There’s a lot of talk about return on investment as a marketing metric … but ROI is inherently flawed for campaign-based marketing. A new look at ROI might be just the remedy we need to build a case for content marketing.

I’ve been on a journey over the last few months, exploring the history of marketing and measurement. I feel a bit like Indiana Jones. The books I’ve bought are long out of print and when they arrive from remote booksellers across the world – sometimes tattered and worn – it feels like I’m discovering artifacts from a lost world.

Marketing-performance measurement is not a new challenge. It’s not as if we lost something we once had in the 1960s. Marketers have been talking about the struggle to measure marketing’s performance for as long as it’s been around. Mercantilist John Wannamaker famously said in the late 1800s, “I know half my advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Consider the last line from a 1964 article, The Concept of the Marketing Mix, by Neil Borden, then-professor emeritus of marketing and advertising at Harvard Business School. He was discussing the highly desired but unfulfilled quest for the “science of marketing” and concluded with:

We hope for a gradual formulation of clearly defined and helpful marketing laws. Until then, and even then, marketing and the building of marketing mixes will largely lie in the realm of art.

I very much appreciate the “even then” part of that last sentence. I suspect Professor Borden knew that looking for “laws” would be a frustrating journey.

Skip ahead almost 25 years and consider a comment in the book Marketing Performance Assessment from 1988. In the opening chapter, called “The Philosopher’s Stone,” the authors write:

The assessment of marketing performance, often called marketing productivity analysis, remains a seductive but elusive concept for scholars and practitioners alike. It is elusive because for as long as marketers have practiced their craft they have looked unsuccessfully for clear, present, and reliable signals of performance by which marketing merit could be judged.

In other words, throughout the last 100 years, we have felt this compelling need to tilt the scales from art toward science; we have held up business laws that, if obeyed, would guarantee success. We really want the algorithm. And the truth is, we never get there.

In varying degrees over the last century, this “science” has been reduced to three little letters: ROI.

From the Mad Men era forward, we’ve been exploring ways to extract a return from the investment of marketing. Whether called simple ROI (return on investment), ROMI (return on marketing investment), or even ROC (return on customer – thank you Dr. Martha Rogers and Don Peppers), the goal has been the same: Maximize the profitable return on the investment in marketing effort.

But there’s a problem.

Maximizing ROI has been, and always will be, the wrong goal for campaign-oriented marketing. Yet ironically, focusing on ROI just might be the right approach for content marketing. Let’s take a look at why.


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