22 March 2023 |

Give content marketing the CRO treatment

By Tracey Wallace

In my point of view, content marketing has two main goals or KPIs to answer to. 

  1. Organic sessions to content sections of the site, primarily non-branded
  2. Converting those sessions into leads through gated assets, bonus content, etc. 

The real goal of content marketing is to drive revenue for the business, but depending on what your company sells, and the quality of its down funnel marketing and sales efforts, content-driven revenue could take a while to materialize. On a monthly basis, the two KPIs above are far better at indicating a successful direction. 

Now, I came into content marketing from the journalism world. It wasn’t a natural thought to gate content––and I know today that many folks out there are against it. 

For years at BigCommerce, I would create maybe 1-2 gated assets per quarter based on requests from our campaigns team. Those rarely did well. Those campaigns were often run in silos, and we weren’t using our biggest content channel to drive any leads––my blog. 

And they nor I ever thought to do it. Until I read a Tweet from Aaron Orendorff likely circa 2016 or 2017. Shopify Plus’ blog had clear downloads to what was then called bonus content: content that was related to the blog at hand, but not available without giving them your email. A good example of this would be like turning a tips piece into a more actionable and streamlined checklist that someone could download. 

Now, to get folks to download content, Shopify Plus was typically using a pop-up, either roughly a quarter of the page down (likely triggered page depth) or upon moving the cursor to begin to exit the page (triggered, of course, by exit intent movement). 

I was intrigued by this. They were my biggest competitor. I had nearly lost my job years earlier, having been told to “be more like Shopify” and their content teams––which again, were about 7x the size of my one person team. To say I watched every little thing they did wouldn’t be an understatement. 

But, I was a content purist of sorts––even then. We were driving by that points likely hundreds of thousands of organic sessions to our site each month. We were measuring how many of those leads turned into trials or demo (not many!), and even measuring to see how many of those trials or demos turned into paid customers (even less!). 

The problem, of course, was that those conversion metrics were low. And why wouldn’t they be? Blogs typically target non-brand keywords, and the better you get at that, the higher volume you can go after. Hell, we ended up ranking #1 for “ecommerce” for years. 

But, very few people searching for those higher volume keywords are typically looking to convert to using your product right away. That makes sense––especially as you move up market. The more up-market your product, the more touchpoints buyers typically need with your brand, your site and your content before they take any kind of action (this is why lead scoring becomes so important with mid-market and enterprise audiences). 

So, the blog isn’t a great conversion spot for trials or demos. And that’s a problem for content marketers because executives invest in areas in marketing in which they see a clear return. If your content looks like its return is low (based on low conversion rates to trial and demo, and therefore to paid accounts), then you’re going to struggle to become anything other than an underfunded service organization that delivers whatever the rest of the team asks of you. 

And that’s a pain in the ass place to be. Worse, I know it’s the place many of you are in! I get your emails telling me your #1 problem––and for most of you, it’s lack of resources combined with too high of expectations on content quantity (annoyingly balanced with a lack of real care about content quality). 

That combination happens when executives don’t see the value of content more tangibly. What also happens is that content folks get laid off. We see it happen all over the industry these days. Even Shopify in Q322 laid off nearly their entire content marketing team. Long gone were the days in which their Shopify Plus blog used bonus content to drive leads… and years later, that resulted in massive team layoffs. It can happen (and does happen) anywhere. 

OK, so I was intrigued by what Shopify Plus was doing, but was still a purist. I didn’t yet connect the dots of gated content and lead generation to how that could affect my job, my resources, etc. 

But then, Aaron tweeted out something about his boss’s vision of content. It was short, It was sweet. It went something like this: “Content’s purpose is to drive leads. If it doesn’t do that, then there’s no marketing value in it.”

I’m probably remembering that in too black and white of terms––but it got me thinking. I never had a content marketing boss in my early career. Still today, I’ve never worked under someone in content marketing. I swear, I tried! But every content team I joined either saw massive layoffs under the former leadership or was just a start-up and didn’t have resources. Content marketing wasn’t the career path it is today. Not even close. 

So, I was open to taking advice from anywhere. And this advice had me thinking––what if folks could download all of our content, and what if I could send those leads into our nurture streams and have a percent of them convert to revenue?

What would change?

Luckily, I was in the middle of a blog redesign at the time (The only one BigCommere did in the 4.5 years I was. Honestly, every 5 years is more than enough in my opinion). I asked my developer if he thought he might be able to add something toggle-able to every blog––the ability for folks to download every blog, if available, into a PDF version that looked like a word doc. 

I didn’t really need it to be pretty after all. And, he did it! So, around mid-2017, we launched content downloads on every blog and started measuring organic content lead gen. 

It paid off immeasurably! Suddenly, we had 20K folks downloads our content each month, and ~.2% of them were turning into paid customers. That meant by end of that year, we were driving roughly $1.2M in ARR (annual revenue revenue) for the company. 

We were on fire. There was very little we could do wrong. We got raises. We got hires. We got more say in what we published. 

It was night and day. And literally nothing changed except we added a CTA. 

Here’s an example of a blog on BigCommerce’s site that still has this. They have redesigned recently and as of writing this, that download button doesn’t work. Clearly they aren’t paying as much attention to it as we used to. I should probably ping Kevin about it… anyway. 

Over at Klaviyo, I implemented a similar program beginning in May 2022. By November 2022, we were converting nearly 5% of total traffic to downloads, and 2-3% of all downloads into revenue. 

Now, I’ve talked to a lot of content marketers, and some folks do these, and don’t see these same results. That’s confusing to me––and I think this is a CRO issue. But first, let’s list out what you need to make this work to even get started:

  1. An easy way to create form. Hubspot and Marketo have built-in tools for this. With Salesforce Marketing Cloud, you have to buy one (which is nuts), but whatever. You need a form, and you’ll likely need a lot of them**, so it better be easy to create.
    1. **To be fair, you don’t actually need a lot of them. BigCommerce made every single blog post downloadable. Klaviyo has ~30 gated assets we rotate through. I have heard of companies seeing success with just promoting the same gated asset on all blogs. Do what you have the resources to do! 
  2. An automated email: You’ll want to deliver your gated asset via an email––not redirecting them on the page. This is counterintuitive for many, but you don’t want to disrupt the reading experience on page. You just want to get someone to download the asset. More, by getting them to download the asset and sending it to them, they are very likely to open that email. The more email opens and engagement you get, the less likely this list is to have any deliverability problems. Two birds, one scone, as they say. 
  3. A lead to MQL nurture flow: An MQL is a “marketing qualified lead.” If your company doesn’t use that terminology, that’s fine. You basically just need a nurture flow that helps to move any leads collected into the next stage of the marketing funnel––whatever that is for your company. Ideally your lifecycle marketing team or campaigns team has already created this. If they haven’t, you will need to create it. There is no sense in collecting a ton of leads that you don’t try to qualify later. 
  4. A way to measure: Duh, the whole point here is to turn content leads into revenue and report out on it so you can have more job security and resources (by way of making your company more money). Here’s what you are looking for:
    1. Session > content download (lead) conversion rate, you can get this in GA by the proper use of goals 
    2. Lead > MQL conversion rate, you’ll need to get this in your CRM 
    3. MQL > paid account (or closed / won), you’ll need to get this in your CRM 
    4. Paid account average close amount, you’ll need to get this in your CRM 
    5. Total paid account revenue generated, you’ll need to get this in your CRM 
    6. Days it takes to close from Lead > closed/won, , you’ll need to get this in your CRM 

To be honest, just having 1-3 of the above is good enough to get started. #4 is really important, but you can start to drive leads first and then work with your internal team to show them the numbers and get their help. Big lead gen numbers get people’s attention––and it’s the fastest way I’ve found to get other departments within marketing to care more about what content marketing is doing. Go figure. 

Ok, now that you have all of that, here are some CRO (conversion rate optimization) tips I’ve learned over the years. 

  1. Make sure folks see that content download––fast. At Klaviyo, we started by putting it after the first two paragraphs (and our paragraphs are short). At BigCommerce, it was right under the hero image. Make it big. Make it not easy to miss. 
  2. Use a form header and some decent copywriting! Tell people what they are going to get. At Klaviyo, we just call the asset what it is, but do a proper “Get the advanced guide to email marketing” CTA on the page. At BigCommerce, we used a “Get the print version,” with sub copy of “Tired of scrolling? Download a PDF version for easier offline reading and sharing with coworkers.” It was a nod to how long our content was––and us encouraging them to download it instead (for their benefit, not ours, of course!) 
  3. Use as few form fields as possible to convert. This one throws a lot fo B2B marketers, because B2B marketers like to collect a ton of information on folks in order to do lead scoring. The problem is that folks downloading content on the blog are really high in the funnel. The goal should be to get them in, and then nurture them to give more information, not put up something difficult to make them download to begin with. I always start with email only––until someone at the company finds out and always makes me change it. You’ll get higher conversion rates with email only, but you won’t get as high quality of leads. Aim for no more than 4-5 fields on these. 
  4. Put the form on the page. For the love of everything, do not send folks to another page to download content from here. That takes people off the page they landed on (which has a ton of valuable content, and for which you are likely trying to increase engagement and time on site for SEO) and drops them on a more sales-y page that doesn’t correlate with their position in the funnel. Don’t do it. Put the form on the page, and let the folks download it there without taking them anywhere else. 

That’s it, y’all. That’s what I’ve got. That’s what has worked for me. At two different places––technically three, because we did it over at MarketerHire, too (traffic volumes were just far lower). 

As always, start small here. Start where you can. Do what you can to build numbers, and report out to your marketing team and execs the same way you performance team does––focused on data. 

I promise, the more you do that, the more creative freedom you’ll get because you’ll have earned trust in terms of knowing what drives the business forward. 

Good luck!