You propose a new approach to content in a poorly designed and executed interface to guide new customers in activating and using your service. The experience is critical to your customers starting a long-term relationship with your company successfully. You’re asked for the return on investment, even though your company has little data about the experience—data you need to estimate a return on investment.

You just launched a new digital magazine in a new region. You’re asked whether it has boosted sales yet, even though it takes 12-24 months to see impact from content such as magazines, blogs, and thought leadership that support potential customers very early in their journey to a sale. Additionally, your company has gaps in the data and chose not to close them. Your company also did not approve budget for promoting or advertising the magazine to accelerate results.

The above examples are only scratching the surface of what I call the catch-22 of content ROI. Let’s take a closer look at what it is.

What Is Catch-22?

Joseph Heller invented catch-22 in the 1961 novel by the same name to describe requirements for grounding pilots in the military:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, that specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr [a pilot] was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them.

Since then, the term has come to describe contradictory or self-defeating rules or requirements. Companies require immediate results from content with little investment, but results from content require time and substantive investment not only in creating the content assets but also in the strategy, technology, and capacity to track content impact.

Why am I pointing out this catch-22? Because if you don’t recognize this misguided thinking about content ROI for the doom loop it is, your efforts to start or mature content capacity will be at risk of stalling, if not stopping altogether. Plus, you’ll feel either stupid or frustrated when executives or stakeholders trap you (intentionally or not) in an argument you can’t win. And, if you have a team, they will lose motivation because executives and stakeholders do not appreciate and support their efforts.

Sidestepping the Catch-22 of Content ROI

So, explore ways to direct thinking about content ROI differently and, consequently, to set appropriate expectations. I find it’s helpful to step back and ask, “Were the outcomes of our content effort worth the investment?”

If your content mostly supports marketing, then read this article by Robert Rose and consider

  • Whether advertising thinking and measurement are appropriate this content.
  • Whether you and your stakeholders think beyond performance to impact.

If your content is core to the product experience, then read this article about TurboTax and consider

  • Whether your stakeholders recognize the impact of content and design together.
  • Whether you and your stakeholders credit content and design for impact to the same extent TurboTax does.
  • Whether you and your stakeholders connect business opportunities with improved content and design.
  • Whether you and your stakeholders integrate support and help into the core product experience.

Also, check out this roundup of additional resources:

A magic formula for content ROI does not exist. But, after reviewing a variety of perspectives on and examples of considering content ROI, you will be much better equipped to educate your executives and stakeholders about an appropriate approach.

The Impact: Support from the Right People

So, don’t let executives and stakeholders catch you in the catch-22 of content ROI. Instead, anticipate the interest in content impact and return on investment. Address the interest with an approach that is appropriate and fair, not in a way that forces you to make an arbitrary prediction based on little content data or to promise results without the proper resources. Executives and stakeholders who are successful for the long haul will respect you for it and, consequently, be much more likely to support you as your content impact grows.

Because you’re not promising overnight or overly hyped results, it’s likely you will deter fly-by-night executives seeking a quick notch in their career belts before moving on to the next position or next employer. But their fleeting support will last only until the next buzzword comes along, anyway. And, their support could undermine your content efforts if you’re associated with their short-term “successes” that leave a wake of disgruntled teams and shaky long-term strategy. Seek the support that is likely to last.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a content intelligence and strategy firm that has advised or trained hundreds of the world’s leading organizations since 2010. She also is the former head of content at MailChimp, the marketing platform recognized by Inc. as 2017 Company of the Year. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science to develop the  content intelligence software ContentWRX, publish the online magazine Content Science Review, and offer online certifications through Content Science Academy.

Colleen has earned recognition as an instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing by a TopRank study, a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine, and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists by multiple organizations.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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