Your Guide to Choosing Content KPIs

Cate McGehee

If your content team ever tells you that the impact of their work isn’t measurable, fire them. (And if you’ve ever told anyone that, read this blog before your client or boss does.) Content KPIs and creating a system of both accountability and continuous improvement are a core part of content strategy.

Sure, content marketing can be a long game. The ROI of content is often spread out over time and across the levels of the conversion funnel. But just because it’s messy doesn’t mean it’s not measurable.

There are plenty of ways to assess the success of your content initiatives using simple, relevant, and effective Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). This blog post identifies fifteen of Portent’s favorite content KPIs, sorts them according to what goals they’re best at measuring, and tells you exactly how to start using them yourself.

What are KPIs, and How Do I Set Them?

KPIs are the rulers you use to measure your success. A good KPI is numeric, relevant, and easy to both calculate and understand. Your KPIs will always be numbers, but just because something’s a number doesn’t mean it’s a good KPI.

Not sure how to tell your metrics apart from your KPIs? Aleksey Savkin, author of 10 Step KPI System: A Time-Proven Approach to Finding Tailor-Made KPIs for the Most Challenging Business Situations, has a great rule of thumb:

“If you are not sure if you are dealing with a KPI or a simple metric, do a simple test: imagine that you can double the value of this indicator. If you expect the performance of the business to be increased significantly, then it’s a good KPI for your business context. If not, then it is a simple metric.”

If you’re trying to set KPIs for your content, do as Savkin suggests: look for metrics that matter. Find the numbers where you really want to move the needle. Still not sure which numbers those are? You can use the conversion funnel to find them.

What the Conversion Funnel Means for Content and KPIs

“The conversion funnel” is a made-up buzzword that all marketers use differently. But the metaphor has stuck so well is because it’s useful. The people coming to your website are at different stages in their customer journey. Your content should speak to them in different ways depending on where they are on this journey. And your KPIs should be able to measure the success of that conversation.

Here’s a graphical representation of a classic conversion funnel:

The Marketing Funnel - Portent

At the top of the funnel, you’re trying to build awareness for your brand or product and pique the interest of potential customers. Hopefully, these potential customers move down the funnel to the consideration stage, and then at last conversion—the bottom of the funnel—where they buy your product, provide their contact information, vote for your candidate, or whatever else you consider “converting.”

Good content marketing strategy means creating content for readers at every level of the conversion funnel. To increase awareness, for example, you might want create a free resource like an ebook or white paper. When customers are in the consideration stage, more heavily-branded content, such as case studies or testimonials, might be more appropriate. And to seal the deal on a conversion, content writers might create a landing page with motivating, CTA-forward copy.

Of course, the funnel isn’t perfect, especially when you’re talking about content. A resource meant to raise awareness might spur a conversion; something intended to engage existing customers might catch the eye of someone entirely new to the brand. There is a lot of bleed between the levels of the funnel and many potential paths on the user journey.

As far as content is concerned, the conversion funnel looks a little more like a tornado:

Content marketing is difficult to fit into a traditional conversion funnel

What does this mean for your KPIs?

A good content strategist will set their content KPIs according to where their target customers are at in the funnel. A great content strategist will create content with those KPIs already in mind. When you know what you’re trying to accomplish, you’re more likely to accomplish it.

But how do you know which KPIs are best for making sense of content’s messy content conversion tornado? Well, we made you a chart.

Portent’s Great Big Chart of Content KPIs

Here’s how Portent breaks down content KPIs according to the different stages of the customer journey and their overlap:

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

We look at conversion, reputation, and engagement as the three main goals of content. Each goal has a few ideal KPIs. Some KPIs can be used to measure success across more than one goal. And you can use good old page views to measure just about anything—though on their own, page views don’t tell you much.

One last thing: Yes, you’re busy. But taking the time to consider and set formal KPIs for content isn’t a waste of time. It’s a tactical move that gives you ammunition to speak to stakeholders about the quantifiable value you’re creating. It also helps you learn to be a more user-focused, goal-oriented writer.

Data is like a magical well that only gets deeper the more you draw from it, and the longer you work with KPIs the more you’ll learn from them. If you want to learn more about measuring the long, messy game of content marketing, descriptions of all the KPIs in the chart above are included in the index below. You can also complete some exercises in setting KPI’s with Portent’s new content strategy ebook:
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Let’s Get Nerdy: Appendix of Content KPIs

Conversion KPIs

KPIs for measuring content conversion

If you’re writing content that’s meant to generate leads, track how many leads you’re generating! When you debut a new gated resource, measure how many new leads that resource brought in. Compare that number to the leads generated by other gated resources. What are your customers looking for? What are they willing to give up their contact information to get? (Bonus round: see what kinds of content generate the most qualified leads.)

You can use Google Analytics’ Ecommerce report to track revenue and transactions on your website. When you add the secondary dimension of “landing page,” you can see how many people made a purchase after touching a piece of content you produced. What copy has the highest transaction or revenue level?

(Pro tip: If you use revenue as a KPI, your findings will vary according to how much a customer spends. If you’re just curious how many folks who touched your content converted, and you don’t care how much they wound up spending, use “transactions” instead of “revenue.”)

If you don’t have high enough levels of transaction or revenue value to see how it interacts with your content, you can set goals inside Google Analytics that allow you to track conversions without a dollar value. You can see what URLs accomplished which goals you’ve set. A non-monetary goal might be adding an item to your cart or joining an email list, as in the example below:

Goal completion tracking inside Google Analytics including potential goals to set

Conversion AND Reputation KPIs

KPIs for measuring content reputation and conversion

Returning customers are the intersection of reputation and conversion. They know your brand, they like it, they’ve tried it, and they want more. It’s hard to measure the impact of content on return customers, but you can use Google Analytics to set tracking codes from the “thank you” page or log-in screen. From here, you can see what kinds of content this group interacts with. Do your returning customers visit your blog? Do they read your whitepapers? If not, why not? If so, which ones are popular?

Reputation KPIs

KPIs for measuring content reputation

Did key industry influencers mention your content? Even if they didn’t link back to you, mentions help your reputation! You can measure them by creating a Google Alert for mentions of your brand in general or of a particular content campaign. Oh, and you might want to keep track of whether those mentions are positive or negative! You don’t need to run sentiment analysis on thousands of pieces of mined data to know that it’s bad news if your competitor just released an blog post trashing your new ebook.

If you build a content campaign around a keyword, make sure you’re tracking your success. There are a lot of tools on the market for tracking your keyword rankings (popularly, SEMrush or Ahrefs), but Portent uses STAT, a SERP-tracking tool out of Vancouver, Canada.

Here’s an example of what SERP position tracking looks like in STAT:

up and to the right graph measuring SERP results with STAT

In case you were wondering, Portent launched a content campaign for this client around this keyword in January 2016. Nothing validates a content decision quite like a graph headed up-and-to-the-right!

When you show up high in the SERPs, you’re building your reputation both with Google and its almighty crawlers and with the human customers who are browsing results. Even if they don’t click on your page’s SERP, they’ll still see it in their query results, which improves awareness. (And that’s where a good headline and meta description come in!)

Sentiment analysis is a complicated topic that’s usually relegated to social media, but major brands can leverage this AI technology to track the way people are talking about their content campaigns, too. Basically, it’s a way of measuring your reputation from your social media mentions. If you just launched a new educational center, for example, keep your ear to ground for relevant Twitter chatter. Do people love it, or do they think it’s confusing?

For a deep and technical dive into sentiment analysis, we recommend this story of running sentiment analysis on Yelp from Stack Overflow’s David Robinson. For something higher-level, Brandwatch is one of the oldest names in the business and offers a clear, accessible explanation.

Reputation AND Engagement KPIs

KPIs for measuring content reputation and engagement

Social media is one of the best barometers for gauging the success of your content. The more likes and shares, the better the content is performing in terms of engagement, which affects your reputation on the web.

(Pro tip: Social media is sensitive to many factors. If you want to measure the impact of your content based on the content’s virtues alone, promote different content pieces with the same amount of money to lookalike audiences at the same time of day. If a piece does well, throw the rest of your promotional budget behind it! And then write more like that.)

Backlinks are one of the most crucial KPIs for content—for many writers, they are the carrot on the other end of the stick. They are also a valuable barometer for assessing who respects or enjoys your content to the point they’re willing to recommend it to others. As SEOs often say, every link is like a vote. When you receive unsolicited backlinks from authoritative sites, your readers are engaged, and your reputation is growing in the eyes of both readers and Google’s algorithm.

Engagement KPIs

KPIs for measuring content engagement

Are people actually commenting on your blog post? If you write a blog post that gets through to people, they’ll show it in the comments! Tracking this engagement KPI will help you learn what gets the conversation started.

For example, check out these comments on Portent SEO Julie Goodman’s blog post, “Wisdom from the Trenches: An Interview with BloomNation’s Eric Wu on SEO, Product, and Marketing.” People read it, considered its points, and responded thoughtfully:

comments on a blog show engagement

If you want an easy, fast way to tell whether or not people are reading your content, look at the scroll depth of the page. Most heat mapping programs will provide you with scroll depth tracking. (Portent uses Hotjar.) After you’ve set up tracking on the page through Google Tag Manager and the heat mapping platform, take a look at your scroll depth maps. You can see where your readers are dropping off, and how fast:

heat map indicates scroll depth

Time on page is a similar performance indicator to scroll depth in that it shows you how long people typically spend reading your content. Instead of being measured in pixels, however, this KPI is measured in seconds. If you’re creating a new content strategy for your blog, your goal might be to increase the average time on page for new blog posts. Generally, the longer someone spends on your page, the more they’re engaging with your content, which means you’ve successfully earned their attention.

(Pro tip: Don’t compare content of different types and lengths for time on page. A 2,000-word guide will probably have a much longer time on page than a 300-word blog post, but 50% of readers might make it all the way through that blog post versus only 10% who read your whole guide. Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.)

You can swap out this KPI with bounce rate if you prefer—they both tell you whether or not readers are leaving your site after viewing your content. But bounce rate only tells you the ratio of folks who leave versus those who keep digging deeper; the average pages per session will tell you just how far in they go.

What’s a good rate for average pages per session? This depends entirely on your business. Generally, a site that serves to generate leads will have fewer pages per session than an ecommerce site, where users are (hopefully) browsing product pages. If your ecommerce site doesn’t see an average rate of pages per session of 3 or 4, you need to retool your strategy. (On the other hand, if a blog post on the Portent site has a rate of pages per session above 2, it’s killing it on this KPI.)

Engagement AND Conversion KPIs

KPIs for measuring content conversion and engagement

These are the KPIs for measuring conversions and engagement with email marketing campaigns. Your site’s content extends to all owned channels, and that means email, too. If you aren’t setting KPIs for your email marketing campaigns, you’re squandering one of your few opportunities to speak right into a customer’s ear (and knowing what to say).

Conversion AND Reputation AND Engagement KPIs

pageviews as a content KPI

Without visitors, you’re not going to engage, convert, or build any kind of reputation. The more people who view your page, the more folks are engaging with your brand and the more your reputation spreads. And the wider your reach, the more likely you’ll generate conversions (and the more data you’ll have to determine what kind of readers are converting).

Page views are the easiest way to measure the success of content. Unsurprisingly, they’re also the most popular. And some might even say the laziest.

Unless you’re combining page views with some other metric, you’re going to be missing a big part of the picture. What sets apart great marketers is their ability to layer a versatile yet surface-level metric like a page view with other KPIs to understand whether and how a piece of of content connects with readers. A click-bait headline, for example, might generate a lot of page views, but if the content sucks the time on page won’t be very long, the pages per session will be low, and you probably won’t get any backlinks. So use this KPI in conjunction with others!

Cate McGehee

Cate McGehee

Portent Alum
Portent Alum

Cate worked in publishing and book publicity before moving to agency marketing. Since then, she's done media planning for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at a leading ad agency in Washington, D.C., led hundreds of content campaigns for an SMB digital marketing agency in Seattle, and worked on the content strategy and execution of in-house enterprise teams. She's a graduate of the Human Centered Design and Engineering certificate program at the University of Washington, and loves finding the intersections of content marketing and user experience here at Portent. In her free time, she's a freelance arts and culture writer with the Seattle Weekly as well as other publications locally and nationally.

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