Interview #14 Transcript – August 16, 2013
Participants: Russell Sparkman and Martin van der Roest

Martin van der Roest: HI, I am Martin van der Roest, the managing editor of the Content Marketing Examiner. Thank you for joining us today. We’re going to be talking about the whole topic of return on investment, and joining me in this conversation is Russell Sparkman of Fusion Spark Media. Russell has an agency in the northwest and has been a long-time participant in the whole area of content marketing. Russell, thank you for joining us. This is the second interview we’ve done and I’m looking forward to talking about this particular topic.

Russell Sparkman: Thank you for having me, Martin. I look forward to it too.

Martin: van der Roest Russell, you shared a little bit about yourself in the earlier interview, but can you give us some highlights of any recent events and/or activities that you’d want to share with the audience.

Russell Sparkman: That last interview must have been in March. Since that time, we’ve done the Content Marketing Retreat, and you were here for that. It was the essentials of strategic video storytelling which went off very well. We’ve been servicing various client accounts in various sectors, but largely in the non-profit world, and we continue to make inroads in getting that community to use more content marketing type strategies and tactics.

Martin van der Roest: I want to plug the retreat because that was very successful, and I think you guys are doing a great job of drawing attention to this whole area of content marketing.

So let’s go ahead and start in on this topic of return on investment. Of course it’s a key topic for anyone in a position that has to extend resources, people, and costs and holding that into the broader initiative, but there’s always this question, “What do I get out of this effort, what do we get back if we spend this and do this, what do we get back?” It’s definitely something that’s coming up as people get into content marketing. Looking at the ROI of content marketing, what does it potentially represent?

Russell Sparkman: One approach to answering that question, Martin, is somewhat from an historical perspective.

As you know from some of our background, we incorporated in 1999 and when we incorporated, the work that we were pitching and seeking was getting our clients to invest funds into using content as the basis of engaging with stakeholders, constituents, customers, etc. That was back in ’99 when we were advocating that. The degree to which we had any kind of success in getting projects funded from the early days, had to do with the fact that we were sitting in front of our funding partners and actually speaking quite a bit in terms of return on investment. In those days it was pretty much limited to being able to talk in terms of numbers of unique visitors, top rank positioning in Google, and so forth. Since that time, particularly starting from 2008, the term “content marketing” began to take off and gain traction. Not the least of which in terms of reasons why, is the response to social media. Social media gradually being recognized as channels and marketers in particular who wanted to use those channels, they needed something compelling to put into those channels—they needed content. So, content and content marketing has been gaining an interest since 2008 and you can see it in various ways, particularly looking at tools like Google Insights, that there’s almost like a hockey stick shape in terms of the level of interest in content marketing as judged by numbers of searches for the term. It started really, late 2010-early 2011, and the interest in something like Google Insights graph that you can see with, this just shows this steep incline in interest in content marketing. The reason for pointing that out is that the past two to three years has seen a lot of focus on “what is it?” and “how do you do it?” Now we see a certain maturity that businesses—and I like to describe business-to-business (B2B) as the cauldron in which a lot of this has been forged–there’s a lot of maturity in terms of the “what is it?” and “how do we do it?” for example, that would pertain to companies actually starting to develop editorial calendars and create content regularly based on that editorial calendar and distributing that content across multiple channels, etc. So even though it’s always been asked before, “What is our ROI going to be on this?” we’re now at a point in time where there’s much more serious interest in actually putting real ROI measurement practices into place. So with the maturity of what it is and how you do it that’s taken place over the past few years, I believe that we’re now in the early stages of marketers really understanding how to take those content marketing activities and truly attach them to different ways of measuring the ROI of those activities.

Martin van der Roest: That’s a nice backgrounder in building out a picture of what’s evolved. As you are helping your customers, what are some of the things customers are identifying for ROI and/or what are you suggesting that they pursue for ROI?

Russell Sparkman: I’ll take the first part of that first. For the most part an audience for the Content Marketing Examiner is going to be either B2B or B2C. So 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 line connection between the marketing spend and revenue generated? Prior to the digital age we’re in, that was always hypothetical. “Well, we think that that billboard created enough lift and awareness that it did help contribute to some percentage increase of revenue at the end of the year. We just don’t know how.” That’s the old days. But today, on the other hand, using various strategies, tactics and tools you can actually start to get very granular in terms of seeing how a specific piece of content…you can actually follow its lifespan from how it may have generated awareness to actually contributing to generating or closing a sale. So first and foremost, customers want to know that particularly important ROI. How does this help us earn more money, generate more sales, etc.? The second is what I’d describe as basically looking at ROI from the attribution model point of view. Which is a way of saying, “We know definitely that we want to connect marketing to sales, but how can we actually measure awareness generation? How can we actually measure word-of-mouth awareness building, and so forth. 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, and so on, and 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. You can measure each one of those touch points.

Martin van der Roest: Let’s talk about the measuring part and the approach that folks are taking and/or that you’re advising folks in measuring the so-called ROI. I also want to loop this in with your point about the buyer’s journey, that there’s the funnel of activity, people come to the content you might have posted and then you want to follow that through to eventually loyal customers, beyond the purchase. Given that, what is the connection between all this marketing and revenue? So let’s talk a little bit about the measurement aspects and some things that you’re seeing customers use and/or that you believe customers should be applying.

Russell Sparkman: The simplest and most basic, also the most prolific and happens to be free, is Google Analytics. Through the multi-channel funnel tools that they’ve provided, you can actually trace and attribute ROI to the different phases of the journey based on what assets you have provided for those different phases of the journey. For example, if you’ve created a video that’s a highly inspiring video with specifically the intent that you want that to generate the greatest amount of awareness at that awareness part of the funnel, you can begin to see through Google Analytics exactly the kind of response that you got to that video. If a person who viewed that video also moves on to signing up to download a more pedantic explanatory ebook about the same topic, you begin to realize that now this person is more in the consideration stage. And then you find that they’ve provided their contact information, or you can get a view that they’ve actually looked at, say a testimonial related content. So now you know they’ve gone from awareness to consideration to actually being very close to the decision-making stage of the buyer’s journey. You can begin to see that type of movement with Google Analytics. But then you can take it to the next level where the whole class of SAS products exist in the area of marketing automation, for example. Eloqua, Marketo, HubSpot. They’re all tools that you can use where you get much more granular about everything I’ve just described, down to knowing first name, last name, email address, and so forth, of people that are interested. Those are the techniques that are currently available. Since we don’t work with B2B as a main focus, we may have some different perspective on this particular point. So from my point of view, what’s not currently available is that there are not enough people out there who are aware of these processes. Those of us who spend time at the marketing conferences, whether it’s Online Marketing Summit or Content Marketing World—we go to these and there may be a thousand people and we’re all talking about these strategies and tactics and tools, and we leave those venues thinking everybody must be talking about these things, and that’s just not the case. While it’s possible to be that granular about ROI, the level of prospecting client education about the possibility is still a very important part of the phase that we’re in. It’s actually a very steep part of the curve of getting more buy-in to content marketing, because there’s lag between the general business public understanding this to the same degree that those of us who are more deeply steeped in it and know it.

Martin van der Roest: That’s a good point. I want to back up to the earlier part of this conversation where we’re talking about one of the key goals of doing content marketing is to drive revenue, driving brand visibility and reach. There’s also the sense that during the buyer’s journey you get individuals that have gone beyond the purchase of a product and now might be engaged in community, engaged in conversation, and that becomes an important contributor to the revenue. One side is, yes, there’s a revenue piece but there’s also the other side which talks about measuring or understanding such things as reach, exposure, and conversation. Given that, how important is it to understand the engagement of visitors and/or interested parties around content that you post? How important is it to consider the so-called use of your content in the form of being retweeted on Twitter, or shared with others on another channel? Let’s talk about your experience around characterizing those and three or four of these that represent important ROI topics.

Russell Sparkman: What you’re touching upon, Martin, is the importance of measuring the social signals. You mentioned retweets and other social signals, shares and likes, comments and so forth. In my book, those are incredibly important to measure and incredibly important to report. As an agency we have been doing that for quite a number of years now. What I find fascinating, is how much verbal support is given to measuring social signals. At the end of the day, being able to get more budget or just to continue an ongoing content marketing initiative, much less grow it, you have to have more substantial metrics—how is this contributing to the bottom line? We’re still at a point in time where a CFO will look at a report that says we’ve got X tens of thousands of likes and X tens of thousands of retweets and say, “Well, that’s very nice, but how much money has this effort actually generated for the company?” If I’m sitting across from that CFO and trying to sell that person on continuing a content marketing initiative, much less growing it, I’m really going to want that number that helps point to the contribution to the bottom line. As an agency, we’re at different sorts of points in the lifespan of relationships with different clients and we absolutely see this happening in real time. There’s an enthusiastic burst of support for all this newfangled content marketing stuff in the beginning, but there begins to set in “content marketing fatigue” at a certain point because content marketing is not a turn-on-the-spigot/turn-off-the-spigot type of approach of communicating and building engagement and following and so forth. It is an on-going commitment and promise to those same people. We still live and work in a world where the mindset is that “it’s campaign-based, what did this generate for us?” and if those who hold the purse strings don’t believe it’s contributed enough to the bottom line, they will move on to some other approach to marketing. When I see this happening with other agencies and written about in the blogsphere, I believe we’re in this point in time where in the absence of content-based approaches, really what else is there?

Martin van der Roest: I think that’s a good point because at the end of the day, clearly the internet is a place to play and there’s only a few ways to play if you want to drive business. You can drive it through ads and banners and pay per clicks, etc.

Russell Sparkman: You take a look at what you’re describing, ads and banners and pay per click opportunities, but if you dig into what’s really working, it’s the pay per click ads that are driving somebody to a compelling piece of content. The day and the age of having a flashy banner or ad that just talks about us, us, us, my product, my product, my product, or my service, my service, my service; those days are long gone. In a competitive scenario, whoever has that pay per click ad that is promoting somebody to go to a better ebook than their competitor has is going to get the most value out of their pay per click ad campaign. The point is that they are inextricably linked, that pay per click ad has got to be linked to a quality piece of content today.

Martin van der Roest: I think that adds a layer of being aware. As a good friend Gary Brewer recently said, “Doing content marketing or social media without doing some kind of ad effort is like putting a billboard in the forest.” You do all this work around the content but you aren’t driving attention to it necessarily. I think that’s an excellent insight on his part, but it also adds the dimension that there are other cost components that contribute to a content marketing initiative. It’s just not the cost of creating the content, supporting it and engaging around it, but it’s also the process of calling attention to it and that, of course, could be done in many ways.

Russell Sparkman: We were recently involved in RFP response that had to do with setting up a capability to serve content in the “always-on/real-time” context. An interesting thing about real-time and always-on that we emphasize is that there is nothing more real-time and always-on than top rankings in Google Search. That’s such a big concept for so many organizations to understand, i.e., the value of investing in quality content. Owning and creating original quality content so that you are there when, any second of any day, somebody searches for something that is relevant to you, your company, your product, your service or your cause. Yes, there is the billboard in the forest analogy, so not having a pay per click type campaign associated with a good piece of content might set up that billboard in the forest type of scenario. However, if you have the billboard in the forest and you’ve done what you can to build the best trails and maps to that billboard, then you do get the attention that you need. If you build the quality product if you build the quality content, the other part of that is the Google Search part.

Martin van der Roest: The organic, right? I like your analogy; the trails and the signposts that get people there.

I think we’re going to close it up here, but as a last question, what is it that as folks get started around content marketing, they may be new to it, they’ve taken on the responsibility for it, what advice would you offer for those getting started around this topic of ROI?

Russell Sparkman: The most important singular thing that can be done is actually right at the outset. That has to do with something really dear to your heart, which is goal setting. In our terms, it’s establishing what are the desired outcomes of the initiative going to be? By identifying and defining those, you are from the outset establishing a best practice in ROI, which is knowing what you are going to measure. It really is quite like having a road map, you know when you leave on the journey, you know where you’re going to go. So in the initial start of a content marketing initiative, setting the desired outcomes, setting those things that you’re going to measure, is very important for these two reasons. It helps you put in place the tools and the processes and methods that you’re going to use to measure ROI, but from our point of view even more importantly by setting those desired outcome and goals, you actually become a lot more surgical about the way you’re going to create content. Content won’t be created haphazardly or willy-nilly, it will be created to specifically try to achieve and accomplish those desired outcomes. That’s my advice from the outset.

Martin van der Roest: Good point and I completely agree. The goals piece is always near and dear–having a direction and putting stakes in the ground that everyone can rally around. I think that’s worth pointing out.

That concludes our conversation for today. Russell, thank you for taking time to share your thoughts and your experiences, I sure appreciate it. I’m sure our listeners will appreciate it as well. Thank you.

Russell Sparkman: I hope out of all this that there was some nugget of a key takeaway. Thank you for your time, Martin.

Martin van der Roest: Absolutely. This is Martin van der Roest with the Content Marketing Examiner. Thank you for joining us as we continue to explore the content marketing lifecycle.