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The Value of Content, Part 2: Nobody’s Perfect

by Melissa Rach on June 23rd, 2011

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog called The Value of Content, Part 1: Adam Smith Never Expected This. It was about how traditional economics make it difficult to assign value to content. In that blog, I promised to write a sequel about measuring content “in a few weeks.” That was (blush) 94 weeks ago. (I’d like to say I was abducted by aliens or something, but in reality, I was on a bunch of exciting content strategy projects. Way cooler than aliens, right?)

Since “Part 1” was published, content strategy has gained a lot of ground in the business world. However, justifying budgets and resources for content projects is still a major challenge. So, here, at long last, are seven tips to help you measure content effectively.
 

Get it? Measurement!

(photo by HeyThereSpaceman. cc licensed)

Disclosure: There’s no silver bullet

I wish I could give you a simple, foolproof way to make all your content measurement dreams come true. Unfortunately, there’s no magic app or secret mathematical equation that does all the work. Sure, there are tools that streamline the measurement process, but no matter how many fancy widgets you buy, measuring content value will still take a significant amount of time and attention.

1. Don’t worry about exact numbers

Before we talk about how to measure content, let’s talk about measurement itself. Most people think of measurement as a practice of absolutes (I am exactly 5 feet 9 inches tall, my dog weighs exactly 98 pounds, etc.). With this mindset, things that can’t be measured exactly can’t be measured at all.

This perception is reinforced in the business world. As I explained in my previous blog, our economic system was created when most products were tangible things, such as shoes or chairs. Calculating the manufacturing costs, units sold, and price for these products is relatively easy. The CFO sticks all the data in a fancy Excel spreadsheet and poof: the company’s year-end profit from shoes is exactly $4,829,006.56. (I’m oversimplifying it, but you get the gist.)

However, when somebody tries to measure something intangible—like the value of content—it’s impossible to come up with an exact number. So, people assume content is immeasurable.

Luckily, most scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians say exact measurement is a myth. To them, the goal of measurement is to reduce uncertainty. Get this: it’s impossible to eliminate uncertainty all together—all measurement is based on assumptions. That means, when measuring content value, you don’t have to come up with precise numbers. You just need to provide enough information that your stakeholders feel comfortable making a decision. Think estimates, not exacts. Now, doesn’t that seem easier?

2. Start by defining what you’re measuring

Ok, so how do you reduce uncertainty? The first thing you need to do is decide what you’re measuring. It might sound simple, but it’s actually one of the trickiest parts of the process. The key is to get as specific as possible, because the more specific you get, the more uncertainty you’ll be able to eliminate.

Start by answering the following questions:

  • How are you defining “content”? Many people forget to answer this critical question. I have my own ideas about what content is, but your definition will depend on your situation. You may need to break “content” down into smaller distinct categories. For example, if you define content as “text,” you may need to define several types of text (marketing vs. help text, intro paragraphs vs. sidebars, etc.). List each component or distinct type of content individually—they may need to be measured differently.
  • What does the content help the user do? In other words, what is the function of the content? Most project teams identify high-level user tasks, but they don’t go deep enough. You need to get into the dirty details. For each piece of content, list as many functions as you can and rank them in order of importance. The more explicit the function, the better. For example, instead of saying the “content on our furniture store website facilitates the buying process,” you might say content on a product detail page needs to:
    • Accurately describe the furniture
    • Justify the cost of the furniture
    • Provide clear details about furniture customization options
    • Guide the user through the purchase process
  • What are the desired characteristics of the content? In addition to function, most organizations want content to have certain traits. For example, they may want it to be professional (no spelling errors) or “on brand.” Again, the more information you can gather about these characteristics, the more easily you will be able to measure them.

3. Assign values to your functions and characteristics

This step really pushes content people out of their comfort zone, because it involves math. And assumptions. I promise it’s not as hard as you think.

For each of the functions and characteristics you identified, assign a value based on data or educated assumptions. (You can use monetary amounts, percentages, or arbitrary point systems. Just as long as you use numbers.) Document all of the data and assumptions you use, so you can show them to your stakeholders later, if necessary.

Using our furniture website example from above, assigning values can go something like this:

  • The average chair costs $500
  • Analytics show that 50 people start the process of purchasing a chair online every day, but only 10 finish the process
  • User research shows that the instructions on the purchase pages are very confusing
  • We assume 5-10 people leave the purchasing process because of something unrelated to the site, and 5-10 leave the process when they see the shipping costs
  • We assume the remaining 20-30 people would complete the purchasing process if the instructions were more helpful
  • Therefore, the value of the instructional content is likely around $300,000-450,000 per month ($500 x 20-30 people x 30 days)
  • The cost of fixing the content is approximately $25,000

(In this case, we can prove with a large amount of certainty that the price of the project is worth doing!)

A lot of work? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

In some cases, documenting only your most important functions and characteristics is necessary to help your stakeholders make decisions with certainty. In other cases, you’ll have to do the whole enchilada. (Hint: Tons of data/assumptions can get confusing, so on big projects you may want to create a content scorecard or matrix. You could even put it in Excel—just like the CFO. See how official you’re getting?)

4. The more ways you measure, the more certainty you get

At Brain Traffic, when we ask a new web client how they measure content effectiveness, they often give us a Google analytics login and a smile. Analytics are great. But, no single measurement method captures the complete picture of content.

Try to use a variety of measurement methods, instead of relying on favorite or easy method. When you use two or more methods, you'll get more well-rounded results. Some common methods include:

  • Analytics: use technology tools to collect data
  • User research: ask the users directly what they want or observe their behavior
  • External expert review: ask content experts or industry peers to review/rate content
  • Internal expert review: get insights from knowledgeable people inside your organization, such as sales people or customer service reps
  • Competitive comparison: measure direct competitors and your content on the same factors and compare

The more ways and more often you measure, the more certainty you get. But, you likely won’t be able to use all of these methods—just choose the ones that are most applicable to your organization.

5. Establish a baseline

Taking a baseline measurement is simple: before you make any changes, make sure you measure your existing content using the same metrics you’ll use on the new stuff. It can be painful to get feedback on content you already know is crappy, but the baseline will help you measure the impact of your future content work. And if all goes well, you’ll have handy, glowing before-and-after stats to pass around at your company’s next board meeting.

6. Measure regularly

Once your new content is live, set a regular schedule to measure the content using the established metrics. This will help you see how content performs over time as business and user needs change. In addition, it helps you understand how content activities change due to events like holidays or product launches.

7. Be realistic about measurement budgets

It’s important to plan a budget for your measurement initiative. Although measurement isn’t always expensive, it does take time, resources, and money. Scale your efforts to the size of the content project. If the whole content project is going to cost $50,000, you can look at basic analytics and do some informal user testing with your friends. But, if your company is looking to invest several million dollars in a content venture, $50,000 on measurement is money well spent.

Phew, I had a lot to say

Well, there you have it. Two years of pent-up measurement info in one ginormous blog. Although this is probably too much information for a blog, it’s just the tip of the iceberg in the content measurement conversation. In fact, it’s a tiny ice cube.

Measuring content value is important to content strategists, but it’s not just a content strategy issue. It’s one of the most important business discussions of the information age. There’s still lots to learn, let us know what you think.

  • http://twitter.com/GarrettFrench GarrettFrench

    As a content marketer (definitely not a strategist in your sense!), I think it’s useful also to get an idea of links, shares and tweets a given page receives – as well as who’s making the citations.  Perhaps “Content Visibility” could be a useful term.

  • http://www.grassfedcontent.com Matthew Grocki

    I’m blown away by point #3. I had never thought of measuring content in that capacity/depth.

    I think people often think of content in terms of conversion, time saving or analytics . However, breaking down your content measurement into specific terms and then giving a snapshot as a whole to upper management is SO KEY.

    I also agree with Excel. For better or worse, we have to play in upper management’s sandbox, which is most often Excel.

    Thank you for this. Don’t wait another 94 weeks for a follow up ;-)

    Matt

  • Melissa Rach

    Depending on the type of content and the business objectives, that can be a fantastic measure. Thanks!

  • Melissa Rach

    Thanks!

  • Richard Warzecha

    Melissa,

     

    Great post! I particularly liked #5 and #6, “Establish a
    baseline” and “Measure regularly.” Sometimes people get hung up on the precise
    numbers too much. Seeing the trends over time and how content improvements
    affect this are more important.

     

    Item #3, “Assign values to your functions and
    characteristics” could need some tightening up. It’s great that you’re trying
    to use a presentation vehicle (Excel) that’s in a CFO’s language, but this will
    also mean there’s greater scrutiny.

     

    Here are some quick thoughts on ways to tighten up your
    example:

     

    1)      You
    use a “cost” of $500 in your analysis. I’m thinking you meant retail price of
    the chair. If so, this isn’t the best value to use here. Shouldn’t it be margin
    or net profit? This greatly reduces what you assumed would be the value of
    improving the content, but it gives a much more accurate assumption.

    2)      You’re
    assuming that all 20-30 people who weren’t converting due to confusing
    instructions would then convert after the “fix”.  This is not realistic. You might want to
    introduce a percentage increase in conversion, and not use the 100% that you
    are using now.

    3)      OK,
    those first two will probably greatly reduce the certainty in your example.
    Here’s one that should add to it. Your content improvement (no, I won’t use “fix”)
    has a one-time cost, but the benefits continue for many months. You could show
    the increased profit multiplied over the next, say, 24 months.

     

    OK, enough for now. I hope this helps.

     

    I have to get back to increasing someone’s profits.

     

    Richard

  • Richard Warzecha

    Blech! Sorry, how the formatting of that post turned out. That’s what I get for cutting and pasting.

    Richard

  • Richard Warzecha

    Blech! Sorry, how the formatting of that post turned out. That’s what I get for cutting and pasting.

    Richard

  • Melissa Rach

    Thanks, Richard. As for the example in #3, point taken. I intended the example to give people an idea of the theory/process in the most simple terms possible. Your additions (and lots of other elements) would make things much more accurate and helpful in a real scenario.

  • http://www.cxfocus.com Tim Leighton-Boyce

    I think the key point is to start the process. Try and put some kind of value on the content improvement. 

    Richard’s right to suggest trying to use figures which will not stand out as ‘wrong’ to CFOs. Using silly numbers will just make the CFOs ignore you. Here in the UK sales tax at 20% is often included in revenue figures by marketers who do not understand accounting. They risk being seen as clueless hype merchants.

    But the main point is that any valuation is better than nothing at all. Not attempting to do this is the default position and so the budgets tend to go on off-site promotion and site redesigns. The content comes last.

  • http://www.abtsmpl.com Ian Waugh

    I’m currently working on a way to measure the quality of non-transactional content in my organisation. Stuff that isn’t geared to selling, but more to brand building and demonstrating expertise. 

    I’ve decided to go for a points system I devised myself, with scores and weighting assigned to pages for various characteristics (presence of quality images, length of paragraphs, reading time etc).

    I know this isn’t as exact and quantitative as measuring value of e-commerce pages, but I’m hoping it will help us focus out content maintenance and creation efforts, and encourage content authors to create stuff that is fit for purpose in the future.

  • Melissa Rach

    Hey Ian, Most of the work we do is measuring non-transactional content — and the theory works the same way. Break things down to smaller bits and give them a value of some kind. Sounds like you are well on your way! Let us know how it works out. 

  • Jo Marsicano

    Hi Melissa,

    This is really helpful, especially to think of measurement as more than just numbers. My client has just launched its site (it’s large and complex) and in my effort to learn more about content measurement, your blog is very informative.

    Thank you.

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