Does Content Marketing Actually Work?

Does content marketing actually work library overfull of old books - Portent

Did you know there are 300-500 new web pages created every minute of every day? If that's not cause for reflection on the value of content marketing, I don't know what is.

Confession time. There’ve been a few times where I’ve found myself asking (or exclaiming):

Does content marketing actually work?

It’s possible this existential crisis was related to a full week spent writing blog posts attempting to espouse the need for the latest organizational software. But there was and is a part of me serious about trying to understand “my place” in the marketing world. Does the work I do as a content marketer really support and impact the overall success of a business, or am I shouting with a chorus of others into the proverbial void?

If you’re looking for some compelling or reassuring stats, our friends over at Content Marketing Institute have a great set of quant-data to share with your boss. Maybe even follow up with some of the strategies from our post on how to sell content strategy to your boss. So by the numbers, that’s a “yes, content marketing does work.” But if we already have the numbers as proof, how could I still have lingering questions about the value of adding more and more content on behalf of great brands?

One powerful statistic from this round-up that jumped out at me is attributed to Neil Patel:

Content marketing leaders experience 7.8 times more site traffic than non-leaders

Whenever I read a statistic like this, I start thinking backward to what it actually took to become part of the “leaders” group. Successful brands that are also purveyors of amazing content makes me wonder: which came first, the success or the content? The answer to that quandary is beyond the scope of this post, but it’s worth observing that they’re most certainly correlated, though causation is often tough to prove.

Okay, last question, I promise:

WHY does content marketing actually work?

After some soul searching, and re-reading my co-worker Cate McGehee’s awesome post on setting measurable KPIs to gauge the ROI of your content, I honestly believe the answer is yes, content marketing works…when it’s done correctly.

To me and to the team at Portent, “doing content marketing correctly” means connecting with your target audience through empathic storytelling, while keeping in mind what a successful interaction means to your organization. For some, a “like” on Social or a reTweet is an indication that their content marketing strategy is working, while others are looking for a larger return on investment (like a sale or subscription confirmation). Again, if you’re looking for help thinking through how and what to measure for content, start here.

How to set KPIs for Content Marketing or How to measure the ROI of content
chart of KPIs

Courtesy of Cate McGehee

For me (and part of what gets me excited about coming to work at Portent in the morning), effective content marketing makes readers think and feel something new. By extension, I’m a huge believer in the impact of storytelling (or D&D style World Building, if you’re Ian Lurie) as a means to meaningfully and impactfully engaging with an audience. To become one of the coveted “content marketing leaders”.

For example, my favorite parts of the Olympics (besides the obviously impressive feats of athletic strength) are the P&G tribute ads to the mothers of the Olympians. My heart surges and my eyes well with tears watching the moms make sacrifices for their children to pursue their dreams of Olympic glory. I’m not responding to Proctor and Gamble, purveyor of consumer goods; I’m responding to the reminder of the everyday struggle families (mothers in particular) weather to support their kids. That Proctor and Gamble happens to manufacture dozens of common household goods is second to the feelings I now associate with their ads.

Why do we connect with stories?

On a biological level, our brains are literally wired to respond to stories and narratives. Viewing or experiencing emotional stories triggers the production of two specific hormones: cortisol and oxytocin. Cortisol is a stress hormone and grabs the attention of the viewer, while the release of oxytocin promotes feelings of empathy and connect, which researchers say may make viewers “more generous and trusting.” MRIs have shown that our brains respond the same way to hearing a story as they do to actually experiencing it, which is good news for content marketers. Bottom line: storytelling in content marketing is effective because our brains crave stories.

Why use storytelling?

Stories are how we figure out what’s going on, why we feel the way we do, and what to do with the information we’re given. Consciously or not, when we read or interact with marketing content, we’re looking to connect with information.

Good stories give us “all the feelings” and said feelings persuade us to form an opinion about a topic, or by extension, a brand. Connecting to a story bigger than oneself is a powerful feeling, which is why emotional responses are a leading indicator of the consumer’s intent to buy.

At the end of 2016, Google released a two minute video compilation of the major highs and lows of the year, as determined by the most popular searches of 2016. The film begins with scenes of chaos, the result of terrorist attacks and military conflict. Even if we didn’t personally live through the events, we are reminded how tumultuous 2016 really was. The video transitions into shots of athletic triumph, of humanity coming together, and support for causes greater than ourselves.

The story this Google video tells us is that through tragedy, pain, and violence there are still messages of hope, reasons to move forward, and the overall presence of love.

If you present a problem with a solution—your solution—the audience is more likely to see themselves (or their company) as the subject within your narrative. Even better news is that they’ll most likely respond to it.

And it doesn’t matter the scale or the topic, storytelling works. Whether you’re shopping for camping gear or a new apartment, you are searching for an element to help complete the story: “becoming one with nature” or “transforming into the sophisticated downtown socialite.”

In the case of Comcast and their campaign to introduce a talking entertainment guide, the story they offer is one of empowerment with their ad, Emily’s Oz.

Video example of storytelling through brand content

Beyond the obvious bottom-line goal of convincing viewers to use Comcast, the ad creates a story arc in which anyone can find unique ways to connect with their world. And if they’d like a little help from Comcast, that’s there whenever they’d like it. The message in the story is that Comcast has something for everyone and becoming a Comcast member can impact more than just your entertainment preferences.

When we use content marketing, we work to sell an idea or product without coming right out and screaming “BUY, BUY, BUY!“ Remember the first stat from the Content Marketing Institute article: 200 million people now use ad blockers.”

The ads or marketing campaigns that work best are not those that interrupt or pester us with unrelatable messages. The ads we remember and respond to are the ones where we can see ourselves as the hero, or at the very least, the co-star. Give the reader an opportunity to see themselves in the narrative, and you’ve gained a customer or at very least, a fan.

The reasons the two examples above, Google and Comcast, are so compelling is that they present simple concepts:

  • Love conquers hate
  • Perceived limitations don’t have to be limiting

Nowhere in the ad does Google encourage viewers to use the search engine, they just tell us the story of a hectic 2016, reinforced with examples. The same with Comcast: Emily may not have her sight, but she has her imagination. When we respond to ads like these, we are responding to the message that the brand puts forth, and when we buy from or use these brands we’re buying into the message they represent.

How to tell if the stories you’re telling are making an impact

The other half of doing content marketing the right way is knowing when and deliberately measuring how your content is successful. That means identifying and tracking metrics to determine when your content is achieving the desired impact.

For example, I’m a compulsive reader: I will read anything. Biographies, novels, comment sections, instructional manuals, the back of a shampoo bottle. If copy is involved, I am likely to consume it.

As an obsessive reader, you can gauge my successful interaction with a piece of content with two questions:

  • Did I get to the end of the piece?
  • Did I learn something?

If I answer yes to one or both of these questions, I consider that a successful piece of content.

The challenge for marketers is to develop a content strategy that drives us to produce the right pieces, distribute them to the right people, and to define what we consider to be a successful interaction with content. Beyond editorial calendars, your content strategy needs to include clear definitions for your KPIs or content measurement criteria, so that you know you’re not stepping back in front of that proverbial void, preaching to no one.

In addition to KPIs, A/B testing content can be very enlightening when determining whether a particular piece of content is achieving desired results. Savvy content marketers will take the time to prepare multiple versions or test updated content against existing content to hone in on which pieces of content audiences are responding to. It’s important to remember that you should have more than one KPI. And, as your business grows, so should your metrics.

Easy ways to utilize storytelling in your content

There are endless ways to tell stories through marketing outside of the traditional marketing content, like long-form blogs and white papers. Good stories sell us more than soft drinks—they sell us ideas and concepts.

Here are a few areas of your content where you can inject storytelling, no matter how small:


An impactful headline gets to the point and attracts the reader’s attention. It might also be the only thing the reader remembers, so don’t waste the opportunity to make an impact. NPR has a great checklist for putting together headlines, and includes advice like making your headlines specific, easy to understand, and capture the spirit of the story.

Product descriptions

If ever there were a place to tell a story or give the reader aspirational feelings about what you sell, a product description is that place. Of course, some products and service lend themselves more readily to action-packed narratives. For example, REI’s website is not trying to sell outdoor gear. Rather, it’s an overarching, how-to guide for adventure seekers, regardless of their experience levels. Consumers browsing through outdoor equipment are looking to fulfill a story they have in their mind: one where they’re the star of an action-packed trip. Storytelling in product descriptions can be as simple as leading the reader to conclude that they, too, can conquer any mountain…if they have the right hiking boots. Great product descriptions don’t sell a product, they sell the idea of what one can do with the product.


Perhaps not the most intuitive part of storytelling via content, but hear me out.

A list can tell a very succinct, organized story.

Using lists to your advantage means presenting ideas and concepts to a consumer and allowing them to draw their own conclusions about what comes next in the story. Additionally, lists are cost effective and require less time to both write and consume. With the advent of the internet, readers have a shorter attention spans, so a list with catchy copy and supporting images cuts right to the point. Plus, a good list gives you plenty of opportunities to link to other parts of your site to continue crafting a story. For examples of entertaining, engaging lists used in content marketing, look no further than the impact of the BuzzFeed listicle. Readers respond to this type of content because it gives them the freedom to attach meaning to the parts of the list that resonate most with them.


Giving away a free bit of advice or sample of what your service does shows prospective clients that you know what you’re talking about, and you’re willing to back it up with evidence. A guide or template that walks the consumer through the steps needed to achieve desired results shows that you know what you’re talking about. Organizational software company Lucidchart offers free diagram templates on its website. This allows users to experience the product before they commit to anything long-term.

Start telling a story, any story.

The best storytellers have honed their craft with years of practice. And while some may seem like natural-born public speakers, or authors, or designers, the impactful ones know that practice makes perfect. They also know that hitting the nail on the head the first time is unlikely, which is why they constantly test their material. For every decent headline you read I can personally assure you there were somewhere precisely between 3 and 300 throw-away headlines that came first.

Not every story will be a winner, propelling you to the rarified air of “content marketing leader” of your category (We should all be so lucky.) But having the courage to press on and keep telling stories will dictate whether or not (and how) your content influences audiences. The stories you develop and share in your content marketing pieces don’t have to be everything to everyone. They only have to resonate enough with your audience to persuade them to like, share, follow, or eventually buy what you’re selling.

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