written, video, graphic, and audio content?
- How fast is your audience growing with each individual piece of content?
- How many leads does your content bring in each month?
From there, you can project the timeline for how long it will take for your content operation to become ROI-positive, and then to start significantly contributing to your company’s sales goals.
The variable that’s under your control is content production. If you can ramp up how much quality content you can produce and how relevant it is to your audience, you can control how quickly you move toward those goals.
4. Focus on the activities that get you to your goals.
Working hard is just as good as hardly working if you aren’t moving your business in the right direction. Once you know what your KPIs are, then you need to start working to drive those KPIs and stop spending time on other tasks.
It’s time to trim the fat. Especially in a startup, there’s no time for extraneous activities.
Using a combination of your quantitative data surrounding your KPIs as well as qualitative information you’re receiving from customers, hone in on the activities that are going to get you closer to your goals faster.
Ask discriminating questions to determine your priorities:
- What type of content to create?
- What topics to talk about?
- How long it should be?
- What times to post on social media?
If you find that your audience responds to blog posts around a certain topic, then that’s what you need to double down and write about, even if it’s not what you think is important.
You should be agnostic when it comes to the how and what; let your audience tell you what you need to do.
5. Don’t hesitate to adjust and adapt as you analyze data.
“Stick to the plan” is common wisdom, but when you’re working at a startup, the opposite should be true.
Take a look at Toys R Us. Everyone knows them and the idea of them going out of business seemed laughable at a time. But when the digital economy took off, they didn’t adapt to changing buyer behaviors. And they tanked.
So if that can happen to a large company, imagine what could happen to your small startup that is just now starting to make a name for itself.
When you haven’t been running your business for a while, you don’t know what’s going to work. Sure, you may have some guesses, but in reality, you just don’t know. That’s why you have to test and see, looking at the data to guide the way.
But that doesn’t mean that data should replace your human insights. Your data may tell you do continue running an ad that’s performing well, but if you’re getting feedback from individual customers that they’re sick and tired of seeing it, it’s possible that you’ve reached the tipping point where it’ll do more harm than good.
If you see something’s not working, don’t hesitate to cut it loose. If you find that something’s working but surprises you, take a look at the data, and compare that to your audience research:
- Did you interpret those audience intentions correctly?
- Did you incorrectly gather that information?
- Is it possible that your customers aren’t representative of the whole market?
Innovation and flexibility is key. You should, likewise, adjust your tactics and even your overall strategy if your numbers are telling you to. As an agile startup, you have a unique advantage in that you can make these adjustments quickly, avoiding months upon months of wasted time and dollars.