Every company has a blog, right? Surprisingly, according to a 2014 Dartmouth study, less than half of Inc. 500 companies actively maintain a blog. In fact, 2014 marked the first time that the number of companies utilizing a blog had decreased in eight years.

That statistic flies in the face of all of the prevailing wisdom of the day, which is that if you are not using content marketing, you are falling behind. Consumers are avoiding ads, are more loyal to brands that use content marketing, and are consuming more content than ever before. So why the disconnect between the consumer trend and the actual practices of businesses?

In a word, the answer is ROI. Executives have to see the ROI. If they are going to hire staff, purchase tools, and devote company energy towards an initiative like a new form of marketing, they have to be able to calculate the return on investment in real numbers. The problem is that the success of content marketing is hard to pin down with exact numbers.

In an article published by the Content Marketing Institute, Scott Severson writes, "If you search online for 'content marketing ROI,' you get close to 10 million results. The majority don't provide anything particularly useful or actionable for typical marketers trying to justify their content marketing expenses to the CFO."

But entrepreneurs are responding to that disconnect in a variety of ways. These are three trends that are influencing the ROI of content marketing:

Trend 1: Engagement Data Content by itself rarely closes a deal. Instead, it is the hook that is used in a much longer game to reel in the customer. Unfortunately, most content marketing today comes with a very limited set of data about who is consuming the content and what they think about it. In the very worst situations, a company may only see the traffic volume and capture no other information.

Companies are increasingly finding new and innovative ways to gather more valuable data to decipher promising leads from cold ones, gauge consumer response to content, and ultimately convert content into revenue. The Streaming Network, a webinar platform, offers its users 24 data points about each individual who watches a webinar hosted by their platform.

"We collect an assortment of data, from how long a viewer stayed in the webinar to how many links they clicked, whether they took surveys when prompted, questions they asked, widgets they opened, and so on," says Matt Ley, The Streaming Network President. "From this we are able to develop a score that suggests how engaged the consumer was. These scores also help to perfect the content presentation itself, so webinars can improve through trial and error with real data feedback."

Trend 2: "Big Data" Analysis

Okay, it may not qualify as big data yet, but tools are cropping up left and right to help companies grasp where they should focus their content marketing to get the most bang for their buck. Is native advertising the best outlet? Is the company blog and its social media promotion channels converting the most sales? How does the webinar stack up against the video marketing content?

The challenge is not just to ascertain the effectiveness of one channel of content marketing, as most companies have or are working to develop several. Understanding which avenue is the star performer requires a cross-platform data aggregation tool. Influence & Co. offers a template for entrepreneurs who are beginning their research in this space.

Trend 3: Cut Out the Repetition

Do you remember the blog you wrote three months ago? If your company is producing a large volume of content, particularly through multiple channels, it is easy to lose track of what has already been created. That means a lot of companies accidentally repeat work they have already done, which can range from accidentally publishing a redundant blog post, to devoting weeks of employee energy into research and development that could have been simply repurposed if they knew it existed.

Tech platforms are stepping into that space to help companies manage years of content, research, and creative development. This falls under the rubric of business process automation, something Gartner calls "the automation of complex business processes and functions beyond conventional data manipulation and record-keeping activities, usually through the use of advanced technologies."

Where Content Goes From Here "The technology is improving every day," says Ley. "Already today's content platforms are outperforming their predecessors by leaps and bounds. It will be exciting to see where they go from here."

Content marketing needs trends like these to grow and develop. While the prospect of focusing on content is promising, the ROI must be demonstrable. Tools like these, and their succeeding iterations, will play a crucial role in evangelizing content marketing to executives on the fence.

Published on: Oct 21, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.