The importance of content marketing cannot be underestimated, yet it's still underappreciated. In the form of articles, buying guides, custom research and educational content, such marketing can bridge the chasm between top-funnel awareness efforts like TV advertising and bottom-funnel, conversion-focused efforts like search.
Yet at a time when brand marketers demand growing precision and accountability for our media buys, we have a basic problem when it comes to content marketing: We don't have a clear understanding of its impact, audience and value. That's a failing of technology—our ability to connect the dots between content and conversion, and then tie that to customer lifetime value, is severely limited within today's toolsets—but also of mindset. Both threaten companies' future investments in content marketing.
As an industry, we can and must do better. And that starts with recognizing and addressing the pain points.
We have a campaign mindset
The most fundamental challenge is short-term impact versus long-term value. As brand marketers, we operate in a campaign-driven world. A 13-week campaign plan is developed, the assets are created, the media buy is executed, the results are measured—and then we move on. But content has a longer tail of value than a campaign mindset can comprehend and than our metrics are designed to capture.
Consider the poster children for content-marketing success: Kraft's Food and Family magazine, and Red Bull's Red Bulletin. These are not overnight success stories. These are brands that, like great publishers, built and fostered audiences over time, translating those relationships into loyal customers who generate recurring revenue for the brands.
Meanwhile, we also see a rising class of direct-to-consumer brands that leverage content for prospecting purposes and to assist conversions. Again, much of this valuable activity doesn't fit neatly within a campaign mindset.
We don't understand our audience
Another fundamental challenge revolves around content-marketing measurement. We have all manner of metrics at our disposal about user actions, but it's a challenge to understand who those users are. There are tools in the market designed to deliver audience insights, but it's still messy and complicated to marry that data with engagement data and determine if the people who interacted with a piece of content represent a brand's true target audience.
We can't establish return on content
Most importantly, content marketers suffer from the inability to tie their efforts to conversions. Most content measurement today is based on proxies like social actions or attitudinal metrics, but marketers can and must move toward measuring true outcomes.
To help, marketers should place content marketing not at the top of the funnel, where vague metrics like "brand lift" are used to prove return on investment against business growth, but mid-funnel, where the focus can be on how exposure to content drives an audience through to conversion.
Without the ability to establish return on content, marketers risk serious underinvestment in this mid-funnel content. Ultimately, that investment flows into short-sighted bottom-funnel activities that seem more effective only by virtue of their proximity to the conversion.
Content marketing should be synonymous with marketing itself these days, but instead, it's still being treated like a tactical box to check on a given campaign. We need to change that. Content's rightful role is to influence consumers and create intent. By treating and measuring it that way, we'll be able to shift our industry's mentality away from short-burst campaign results and prove that the right content marketing strategy can build loyalty and value.