Smaller companies and early-stage startups don’t always have a sophisticated data team or robust tech stack to measure attribution. Instead of focusing only on conversions and direct attribution, content marketers can use leading indicators to help measure their work.
“Leading indicators” is a term borrowed from economists to predict changes in the economy. For example, the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) gauges the level of optimism/pessimism consumers feel toward business and employment conditions.
In the content marketing world, my friend Derek Flint, the Marketing Manager at Ten Speed, defines leading indicators as impressions, followers, subscribers, shares, qualitative response/engagement data, assisted or influenced conversions, and people/companies viewing your content.
Since SEO efforts can take weeks or months to see results, these are signals you can look at long before you’re measuring organic visits to your site. Below are five examples of leading indicators you can use to see if your content program is headed in the right direction.
Organic traffic growth can be a good indicator of success, but if you have a new site this will take time. Using other SEO indicators such as keyword rankings and total keywords can be useful in the early stages of a content strategy.
Not all keywords are equally important. In general, the more relevant the keyword is to your product and business, the more it matters. For example, at Superpath, the keyword “content marketing salary” is directly related to the business, so seeing that keyword increase in position is a great signal.
You can use the “organic keywords” report in Ahrefs to see how the total number of organic keywords is growing and how they are moving up in rankings. If you filter by “position: improving” you can check the progress over time (this is a paid feature).
As your content program matures, core keywords moving to the top of the SERPs can lead to higher conversion rates and direct attribution.
A much harder to measure but equally important metric is people mentioning your company’s content in public spaces. Anecdotal feedback such as likes, mentions, tweets, and comments can tell you whether or not your message is resonating.
A simple Google Drive folder with screenshots of people's mentions and messages is a great temperature gauge—it shows the kind of content that has resonated with people over time. For example, we wanted to give actionable advice on a common problem with the article, “Inherited a Mediocre Blog? Here’s Your Survival Guide.” Mentions like this one tell us we delivered:
Pageviews alone don’t give the same kind of context on what content hits and what doesn’t. Seeing your content mentioned in the wild gives insight into what is *actually* valuable and share-worthy.
In an ideal world, every content team has access to the sales team to collaborate on content. For example, if they need more BOF content to help close deals, they tell the content team who can create and deliver. But how do you know if that content is working as intended?
This situation happened in late 2022—we needed more BOF content at Superpath—which led to these two articles:
One of these thought leadership pieces (which offered practical advice while promoting Superpath Marketplace services) got brought up in a sales call soon after publishing it. Someone had seen it in a newsletter, where we normally distribute new content, and reached out. This was one of those “aha” moments—confirmation that our content was doing what it’s supposed to.
If you work for a larger company where it’s hard to have a direct line of communication with sales, tools like Gong, Chorus, Dovetail, and even Grain allow you to watch sales calls async and listen for content mentions. These calls can also be a goldmine for content ideation.
Internal feedback from other departments and external feedback from customers will have some crossover. In a way, they’re one and the same—if the content you’re creating gets positive feedback from your team, it’s likely resonating with prospects.
“Is sales excited about the content you're making? Are they using it with prospects? Is your leadership happy with the themes? This is very gut feel, but it's worth something.
“For example, we created this case study with Nectar as a blog, video, and social posts. Andy, our Lead Account Executive started hearing it brought up on his sales calls, and let me know in our weekly meeting that it was really resonating with customers (which we wouldn't necessarily have known from traffic/engagement signals alone). So he started including it in his cold outreach and lead follow-up, and we started boosting it as a promoted post on LinkedIn—which worked way better than standard ads,” Eric shares.
Eric used this qualitative feedback on the case study to improve the messaging in the copy on the home page and future content. With each round of qualitative feedback and iteration, he’s able to nail down the language and tone that resonates with customers.
Finally, some companies may use social media followers, impressions and subscribers as leading indicators. These may be more important for B2C/DTC brands.
This is certainly the case for Simon Bacher, CEO and Co-founder of Ling App:
“Our data analytics tracker shows that 83 percent of our gamified language learning app’s download rate comes from social media traffic. So the number of likes, shares, and positive feedback our pages get from social media users is a crucial determinant of content marketing success.”
If brands see the majority of referral traffic or content downloads coming from social media platforms, social media metrics are definitely worth tracking.
We included increasing followers on LinkedIn and Twitter in the original Superpath content strategy but didn’t end up tracking them in our reporting sheet. That’s because a fraction of leads and referral traffic come from social media—for us community and newsletter growth are much more important metrics.
The indicators mentioned in this article are just examples—every content team will have to set their own goals and identify logical metrics that speak to them. Make sure you write down whichever metrics you choose in your content strategy so the team is clear on what you’re going to track, how you’re going to track it, and why.
While you may rely on some traditional attribution metrics to measure content success, leading indicators such as organic keyword life, social media mentions, and internal feedback can give a fuller picture of how your content is resonating with the intended audience.