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50+ Terms You Need To Know



50+ Terms You Need To Know

On the surface, content marketing seems straightforward: Create great content, publish it on channels popular with your audience, and reap business benefits from their attention and interest.

Of course, we all know there’s a lot more to it. But it can be hard to dive into the nuances, complexities, and conditional decision-making when struggling to understand the basic principles, techniques, and tactics. Even seasoned veterans can interpret key terms differently, leading to challenges in communicating and implementing strategies.

You can’t dive into the complexities of #ContentMarketing until you know many of the terms. That’s why @joderama developed this glossary via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

To help clear the confusion, I put together this glossary of common content marketing terms. While consensus on all definitions isn’t possible, it is possible to have your team agree, and that’s the strong foundation needed.

Note: I organized these definitions into best-fit categories though many can span multiple areas.

Strategy-centric terms


In a marketing context, audiences are targeted, clearly defined groups of individuals and/or organizations that willingly read, listen, view, or otherwise engage with your brand’s content in exchange for benefits they expect to receive.

Definitive resource: Your Audience Is Not the Same as Your Marketing Database

Buy-in/business case

A business case captures the reasoning for an organization to invest in content as a component of its marketing strategy. Typically delivered to executive management in the form of a document or presentation, it’s a helpful tool for building stakeholder understanding and support necessary to execute the program effectively.

Though talking points can vary, at a minimum, your business case should address:

  • Why your company needs content marketing
  • How it can help your organizations meet its marketing goals
  • Necessary budget and resources
  • Expected outcomes and estimation of when they will be achieved

Definitive resource: How To Make a Better Case for Content Marketing in 2021

Content marketing

CMI defines content marketing as “a strategic marketing approach of creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

But as A. Lee Judge recently asserted, content marketing is more than a marketing strategy that uses content to attract an audience – it’s a skill set. “It’s no longer enough to market with content. You must understand how to market the content itself,” he says. Thus, he offers a complementary expansion to the definition as a verb: “Applying marketing skills and techniques to written, visual, audio, or social content to provide the greatest possible reach, longevity, and effectiveness of that content.”

#ContentMarketing is both a discipline and a skill set, says @joderama and @aleejudge via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Definitive resource: Are Inbound Marketing and Content Marketing Still Different in 2021?

Content marketing strategy

Copyblogger defines content marketing strategy as a plan for building an audience by publishing, maintaining, and spreading frequent and consistent content that educates, entertains, or inspires an audience. However, CMI uses a simpler definition: Your content marketing strategy is your why – why you are creating content (your business goal), whom it will serve (your audience), and how it will be unique (your mission).

Definitive resource: Developing a Content Marketing Strategy

Content strategy

Content strategy operates above a content marketing strategy. It is a plan for creating, managing, and distributing all content produced and shared across the enterprise – not just the content used as part of a content marketing program or initiative. For example, how content is designed and developed to deliver an optimal user experience is a consideration that would fall under a content strategy, not a content marketing strategy.

Content mission statement

A content mission statement is the centering principle of your brand’s unique vision of content. Ideally, this statement reflects your business values, distinguishes your storytelling from competing content, and governs your content team’s creative and strategic decision-making, including:

  • What stories your brand will tell (e.g., topics)
  • How those stories take shape (e.g., core content formats and platforms)
  • How your content assets work collectively to create a desirable experience for your audience

Definitive resource: Make a Mission Statement for Better Content Marketing


Goals can be defined as the business outcomes to be achieved through your content marketing strategy. While the ultimate goal is to drive profitable action, program goals should be more specific, such as to grow sales, to save the company money, or to drive greater customer loyalty and brand satisfaction. Goals also must be measurable and have a designated achievement date.

Definitive resource: How To Set Content Marketing Goals That Matter to Business Leaders


A persona is a composite sketch of a target audience’s relevant characteristics based on validated commonalities. Used to inform your strategic plans for reaching, engaging, and driving your audience to take meaningful action as a result of your content. Without well-researched personas, you likely guess what your audience wants and often revert to creating content around what you know best (your products and company) instead of around what your audience actively seeks.

Definitive resource: Marketing Personas: A Quick and Dirty Guide

Planning/Process-centric terms

Channel/media planning

Media planning is the process of making decisions about where, when, and how often to deliver a message to an audience. The ideal is to reach the biggest number of the right audience members with the right message only as often as needed to achieve the desired effect (e.g., brand awareness, leads, sales).

Similarly, a channel plan – including social media planning – is an advanced directive for how your brand manages its content on the ever-evolving list of media platforms. It spells out the rationale and the expectations for using each channel. Compiling this guidance ensures you aren’t wasting time – and budget – on distribution efforts that can’t help you achieve your content marketing and business goals.

Definitive resource: Social Media Content Plan: Take Control of Your Strategy

Content brief

Often provided to freelancers, consultants, and other outsourced writers assigned to create content, a content brief documents the guidelines and instructions to ensure a properly focused asset that meets the brand’s editorial standards and marketing expectations. A well-constructed brief should include an elevator-pitch description of the assignment, relevant branding details (e.g., tone, voice, and stylistic considerations), key messages, and target audience insights.

A well-constructed #content brief includes an elevator-pitch description of the assignment, target audience, and key messages, says @joderama via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Definitive resource: How To Create a Good Brief for Better Content Marketing

Content inventories and audits

According to Paula Land, author of Content Audits and Inventories: A Handbook, a content inventory is a collection of data about your content. It’s a comprehensive, quantitative list – typically created in a spreadsheet – of all content assets, ideally across all content types, channels, and distribution formats. It enables marketers to make data-based content decisions.

In contrast, a content audit, as defined by Paula, is a qualitative evaluation of the inventoried content. Assess your content against customer needs and business objectives to identify which assets are performing well (and which aren’t.)

Definitive resource: A Simple-To-Do Content Audit With 6 Questions

Content/editorial plan

A content or editorial plan is a tactical outline to execute your strategy that denotes responsible team members. It should detail such things as key topics, content to create, publication dates, distribution plans, and calls to action.

Definitive resource: How To Create a Flexible Content Plan That Gets Results

Content operations

Content operations are the full complement of processes, tasks, people, and procedures to manage efficiently and effectively everything content-related within your organization, from strategy and planning to governance, execution, measurement, and optimization.

Definitive resource: How to Build a Content Operations Framework (and Why You Need One)

Editorial calendar

An editorial calendar is a process tool to track all the moving parts in executing your content plan. It typically includes the topic, title, author information, and images for each asset and the schedule for publication and promotion organized according to workflows established for creation and production.

Definitive resource: How To Create a Strategic Editorial Calendar

Content workflow

Workflows are sets of tasks that a team needs to complete a content asset. In her book, Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson says a content workflow determines “how content is requested, sourced, created, reviewed, approved, and delivered.”

At a minimum, they should outline critical tasks at each stage of the editorial process. Here’s a simple example:

  • Outline
  • Write
  • Review
  • Edit
  • Approve
  • Publish

Definitive resource: Marketing Workflow: How To Keep Content Production on Track

Creation-centric terms

Copy editing, proofreading, and fact-checking

These editorial techniques are used to ensure the highest level of quality, clarity, and accuracy in content. Each serves a different purpose and uses distinct approaches:

  • Copy editing: This involves reviewing and editing content for any mechanical errors or stylistic inconsistencies that might impact the quality or readability of the piece. Tasks include checking written material for grammar, spelling, linguistic, or punctuation issues. A copy editor may also do a rewrite, if necessary, to fix problems with transitions, wordiness, jargon, and style.
  • Proofreading: Proofreading is a separate stage of the editing process. Here, a proofreader scrutinizes the content in its almost-published state to catch any typographical or minor errors that were missed in editing or created during production.
  • Fact-checking: Fact-checking is then conducted to verify the factual accuracy of the content and its use of sourcing. It ensures the content doesn’t spread disinformation, miscredit or misquote sources, get dinged for plagiarism or copyright infringement, or otherwise risk losing the trust of your audience (and possibly face legal penalties.)

Definitive resource: The Best Proofreading and Editing Tips (Spoiler: Don’t Do Them at the Same Time)


Curation is the assembly, selection, categorization, commentary, and presentation of relevant content. The technique typically involves third-party content in which your brand puts your spin on others’ content. It also can be applied to curating content published by your brand.

Definitive resource: Content Curation on Social Demands More Than a Shared Link

Distribution/promotion-centric terms


Accessibility is the ease anyone should have navigating, understanding, and using your content. Often used in the context of conditions, such as visual or auditory impairments, such as someone who prefers to mute videos and read the captions.

Calls to action (CTAs)

Calls to action are statements or design elements highlighting actions you want the audience to take after engaging with the content, such as subscribing to your newsletter, attending an event, or exploring other relevant assets and offerings. The best CTAs are simple, clear, inviting, and easy to notice.


Channels are individual content distribution outlets, such as a blog or podcast channel, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, or Vimeo.


A content format refers to where the content can be accessed or its presentation for distribution and engagement, such as text via in a printed book, a digital magazine, or an SMS campaign; audio for a podcast; or visuals for like a video or infographic.

Keywords/key phrases

Keywords or key phrases describe the contents of a content asset based on terms people use to search for content on that topic. They are the building blocks of a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy.

Owned media

Owned media distribution platforms are fully under your brand’s control, allowing you to decide where and how it appears, how it is accessed, and how it fits in with other aspects of the content experience.

Shared/social media

Shared media, including social media, provide opportunities for marketers to post content, create and listen to conversations, and interact with people. These platforms are ultimately controlled by a third party, which can change its policies and procedures – or cease operations altogether – at a moment’s notice.

Native advertising

Native advertising is a paid/third-party promotion format that supports either brand or direct-response goals and is where the content matches the form, feel, function, and quality of the content of the media on which it appears.

Definitive resource: How to Do Native Advertising Right: A Brief Guide With Great Examples

Branded content

Wikipedia defines branded content as content funded or outright produced by an advertiser. Like native advertising, it works by partnering with relevant publishers that have the trust of your target audience. This technique takes a more immersive, sensory-driven approach to storytelling, making the experience more entertaining, valuable, and memorable.

Paid search

These opportunities typically take the form of pay-per-click ads or other sponsored listings that appear near the top of search engine results pages (SERP) when consumers search for information relevant to your content.

Influencer marketing

One of the fastest-growing marketing techniques (as well as a burgeoning industry of its own), influencer marketing programs enlist the assistance of people who have the ear of your target audience to bring your content to their attention.

Definitive resource: How to Turn Influencers into a Powerful Content Force

Content personalization

Personalization is the process of targeting content to individuals based on one or more of the following: who they are; where they are; when, why, and how they access content; and what device they use to access it. Given the high competition for getting attention online, marketers use this technique to make their content more findable, engaging, and personally resonant to their target consumers and existing customers.

Search engine optimization (SEO)

SEO is a set of strategic techniques and tactics designed to get content to rank as highly as possible on search engine results pages (SERP) on Google and other search sites. The higher your content ranks, the more likely it is to receive a click, which increases traffic to your content.

Definitive resource: Providing the Best Answer May No Longer Be the Best Strategy for SEO [Video Series]

Content segmentation

Segmentation refers to the categorization of content based on the target audience niche (similar to a buyer persona). Content is presented in a clear and concise manner specific to that audience. Often affecting design, messaging, and presentation, content segmentation can improve engagement, better differentiate your brand from competitors, and improve content marketing effectiveness.

Definitive resource: 8 Expert Tips To Help You Personalize Your Content and Segment Your Audiences

Sales-centric terms


Account is defined as a sales target, opportunity, or customer group established within the total addressable market.

Account-based marketing (ABM)

ABM is a B2B marketing approach where high-value (typically enterprise-level) organizations are identified, and content is created to target them as a grouped unit rather than marketing to individual members of that organization.

Definitive resource: Account-Based Marketing (ABM) Crash Course for Content Marketers


Buyers are prospects – people who are in need of, or have an active interest in, purchasing a service or product.


While the term is often used interchangeably with “buyers,” from a marketer’s perspective, consumers are the people who are likely or intended customers for their business.


While buyers and consumers are terms used to indicate interest or intent, customers are the individuals or organizations who have actively made a purchase from your business or brand.


A conversion takes place once a consumer has taken an action your organization designates as meaningful – such as purchasing a product, registering for an event or a gated asset, subscribing to a blog, newsletter, or joining a social media community – after engaging with your brand’s content.

Definitive resource: How To Create High-Converting Content

Demand generation

Demand generation is the focus of targeted, sales-centric marketing programs designed to drive awareness and interest in a company’s products and/or services. The greater the demand, the easier it becomes for sales to nurture that interest to convert.

Definitive resource: Demand Gen for Content Marketing in the Next Decade [New Research]

Ideal customer profile (ICP)

An ICP is a description of a targeted buyer (person or company) that’s a perfect fit for your brand’s solution.

Journey map

This term refers to a method of identifying information and assistance consumers likely need at each possible interaction and is used to determine the most effective content to nurture them toward conversion.

Definitive resource: Wondering What Content To Create? Try a Customer-Journey Map


In marketing terms, a lead is a person or business in your company’s sales or marketing database, typically (though not exclusively) by engaging with a branded asset or communication platform.

Definitive resource: Make Content Integral to Your Lead Generation

Lead scoring

Scoring is a marketing method of objectively and comparatively evaluating the quality and conversion potential of a prospect based on predetermined sales criteria.

Marketing-qualified lead (MQL)

MQLs are leads reviewed by the marketing team that satisfies the criteria to be passed along to the sales team as someone who may become a customer at some indeterminate point.

Sales funnel/funnel stage

The sales funnel is a method of defining the decision-making process of a customer from the time they enter the marketplace through the purchase (or conclusion not to buy). It’s commonly used to determine the most effective outreach approach to nurture conversions. (While marketers may also define customer decision-making in terms of funnel stages, content marketers are more likely to characterize these stages as progression along a journey.)

Sales-qualified lead (SQL)

Once a lead is qualified by the sales team as being active in the market, they are referred to as an SQL; these leads are more likely to become a customer than an MQL.

Total addressable market (TAM)

This is a calculation that references the total number of prospective buyers and/or potential revenue opportunity available for a product or service.

Definitive resource: Build a Stronger Pipeline With Content: Unlock the Power of Sales and Marketing Collaboration

Measurement-centric terms

A/B testing

This is a performance testing method that pits two pieces of content against each other to gauge comparative performance. Also known as split testing, it’s a randomized experiment where two possible version options — two web pages, two subject lines, two design strategies, two content angles, etc. — are presented in equal scale to different viewers.


Marketo defines analytics as the practice of managing and studying metrics data to determine the ROI of marketing efforts like calls to action, blog posts, channel performance, and thought leadership pieces, and to identify opportunities for improvement.

Key performance indicators (KPIs)

KPIs are standard, agreed-on measurements for assessing progress against your content marketing goals. Potential KPIs might be average conversion rates, number of leads, quality of leads, revenue per new customer, etc.


In contrast to KPIs, metrics are the business-as-usual measurements that quantify things that add value to your organization but aren’t focused on the most critical goals, such as website page views or “likes” on a social media post. Think of these as the “what-needs-to-be-true” numbers that can help you achieve or optimize your KPIs.

Definitive resource: These 4 Analytics Oversights Mess With Your Content Performance Plan

Return on investment (ROI)

ROI is a broad term that describes how a company’s marketing initiatives drive profitable actions and business growth. Knowing ROI for content campaigns enables marketers to determine appropriate budget allocations, maximize the efficiency of each marketing expenditure, and demonstrate the impact of their efforts to their executive stakeholders. However, though it’s (arguably) the most critical measurement of a content program’s effectiveness, it can be difficult to calculate and quantify, let alone prove definitively.

Definitive resource: How To Demystify the Process of Measuring Content Marketing ROI [Video Show]


In content marketing, subscribers are defined as audience members who have taken an action around your content (and provided some personal data to do so) in exchange for an expectation of receiving ongoing value; core metric for measuring content marketing value.

Understanding the language is the first step to success

While this glossary is by no means a comprehensive list, it should clarify commonly confused or misunderstood industry terms and concepts. If there are additional content marketing constructs that you would like to see us add to this list, let us know in the comments.

Go beyond the lingo with CMI’s free workday or weekly newsletter to advance your content marketing program. Subscribe today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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OpenAI’s Drama Should Teach Marketers These 2 Lessons



OpenAI’s Drama Should Teach Marketers These 2 Lessons

A week or so ago, the extraordinary drama happening at OpenAI filled news feeds.

No need to get into all the saga’s details, as every publication seems to have covered it. We’re just waiting for someone to put together a video montage scored to the Game of Thrones music.

But as Sam Altman takes back the reigns of the company he helped to found, the existing board begins to disintegrate before your very eyes, and everyone agrees something spooked everybody, a question arises: Should you care?

Does OpenAI’s drama have any demonstrable implications for marketers integrating generative AI into their marketing strategies?

Watch CMI’s chief strategy advisor Robert Rose explain (and give a shoutout to Sutton’s pants rage on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), or keep reading his thoughts:

For those who spent last week figuring out what to put on your holiday table and missed every AI headline, here’s a brief version of what happened. OpenAI – the huge startup and creator of ChatGPT – went through dramatic events. Its board fired the mercurial CEO Sam Altman. Then, the 38-year-old entrepreneur accepted a job at Microsoft but returned to OpenAI a day later.

We won’t give a hot take on what it means for the startup world, board governance, or the tension between AI safety and Silicon Valley capitalism. Rather, we see some interesting things for marketers to put into perspective about how AI should fit into your overall content and marketing plans in the new year.

Robert highlights two takeaways from the OpenAI debacle – a drama that has yet to reach its final chapter: 1. The right structure and governance matters, and 2. Big platforms don’t become antifragile just because they’re big.

Let’s have Robert explain.

The right structure and governance matters

OpenAI’s structure may be key to the drama. OpenAI has a bizarre corporate governance framework. The board of directors controls a nonprofit called OpenAI. That nonprofit created a capped for-profit subsidiary – OpenAI GP LLC. The majority owner of that for-profit is OpenAI Global LLC, another for-profit company. The nonprofit works for the benefit of the world with a for-profit arm.

That seems like an earnest approach, given AI tech’s big and disruptive power. But it provides so many weird governance issues, including that the nonprofit board, which controls everything, has no duty to maximize profit. What could go wrong?

That’s why marketers should know more about the organizations behind the generative AI tools they use or are considering.

First, know your providers of generative AI software and services are all exploring the topics of governance and safety. Microsoft, Google, Anthropic, and others won’t have their internal debates erupt in public fireworks. Still, governance and management of safety over profits remains a big topic for them. You should be aware of how they approach those topics as you license solutions from them.

Second, recognize the productive use of generative AI is a content strategy and governance challenge, not a technology challenge. If you don’t solve the governance and cross-functional uses of the generative AI platforms you buy, you will run into big problems with its cross-functional, cross-siloed use. 

Big platforms do not become antifragile just because they’re big

Nicholas Taleb wrote a wonderful book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. It explores how an antifragile structure doesn’t just withstand a shock; it actually improves because of a disruption or shock. It doesn’t just survive a big disruptive event; it gets stronger because of it.

It’s hard to imagine a company the size and scale of OpenAI could self-correct or even disappear tomorrow. But it can and does happen. And unfortunately, too many businesses build their strategies on that rented land.

In OpenAI’s recent case, the for-profit software won the day. But make no bones about that victory; the event wasn’t good for the company. If it bounces back, it won’t be stronger because of the debacle.

With that win on the for-profit side, hundreds, if not thousands, of generative AI startups breathed an audible sigh of relief. But a few moments later, they screamed “pivot” (in their best imitation of Ross from Friends instructing Chandler and Rachel to move a couch.)

They now realize the fragility of their software because it relies on OpenAI’s existence or willingness to provide the software. Imagine what could have happened if the OpenAI board had won their fight and, in the name of safety, simply killed any paid access to the API or the ability to build business models on top of it.

The last two weeks have done nothing to clear the already muddy waters encountered by companies and their plans to integrate generative AI solutions. Going forward, though, think about the issues when acquiring new generative AI software. Ask about how the vendor’s infrastructure is housed and identify the risks involved. And, if OpenAI expands its enterprise capabilities, consider the implications. What extra features will the off-the-shelf solutions provide? Do you need them? Will OpenAI become the Microsoft Office of your AI infrastructure?

Why you should care

With the voluminous media coverage of Open AI’s drama, you likely will see pushback on generative AI. In my social feeds, many marketers say they’re tired of the corporate soap opera that is irrelevant to their work.

They are half right. What Sam said and how Ilya responded, heart emojis, and how much the Twitch guy got for three days of work are fodder for the Netflix series sure to emerge. (Robert’s money is on Michael Cera starring.)

They’re wrong about its relevance to marketing. They must be experiencing attentional bias – paying more attention to some elements of the big event and ignoring others. OpenAI’s struggle is entertaining, no doubt. You’re glued to the drama. But understanding what happened with the events directly relates to your ability to manage similar ones successfully. That’s the part you need to get right.

Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.


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The Complete Guide to Becoming an Authentic Thought Leader



The Complete Guide to Becoming an Authentic Thought Leader

Introduce your processes: If you’ve streamlined a particular process, share it. It could be the solution someone else is looking for.

Jump on trends and news: If there’s a hot topic or emerging trend, offer your unique perspective.

Share industry insights: Attended a webinar or podcast that offered valuable insights. Summarize the key takeaways and how they can be applied.

Share your successes: Write about strategies that have worked exceptionally well for you. Your audience will appreciate the proven advice. For example, I shared the process I used to help a former client rank for a keyword with over 2.2 million monthly searches.

Question outdated strategies: If you see a strategy that’s losing steam, suggest alternatives based on your experience and data.

5. Establish communication channels (How)

Once you know who your audience is and what they want to hear, the next step is figuring out how to reach them. Here’s how:

Choose the right platforms: You don’t need to have a presence on every social media platform. Pick two platforms where your audience hangs out and create content for that platform. For example, I’m active on LinkedIn and X because my target audience (SEOs, B2B SaaS, and marketers) is active on these platforms.

Repurpose content: Don’t limit yourself to just one type of content. Consider repurposing your content on Quora, Reddit, or even in webinars and podcasts. This increases your reach and reinforces your message.

Follow Your audience: Go where your audience goes. If they’re active on X, that’s where you should be posting. If they frequent industry webinars, consider becoming a guest on these webinars.

Daily vs. In-depth content: Balance is key. Use social media for daily tips and insights, and reserve your blog for more comprehensive guides and articles.

Network with influencers: Your audience is likely following other experts in the field. Engaging with these influencers puts your content in front of a like-minded audience. I try to spend 30 minutes to an hour daily engaging with content on X and LinkedIn. This is the best way to build a relationship so you’re not a complete stranger when you DM privately.

6. Think of thought leadership as part of your content marketing efforts

As with other content efforts, thought leadership doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It thrives when woven into a cohesive content marketing strategy. By aligning individual authority with your brand, you amplify the credibility of both.

Think of it as top-of-the-funnel content to:

  • Build awareness about your brand

  • Highlight the problems you solve

  • Demonstrate expertise by platforming experts within the company who deliver solutions

Consider the user journey. An individual enters at the top through a social media post, podcast, or blog post. Intrigued, they want to learn more about you and either search your name on Google or social media. If they like what they see, they might visit your website, and if the information fits their needs, they move from passive readers to active prospects in your sales pipeline.

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How to Increase Survey Completion Rate With 5 Top Tips



How to Increase Survey Completion Rate With 5 Top Tips

Collecting high-quality data is crucial to making strategic observations about your customers. Researchers have to consider the best ways to design their surveys and then how to increase survey completion, because it makes the data more reliable.

→ Free Download: 5 Customer Survey Templates [Access Now]

I’m going to explain how survey completion plays into the reliability of data. Then, we’ll get into how to calculate your survey completion rate versus the number of questions you ask. Finally, I’ll offer some tips to help you increase survey completion rates.

My goal is to make your data-driven decisions more accurate and effective. And just for fun, I’ll use cats in the examples because mine won’t stop walking across my keyboard.

Why Measure Survey Completion

Let’s set the scene: We’re inside a laboratory with a group of cat researchers. They’re wearing little white coats and goggles — and they desperately want to know what other cats think of various fish.

They’ve written up a 10-question survey and invited 100 cats from all socioeconomic rungs — rough and hungry alley cats all the way up to the ones that thrice daily enjoy their Fancy Feast from a crystal dish.

Now, survey completion rates are measured with two metrics: response rate and completion rate. Combining those metrics determines what percentage, out of all 100 cats, finished the entire survey. If all 100 give their full report on how delicious fish is, you’d achieve 100% survey completion and know that your information is as accurate as possible.

But the truth is, nobody achieves 100% survey completion, not even golden retrievers.

With this in mind, here’s how it plays out:

  • Let’s say 10 cats never show up for the survey because they were sleeping.
  • Of the 90 cats that started the survey, only 25 got through a few questions. Then, they wandered off to knock over drinks.
  • Thus, 90 cats gave some level of response, and 65 completed the survey (90 – 25 = 65).
  • Unfortunately, those 25 cats who only partially completed the survey had important opinions — they like salmon way more than any other fish.

The cat researchers achieved 72% survey completion (65 divided by 90), but their survey will not reflect the 25% of cats — a full quarter! — that vastly prefer salmon. (The other 65 cats had no statistically significant preference, by the way. They just wanted to eat whatever fish they saw.)

Now, the Kitty Committee reviews the research and decides, well, if they like any old fish they see, then offer the least expensive ones so they get the highest profit margin.

CatCorp, their competitors, ran the same survey; however, they offered all 100 participants their own glass of water to knock over — with a fish inside, even!

Only 10 of their 100 cats started, but did not finish the survey. And the same 10 lazy cats from the other survey didn’t show up to this one, either.

So, there were 90 respondents and 80 completed surveys. CatCorp achieved an 88% completion rate (80 divided by 90), which recorded that most cats don’t care, but some really want salmon. CatCorp made salmon available and enjoyed higher profits than the Kitty Committee.

So you see, the higher your survey completion rates, the more reliable your data is. From there, you can make solid, data-driven decisions that are more accurate and effective. That’s the goal.

We measure the completion rates to be able to say, “Here’s how sure we can feel that this information is accurate.”

And if there’s a Maine Coon tycoon looking to invest, will they be more likely to do business with a cat food company whose decision-making metrics are 72% accurate or 88%? I suppose it could depend on who’s serving salmon.

While math was not my strongest subject in school, I had the great opportunity to take several college-level research and statistics classes, and the software we used did the math for us. That’s why I used 100 cats — to keep the math easy so we could focus on the importance of building reliable data.

Now, we’re going to talk equations and use more realistic numbers. Here’s the formula:

Completion rate equals the # of completed surveys divided by the # of survey respondents.

So, we need to take the number of completed surveys and divide that by the number of people who responded to at least one of your survey questions. Even just one question answered qualifies them as a respondent (versus nonrespondent, i.e., the 10 lazy cats who never show up).

Now, you’re running an email survey for, let’s say, Patton Avenue Pet Company. We’ll guess that the email list has 5,000 unique addresses to contact. You send out your survey to all of them.

Your analytics data reports that 3,000 people responded to one or more of your survey questions. Then, 1,200 of those respondents actually completed the entire survey.

3,000/5000 = 0.6 = 60% — that’s your pool of survey respondents who answered at least one question. That sounds pretty good! But some of them didn’t finish the survey. You need to know the percentage of people who completed the entire survey. So here we go:

Completion rate equals the # of completed surveys divided by the # of survey respondents.

Completion rate = (1,200/3,000) = 0.40 = 40%

Voila, 40% of your respondents did the entire survey.

Response Rate vs. Completion Rate

Okay, so we know why the completion rate matters and how we find the right number. But did you also hear the term response rate? They are completely different figures based on separate equations, and I’ll show them side by side to highlight the differences.

  • Completion Rate = # of Completed Surveys divided by # of Respondents
  • Response Rate = # of Respondents divided by Total # of surveys sent out

Here are examples using the same numbers from above:

Completion Rate = (1200/3,000) = 0.40 = 40%

Response Rate = (3,000/5000) = 0.60 = 60%

So, they are different figures that describe different things:

  • Completion rate: The percentage of your respondents that completed the entire survey. As a result, it indicates how sure we are that the information we have is accurate.
  • Response rate: The percentage of people who responded in any way to our survey questions.

The follow-up question is: How can we make this number as high as possible in order to be closer to a truer and more complete data set from the population we surveyed?

There’s more to learn about response rates and how to bump them up as high as you can, but we’re going to keep trucking with completion rates!

What’s a good survey completion rate?

That is a heavily loaded question. People in our industry have to say, “It depends,” far more than anybody wants to hear it, but it depends. Sorry about that.

There are lots of factors at play, such as what kind of survey you’re doing, what industry you’re doing it in, if it’s an internal or external survey, the population or sample size, the confidence level you’d like to hit, the margin of error you’re willing to accept, etc.

But you can’t really get a high completion rate unless you increase response rates first.

So instead of focusing on what’s a good completion rate, I think it’s more important to understand what makes a good response rate. Aim high enough, and survey completions should follow.

I checked in with the Qualtrics community and found this discussion about survey response rates:

“Just wondering what are the average response rates we see for online B2B CX surveys? […]

Current response rates: 6%–8%… We are looking at boosting the response rates but would first like to understand what is the average.”

The best answer came from a government service provider that works with businesses. The poster notes that their service is free to use, so they get very high response rates.

“I would say around 30–40% response rates to transactional surveys,” they write. “Our annual pulse survey usually sits closer to 12%. I think the type of survey and how long it has been since you rendered services is a huge factor.”

Since this conversation, “Delighted” (the Qualtrics blog) reported some fresher data:

survey completion rate vs number of questions new data, qualtrics data

Image Source

The takeaway here is that response rates vary widely depending on the channel you use to reach respondents. On the upper end, the Qualtrics blog reports that customers had 85% response rates for employee email NPS surveys and 33% for email NPS surveys.

A good response rate, the blog writes, “ranges between 5% and 30%. An excellent response rate is 50% or higher.”

This echoes reports from Customer Thermometer, which marks a response rate of 50% or higher as excellent. Response rates between 5%-30% are much more typical, the report notes. High response rates are driven by a strong motivation to complete the survey or a personal relationship between the brand and the customer.

If your business does little person-to-person contact, you’re out of luck. Customer Thermometer says you should expect responses on the lower end of the scale. The same goes for surveys distributed from unknown senders, which typically yield the lowest level of responses.

According to SurveyMonkey, surveys where the sender has no prior relationship have response rates of 20% to 30% on the high end.

Whatever numbers you do get, keep making those efforts to bring response rates up. That way, you have a better chance of increasing your survey completion rate. How, you ask?

Tips to Increase Survey Completion

If you want to boost survey completions among your customers, try the following tips.

1. Keep your survey brief.

We shouldn’t cram lots of questions into one survey, even if it’s tempting. Sure, it’d be nice to have more data points, but random people will probably not hunker down for 100 questions when we catch them during their half-hour lunch break.

Keep it short. Pare it down in any way you can.

Survey completion rate versus number of questions is a correlative relationship — the more questions you ask, the fewer people will answer them all. If you have the budget to pay the respondents, it’s a different story — to a degree.

“If you’re paying for survey responses, you’re more likely to get completions of a decently-sized survey. You’ll just want to avoid survey lengths that might tire, confuse, or frustrate the user. You’ll want to aim for quality over quantity,” says Pamela Bump, Head of Content Growth at HubSpot.

2. Give your customers an incentive.

For instance, if they’re cats, you could give them a glass of water with a fish inside.

Offer incentives that make sense for your target audience. If they feel like they are being rewarded for giving their time, they will have more motivation to complete the survey.

This can even accomplish two things at once — if you offer promo codes, discounts on products, or free shipping, it encourages them to shop with you again.

3. Keep it smooth and easy.

Keep your survey easy to read. Simplifying your questions has at least two benefits: People will understand the question better and give you the information you need, and people won’t get confused or frustrated and just leave the survey.

4. Know your customers and how to meet them where they are.

Here’s an anecdote about understanding your customers and learning how best to meet them where they are.

Early on in her role, Pamela Bump, HubSpot’s Head of Content Growth, conducted a survey of HubSpot Blog readers to learn more about their expertise levels, interests, challenges, and opportunities. Once published, she shared the survey with the blog’s email subscribers and a top reader list she had developed, aiming to receive 150+ responses.

“When the 20-question survey was getting a low response rate, I realized that blog readers were on the blog to read — not to give feedback. I removed questions that wouldn’t serve actionable insights. When I reshared a shorter, 10-question survey, it passed 200 responses in one week,” Bump shares.

Tip 5. Gamify your survey.

Make it fun! Brands have started turning surveys into eye candy with entertaining interfaces so they’re enjoyable to interact with.

Your respondents could unlock micro incentives as they answer more questions. You can word your questions in a fun and exciting way so it feels more like a BuzzFeed quiz. Someone saw the opportunity to make surveys into entertainment, and your imagination — well, and your budget — is the limit!

Your Turn to Boost Survey Completion Rates

Now, it’s time to start surveying. Remember to keep your user at the heart of the experience. Value your respondents’ time, and they’re more likely to give you compelling information. Creating short, fun-to-take surveys can also boost your completion rates.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in December 2010 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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