The cost of content marketing depends on the size of your marketing spend, and what you intend to do with it. If your firm has a $200K budget, your priorities will be different to one with a $565 million annual budget.
Everything costs something. Whether it costs money or time, or a combination of both, there is no such thing as free marketing. One of the great appeals of content marketing is you have a lot control over how much it costs you.
There has been a lot of research into the details of what companies are doing for their content marketing. But there’s not much out there on how much cash you should spend on each aspect of it.
How much of my budget should I spend on content marketing?
As a starting point, if we can’t look at the size of the pie, we can at least determine how people are cutting it up. This year’s data from the Content Marketing Institute in the US says that, on average, 32 percent of marketing budgets are spent on content marketing. That’s up from 25 percent last year, and predicted to grow further. So whatever your marketing budget is, your starting point for content marketing is about one-third of that.
Getting the basics down
You know that content marketing is building an audience through publishing content on a platform you control. Nowadays, that initial platform is most likely a company blog or web page, because it’s cheap. But you can also do it through magazines, videos, podcasts and live events.
Some companies outsource all or part of their content, while others try to do everything inhouse. To get a better handle on how your budget and plans sit with others, we’ve structured this paper around three levels of cost:
- Cost of a team
- Cost of a medium
- Cost of a project
Cost of a team
Your starting point is working out whether you want to hire an agency or do it yourself. If you do it yourself, you need to think about how many people you need to hire and what skills they need.
How to think of a ‘content team’
If you spread your content marketing efforts across different media, you should also look at content teams to manage them. It’s hard enough focusing on producing quality blog content if someone expects you to make videos too.
That’s why many experts will tell you to focus on one medium at a time. To choose your weapon, as it were.
But choosing your weapon also limits your audience. If you want maximum exposure, you might want to start by setting aside part of your budget for creating small, in-house content units. I stole that idea from Jay Acunzo, and which I’ll expand on in a bit.
The first decision you have to make is how many staff you need in house to help you, and how much will they cost?
The second will be the nature of your strategy. Will it be video-first, digital-first or print-first?
How do you build a content team?
I was listening to Joe Pulizzi’s Content Inc podcast recently. He suggested that for every hour you spend on producing content you should spend as much time promoting it. He says that because there are two fundamental jobs involved here: the content bit, and the marketing bit.
Recently Jay Acunzo published an interesting blog post suggesting ways of structuring content marketing teams. He based it on his experience at Google. Each ‘pod’, as he named them, would work on an individual project. The structure of each pod was a producer, a marketer and a strategist. The strategist was basically a buffer between the producer and marketer on the one hand, and management and the rest of the world on the other.
In other words, he split the jobs into content jobs, and marketing jobs.
I think both Pulizzi’s and Acunzo’s ideas are great and want to build on them in this article. The appeal of the former is it gives you a broad structure to work with. The appeal of the latter is its agility. I’d only change it by separating out the strategist role.
Not getting rid of that role. But making it part of a content marketing manager or digital marketing manager’s gig. Which is where it sits naturally anyway.
If you approach your content marketing as a series of discrete, ongoing projects, you should hire a team to lead each one. The team should consist of a writer/producer (the creative person) and a marketer (the distribution person). Their job is to execute the content strategy.
The primary job of the writer is to write. Write scripts, articles, blog posts, or podcast scripts. If your strategy is print-first, then it will also be to generate article ideas for other writers. The marketer’s job is to own social media distribution, manage lists, and generally ensure a marketing result on the content effort. The marketer measures and promotes.
Staff members cost—but they can’t cost all of your budget, because they can’t do every role. There are contract and freelance staff who should be hired as well. They will need to be sufficiently skilled to be able to adapt their abilities across different media. That skill set is hard to find, and expensive to pay for.
And the more projects you have, the more this staff cost will rise—because your content pods work on individual projects.
AVERAGE COST: About 30 percent of your content marketing budget.
Contract staff work on an issue-by-issue or episode-by-episode basis. The reason you hire them is because no-one can edit their own work. So if you have staff members writing a lot, you should keep an editor or proofreader close by. It’s also rare to find a writer who is any good at design—they are two separate, complementary skills. The editor has to be another pair of eyes to read things as if for the first time (or, if you’re doing video or audio, to see and hear things for the first time). A designer communicates visually—their work makes the writing significantly more accessible than it would be otherwise.
If you aren’t going to share these resources with anyone else in your organisation, it makes sense to hire them on a project-by-project basis. They shouldn’t account for all your costs, but can’t be cut out of the budget.
AVERAGE COST: About ten percent of your budget
Freelance staff work on a story-by-story basis. So these are your writers, photographers, videographers, freelance producers, and audio journalists or podcasters. Each of these can be presented with a particular project. The best freelancers work with people they know and respect, and they don’t work for free. On the upside, this freelance budget could replace a ‘content budget’ (see The Cost of Content below).
AVERAGE COST: About 30 percent of your budget
The appeal of agencies
Obviously this is a self-interested observation. Managing and balancing the mix of full-time staff and freelancers and contractors is a tricky thing to do. Especially if content marketing is only part of your job.
The cost-benefit of an agency is they are already doing that management job—which can free you up to focus on strategy. A good agency will have access to a large pool of freelancers who they have already tried and tested.
The other appeal of an agency is pre-existing relationships with a number of different content creators, and a sound knowledge of hurdles, laws and regulations that you may not be across. All these elements can be beneficial for you.
Given that you still need someone in-house to take ownership of your content strategy, you can sense-check the cost of an agency against what you would otherwise be paying contract and freelance staff. Assuming the agency can also take on some of the burden of full-time staff, their fees should come to no more than 50 per cent of your budget.
If the agency’s fees come in at less than 50 per cent, you have saved money already.
Cost of a medium
The remaining 30 per cent of your budget should go towards production, promotion and distribution. The balance of those three elements will change based on whether you decide to adopt a video-first, digital-first or print-first approach.
There are upsides and downsides to each.
A video-first approach makes a lot of sense. Video is very shareable. Google makes it easy to index nowadays in its search console. If you put it up on social media, people pay attention to it. Of course, the actual video itself won’t do a lot for your SEO until web spiders learn how to watch it, but there are advantages in that limitation, too.
The great thing about video is the sheer variety of ways it can be repurposed with a minimum of effort.
Aside from the video itself (both a long-form one for YouTube or Vimeo, and a shorter one for Facebook), you can load a transcript of it onto your website (for crawlable SEO content), you can turn your audio track into a podcast, and you can use stills from the video for original images.
The downside is the digital sharecropping danger—it makes more sense to host your videos somewhere like YouTube than it does to host them on your own site. And many wiser people than me have pointed out, one day you could wake up and YouTube may have decided to charge you to host your videos.
The other downside is cost—at between $1-and-$2 thousand per screen minute, you can be limited with how much you can produce.
A digital-first approach can apply to a number of different media. Digital here applies to the mode of distribution rather than the content itself. Although I was primarily thinking about podcasts and blogs, as both can be hosted primarily on your own digital real estate.
The appeal of the digital first approach (which has been adopted by many leading media organisations too) is its versatility. Even if you post or podcast first, you can follow that up with a transcript of the podcast, or a podcast of the blog post. You can then funnel those into an app, and distribute through an email newsletter, social media, or even a printed newsletter or magazine.
The downside of the digital-first approach is that same versatility. You can do so much, it’s tempting to actually embrace all the possibilities. It’s easy to spread yourself too thin.
Yes, print is very old school, but it’s interesting how many brands are embracing it. Net-a-Porter and ASOS have recently launched print magazines, going against the tide of the magazine publishing industry. Same with Airbnb, RedBull and (we modestly admit) our own Restaurant & Catering magazine (yes, that was a plug for our own product).
The reason brands go back to print is old-fashioned, hard-core, rusted-on loyalty. Independent research by McNair Ingenuity into printed content marketing efforts showed those magazines were read for an average of 39.7 minutes, and that the vast majority of them knew it was a content marketing product, yet still loved it.
Yet with high print and mailing costs, the downside of print remains cost and the difficulties and costs of measurement. Not that those things are impossible. They’re just hard to do every month, and tricky if you are reporting to someone else frequently.
Cost of a project
Once you have determined your primary medium, you can start breaking that budget up into projects—be that a blog, or magazine, or video series, or podcast.
You should spend about 45 per cent of your budget on content; about 40 per cent on marketing (which includes strategy and distribution); and about 15 per cent on measurement and quality control. Some may argue that quality control should be part of the content budget, and measurement part of the marketing slice. But there’s a reason I’ve separated them out, which I’ll get to shortly.
The first and cheapest cost: Strategy
So many people have said this it almost doesn’t bear repeating. But you have to know: if you don’t have a content strategy, there is barely any point producing content. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, your production efforts are wasted.
There are many places to learn about strategy. My favourite is a great book called Content Strategy by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach. If you feel a book is too challenging, you could Google “content strategy” and find a lot of advice about it. Whatever you do, know that it is something you can do yourself relatively easily. We’ve written before about how content strategy isn’t the hard part of content marketing.
While strategy will evolve, it is unlikely to change quickly. You’ll still be marketing to the same customer personae, even if your understanding of them will get more sophisticated. So when you account for the amount of time spent on it, it should equate to roughly a tenth of your total content marketing budget.
AVERAGE COST: Roughly 10 percent of your content marketing budget
The biggest marketing cost: Distribution
The main reason for that is the high cost of traditional advertising campaigns has been to get distribution. To achieve that you need to buy your way past a gatekeeper—either a TV network or a newspaper, or magazine—in order to get to your audience.
While all those media outlets still exist, they are waning in influence as readers move onto the web via their smartphones, tablets and desktop computers. And the web offers more democratic ways of distributing your message than the traditional media.
Your email list
So the real win for businesses is the collapse in the cost of distribution, and the growth in new channels-to-market.
No matter what your content marketing plan involves, you’ll need an email platform to contact your audience and tell them about it. According to the Content Marketing Institute report mentioned earlier, nearly 70 per cent of marketers focus mainly on e-newsletters to communicate with customers.
There are many providers, and some of your key considerations should include how many people you’re targeting and whether storing your email list with them violate privacy and other laws. Some of the ones we’ve used or heard recommended include MailChimp, Constant Contact, Emma and Campaign Monitor.
It’s also possible your distribution cost is part of your overall SaaS subscription cost (if you use HubSpot, Marketo, Salesforce or something else). In which case, a percentage of that monthly fee would be a line in this part of the budget.
Of course, what you’ll pay for these services depends on the size of your database. But this should be the more expensive part of the ‘marketing’ element in your content marketing activity.
AVERAGE COST: Roughly 30 percent of your content marketing budget
The cost of content
No matter how you plan to distribute your content—through a blog, a magazine, an app, or something else—you still need actual content. If your strategy is to try to magically source user-generated content from thin air, you are kidding yourself.
Content is articles and images (still and video), and you need to pay for them. If you want them to be unique and high-quality, you need to understand that it takes time to produce them. And time is also expensive.
There have been two ways of paying for copy in the past—the copywriting way (being paid by the hour) or the journalism way (being paid by the word). The introduction of copy farms and article spinners created a pay-by-the-article model. Few professional writers will embrace that, because it’s too cheap for them to make a living from it.
Of course, writing can cost nothing if you’re prepared to do it yourself. But what you save in dollars you lose in time.
Getting what you pay for
The problem with content is to have an impact on both readers and SEO, it has to be unique, high-quality, and worthwhile. And you have to have a plan in place to publish it regularly.
If you are paying someone 20 cents an article over the web for your content, it’s not possible for them to make it any of those things. In fact, the only way to produce vast amounts of really cheap copy is to use spinning software, or farms of under-paid juniors plagiarizing stuff from the web. Both of which will get you a Google penalty once the search engines find it.
I found out about this (the spinning software, not the Google penalty) when I used a freelancer through a large freelance site. The individual came highly recommended, and at a very low price. The articles that came back to me were all gibberish with my requested keywords placed randomly in the first paragraph.
As with everything in life, you get what you pay for. Expect this to be your second-highest cost.
AVERAGE COST: Roughly 25 percent of your content marketing budget
A picture tells a thousand words
You want regular, new, hopefully unique images on your website for three reasons. Firstly, it looks prettier to have pictures. Secondly, posts with images get shared twice as often on social media (therefore extending your reach). And thirdly, the tags you put on the images can contain keywords, which can have a positive SEO benefit for you.
Many people get their pictures from image libraries. There are many good ones out there—we have used istockphoto.com, 123rf.com and many others over the years. With all of them, you can either buy one-off credits to purchase images, or buy a subscription for a set number of pictures per month or year.
The subscription will always be better value, and will always cost more upfront.
The cost of making your own images
But having your own unique imagery has many advantages over buying stock photos. Firstly, it can give your site it’s own distinct look. Secondly, there will be no debate ever over who owns the rights to the pictures.
And it doesn’t have to be artistic. Illustrating your blog posts with stick-figure drawings can look great, as long as they are all the same style. It can even look a little whimsical and friendly. Personally, I think more brands could be friendlier, and certainly more whimsical.
Other possibilities are posing for your own pictures, or taking your own pictures with your phone. Cameras on smartphones can create great quality images which will need to be scaled down to not reduce load times for your site.
Or you can pay a professional photographer to come in and take a photo each month for you—if that was your plan, speak to them upfront and see if you can get a deal for frequency of work.
AVERAGE COST: Roughly 20 percent of your content marketing budget
Quality control and measurement
You must have an editor. Seriously. There’s no way around this. If you are paying someone to both write and edit their own writing, they will always disappoint you. This is because no matter how good they are, their brain will work against them. The human brain is an efficient machine. A writer will be blind to their own errors if they know what they meant to say.
There is a stopgap method for editing your own work, but it is not efficient for producing a large amount of content.
You can put someone on full-time or hire a freelance editor, or hire an agency to do this in combination with other tasks. With the ever-shrinking world of traditional media, there should be plenty around.
This role can also be combined with a measurement role. Whether you’re using SaaS software or spreadsheets, the data you get about how your content is shared and acted on should be fed back into your content strategy to improve it.
AVERAGE COST: Roughly 15 percent of your content marketing budget
Your next step
If you want some ideas on where to take your strategy from here, why not read our run-down of Robert Rose and Carla Johnson’s book Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing. Not only is it ferociously smart, but they map out how you might like to approach your strategy with an end goal in mind.
Or if you’re ready to take the next step and start mapping out some content ideas to either hand on or do yourself, find out how other writers generate content ideas. You never know, it may inspire a few of your own.
And If you want more articles like this, why not sign up to our newsletter. It’s a monthly email with three original articles on either content marketing, content strategy or content production. Feel free to use them to make your content, and your content marketing, better and more effective than ever before!