As content marketers, we produce massive amounts of content on a daily basis. While things like tone and grammar are vital components of good content, ultimately we all need to answer the question of, “Is this content effective?” That’s where the big money is (hey, a guy’s gotta make a living!).

So how do you do it?

The truth is, there’s no pre-configured report in Google Analytics that will give you an answer – unless it’s hidden, in which case I will take this post down (and offer an expensive dinner) when someone shows me where it is.

For now, let’s talk about how to go about determining the success of your content the old-fashioned way.

Learn what success means to the person signing the checks

Before opening Google Analytics and poring over a sea of numbers and graphs, we need to decide what success means. More specifically, we need to understand what success means to whomever is responsible for ensuring that our content marketing initiative gets funded.

Now before you start asking them how many sessions or what bounce rate they have in mind for the blog post you’ve been toiling over, remind yourself that this person is more likely focused on business outcomes.

Once you have that directive (e.g., generate enough leads for a new product offering to drive $100,000 in annual revenue this year), you can work backward into what data will demonstrate success (or at least progress toward success).

The next thing to consider is the role that each piece of content needs to play in achieving the aforementioned directive. Content marketing is effectively used to turn your website into a virtual salesperson, and each piece of content is a different piece of information (about your products, methodology, industry expertise, etc.) that can be used in conversation with a prospect over the course of a sales interaction.

And just like you wouldn’t expect a human salesperson to close a prospect with one statement, you can’t expect every piece of content to yield the ultimate conversion every time.

Let me show you what I mean:

Very few prospects are ready to sign up for a sales demo after reading a single blog post.

Why? In all likelihood, this is the prospect’s first interaction with your brand, they found you through a long-tail search with informational intent and they’re in the beginning phases of discovery – they’re not in the mindset to buy or be sold to.

What they are in the mindset for is to learn more about their topic of interest from a reputable brand, which means it is reasonable to expect we could garner email newsletter sign-ups (given we provide a clear and compelling CTA for it).

Find the right metrics for the job

Now that we’ve defined success, we can go about the task of looking for the data to indicate that we’re on our way to the top. Again, it’s crucial to remember the role that an individual piece is meant to play in the overall strategy and home in on the right KPIs for that objective.

While there’s no set answer, here are a few things to guide you:

Be as specific as possible

Provide as much (relevant) detail about the success metric for the piece of content. If our goal is to generate awareness for a new capability, it’s not enough to merely cite the organic traffic number. Also delve into:

  • Is that traffic coming from search intent that is relevant to the capability we’re highlighting (i.e., traffic to your site for the keyword “My Little Pony dolls” probably isn’t valuable if you’re a SaaS accounting product)?
  • Is the traffic geographically relevant? (If we are a consulting business focused on the Southwest U.S., traffic from Germany might not impress your boss.)
  • Does that traffic take the desired next step (e.g., sign up for our newsletter or visit the capability selling page)?

Don’t fall for time on page

I issue this caution because many of us have been guilty of presenting a high time on page as success – I myself made this mistake a lot in my early days in the industry. Here’s why this metric misses the mark:

  • It’s inaccurate: Time on page (at least in Google Analytics) is calculated by taking the difference between when a user enters a page and when a user leaves that page to visit another page on your site. If they bounce or otherwise exit your site from the page in question, Google Analytics has no way of reporting a number (which is why pages with 100% bounce rates have 0:00 time on page).
  • It could actually indicate a problem. I have overheard content marketers say, “This page has an average time on page of over 15 minutes, which is great!” But let’s face it, unless you’ve published one mega-blog of epic proportions or have a 15 min. video on your page, it’s highly unlikely that someone should take that long to consume your content. What’s more probable is your content is so confusing or your CTA is so vague that they have to spend minutes trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do next (or your content is so boring that they’ve fallen asleep with their browser still open).

Just like you wouldn’t expect a human salesperson to close a prospect with one statement, you can’t expect every piece of content to yield the ultimate conversion every time.

Iterate on success

Congratulations, you’ve produced a successful piece of content and proven its worth. How are you going to do it again (and again and again)?

Don’t fix what isn’t broken

If your content has proven successful, you’ve struck a chord with your audience. Maybe it’s the way you structure your content, with things like clear subheads and step-by-step instructions, or the engaging anecdotes you employ to breathe life into your subject matter. Whatever it is, keep at it!

…but don’t rest on your laurels

A wise man once said that doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result is insanity; however, doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same positive result is not far from it. Over time, your audience will tire of the same old same old, and the topics you cover will require different components to truly deliver value. With that, it’s important to always challenge your content with things like A/B testing and explore different media to determine what performs best.

Accept that not every piece will be a wild success

Content marketing lives in that middle ground between art and science, where there are no magic bullets and no guarantees. While you should expect that all your research, persona development and experience will put you in the best position to succeed, not every piece you publish will work the way you want it to. The important thing is to analyze what didn’t work and learn from it for the next piece.

Create successful content

Content marketing is all about results. Results often mean different things to different businesses, so it’s important to get on the right page about your own brand’s objectives from the start. From there, be really detailed in your analysis of your content using the metrics that truly matter, and don’t be afraid to find out that something didn’t work the way you hoped (it’s part of the process!).

Brendon Cottreau is Director of Account Management at Brafton. He is a proud Bostonian and alumnus of Boston College (GO EAGLES!). When he’s not helping clients uncover the next big thing in digital marketing, he can often be found on the links or front row at a rock show.