It’s one of the most common questions we get at Grow With Studio: how long will it take to see return on my marketing-related investments? The question is perfectly understandable — this is your business’s hard-earned money we’re talking about here! It’s also, unfortunately, notoriously difficult to answer. We’ll take a look at why that is, then introduce you to two types of ROI (immediate and compounding) that can help you make sense of your digital marketing timeline. 

Marketing Is An Ecosystem 

Digital marketing ROI becomes more intuitive when you stop thinking about each individual strategy as a lever and start thinking about it as a small part of a vast ecosystem. Each strategy impacts, and is impacted by, the others.

Picture a group of lush, thriving trees in a forest. Those trees can influence their environment for the better, but they can’t transform the forest single-handedly — too much depends on the other vegetation and the wildlife, soil, weather patterns, and more. Similarly, stand-alone strategies like SEO, PPC or email marketing won’t vastly shift the course of a business by themselves, but they will reinforce a positive direction or reduce the sharp incline of a negative one. 

Let’s say you purchased 20 hours of SEO services per month from a top-notch SEO agency. We can assume you’re receiving high-quality work, but is it enough to move the needle? That depends on what the rest of your ecosystem looks like. Consider the following scenarios: 

  1. You sell a great product, your site is beautiful, you’ve found your market fit, and you’re running other strategies in tandem with SEO. 
  1. You sell a great product, your site is beautiful, you’ve found your market fit, and SEO is your only marketing strategy. 
  1. Your website has issues, but your product is sound and there’s convincing evidence of market fit. 
  1. You’re in an oversaturated market and there’s nothing that makes your product unique or better than the competition. You haven’t found a niche target audience and you’re not running other marketing strategies. 
  1. Your website is brand new and your product or business is markedly flawed.  

Now think about the impact of 20 monthly hours of SEO on each of the above. In scenario 1, SEO will grease the wheels of an already functioning system, simultaneously building off and reinforcing the other marketing efforts. The impact will be significant. This is also true, to a lesser extent, with scenario 2; you may need to invest in other strategies to get over the hump, but your SEO results won’t leave you guessing and you’ll consider your money well spent. Scenario 3 is a bit of a wildcard; it’s equally likely that SEO will make a difference or fall flat. If you want more predictable results, get yourself to scenarios 1 or 2. 

Finally, we have scenarios 4 and 5. In both of these cases, you’re unlikely to see the results you want or expect, and you’ll probably walk away feeling like you’ve wasted your money.  

In any of these scenarios, did the quality of your SEO work change? No. But you needed to satisfy the right conditions before the work could take effect. 

Meet Joe and Jane: Compounding and Immediate ROI 

Grounded in the marketing-as-ecosystem philosophy? Good. It’s time to introduce you to our friends Joe and Jane, who will provide the framework for understanding marketing timelines and results. 

Joe would like to borrow $25. He’ll pay you $30 back next week, which is all the money he owes you plus $5 for your trouble. Joe represents immediate ROI. 

Jane would also like to borrow $25. She can’t pay you back in full by next week, though. Instead, she can give you $1 next week, $2 the next, $3 the next, and so on for the next three years. Jane represents compounding ROI. 

Will you give your money to Joe or Jane? It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that over time, Jane’s return will be much higher than Joe’s. Doesn’t that make Jane a no-brainer? 

Not necessarily. If you’re ready to say goodbye to your $25 for seven weeks — ie, take a seven-week leap of faith on Jane — then by all means, choose Jane. But Joe offers something appealing too: liquidity. Because Joe can pay you back next week, you’ll be able to respond to any changes that come up next week with your full $30. You could address an emergency, jump on a temporary buying opportunity, or reinvest your money. If the same emergencies or buying opportunities come up next week and you’ve given your money to Jane, you’re out of luck. 

Our numbers make this example sort of silly; $25 or $30 barely makes a dent for most people, so you’d have little incentive to pick Joe. But what if we used $25,000 instead of $25? Now we can see the benefit of having $30,000 next week, come what may. We can also clearly see the benefit of letting that investment compound.

So one more time: Joe or Jane? The answer is…it’s a trick question. 

Joe Strategies vs Jane Strategies 

Most businesses benefit from a blend of Jane and Joe strategies — which is to say, a blend of slow-building, long-term initiatives and more immediate initiatives that bring in less ROI in the long run. The blend that’s right for your business depends on the amount of cash you have on hand, your personal risk tolerance, and your long-term goals. Before you can find that blend, though, you’ll need to know which strategies belong to each category so you can assess their results on an appropriate timeline. Ordered from longest timeline to shortest, here’s what we’re working with: 

Jane Strategies (Long-Term ROI) 

  • Content strategy 
  • Social media 
  • SEO 

Joe Strategies (Near-Term ROI) 

  • Google Shopping feeds 
  • PPC 
  • Other paid advertising 
  • Email marketing 

There are also feathered fish that don’t fit into either category, like website design. You can see the results of those efforts immediately, but they also pay off over the long run. 

As you look over this list, you might notice two other key differences between Joe and Jane strategies: 

  1. Joe strategies are conditional — When you stop paying for them, they stop working for you. Jane strategies are not conditional; if you stop investing in content or SEO for a bit, the content you’ve already created will continue working for you. 
  1. Joe strategies are easier to measure — It’s comparatively easy to attribute revenue to the corresponding initiative when you’re working with Joe. Jane strategies are tougher to pin down. If someone lands on a great piece of content and becomes brand-aware, but doesn’t convert until a year later when they actually need the product, it’s hard to attribute that conversion to a single piece of content. Muddier still, it’s less likely that a single piece of content inspired the conversion and more likely that an aggregate of content created a consistent, positive experience over time (which inspired the conversion). 

Okay, But…When Will I See Results? 

We know, we know…you didn’t come here to learn about Joe and Jane. It’s just difficult to ballpark timelines without knowing the state of the whole ecosystem. Here are some rough timelines:

  • Social media and content strategy — This ranges from immediate (you produce a piece of content or post that makes some people convert instantly) to years (people build brand awareness and trust over time and don’t convert until they develop a need). Someone might love Geico’s content long before they have a reason to look at insurance rates. Does that mean it was a waste for Geico to reach them so early? Would you buy insurance from a brand you’ve never heard of? 
  • SEO — 3-6 months to rank for realistic keywords, less time if your site already has significant traction or authority. Much less time if your topic is time-sensitive or newsworthy and Google’s “freshness” algorithm kicks in, making it prioritize the most recent content on the subject (Google “presidential election” and you’ll see today’s news, not last week’s). Add more time if there’s not a lot going on with your site, at which point your best option is an incremental long-tail strategy. 
  • PPC and other paid advertising — Three months to test ideas and properly optimize your campaign. Individual conversions can happen near-immediately, but it will take time to land on the ROAS that makes your investment worth it. 
  • Google Shopping — Once you submit a feed, expect to wait up to three days for product approval. The timeline for this one is deceptive because there’s a lot of front-loading prior to submitting the feed, plus it takes about three months to accrue enough data to optimize the campaign. 
  • Email marketing — Near-immediate (individual conversions) to months (to find the secret sauce that appeals to your customer base). 

Again, these are broad strokes that describe an “average” business, which probably looks nothing like yours. It’s a start, though. 

The next time you’re tempted to ask, “How long will it take to see results?” ask instead: Is this a Joe strategy (near-term, conditional ROI) or a Jane strategy (long-term, compounding ROI)? What are the benefits and drawbacks of using such a strategy? Am I using a mix of strategies? Is my business’s ecosystem healthy? 

The answers to those questions might not be tidy numbers, but they’ll get you more grounded in what you’re paying for and what to expect. That will help you make smarter, more context-driven marketing decisions in the future. And that drives results.