“What’s the ROI on that?”
Raise your hand if you’ve ever mentioned ROI in a meeting to impress everyone. It’s ok, I’ve done it too.
But if we’re being honest, most of the time we have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about ROI.
ROI may be one of the most misunderstood, ill-defined, and frankly dangerous concepts to ever enter the parlance of modern business.
“But… but… responsibility!” you may object. “Accountability! Due diligence!”
I know. And I would agree if it weren’t for the tendency to take the path of least resistance when it comes to defining what the R in ROI actually means.
The problem with ROI is in the ‘R’
You already know what your investment (I) is — it’s the money, time, and other resources spent on a particular marketing tactic, campaign, channel, etc.
Return (R) is what happens after you launch a website or produce a series of videos. Your R for a given project won’t look like anyone else’s; it is unique to your company and your situation.
The problem with R is that it’s very difficult to make it meaningful. Bean counters or bottom-line-minded folks will often try to tie everything directly to sales. Others may focus on website traffic, clicks, shares, or likes. Either way, it’s almost always tied to something that is easy to measure.
Measurable does not always equal meaningful
Ok, I can feel you getting upset with me again…
“But… but… analytics! Data! SCIENCE!!”
I know! And believe me, I would love to be able to provide accurate measurements for every technical marketing tactic you employ.
I would also like to have a pet unicorn.
We live in a world now where if something can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist. But this marketing measurement paradigm is a product of the consumer marketing world. And rightfully so — it is a world where sample sizes can be measured in millions. Millions of visitors, millions of clicks, millions of customers.
With so much data readily available, it would indeed be irresponsible not to take advantage of all the insights to be gained.
Unfortunately, when the same mentality is imported to the technical marketing world, it can be very shortsighted and limiting.
ROI sucks for pass/fail scenarios
Measuring ROI requires repetition, lots of data points, and the ability to make fine measurements in order to increase accuracy and provide useful information. This is basic statistics.
But in the technical marketing world, we often lack the sample size necessary to produce an accurate ROI for a given marketing tactic.
For example, say your company is practicing account-based marketing (ABM), where individual customers are treated as discreet market segments. The challenge from a sales and marketing perspective is that the prospect company is either a customer or it is not. Converting large companies into customers takes a lot of work, and the ROI of that work will remain unknown until the prospect finally agrees to purchase something.
Without a more incremental way to measure progress toward customer acquisition, your company will be left in the dark as to whether their effort is paying off.
The result of all this is either skepticism that throttles investment in marketing, or (perhaps even worse) throwing tons of money at marketing tactics whose effectiveness remains unknown.
ROI sucks for small markets
The small market problem is similar to the account-based marketing problem. If all the companies in a particular market will fit into one exhibit hall, then it will be hard to measure whether you’re improving your capture rate. By the time you have statistically significant information, you may have already captured (or lost) most of the available business.
ROI sucks for long sales cycles
Technical marketing and sales is often a long game.
A prospect can take months to move from a lead to a sale, making it difficult to tie individual conversions to specific marketing tactics or campaigns. The lag between the two is just too great, which leaves room for many other variables to influence the final outcome.
So what do we do about this?
There is no simple answer for how to make technical marketing ROI easily predictable and measurable. But hey, you didn’t get into a STEM field because you thought it would be easy! The process of experimenting and seeing what you can learn is part of what drew you down this path to begin with.
Ultimately, you will have to start with a few hypotheses, a lot of patience, and an open mind. In other words, you will have to go with your gut for a while. And that’s ok!
Fortunately, there’s plenty of useful, actionable information out there on modern content marketing principles that can give you more certainty about where to start.
To get to a point where you finally have enough data to figure out what works for your business, you will have to pick a few things and try them out. It may take a while so see the results — several months to a year or more — but you can make some very educated guesses based on tactics that have been proven effective for other businesses.
First, define your business objectives
It should go without saying that business objectives have to be defined before investing in marketing, but sadly such goals are often limited to a generic “we want to grow n% next year” with little thought behind how or why that goal was chosen.
The fact is, you can’t measure the success rate of something when you don’t have a clear picture of what success looks like. So you may need to take a few steps back and ask yourselves, “why are we even doing this?”
Do you want to bring more perceived value to the negotiating table when pitching to prospects? Do you want to decrease the amount of time sales has to spend converting leads?
Even complex sales cycles can be streamlined and systematized to a degree, using tailored marketing content available to assist with each step in the process.
Get creative with measurement
Having clear goals makes it easier and more intuitive to measure progress, e.g., “how much progress did we make toward acquiring Customer X this month?”
Map out the process of how you plan to work your way through the different gateways or through the org chart at prospective customers. What pieces of content would help to streamline each of those steps?
Once you have an arsenal of marketing and sales content available, you can start to test whether it is helping you move through the sales process more efficiently and effectively.
Build relationships and gain trust
If your business lives or dies on personal relationships and direct referrals, think about how the process of building those relationships can be measured and optimized.
Thankfully, the modern practice of content marketing has clearly defined (and proven) pathways for achieving this outcome.
Although it’s impossible to measure what percentage of a person’s trust you have earned, there’s no disputing that you must earn 100% of it in order to close a sale.
Building that trust is what modern content marketing is all about. Instead of placing most of the burden on sales to build relationships from scratch, modern content marketing facilitates relationships more efficiently, allowing the sales team to focus on what they do best — closing.
The basic principle is the same across the board: provide easy access to trust-building information. Create content that answers the most common questions and addresses the most common objections. Teach your customers what they need to know to succeed. By the time they finally engage with you, they already know a great deal about your approach and have built trust in your expertise.
Think about things other than sales
If you only measure your marketing and branding activities against sales, you’re missing part of the bigger picture.
Take “explainer videos” for example. Explainer videos can explain how your product works, or how a certain technology works generically. The main purpose of the video may be to educate your market, especially prospective buyers.
However… when done well, these videos can be embraced by an entire industry for the purposes of educating new employees (in the case of companies) or the next generation of engineers (in the case of universities). If the content is being presented by your company and your scientists and engineers, then your name becomes associated with the subject matter for an audience that is much larger than any one market segment.
This is branding at its most powerful. And that growing brand awareness will set you up for further success and negotiating leverage as time goes on.
ROI is better suited to programs and campaigns than to individual deliverables
One last thing to remember is to not get too wrapped up in any single marketing deliverable. Trying to tease out the impact of every single blog article (at least in the beginning) is just going to drive you nuts. Instead, figure out how to produce good content consistently, and then measure the success of a whole campaign or marketing program.
Technical marketing ROI doesn’t have to be elusive, but finding meaningful ways to measure it will require some dedication and creativity. The good news is, the practice of modern content marketing is almost tailor-made for STEM businesses. Apply the same principles to your marketing and business development as you would to your R&D, and discover your own ways to measure success.