Marketers are awash in data. But ask marketers if they’re measuring the right things and most answers are closer to “damned if I know” than “you betcha.” So, what can be done when big data gets the better of you?

In May I judged a category in the 2018 Content Marketing Awards. I was particularly interested to see how the entries reported success metrics. I was beyond disappointed to see many entries relying on the same ubiquitous (and often useless) metrics everyone touts regardless of the nature of the content or the business goals it’s meant to achieve. Even when people clearly defined their goals for the project – and not everyone did – there was a striking disconnect between the goals and how they claimed to demonstrate success.

Rand Fishkin sees the same behavior. The founder of SparkToro and Moz, and author of Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World, has spent his career helping marketers reach their target audiences. Rand spoke to me about measurement on an episode of the Brand Newsroom podcast.

“I think that one of the biggest issues I see on measurement and reporting, for sure, is that the marketing metrics we use are disconnected from the things that actually impact the business goal,” he says.

He believes business is on autopilot when it comes to reporting, pointing to preconceived ideas as a culprit. “I think it happens because marketers are used to certain metrics. Their managers and CMOs and even CEOs are used to certain metrics; they’re used to reporting in a certain way,” Rand says.

“You know web analytics tools are used to giving certain kinds of outputs, so you get this bias.”

When pressed to give his top metrics, Rand says a one-size-fits-all mentality is the wrong way to think about measurement. “We should be asking, ‘For this particular situation, where we are trying to accomplish x, what are the metrics that we should be using to measure whether we’ve done x?’”

Rand says content marketers run into problems when they assume some metrics are good and others are bad. “It’s all situation-specific and tying the metrics to business goals is what we need to do,” he says.

Path to content marketing success

Let’s be clear: The way to content marketing success is simple to define but difficult to achieve. It looks like this:

  1. Define business goals.
  2. Develop a content marketing strategy with defined marketing objectives and success measurements.
  3. Produce original, high-quality content aligned with those objectives.
  4. Publish to online and offline channels identified in your strategy.
  5. Distribute content, via your email database, social media, and PR.
  6. Amplify your content using SEO and SEM to find those you don’t know or who don’t know about you.
  7. Measure results against business goals.
  8. Refine strategy to improve results.

Rand is right. What you measure must relate to the first thing in the cycle – your business goals. Yet, most content marketers focus on reporting the success of distribution and amplification efforts. This results in an overall lack of accountability to the business.

Before you protest, remember the title of this article. It isn’t about social media or SEO metrics. It’s about whether content marketers are measuring the right things. Content marketing’s purpose, according to the Content Marketing Institute, is “to drive profitable customer action.”

It’s easy to become distracted by the process of content marketing because data gives a great way to see results. It’s exciting to tweak a project and see metrics change, rankings shift, or follower numbers increase. The gamification of social media turned us into an industry of tracking fiends – while distracting too many of us from the business outcomes we should be trying to achieve.

Popular metrics aren’t necessarily useful metrics

In my opinion, some popular measurements deliver truly useless metrics when determining the success of a content marketing initiative. We need to be better at demonstrating content’s ability to influence business goals. It’s easy to report statistics and figures, especially when dripping in data, but none of these metrics is useful when calculating a return on investment:

  • Activity metrics: Gobs of statistics – including impressions, reach, views, sessions, and engagements – are reported for websites, social media, and online advertising…