How to talk the language of content ROI

Return to Growth in 2021

January 15, 2021

How to talk the language of content ROI

As B2B marketers plan their return to growth strategies, they know that proving the value of marketing spend matters more than ever. With budgets under pressure and sales teams in urgent need of support, they don’t just need to do more with less – they need to quantify that contribution in language the rest of the business understands.

Across many sectors, sales pipelines are moving more slowly – and that brings pressure to show short-term results. Businesses taking a more agile approach to planning means that your budget allocation for the next campaign might depend on the first few weeks’ performance of your last one.

This leaves B2B marketers with a dilemma – and it’s a particularly tricky dilemma for those with a key role for content in their strategy. The average length of a B2B sales cycle is six months. Many marketers work for businesses where it takes even longer for a prospect to move through the funnel and make a purchase. Returns on marketing investments take time to flow through to the bottom line. In an uncertain situation, the pressure is on to prove those returns are on the way, long before they actually arrive.

How can you earn the trust of senior stakeholders and buy your marketing strategy the time it needs to deliver results? It all comes down to mastering the language of Return on Investment (ROI).

Learning the language of ROI

To earn buy-in from the CFO and other business leaders, marketers need the ability to express the value of their activity in financial terms. Emma Rush, the CEO at Gyro UK, a B2B specialist agency within the Dentsu Aegis Network, put it this way on a recent episode of our Live with Marketers series:

I would always say show me the money…The business case will always be: How much money will it save? Or how much great productivity will it drive? Or how much revenue will it make us? Whilst there are lots of other reasons for doing it, with key decision makers you need to bid for investments in the same language as other investments they're considering. Talk their language.”

When it comes down to it, the formula for ROI is quite straightforward. It’s the financial return generated by your marketing efforts over the course of the sales cycle, divided by the cost of your marketing investment during the cycle.

In practice, the language of ROI depends on your senior stakeholders’ priorities. They could look for financial returns as expressed in the number of deals closed over your sales cycle, the average deal size or your Share of Market (SOM). Calculating ROI often requires marketing to collaborate closely with sales on tracking these numbers – and that’s another benefit of taking ROI seriously. It gets sales and marketing talking the same language – and that makes it easier to align their approaches.

The crucial difference between ROI and KPIs

The challenge is that a serious calculation of ROI can’t take place in just a few weeks – but that’s the timeframe in which you might need to reassure your business that that your content strategy is money well spent.

LinkedIn research into how digital marketers measure ROI highlights the challenge of talking credibly about marketing’s contribution before it’s had a chance to deliver actual returns. We found that:

  • 77% of marketers attempt to measure ROI during the first month of a campaign
  • Of those, 55% of marketers actually had a sales cycle that was three months or longer
  • Only 4% of marketers measure ROI over six months or longer

The challenge of demonstrating ROI can be even greater for content marketing which is often focused on the awareness-building and consideration stages of the funnel. Content does its work over the long-term and over the course of several sales cycles. Trying to prove ROI too quickly can sell your strategy short.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are the metrics that you can use to fill in the gap. They aren’t measures of ROI in themselves – but they are carefully chosen signposts that your strategy is heading in the right direction. Once you’ve agreed how you’ll be looking to calculate content ROI over the long term, you can use KPIs to demonstrate that your plan for delivering value is on track.

Getting your KPIs right

Choosing the right KPI depends on the objective of your campaign. If your content is designed to help fill the funnel by growing brand awareness then it’s misleading to measure your success by how many website conversions you get. That’s not what your content is designed to do – and it can be doing a great job of growing awareness and Share of Voice (SOV) whether people convert or not. Settling for the wrong metrics just because they’re available quickly can undermine a campaign that’s actually making a very real contribution. When it comes to SOV, impressions, views and metrics like uplift in branded search are likely to be a better indicator of your impact.

While a thought leadership campaign is good for generating brand awareness, its depth of focus on a particular subject also falls squarely into the ‘consideration’ stage of the marketing funnel. You can measure its effectiveness at this stage through KPIs from social shares and growth in follower numbers to the bounce rate or dwell time on your content.

Even if your objective is lead generation, don’t confuse the KPI of how many leads you generate or how much those leads cost with the end-goal of ROI. A million online leads is a great-looking KPI but its ultimate value depends on the rate at which those leads convert to paying customers. Your campaign could be generating fewer leads – but if those leads are better qualified they may well add up to a stronger return on investment overall. When you’re speaking the language of ROI, it’s important not to take your KPIs out of context. Keep reminding stakeholders of how your content will help deliver value over the course of the sales cycle.

Perfecting the ROI balancing act for content

Content marketing is designed to be a long-term strategy, pulling your prospects all the way through your funnel from awareness to sale. Trying to prove ROI in the short term is a recipe for lost confidence. However, if you’re tracking the right KPIs at every stage for the journey, you can avoid this trap.As you set out your content marketing strategy for the year ahead, reach out to sales to work out how you’ll look to calculate ROI over the course of the next sales cycle. Break down how your different content campaigns need to contribute to that number, and then choose the KPIs that best reflect the roles they need to play. Only you’ve got your short and medium-term indicators right, you can feel more comfortable waiting for the end of the sales cycle to demonstrate the return on your content investment. And that makes sense in any language.

For an in-depth look at how to adapt your content marketing to the current climate, download our guide to content marketing in uncertain times. If you’d like more information on the difference between KPIs and ROI, you’ll find it in our eBook Content Marketing in Times of Uncertainty.