In February of 2015, athletic apparel giant Under Armour acquired the popular diet and exercise app MyFitnessPal, for $475 million. This was the latest in a series of acquisitions, including MapMyFitness and Endomondo, totaling $710 million.

What stands out is that none of these companies generate impressive revenue streams. Following a now-common “freemium model,” they sell ad space and gain income from a limited group of opt-in subscribers. Beyond that, the bulk of functions are free.

Why would an apparel company invest so much money in start-ups with few capital assets and limited revenue streams?

To be collectively valued at over $1 billion, these companies must be offering something more than sales. As Under Armour understands, that extra something is direct access to an audience over 100 million strong.

Building an audience with content

Under Armour’s acquisition strategy is a perfect example of content marketing. It underscores the value of an engaged audience, whether or not they are active paying customers. The case study also debunks two core myths:

  1. Content marketing is limited to written content
  2. Content marketing can’t generate measurable ROI

At their core, the acquired apps are built around content that provides standalone value to its users. MyFitnessPal is a tool/app/blog, which draws users in with captivating targeted content.

The fact that neither MyFitnessPal, or their new owners Under Armour, have heavily monetized the app indicates that the company believes an engaged, loyal audience is valuable in and of itself. They’ve put their money where their mouth is by diving into deals on a grand scale – even deals that lack a direct association to apparel, their core product.

Beyond Written Content

Written content has long been the bread and butter of content marketing, and for good reason. Written content is easy to produce, easy to consume, easy to distribute, and capable of providing value.

However, ignoring other content types can mean sacrificing opportunities to reach larger and different audiences.

Tools like the MyFitnessPal app allow people to enter their information and get something in return. In the marketing space, tools include websites like SimilarWeb or social media planners like Buffer. These typically offer extremely high value. Some companies charge for full use of their tools, but most offer free partial use and trials to demonstrate value.

Videos provide easily consumable opportunities to demonstrate the value of a product. Video tutorials are an effective content marketing tool, standing out as shareable, emotive content vessels that are easy to follow and learn from. They are also more memorable and accessible.

Live events offer an opportunity to interface with your audience in person. Hosting a panel discussion or giving a talk at a trade show is a form of content marketing: you provide your audience with valuable information, making them more likely to turn to you in the future.

Written content can also extend beyond blog posts and article placements. Checklists, flowcharts, whitepapers, interviews, and Q&As can all be used effectively. Producing a network of content pieces in a range of formats is even better.

Determining Content Marketing ROI

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that you’ll have as clear of an ROI as MFP’s $475 million payday. The value of content marketing can be difficult to define. Although it is possible to generate sales directly from a piece of content, a comprehensive content marketing strategy typically focuses on boosting overall sales by improving the perception of your entire company.

Improved brand perception is a major benefit, and can be measured through surveys and other market research techniques. The overarching key, however, is to expand your perception of how value can be generated.

Here are some analytics that indicate your content marketing is performing.

  1. Sales
    As previously stated, it’s difficult to connect sales to individual pieces of content. However, there will be times when you see a spike in sales following the publication of content or a series of content.

In addition to these spikes, you should see increased sales over time as your content marketing develops. There are of course other factors that affect your sales – nevertheless, the effects of content marketing take place over the long term, so you should see increased revenue over time as a result of your content.

  1. Leads
    If it can be difficult to connect sales to content, leads are part of that connection. You may not be able to record exact purchases or services requested because of content, but you can definitely determine how many email addresses (or other forms of contact information) you collect.

Leads are also a useful measure because they provide a quick indicator for what content your audience finds especially valuable. If your conversion rate is fantastically high for a particular piece of content, you know to create more of that content in the future.

And, of course, leads eventually lead to sales. The more leads you have, the more sales you can potentially make. You may even have calculated your revenue per lead, which would allow you to directly measure ROI.

What About Traffic?

High traffic is an often sought metric, and it can be useful. If the traffic on your site explodes, a low conversion rate doesn’t matter as much – you’ll still collect a lot of leads.

However, engagement metrics like depth and time on page are better indicators of the success of your content marketing. Your goal with content marketing is to create an engaged, loyal, and consistent audience that has trust in your company – enough trust to eventually buy your services. Traffic is important because it helps you build that audience, but it is not in itself a universal indicator of content marketing success.

Data

Interested to know what 30- to 35-year-old males consume on Sundays after the gym? MyFitnessPal can provide you with that information. If you’re a company like In-N-Out, you can use that to your advantage, shaping marketing programs to target a key audience when you know they’ll be receptive.

Under Armour may have plans of their own. On a basic level they can see how and when their audience subsets work-out, targeting their clothing lines appropriately. If the numbers show people hit the gyms more aggressively in early January, perhaps a line of Winter, non-form fitting, generalist gym apparel might go down well? Alternatively, they could sell that information to any number of market research firms or direct-to-consumer companies.

If you’re a science company moving your own content marketing, you have a huge opportunity to learn and evolve your marketing programs, along with your company and products more broadly. Knowing what users are engaging with, what content they seek out and stay on the page to read, can help you better understand things like customer pain points and purchasing decisions. This can directly benefit your next round of product development and the positioning of the product launch. It ultimately drives a strong ROI, but it’s built around a longer marketing lifecycle.

Content marketing ROI can be hard to define. In all likelihood, you don’t have a lazy $475 million in the bank. You can’t buy an existing audience; you need to build your own.