How to achieve positive ROI on content marketing for an early-stage startup

How to achieve positive ROI on content marketing for an early-stage startup

Content marketing is not a quick-win game, particularly for an early-stage startup. Anyone who has ever implemented a content marketing strategy will tell you it’s a slow-burning method, but it’s often a key element of an effective long-term digital marketing strategy.

One element of content marketing that startups – and indeed some seasoned marketers – often struggle with is how to measure its success and return-on-investment (ROI). Indeed, there are those who are still trying to figure out exactly what positive ROI looks like in the first place.

Despite its creative nature, content marketing needs to be approached in a completely measured way, and underpinned by data. It must also contribute to business goals by meeting set objectives.

In this article, I will outline just how startups can plan the specific objectives of each piece of content, while giving tips on how to measure performance and identify the success or failure of a content marketing campaign. The hit and hope approach is dead; by understanding the goals of each activity and applying it to your buyer journey and customer lifetime value, marketers can calculate the return on investment.

What is positive ROI?

Positive ROI for your brand will be something that contributes to the long-term success of your startup’s growth. For example, do you want your content marketing to convert customers? Build your brand’s reputation as an expert in a particular industry? Or grow a significant email list?

Different methods will work to achieve different goals, but all results must be assigned a value, ultimately based on sales and conversions.

Identifying positive ROI will also depend on how you produce content, what kind of content marketing you do, and how you distribute and promote content. A good place to start is by completing a content audit. First, determine how you produce copy and content, its cost, and creation time. Then use Google Analytics to pinpoint the content that’s working well and yielding results.

Also read: Google Analytics: The metrics that matter

Armed with that information, think about your wider business goals and what you see as ‘positive ROI’ in relation to this. During your audit, choose tactics that you believe are central to achieving this and use them as examples to form the basis for your content strategy going forward. Thereafter, set some clear-cut, measurable and achievable KPIs and tie your content marketing into your overall marketing strategy.

You will be spending a chunk of valuable time, budget and potentially resources on getting your content marketing right and primed to deliver efficient ROI. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of being one of the 28% who don’t measure it whatsoever.

Remember to ask the audience

Generating positive ROI from your content marketing simply can’t be done without the necessary research of your target market, so ensure you spend time examining what your target audience actually wants from your content.

This involves a deep understanding of audience concerns, obstacles, hobbies, aims, ambitions, and everything in between. By conducting this research comprehensively, you’ll be in a position to test the most applicable types of content and refine the approach from an educated starting point.

To my mind the crux of content marketing boils down to authority. For content never talk about the product – talk about the problem and how to solve it. Think user guides and high quality resources that solve a problem or relieve a pain point for your audience. This is the quickest route to authority.

Also read: How to do audience research better than your competitors

Understanding and then writing for your key personas

It can be all too easy to take a ‘see what sticks’ approach to creating content; targeting a broad audience with a variety of loosely connected subjects. However, by identifying key personas and prioritising content production according to business targets and revenue potential, you can laser focus your content.

Creating personas should never be treated as a nice-to-have afterthought when undertaking content marketing. Nor should they be built based on assumptions when you decide to sketch out your ideal audience member. Without taking the time to understand your key personas, you can only really guess at the subject matter that will resonate with your audience.

And if you fail to arm yourself with a persona you are more likely to fall into the trap of writing about what you know best – typically your products and your company – as opposed to solving the problems you audience are encountering.

How to create a buyer persona

When you take the time to consider your audience and the traits that bind them, your mind may first drift to the industry in which they operate, their job title, their responsibilities, their location, etc. However, while this is certainly useful, you need to dive deeper and uncover more valuable insights in order to differentiate certain audience types.

The Content Marketing Institute have a great (Quick and Dirty) guide to creating a content marketing persona. The steps outlined are as follows:

  • First, picture your ideal customer.
  • Consider the objectives, obstacles, and responsibilities they encounter on the job.
  • Identify where their role intersects with your business’s buying cycle.
  • Consider their communication preferences (daily/weekly emails, social media, etc.)
  • Finally, develop an engagement scenario in line with your strategic goals (i.e. determine which questions or hesitations your customer may have based on their role and responsibilities, and create content to help them answer or overcome them).

Of course, getting through these steps will require more than your imagination. You need to gather data related to your audience’s behaviours, motivations, preferences, and interests.

We touch on a number of methods for audience research in this article, but it’s also worthwhile turning to your support staff to glean a greater understanding of the real challenges facing both customers and prospects. This could go some way towards sparking a new piece of helpful and effective content; one you may not have considered previously.

Create content for the different stages of the buyer’s journey (funnel)

Once you have nailed down your personas, it’s vitally important that you give consideration to the different stages of the buying cycle. Different types of content will be required for different stages.

As defined by HubSpot, the sales funnel has three stages:

  • Top of the Funnel: The “awareness” stage, where prospects look for answers, resources, education, research data, opinions, and insight.
  • Middle of the Funnel: The “evaluation” or “consideration” stage, where prospects undertake heavy research on whether or not your product or service is a good fit for them.
  • Bottom of the Funnel: The “purchase” or “decision” stage, where prospects figure out exactly what it would take to become a customer.

Pitching the wrong content to the wrong stage of the sales funnel can have disastrous implications for your content marketing endeavours. An overly-complicated or technical article shared with those at the top of the funnel could put people off digging further into your solution, while a vague, wishy-washy blog post during the consideration stage will do little to convince a prospect to advance to the bottom of the funnel.

Give careful consideration to content types

With the above in mind, you need to consider which types of content will be most suitable for each stage of the funnel.

At the ‘Awareness’ Stage – prospects are often seeking an answer to a specific problem. They may start off completely unaware of your company’s existence, so you need to use the content at this stage to stand apart as an authority on the matter.

Content should include: Blog posts; social media updates; white papers; ebooks and guides; research studies; industry reports.

At the ‘Consideration’ Stage – prospects are now aware of their needs and are weighing up their options. By now they should know that your company has a solution to their problem, they’re not yet in a position to commit. This is your opportunity to convince them you’re worthy of making the cut.

Content should include: Case studies; videos; podcasts; expert guides.

At the ‘Decision’ Stage – prospects are whittling down their list of choices and getting ready to choose the product or service that fits with their needs. At this point, you have the opportunity to create content that is brand-specific, drawing attention to your USPs and areas in which you have your competitors beat (features, price, usability, etc.).

Content should include: Case studies; product reviews; testimonials; competitor comparisons; product demonstrations; webinars.

Remember, content marketing doesn’t stop at the bottom of the funnel

There’s more to effective content marketing than the three stages discussed above. A fourth and final stage worthy of consideration is the ‘retention’ or ‘loyalty’ stage.

At the ‘Loyalty’ Stage – customers need to be retained and will be eager to squeeze every last drop of value out of your product or service. This is your opportunity to create content that builds trust and aligns with their best practice requirements, turning potentially one-off buyers into repeat customers, and creating an army of brand advocates who’ll share their positive experiences via social media and word-of-mouth.

Content should include: Product updates; customer newsletters; surveys; latest news; how-to guides; promotions; customer rewards.

The basics of written content success

Written content remains at the heart of many digital strategies, although there’s an increasing emphasis on visual content such as video, infographics, and photography – which I’ll address at a later stage. Before we delve into which metrics are worth keeping track of to ensure you’re generating positive ROI, there are some copywriting and content production basics to get right.

First, set out a comprehensive content plan. This is often represented in calendar format (I use Asana project boards) and works in-line with key events and themes. Consider the time investment for research, creation, quality control requirements, and promotion / distribution strategy.

Ensure you have a high-quality copywriter, combined with a proofreading and fact-checking process. According to a study by Global Lingo, 59% of people will leave a website if content has poor quality grammar. Similarly, if facts are incorrect or content is badly researched and presented, or shows poor quality in its choice of language, visitors will be dissuaded from reading further.

Also read: What is a journalistic approach to content marketing?

Attention to detail and getting the basics right – whether you’re blogging, sharing social media posts, or creating video and visual content – is imperative to generating positive ROI.

Quality is key throughout your research, creation, and distribution.

Distribution – amplifying your content to reach the right audience

The other side of the content coin – and arguably its shiniest – is distribution. There’s little point investing time and resource into creating content for the right audience if you cannot adequately reach said audience beyond your owned channels.

Content distribution is vital to positive ROI, yet I often encounter clients who believe the hard work starts and ends with ideation and creation of content. They’re all too happy to kick back after hitting ‘publish’ and await the surge of organic traffic and revenue; a surge that inevitably never comes.

Content marketing requires patience and planning, and without those elements it can often be blamed for a lack of success. Of course, creating a consistent stream of content can drive traffic to your website, but to truly see the benefit of content marketing, you need to be proactive.

Amplifying the content you create to reach an audience beyond organic search results and your owned channels can be the difference between positive ROI and a giant waste of time and money. That’s why you need to put a content amplification strategy into place concurrent with your content creation activities. And such a strategy should include a mix of earned and paid media.

It’s time to earn and pay-to-play

By earning shares, links, reposts, reviews, comments, etc. you have a great opportunity to reach a far wider audience than simply posting on your owned channels (your social media platforms, website, blog). And one of the most effective ways of going about this is by working with influencers within your industry or niche. They will typically have a large and engaged follower base with which they are willing to share relevant and high quality content.

Reaching out to, and developing a relationship with, these influencers is a great way to build your own authority by piggybacking on theirs. If you’re unsure where to start with such outreach, Kissmetrics have a great step-by-step guide on finding the influencers who already want to share your content.

Meanwhile, if your budget stretches, paid media can be used to drive exposure, boost earned media potential, and deliver qualified traffic to owned media properties. Increasingly, social media has become a pay-to-play environment for brands, with changes to their respective algorithms resulting in a sharp decline where organic reach is concerned. Where once traffic and buzz could be generated with a simple Facebook update or timely Tweet, social media posts by brands now need to be back by cold, hard cash in order to elevate them above the noise.

That being said, there are ways to overcome these challenging algorithm changes, as illustrated in this article by Sprout Social.

Measuring content marketing

Analytics will play a major role in measuring content marketing ROI. Whether you use Google Analytics or another tool, keeping track of content performance is imperative to understanding its impact. The goals you’ve set for positive ROI will determine which metrics matter the most. But for the purpose of this article, let’s take a look at some that are vital to positive ROI across the board.

First, views and unique users – sometimes called “vanity metrics” in isolation – will let you know how interested your audience is in your piece of content and should be monitored, but you need to delve deeper for the more useful metrics.

Referrals is another important metric to track. Under this umbrella, you can view who has linked back to a particular piece of content. The more good quality referrers, the better for your site and content. In addition to this, check your return versus new visitors.

You then need to ensure people aren’t reading pages or posts and exiting the site immediately. Check your bounce rate and common exit pages to determine what percentage of users don’t convert or explore more critical elements of your website. Identify which pages they’re leaving from or, if you’re doing it right, which pages are leading them to read more and ultimately convert. And you can install the very useful scroll depth plugin for Google Analytics to monitor how far down the page your readers are scrolling.

Finally, the conversions metric is a really useful part of Google Analytics, as you can manually define what a conversion looks like. A conversion may mean someone has filled out a form, purchased a product or service after reading your content, or simply been highly engaged by interacting further.

Stay informed

Analytics will also enable you to perform a vital part of your content marketing, central to achieving positive ROI. The experimentation and ongoing testing of tactics mentioned can only be informed by performance data gleaned over a number of weeks and months.

This includes the monitoring of social analytics to measure content performance on your channels (number of shares, reach, etc.). This can be measured using the specific platform’s in-built analytical tools, or web-based subscription systems like Sprout SocialBuzzSumoKlout, or Brandwatch.

One example of a startup that’s reaping rewards from its content marketing is social media tool Buffer. Their blog receives an average of 866,909 page views per month, and their posts are widely shared. Not only does Buffer have a well-planned and regularly adjusted content marketing strategy, but they’re big on syndication, therefore acquiring a high volume of inbound links from highly reputable websites across the web. With a domain authority (DA) of 92, the strength of the website is there for all to see.

Of course, Buffer’s high page views number may be vanity metrics on the surface. But when you consider the eyeballs on their content from a highly-targeted market, combined with effective conversion rate optimisation (CRO), they’re set up to win a lot of new business. Their financial reports tell a positive story, as can be seen on this live stream.

Reporting on ROI for content marketing

Once you have your key metrics highlighted and goals defined, you need to establish a means of reporting on the ROI of your content marketing endeavours.

After a few weeks or months of collecting data, export to Excel or Google Sheets and start to analyse your content’s performance. Look for the previously mentioned unique pageviews and average time on page to better understand and compare engagement with the content. The higher those numbers, the better it’s performed.

Next, you need to determine the value of your content, and here’s where you need to break out your calculator. Using the following three metrics you can work out content marketing ROI in its broadest and simplest form, assuming you can fill in a few blanks.

Key ROI metrics

First, you need to calculate the Lifetime Value (LTV) of your customers. This is essentially the amount of revenue a user will deliver to your business throughout their time as a customer. You’ll need some historical sales data to calculate this, namely the average number of orders multiplied by the average order value. Here’s a terrific infographic from Kissmetrics taking you through each of the steps required to arrive at the LTV.

Second, you need to work out your Conversion Rate. Turn to your Google Analytics data for this number, and over time you can start to pinpoint content-specific conversion rates.

Third, identify the costs involved in content production, including copywriting and design.

Putting it all together

Let’s suppose that your content drives 3,000 visits to your consultancy firm’s website, and from those visitors 100 complete your enquiry form. Out of those 100 leads, you’re able to convert 4 into paying customers (a conversion rate of 4%). With an LTV of £500, you can project revenue of £2000 from these customers.

Now, if your content cost £800 to write and design, your ROI will be (LTV x Conversions / Cost) x 100. Or, in the case of this example, (£2000 / £600) x 100 = 250% ROI.

In summary

As with any aspect of marketing, you need to see where your money is going – and so do your investors. There is no point in throwing budget at content marketing without tracking how it is helping to achieve your startup’s goals.

With this in mind, you need to have clear objectives set when pulling your content calendar together. Being realistic on the time it’s going to take to make a success of content marketing and generate positive ROI is important here. It takes consistency to produce quality, engaging content that will really make a splash.

Giving goals to each piece of content, as well as working toward larger, macro goals, the Content Marketing Institute explains, is also one way of tracking and measuring ROI. For example, if you want a webinar to convert viewers into customers or increase your subscriber base, measure webinar attendance and how many people filled their details into the sign-up page.

How often you report on the ROI of your content marketing to the board or management will be up to you; but ultimately you want to get into the habit of doing so regularly and aligning this marketing output to overall business goals.

Elements to include in any report that deals with ROI are total overall spend on content marketing compared to conversion rate or other key metrics.

The Social Media Examiner has some great tips about presenting your ROI report to the business or board. While their advice focuses on social media, it does include important tips on presentation for reporting on content marketing activities in general, too.

Lastly, it bears repeating that content marketing can and must be measured, particularly for early-stage startups. When you’re spending time and budget on content, it’s essential to track not only what’s working for you, but what is bringing home positive return on investment.

As for what represents a good ROI for your startup, that’s down to your specific business goals.