Content marketing: never mind the quality, feel the width

Some companies spend a lot of time and money producing articles, white papers, videos and other so-called content marketing materials but then measure success using superficial metrics. In this way, a new piece of digital content that generates 500 shares, likes, views or downloads is always better than the last one that only generated 250. You don’t need to be a genius to see the flaw: the higher figure is only better if it comprises more of the people you set out to reach, and only then if they respond as you intended. If not, it contains wastage and is misleading when viewed superficially.

As Andrew Bruce Smith shows in this excellent blog on LinkedIn, there is another, darker side to digital marketing: fake accounts, fake activity and fake followers. As should be clear by now, the ‘who’ (and their legitimacy) as well as the ‘how many’ are vitally important. Many media owners get this and discourage journalists from viewing just traffic figures for the articles they write because it has the unintended consequence of driving the wrong behaviour.

On the other hand, some media pundits still obsess about audience figures, instead of audience quality. For example, ITV’s new breakfast show format has lost viewers and is taking some flak for it. As a commercial organisation, ITV relies heavily on advertising revenue but all advertisers care about is reaching a high volume of target consumers, not as many consumers as possible. ITV only has a problem if it is losing the viewers advertisers most want to reach.

As former editor of Financial Director magazine, journalist Andy Sawers knows a thing or two about numbers. In an email conversation with him on a related subject he told this amusing tale about prioritising reader volume over quality:

“When Boris Johnson (current London Mayor and ex-journalist) was editor of The Spectator, he proudly announced at a staff lunch that the circulation was over 80,000 (or whatever it was). Some old curmudgeon in the corner  harrumphed: ‘I can remember when the circulation was 14,000, but everyone read it!’ The point being that, ‘everyone who matters’ counts just as much as how many are reading it. Quality of circulation is at least as important as quantity of circulation or number of clicks for digital publishing.”

Sawers also relates the problem of trying to understand whether the editorial output under his former control reached the right people in the right places.

“We had this perennial battle at Financial Director because we knew everything about our readers, except whether they were opening the poly bag and actually reading the magazine! But as a controlled-circulation, 100% requested title, we had a reasonably high degree of confidence. Equally, on our website, we knew which stories were being hit, how often, what time of day, whether they came into us from a Google search or a newsletter, what browser they were using or whatever. But we had no idea whether the viewer was a finance director in London or an MBA student in Singapore.”

Too many B2B companies continue to measure content marketing success by counting the wrong things. If your CEO cares more about a 500-strong ‘engaged’ audience than 5 qualified leads that convert into one sale, then you’ve got a problem. In case you doubt people who think like this really do exist, consider this: Last year I found myself listening to a chief executive defend his decision to stop producing the regular monthly articles I’d been writing for his company. During this conversation he let slip, as he was saying how much he valued my work, that one recent article had led directly to a sale.

I asked how profitable that sale was. When he told me the figure, I pointed out that this amount paid my fees for the next two years, and the cost of about 100 similar articles. But he’d hired a new marketing manager with different ideas and he needed to show his support, was his response. One of those ideas, he went on, was already generating ‘great engagement levels’ on LinkedIn. While he continued talking I deftly checked LinkedIn’s own statistics and found they told a somewhat different story. That’s when I realised: I was flogging a dead horse.

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