In school we learned reading and writing and arithmetic. Many of us graduated into the working class of new media marketers then conveniently bailed on math.

Or so says Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group. In late 2015, Michael and strategist Liz Bedor published The Content Formula.

Its cover features a piggy bank. Its Amazon description begins:

“The Content Formula answers the biggest question currently on marketer’s minds: what is the ROI of content marketing?” 

Can You Bank on Marketing?

Michael was nice enough to answer my questions on the topic.

I began with: “You and Liz claim content marketers need numbers they can take to the bank. Do they have them?”

Michael: We wrote the book because we think that content marketing ROI is the biggest question we hear, especially when senior level marketers are asking about or challenging content marketing. My snide remark is often, “Do you know the ROI of your marketing efforts overall?” No one has actually ever answered me.

I really do believe a large majority of marketing leaders, and I mean CMOs, really don’t know the ROI of their marketing programs overall. So it’s kind of a sarcastic response to the question, but it starts with a fundamental principle that I believe marketing should be held accountable to business results.

So the answer to your question is that, unfortunately, we have not done a good job of presenting marketing in the context of strategic business value. I’d say CMOs that don’t have these numbers need to get them. It’s not a matter of life or death—or just about keeping their job—it’s a battle that needs to be fought for the strategic importance of the marketing function overall.

CMOs that don’t have these numbers need to get them. It’s not a matter of life or death—or just about keeping their job—it’s a battle that needs to be fought for the strategic importance of the marketing function overall.

Grab a Calculator

Naturally, the conversation that ensued got into measuring stuff.

As an enterprise marketer looking to begin this process of putting ROI numbers together and measuring stuff, what do you believe matters most?

Michael: The math of ROI starts with understanding the investment and then calculating the return, a pretty simple mathematical calculation. In the book, we provide calculations to do that, but the structure we presented was to think about it in terms of reach, engagement, and conversion, which maps pretty well to the classic marketing funnel metaphor.

We use the terms “brand awareness,” “brand health,” and “conversions,” which are ways to say the same thing.

Marketers and executives understand they’re going to do a better job as a company if people know, understand, and ultimately have a preference for what the company sells.

People intuitively understand the power of marketing, so we’re trying to literally narrow it down to ways you can place a value on awareness.

There’s that classic quote, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.” I think marketers have hidden behind the veil of that statement for a long time. And that was pretty much an advertising kind of statement about driving awareness.

What we’re trying to say is you can measure value in a quantifiable way at each stage of the funnel, from a reach, engagement and conversion perspective. So that’s the way we structured the book and there are values that can be placed against each one of those.

In a recent post on Entrepreneur, you wrote “60 to 70% of the content your company creates goes completely unused.” Sounds expensive. What should an enterprise do to tackle this problem?

Michael: The first thing is to admit it exists. The research that we cited comes from SiriusDecisions based on something like 1,400 B2B companies. It’s important to understand that stat.

This was a detailed audit of content created by marketing teams and obviously, it cost money to create. What they found was it’s not that the content stank and it’s not that it didn’t perform well. No, it was created and never used.

I’ve done audits for about a dozen companies who resisted admitting they had a problem in this area. The audit I did first was when I worked at SAP and sure enough we found right around 56% of the content was never actually used. This was just in one product area where content was uploaded to a system to be used by a downstream system, like a website or an email nurture program. But it was never downloaded by that downstream system.

Let’s just assume the value of each one of those pieces of content was a $200… $2,000, whatever number you want to pick. When you multiply that by all the content any company creates you get a really big number that is pure waste. And it’s not content such as a blog post that only a few people read and shared. It’s a blog post that was written, but never published.

So there is a massive opportunity inside B2B companies to look at the content they’re creating and just make sure it actually gets used. And so before we even get to the performance questions—and this really gets to the part of the book where we talk about how find the budget for content—just start to look at the content your organization creates, make sure there is process in place that rationalizes those decisions.

The other stat that is really interesting and we talk about in the book is Econsultancy did similar research in B2B organizations and found that wasted content was a $50-billion opportunity. It’s a multibillion dollar problem any way you face it.

[Related Content] The $958M Marketing Problem: Quantifying the Cost of Inefficiency in Your Content Production Process

The Problem Begins Within

Kapost talks about a KPI that is internal reach and often put it in a file called “sales enablement.” In The Blueprint to B2B Content Metrics, Kapost professes when you measure internal reach you find much of the content in the enterprise may never be found, used, read, downloaded, shared or even sent to customers.

Do you think it make sense to say a logical place to begin looking at content usability is measuring internal reach?

Michael: I do. I think they’re on to something. It presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The reason that they identify that as an important metric gets to this point of accountability. How do you hold your own teams accountable for creating stuff that people want? A lot of that content waste we talked about comes in the form of content that isn’t created for an external audience, but maybe, like you said, sales enablement, or even customer reference.

It can be a huge budget item for a lot of B2B companies. They’re spending a lot of time, a lot money, using a lot of process to get customers to stand in front of the video camera and talk about why they chose the company they’re a customer of. It’s a piece of the puzzle and a step in the right direction to start holding the teams that are creating content accountable.

Bad Content: A Famous Tweet

Though he has a few less followers than Justin Bieber, Michael is well-read on Twitter and other social media and he’s responsible for a famous tweet:

Michael: I came up with that statement for a presentation I was doing about a year and a half ago. I was asking that question myself, why does all this content get created and never used? Unfortunately, the answer for most of us was we created stuff because someone asked us to, usually an executive.

But I caution the audience whenever I present it and I say it’s easy for us to point the finger at your boss. We all know the situation: anyone that has been inside a corporate marketing organization has been asked to create something they knew from the beginning wasn’t going to have any real relevance. But we like our paychecks so we do what we’re told.

The caution I give when I present that quote is we need to hold ourselves accountable. That means educating the executives that are asking for stuff, gathering this kind of information so that we can say last year we did what we were told and we created all this stuff that never got used.

So what are ways to do it? Like I said, the Kapost internal reach metric might be one way to start adding this level of accountability. But we’re all accountable, all of us that are creators. All of us in marketing need to hold ourselves accountable to creating stuff that we know is going to reach, engage and hopefully, convert new customers.

And What About Effectiveness?

Michael and I talked a bit about how today’s marketing content teams tend tobelieve more is more—the more content we create the more success we’ll see. Ultimately if we’re going to have a formula for identifying success, or efficiency, or performance, it’s going to come down to learning if what we created was effective. Do we have these answers?

Do you think most enterprises are in the dark when it comes to measuring the effectiveness of the content?

Michael: Yeah and part of this comes down to the difference between content and content marketing. Content marketing is ultimately much more measurable and quantifiable than either content or marketing by themselves.

What do I mean by that? Well, what’s the ROI of a white paper? I have no idea. The ROI of a white paper that never gets used is a negative. Whatever you spent was wasted cost.

But content marketing means publishing to a brand owned destination. And so the investment you make in building a brand owned destination, examples like “OPEN Forum by American Express or ‘”The Red Bulletin,” from Red Bull—all the famous examples that are out there—the investments we make in these kind of platforms are completely trackable. The results these platforms generate are completely trackable.

The point is: the ROI of most marketing investment is hard to track, but it’s not impossible.

The ROI of content marketing is infinitely more measurable. We can identify the cost of the digital platform. We can identify the cost of the people that are running it. We can identify the cost to create blog posts and white papers and SlideShares and infographics and the technology infrastructure that supports them.

That’s why we’re seeing this shift in marketing overall from things that are less trackable to things that are completely measurable.

Steal from the Poor (Performers) 

I warned you: Brenner’s hot to trot on math…

I use a lot of my SAP experience in the book to try to demonstrate examples. So for me it started with the research I talked about: the 56% of content being wasted. However, having that data didn’t allow me to get budget for a program.

What I did find was that we had advertising landing pages that had a 99% bounce rate, zero organic traffic, and no social shares. Yet meanwhile, SAP continued to create a lot of great customer stories. I made a proposal to the head of advertising. I said let’s take the great content you’re creating in advertising—the stories you’re telling—and use the money you spend on landing pages that gain no organic search and social traffic, and invest it in a content marketing platform that’s going to drive organic and social traffic for no additional investment.

So the result of that, is program that still exists today at SAP, is called Digitalist Magazine. Essentially we created a publisher-like platform. The site to this day publishes about ten articles a day. It drives reach to an audience that SAP was never reaching before. It engages those readers with compelling content and converts them to leads that they can valuate.

So the math… The cost of advertising landing pages was $200,000. That’s what the advertising person had budgeted for developing landing pages for advertising. We took half of that money and invested in building the platform. So the day the advertising campaign launched we had already proven our ROI by saving the advertising team $100,000.

What’s interesting though is talking to the math of reach, engagement, and conversion—all of the traffic that we generated from that platform—having already proven our ROI came for free. So we generated (and I’m going to make a number), let’s say 1,000 leads for SAP that first year. If the average cost per lead for SAP was $35 then you’ve got your math there.

We were able to generate a return on investment on both the bottom line, the investment side, and the top line, on the return.

Barry Feldman

About Barry Feldman

Barry Feldman is the founder of Feldman Creative. He creates compelling content by telling stories. He's a content marketing strategist, copywriter, creative director, speaker, and author. He specializes in creating websites, e-books, and integrated online marketing programs. Twitter: @FeldmanCreative LinkedIn: Barry Feldman