Bad advice

There is a lot of misinformation, and very little good, empirical data on content vs paid marketing.

Most of the advice you read on social media is anecdotal, self-serving and ultimately wrong e.g.

  • I tried Google PPC and it didn’t work for me, so it is apparently no good
  • I’ve got a lot of engagement on my posts, so I think social media is really good
  • A content marketing expert explained to me why content marketing is so great, so I believed it
  • [latest social media craze] is really popular, so I’m sure once I jump in I’ll meet with lots of success
  • I don’t have the money for AdWords, AdWords is too expensive etc

Most of the advice is from professionals selling services related to more labor intensive strategies that generally skew towards content marketing.

Other advice is generally from people executing engagement strategies on social media, that they have a vested interest in promoting or severe confirmation-bias

Many/most of these people simply don’t have much experience, expertise or domain authority and in many cases they equate their own failure to succeed on a platform with deficiencies in the platform itself

Even for agencies that offer Google PPC consulting or even active management, it can be more lucrative for them to offer the more labor intensive services as part of their service offerings. Generally Google AdWords takes time to set up initially, but then the requirements for ongoing maintenance, and recurring revenue, diminishes

Do you get your investment advice from a stock-broker? If so, then getting your marketing advice from people on social media with self-serving agendas or content marketing agencies, would probably make sense for you.

Otherwise, it is good to take a good hard look at the process of cost-effectively driving leads, setting measurable goals and KPIs and then looking at cost effective strategies to improve performance relative to your KPIs and goals

Defining KPIs

Ultimately any marketing strategy should involve driving leads, the more cost effectively the better. So your KPIs are generally cost per lead. Note: KPIs aren’t engagment, followers, connections, new friends etc, they are objective, and results oriented including purchase ready (or at least inclined) people, who fit your target customer demographic, who are engaging with your services and/or products

This may be total leads, cost per lead, total sales (sourced from your marketing leads), etc

The metric I prefer to use is cost per lead

Leads are good because they are self-validating and self-selecting. People not in your target demographic who may show up in your social statistics, for example engaging with a personal share, won’t likely engage with your service or product, but if they do, they will show up as a lead

Now you can drive a ton of leads if you simply open up your pocketbook to Google. They are happy to sell you as many leads as you want, if you have the money. The Google AdWords engine is very efficient at separating you from your money. This is why inexperienced business owners and novice practitioners of PPC strategies, tend to have very high costs per click; they simply aren’t very experienced at PPC and this inexperience becomes very expensive, very quickly.

So the trick is to drive leads cost effectively and this is why we want to focus on cost per lead as a good KPI.

What is even better is that cost per lead can provide an excellent apples-to-apples comparison between content marketing and PPC strategies

Defining your first cost per lead

Ok, now that we’ve defined our KPI, you should set up a Google PPC campaign and refine it to get the lowest possible cost per lead that you can. This involves minimizing your cost per click and maximizes your ability to convert clicks to leads, generally with your website landing page.

I would advise hiring an expert to help you do this vs spending time with trial and error, but the good news is that once a campaign is built and optimized, you may be able to manage/maintain it yourself, reasonably effectively going forward. Otherwise, you can hire this professional or agency on retainer for needed changes when they arrive or on a lower-cost maintenance contract.

Let’s say that with some effort, time and money you arrive at a well optimized campaign for a particular product or service and you start driving leads. You can now easily calculate your Cost per lead simply by dividing your total campaign related costs, including what you pay Google, your agency and anything else related to this, divided by the total number of leads you get

Cost per lead = Total campaign cost / total leads

Let’s say in our theoretical example that you have gotten your cost to lead down to $10/lead. Now you are ready to compare apples to apples.

Implementing your content strategy

Ok, now that we’ve found a baseline to compare, let’s kick off your content strategy. This will involve writing Search engine optimized content, that will show up in searches, and then amplifying this content (optionally) via social media, from backlink strategies etc.

It is critical to calculate all costs including the total cost allocated to creating content, time and effort related to social media, backlink and other strategies, time and effort related to posting and maintaining your content including the initial blog/content site creation. You have to include costs related to SEO including any software you purchase like Moz, Alexa or SEMRush. Other costs include content site hosting, plug-ins, security, maintenance, etc.

When calculating costs many people leave out things that can really add up. So if you have someone spend 2 hours a day on social media, and you pay them a salary to work 8 hours a day, you need to allocate a full 25% of their total compensation to your content marketing budget. It is critical that you include everything, no matter how small, as you will find even little costs related to your content strategy will add up.

Now that you have accounted for costs, it is time to track the leads generated from your content. Be ready to be surprised, because you probably won’t have any, not one.

Wait, you mean that I will sit down and write a great post and a day later I won’t get any leads from it? No, I’m saying that months or even years later, you won’t get any leads from it.

The biggest thing that people underestimate is the amount of time it will take for your content to first rank in search engines, because if it doesn’t rank nobody will ever see it, and then for traffic to build in sufficient numbers to generate even a modicum of leads.

Google will penalize your content site simply for being new, in favor of sites that have been in existence for a longer period of time and you will have virtually no back-links because no one has had time to link to your content. When your content does finally start to emerge, it will most likely be met by fierce competition for the first 10 spots on Google search, from content that has been around for years and even decades. Breaking into the top 10 is extraordinarily difficult. And if you find that it is easy, you might not be in a niche that has the potential to generate much revenue.

Despite all, you persisted in posting content, got a couple leads and you are now ready to track your results. It will look something like $1,000/lead

What does it take to beat PPC

Google Adwords is like the house, in Las Vegas. Can you beat the house? Can you beat it consistently? Remember, Google can set its own costs and make them very, very difficult to beat on a cost-per-lead basis. Also, they are continually squeezing organic rankings down with PPC ads at the top and even content snippets, which displace organic rankings entirely for many keywords.

Do you think that simply writing some 500 word article and sharing it on LinkedIn will allow you to beat a system controlled by one of the biggest companies in the world? If so, you are likely to be disappointed in the long term, or wind up fooling yourself into pretending you are succeeding based on skewed data or bogus KPIs – like engagement to allow you to claim success.

No, the reality is that to beat Google at its own game, you have to make an investment that would be considered astronomically high for most small and even medium sized companies and including hiring a dedicate, internal team of content and SEO experts to manage your content site. I know, because I did this. And we did ultimately “beat” Google to achieve a lower cost-per-lead but this is what it took.

  • Nearly 2,000 articles at an average size of 1,500 words per article
  • A full time team of 4-6 marketing professionals engaged in SEO, content posting, site maintenance etc. Also, dedicated support from 2 full time DevOps/SysAdmin team members
  • A full suite of tools including Mox, SEMRush and Alexa in addition to Google analytics. Also WordPress
  • 5+ years
  • Total costs of well over $1m or $200K per year
  • Getting to top 20K websites in the world. Don’t think that is a lot? There are over 10M sites tracked by Alexa

In addition to the core website my company built, here is the content site

Biggest content marketing misconceptions

Any content you write will rank

The reality is it is difficult, and now almost impossible, to get content, even exceptionally written content, to rank except for very niche keywords

It will take weeks or maybe months for your content to generate results. 

It is most likely that it will take a year and a half to two years for content to really produce good results, assuming that the content is authoritative, well written and optimize (which most likely it won’t be).

Social media engagement is a quick, low-cost method to drive results

Social media generally results in less than 5% of leads generated in most well run marketing operations. When you weigh this against the unsustainability and labor intensiveness of this medium e.g. don’t forget to reply to every mention, the ROI is exceptionally poor, and in some cases non-existent

There is a lot of great advice about marketing on social media, the web etc

Generally, no there isn’t. There is a lot of self-serving advice from people promoting services or products, people who don’t really know what they are talking about, or people who are themselves struggling to drive results and are blinded by confirmation-bias e.g. I’m doing it, so it must be working.

I don’t need a system, tools or trained professionals to execute a content strategy

You will need all of this and more, otherwise you will be essentially working blindly without the ability to target for or get feedback on your results

 

If you want to figure out how to market, look at successful companies and see what they are doing. See how they show up in top 10 search results AND paid ads. Look at their landing pages, how their websites are set up and constructed. Look at their content – how it is written, how they use keywords, how frequently they post etc. Take a keyword that is relevant to your business and search for it; see who is ranking for that keyword at the top 10, 3 and 1.

Conclusions

Content marketing is great and provides a lot of value added benefits, but please do not think that you can use content marketing to drive quite, short term results or beat PPC campaigns for efficiency and effectiveness, unless your content marketing scales to a huge degree. Even over the long term, unless you are prepared to commit essentially what amounts to massive resources, you will never achieve a level of cost effectiveness that you can get immediately with PPC.

If your goal is to drive prospective customers to your door step, you will most likely be wasting valuable time and money (if you account for all costs) attempting nascent and unskilled efforts at content creation that can’t be executed consistently and sustainably, let alone scaled.

To succeed in content you need to commit to an effective, efficient and sustained content strategy that will be executed consistently over a period of at least 2-3 years, before you will even begin to see results comparable to a well-executed PPC campaign.