The true cost – and hidden benefit – of lead generation blogging

My first attempt at content marketing, in 2007, was short-lived and even more half-assed: StrategyDen.com (nothing to do with the current site), a blog about online marketing and technology. I was working full-time as a project manager and consultant at Blackbaud at the time and partly as a result, I didn’t take being a publisher and content marketer seriously. I wasn’t even very clear on what lead generation blogging was.

This post is an attempt to answer the question I wish I’d had an answer to back then, “Should I publish a blog, and if so, why – and how?” It even puts a number on the endeavor: $30,000.

Real quick, here’s how I define lead generation blogging – investing in the publication of a blog, over at least a one-year period, to:

  1. Grow awareness of your brand, wherever your blog’s content ends up being read
  2. Grow your audience by luring it to your web presence,
  3. Build trust with that audience by (a) showing them how well you understand what you claim to do and (b) helping them make decisions
  4. Convert some of that audience into leads – and relationships

(Content marketing is a little more nuanced. It can be any communication medium, not just a blog, and implies a concerted effort to promote content through multiple channels, not just produce it.)

The point is that we’re talking about a marketing initiative that requires an investment and is expected to deliver a quantifiable return in form of leads who actually contribute to your organization’s bottom line.

Anyway, back to the true story of how I missed a content marketing opportunity

Growth of Content Marketing
Google Trends showing the decade-long growth of ‘Content Marketing’ as a marketing concept

In 2007, marketers were beginning to evaluate the blogging phenomenon and extract from it the concept of content marketing. That concept turned out to be very powerful, one of the many reasons it was very unwise of me not to pursue my StrategyDen blog. It was so easy in those days to get value by writing just a few blog posts. Publish for a year and you were golden – and with very little investment other than time.

Cases in point:

  • I wrote a (silly) critique of Highrise, the 37Signals CRM product, as being too simple to warrant being marketed as a CRM (“to those who seek a simple web CRM: Highrise isn’t quite it”). The next day Jason Fried himself responded on my blog with a well-written, even-handed, and thoughtful rebuttal comment.
  • A few days later, Pipeline Deals, then a newly minted startup CRM, contacted me to set up a demo of their product, so that I could publish a review of it.
  • I also wrote a post about a data breach on Convio (the marketing and fundraising platform now branded as Luminate and owned by Blackbaud). That post was picked up the same day by a well-known nonprofit tech and marketing blogger, tweeted about, and backlinked to.

And I was even more of a nobody then than I am now.  But it was easy then to get self-published content noticed, provided it met the basic on-page SEO standards, was based on relevant research or news, and offered some measure of original insight.

From playing in a small pond to a massive ocean

A decade later, though, the game has changed completely. Tens of thousands of voices compete daily for the attention of industry influencers like Jason Fried.

The current climate calls for a much greater quality level, focus and time commitment; content marketing isn’t cheap.

If your organization has a blog, it competes with tens of thousands of other blogs – and blog posts, every day – for the attention of your existing and prospective customers, supporters, donors, partners and so on.

In fact, it’s sort of become accepted wisdom that more than 2 million blog posts are published daily.

Are most of them mindless strings of keyword fluff posing as writing? Of course. But if even 1% are good or better, that means that that 20,000 “good or better” blog posts are published – every day.

Something you can stop telling yourself (or others)

After 15 years of advising on digital strategy, few things make me cringe more than hearing another consultant tell a client, “you should have a blog”.

That’s lazy thinking and unless it’s based on thorough analysis, it’s probably bad advice.

And what gets me is that it preys on some pretty understandable urges:

  • Generate traffic to your website in a cost-effective way
  • Sway some of that traffic into subscribing to your newsletter or even becoming some kind of customer in a cost-effective way
  • Offer stories and insight to your existing readership to strengthen your relationship with them and inform them of new products or services in a cost-effective way

These are all absolutely valid ideas except for that often insidiously unspoken premise that accompanies them all: that content marketing is magically cost effective. After all, it’s just typing, typing, typing, done! Or so goes the often covered-up and unchallenged assumption.

Here’s my perspective, which is the result of seeing over 50 clients attempt a blog – and seeing my own consulting firm try unsuccessfully to incorporate blogging into is marketing strategy: blogging is not necessarily cost-effective, ie a good return on investment.

On the contrary, it can actually damage your bottom line, to say nothing of your reputation for follow-through ability and in-house expertise.

And that’s not just because of increased competition that blogging is a difficult strategy for all kinds of organizations, from consultancies and nonprofits to universities and software companies.

It’s also because publishing a blog has always been much more expensive than is commonly realized. And because it’s more expensive now than ever before.

The Paper Napkin cost of an (excellent) blog: 30k per year

My baseline paper-napkin estimate of the cost of maintaining an excellent blog is $30,0000/year.

Here’s how that breaks down:

Cost of writing: $20,000

A relatively senior staff member (because we’re concerned with an excellent blog, not a mediocre one) making approximately $100,000/year is granted the work of writing for a blog. To create an effective blog, she must spend 20% of her available work time writing.

By the way, to write effectively, you don’t need to publish every day or even every week; you could get away with one or two blog posts per month. But you have to write or edit almost every single day.

Cost UX and visual design: $5,000

Why allocate such valuable resources to writing a blog without going the full measure to (a) integrate it into the User Experience of your web presence and (b) enhance its appeal and impact with visuals – artwork, photography, and the presentation of data?

You could make the case that these are one time costs. But then I also believe that most websites should be updated every two years, and visually refreshed even more frequently.

Another hidden cost of a well-produced blog: premium photography, illustration, or presentation of data. Some blogs (eg. Signals vs Noise) commission a designer to custom design a graphic for each post, taking a page from traditional print media.

Cost of content marketing: $5,000

This the fuzziest of the three cost factors, but it has its place on our napkin. Gary Vaynerchuk has said the content marketing formula is as follows: 20% production, 80% content promotion.

By that calculus, if you’re production cost is $25k, then your promotion cost is $100k, roughly equivalent to the cost of two entry-to-mid level marketing staffers. But the total time they spend on your blog should be just a fraction of their other content marketing responsibilities (email marketing, news, social media feeds, event marketing, etc). So the cost is amortized.

Caveats, disclaimers, exceptions, qualifications, and provisos

Of course, there’s more nuance to it than this breakdown includes. And this is a guideline paper napkin; the investment cost for your organization could deviate by up to 25%. Just remember this: if it’s not painful, it’s probably not the right amount. (Sound familiar, dear clients? Bwaa-ha-ha).

And while I’m caveating, yes, we have to define excellent! Here’s one definition: it generates leads whose value is greater than the annual investment.

Most web content, whether presented as a blog or not, doesn’t come close to moving the lead generation needle that far.

That’s because it’s either bad, average, or slightly above average. A common pattern: one or two excellent, inspired posts followed by a series of average, perfunctory posts. You can almost feel someone checking the box.

So it’s useful to have a framework that tells you what you’re getting for such a substantial investment. Especially since (a) lead attribution is notoriously difficult and (b) it takes 3 to 12 months to measure the SEO value of newly published web content.

Common traits of an excellent organizational blog

Luckily, lead generation isn’t the only way to gauge the quality of your blogging efforts.

An excellent blog should have the following characteristics:

  • Is written by a subject matter expert with a minimum of 5,000 hours under her belt
  • Is not written by a junior staff member or intern (lol); nor is it ghost-written by a consultant or writer – unless they have the right subject matter expertise (this latter option is no less expensive than the in-house one)
  • The subject matter of each post and of the blog as a whole encompasses your organization’s key topics and adjacent topics too.
  • Published with regularity and, in the same vein, fits into a content strategy

The more involved the agency principal in the creation of content, the more successful the firm is on the lead generation front
– Blair Enns

By the way, the best blogging or other editorial content I’ve read, such as Blair Enns’ Win Without Pitching blog on business strategy, or Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker articles about television content, are typically grammatically flawless. So if you can make the investment, you should incorporate some kind of internal feedback mechanism; it could be a colleague who proofreads or a contract professional content editor. (Says the guy whose articles are rife with typos!).

To kill two birds with one stone, I’d recommend an SEO savvy copyeditor who doubles as a content editor.

But your blog doesn’t need New Yorker quality grammatical perfection to set itself apart.

In fact, as David C. Baker has pointed out, your concern when clicking “Publish” or “Send” shouldn’t be “Will my audience notice grammatical errors”? It should be, “Will my audience perceive this as insight or just content?”

When someone reads your stuff, does it contain a fresh insight they want to share or bookmark? Do they want more or less of you after reading it?

– David C Baker

Lead generation blogging vs insight generation blogging

Speaking of insight, by the way, I left out one of the telltale signs – and valuable outcomes – of an excellent blog: not just providing insight to your public audience, but gaining insight it for yourself. This is the hidden benefit.

Speaking from personal experience, I can think of no activity that better clarifies how I think about a subject than writing about it at length in a public forum.

For example, I started writing about digital strategy in 2012 partially in response to being asked, “what do you mean by that”. I knew exactly what I meant by it but couldn’t precisely articulate it, which frustrated me.

In the intervening 5 years, I have edited or revised my definition of digital strategy at least 350 times. I have clarified what I think about the subject.

In fact, I’m now able to easily summon and describe, with no preparation, my elaborate and complex definition of digital strategy. And I can express it in multiple ways, for multiple contexts. I might be wrong, but at least I’m wrong in a very clear way!.

For any organization, from consultancy, to nonprofit, even a manufacturer, that ability alone gives you an enormous advantage when speaking to prospects or colleagues in person, whether one-on-one or in front of large groups.

It also creates a mental building block to stack other ideas on top of. A frame of reference for the value of your product or service, perhaps. A foundational feature that additional or side benefits are closely connected to.

It’s also an important benchmark; if the writer isn’t gaining insight herself, she’s probably not sharing it with her audience; the blog probably won’t work.

Organizational thought leadership through written content marketing

A few paragraphs ago, I was talking about typos, but now? Now I’ve moved onto thought leadership! Before you gag, bear with me.

Isn’t “thought leadership” Tang to the freshly squeezed orange juice that is true public intellectualism and the pursuit of real knowledge?

– Bob Lalasc, Science + Story

The lead generation outcome of content marketing benefits your whole organization. But does the so-called insight generation benefit only the writer?

This is an important question if your organization foots that $30,000 investment.

I myself am more Tang than OJ (Orangutang, some say!). And I don’t have a How-To- tip or a formula for propagating the insight gained by one writer with rest of the people she works with at your firm.

But if the writing is good, it’s very likely that colleagues across the organization will read it and get insight from it that can be applied to work. 

If you’re interested in the idea of structuring a process for creating thought-leadership across your organization, you should consult the aforementioned Bob Lalasc at Science + Story. Bear in mind, his practice applies to larger institutional organizations that sponsor scientific research. The point is that there is a method out there designed for this challenge.

One of Bob’s key tenets, and here we are in complete agreement, is that the hard work must be done in-house. Maybe you need to contract a copyeditor, or a writing coach, or an SEO consultant, but the writing itself should be performed by someone in-house at in a senior-level or leadership position.

The total return on investment of blogging and content marketing in general

In fact, when I write marketing collateral for a smaller agency or a product firm, such as a white paper or a presentation deck, I do so with two audiences in mind:

  1. their customers
  2. their own people

After all, part of the value of marketing collateral value is to equip the second audience, whether they are sales reps, customer support, fundraisers, or consultants. And they need to be equipped with not just facts, but ideas:

  • here’s why our service makes sense for your particular situation
  • here’s what we call that problem you just described – and how we have solved it in the past
  • here’s the exact impact your gift of $50  made to our program last fall

Every organization has one value proposition that outweighs the rest. Over time, it may evolve (Values are permanent, but Mission evolves to fit the market’s needs). But there is always just one.

Everyone who is a part of your organization should be able to summon your core value proposition, understand it, talk about it, and even enjoy talking about effectively.

If your lead generation blogging initiative yields that result – and 30k worth of revenue per year – then you will have achieved what so often eludes the rest of us: content marketing success.

 

fin

 

POSTSCRIPT: I wrote this post as a reaction to the pressure companies and other organizations feel to publish an organizational blog of extremely high quality that reflects well on the brand and actually generates leads.

I didn’t write it for the individual. If that’s you, I don’t mean to discourage you from writing a blog! If nothing else, write one for the opportunity to clarify what you think about things that interest you. And don’t worry if you don’t like it – just rewrite it 🙂