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The marketer's quagmire - how do you attribute value to content?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed October 5, 2016
Call it a quagmire, a bog pit or an ROI dilemma. Content value attribution is either the marketer's crisis or opportunity. A recent Hippo Connect panel offered a fresh look at attribution. The good news is that despite the obstacles, I do see progress.

Marketers love their analytical tools - just don't mention the "A" word - attribution. It doesn't matter whether you're trying to attribute the value of marketing in general, or value per lead, or value per content piece - attribution remains a steep hill to climb.

During a revealing panel segment at Hippo Connect 2016 in Boston, Robert Rose of the Content Marketing Institute and Ted Schadler of Forrester grappled with the problem of content value attribution. I'll share some high points from that conversation and also a few nuggets on companies that have moved forward on this elusive issue.

Content marketing must brave the "land of discernment"

Content marketing has crossed over into the "land of discernment." What is this place? Well, it's not dissimilar from Gartner's "trough of disillusionment," though I have no branded hype cycle to offer you:

The land of discernment is when buyers quit falling for social media BS and decide to put investments through the ROI spank tunnel - before further money is spent.

That's pretty much where content marketing is now (see my Rose keynote review, Robert Rose to Hippo Connect attendees: content strategy is “stuck in average”, for more on that predicament). There is a lingering suspicion that content marketing works, but a need for numbers to justify. Marketing must deliver more value to sales by showing how content investments:

  • engage audiences
  • build opt-in contacts
  • "warm" cold leads, and
  • help to convert

The obstacles of marketing attribution - by the numbers

The general problem of marketing attribution was covered by Barb Mosher Zink in her recent diginomica post,  Why is cross-channel attribution so elusive to marketers? A couple points jump out for our content value discussion. First, attribution is tougher due to the proliferation of channels. Zinck:

Gone are the good old days when marketing dealt with one or two channels to reach potential customers. Thanks to the digital evolution most are looking at many, many more. And for every channel they use, marketers need to understand performance – is it performing as expected? Is it contributing to conversions? Understanding cross-channel attribution is something every marketer needs to do, but many can’t.

Zinck cites a recent IDG Connect study, which found that 39 percent of marketers will use six or more channels in the next two years. Those six channels are a mix of both online and offline, making the attribution issue even tougher. Add in data problems, and a dizzying array of analytics tools, most with a limited view.

Attributing value to content - the panelists weigh in

So when Hippo CTO Arjé Cahn asked Rose and Schadler, "How do you attribute value to content?" It was not exactly a softball question. Both panelists hit on the issue of how value is defined. Is it a page view, a full scroll, an opt-in? Rose says you begin by defining the goal/purpose of the content:

The interesting thing when you start talking about attribution is when you start looking at what success looks like. It starts to become more complex than simply a dashboard of analytics. You have to start assigning goals and purpose to what the content is supposed to do for the business.

If you picked up on Rose's skepticism about marketing dashboards, you aren't wrong:

Look, marketing has historically and always sucked at measurement... It's as much art as it is science and it will always be that way.

He returned to the case study examples from his keynote:

All of those examples - every successful case study - always have their own challenges in attribution. That example that I gave of the software company that showed $438,000 of value across two years across a content marketing platform. If you look through those measurements, you'll see there's no dashboard for that. They had to go negotiate with sales and say, "Listen, we're giving you this many more leads. How many can we truly attribute to the content marketing program?"

They agreed that it was one or two customers per quarter. Great, that's going to be our attribute. That goes in my PowerPoint presentation that I'm giving to my boss about how many leads are we giving you. There's no dashboard. The attribution problem is real.

Rose warned that sales is going to push back against heavily weighting content pieces in an attribution scheme:

Weighting it is even more difficult because, ask any salesperson. They'll tell you that the reason that the deal closed is because, "I called the person and talked to them with my natural voice. It wasn't a stupid, little one-sheet that closed the deal."

Schadler does think, however, that attribution is "getting more accessible because the touchpoints are digitized." He cited on-demand video and the ability to see attribution around ad placement. But his first use case reinforced Rose's point about sales. The client ran a daring experiment to prove the point:

I was talking to another B2B company, maybe even the one you're referring to, recently and she was talking about attributing value of content for closing deals. I said, "How did you establish that?" She basically said, "We ran an experiment. We took the content away and we watched what happened and deal close rate dropped." They ran this experiment for three months. It wasn't a small impact on the business.

Schadler clarified this experiment was only done in one area, not company-wide. Still - that's a bold way to prove content value. He shared another anecdote of a client that literally slowed down their web site to show how content participation and engagement drops off a cliff when two seconds are added to the load time. That goes back to the now-inseparable link between great content and great UX (user experience).

Finding a way forward - new tools and use cases

One piece of the attribution puzzle: tools that allow for cross-channel analytics and break data silos. Zinck mentioned a few in her attribution piece, including a deeper look at ConversionLogic. No tool can solve this problem on its own. Even if you achieve that "centralized view of measurement performance," you may have different metrics applied to different channels.

Zinck notes that some marketers use attribution models such as Last Click, or a rules-based process. Those fall short when they don't track multiple channels. The IDG Connect study found that almost half of marketers acknowledge a need for a better cross-attribution tool.

Two years ago, in Branding is not enough – 8 points for digital marketing engagement, I wrote about a cross-channel attribution solution called MarketShare (now owned by Neustar). MarketShare takes an algorithmic approach to cross-channel attribution, which incorporates in-store actions and market conditions like consumer confidence. At the time, MarketShare found most companies actually under-attribute digital marketing impact by 20 or 30 percent. In theory, a tool like this can help marketers make the business case for content performance.

The wrap - progress  but no holy grail

At this year's events, I've run into more companies making progress on content attribution. MongoDB was one that had a well-thought attribution system in place. As Francesca Krihely, Senior Manager, Content Marketing at MongoDB, and  Meagan Eisenberg, MongoDB CMO explained to me, they tie each content piece into lead generation with unique UTM codes. They address lead attribution by tying their Influitive advocate marketing solution back into Salesforce. Eisenberg:

Anyone who signs up [for the advocate community], we connect into Salesforce. They’re associated to a campaign of Influitive, and we track any influence into opportunities. Also, they recommend others in their networks, and other leads, and then we follow up on those leads.

By attributing leads directly to content pieces, Eisenberg can ramp-up (or ramp down) content investments with a new precision:

We’re cutting programs where we can’t find any attribution, and we’re funding those that we can. We rank all our content, so we look at every single webinar, white paper, case study and how it affects return on investment.

That's far more sophisticated than what I was hearing from companies a few years ago. I go into more detail on how this has changed marketing's relationship with sales, with 65 percent of the sales pipeline sourced through marketing (Eisenberg wants to get to 68 percent this year)

I suspect Robert Rose would want to know more about how value is measured for valued community members that never become customers, something he and I hit on. That ties into a concern I raised:

The problem is that some important content – what I sometimes call, for lack of a less pompous term, “thought leadership,” is not easily attributable to lead gen. It’s about expanding brand credibility and claiming topic authority. MongoDB is working through this also. Eisenberg told me they’ve had success with  how-to papers like one on Kafka. They soon realized you can’t just throw those types of signups over the wall for a sales call, so a different nurturing process is needed there.

But “how-to” is only a small component of so-called thought leadership content. That content isn’t easily measured or attributed, as it usually needs to occur outside of a vendor’s own web site purview, though social and traffic bumps can offer clues.

Companies solve the attribution problem based on their own metrics and content goals. Tools are tactics are getting better, but we're not there yet. I intend to document more stories of return-on-content, or what Rose calls return-on-audience, in the future. If you have such a story, I'm all ears.

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