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

  1. Robert Rose, Chief Strategy Officer, Content Marketing Institute, sent me an e-mail after I sent this essay for consideration to Clare McDermott, the Editor, Chief Content Officer Magazine. This is what he wrote:

    First and foremost – thank you so much for the rebuttal to the article in CCO. And my apologies for the delay in sending this. Clare had sent it to me prior to the holidays, but well, they definitely got the better of me (in a good way).

    In any event. I’m not sure whether Clare will run the rebuttal or not (mostly because of the time that has, and will, pass between issues). But I wanted to personally respond and just tell you that it meant quite a bit that you took the time to write it – and to also respond a bit to some of your points.

    So – overall I don’t think we disagree that much – though there may be some interesting things that we will agree to disagree on. And, I think much of any confusion can probably be best chalked up to the “editing for space” (the original article was probably twice as long) and perhaps my inarticulate way of making my points.

    Certainly I’d agree that Advertising is content. And contrary to the impression that you seem to be under, I absolutely believe that advertising is an effective approach. Heck, it’s where I cut my teeth in this business 25 years ago. I just believe that “return on investment” is the wrong way to measure it. I’m certainly not the first to take issue with ROI as a metric for marketing expenses (from whatever the approach) (here’s a pretty decent if not short article from a couple of years ago that discusses this: . Now you might argue that ROMI (Return on Marketing Investment) from the 1990’s is what we’re really talking about. And that’s fine – but it’s the totality of marketing spend vs. the incremental revenue. Basically that asks the question of “is marketing a function (rather than any one approach within it) worth investing in?”

    My point (as inarticulate as it was) is that campaign based marketing (i.e. advertising, or direct marketing in waves of campaigns) is an expense not an investment. Now, we may ultimately be arguing semantics here – but I think it’s important. An investment increases in value over time – providing an increasing return over time. An expense is something we spend in order to affect a positive outcome. I think advertising is an incredibly important expense for the business – but not one that provides an increasing return over time (unless you argue brand value – but of course there are many more components to brand value than just advertising).

    So – I do think advertising is content, and I do believe that advertising and direct marketing is an incredibly important part of the effective expenditure of the marketing mix. But it’s an expense; not an investment.

    Now, where I weighted the article (most of what got cut out was my building my argument for the above) – and the real point I was attempting to make – is that Content Marketing IS (or can be) a true return on an investment. It actually can be considered to be on the P&L line.

    Investing in a content marketing strategy that builds an audience has the opportunity add value in multiple ways to the business that advertising simply can’t. Yes, both Advertising and Content Marketing are content – but with much different goals. You make the point with my Red Bull example that it’s no different than any other marketing campaign. Except it is. Red Bull spends a very high percentage of revenue on marketing – and a big percentage of that goes to Red Bull Media House. Except they also derive revenue out of Red Bull Media House through advertising, sponsorships and content syndication. Red Bull Media House could (it doesn’t) generate a profit. Kraft, through their Food and Family Magazine derives multiple lines of value such as decreased research costs (their brand managers use their own audience), more effective media buys (4x more effective) as well as better brand and cross-sell through their use of their owned media properties. Johnson and Johnson owns Their main value derived from that ownership is the incredible research and development value they get to help give them insight into marketing their products better. That’s an investment.

    If you believe that those goals aren’t important – or are the same as advertising – then that’s where we’ll have to agree to disagree. Because they’re not.

    You also took out of context (or didn’t understand) my statement about “maximizing ROI you have every incentive to never do anything new” (again perhaps my fault in my phrasing).

    Nothing of what I’m saying suggests that measurement is unproductive, or that testing isn’t what helps create a better result. The challenge with ROI as a percentage for direct efforts is that it will always flatten out. It just will. Even if the only reason it flattens out is because you’ve sold everybody who can be sold. Too many directors that I know are switching their main metric to the ROI percentage – and it’s just not the right metric. And it always ends with them saying – it’s the wrong metric. Selling the first 90 customers in the room is NOT the same as selling the last 10 that are stubbornly resisting. You may have to spend more, you may have to discount more – and (in some cases) you may actually create a more valuable customer in either case. But if you only measure ROI (basically how much I have to spend to acquire a customer) as a percentage, you start well and will fail in the end.

    So – sorry for going long here. Thank you again for the articulate reply to the article. It certainly helped me refine the argument. We may agree to disagree on a number of things, but I trust you had an enjoyable time in writing it. Maybe we can meet at some conference in the future and debate over a good beer.

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