BACK TO SCHOOL: Robert Rose Misses the Point of ROI being only for Content Marketing

In Is ROI Really What You’re Looking For?” published in the August, 2015 COO Magazine, Robert Rose argues “Maximizing ROI has been and always will be the wrong goal for campaign-oriented marketing.” His article leads the reader through a series of steps in this quest to prove this statement.

  • “…incremental sales revenue, cost per lead generated, cost per sale generated, and cost of a new customer are not returns on an investment; neither are they even goals.”
  • “Thinking of these things as return on investment is a bit like thinking of how your investment in gasoline produces a return on your job. Gasoline, like many marketing tactics, is ultimately a cost, not an investment.”
  • “[the larger problem with ROI] is that it encourages us to underperform. If marketing’s mandate is to maximize ROI, you have every incentive to never do anything new at all.”
  • “Applying ROI to a process that is ultimately a cost, not a long-term asset, can be treacherous at best.”

Rose’s conclusion: “Content marketing is not advertising.”

The problem is Rose is wrong. Content marketing IS advertising. He read the wrong books on his Indiana-Jones-like journey to explore the history of marketing and measurement and thus came to an incorrect conclusion. His article’s arguments try to place “content” on a platform far above advertising. Unfortunately, advertising is content and content is advertising. It always was and always will be. Here’s why.

ROI Can Be Positive or Negative

The basic error Rose makes is the same one that many people make in looking for ROI: they think it is always positive. It’s not. ROI can be positive OR negative. John Wannamaker was, after all, right: we only know half of the truth of what works and what doesn’t. Even today, when we have so many more tools to measure advertising and its tactics (of which content marketing is one), it is difficult to quantify ROI. But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

Make no mistake: advertising has always been an investment. Like any investment, it can have a positive or negative return. “If you can measure it, you can control it,” is what an engineering friend said many years ago. The quest for ROI shouldn’t be about parsing words or definitions about what is or is not a marketing tactic. The quest and question should be about what are we measuring.

Rose thinks content is an asset and as such, falls into ROI more so than campaign-oriented marketing. But as Sergio Zyman, the former Coke marketer, put it, “The sole purpose of marketing is to get more people to buy more of your product, more often, for more money. You don’t make any money until you sell the stuff, and you can’t sell the stuff until you’ve gotten people to want it.” Thus, sales and marketing are forever connected (though you already know they don’t work very well together often times). The bottom line, however, is that if you want to understand ROI, you have to understand both.

Think of ROI as measuring “volume.” Incremental Volume stems from a buyer receiving information about the latest information from a company and then acting on it. In other words, it is the result of the cross-selling activities that Rose calls campaigns or marketing tactics.

Like Recurring volume, Incremental volume has a cost associated to it, and we need to understand what that cost is. If future marketing strategies and tactics do not build base volume, or do not expand the reasons why people should buy your products and services, all we are doing is “renting volume” instead of owning it. As Zyman says, “We need to own volume.”

ROI metrics help us do that. ROI – including creating distributing and consuming content – is inextricably bound into costs. ROI, therefore, can be a positive or a negative number. A better example instead of gasoline would have been stocks.


In marketing, like in purchasing stocks, everything has a cost – a cost that can and should be measured. Sending a million pieces of mail has a cost. It, as Rose suggests, can be called a campaign. But, saying it can’t have an ROI is absurd. Also, the “Blog” or the “white paper” has a cost. But they, as much as the direct mail campaign, or advertisement, can and do have an ROI, which is related to the cost. Ignoring costs, or saying that only content as asset can be ROI’d is confusing the entire idea of measurement.

Rose gives some examples of why he believes companies are more valuable with such assets (i.e., Red Bull, HubSpot). However, what those companies are doing is creating their value no different than in the past: using marketing tactics that have a positive or negative impact on ROI. It’s the tactics that have changed, not the ROI.

Today, instead of direct mail, it might be a blog. Instead of a magazine ad, it might be a white paper. Every piece of content has a cost to create and deploy it. And because it has a cost, it can have an ROI that is positive or negative.

Rose’s belief that somehow these assets are different than traditional tactics is as misleading as his conclusion that content marketing is not advertising. Everything is advertising. It always was.

For example, the Marlboro Man did more to sell cigarettes than all the research white papers combined to stop people from smoking. The real problem is the blurring of the line between marketing tactics and injecting words like “value” into arguments. True marketers understand that “yes” and “no” are equal. They are both pieces of information, and the idea is to measure how you can get more of the “yes” without losing sight that you will always have “no.” Our world today, because it is in disruption, is full of opportunities that demand risk. The real understanding of ROI is the realization that it is about the investment, whether creating a blog or an ad or hiring more sales people.

When Rose said that in order to maximize ROI you have every incentive to never do anything new, he demonstrated the exact opposite of what every direct marketer knows: testing is what maximizes ROI. Test all the time to improve your return.

There will always be the need for ROI on everything, be it a campaign or a blog. You neglect it at your own risk – and at the risk of selling more of your product or service.

The Metrics of Content Marketing as Native Advertising

Technology exists today to help deliver ROI measurements. One such technology is a code you can place on a website that does a reverse IP lookup to deliver the company name of the visitor. In other words, you can “see” the company looking at a website with this technology, and what they are looking at.

This is a native advertising opportunity unlike anything in the past, with metrics that could only be dreamed about before such a code. We experimented with it by partnering with a B2B publisher. By placing this code on the publisher’s website, we were able to see the journey of his readers as they drank his content to satisfy their thirst. It was incredible.

Most people came to the publisher through Google or other search engine. Being on page one is everyone’s dream, and the goal of organic search SEO. Because this publisher had excellent SEO with his content, he repeatedly was one page one with his content. Thus, we were able to see the companies and the TYPE of content they were consuming as a result of their Google searches. We saw quite literally people searching for solutions to problems.

We then hatched our native advertising strategy: why not ride on the publisher’s SEO with our client’s content? In other words, as the browser searches for a solution to his problem, our client would “be there” when the browser clicked the publisher’s link which was on page one of the Google search.

Our client’s content (a white paper)“rode along” side-by-side with the publisher’s content. It was this configuration that delivered and continues to deliver uncanny results.

Some people are already objecting to this metric in reading this by saying we don’t know WHO is clicking. Our answer is: we don’t care. We know the company, and through some detective work, we can identify the individual (i.e., making a phone call). John Wannamaker knew his advertising was working, only he didn’t know which half. Now we know all advertising (content) is working (or not): because, we can measure it.

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