Measuring content success

Measuring what matters

Measuring content success

There’s more data about content than we really need. Big data. Small data. Social data. Click data. But how do you measure the success of content?

In an age of analytics, it’s natural to obsess over numbers of followers and rates of growth and that mythical beast called ROI – return on investment. This idea that the cost of producing, measuring and optimising content should drive instant profit is tricky. Not impossible; just super hard.

You see, trying to measure content and story is a bit like trying to optimise Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, or create a business case for Abba to write a hit song, or trying to define Andy Warhol’s USP. Not impossible but challenging and potentially misleading.

After all, the purpose of great content – and wonderful paintings and disco songs – is to take people’s attention and move them to action (even if that action is to boogie on the dance floor or stare wondrously in an art gallery).

Profiting from the actions people take after dedicating time and attention to a story, or painting or music is actually NOT a genuine measure of “success” for the creative piece – it’s more about measuring the impact the creative work has on the business process of buying paintings, music or stories.

Also, business success is something that happens AFTER a person has dedicated their time and attention to a creative work. The ‘success’ is more about measuring what happens after the person has dedicated time to some content rather than genuinely measuring the ‘success’ of the creative work at earning people’s attention or moving them to action.

I would argue that plenty of blathering crap that passes itself off as content these days barely attracts time or attention, thereby making measurement of success an utterly useless concept. Ironically, I bet crap content is more highly measured for ROI than the truly ‘successful’ stuff that has engaged, inspired or delighted someone.

Measuring attention (easy peasy)

In my view, it’s more important to understand whether content has made an impact to attract people’s attention before bothering with the hard part of trying to measure ROI or ‘success’.

Measuring attention isn’t that hard. Google Analytics has plenty of free content analytic tools to help you do that, including things like:

  • Users: How many individuals actually look at the content is a good measure of ‘eyeballs‘. Users in GA counts the individual people who visited your site by cookieing (is that a word?) a unique identifier associated with each hit to your website.
  • Sessions: These are ‘containers’ for what users do on your site. A session is a group of user interactions that take place in a time frame, (though a single user can open multiple sessions). There are two ways GA officially ends sessions – one is after 30 minutes of inactivity and the other is at midnight.
  • Session Duration: How long people look at your site or content is a good measure of attention. There is one caveat though, and on a good ecommerce or transactional site, you will want this to be very short to prove the site is efficient and functional! The more storytelling and content there is, the longer you want session duration to be. In GA, the average session duration metric is a measure of the total duration of all sessions divided by the number of sessions.
  • Bounce rate: This measures the number of single-page sessions on your site divided by all sessions – it’s basically the percentage of all sessions in which users viewed only one page. Most content sites now have higher bounce rates than they used to thanks to mobile viewing, which makes it hard for users to navigate to other pages. There are different ways to get a perspective on your bounce rate: The Audience Overview report provides the overall bounce rate for your site; The Channels report provides the bounce rate for each channel grouping; The All Traffic report provides the bounce rate for each source/medium pair; The All Pages report provides the bounce rate for individual pages (which is most useful to measure specific content).

It’s not hard to measure whether content has been seen or viewed. Content shares are also important (and easy to measure in social platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as well as Google Analytics). The hard thing to measure is how that share, view or click relates to business performance and where it sits in the overall value chain.

ROI of contentWe rarely question whether the numbers are telling us the right story about content. After all, data often can’t tell you about the things you feel really proud of. No data can measure creativity or innovation. And there isn’t yet a metric that I know of for bravery.

When it comes to ‘measuring’ content, the two most important metrics are impact and outcome. But how on earth can you truly measure those things?

A great piece of content that moves someone – even just one person – to take action can have plenty of impact and outcome. Just look at Arab Spring and the importance of content on Twitter and Facebook to ‘outcomes’ for the governments of Egypt and Tunisia.

‘Content performance’ – how one piece of content performed against another piece of content – is important in the publishing and marketing space, but is useless at truly measuring impact and outcome. Instead, we should look at whether content can truly be something meaningful that people will dedicate their time and attention to.

These are what I call the ‘soft’ metrics to measure content:

  1. CLARITY: Do the words, graphic, video or photo actually make a clear point? Is it easy to understand? Give a score out of 10, with 0 being unintelligible and 10 being crystal clear.
  2. ORIGINALITY: Is this genuinely new, surprising and interesting? The old newsroom saying is that dog bits man is NOT news, but man bites dog IS news. Give a score out of 10, with 0 being “seen it before” and 10 being highly original.
  3. THINK SPARK: Yes, this is a totally made up word. It’s about how moving or inspiring a piece of content is. How does it make the reader feel? If a piece of content actually made you pause and think about how you do things, or change perspectives on an issue or even laugh and change your mood than it scores highly on the Think Spark scale of content soft metrics. If brands can actually insert themselves into people’s lives by creating content that makes them think, laugh or feel grateful for discovering something useful, then that’s great. If brands just waste people’s time by making content all about them, rather than the reader, then they score nothing on the Think Spark scale.
  4. OPEN LOOP or WANTING MORE: This is a real art! Great content leaves you wanting to read more or wait in anticipation for the next installment. It’s like watching the first episode of Game of Thrones makes you want to watch the second episode. Strong content makes the user want to actively know more, keep clicking and search for the next ‘hit’.

There’s an abundance of measurement tools at our disposal, but we need to truly understand how content performance, targeting and engagement work together to create a business outcome. I believe every business or brand needs to define their own measure of content success – it must be bespoke to each business model, or you will miss the point altogether. Embrace the trial and error of trying to capture what success means to your business or your content.

Measurement is the ultimate feedback tool when it comes to testing our assumptions and adjusting a content strategy. But make sure you measure the right things.