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Published on November 17th, 2011 | by Rahel Bailie


The ROI of content

For as many years as I can remember – and I’ve been in the content business for a very long time – management treated most content production as a necessary evil and the content itself as a throw-away commodity. Content coming out of the marketing department was given more credence, particularly when it involved catchy tag lines and big, colourful pictures. The rest of the content, though, ended up in the same category as packaging: something that the consumer didn’t care about, and certainly not part of the core activity or product.

It took the Web, where content is the front door to products and services, where reputation is based on reviews, and where it turns out that accuracy and quality of content regularly sways reviewers, to turn the tides on content. The idea that content contributes to the bottom line is no longer a novel idea. I can’t really blame management for their skepticism; after all, what has been rather thin in public discourse about the benefits of content is the actual ROI.

It’s easy to understand that discussing the ROI of content can be a little fuzzy. Content comes in many forms, and affects the bottom line in complex ways. Also, ROI can different things in different industries. In the private sector, the ROI of content may mean its contribution to profitability. In the public sector, the ROI of content likely means efficiency of delivering services. In both cases, content projects may be measured against IRR (Internal Rate of Return) – the amount of savings realized by investing in content processes.

Key Performance Indicators

To understand how to measure content ROI, we need to discuss in a general way what content is intended to do. The common goal of any content is to change behaviour. Here are a few ways that content can accomplish that:

  • Persuade consumers to purchase a product, through a description of benefits and explanation of features.
  • Persuade constituents to respond to issues in a particular way, by explaining the issues and offering suggested responses.
  • Reduce service calls by anticipating queries and ensuring that sufficient and accurate content is available.
  • Allow the public to get answers to questions or problems in a self-serve  way, by providing helpful information.
  • Increase engagement, whether that is constituent engagement or customer engagement.

In each of these examples, the behavioural change resulted in a benefit to the organization, whether it is to sell more products and reduce service calls, or by helping constituents be better informed or fulfill their civic obligations.

Business Drivers

The most common motivations or business drivers, expressed in very general terms, are:

  • Increased revenue. Does the content help generate sales?
  • Brand loyalty. Does the content help manage organizational desirability – whether that be to increase corporate trust in the private sector, or public trust  in the public sector.
  • Risk management. Can accurate, quality content minimize inadvertent product misuse or minimize risk of lawsuit?
  • Extension of market. Does the content allow the organization to extend to new markets?
  • Operational efficiencies. Does the content reduce the number of customer support calls or make some operational aspect more efficient?
  • Process efficiencies. Does a particular publishing process reduce the cost of content production?

Examples of ROI

How does this play out in terms of hard costs? Measuring ROI can be tricky because there is not always a direct cause-and-effect relationship between publishing information and seeing results, so figuring out how the benefits are manifested takes keen observation and a willingness to look at all types of content and multiple types of benefits. Take a look at some examples that I’ve come across in the last year or so.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was cited by the Content Marketing Institute as reducing costs drastically by changing the way that they presented content to consumers. This organization noticed that an average of 30% of their 4 million annual service calls were about a single problem: customers could not figure out their monthly bills. The average customer service call costs $25 (the range is from $5 to $50), so reducing the number of calls  means reducing 1,200,000 calls. Even after calculating the investment to rework the content, presenting it to customers in a way that increases their comprehension could mean a significant cost savings – a modest estimate would be upward of half-a-million dollars.

A company that creates processing solutions for community banks calculated that a change to their publishing processes, which allowed them to promote collaborative authoring by a number of authors, track content use across multiple products lines, and to re-use content more efficiently, saved them over $100,000 within the first year, and allowed them to significantly increase their production capacity.

A company that manufactures small utility vehicles reported that at least once a year, someone would misuse one of their vehicles in a way that would result in a lawsuit. The average lawsuit was $4 million, with 25% of that automatically involving the manufacturer.  These lawsuits happened no matter what content they produced – there will always be someone who is determined to drive a vehicle recklessly – but because of the quality of their documentation and fanaticism about accuracy, the manufacturer had never lost a lawsuit, for an estimated $1 million savings annually.

When a municipality offers leisure courses, they find themselves competing with the private sector for popular offerings, such as fitness classes, sports sessions, and children’s activities. It reasons, then, that they stand to lose more revenue if they don’t offer up content – descriptions, prices, locations, schedules, and so on – that ranks high in search engines, and allows people to find the leisure activity according to their particular criteria: the course they want, in the location they want, at the time of day they prefer, at the price they find acceptable. The ROI is highly situational here, and depends on a wide range of factors, but the potential for revenue – or loss of revenue – makes a direct link between content and ROI.

The performance that organizations gets from their content continues to be affected by the amount of effort they put into its production. The effort begins with a content strategy; the success is in its implementation.


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

12 Responses to The ROI of content

  1. John Mohr says:

    Great examples!

    I am currently evaluating results on changes to content, calls to action mostly, and their impact on information requests for a higher education client. The information requests are tracked to applications and then enrollment. It will likely be a while until real results can be determined but I do look forward to the results.

  2. Kevan Huston says:

    Marvelous post, thanks!

  3. Jan Smith says:

    This is a very valuable and thought-provoking post, thank you. I think you are suggesting that for each content program the ROI be measured in terms of the drivers/motivations you mentioned.

    Measuring the desired changes in behavior can be viewed as a tactical tool with which to assess the impact of the content as the program unfolds. make adjustments as needed, so that the overall ROI is maximized.

    I’d like to hear more of your thoughtful analysis!

  4. Lesley Adair says:

    Great article Pradip – thank you. I’d add to this that we, as content professionals, quite often face the additional challenge of proving the ROI is actually the result of well-planned content.

    Although digital content is (or certainly should be) the foundation upon which any communication is built, quite often it is the supporting technology or visual design to which the ROI is attributed. The success of campaigns and communications is often claimed by the tech guys who came up with the interaction (valuable but not responsible) or the marketers who insisted on having that big orange ‘buy now’ button ‘above the fold’.

    The fact that the content was meticulously planned around user needs and key message hierarchies using findable, usable content is often overlooked.

  5. Chris Bagshaw says:

    Some good observations Pradip, and some real challenges to creative professionals as well as those who sell what is created.

  6. Here is my take-away.

    Content is a solution.

    It has to address a measurable problem, eg the help call center is getting the same call over and over.

    Finally, there has to be evidence that content provides a better solution to the current method of handling the problem.

    Have I missed something?

  7. Rahel Bailie says:

    Great comments (though I’m not sure who Pradip is). To build on the comment of Michael, content is part of a solution to create successful users, and the measure can vary. Another example which I didn’t use here but will be in my upcoming book, was of a Fortune 500 company that started paying close attention to content when they realized that during the final “due diligence” step, potential buyers would walk away from 6- and 7-figure systems because the documentation wasn’t good enough. Good enough for what? For their staff to use the product successfully – the productivity losses would have been too great. Using this as a high-level measure allows for a lot of flexibility while staying true to the principle: content needs to make users successful at whatever their intended need.

  8. @Rahel, I agree that there are different measures for different jobs that the content is expected to do. But, I do like the term “successful users”, although for any particular platform I would replace the generic user with of what that user was doing: reading or writing on publishing platforms.

  9. Pradip Kumar says:

    I find that some of you thought that this article was written by me. I wish to clarify that this has been written by Rahel Bailie who is a great resource person in Content Strategy. I just posted the article in Linked-in to some groups as I found the article quite interesting and wanted the members of the group to get a chance to read it. Sorry if this had been made to look like my article and I wish to state that it was not the intention.

  10. Rahel Bailie says:

    No worries, Pradip; am happy that you liked the article, and I’m glad the mystery got cleared up for me about why people were thanking you.

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  12. Pingback: Measuring success. Part 2: Creating a measurement framework « communication cloud

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