How to optimize for the hidden ROI of content marketing

Content marketing is a black swan in the world of digital marketing. With the rise of big data, it seems that every individual action taken online can be measured out in dollar value. This is not so with content marketing; often some of the highest impact results you can get from creating content can’t be measured or even anticipated.

Content marketing is not simply a tool for driving traffic and leads; it’s a tool to build brands and relationships. You certainly can track dozens of metrics to understand the value of the content you create. But focusing too closely on these metrics will narrow your perspective and distract you from the true impact your content can have.

Patrick Hourihan writes about the unique nature of content in his article “How content marketing can deliver a new ROI – Return on Inspiration

“We are witnessing an evolution of the content marketing purchase cycle, where people are jumping in at various stages. The purchase funnel is becoming less linear, more organic and fluid, with content marketing helping brands drive other goals such as brand building and relationship building, as well as driving sales.”

This presents a problem for most traditional marketing strategies that focus on targeting a specific pain point at a specific part in the buyer’s journey. The broader set of goals that content is driving also makes it difficult to pin a dollar value on interactions. The good news is, that although it is difficult to track, the rewards of content marketing go far beyond simple sales and conversions.

So what’s possible with content?

The rewards for great content go far beyond simple social shares or pageviews.

Content marketing casts a broad net to attract attention. Many of the readers you attract will not be ideal customers. Though they won’t make a purchase with you, if they are engaged with what you are creating, they are likely to become brand ambassadors and refer you to ideal customers whenever they have the chance. Most of these interactions will happen offsite or in-person, away from any tracking pixels.

Alex Turnbull, founder of GrooveHQ, mentions this in his post “How We Grow Our Business By Marketing To The “Wrong” People

“There are a tremendous number of readers who aren’t Groove customers. But, through reading our content, they’ve become fans of Groove. While not all of these readers need customer support software, many of them have friends or coworkers that eventually do. And when they ask for recommendations, our readers are the first to jump in and suggest Groove.”


What’s the ROI on a team of brand ambassadors who share your content and send you customers? Click To Tweet

In the post “Is startup validation bullshit?, Dan Norris discusses his challenges getting traction with Informly despite meeting the criteria for a “lean startup.” This post generated over a hundred comments and resonated with WP Curve cofounder, Alex McClafferty. You can still see in the comments the beginnings of a partnership that would bring WP Curve to where it is today. There’s even some foreshadowing of Dan’s book The 7 Day Startup.

Alex comment

What is the ROI of a piece of content that helped you find your cofounder? Click To Tweet

Alex Turnbull has had similar experiences with content driving the recruitment for his business.

“We have 3 full-time team members who all first heard about Groove from our blog. Each of them individually reached out to me at different times about working for us, and each of them turned out to be terrific hires. When you put yourself out there as a company, people really get to know you. So when a reader wants to work for you, they typically already know what you’re all about, and the cultural fit tends to be much better than candidates who apply via a job posting site.”

Alex has even managed to build relationships with high profile entrepreneurs and attract their help through content marketing. They’ll shortly be announcing that a new investor and advisor is joining their team. They made this connection initially through their blog interview series.

What’s the ROI on a piece of content that attracts a new investor? Click To Tweet

How to optimize for the hidden ROI of content marketing

A common mistake most content marketers make is focusing on a customer avatar with specific pain points and trying to write directly to those pain points. This may work for a short term interaction like a Facebook ad, but as we have seen the in the case studies above, content marketing is more about relationships. Some of your audience may follow you for years without converting.

Dan Norris mentions this in his book Content Machine:

“Some people in the community might end up becoming a customer. They might fit your profile directly. Most, however, will simply become consumers and advocates of your content. Some may read it and occasionally engage with it (comment or share). Others might become raving fans and share it with everyone they know. These are all good results, because they get your brand in front of more people through more sources.”

One possible way to reframe the customer avatar is to define it as someone you would like to recruit to your team. You want to write content that inspires them to join you in your vision. Writing in this way fundamentally changes how you write and what you write about. This team member could end up being a small advocate for your content or your next big investor.

Related: The best of WP Curve – content marketing

Gregory Ciotti from Help Scout uses this strategy in his content and describes the process below.

“One of the most important ‘jobs’ content is responsible for is recruiting; well-written articles are absolutely a recruiting strategy and often a first impression. Whether they’re introduced to your company through the blog or they’ve learned about how you work via pieces included in your job postings, curious candidates want to find out everything they can, and they’ll do so with what you publish.

With the ‘content as recruiting’ concept well understood, you’ll keep higher standards for your publishing, you’ll have an easier time encouraging your teammates to write, and you’ll be more deliberate with transparency. If there’s 1 “reader persona” to always be mindful of, it’s the future talented teammate who may become attracted to your team and company because of what you publish. There’s no way to measure that.”

The 1 reader persona to be mindful of is the future talented teammate. @GregoryCiotti Click To Tweet

The Help Scout team uses this ‘content as recruiting’ strategy in nearly every interaction with their readers, not just on the blog. In the post “Building a Newsletter Welcome Series from Scratch,“ Gregory describes how he continues to build trust in their newsletter welcome series. Each email gives you a glimpse into the culture of the Help Scout and the people on the team.


Each email in their sequence strives not only to add value and share relevant content, but also fosters a personal connection with the reader. The content is not simply delivered as a recommendation from a Help Scout employee. It builds trust to see that a real person enjoyed the article that you’re about to read and also gives you a glimpse at who that person is and what they value. The inverse is also true, your top-shelf content will lend credibility to the person that recommended it.


Our content strategy encourages us to make decisions that favor our relationship with our audience over improving conversions in the short term. We optimize our blog for a good reading experience with minimal distractions and maximum value given.

Here are a few key guidelines that you can use to create content that attracts new team members.

Design for trust and readability: Don’t bombard your audience with pop-ups or other distractions to the content they came for. Make your opt-ins timely and non-invasive so they appear as a logical next step to take after consuming your content.

Related: 15 essential elements of our most engaging content

Be authentic and transparent: Tell stories that are relatable and resonate with your audience. Don’t just talk about victories; be honest with your mistakes and challenges, and share what you learn from them. This often feels risky; content that is authentic and emotionally relatable makes you feel vulnerable. This fear is strongest when you’re doing your best work.

This also means you need to share ideas that are contrarian or controversial. Peter Thiel puts it best when he asks, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” in the book Zero to One. The posts where you truly speak your mind and share unpopular ideas or kill a “sacred cow” are the articles that energize your audience and create an emotional connection to your brand.

Related: Content marketing: setting a purpose and measuring success

Give actionable advice: Be detailed when instructing or guiding the reader to a solution to their problem. By the time they finish reading your post, they should know exactly what steps they need to take to get a certain result.

Related: The ultimate guide to creating content that converts

Show that you care: Respond to comments, tweets and emails, and try to add more value if they ask a question. Also, ask people that share your content what they enjoyed most about it or if there is something else they are hoping to see on your blog.

Give your best stuff away: Try to give away as many useful things as you can. You don’t always even need to ask for an email. Create templates, guides, checklists, etc. anything that the reader can take away from the post.

Related: The simple trick for growing your email list by 10,000 subscribers


In this age where data is king, it can be challenging for marketers to step away from their analytics dashboards and focus on less tangible aspects of content marketing. It’s clear that the fruits of content marketing go far beyond simple leads and sales.

It’s clear that the fruits of content marketing go far beyond simple leads and sales. Click To Tweet

Writing to inspire, teach and engage readers will enlist them in your vision and your mission. If you focus on the relationship aspect of content marketing, you will experience a return on investment that cannot be measured.


Kyle is the founder of Conversion Cake . He is the author of "The College Entrepreneur" A book for students who want to break into entrepreneurship. Follow him @kylethegray

6 responses to “How to optimize for the hidden ROI of content marketing”

  1. Great post Kyle. Probably my favorite you’ve ever written.

    Some of the best advice I ever got was “Everytime you write a long email, turn it into a blog post. There’s more optionality.” Couldn’t have been more true for me.

  2. Kyle Gray says:

    Thanks Taylor! It’s an honor. I really enjoyed writing this one.

    I like that advice on emails. There’s probably a few good posts sitting in my archives as we speak.

  3. Terry Lin says:

    Funny story on this actually.

    I once did a webinar for BigCommerce two years ago and didn’t think much about it afterwards, until Dan announced a new community manager for the Dynamite Circle this year.

    Turns out the coordinator of that webinar followed my blog after, and eventually started following TMBA and applied for the opening when it came up, then got it.

  4. Kyle Gray says:

    That’s great Terry! Dan Andrews owes you a finder’s fee. I have been hearing so many little stories like this since researching and writing this post. I love it!

  5. Thanks for this great article. Trying to measure ROI of content marketing has definitely been like the Caramilk secret. I love the suggestion of writing for someone you’d like on your team.

  6. Dan Andrews says:

    AH 😀 Terry hit me up!

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