They say fashion is cyclical; but if you ask me, marketing is too.

Once upon a time, marketing was purely analog: put up a billboard here, run a radio spot there, and maybe buy some space in a newspaper for good measure. Sure, your sales went up, but was that because of your amazing ad copy or simply because it was sunnier that month?

While larger corporations could pay for some consumer research to monitor the effectiveness of their campaigns, marketers in small-to-midsize companies were stuck with the old song and dance of waving around a report and saying “look at all the shiny things we bought with your money!”

The Internet revolutionized marketing. Suddenly, gathering data that once required tedious research and educated guesses was automated and accurate. You could see that you spent $10,000 on keyword campaign X, got 1000 clicks, of which 200 people put items in their shopping carts and paid a total of $20,000. Boom – a quantifiable success!

But what started as a gold mine quickly became a race to the bottom. Consumers got inundated with terrible ads and stopped clicking. While CPMs dropped, advertisers found it harder and harder to stand out in a crowd of screaming, blinking competitors all poking their hands in customers’ eyes.

The solution, it seemed, was to instead give consumers something they actually wanted; something with real value. Out of that new need, modern content marketing was born.

Content Marketing Takes Off

In just a few years time, it seemed like every brand out there was creating their own content. Sure some were just mindlessly reposting every photo of a fan with their product they could find, but others were creating genuinely valuable, entertaining, and educational content. But lost in this explosion of content was what we had given up: data and accountability.

No, we’re not quite back in the analog world of “How did my billboard do?” but instead many content marketers have been saddled with consumption metrics like pageviews and visitors, or vanity numbers like total shares and comments.

Maybe people are viewing, and even engaging with, your content. But what does that actually mean? You could have a post with 1,000,000 page views driven by explosive social sharing, but what if everyone is actually tweeting “OMG this brand is a bunch of puppy-kickers. Check out how horrible this is…” A little hyperbolic, sure, but the point is that simply counting eyeballs gives you no indication of if your content marketing is actually moving the needle for your brand.

The ROI Dilemma

Smart marketers are starting to wake up to this problem. In fact, the latest CMI data shows that only 21 percent of B2B marketers and 23 percent of B2C marketers consider themselves successful at measuring the ROI of their content marketing efforts. Think about it. That means 78 percent of marketers, including the leaders of enormous, worldwide companies, acknowledge that they could very well be throwing their money out the window.

Clearly that’s not sustainable. Yes, as “content marketing” has continued to be the hottest trend, more and more companies have thrown increasingly large dollars into the fray. But we’re now at a tipping point where the best brands will begin to wise up, and I believe we’ll see some of the lesser players start seriously rethinking their commitments to the format. Those same CMI reports acknowledge the writing on the wall – 82 percent of respondents said that measuring ROI is a priority within the next 12 months.

So, how will brands move beyond lopsided metrics like pageviews and social shares? How can a content marketer truly understand not just the ROI of their overall storytelling, but the relative merits of some of their content as compared to others? That’s the tricky part, but with a little smarts it’s eminently achievable. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at how smart marketers have started to tackle this problem – stay tuned!