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Almost every marketing leader will tell you that content is essential to sparking meaningful engagement with prospects and customers. But content marketing as a practice is still evolving -- marketing teams don’t have a clear blueprint for how much investment to make or how to determine the ROI.

Success takes exploration, dedication and continuous testing. Content marketing is challenging. It takes time to grow your program into a steady and predictable growth engine.

The CMO plays a critical role in content marketing. We need to guide our teams to adopt an analytical approach and help them determine which topics, types, formats and delivery methods will be most effective. We can help content producers and program managers turn ideas into powerful audience-building campaigns.

Here’s how you can lead your team to success.

Step 1: Set a Clear Direction

Content marketing requires a long-term commitment to testing, iterating, building and evolving. Even if you’re just getting started, however, analyze the data you have. Before embarking on your next blog article or e-book, spend some time digging into any historical data you can gather about past download rates, blog traffic volumes and social sharing.

Identify your target audience’s pain points, make sure you know what your customers are eager to learn about, and harness tools to see what’s trending. Your team's research and exploration process should uncover areas of opportunity in terms of topics to discuss and areas in which to build thought leadership.

Pick one or two opportunities, and commit to them. If you chase too many directions, you’ll be scattered. As tempting as it may be to write a large number of blog posts and e-books on a variety of topics and then “see what sticks,” challenge your team to take things a little slower. Develop an editorial calendar that aligns with the company direction and positioning, and treat your content marketing plan as a long-term journey.

Step 2: Cast a Wide Net

Content marketing is more than just blogging. You’ll need to build a scalable and predictable marketing program — a process that takes a significant investment to fully develop. You should test everything from content distribution channels to personalization methods, themes, formats and categories.

Although you should keep your topic areas focused, cast a wide net and evaluate multiple ideas. Provide your team with enough freedom and flexibility to test and learn.

CMOs should plan on allocating a healthy “experiment” budget to content marketing efforts. With room to explore, teams will be able to see the full performance spectrum -- and accurately gauge what’s successful and what isn’t. At Evergage, for instance, we now have more than a year’s worth of data to understand what’s considered good, bad or average in terms of response and conversion rates.

For example, the year-to-date landing page conversion rates for our two most popular e-books are both at 30 percent. The average across all our e-books is 25 percent. We have similar data for click-through rates on our site and in email campaigns for different e-books as well, which are also higher for these two assets. This data enables us to assess and conclude which content resonates best with our target audiences.

That said, no industry wide standard exists for content marketing. Success will be what’s best for you, and your baseline will be established and evolve over time.

Step 3: Dig into the Nuances

Building upon step two, encourage your team to dig beneath the surface and uncover hidden stories in their performance data. In addition to examining traffic and conversions, look at the quality of the leads that you’re generating. You’ll also need to look at the full buyer journey.

Let’s take a look at some figures from Evergage:

While our e-book conversions are averaging 25 percent, our best performing webinar replays are only generating conversions of 16 percent. At first glance, one might assume that e-book assets perform significantly better.

Not necessarily.

Further down the funnel, our conversion rates from inbound responses to marketing qualified leads (MQLs) -- defined as prospects who have a need we can address and take appointments with sales reps -- webinar replays are converting at 5 percent, while e-book downloads are at 2.5 percent. In other words, webinar replay respondents convert to MQLs at twice the rate of e-book downloads, so a 16 percent landing page conversion rate for webinar replays is actually better than a 25 percent rate for e-books.

Final Thoughts: Outrun the Status Quo

Skeptics of content marketing will tell you that there’s already too much content out there, and it’s difficult for yours to stand out.

This statement is absolutely true.

Yet almost every CMO will tell you that content marketing is a top priority. So … like most marketing tactics, more isn’t necessarily better. The trick is to be smart about what you produce, what form it takes and how you promote it.

In addition to investing in the basic building blocks of content, CMOs need to figure out a way to “own” their space and build strong associations with their target audiences around a few key topics. Content marketing isn’t about broad reach — it’s about being a front-runner and thought leader in your space, and then optimizing your conversion rates with techniques like personalization and testing.  

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  Zach Dischner