Imagine a company that devotes 50 people to create an item of content that is used by only 10 people. That scenario sounds absurd in the digital world, but companies often do such things when they create content for their executives. Count the number of people on the email list – for example, the internal team and associated department reviewers who are charged with drafting a decision memo for the company board. Do all these people really need to be involved? Is the matter that important? Even in the digital realm, companies are capable of unconsciously mimicking such behavior when they allow procedures for internal communications to shape their process for creating content for their customers. You see this happen when the legal department needs to clear each revision, or the executive sponsor wants to approve the final copy.
The opposite situation is also common: a small ragged team of low level employees is responsible for mission critical content that has obvious financial implications, but it is overwhelmed by the task.
Balancing resources and content scope
So what is the right balance between resources for content needed, and the scope of content to deliver? Determining the balance reveals both how much content to create, as well as how much money to invest in content quality factors such as
- creative resources
- production hardware
- software tools and platforms
- review procedures
- risk control
Apart from such big resource decisions, knowing the right balance can be helpful when deciding what specific content to deliver in a given quarter: for example, does it make sense to produce more videos and delay the project to tag community forum comments?
What is needed is a comprehensive and systematic framework for assessing the impact that all content achieves, measured against all the resources devoted to create that content. True, organizations commonly measure content resources and outcomes on a project basis for specific content initiatives (a campaign, a re-design, a mobile app, etc.) But rarely do they develop an overall picture of what value they are achieving from all their content activities. Traditional media publishers, being in the more straightforward position of being pure publishers, probably have the clearest sense of the value of their digital content in terms of costs and revenues. Yet even they are struggling with getting scope and resource levels right (e.g., should they develop a new tablet app?) For traditional product and services firms that are comparatively new to digital publishing, it can be challenging to track the true payoff. There may be many different content initiatives, each having different goals and using different kinds of resources, including staff who are devoted to content activities only part time.
With organizations undertaking growing numbers projects and investments related to content, content strategists should help their stakeholders put together an integrated “portfolio view” showing how all activities are complementing each other.
Content value: effectiveness and efficiency
For content to have value it must satisfy the needs of both audiences and organizations. Useful but expensive content can be poor value, as is cheap but inadequate content. For audiences, content must meet a need to be effective. For organizations, content must show return on investment.
In these heady days of content consciousness (embodied by the slogan “content is king”), many organizations seem willing to invest now in content, and worry about the precise payoff later, as long as baseline indicators seem to be improving. But sooner or later, organizations, especially product and service companies new to digital publishing, will ask: Is all our content worth the effort? Is our content costing us money, or making us money? If content is now a core business asset, can you show me what it returns?
At the heart of content value are two core concepts: content effectiveness, and content production efficiency.
Content effectiveness measures how audiences relate to the content. Audience impact can – and should – be measured many ways, since audiences are looking for different things from content, and how they use content will vary as well. The impact of content is related to it’s purpose:
- content that has a direct purpose such as how many conversions did an email result in (tight coupling of content to outcomes)
- content that fosters indirect impacts across the customer lifecycle such as building brand awareness (loose coupling of content to outcomes)
- content that has multiple purposes such as when a product tutorial video needs to reduce product returns and needs to enhance brand perception (diffuse coupling of content to outcomes)
There are many metrics relating to content effectiveness: number of visitors, dwell time, social media shares, loyalty metrics, reputation metrics, activations, to name but a few. These metrics measure different kinds of outcomes and reflect different qualities of a brand.
Content production efficiency measures the resource intensity when creating particular kinds of content. High effort content consumes many resources, both human resources and non-labor costs such as asset licensing, hosting, or paid promotion. Efficient content production reduces total resources needed to create a type of content of a desired quality. It is important to recognize that content that requires effort is not necessarily inefficient: efficiency depends on the type of content being created, and the qualities (impact) expected. Video will often be more resource intensive than copy, for example, but it does not follow that all video is inefficient. Efficiency is not solely a matter of cost, as quality (and potential audience impact) needs to be accounted for. Generally, content that costs less to make, or takes less time to make, is more efficient than more expensive content or content slower to produce, provided the content is of comparable quality – it creates equivalent audience impact.
The costs associated with content are subject to two opposite influences. On the one hand, the unit cost to create content is decreasing, as better content production and management tools make content creation easier. However, these tools have not necessarily enhanced the quality of content (value to audiences), so that more content is being created of a substandard quality. This situation has lead to recommendations for more human attention and more structured review processes in content creation, which can drive up costs.
Strategies for improving return on content
When organizations become concerned that they are not getting a desired return on their content, they will typically try one of two strategies.
The first strategy is to enhance the quality of the content, making it more engaging or useful, and potentially broaden the scope of content activities: adding videos, adding more social media, etc. These tactics aim to improve the impact of an organization’s content, but do not typically lead to production efficiency. Instead, expanded activities tend to involve more processes that need coordination, increasing the overhead. A common downside is organizational fatigue, as proliferating content initiatives require more attention from staff who do not have content as a core responsibility.
The second strategy organizations use to get more value from their content is to focus on tweaking a narrow range of content to make it more productive. Organizations may fine tune their SEO or their copywriting to drive more activation; organizations try to get a repeatable formula that yields predictable results. Consider a finely evolved targeted marketing email: there are fewer wasted emails sent, and less editorial review, since a template has been optimized. Predictability helps to reduce risk and contain costs, but such a focus may do little to increase long term brand engagement and improve the audience impact of content. The focus on optimizing specific content products can result in sub-optimization for the organization overall, where separate activities are done in departmental silos without a broader vision for what customers really want and how to address those desires.
Few organizations seem to move along a direct path from “bungling” to “enlightened.” Instead they tend to emphasize either content enrichment, or content streamlining, even though there is no intrinsic reason why organizations can not both fine tune delivery of established content at the same time they expand the scope of content activities into newer areas.
Why firms emphasize either content enrichment or content streamlining probably comes down to who in the organization is driving the effort, and the narrative they use to describe the problem and its resolution. The content enrichers believe that the core value proposition of the existing content is inadequate, and that something better needs to be offered. This approach appeals to creative marketers, agencies, and brand-conscious executives. The content streamliners believe the core value proposition of the content is fine, it just needs refinement to yield better results more quickly and cheaply. Such an approach appeals to analytic marketers, and IT departments interested in upgrading systems.
To avoid a lopsided strategy, organizations need to assess the total value of all their content operations: to compare the resources they devote to content with the outcomes achieved by looking at both content effectiveness and content production efficiency together. Helping stakeholders understand this value will be a key responsibility for content strategists in the future.