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A Better Way to Measure Marketing ROI: Return on Improvement

Most athletes are extremely competitive. They understand wins and losses. It could be the reason so many former athletes end up in sales and marketing.

But, certain athletes—distance runners, swimmers, gymnasts, and golfers, for example—understand competition (and therefore success) in a different way. Those athletes are less focused on beating an opponent and more focused on beating their own personal best (time, distance, score, etc.). They’re competing with themselves.

The Super Improvers Board

This concept (called “The Super Improvers Board”) has recently been applied to education models as well. Instead of challenging every student to earn a perfect score on every assignment or test, each child is asked to focus on self-improvement. This approach puts achievable wins within reach and encourages forward progress for everyone, regardless of how their peers perform and regardless of each student’s own abilities.

The  sports analogy sounds like this:

It would be impossible for me to win the Chicago Marathon (the winner typically runs 26.2 miles in approximately two hours; I completed the 2011 race in just under five hours). If winning is the only measure of my success, then I might as well not try—I’m set up to fail.

However, if my goal is to improve my best 26.2 mile time, I can dedicate myself to the daily training and healthy lifestyle it takes to get stronger and faster over time. On race day, it won’t matter what “place” I finish in, as long as my own time is better than it was before.

The return is tangible.

And just as important, the process keeps the individual engaged, inspired, and motivated to grow—to get better. Perhaps most importantly, super improvers are consistently measuring where they are and pushing forward in small, but healthy ways, as opposed to the short-cuts, hacks, tricks, and crash diets that only produce short-term (myopic) wins, while disregarding their overall health.

Instead of short-term return on investment determining how you view marketing, I’m proposing a radical shift towards long-term return on improvement—towards better marketing over time as opposed to more of the same.

Re-dedicating ourselves to foundational best practices.

Return on improvement means identifying where your marketing is today in the areas that impact how your customers move from awareness to action—and investing the time and resources it takes to make them better.

Like distance athletes, we’re not going to be solely focused on whether or not Marketing efforts “won” an arbitrary number of new sales, qualified leads, or generated 10x revenue because, by now, we know that’s nearly impossible to accurately attribute and predict.

Rather, we’re going to determine – year after year – if our marketing is getting better. Is it improving over time?

The Return on Improvement Model

Here’s a rough visualization of the Return on Improvement model:


I know that looks really simple and awfully vague. But, bear with me because unfortunately, most companies are not following a number of marketing best practices.

Companies of all sizes in every industry are woefully behind the times and mediocre at best when it comes to modern marketing—particularly digital marketing.

Where to Focus on Improvement

Tempted by the halo effect they assign to the leaders in their industry and the shiny object syndrome that creeps up when they assess their tech stack, companies fail to maintain focus in these five key areas of best practices:

  • A website built with the user experience (UX) and search engine optimization (SEO) in mind from the beginning.
  • A documented strategy that includes deep audience analysis and research-validated, brand-differentiated positioning.
  • A commitment to content intent that is focused on serving a well-defined target audience with consistent, relevant, and valuable expertise on an ongoing basis.
  • A commitment of resources, including human expertise (internal or agency), efficiency tools, time, and budget.
  • Effective data measurement and analysis at every point of the funnel/journey.

These are the five areas businesses have to improve if they want better results.

Better has value. It can be defined and understood objectively on a spectrum—a marketing maturity model.

Better sits on the far right end of the marketing maturity model. Most startups and under-resourced companies live on the opposite (far left) side.

These are objective realities, not personal opinions.

How to Make “Improvement” Objective, Not Subjective

To visualize the Return on Improvement model, consider these comparisons.

Website Return on Improvement

It’s better if your website is optimized for search engines and designed with your user’s experience in mind. That includes making the site accessible for all users. It’s better if your website is securely hosted and regularly backed up. It’s better if the pages are updated and the plug-ins are audited on a regular basis.

Better for your website’s speed, performance, and ranking authority.

That kind of website is better than a DIY template with stock images and no meta descriptions or title tags. Because it provides a better experience, it has a better chance of being discovered when customers are actively searching for the products or services you sell.


Strategy Return on Improvement

It’s better to have a documented and transparent strategy that identifies your ideal customer persona and related decision-influencers in the target audience. Part of that strategy should include a clear understanding of which pain points and opportunities motivate customers to act.

It’s better if that strategy and your entire brand identity are informed by direct customer insight that explains why they chose you (differentiation) and how they refer you (customer experience) to others. It’s all the better if you obsessively commit to actively asking for that feedback before, during, and after every purchase.

It’s better if that plan is executed intentionally and consistently across all channels year-round. And it’s best if that documented strategy is aimed directly at your company’s long-term goals.

Not just better. But, objectively, undeniably, inarguably better.

That’s better than relying on tribal knowledge each time you hire and train a new employee. It’s better than marketing in random fits and starts, changing direction every few months. It’s better than short-sighted Sales and Advertising masquerading as Marketing.


Content Intent Return on Improvement

When creating content, it’s better – for your customers and ultimately for you – if your intention is to educate, inform, assist, guide, or help them. It’s better to address their pain points and opportunities, their FAQs, and to walk alongside them on their customer journey on their terms—when and where they’re ready for it.

Audience-centric content is better.

Content distributed throughout the funnel is better.

Content that could only have come from your brand is better.

That’s better than going for the jugular with every piece of marketing content because it just comes across as sales collateral. It’s better than talking about your product’s features and benefits; your company’s history; or your “people that make the difference.” It’s better than the same message your competitors are sending, packaged under a different logo.


Resources Return on Improvement

It’s better to commit to the budget and expert resources it takes to do better marketing. Specialists or specialized agencies with deep expertise in copywriting, SEO, advertising, social media, analytics are invaluable.

It’s better to invest in earned, owned, and paid channels in order to be sure you’re reaching the right customers at the right time. Before, during, and after that outreach, it’s better to leverage a tech stack that makes the work efficient. And it’s better to give your team the time and professional development it needs to do the behind-the-scenes research and analysis necessary to understand what’s working, what’s not, and why.

As opposed to just hiring an intern or an entry-level college grad to “handle social media” or demanding more, new, or fresh organic content and audience growth with no paid promotion behind it.

It’s better than looking for a generalist or “a unicorn” who can do everything. Marketing isn’t magic.


Analysis Return on Improvement

It’s better to take the time to measure and analyze your interactions with your target audience. And then take what you learn and make it…better.

It’s better to know who your social media followers and email subscribers actually are—potential buyers, influencers, vendors targeting you, job seekers, current employees, or friends and family?

We’re talking about human analysis, using statistics to understand the story our marketing is telling us; using data to inform decision-making.

Insights, not just information. Trends, not just traffic.

That’s better than relying on automatically generated reports, alone. It’s better than piling up vanity metrics and far better than measuring without understanding what you’re seeing.


How to Make Return on Improvement Measurable

I shared the five areas companies struggle most often—these are the enemies of modern and effective marketing. But, while the checkbox indicators are by no means an exhaustive list, they do offer tangible and actionable areas for improvement.

If you still feel the need to measure something, I understand.

You either have a documented strategy or you don’t. Though if you do, there’s a good chance it could be better.

You’ve either conducted a deep audience analysis or you haven’t. But, if it’s been a while, maybe it could also be better.

Feel free to use these checklists as a baseline scorecard for your organization. If nothing else, go through the exercise as a team so everyone sees where you are today—and where you could be doing measurably better. If you can check off all 20 boxes, your marketing is light years ahead of 99.9% of companies.



The Return on Improvement model hinges on whether or not you believe in the comprehensive value of better marketing.

If you believe that marketing has value above and beyond the demand, leads, sales, and the revenue it generates for your business, you’re not alone. You’re one of us.

People like us believe in things like a long-term healthy lifestyle vs. crash diets; saving vs. instant gratification; hard-earned improvements vs. hacks, tricks, and short-cuts; educating and serving customers vs. selling at them; research and thoughtful planning vs. reactive outputs; doing the right thing, not for recognition, but because we believe it’s the right thing to do; long-term vision vs. short-term myopia.

Whether you’re a SaaS startup or a $70 million dollar global company, it’s time to acknowledge that with better insight comes better marketing. But, gathering that insight and making the improvements it reveals takes time and resources—and most of all, commitment from the top down.

The truth is that it benefits the Sales side of a company if Marketing solely exists to make their lives easier—to produce only highly vetted, sales qualified leads; to support Sales with high conversion, mid-funnel lead generation.

But it also diminishes the value of Marketing as a practice and an integral part of your company.

If the financial return on investment is still your focus, I won’t try to change your mind. Chances are, you’re in a performance-based sales, revenue, biz dev, demand gen, or lead gen role and you just want Marketing to make your job easier. I get it.

I’m not suggesting that we ditch return on investment completely. It’s just a terrible way to view marketing’s value to your organization.

And here’s the good news:

Your company’s return on improvement will be a better customer experience, better content, better-applied resources, better brand positioning, better insights into your customer experience, better understanding of what’s working, what’s not, and why; a better documented and transparent strategy better executed consistently over time.

If that doesn’t produce the results you’re looking for, what will?

All that’s left is for you to decide…do you want better marketing now?