Bryan shares his real-life experience in building a successful business and the content marketing KPIs that he uses to stay focused on the metrics that matter.
Blanketed by darkness in the eerie solitude of a desolate Oakland Coliseum, Athletics General Manager Billy Beane sat silently. The clock ticked toward midnight on the East Coast with his team’s championship hopes in tow.
(At least, that’s how the opening scene of the 100% accurate, totally-not-dramatized movie Moneyball portrays it.)
In that scene, a despondent Beane (played by Brad Pitt) stares vacantly toward the stadium’s center field bleachers as he processes another disappointing result.
As a content marketer, I know that face.
(Or, rather, my wife knows that face on me.)
That’s the same face I’ve made countless times, staring dejectedly at stagnant Google Analytics reports. I’ve been publishing content for weeks. Why won’t the orange line go up? Where’s the organic traffic?
Truthfully, the early efforts of your content marketing strategy often feel as futile as Sisyphus’s endless attempts to push a boulder up a hill.
If the prospect of eternal failure enters your mind, don’t think about Sisyphus.
Think about Billy Beane.
Beane’s Impossible Task Teaches Us How to Think About Content Marketing KPIs
For five long years, Beane had been tasked with the impossible: Bring a World Series Championship back to Oakland and restore the once-proud, nine-time champions to their former glory.
Oh, and do it with 75% less money than the big market juggernauts.
In that opening Moneyball scene, one such juggernaut, the New York Yankees, had just punched 102-win Oakland’s ticket back home for the second straight year. It was the final straw for Beane and forced him to face an undeniable reality.
We can’t do the same things the Yankees do. Given the economics, we’ll lose.
How are you supposed to build a roster of championship-caliber players if you can’t pay them championship-caliber salaries? Johnny Damon, Oakland’s highest-paid player in 2001, made $7.1M. Seven Yankees made more than that.
Really, it’s amazing Beane’s Athletics won as many games as they did. Their 102-win, 2001 season was a perfect storm of unproven young players on rookie contracts who matured into quality Major Leaguers complemented by a few productive, low-priced veterans.
When those unproven young players finally prove themselves, they cost a lot more than the typical rookie contract pays.
That was the case for three of Oakland’s best players: Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen. All three became free agents after the 2001 season and inked deals paying a combined $27.9M per year. In 2002, Oakland paid its entire 25-man roster just $40M.
If Beane and the Athletics, “can’t do the same things the Yankees do,” then what else can they do?
Looking for answers, Beane hired Paul DePodesta. DePodesta, a Yale wunderkind and former Cleveland Indians Special Assistant to the General Manager (Dwight Schrute vibes, anyone?), had a different way of thinking about player value. In the movie, Jonah Hill’s character, based on DePodesta, put it simply:
Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. In order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.
Instead of relying on traditional methods of identifying and acquiring talent, which led every team to value players in mostly the same ways, Oakland was going to try something different. They were going to use mathematical models to identify underappreciated players whose actual value exceeded their salaries.
In the wake of 2001’s playoff heartbreak, Beane made a slew of highly-criticized moves to acquire players who fit their new strategy.
Nearly two months into their grand experiment, things weren’t going as well as Beane had hoped. Oakland was mired in last place with a disappointing 19-25 record.
Staring failure in the face, Beane had two choices:
- Abandon the plan.
- Trust the process.
According to the movie (again, a 100% accurate, totally-not-dramatized, historical documentary), this is how it went down:
Do you believe in this thing or not?
Beane chose to trust the process.
Because he did his homework before making the decision to start the process. There were years of thought, strategy, measurement, and planning involved.
What happened next is so ridiculous you’d think it could only happen in a movie, but I swear it’s true: The Oakland Athletics actually started winning.
And not only did they start winning, but they kept winning.
From August 13 through September 4, Oakland played 20 games and won every single one. It was the longest winning streak in modern MLB history (until the Cleveland Indians won 22 straight games in 2017) and helped Oakland surge through the end of the regular season to a 103-59 record — one win better than the prior year with stars like Giambi, Damon, and Isringhausen.
Sadly, Oakland was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Minnesota Twins (at least it wasn’t the Yankees), but Beane and DePodesta’s system was no longer considered radical.
Shortly thereafter, it went mainstream, and, today, elements of their “moneyball” approach can be found in front offices of every organization in every major sports league.
And the lessons translate into content marketing strategy as well.
Why Content Marketing Is Like Moneyball
Traditional PPC ad campaigns, sponsored promotions, and similar marketing tactics give you immediate, temporary access to new audiences, leads, and customers. Usually, you can start small as a proof of concept before scaling up, revenue starts pouring in quickly, and ROI often is known in just days or weeks.
Content marketing is different.
Instead of immediate, temporary access to new audiences, leads, and customers, content marketing gives you future, persistent access. It requires investing upfront with no promise of short or medium-term benefit, and ROI often is measured in months or years.
As such a forward-thinking strategy, content marketing requires patience.
But doubt almost always crops up in some form, even for experienced content marketers.
And like many coaches, content marketers have a tendency to focus on the wrong inputs when thinking about how to achieve their goals. They focus on the big, splashy content—the viral campaigns, the major media wins, and the high-volume keywords.
But content marketing isn’t a home-run derby. It’s moneyball.
If you want to win, you have to be—and stay—strategic.
That’s why strategy development and planning, though crucial for all types of marketing campaigns, are especially important for content marketing.
The key to success in content marketing is how you track and measure your efforts—it starts with choosing the right content marketing KPIs. Then, it requires a consistent and sober analysis of those numbers, day in and day out.
Choosing the Right Content Marketing KPIs
While it may take months or years to fully realize the benefits of your content marketing strategy, that doesn’t mean you should put your head down and power ahead blindly without looking up to see where you’re going.
How do you know you’re moving in the right direction, even if you aren’t seeing the payoff?
You need to track content KPIs to help you understand the impact of your content marketing efforts.
More specifically: You need to track the right KPIs.
The KPIs that you should track depend on your content marketing goals. For each goal that you set out to achieve with your content marketing strategy or content marketing campaign, you should have a set of key performance indicators.
Most likely, your content marketing strategy has some combination of these 5 goals:
- Brand awareness
- Organic growth (SEO)
- Lead generation (Conversions)
- Sales enablement
- Customer retention and loyalty
For each of these goals, there are specific KPIs that you should track to understand how well your content is performing.
1. Brand Awareness KPIs
At the top of the funnel, we have brand awareness – reaching your target audience, bringing them to your website, and making sure they are at least familiar with your brand (and ideally your product, services, and solutions).
Measuring this level of content performance is generally straightforward:
- Website traffic
- Social shares
- Social media followers
- Email opt-ins
- Percent of new (and returning) visitors
Essentially, what we’re trying to measure with these metrics is how many people are we reaching with our content. And, of those, how many are joining our long-term audience – either by following the company Twitter account, opting into our email list, or just coming back to the site periodically.
2. Organic Growth (SEO)
We’ve all been taught that SEO and organic traffic comes slowly.
And that’s true. It’s not a switch that you can flick on and off. It’s a flywheel that you have to push and push and push while it accumulates momentum.
But you can still measure it.
Brian Dean of Backlinko analyzed 5 million search results and found the top result gets 31.7% of all clicks. As you move further down page one, clickthrough rates fall precipitously.
Stunningly, just 0.78% of searchers click to page two.
Even if your content isn’t driving traffic yet, you can assess its performance by tracking your keywords. Tools like Ahrefs have reports that let you see which keywords your content is ranking for and whether you’re moving up or down.
Site-wide keyword ranking reports are a great early indicator of success before big-time traffic starts pouring in. This snapshot is from Ahrefs.
In addition to looking globally at all keywords your content ranks for, you can also track rankings for specific keywords. Take a look at this keyword ranking history from Ahrefs, which shows my content’s rank for a specific keyword I’m targeting with an article.
I published an article on July 12, 2020 targeting a high-value keyword. Even though I saw little traffic for weeks, I knew the page’s performance was improving thanks to Ahrefs’ keyword tracker.
Keyword tracking also is great for optimizing existing content. If you’re hanging in the 20s or 30s (third or fourth page of Google) for keywords your content isn’t optimized for, see if you can update your content to better target those keywords and pick up a little extra traffic.
We generally track KPIs based on a few key buckets:
- Keywords in position 1
- Keywords in position 1-3
- Keywords in position 1-10 (page 1)
- Keywords in position 1-100 (ranking)
Using this simple waterfall analysis, we can watch – almost in real time – as clients move up the SERPs, gaining ground and accumulating momentum that will eventually translate into traffic and conversions.
Sometimes, at the very beginning, there’s almost no traffic to speak of. We can talk about the wonders of compound returns all day, but that does you little good when you’re registering weekly traffic numbers under 10 at the very start.
Another great place to get a sense of your performance is the Google Search Console, an awesome tool that shows you info beyond just how many people are visiting your pages. You can also see how often your content appears in search engine results pages (SERPs), the average ranking of that content by page or keyword, and the clickthrough rate from the SERPs to your content.
Here’s Google Search Console data for my new website. As you can see, my search engine traffic (blue) tracks closely with my impressions in the SERPs (purple).
Here’s data for a single page I published months ago that only recently is getting a boost in the SERPs.
The Google Search Console is an amazing resource that far too few people use. Make it a part of your regular workflow to track and optimize your content.
When it comes to SEO, you can think of 2 basic ingredients:
Keywords (or topics) mean that you’re talking about things people are looking for information about. Backlinks – inbound links pointed to your website and content – indicate how much other people on the web trust you as a source.
It’s also part of how Google decides where your content will rank in the SERP.
So, tracking the number and quality of links to your site is another critical KPI that should correlate with organic traffic and SEO growth.
The part about SEO that usually takes the longest – the last thing you’ll be able to measure – is the actual traffic that’s flowing to your site. That’s because you probably won’t see any of it until your pages start to appear on page 1 of Google. And, even then, you probably won’t see a lot of traffic unless you’re ranking in positions 1-3.
But rankings will drive traffic.
I graduated from college in 2010 and joined the workforce in a post-recession, entry-level job making $40,000 per year. It was just enough to cover my student loans, rent, and other bills with a little left over.
As a dumb kid in my early 20s, I spent all of that leftover money on food and fun (a lot of fun). Ten years later with a wife, two dogs, and an eye on buying our first home, I’m now wishing I’d invested some of that fun money instead.
In fact, if I’d invested just $200 every month at the Dow’s annual 15% rate of return over the last 10 years, my $24,000 investment would be worth over $55,000 today.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average has nearly tripled over the last 10 years. (Source)
The same logic applies to your content marketing when measuring its impact on organic growth and SEO. As I was approaching the two-month mark on my new website above (the one with the rapid growth), it was disappointing to see weekly traffic numbers growing so slowly:
- Week 6: 48 sessions
- Week 7: 66 sessions
- Week 8: 78 sessions
If I’m gaining just 15 more visitors each week, it’ll take forever to see any meaningful traffic.
But that isn’t 15 new sessions per week. That’s an average compound growth rate of 28% per week.
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For some projects, a 28% increase in traffic per week may be a conservative estimate. My 19-week-old site? It’s growing at an average of 72% per week. For other projects, 28% may be too aggressive.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s be more conservative and look at a growth forecast with just 14% weekly compound growth from my site’s Week 8 traffic volume (78 sessions).
- Week 8: 78 sessions (baseline)
- Week 9: 89 sessions
- Week 10: 101 sessions
- Week 11: 116 sessions
- Week 12: 132 sessions
- Week 13: 150 sessions
- Week 14: 171 sessions
- Week 15: 195 sessions
- Week 16: 223 sessions
- Week 17: 254 sessions
- Week 18: 289 sessions
By Week 18, we’re looking at 45 more sessions than the previous week, every week, and growing.
Let’s fast-forward 10 more weeks:
- Week 18: 289 sessions (new baseline)
- Week 19: 330 sessions
- Week 20: 376 sessions
- Week 21: 428 sessions
- Week 22: 488 sessions
- Week 23: 557 sessions
- Week 24: 635 sessions
- Week 25: 724 sessions
- Week 26: 825 sessions
- Week 27: 940 sessions
- Week 28: 1,072 sessions
I’ll bring back my 19-week-old site’s growth chart with my real-time thoughts:
That’s the power of compound returns.
3. Lead Generation KPIs (Conversions)
Traffic to your content is great — necessary, even — but traffic alone is worthless if it doesn’t help you meet your business objectives.
(Unless you’re making money off display ads, at which point more traffic is your business objective.)
When visitors find your page, what do you want them to do?
- Click on a product link?
- Click through to a landing page?
- Sign up for an email list?
- Engage with a chat box?
Your content marketing strategy should articulate the types of visitors you want to attract, the business objectives you want those visitors to complete, and how you’ll measure those objectives.
If you have a fledgling email list, keep an eye out for new subscribers. I can tell you from personal experience that your first few email sign-ups may not contribute a ton of long-term monetary value, but they do a lot for your morale.
I’m slowly gaining email subscribers to my new site’s list, managed through ActiveCampaign. Now I just need to figure out what emails I’m going to send them!
There are a few different layers for tracking lead gen from your content marketing strategy.
Number of Leads Generated
Perhaps the most important metric for understanding the success of your content marketing – at least, if you’re talking to your CMO, CEO, or Board of Directors – is the volume of leads, sales, or conversions that your content marketing program is generating.
At the very top of the totem pole is the volume of qualified leads – new leads generated.
Using Google Analytics or another analytics platform like HubSpot or Mixpanel, you’ll want to track at least one important KPI, but potentially two:
- Direct attribution conversions – Leads, sales, or conversions that are directly attributed to someone reading your content and then completing a form or making a purchase
- Assisted attribution conversions – Leads, sales, or conversions where the user read your content at some point in their journey before going on to complete a form or making a purchase
Depending on your sales cycle and GTM strategy, both of these can be useful indicators.
For instance, if you have an ecommerce business and you want to know how content marketing is driving sales, you’d ideally want to know:
- How many people read the content and immediately made a purchase
- How many people read the content during their research and then came back later to make a purchase
Both of these conversion KPIs are important for most businesses.
Next, you want to know – in relative terms – how many of your visitors or readers are completing the conversions that you’re tracking.
While the absolute number is valuable, the rate of conversions is actually a more helpful metric to track over time as your traffic also changes. Ideally, you want this percentage to either improve or at least remain steady even if traffic improves.
CTA Click-Through Rate
Finally, consider the rate at which your visitors are clicking on your calls to action.
This is separate from the actual conversion rate. But it helps you to better understand where users are taking action and where they are falling off. For instance, you may find that 10% of your readers are clicking on a CTA but only 10% of those users are actually converting.
This may indicate that the landing page or offer on the other side of your call to action might not be what those readers want or expect.
4. Sales Enablement KPIs
Next up, let’s consider how content marketing can play a key role in accelerating your sales process and increasing close rates.
Some companies use content marketing as a key lever to nurture, educate, and move leads or prospects through the funnel into an actual close. These content formats often include:
- Case studies
- Product content or documentation
To understand the impact that content is having here, consider measuring:
- Number of new customers (ideally before vs after implementing or adding content)
- Leads to sales converion rate
- Time to close or length of sales cycle
- Deal size or average order value (AOV)
5. Customer Retention and Loyalty KPIs
Finally, let’s consider content marketing as a strategy to improve customer retention.
Some types of content are created explicitly for existing users or customers – to help them get the most value from the product or service, do their jobs better, and educate their teams. All of these can be valid goals related to customer retention and we can measure these as a function of our content marketing program.
- Customer retention rate
- Customer lifetime value (CLV)
Understanding Content Quality
In my opinion, the most important content marketing metrics are the ones that connect content marketing to revenue – business goals.
But it’s also worthwhile to understand how the content itself is being received and how your team is performing in order to inform future content and help you improve content operations or identify bottlenecks within your workflow.
So, a few bonus metrics to consider here.
Are you creating valuable content?
Of course, everything piece of content probably feels high-quality and valuable to the team that’s creating it. But you can objectively assess each piece’s relative quality and value to your target audience by measuring how (and how much) readers are engaging.
- Total page views
- Return visits / sessions
- Bounce rate
- Scroll depth
- Average time on page (reading time)
Content Creation KPIs
Lastly, it’s helpful to have some metrics in place that aren’t focused on the performance of the content itself, but instead looking at the performance of the team that’s creating the content.
Measure your content marketing team’s workflow by tracking:
- Content pieces created
- Content pieces shipped or published
- Content marketing
Though softer than the data-driven indicators of success above, don’t underestimate the value of simply crossing things off your to-do list.If you have a well-defined strategy and a set of tactics and tasks to execute that strategy, then completing those tasks is itself an indicator of success. When momentum is slowing and your motivation is low (it happens to all of us), simply completing an easy task and crossing it off your to-do list can be a big step in the right direction.
What Successful Content Marketing Feels Like in Real Life
I’m a content marketer who’s had a lot of success building affiliate websites. In May 2020, I bought a new domain and launched my latest project. I paid a few freelancers to outsource some of my planning work, hired two full-time writers, and started cranking out content.
Nineteen weeks later, here’s my website’s weekly traffic from Google Analytics, over which I included my general thoughts at various stages along the way.
Two months into this project, I’d spent nearly $6,000 with very little to show for it.
Am I just wasting my time and money creating content?
I’m experienced and I still have these thoughts every now and again. That kind of doubt is normal. I’m no psychologist, but it’s probably even healthy. Chugging forward with blind confidence, metrics be damned, sounds like a recipe for disaster.
It took two full months for me to see that tiny bump to 201 visits per week. Then, just two months later, I’m pulling in over 500 per day.
And you know what?
This could actually be considered fast.
In February 2017, I launched an affiliate website on a new domain and received a $200,000 offer less than 14 months later.
Sounds like some pretty sweet growth, right?
Nineteen weeks after that site launched, I was sitting at just 1,179 weekly visitors.
That’s 53% less traffic than the 2,495 weekly visits my new site is getting, yet this site still reached a $200,000 valuation in just over a year.
My point: Unlike PPC or other forms of paid promotion, it usually takes months or years to realize the full benefit of content marketing.
Measuring Content Marketing: “What if This Doesn’t Work?”
There have been many mornings when I’ve sat at my desk just as the sun’s rising with the outline of another 5,000-word article mocking me from my monitor.
I’ve been doing this for weeks with no results. What if it doesn’t work? Am I wasting my time?
Whether you’re a lean entrepreneur planning and executing your own content marketing, an employee/contractor executing a campaign for a boss/client, or a business looking to hire an agency to manage the process for you, chances are you’ve felt this way too.
First, I’ll share some advice my wife (a therapist) tells her clients.
Transform the “what if” into “even if.”
“What if” is a dangerous, open-ended, defeatist mindset that leaves you vulnerable to worst-case-scenario catastrophizing. And when it comes to content marketing, it can be especially gut-wrenching—with so many variables seemingly disconnected from logic and fully out of your control.
The best course of action is to define your content marketing KPIs clearly—to measure progress in incremental improvements.
Because that’s how content marketing works.
It doesn’t come all at once. It’s not a light switch and it’s not a rocketship. It’s a rising tide.
“What if this doesn’t work?”
- Will I lose my job?
- Will my clients fire me?
- Will I be able to pay the mortgage?
That isn’t productive thinking.
Instead, transform the “what if” into “even if.”
“Even if this doesn’t work…”
- “…I’ll have a ton of great content that I can find new ways to promote.”
- “…I’ll have learned more about my business, my industry, and my customers for next time.”
- “…I still have a well-researched plan that tells me what to do next.”
That type of thinking deescalates your negative thoughts and gets you back on track to success.
Setting Expectations: Content Marketing KPIs
In high school and college, I made my living as a server at various restaurants. While there are many lessons I learned from serving that also apply more broadly to life, one stands out among all of the others:
Be direct when communicating timelines and expectations.
In the restaurant world, sometimes the kitchen gets backed up or an item is forgotten or needs to be remade. If this happens to your table’s food, you have three choices:
- Tell your table the food will be ready “soon.”
- Tell your table it will take another 20 minutes (or however long it’ll actually take).
- Hide until their food is ready.
(Yes, I have absolutely chosen Option 3 before.)
Invariably, Option 2 is the best choice. Nothing’s worse than hungry patrons thinking their food is coming out every time the kitchen doors swing open. Your table’s frustration compounds, they pester you constantly (detracting from your other tables), and you end up with a smaller tip and a bad survey score. At least if your table knows their food is going to take 20 minutes, they’ll stop thinking they’re next every time a serving tray comes in their general direction.
If you’re responsible for executing a content marketing strategy for a client or employer, the same logic applies. Instead of being hungry for an overflowing plate of greasy chicken parmesan, your client or employer is hungry for results. If you keep telling them, “you’ll start seeing results soon,” they’ll grow increasingly frustrated waiting for “soon” to come and keep pestering you about it.
It’s always better to be honest and upfront about timelines and expectations.
This means both defining your content marketing KPIs and then measuring and tracking them closely. Even if it’s not entirely clear where you’ll end up, you can identify patterns and measure progress (even when it feels slow or unpredictable.)
Trust the Process
I didn’t spend nearly 1,000 words talking about Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics for my own benefit.
In the video clip at the beginning, Jonah Hill’s character essentially asks Brad Pitt’s Beane the question all Content Marketers inevitably ask themselves: “What if this doesn’t work?”
“Do you believe in this thing or not?”
Well, do you?
- Do you have a strategy and a plan?
- Do you know why you’re investing in content marketing?
- Do you know who you’re trying to reach?
- Do you know why you’re trying to reach them?
- Do you know what success looks like?
- Do you know what metrics measure that success?
- Do you know what you’ll do to achieve your objective?
- Do you know why you’re doing it?
If you’re having a hard time answering those questions, you need to spend more time developing your content marketing strategy before you keep investing in new content or promotion.
If you already know the answers to all of those questions, then you’ll also know how to respond when you have your own Billy Beane moment.
Do you believe in this thing or not?
If you do, trust the process.
This article was updated and expanded in October 2022 by Tyler Hakes.
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