It’s human nature to evaluate how well we are doing by stacking ourselves up against other people. This instinct starts when we’re young: Which toy is my sister playing with? Is it more fun than the one I have? Whoops, I accidentally threw hers out the window and now I’m the only one with a toy.
While this comparative and competitive behavior keeps us motivated and may drive us to perform our best, it can also be extremely limiting – especially when it comes to content marketing.
Benchmarking Often Compares Apples to Oranges
Almost without fail, customers will ask me for industry benchmarks at some point during their content marketing program. While it’s valuable to establish baseline numbers to demonstrate growth and improvement over time, it doesn’t help to compare your program’s metrics against other brands that sell similar things. The main reason for this is that though a brand might offer competitive products, their content marketing objectives could be totally different.
For example, let’s check out two seemingly look-alike brands: Lululemon and Lorna Jane. Both of these former-commonwealth-country-based-companies sell activewear for the yoga-inclined.
Lululemon has an on-domain tab, called Inspiration, in their shopping experience. The section highlights content that (you guessed it!) inspires readers to travel, exercise, and eat well. Lululemon’s strategy is heavily influencer based, with lots of long form content featuring beautiful, big images. Some stories, like this one here, even have shopping bars built into the article to allow you to directly purchase the items you need to pursue the wonderfully active lifestyle you are now so inspired to lead.
Notably, there is no option to sign up for an email newsletter here. For this content marketing program to be successful, we would need to see high time on site and high conversion rates that lead to purchases.
Lorna Jane, on the other hand, has an off-domain content hub called movenourishbelieve that features content focused on eating healthy foods and exercising.
Their strategy utilizes short, snackable, often instructional content that is heavily image-based with prominent social sharing buttons. While there are ways to navigate to the Lorna Jane shopping experience from the content, the focus here seems to be on building community. There are many calls to action to encourage social sharing and email sign-ups, as well as commenting on the content. Here is an example of a short article that has barely any text, but has generated some positive interactions from readers, including an excitable fan who says “Everything looks amazing! I would love to try the middle eastern zucchini rolls, anti-anxiety bowl, creamy carrot bircher and avocado on toast! <3” (I, too, would like to try this “anti-anxiety bowl.”) This program would be a success if it generated social shares, social followers, email sign-ups, and lively discussions about the health benefits of cooking with coconut oil versus avocado oil.
So while Lorna Jane and Lululemon are both trying to sell yoga pants, their content marketing programs have very different objectives. Basing their measurement off of the other’s arbitrary metrics would only distract from their own success.
Benchmarks Can Actually Hold Us Back
Benchmarks can be helpful in understanding what everyone else is up to – but we’re often overestimating our peers and assuming they have everything figured out. Measuring content marketing effectively is still relatively new, and comparing ourselves to the industry benchmark might actually mean setting our goals too low.
A certain type of student might feel despondent to learn that he received an 80% on a big paper. But after asking around, he learns that everyone else in the class received a 60%. Now that 80% is looking pretty stellar and the student can more easily rationalize the night he spent binge watching “Stranger Things” instead of revising his work.
But he still didn’t get 100%.
And maybe now that he knows the benchmark that other students are operating with, he might become complacent and never aim for that 100% again.
If our hero had focused on his own best effort and spent an evening on an extra round of revisions instead of the suspenseful and nonplussing goings-on of Hawkins, Illinois, he might have received an A.
As Jeff Bezos puts it, “If we can keep our competitors focused on us while we stay focused on the customer, ultimately we’ll turn out all right.”
So at least one reason to avoid benchmarking is that it could actually limit your way of thinking and your potential.
Many Benchmarking Metrics Are Meaningless
When asking for benchmarks, which metrics will actually tell us how well our content is performing against the field?
Often, the top Google Analytics metrics will come to mind, but do those metrics actually give us insight into how our audience is interacting with our content? Let’s take pageviews, for example – or, as I like to call them, “clicks.” This is the poorest metric to use internally, let alone to compare yourselves to others. How many people click through to your article has zero to do with how interesting your content is. It has everything to do with how clickable your headline and image are, and how you distribute your content.
Another – and more accurate – way to ask this question is: “How much money did I spend on traffic divided by my CPC?” When you measure yourselves against your competitors, the only thing this tells you is how big their distribution budget is and how cheap their acquired traffic was. Generating pageviews is the easy part. It’s what people do on your page after they click is what tells you whether or not your content has been successful.
Which brings us to another popular benchmark metric: time on site.
Time on site is important to determine how long readers are spending on your content. However, if you are using Google Analytics to measure your post-click engagement, this metric can be a little misleading. Google only records time on site for readers who have not bounced. A bounce is any time someone doesn’t take an action before leaving your page. So if you have a great article that someone spends two whole minutes on, but then doesn’t navigate elsewhere on your page, that time on site will not be calculated in your average. Because bounce rates weren’t designed with content in mind, you could miss out on a lot of insights about reader behavior on your page if your bounce rate is high. (Quick plug here for NewsCred analytics, which measures engagement with mouse movement and scrolling, therefore capturing the engagement of anyone on your page, even if they don’t take another action.)
What about page views per session? This eliminates our bounce rate issue, because readers have to take action on the page to be counted. But is your site well-designed to move readers from page to page? In order to effectively generate the flipping-through-a-magazine-content-wormhole we all dream about, your site has to provide readers the opportunity to navigate between interesting and personalized content at every click.
We can poke holes in any of these metrics, which all rely on proper configuration of your analytics, good UX and page design, a well-designed and optimized distribution strategy, and, of course, good content. And because few, if any, brands can claim they’ve got all of those completely covered, these numbers have to be taken with a thousand grains of salt.
So to ask how our numbers compare to the “benchmark” doesn’t actually tell us how well our content marketing program is performing.
Instead, establishing internal baselines off of which to optimize will drive your program further forward.
Esti Frischling is a Senior Partner of Customer Success at NewsCred