Content marketing ROI (return on investment) extends beyond the typical data points of sales or revenue. There are a number of attribution variables that B2B companies are taking into account. Establishing goals that result in a measurable ROI can range from implied/indirect (sales/revenue/conversions) to empirical/direct evidence (traffic/leads/engagement). Implied evidences are ambiguous results that stem from content marketing, making it difficult to definitively relate actions with return. Empirical evidences are factual observations that are directly linked to a company’s content marketing efforts. Meeting non-monetary goals, such as traffic, leads or engagement, can all be seen as an actual return on content marketing.

In regards to B2B/B2C, Russell Sparkman shares that, “At the end of the day, what is the most important ROI that any of those types of entities might seek? Certainly the most important one is, ‘Did we make any more money from this?’ How can you make a direct connection between the marketing spend and revenue generated? An attribution model of tracking ROI helps you do that because what you’re essentially doing is, you’re following the lifespan of content down and through the various social media channels and platforms, beginning to track and measure the results of the interests of those content assets at different stages in the buyer’s journey. We like to try to get clients and customers to understand that it’s not just how the marketing dollar contributed to the sale, but it’s how it contributed to all the critical touch points along that journey.”

Between the initial publishing of a piece of content and the completion of a sale, there exists the ability to track a breadcrumb trail that connects the two actions together. And every breadcrumb, in and of itself, is a return on investment.

Desired B2B Goals to Generate ROI

Recent studies from different sources have shown the primary content marketing goals for B2B marketers. There are three similar goals that emerged between study participants. Below are the top three goals that resulted from these studies:

Content Marketing Institute: B2B Content Marketing: 2014 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends – North America

  • Top three B2B content marketing goals: Brand awareness / lead generation / customer acquisition

BtoB Online Report: 2012 B2B Content Marketing: Ready for Prime Time

  • Top three B2B content marketing goals: Lead generation / brand awareness / thought leadership

IMN Content Marketing Survey – Executive Report

  • Top three B2B content marketing goals: Increased leads / customer & prospect engagement / awareness

B2B Content Marketing Report, authored by Holger Schulze, the manager of the B2B Technology Marketing Community on LinkedIn

  • Top three B2B content marketing goals: Lead generation / thought leadership & market education / customer acquisition

Webmarketing123: 2012 State of Digital Marketing Report

  • Top three B2B content marketing goals: Lead generation /increase awareness/increase sales

Interestingly enough, leads are in all five studies, ranking as the number one goal for four of the reports, while awareness shows up four times in different ranking positions. Customer acquisition and thought leadership are listed twice in the top three results for the four studies with engagement listed only once.

Arnie Kuenn, president of Vertical Measures, says, “It boils down to lowering their cost of conversions. B2B and B2C may have different conversion goals; B2B is typically a lead, some kind of form to be filled out, a phone number to call or some sort of interaction to get a dialog going. So to get [a company] to move over to content marketing, they have to feel it’s a justified move and their hope is to lower that cost per conversion.” It all begins with gaining more leads. With an increase in leads and lead quality, companies will also see a decrease in cost per conversion.

If you focus on leads as your primary goal, then you will have to improve your content marketing lifecycle and the associated KPIs. By improving the lifecycle, leads will increase and ROI will be generated by the success of the goal.

Primary KPIs to Measure Goals

Defining content marketing success can be confusing, often frustrating. But for the content marketing lifecycle to be properly implemented, goals need to come full circle, ending with measurement. This is where established goals are reviewed, showing an attribution to the success/failure of the content marketing effort.

We often hear people and studies state things like “measurement criteria for B2B content marketing success,” but in essence, true success in content marketing can only be accomplished if the company’s established goal is met. When we hear someone say, “Success,” there is no “in-between.” Goals and success are synonymous. There are certain KPIs that companies can use to gauge the effectiveness of their content marketing efforts and by maximizing their KPIs, they will in turn generate an ROI by achieving those goals. The “measurement criteria” used to signify KPIs are going to be different for each organization since the achievement of every goal is not going to be the same.

Many companies don’t have the ability to keep internal CRM information on a consumer’s first touch or measure attribution such as HubSpot and Marketo. These two companies have the ability to help clients know if a Facebook post initiated a potential customer’s first Facebook like, which lead to a webinar, which lead to a sale. In this case, companies have no choice but to focus and optimize their content marketing lifecycle and measure the KPIs that are readily accessible. The criterion for success is optimizing your lifecycle KPIs which in turn will optimize your ROI.

Here are the trending measurements and KPIs to gauge the effectiveness of content marketing (keep in mind – KPIs don’t signify the success of goals.

Content Marketing Institute: B2B Content Marketing – 2014 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends – North America

  • Top three measurement criteria for content marketing success: Web traffic / sales lead quality / social media sharing

BtoB Online report: 2012 B2B Content Marketing: Ready for Prime Time

  • Top three measurement criteria for content marketing success: Traffic / sales lead quality / sales lead quantity

B2B Content Marketing Report, authored by Holger Schulze, the Manager of the B2B Technology Marketing Community on LinkedIn

  • Top three measurement criteria for content marketing success: Traffic & visits / views & downloads / sales opportunities

Traffic and sales lead quantity seem to be the dominate measurement factors to signify that you are gaining momentum on reaching your goals. However, in some cases, these metrics can still be misleading. Robert Rose explains how an increase in certain content marketing outcomes does not necessarily correspond with the success of specific goals.

“The biggest misconception or mistake that I see most organizations making is trying to draw too fine a line between goals and metrics. What I mean by that is, there’s no shortage of data these days. Marketers look at the totality of metrics that we’re accumulating, and we use that to ascribe to goals. In other words, we see our lines and our graphs are going up into the right constantly, and we assume that more means better. Therefore, we get caught in this rat race of trying to make everything go up into the right, thinking that it will meet all the goals that we have for marketing or the business more generally. This is a mistake, because more doesn’t always mean better. More traffic does not necessarily mean more relevant traffic, more conversions don’t necessarily mean that they’re better customers, more followers, more fans, all of those things don’t necessarily equate to meeting the goals that we have. So I think one of the biggest things that we can do as marketers is to align those goals with the metrics that matter.”

Goals and metrics have to be fused together in order for companies to experience growth; they need to look at the outcome and metrics of their content marketing efforts to see if results are legitimately contributing to their goals. Metrics need to show the improvement of KPIs that are relevant to goals. Through improved KPIs, ROI will be a true representation of indirect/direct attributions, signifying the culmination of successful goals.